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Wartime Boyhood In Wick

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A. Macleod

When World War II started I was about 9-1/2 years old and can remember the build up to it quite well; all the various crises, promises like peace in our time and the seemingly certain knowledge of the survivors who had returned from the horrors of the previous war. For us young folk, though there was a sense of excitement, the newsreels in the cinema telling us of the services build up (which came too late), the registration for identity and ration cards, and even the issue of gas masks. I can still remember the quiet smile on the face of the old man (to me) who fitted me for my gas mask when I asked him, "when will I be able to fight the Germans?" "I hope you will never have to go to war boy," was his answer, " go away and enjoy yourself just playing at soldiers."

Sunday September 3rd was a cold, wet miserable day. We were preparing for Sunday School when the news came over the 'wireless set' - no TV or Trannies in those days. The gravity of our parents was unnerving, but then it seemed to be a case of, oh well, thatís it then we will have to make the best of it and get on with it. There was not a lot of difference at first, the black-out was the worst, but we were not allowed out much after dark anyway unless on a definite errand, going to a shop, going to a relative or visiting a school friend to compare homework notes.

The air raids started, with the target being the Royal Navy at Scapa, it was mostly photographic missions, they flew. I think the fleet must have been the most photographed anywhere. To this day I can never understand why, as soon as the sirens went, we were chased out of school to run to our homes as quickly as possible. I suppose the theory was that scattered we made a much more difficult target than if we were all in one place at school. The raids developed a pattern though, and I think that it seemed we altered the school times to suit.

This was still mainly the phoney war but there were disasters like the Hood disappearing in a vast explosion after one broadside from the Bismarck. There were other boats too, Jervis Bay and Rawalpindi being two with several Wickers on board. Christmas and Hogmanay were very subdued that year, not that Christmas was celebrated in Wick then, apart from the religious side and the children's gifts. All the shops, offices and works treated it like a normal day.

The harbour, braes, and beaches were placed off limits, or out of bounds; anyway they were forbidden territory, which was the worst thing to tell us young Wickers, for if our parents said don't do, or don't go, somehow we did or went. Usually we got punished, for invariably mothers would find out usually before we returned home and many a belting was handed out for being somewhere or doing something wrong.

There were lots of uniforms in Wick now, mainly Army who were camped around the coastline and Air Force who were of course at the aerodrome which never seemed to be silent. Always some aircraft coming or going, Spitfires, Hurricanes, Fairey Battle Bombers, Ansons, Hudsons, Whitelys, Hampdens. The list seems endless, and there was one which to us was incredible, an autogyro, no wings or almost none, short think 2 or 3 feet long, and a great big propellor up on top. It could fly very slowly and more than once we were surprised by this thing as it hopped over the fields while we played football. This of course was long before helicopters or James Bond.

Then came the fall of France. There were soldiers everywhere. We were displaced from schools into church halls and the army took over all the schools, except the North School. At that time it was a lovely, almost new, building and made an ideal office complex and headquarters for the R.A.F.

It was fun being in the church halls, not that our schooling changed much. We still got the three Rs with a rod of iron. On reflection that didn't really hurt much and the tawse was a wonderful disciplinarian. We had great fun 'helping' the soldiers, filling sandbags, running errands and the like. Quite a few of us learnt how to drink tea from that funniest of utensils the army medd-tin and the soldiers often shared their sandwiches with us. Not tea party sandwiches but 'doorsteps' with bully beef on them, and if we were very good and hadn't got underfoot too much, often a bar of chocolate was shared with us, for now rationing had taken effect. To the young sweet rationing was worst, if I remember correctly it was TWO OUNCES a week (about 60 grams to the metricated).

Now the war really affected us, a Whitely Bomber crashed on the nurses home at the Town and County Hospital, killing its crew and some of the nurses. Aircraft seemed to crash land with monotonous regularity, even ones which had just taken off. There were not many Wick lads who had not any pieces off the aircraft, and our biggest treasure was perspex for it was soft enough for us to file and shape to make tiny models of the various planes. Empty cartridge cases too were prized for they could be turned into all sorts of ornaments. Some lads even had them made into cigarette lighters by grown up relatives.

Then Wick itself was bombed. I can remember seeing the German aircraft and arguing with a friend that it was a Whitely. We had just left a farm outside Wick. It was an overcast day. The aircraft came from the south, not really high, and started to pass over the town. The siren hadn't gone, then there was a tremendous explosion. A huge pall of smoke rose from near the harbour and then the air raid warning sounded.

We made our way to the scene. At the harbour end of Bank Row there was a large crowd of people, we managed to see the damaged buildings but nothing more for an elderly man told us to go home. There was nothing for young folk to see. He had hoped we would see nothing more of it than the tiny bit we had seen. There was loss of life on that occasion, children as well as adults. Luckily though, such incidents were rare. The only other occasion was when three German aircraft machine-gunned and bombed the aerodrome. Again there was civilian loss of life when some of the bombs fell short and landed on Hill Avenue.

The strangest happenings were when rough weather threw sea mines ashore. One floated in behind the south quay of the harbour and rolled about for what seemed ages before exploding. Most of the power station windows disappeared, as did quite a lot in Smith Terrace as well as several roofs blowing off.

Convoys appeared off the coast, and at night time the explosions could be seen as the U-boats picked their targets seemingly without effort. One of the ships was an oil tanker, the Gretafield. On board were Caithness men and unfortunately they were not among the survivors. The remains of the Gretafield can still he seen below Dunbeath Castle.

More troops appeared, but these were different, they were what we now know as commandos and trained with a realism that was frightening. We sometimes managed to watch them at things like unarmed combat, and there was nothing make believe in the way they kicked, punched and threw each other around.

There were lighter moments. The Home Guard occasionally got the use of modern weapons like the artillery 25 pounder gun and more than one Wicker wore his arm in a sling for days after having his hand in the breech of the gun at the wrong time.

We became quite proficient at naming the different Navy boats coming to the harbour; motor launches, torpedo boats, minesweepers with all their different sweeps, including the electric one which was like a large all metal searchlight pointing out over the bows. There was the occasional Shetland Bus type, and even Scandinavian refugees in incredibly small boats.

The glamour boats were the airsea rescue launches, several of which were based at Wick and we did everything possible to get on board them. Sometimes we were lucky and got a guided tour all over the boat, even into the gun turrets. We were growing up fast but not grown up to realise the futility and horror of war.

Wick being a fishing town, we knew all too well the dangers of the sea, the weather and the suddenness of change the fishermen knew all about, but the sudden roar of an aircraft engine, the rattle of machine-gun fire must have taken a bit of getting used to. I remember seeing some of the boats having a rifle on board. Perhaps they were there in case the German Navy came to sea. On reflection they would be been unnecessary for an angry Wick fisherman would have been more than a match for any German.

There were sad times too. After the torpedoing of a convoy inevitably there were bodies coming ashore and at these times we were definitely kept away from the harbour. We did see the military funerals though, and the frustration of the arm sergeants drilling the soldiers in the intricacies of the slow march was an education of the first order. Again we were not allowed to watch for It was considered we were having enough problems with English grammar at school without learning any 'army' language - changed days. Some of today's young folk would make an old time sergeant cringe.

Food seemed to be no problem. Yes we had ration books. There ware shortages but there was plenty of fish, game and eggs and I'm sure there must have been a fair amount of juggling by the shop-keepers if not downright black marketing. We did not seem to miss the sweets now. We accepted the ration and being a sea-faring people grumbles were soon quietened by the often repeated "remember the sailors", for we knew all too we'll how much we depended on the convoys we saw sail past on the horizon.

Occasionally we had glimpses of action. Fighter aircraft from the 'drome escorting a German bomber into land at Wick. German aircraft machine gunning the town. One lovely sunny evening three planes came in over the Bignold park straight over the town and airfield cannons and machine gins blazing. About the only casualty was a doctor's car and It only had a cannon shell through the bonnet. The doctor kept it like that for quite a while too!

I was old enough now to join the Boy Scouts for all the normal activities went on, maybe not as usual, for with the services training in the area there were quite a lot of places which were no go areas. We learnt all the Scout pursuits, although things like the cook's badge was a bit more difficult. I wasn't too keen to eat the sausages I had cooked on the bogie stove in the hall.

Things began to take a turn for the better. America was in the war now and the Eighth army was chasing Rommel along North Africa for the last time. There were relaxations too in the regulations. We could use the Trinkle (the open air swimming pool at the South Head) perhaps the North Bath was available too. I'm not sure, for I lived in Pulteney Town and in those days we were still very territorial, the Wick lads and the Pulteney lads would fight each other without much urging so we kept apart.

Soon I was old enough to jion the Sea Cadets for now I was in High School. That we found a vast difference from the church halIs we had got used to. The rector, Mr. Robertson (Ike behind his back) seemed to us the ultimate in dictators and we thought at the time he ruled with a rod of iron (he certainly knew how to swing a tawse). I wonder what he would think of today's situation.

The cadets had rifles for drill now, not modern onus but Lee Enfields of 1913 vintage, without bayonets which obviously we were not allowed to have for safety reasons. The rifles were still nearly as big as big as ourselves. We must have looked quite a comical crowd, young boys wearing navy uniforms with WW1belt and gaiters and carrying those antique rifles.

Americans and Canadians were at the airfields, their aircraft were the huge Fortresses and Liberators, four engined bombers with a bass roar. They also had a small training plane - a Harvard which must have been the noisiest on the whole airfield. There seemed to be less crashes now, or perhaps we had attended as many as possible, I'm sure my mother must have despaired. I never seemed to go to bed the same day as I got up.

There was another army and airforce element with us now, Poles. Their officers were very smart and well mannered. Some of the girls fell for them in a big way. The ordinary soldiers and airmen, although may be not so sartorially elegant, were still very gentlemanly and I'm sure the way they bowed to the ladies at every opportunity must have done a lot for Polish-Scottish relations. The male population, civilian and service did not react so favourably though and often there were quite fierce fights. Fights which seemed to stop abruptly at the first sight of a 'Red cap' (MP ).

That winter was quite hard and Wick river was frozen over, the Yanks and Carucks took advantage of this and held ice hockey matches. Of course this was when the weir existed on the river making a large enough area of water for freezing over.

I had left school now. We could leave school at 14 then. The reason doesn't matter now but there are times I've regretted doing so.

I went to work in Grants Rope Works. All we did there was to make nets of coir fibre string for holding down stacks of hay and oats. It may have been work for the War effort. We never seemed to think of it and the wage system was unbelievably simple. You were paid by the nets you made, no nets - no pay.

Then it was June 1944, the second front, war in Europe, and Wick quietened down for all the services who had been in training were now away at the real thing.

People began to look forward to peace. We ran a 'sweep' in the works as to the date war would end. Yes I'm afraid that the 14tharmy was really forgotten. Fund raising began for the day when the warriors would return. I was old enough to go to dances now, and it seemed to be over, one evening in early May I was at the back of our house with a friend when my mother called to us to hear a special broadcast on the radio. It was over, the War in Europe would end at one minute past midnight.


The town erupted, people in the streets, there was even a bonfire lit where the Camps car park is today. Next day every flag and piece of bunting in Wick was out. I spent all morning delivering cadet signed flags to anyone who would hang them out. There was a victory parade in which everyone took part. Those old rifles really felt heavy by the end of the parade.

Wick settled down again. There were still plenty of servicemen around. The airfield still had lots of aircraft.

The next new unit to arrive was the Bomb Disposal Unit who came to lift the hundreds of mines laid on the beaches. After the easier ones had been disposed of the next method seemed to be very simple. A water cannon mounted on an armoured chassis was used to hose the mines out of the sand.

I started work with one of the firms on the airfield and became an apprentice painter. I was more interested in the aircraft and was told off more than once for 'watching the planes when I should have been doing my work.

Again suddenly it was over. The atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and peace followed at once. Once again there was rejoicing, a victory parade and dances. The thing I remember most vividly is the heat in the Rifle hall. All the cadets I think felt the same, for Navy Serge uniform was never intended to be worn for dancing.

My recollections of Wick during the War. The quiet dignity with which our elders accepted the situation. The sense of despair during the disaster times of the Royal Oak, Hood, Rawalpindi and Jervis Bay. The resilience with which these were put behind them, and over all the unending belief that we would win through.

For More On World War Two In Caithness
See Also
Wings Over Wick