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Caithness at War: Prelude

1-3 September 1939

On Friday the first of September 1939 German forces began the invasion of Poland. The British Government responded by announcing the general mobilisation of its own forces and imposing a blackout across Britain. On Saturday Britain and France issued a joint ultimatum to Germany, and Britain enacted the National Service Act, authorising conscription of all males aged between 18 and 41. Finally, on Sunday 3 September at 11:15 am, having not received a reply to its final ultimatum, Britain declared itself at war with Germany.

By all accounts, Caithness on Sunday 3 September 1939 was grey and overcast, with showers of heavy rain. Evening church services were cancelled because of the blackout.

As the war went on Henrietta (“Hetty”) Munro of Thurso kept a diary, and she began with a memoir of the early days. She noted that when war broke out she was lying in bed, recovering from an illness (“the rain was lashing against the windows and it was just about the most depressing weather that one could wish for”). She described listening to the radio in the days that followed, “and one listened to all kinds of news and announcements – not that they meant anything to anyone except the people in the areas concerned but still one listened as if to find comfort from the calm voice of the announcer”.

Caithness County Council had already called an emergency meeting on Saturday 2 September. Although food rationing wouldn’t officially start until January 1940, a Food Control Committee was established, consisting of members representing consumers and the retail food trade. The Special Emergency Committee for ARP and Civil Defence (consisting of the Convener, the Vice-Convener, and the Provosts of Wick and Thurso) was remitted “complete authority in the event of a special emergency arising in the County”.