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Caithness at War: Week 3

18-24 September 1939

On Tuesday 19 September German and Russian forces in Poland linked up near Brest-Litovsk. Meanwhile Japan continued its invasion of China. The German submarine U-27 was sunk by the British destroyers HMS Fortune and HMS Forester on Wednesday 20 September.

In Caithness, The John O’Groat Journal reported that the last remaining 36 soldiers of the 5th Seaforth Battalion who had stayed behind in Wick to guard the wireless station left on Thursday 21 September. Their places were now taken by the National Defence Force, made up of ex-servicemen from Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire.

This week also saw the first prosecutions in Wick’s Sheriff Court for failing to observe the blackout. Six people were charged, two from Thurso and four from Wick, but since the cases were not serious five were let off with a caution (the other did not show up in court), and a warning that future cases would be “severely” dealt with.

On Saturday, the rationing of petrol supplies for commercial users came into force (food rationing would not begin until 1940); this amounted to only one-third of traders’ normal requirements and, it was felt, affected rural communities worse than cities. The John O’Groat Steam Laundry ran an advertisement apologising to customers for any inconvenience, and traders met to discuss pooling fuel and vehicles.

Coal, gas and electricity were also rationed for “dwelling-houses, hotels, clubs, restaurants, schools, shops, offices, churches, etc.” and Caithness citizens were advised how to get supplies.

As predicted by the Wick Harbour Trust back in the first week of the war, the port’s fishing fleet was badly affected by the new wartime restrictions. Most of the boats used seine nets, and in peace time fished out in the open ocean; but now the authorities had placed a ban on fishing beyond a three-mile limit around the coats from Duncansby Head to Brora. The majority of the fleet was therefore compelled to sit idle in port, except for seven or eight line boats which were limited to waters of just ten fathoms.

Meanwhile the Caithness Education Committee discussed the joint problems of increased pupil numbers in classes with the influx of evacuees, and the growing shortage of qualified teachers as men were called up for active service. It was decided to allow classes to absorb the additional children for now, and take steps if numbers increased in future.

On Tuesday 19 September Hetty Munro travelled to Orkney to recover from her illness. She recorded in her diary, “When I suggested to the doctor that I should go there he was absolutely horrified and said that I would probably be bombed to bits”.

Before she left Thurso, she saw Winston Churchill, who passed through on his way to visit the fleet in Scapa Flow. “He was a very fat man and the senior Naval Officer’s car was very small so poor Winston looked very uncomfortable all tucked up in the back of the car with someone sitting beside him.”

Her flight took her over the Pentland Firth, avoiding Scapa Flow, which was now a prohibited area: “Below us we saw a large battleship with an escort of destroyers.”