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Caithness at War: Week 6

9-15 October 1939

On 9 October Hitler ordered his generals to prepare for the invasion of Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands; the next day the last Polish forces still fighting surrendered. Also on 10 October Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, refused Hitler’s offer of a peace conference. Lithuania gave in to the Soviet demands for military bases in that country, and Stalin began putting pressure on Finland. On 12 October the first Jews were deported from Germany and Austria to Poland.

Then on Saturday 14 October came the news that the British battleship HMS Royal Oak had been sunk in the naval base of Scapa Flow by the German U-boat U-47 with the loss of 833 seamen out of a total crew of 1219.

Hetty Munro recorded: “… and then one day we heard about the loss of the ‘Royal Oak’. That rather shook us a bit as it happened so near us. When we went into Kirkwall we heard stories of all the awful sufferings of the survivors and somehow we began to be shaken a little and think that war must be very near by the time a German submarine could penetrate the confines of Scapa Flow. But none of the drowned were known to us very well and the whole thing was like a very bad accident or illness – it was so great a tragedy that one could hardly feel it very much.”

A few days later the survivors of the Royal Oak would be brought to Thurso, badly shaken and having lost all their possessions.

Meanwhile in Caithness the black-out was officially reported as being “unsatisfactory”. Lights from houses, motor cars and hand torches were singled out, with motor car drivers switching on uncovered full headlights to drive in the countryside: “This is a source of great danger and a special warning is being made of it”.

The blackout also dominated the Education Committee’s debates on how best to evacuate children from the county’s schools in the case of an air raid. There was a concern that, with the nights drawing in, children evacuated by bus might be put at risk travelling in darkness in the blackout. In the end it was decided that rural pupils should finish school early to enable them to travel home in daylight.

There were five teachers from Caithness schools currently on military service: G.W. Sturrock and James N. Connon from Wick High School, G.H. Green from Bilbster, Stewart A. Mackay from Reay and B.M. Manson from Staxigoe.

The strong gales that kept the fishing fleet in port last week continued to blow, with only one crossing possible between Stroma and the mainland. The seas were so heavy that lobster fishermen on Stroma saw their boxes smashed, or had to let their catches go to make the ebb tide.

Finally, there was a warning to gardeners who were responding to the Government’s appeal to grow as much food as possible to “be careful about the kind of potatoes which they grow”: only varieties approved by the Department of Agriculture for Scotland could be grown, in particular those immune from wart disease. This particularly unpleasant disease is caused by a fungus, and gardens and allotments are particularly vulnerable. The disease is so serious it is still on the EU quarantine list in 2012.