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HMS St Christopher

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HMS St Christopher was a World War II Royal Navy shore establishment which served as a coastal forces training base for the crews of various inshore patrol craft. The facility was located in and around the area Fort William and Corpach on the west coast, and was operational between October 31, 1940, and December 31, 1944.

Numerous courses were run at the establishment, generally taking a few weeks to complete, such as the torpedo course which ran over a period of two weeks, during which the trainees had to fire two practice torpedoes from two motor torpedo boats (MTB).

During the four years in which base was in operation, an estimated 55,000 personnel of various nationalities passed through the base during its four years of operation, with students arriving and departing every Friday night, via the Glasgow train.

Some of the original buildings are have survived, having been reused within industrial estates, and can still be found around the area.

Believed to have been a Westland Lysander or a Blackburn Skua, an aircraft would occasionally fly over the area to provide target practise for the baseís anti-aircraft guns. The aircraft's base and purpose (when making their occasional passes over the base) is uncertain, but they may have used a grass airstrip at Lochyside, a mile or so to the north of Fort William.

The base hosted anything up to 90 boats (Navy List, April 1942). The different flotillas were made up of nine motor torpedo boats (MTB), thirty seven motor gun boats (MGB), fourteen high speed motor anti-submarine boats (MASB), an unspecified number of motor launches (ML), and several harbour defence motor launches (HDML).

As an experiment, some of the MLs were later fitted with torpedo tubes to increase their potency. ML158 is reported to have received two torpedo tubes from HMS Campbeltown, removed as part of the preparation carried out at Portsmouth in readiness for Operation Chariot, the famous raid on St Nazaire which took place on the night of March 28, 1942.

A specially fitted boat, used for gunnery training, was berthed at the pier serving the nearby aluminium smelter works.

Admiralty Floating Dock AFD22 was also part of the base, serving as the main repair facility for the vessels operating there. The dock's crew comprised of some 32 fitters, turners, joiners, wireless operators, seamen, and stokers. The floating dock provided significant employment opportunities for the local people of Corpach. However, in 1944 it was towed to Trincomalee, Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), where it replaced the 50,000 ton AFD23, which had been damaged beyond repair in an accident.

The Shore Establishment

HMS St Christopher needed hundreds of people to run it. There were over a hundred pay office and supply staff, cooks, stewards, and supply staff alone, in addition to some thirty full-time instructors. The base headquarters building was the Highland Hotel which housed the Captain, Senior Engineering Officer, Supply Captain, Training Officer, together with the pay and supply offices. The Aircraft Recognition Office was located in the town square, while 'Maybank' (near the Highland Hotel) served as the sick bay, together with another building in Onich. The town pier was the location of a lookout post, the outline of which can still be seen on the present building, the Crannog restaurant.

A number of hotels in the town served as accommodation for the men and women of the base. The Grand Hotel was used as accommodation for senior officers. The Wrens were billeted in the Imperial, Palace, Grand, and Station (House of Clan Jamfrie) hotels. The Station Hotel housed the galleys and main mess, while officers under training lived in the Waverley and Palace hotels. The Palace Hotel (then known as the Palace annex or 'Plex') was renamed Ossians Hotel, and a job centre now stand on the site formerly occupied by the Waverley Hotel. As the base grew in size, Nissen huts were added to provide further accommodation, and a forces canteen was built on the lawns at the Parade end of the High Street.

Corpach, 2013
Corpach
© Richard Webb

Corpach became the main engineering and mechanical support site. The slipway can still be seen, together with various sheds and outbuildings which have survived. Buildings that still exist and are of particular note include the main torpedo stores (which still have some of the original internal fittings present), and a long Nissen hut which housed a small target shooting range, is still used as a target range. A memorial has been erected outside the front door of the Highland Hotel, where information about the Coastal Forces Veterans Association is on display within the foyer. A number of anti-aircraft batteries and searchlights were located in the area, and would have provided cover not only for the base, but also the nearby and important aluminium smelter. The foundations of one gun emplacement have been reported to remain visible, protruding from a grassy area in the middle of the Caol shopping centre.

Photographs

Imperial Hotel, 2008
Imperial Hotel
© Stephen Sweeney
Grand Hotel, 2006
Grand Hotel
© Jim Bain
Crannog Restaurant on town pier, 2011
Crannog Restaurant on town pier
© Kenneth Allen


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