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Caithness at War: Week 9

30 October-5 November 1939

On 1 November, Germany formally annexed the Danzig Corridor from Poland, while the Soviet Union annexed eastern parts to Ukraine and Belorussia. On Saturday 4 November the United States Neutrality Act was passed, allowing the British and French to buy U.S. arms.

Hetty Munro, serving in the ATS in Orkney, writing in her diary found amusement in the absurdities of military life. “We got an order in for typing which had to do with sentries at vulnerable points … they were told to walk in such a way that they would never have been able to turn round at all but would eventually have landed up miles from where they started. At the foot of this order … our cheery sergeant wrote ‘Please indent to: “eyes for back of head, sentries for the use of.”’

In Caithness, the second month of the war ended quietly. The main issue exercising the authorities was the question of what to do with Wick schoolchildren in the event of an air raid. Previous air raid siren tests hadn’t been very successful, with the High School teachers only discovering that the siren had sounded when mothers turned up at the school to collect their children.

One suggestion had been for the children to go to designated houses nearby, where citizens would take them into their own shelters until the all clear sounded; but this required the designated householders to be at home throughout school hours in case the alarm went off; and in any case hordes of unsupervised children thronging the streets of Wick during an air raid was hardly secure (“They ran about in the streets, and looked up to the skies to see the raiders who were not there”) .

Now the County Air Raid Precautions Committee considered a new proposal, to house all the schoolchildren of the three Burgh schools in Pulteneytown Distillery. Although on the face of it the idea of the town’s schoolchildren seeking shelter during incendiary bombing in premises used to make flammable alcohol might seem strange, in practice the “substantial stone-built warehouses” were empty and comparatively safe.

The seriousness with which the blackout was being taken can be seen in the case at Wick Sheriff Court this week, when Alexander Macleod of Smith Terrace, Thurso, was fined 30 shillings for showing a light one night when he opened his door to let his dog out. No matter that he had covered all his windows, and “had even stopped using his front door so that the light would not be shown”; his house faced the sea, and as the Sheriff said, “Even if a beam of light was seen for a second coming from a house it might be sufficient to give an enemy airman a guide where to drop a bomb.”

Finally, the John o’Groats Journal reported that rationing of food would soon come into force (petrol and fuel were already rationed). Ration books would shortly be issued and butter and bacon (or ham) would be restricted to four ounces per person per week. Although sugar was not yet being rationed, people were urged to limit themselves to one pound per person per week, and everyone was asked to register for sugar so the authorities knew the quantities required in each area.

In a way, the designation of this period as the “Phoney War” is misleading. Even if there was little actual fighting taking place, wartime restrictions were affecting everyone in their daily lives – from what they could eat to letting the dog out at night. And with the constant activity in the air, the threat of a real air raid was never far away.