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Caithness at War: Week 8

23-29 October 1939

On Friday 27 October Belgium announced that it would be neutral in the war.

At about this time Hetty Munro recorded in her diary, “I heard that my friends in the A.T.S. [Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British Army] were coming over to Stromness to work and I decided that it was time that I, too, should start to type again.”

She flew back to Caithness and got “passed fit by two doctors, my uniform altered to fit me in the places where it didn’t, see most of my friends, pacify my relatives and go to the hairdresser once, the pictures twice and the Bank once”. Then she returned to Orkney, now in uniform, to start work for the ATS.

The John O’Groat Journal reported that the survivors of the HMS Royal Oak, sunk on 14 October by a German U-boat, had been taken to Thurso where “houses had been thrown open to them and they were received into the family circle in scores of homes”. Most of them had lost all their possessions when the ship sank, as well as the shock of losing over 800 of their fellow crewmen. The BBC Home Service broadcast a message of thanks from Admiralty; as the paper said, on that night, “Thurso was the news”.

Meanwhile, the debate continued over how best to protect the county’s schoolchildren in the event of an air raid, but no decisions were reached. It was apparent that last week’s air raid warning in Wick had not been a great success: many people indoors hadn’t heard the air raid siren at all, and “in the case of the South School it was the mothers coming for their children who gave the alarm.”

The Ministry of Supply put out an appeal for camouflage netting, which could be made at home by fishermen and their wives as part of co-operatives (“Camouflage nets save lives!”). This was promoted as an ideal way for the fishing industry to help with the war effort, and generate some income (although potential net-makers were warned that they “must be prepared to supply nets in quantity”).

Caithness farmers responded to the Government’s scheme for encouraging agriculture (see Week 5) with a memorandum. They pointed out that the county had 11,000 fewer acres under corn than in 1938, but 90,000 more sheep, and blamed the change in the fall in the price of oats from £3 in 1918 to 15 shillings in 1938. If the amount of land under crop was extended, the stock of sheep would suffer accordingly; so the farmers proposed that land in the county reserved for deer should be given be over to sheep first. Also, land grazed by sheep would be harder to cultivate and the returns poorer. Until they knew what price the “ultimate crop” would fetch, the farmers of Caithness “would not readily enter into the scheme”.