THE sun shone brightly over the calm Holy Loch on a beautiful early March day in 1961, as USS Proteus - 18,000 tons of American might - glided towards her foe.

By late afternoon, she was passing Islay. And as the US Navy vessel drew closer to her final destination, anti-nuclear demonstrators who had been waiting for weeks for the chance to pounce, braced themselves for their attack.

The first salvo of a David versus Goliath battle saw protesters in dinghies and canoes pitted against the most menacing of modern warfare, and it would rage – on and off – for months to come.

It’s now 60 years since USS Proteus, soon followed by a fleet of US Navy Polaris submarines, set up base close to Dunoon.

And although the area was not unfamiliar with submarine activity – Royal Navy submarines were based in the area throughout the Second World War - the Americans, with their terrifying nuclear arsenal, a raging Cold War and the relatively fresh memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, meant this was no normal military manoeuvre.

The US Navy and Polaris would remain a feature of the Dunoon landscape for the next 31 years.

For those who could put aside any concerns of living with nuclear missiles on their doorstep, it brought economic and social benefits – and more than a few weddings between US sailors and local women.

For others, the presence of the American nuclear force put a picturesque and peaceful corner of the country in Soviet crosshairs, and propelled Scotland into the very core of a deadly nuclear war machine.

The announcement that the Americans were coming was completely unexpected, recalls historian Trevor Royle, who has written about the Holy Loch base in his book on the Cold War in Scotland, 'Facing The Bear'.

“It came as a great surprise to people of Scotland - it was a shock to suddenly have the Cold War on their doorstep,” he says.

“America needed an operating base for their Polaris fleet,” he adds. “At the time Britain’s nuclear deterrent was V Bomber Force, obsolete bombers that could fly to Moscow and drop bombs but couldn’t get back.

“It was a one-way mission, and Britain wanted a system which worked better than that.”

Faced with being left behind as a nuclear nation, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan struck a deal with President Dwight D. Eisenhower for the Holy Loch to become an extension of US territory and a berth for nuclear bombs.

In return, Britain would acquire the Polaris nuclear delivery system, enabling the Royal Navy to operate its own fleet from Faslane.

However, the announcement in November 1960, propelled Holy Loch communities into a world of US and Soviet war games, which would see submarines play cat and mouse across fishing grounds and Atlantic waters.

Most Scots, says Trevor, accepted what was heading their way. Some, among them taxi drivers and bed and breakfast businesses around Dunoon who had feared cheap foreign holidays were set to scupper the tourist trade, were more than happy.

Others were outraged.

Isobel Lindsay was just 17 years old at the time and secretary of Lanarkshire CND. Soon, she’d be among hundreds to descend on Dunoon to express outrage at the arrival of nuclear weapons in Scottish waters.

“The announcement came out of the blue,” she recalls. “Until then, there had been a small anti-nuclear movement in Scotland. But this ignited it.”

The arrival of the Polaris fleet’s support ship, USS Proteus, with its crew of 980 officers and men and the prospect of up to 500 dependent families on the way, signalled a call to action; protestors took to the water in tiny crafts to wave anti-nuclear banners and flags and 1,000 protesters marched along the loch.

A week later, the Patrick Henry arrived, the first of ten Polaris submarines and with its 135 crew primed at a minute’s notice to blast off up to 16 Polaris rockets, each capable of destroying a city 1500 miles away.

It was greeted by a lone canoeist who, after a valiant 15-minute chase by eight patrol vessels, was deliberately tipped in the water.

Isobel, whose father had been among the first British forces to enter Hiroshima in the wake of the 1945 atomic bomb, remembers the protest movement growing in size.

“Very quickly there were demonstrations in Glasgow and at the Holy Loch,” she says. “One march was organised from London to a 24-hour sit down that blocked Ardnadam pier.

“The police tactics were to leave us sitting there - the sailors had to clamber over us to get to the pier.”

Protest songs were hastily written, including Ding Dong Dollar, which set those keen to benefit financially from the base against those opposed to nuclear weapons, while protests were laboriously organised by letter, calls from phone boxes and plotted on maps.

By May, a two storey floating barracks had been towed to the Holy Loch, providing accommodation for up to 350 personnel, and attitudes towards the protestors hardened.

Canoeists who dared to approached US vessels were sprayed with jet hoses, on land, demonstrators were met by dozens of police, wire mesh, iron railings, barbed wire and ‘black Marias’.

In Dunoon, locals picked their way between protestors and US Navy sailors. And while taxi drivers enjoyed a boom in business and generous tips, Glasgow’s prostitutes also descended.

“It was a great culture shock,” adds Trevor. “Until then, the only knowledge most people had of Americans came from the movies. The Americans came with the crew cuts and smart clothes. It was like Hollywood had come to Dunoon.”

Up to 4,000 Americans were attached to the Holy Loch base, their children attended local schools and accommodation was snapped up.

But, says Trevor: “Dunoon was very much a target in the event of any nuclear hostilities.

“In addition to Polaris submarines, the Holy Loch was home to Hunter Killer submarines, and they all played the most dangerous games of cat and mouse with their Soviet opposite numbers.

“Many fishing boats were caught up, among them the Antares.”

The small trawler sank in November 1990 after its nets became tangled with an RN submarine. All four crew lost their lives.

By that time, Polaris protestors had turned their attention to Faslane instead.

And as the Cold War ended, the US Navy packed up. The last ship left in March 1992.

“They left nothing behind,” adds Trevor. “Apart from the American sailors who found themselves in a foreign country and made friends with the local girls, fell in love and married, you would have to search hard to know there had been a US presence there at all.”