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Caithness at War: Week 7

16-22 October 1939

On Monday 16 October the first attack on Britain from the air took place, when nine German planes attacked the Royal Navy base at Rosyth near the Forth Bridge, damaging three boats and killing sixteen of their crew. Three of the German planes were shot down, the first enemy aircraft of the war brought down over Britain. On 18 October Soviet Union forces entered Estonia.

It was about this time that Hetty Munro in Orkney experienced her first air raids. “Early in the morning … we heard gun fire out in the Firth and one of the ladies who was staying [in] the Hotel was out for a walk on the Orphir Road and saw the German machine fall on to Hoy in flames. All the time the sky was full of puffs of smoke from the guns and another German machine was brought down we heard along with the first one”

A day or so later, she recorded that a German airplane flying high overhead surrounded by puffs of smoke “was a beautiful sight. As for us we never moved off the loch where we were baling the boat but just stayed there looking up at the puffs of smoke and thinking how lovely the world would be if only men would stop having wars.

“That night relatives of everyone in the Hotel were on the ‘phone enquiring about our welfare and all very worried. They thought we were quite, quite mad when we said we really had enjoyed the raids.”

Air raids were on everyone’s minds. Barrock School recorded in its log book on Tuesday 17 October : “German aeroplanes flying high overhead today”. Canisbay School log book notes : “An evening air raid took place in the vicinity while children were in the playground on Tuesday afternoon, and pupils were instructed to take shelter in the school should aircraft reappear in the district.”

John o’Groats School log book merely recorded laconically: “Better progress in spite of restlessness owing to air flights in the vicinity.”

The air raid scares proved disruptive to lessons. Bower and Gillock School noted on Friday 20 October , “This school closed at 2 p.m. on Tuesday owing to an Air Raid scare in this district. Two of the scholars did not put in appearance on Wednesday as they had no respirators.”

Wick also experienced an air raid warning on Tuesday 17 October. German planes were spotted from several parts of Caithness heading for Scapa Flow, and after reports came in that Scapa had been attacked the siren sounded at 2pm. It turned out to be a false alarm, though not before schools were dismissed. The John O’Groat Journal reported, “Wild rumours were going about gas casualties in Bower and Thurso, and this led to much speculation, anxiety and doubt.”

Reports filtered through of the sinking of the Royal Oak in Scapa Flow last week. Of the 833 men missing, presumed lost, two were from Wick: Instructor-Lieutenant Hugh Stewart, aged 24, whose parents lived in Smith Terrace, and Boy Seaman John Budge, aged 17.

The John O’Groat Journal reported the harrowing story of Pay Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert S. Harrison, formerly an employee of the Union Bank in Wick, now of Glasgow, who survived the sinking by clinging to wreckage and swimming through the oily water until he was eventually picked up by a drifter.