This week our Eye on Millig columnist, Leslie Maxwell, reveals more of the stories of RAF Helensburgh's operations during the Second World War – including the top-secret training of British commando units and US Marines.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

EVERY picture tells a story. A faded family photograph taken at 128 West Princes Street, Helensburgh, during World War Two was a happy moment during an unfolding story of action, death and drama.

Retired Merseyside newspaper editor Robin Bird, who sourced this material during his ongoing search for the history of the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, tells me that it is also a story of a secret army force within a secret air force at Helensburgh.

Around the same time the picture was taken, a top secret memo arrived on the desk of Group Captain F.A. Norton, the commanding officer. Its contents have previously not been seen outside the MAEE headquarters.

The first photograph (bottom right in our cover picture) shows Vincent Drake and his young family with an off-duty commando. Vincent was the civilian in charge of air to sea rescue trials at RAF Helensburgh.

READ MORE: Eye on Millig: Lifting the lid on Home Guard duties at RAF Helensburgh during WW2

He survived two flying boat crashes on the Gareloch — the second as the only survivor left him physically and mentally scarred.

His marriage broke up as a result of that crash.

The unknown commando on the right of the picture was with No.5 or No.6 commando units, a merged special fighting force based at Helensburgh.

They lived and trained in the town and district under the umbrella of secrecy that covered all the operations of RAF Helensburgh and the MAEE before undertaking dangerous missions into occupied Europe.

In the memo, Group Captain Norton was instructed to make available aircrew for Short Sunderland flying boats to take part in commando manoeuvres.

READ MORE: Eye on Millig: The mission from RAF Helensburgh that shaped the outcome of the war

This special operations battalion of two companies, each with 500 men, was under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Fetherstonaugh.

A larger than life soldier who previously had held a substantial rank in a royal regiment, the Colonel was targetted at MAEE to train his men for a raid on the coast of the German-occupied Norwegian coast.

Many of his men adopted Tam O’Shanter-style berets while they were serving in Helensburgh and elsewhere in Scotland.

Group Captain Norton assigned Sunderland flying boats from the secret seaplane base to land commando troops by using inflatable Folbot canoes.

No.5 later took part in raids on St Nazaire and the French colonies, while No.6 took part in Operation Torch, the Allied landings in Algeria, and then D-Day.

READ MORE: Eye on Millig: Memories of winter's icy grip at RAF Helensburgh

US Marines started arriving in Helensburgh following the USA’s entry into the war in December 1941.

They, too, were billeted in the Gareloch area and, wearing USA flag badges on their uniforms, trained as commandos with the British before being sent abroad.

The British officer in charge of training them at Helensburgh and Lachailant told US Top Brass: “Your Marines have undergone arduous commando training with an unconquerable spirit.”

Most of the commandos were gone by the end of 1942, to take part in battles throughout Europe and the Pacific.

Little photographic evidence exists of US commando soldiers staying in Helensburgh.

READ MORE: Eye on Millig: Peeling back the WW2 secrets of RAF Helensburgh

But in our second picture (bottom left in our cover image), U.S. Marine G.W. McGurdy, from Colorado, is seen with two fellow marines — known as Pat and Buss — outside 90 West Princes Street, Helensburgh.

He recalled: “Our landlady was Mrs Dongarty, and she treated us like sons.

"She had an attractive daughter called Peggy, but as US Marines we were forbidden to fraternise with local girls in Helensburgh."

READ MORE: Catch up with all the latest Helensburgh and Lomond news headlines here