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Caithness at War: Week 5

2-8 October 1939

On 3 October the British Expeditionary Force took up positions along the border with Belgium, anticipating an invasion by Germany now that the Polish campaign was drawing to a close. Hitler meanwhile called for a peace conference with Britain and France. The Soviet Union increased the pressure on Lithuania and Latvia to allow them military bases in those countries. On 6 October the Japanese invasion of China was halted when they were repulsed at Changsha and forced to retreat. This was the start of the period which has become known as the “Phoney War”, between the fall of Poland in September 1939 and the invasion of France in May 1940.

As Hetty Munro recorded in her diary in Orkney, “There was some talk about air raid warnings on all the islands in the Flow at different times but everyone said ‘Oh, false alarms’ [sic] and took no more notice.” She caught the prevailing attitude of the time when she noted, “… anyway no one ever saw anything or took any notice of warnings. Why worry?” This attitude would change dramatically and tragically by the end of the following week.

Meanwhile, it seems that not everyone took the situation seriously. The John O’Groat Journal printed a piece about the lack of respect shown to members of the National Defence Companies: “There are some people who seem to think we are a kind of joke, and refer to us, in a scornful way, as ‘E Blin’ Hunder’”. The author pointed out that the companies were made up of elderly or disabled ex-servicemen, and added: “I don’t envy the IRA man or German agent … who would attempt to damage any of the places where the NDC are on guard, for I am afraid they would get short shrift at the hands of the old-timers”.

In 1939 Britain imported 70 per cent of her food from overseas, but attacks of German U-boats on merchant shipping soon threatened supplies. Measures had to be taken to increase crop production across the country. As a first step, farmers in Scotland were asked to provide information for the Agricultural Executive Committee: in particular, how much livestock they had, how much feed they bought how much oats and barley they sold, and how much manure and fertiliser they used.

Finally, there was some good news this week. The John O’Groat Journal reported the lifting of restrictions on fishing, so the Wick fleet of seine-net fishing boats could operate normally for the first time since war broke out – only for strong gales then to keep the boats in port.