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Caithness at War: Week 1

4-10 September 1939

On Monday 4 September the RAF launched a raid on the German fleet in the Heligoland Bight, but failed to inflict significant damage. The naval blockade of Germany began. On Wednesday 6 September German forces captured Krakow in Poland. Thursday 7th saw French forces moving into German territory in the Rhine valley. The week ended with the French offensive stalling after an advance of just a few miles on Saturday 9 September.

In Caithness, preparations for war continued. Hetty Munro of Thurso noted that “of course even before the actual war our small town was full of sailors and soldiers passing through to Scapa … One day I was out [for] a short walk and met someone whose husband had just gone to France. That, although I hardly knew her or her husband, I think brought home to me more than anything the fact that again we were at war with Germany”.

N.G. Glass recalled: “Large crowds assembled at Thurso to witness the departure of the T.A. Anti-Aircraft unit, then only lately returned from a month of training in camp. The men were under Major Potter, and sang like good soldiers as the buses took them off to Scrabster.”

“The 5th Seaforths entrained at Wick and Thurso on September 4 for Dornoch and Evanton. At Thurso friends were not permitted to bid them good-bye on the station platform. This was regarded as a heartless restriction. About 80 of Wick Company were posted to Stromness and took their departure by bus from the Drill Hall in Dempster Street. The buses passed along a street lined with people and the soldiers had a good send-off.”

No one knew what to expect with the outbreak of war, and there was widespread fear that Britain would see aerial bombing by German planes, such as was already being visited upon Polish cities. Schools in the county were closed, Forss School recording that, “Owing to the outbreak of war in Europe the school has been closed for one week”.

The John O’Groat Journal for Friday 8 September carried a four-point public notice for the Royal Burgh of Wick on behalf of the Emergency Committee. Members of the public were reminded that “all Lighting must be effectively obscured”, adding “As the precautions which have so far been taken by the public are
not what might be desired, Citizens are urged to give this matter their immediate attention”.
Shopkeepers were advised to close their premises at 6 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. on Saturdays “to obviate the assembly of citizens”, and a curfew for children was introduced, with parents asked to “see that all Children are indoors by 8 p.m.”. Finally, there was an appeal for twenty volunteer firemen, “in order to avoid the heavy public expense by whole-time Firemen”.

Meanwhile, the Wick Harbour Trust noted that harbour traffic would be “seriously affected during the continuance of the war”, with a likely impact on finances.