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The child’s small knitted rabbit toy has been darned and mended more than once and has clearly been much loved. Not surprising that it is a bit worse for wear after having been carried across battlefields in war-torn Europe and the Far East by its late owner.
The rabbit is just one of a number of items that form the largest ever single donation of commando-related artefacts presented to the West Highland Museum in Fort William.
Among its prized collections, the museum is lucky enough to boast items belonging to Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites, alongside actual weapons from the local area’s time as a wartime training ground for the commandos.
However, the rabbit toy and a plain cream woollen blanket, which the museum acquired last week, have stories to tell that can rank alongside any of the other more famous historical items.
The rabbit and blanket will eventually go on display in the museum’s Commando Room, which tells the story of how Britain’s famous elite wartime special forces and secret agents, came to Lochaber to train at various top secret locations.
One of the most famous is Achnacarry Castle, ancestral home to the Chief of Clan Cameron, but which during the war served as the Commando Basic Training Centre (CBTC).
On Friday, museum curator Vanessa Martin accepted the donation of a collection of military items from Mrs Joan Shadbolt, of Bletchley in England, which had belonged to her late husband, Syd.
Mr Shadbolt, who died five years ago aged 93, had wanted an appropriate museum to be given a number of his personal items from his period of service with No 5 Commando during the war.
This unit, made up of soldiers from the army – Mr Shadbolt had enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers at the start of the war and later volunteered for the commandos – trained at Achnacarry and went on to see active service in Europe, India and the Far East, including on garrison duties in Hong Kong after the former British colony was liberated from Japanese occupation in 1945.
Shadbolt family friend, Steve Nicol, who now lives in Brechin and himself is a former Royal Marines Commando, had offered to deliver the items to the museum in Fort William and on Friday he duly handed the collection over to Ms Martin.
Mr Nicol told us: ‘It’s been five years since Syd passed away but he had always said to his wife Joan that he would like some of his wartime effects to go to a suitable museum.
‘If it had been just old socks and mess tins it wouldn’t have been of much interest. But some of the stuff has a really interesting story behind it and the history of the commandos.’
Fort the first time the museum will now have a Second World War Denison smock of the type worn by the commandos and another Fairbairn and Sykes pattern commando fighting knife.
Other items in Mr Shadbolt’s collection include his two green berets, one bearing the Royal Fusiliers cap badge alongside the commando dagger; a red senior NCO’s sash and two silk escape maps of the Far East.
However, three of the most poignant artefacts are the small rabbit stuffed in a pocket of Mr Shadbolt’s camouflaged smock; a small hand-stitched flag and the blanket.
Mr Nicol explained: ‘The rabbit originally belonged to Syd’s younger brother, Derek, who died when he was aged just four. Syd always carried the rabbit with him and I like the idea of him storming round Europe and Hong Kong with it in his pocket.’
The white flag has the Japanese sun in the centre and a commando dagger plunged through it. It is embroidered with the names of the countries in which 5 Commando saw action.
‘I am guessing the flag was given to Syd, a staff sergeant, by other members of his platoon possibly,’ explained Mr Nicol.
The largest item among Mr Shadbolt’s items is the blanket. Mr Nicol said: ‘Syd was in the Military Police while in Hong Kong and served at what had once been the notorious Changi Prison.
‘At the war’s end, it was turned into a Commonwealth prison and as well as Japanese soldiers it also held a number of Japanese civilians and families.
‘Syd’s widow, Joan, told me that he used to smuggle food into one of the Japanese families held there and, while they couldn’t do anything for him, they gave him this blanket as a way of thanking him.
‘I think it shows that, despite everything Syd experienced during the war, it hadn’t brutalised him.’
Mr Shadbolt only revisited Achnacarry once after the war and it came about after first meeting Mr Nicol in Milton Keynes where they were both living at the time.
Mr Shadbolt, who originally hailed from the London area, was chairman of the local Sea and Royal Marines Cadets in Milton Keynes at the time.
‘Some time later, Syd told me he’d always wanted to come back to Achnacarry for a visit. By that time the army commando association had disbanded due to the age of most of the members,’ said Mr Nicol.
‘So myself and a few friends arranged a weekend trip to take Syd back to his old training ground in Lochaber. That would have been about 2006. Syd had an absolute ball. He loved coming back.’
For her part, Ms Martin said the museum was delighted with the presentation of the items: ‘We don’t have a Denison smock like this, or an example of a silk escape map for the Far East theatre of operations, or the whistle that Syd used at Changi Prison.
‘So it’s wonderful to be given these and to hear the amazing and very moving stories connected to some of the items.’
Steve Nicol presents the stitched Japanese flag to Museum Curator, Venessa Martin. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos NO F41 Commando donation 01
Mr Shadbolt’s commando fighting knife. Photograph: Iain Ferguson, alba.photos NO F41 Commando donation 02
Syd Shadbolt pictured at Achnacarry in 2006. NO-F41-Syd-Shadbolt-at-Achnacarry-Castle.jpg NO F41 Syd Shadbolt o2