The epic landscape surrounding Loch Ewe belies its remarkable military past and present. To the modern onlooker, the site looks Edenic. Otters play in the shallows of the loch, fishing boats chug to and fro and the Alp-like Torridons rise up in the distance. I’ve already mentioned that British Tornado Jets fly in the area, but the Navy also use the place a lot, as they have done since the Second World War.
In World War Two it had a role to play with the infamous Arctic Convoys. The convoys started in 1941, and from September 1942, 19 convoys left from Loch Ewe. Loch Ewe was chosen due to its location and the fact that the loch has a narrow mouth, meaning that it was easier to protect from enemy submarines. A boom net was put in place here. This was made up of 1ft wide metal rings that were interlinked together to form a mesh curtain to stop submarines, and many locals in the area still have pieces of this boom. Anti-aircraft guns were also located in large numbers around the loch and barrage balloons were put in place.
The primary purpose of the convoys was to supply the Soviet Union with supplies, weapons and ammunition. The ships were escorted by Royal Navy ships and aircraft carriers all the way to the ports of Murmansk and Archangel. This work was highly important as the Germans had Russia blockaded at the time. As you can imagine, Germany did everything they could do to try and stop this and they attacked and sunk many ships with U-boats and aircraft. Thousands of men died in the North Atlantic because of this.
This work was significant; 7,411 aircraft, 4,932 anti-tank guns and 5,218 tanks were transported, amongst other things. Churchill described the ordeal the men were put through as being ‘the worst journey in the world’. By the summer of 1945, 85-100 merchant ships and 16 military vessels had been sunk. The elements were also battling against the ships; the cold was notorious and it formed thick sheets of ice right across the guns and decks. The storms were so intense that they actually damaged the armour plating on the boats.
In February 1944, in a bitter storm, an American ship – the SS William H. Welch – ran aground just outside Loch Ewe. 12 men survived and 60 died. In a large part those survivors have locals to thank for it was they who walked miles and miles to find them and give them tea and shelter. I hear that the circumstances of the rescue were so heroic that the local community received a thank you letter from President Roosevelt. A museum is being created on the shores of Loch Ewe to commemorate this. It is also of note that despite the astonishing hardships endured by all those who sailed to Russia, the Arctic Convoy medal was only approved last year after a long campaign for recognition (the pictures in the link capture the ‘hell’ Churchill referred to).
Until very recently, two nuclear submarine berths were in use near Mellon Charles and Aultbea. Both of these are Z-berths. Even today, a strong NATO presence is kept as a fuel station is on/in one of the hills near Aultbea. In Spring and Autumn the whole area is used for NATO training exercises.
Annoyingly, most of what I’ve just written is not apparent at all to the average tourist. They walk on the beaches, buy souvenirs like our wool scarves, drink some nice tea and perhaps cast a line over some water before moving on. Although I baulk at the idea of having something like a big plastic noticeboard in every layby that explains the history of the immediate area, I do wholeheartedly support the creation of a new Gairloch Heritage Museum. All of the information I have explained here (and a lot, lot more besides) is explained in the current one, but circumstances mean that it has to move location. As you can imagine, this costs money – £2 million to be precise. On the surface this may seem to be an unreasonable amount, yet the new museum would be built in a very large and redundant concrete Cold War Anti-Aircraft Operations Room. The building is currently an eyesore and although the glass and wood look of the proposed museum is not exactly to my taste, I would rather look at it than the rotting concrete currently on display. If you would like to find out more, or if you would like to donate some money to the project, then please do so via this website: http://www.gairlochheritagemuseum.org/newhome.html
Thank you for reading,
NB: If you would like to see any additions to this article, or if you can see any mistakes, then please get in contact with me and I'll be more than happy to edit the document.