Sep 052018

Duncan Harley reviews Alan Stewart’s new book.

Five years in the making, Alan Stewart’s new book ‘North East Scotland At War’ will appeal to anyone even remotely interested in the history of the North-east of Scotland.
There are plenty of books out there which record the difficult years between the Chamberlain peace accord and the Soviet conquest of Berlin. Osborne’s ‘Defending Britain’ and Gordon Barclay’s ‘If Hitler Comes’ are the classics.

But this book is slightly different and there is certainly room for further historical accounts of the dark days when Hitler threatened our shores.

With a decidedly local slant, North East Scotland At War launches the reader into the minutiae of the defence of the North-east against what was, for a brief few years, perceived as the Nazi threat.

The archaeology of those distant times is laid bare and many of the official documents which record the difficult days inhabit the pages.

A ground-based Invasion never came. But preparations were firmly in in place and Alan’s finely researched history brings the day to day story of those difficult times sharply into focus.

Fougasse – developed by the Petroleum Warfare Department as an anti-tank weapon, Dragon’s Teeth and Railway Blocks feature in this book along with the stories of the stop-lines, the Home Guard roadblocks and of course that secretive plan to harry the invaders using suicide squads tasked with assassinating both their own commanders – who might betray them under torture – and German officers.

Air crashes also inhabit these pages. Alongside the enemy casualties, and they were in the hundreds, Alan details the stories behind some of the Commonwealth gravestones which litter the cemeteries of the North-east.

Training accidents accounted for many of the casualties.

A Czech fighter pilot killed when his Spitfire spiralled into the ground, an air-sea rescue crew lost in a collision with railway wagons on the perimeter of RAF Dyce Airfield and the gravestone of Flight Lieutenant Wheelock – killed attempting an emergency landing – again at Dyce – are featured.

This is one of those books which is difficult to set aside. The minutiae of the location of pill boxes and the stark reality of the bombing maps, feature alongside some difficult tales of children killed on the local sands, not by the Germans, but by the very defences intended to keep them safe.

Landmines and barbed wire were as much a hazard as air-borne bombs and machine gun bullets.

Alongside the difficult descriptions of civilian carnage, Alan has included a number of images of official documents which give a flavour of the times. In a memo marked TOP SECRET, a Colonel Geddes, commander of Aberdeen Garrison, expresses his concern regarding the vulnerability of Tullos Hill.

“I am a little uneasy” he writes, 

“about the defence of TULLOS HILL – Area 4624. This is a very commanding feature, on which the following units are located: A.B. 2 Site, Heavy A.A Bty, Detachment 319 Search-Light Regiment, RAF Wireless Installation and Royal Observer Corps Post.”

And there are literally dozens of such so-far hidden documents sprinkled throughout this account of the time when the invasion of our shores seemed such a certainty.

Profusely illustrated and replete with a plethora of new information gleaned from both local and national records, this is a local history book which I am pleased to include on my bookshelves.

North East Scotland At War – by Alan Stewart is Available from at £21.99 + £3 P&P

ISBN 9781527215689
Cover image © Alan Stewart

Nov 082017

By Duncan Harley.

Freedom of speech is a fragile thing. Often hard won, it can be taken away at the stroke of a pen as an Aberdeenshire head teacher found to his cost in 1940.
Various Emergency Powers (Defence) Acts came into force in the early months of WW2.

Some, such as Defence Regulation 18B, provided a framework for internment of enemy aliens while others, like the Emergency Powers (Defence) Act 1939, gave the State wide-ranging powers to prosecute the war.

Aspects of life in the UK came under State control including the “apprehension, trial and punishment of persons offending against the Regulations.” In short, anyone suspected of acting against the national interest in any way whatsoever might suffer the indignity of a pre-dawn knock at the door.

The village of Oyne was of course quite distant from the battlefields. It had narrowly escaped being bombed by a German Zeppelin in a previous conflict but in the big scheme of things Oyne was not a front-line target. Nor was it a hotbed of pro-Nazi sympathy.

This was 1940 however and a paranoid nation was smarting from the military defeat in France. Invasion loomed and an aerial bombing campaign had begun. Towns across the North east had been attacked and coastal shipping had been sunk by German planes off both Stonehaven and Peterhead.

The newspapers of the time are filled with reports of arrests for the offence of “Careless Talk.” A meter reader from Oxford was detained after alleging “we should be just as well under the Nazi’s as we are now!” A Dorset policeman was jailed for expressing similar sentiments and a Peterhead plumber was fined £5 for “careless talk on the phone.”

Headmasters appear to have been at particular risk of prosecution. Overheard warning pupils that following imminent invasion they would have to resort to eating cats and dogs, a Lanarkshire headmaster found himself before a Hamilton Magistrate and at Oyne, George Hendry the local Primary School Headmaster, received the dreaded knock on the door in the late afternoon of June 24th.

The unwelcome visitor was Detective Inspector McHardy of Aberdeen City Police and, after suitable interrogation, Hendry was arrested on matters relating to the Defence Regulations. Lurid headlines followed and public interest was aroused.

Initially there was just the one charge. This related to statements made in the Union Street grocer’s shop of Andrew Collie & Co. Witnesses alleged that Mr Hendry expressed the view that Neville Chamberlain had sold the country down the river and should be placed against a wall and shot. The King, he said, was off to Canada leaving the country “Holding the baby” and Hitler seemingly had sufficient Torpedo Boats to sink the entire British Navy.

Oyne Primary School.

Following arrest, Hendry was released on bail of £60. On Monday July 15th the curious of Aberdeenshire queued to witness what promised to be a juicy trial at Aberdeen Sheriff Court.

Mr Hendry by now faced four charges – the police had been busy.

Alongside remarks about the King and Hitler’s naval prowess, there were allegations of him spreading alarm by remarking on Britain’s unpreparedness for war.

One prosecution witness termed Hendry a fifth columnist and had ordered him out of her shop but under cross-examination admitted she had in fact been joking and considered him simply a leg-puller. Another witness told the court she had discussed the war with him on several occasions and that despite their differences, there was no bad blood between them.

Finally, the case against the Oyne headmaster boiled down to one very simple issue: the spreading of defeatist talk. In a fine piece of courtroom theatre, Mr Blades for the defence lured the manager of Collie’s grocer shop into admitting that the case would never even have been brought had he himself not spread gossip about Mr Hendry’s statements to a crowd, including a policeman, at the public bar of the Royal Athenaeum.

Sheriff Dallas had clearly heard quite enough. A verdict of Not Proven on all four charges was greeted with applause from the crowded courtroom.

George Hendry, a graduate of Aberdeen University, became Headmaster at Oyne in 1927 having previously taught in Forres.  After the trial he returned to his post until his retiral, due to ill health, in 1963. He died in 1966 age just 63.

Duncan Harley is a writer living in the Garioch and author of the soon to be published A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire:

‘Hitler’s Headmaster’ was first published in the April 2017 edition of Leopard Magazine.

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Jul 032017

David Innes reviews  St Valéry And Its Aftermath by Stewart Mitchell.

Although it is almost inevitable that events are overtaken by time, and that the effect of history on localities dissipates, the name St Valéry-en-Caux, a small Normandy fishing village, continues to resonate in NE Scotland, even 77 years on from the scenes that accord that tiny French port a special place in Scottish military history.

It is said that there is scarcely an NE family which hasn’t been touched in some way by the events of June 1940, the surrender of the stranded and embattled 51st (Highland) Division, and the incarceration of thousands of Scottish soldiers in prisoner of war camps for the duration of the Second World War.

These were our forgotten casualties of that conflict, and it was a gross unfairness and insult to these brave, fortitudinous men who suffered the privations of capture, forced march and imprisonment to be described as having enjoyed an Easy War.

Stewart Mitchell, who named the Gordon Highlanders’ Museum’s excellent 2011 POW exhibition The Easy War, re-tells the story of the lead-up to Dunkirk and St Valéry, using personal accounts, some of which are now in the public domain for the first time, without resorting to military tactical terminology and technical jargon, often confusing to the lay reader.

Those of us who have had a long fascination with this episode of military and social history will have read accounts of the 51st’s manoeuvres, capture, treatment and liberation and of the social outcomes of returning home after half a decade of imprisonment. Tony Rennell, Sean Longden, Saul David, Alan Allport, Julie Summers, and Banffshire’s own Charles Morrison have all contributed to building a picture of a time of uncertainty, fortitude and, all too often, personal and familial misfortune.

It is in the re-telling of personal accounts that Mitchell excels, and he succeeds in making St Valéry more than just another military history. We hear of regular soldiers, Territorials and militiamen called up to serve when war was declared in September 1939, their backstories often of innocent city, village and country loons thrown into the jaws of an unforgiving mechanised conflict, and losing some of their most promising youthful years behind barbed wire.

Yet, there are personal recollections of derring-do, heroism, resourcefulness, smeddum and survival against heavily-stacked odds, told in fitting tribute to often forgotten men.

The volume’s appendix is unique in imbuing a personal touch to what is a harrowing, yet spirit-affirming story. Mitchell’s painstaking research has seen him identify from military records, every Gordon Highlander captured or killed in France in 1940.

My own maternal grandfather, army number 2870474 among the oldest of the Territorials called up at 37, who was 38 by the time of capture, and 44 before he was liberated, is included. That that saw my emotions well up 77 years after that fateful morning in Normandy, verifies that this a book that goes way beyond normal military history, as a chronicle of a part-generation of NE men. For that, it deserves your support.

Stewart Mitchell is making a generous contribution from the book’s sales to the Gordon Highlanders’ Museum Appeal. Please consider giving this splendid local cultural venue your support too.

St Valéry And Its Aftermath
The Gordon Highlanders Captured In France In 1940
Pen & Sword Military
235 pp
Hardback ISBN 978 1 47388 658 2

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Jun 252015
The Producers UK Tour 2015 - Jason Manford as Leo Bloom and company - photo credit Manuel Harlan

Jason Manford as Leo Bloom and company.

By Duncan Harley.

It’s not often that the theatre audience gets a buy one get one free offer but in the case of The Producers that’s the deal.

This is after all a musical about the production of a musical and the resulting musical within a musical is a hilarious triumph.

When fast fading theatrical producer Max Bialystock (Cory English) and his newly hired accountant the timid Leopold Bloom (Jason Manford) realise they could strike it rich and go to live in Rio by producing the worst musical ever to open on Broadway, the search is on for a production guaranteed to belly flop spectacularly on the first night.

Bialystock, the producer not the Polish city, has a track history of theatrical flops and critical reviews include classic lines such as “by the end of the production everyone on stage was dead – they were the lucky ones!” However a dead to rights sure-fire flop is required and no chances whatsoever can be taken.

The search is on for the worst musical ever written and Springtime for Hitler by gun-toting Nazi playwright pigeon breeder Franz Liebkind (Ross Noble) appears to fit the bill in every way.

With a liberal sprinkling of swastika laden ultra-camp storm troopers, a sparklingly gold sequined Liberace pastiche of Adolf “Elizabeth” Hitler plus a few dead pigeons what could possibly go right on the night?

Adapted from the highly regarded 1968 Mel Brooks film of the same name, The Producers works well as a musical. The original screenplay initially bemused audiences who had no clear idea whether to laugh or leave the cinema in protest at the outrageously funny but uncomfortable lampooning of Herr Hitler and his entourage. Indeed a 2009 German language production of the musical at Berlin’s Admiralspalast, reputedly the Fuhrer’s favourite theatre, closed after only a few weeks.

The Aberdeen theatre audience however are left in no doubt from the very start of the production that belly laughs are the order of the day and that an evening of mad-cap comedy entertainment is in store.

This is a high energy production. The story and action literally proceed at a furious pace. Slap-stick gags, catchy songs and toe-tapping dance routines combine with spectacular lighting and a stunning set to dazzle the audience.

With big names such as Northern comics Ross Noble and Jason Manford plus veteran New York Broadway actor Cory English, The Producers is a production not to be missed.

As a bonus you get the musical “Springtime for Hitler – A Gay Romp with Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden” thrown in for free.

Directed by Matthew White, The Producers plays at HM Theatre Aberdeen until Saturday 27th June.

Tickets from Aberdeen Performing Arts Tel: 01224- 641122

Words © Duncan Harley, Images © Manuel Harlan


Jun 062014

d dayBy Duncan Harley

It’s been quite a few years since the invasion of Europe by the Allied forces – three score and then ten in fact at the last count.

War of course generally sucks but this week the media is full of the stuff of legends.

The old beggars under sacks whom Wilfred Owen described are now medal sporting heroes despite their insistence that as scared 18 year olds they were just carrying out orders.

There is no disrespect here, only understanding.

According to military theorists such as Carl von Clausewitz:

“War is simply an extension of politics by a different means.”

According to those who are provided with the means to maim and kill at ground zero level it is another story.

“I have never been as scared” says Gordon Highlander Tam.

“The Taliban had moved back into our positions no less than 10 hours after we left. What was the point of us even being there. Every farmer in the area helped them. None of my platoon really understood why we were there to be honest. Those farmers were just caught in the middle. Then my mate got shot and we gave it to them big time.”

Old women who survived will tell the same story.

“Our job was to plot the movements of incoming enemy bombers then vector the fighter squadrons onto them” recalls 92 year old widow Rita Denson.

Now living in the Home Counties she recalls vividly the voices of the pilots as they went into battle.

“The most difficult were the Poles.

“They would break into Polish despite orders to only use English. No-one at Manston spoke Polish so we couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying. The worst was hearing the screams as they were shot down. It was part of the job to listen. I expect it was the same for the German controllers actually.”

Civilians also remember the carnage. Many years ago policeman’s son George Robertson from Aberdeen related how several dozen of his workmates had been killed while queuing to buy lunch just outside the Hall Russell shipyard in Aberdeen. He had been a young apprentice at the time and the memory of that dreadful day haunted him for the rest of his life. 

“There were bodies everywhere” he recalled

“some minus arms and even heads, it was not a sight for any a young man to see!”

It was a bloody affair indeed and it shocked the city to the core.

It’s a clever thing D-Day. In military terms it signifies day one of a campaign.

some young men from Germany and Austria were sent to bomb Aberdeen

D-Day designates the start day of the operation when the day has not yet been determined, or where secrecy is essential. There is also H-Hour which designates the actual hour when all units initiate the action.

So the same D-Day and H-Hour apply for every unit meaning that delays and hold ups cannot add to the fog of war by creating false starts. If the start is delayed due to unforeseen circumstances such as weather or enemy action then the plan continues from day one, whenever that may eventually turn out to be.

Then of course there is M-minute and even S-second meaning that the military can timetable an invasion precisely using mathematical notation such as D+4+H-7= Four days after D-Day at some ungodly hour in the early morning when hopefully the enemy is asleep.

In the case of the invasion of 1944 German occupied France, D-Day was a full 24 hours after the planned date but due to the military timetabling system that made little difference to the planners who after all would not be going to France right away in any case.

In the lead up to D-Day some young men from Germany and Austria were sent to bomb Aberdeen. On D-14- 27,002 Fritz Rabe and his co-pilot Heinrich Bieroth died when their twin engine Heinkel bomber was attacked and shot down over Peterhead.

On D- 26,938 Herman Zeitzch , Walter Both, Karl Loffler and Werner Drexhage died in a plane crash off Cruden Bay.

On D- 26,993 Paul Plishke, Georg Kerkhoff, Herbert Huck and August Skoken died when their Heinkel HE111H-3 plane was shot down over Aberdeen and crashed into the Ice Rink in South Anderson Drive.

The youngest of those German fliers was 21, the oldest 24.

In the case of the Ice Rink deaths three Fighter aircraft from Dyce Aerodrome had been scrambled minutes after the first German bombs had exploded. They were manned by the pilots of Yellow Section 603 Squadron and were led by Pilot Officer J.R. Caister.

Seeing that the single German plane had become separated from the main attack force the three Spitfires headed towards it with the intention of shooting it down. The bomber pilot, sensing the danger headed out to sea only to be headed back inland by the pursuing fighters.

For around eight minutes or so the game of cat and mouse was played out over the Aberdeen skies. It was lunchtime and hundreds or more folk on the ground were able to observe the unfolding drama.

German grave 1Eventually, after receiving several bursts of machine gun fire from Navy gunners on the roof of the Station Hotel and some quite ineffective shots from Torry Battery, which put the pursuing fighters at some risk, the German bomber burst into flames and began a slow but inevitable descent to earth.

Some at the time wondered if the pilot had tried to avoid crashing into houses in Morningside Crescent and South Anderson Drive.

Others assumed that he had been dead at the controls as perhaps was the rear gunner who seemingly continued to fire his machine gun all through the final descent. Whatever the truth was we will never know.

The end came suddenly and violently as the aircraft’s wingtip struck a tree at the foot of Anderson Drive near the junction with Rutherieston Road. Already alight and quite out of control the Heinkel bomber smashed into the newly built Aberdeen Ice Rink which collapsed in flames around it.

None of the aircrafts four man crew survived although one was reportedly found half way out of the aircrafts escape hatch with his parachute harness on. A ladies shoe was also found in the wreckage, perhaps the property of a wife or girlfriend who would never see her loved one again.

In true boys own rhetoric, the local newspaper of the day reported on a “Thrilling Dog-Fight with Spitfires” and “bullets rattling on our roof like a sea of hail”.

The Aberdeen Evening Express of that day reported in a heavily censored article that the enemy airplane made repeated attempts to head out to sea but was headed off repeatedly by the circling Spitfires. The bomber seemingly made a “last but vain effort to climb into cloud before being shot down in a hail of gunfire”.

The official record of the episode is more subdued and reads:

“9./KG26 Heinkel He 111H-3. Sortied to attack Leuchars airfield with harbour installations at Broughty Ferry, Dundee, as alternate. Shot down by Yellow Section No. 603 Squadron (Pilot Officer J. R. Caister, Pilot Officer G. K. Gilroy and Sergeant I. K. Arber) over Aberdeen 1.10 p.m. Crashed and burned out at the skating rink in South Anderson Drive. (Ff) Lt Herbert Huck, (Bf) Gefr Georg Kerkhoff, (Bm) Uffz Paul Plischke and (Beo) Fw August Skokan all killed. Aircraft 1H+FT a write-off. This crew were buried in Graves 155, 150, 149, and 152 in the Old Churchyard at Dyce on July 16, 1940.”

The German flyers were buried with full military honours in Old Dyce Cemetery just two days after the drama which led to their deaths

The fields and seas around the North East coastline are littered with reminders of that time.

There are wrecked U-boats off the Moray coast, crashed German planes off Peterhead and even a war grave in the form a sunken British Valentine tank in Findhorn Bay. Tales of spies landed by German seaplane’s at Crovie and Gardenstown abound also.

Quintus Horatius Flaccus (8 December 65 BC – 27 November 8 BC), known in the English-speaking world as Horace and a leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus was no doubt taking the mickey when he wrote the famous lines “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” which roughly translated reads “It is sweet and fitting to die for your country”.

When D-Day is remembered this Friday, think of the old lines, remember the dead of all those wars and look to a future without conflict.

After all, the dead and wounded soldiers amongst us deserve it.

© Duncan Harley
All rights reserved

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Sep 192013

By Duncan Harley.

Crovie Boilerhead 170In Crovie, the fisher folk were quite used to the effects of the sea. They had, for generations, lived with the seasons, and felt that they knew how to survive the furies of the winter storms. These were hardy folk indeed.
In February 1906 they had risked life and limb to rescue the crew of the SS Vigilant when, after engine failure it was driven ashore onto the Rotten Beach just down from the village.

A joint effort with the folk of nearby Gardenstown enabled the rescue of all six crew, despite the terrible conditions during a severe winter storm.

The boiler from the stricken vessel lay in Crovie Bay as a landmark for over 90 years, before being removed by the local council after a storm washed it onto the shore.

There is a memorial to the event on the coastal path between Crovie and Gardenstown.

Then there were those German spies.

During April 1941, two armed men landed at Crovie pier from a rubber dinghy. It was a time of distrust. Road signs in the North East had been removed and the Emergency Coastal Defences were in place. General Ironside’s Innes Links Coastal Battery was yet to fire a shot in anger, but the general mood was fear of invasion and distrust of foreigners.

It was just before 6 a.m. on April 8th 1941, and three hours earlier the two men had been dropped a few miles offshore by a German flying boat. When climbing into their rubber dinghy, they had lost their means of transport when the Luftwaffe aircrew panicked and threw their two bicycles into the North Sea, where no doubt they lie to this day.

As they watched the seaplane take off for the return trip to Norway, they must have wondered what had possessed them to volunteer as German spies and what fate would await them when they made landfall in the North East of Scotland.

The two men were in fact Norwegians who had been recruited by the German security services to report on the Moray coastal defences. It’s a well known story: they rowed ashore to Crovie pier and asked the man at number 27 how to get to Banff by bus.

It was April 1941. Very few locals spoke a foreign language despite the influx of Polish personnel into the Moray area.

Crovie Village Moray 170. Credit: Duncan Harley

The coastal village of Crovie, Moray.

Mr Reid at number 27 seemingly dialled 999 and reported the incident to the Banff Constabulary.

The rest is history.

Used as double agents, the two Norwegians fooled their German masters for a few months before being allowed, in one case, to join the Norwegian Army and in the case of the second agent, to live out the rest of the war in an internment camp.

They were nicknamed Mutt and Jeff after two cartoon characters of the time, whom they were thought to resemble.

Mutt and Jeff? Cockney rhyming slang for deaf perhaps, or a reference to a then popular American newspaper comic strip created by cartoonist Bud Fisher in 1907 about “two mismatched tinhorns.”

Both were lovable losers however, and the good folk of Crovie still remember them with relish.

Crovie is one of only two places in the world to be blessed with a North Pole.

Mind you, the Crovie North Pole is easier to reach. To get there simply walk to the far end of the village, to the drying green past the Mission Hall. A green metal clothes pole awaits, and visitors are advised that “if you don’t walk around the North Pole, then you haven’t done Crovie.”

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Aug 272013

battery rangefinder innes links duncan harley_1Duncan Harley reflects on the art of street protest.

Belfast remains a sectarian mess. Hatred of the folk next door or over the road, plus a sense of outdated history divides folk who might otherwise be best of friends given the need for a simple cup of sugar. The religious divide may be just a smokescreen for something deeper though.

I well remember an interview with a Serbian who had thrown an old man off a bridge in the “Safe haven” of Sarajevo during the multi-ethnic Bosnian War of the 1990’s. Asked why he had murdered the man he said quite simply that in around 1637 there had been a conflict in which the man’s family had done something similar.

The so called peace walls are a stark reminder of the divide. Belfast has quite a few of these. Symbols of division and hatred, they are reminiscent of the Berlin Wall and the 230 mile long, six metre high wall topped with barbed wire lined with guard towers which the Israelis have constructed in the West Bank. The walls say much about the intolerance of those who rule towards those who are ruled and speak volumes about the state of Israel, Ireland and the UK.

Banksy’s feelings about such barrier’s are made explicit in a statement which says the wall “essentially turns Palestine into the world’s largest open prison.” Many including the Moray street artist Pantsy wholeheartedly agree. In a rare interview the reclusive Pantsy echoed the sentiments of his mentor.

We met at the Innes Links on the coast midway between the Moray village of Kingston and the township of Lossiemouth. Innes Links for those not in the know is a party place with some attitude. During the 1940’s it was a focus for the defence of the realm. In those dark days there were quite justified fears that the Moray coastline was the soft underbelly of Scotland.

Norway had been invaded by the German’s and with air raids over Moray and Aberdeenshire a daily menace it seemed logical to expect invasion from the sea. Nowadays however the coastal defensive structures are a mecca for those intent on a few beers and a wee barbeque.

The Innes battery ( pictured above ) features a couple of gun emplacements, a couple of searchlight casements plus a rangefinder housing. There are the obligatory latrines plus a few thousand anti invasion blocks manufactured by Polish troops employed as forced labour by a local building company who got the contract for General Ironside’s anti invasion plan.

pantsy graffitti Innes Duncan HarleyPantsy has added a few pieces of his art to brighten up the somewhat outdated 1940’s décor of the Innes Links Battery.

In fact his spray paintings put to shame those who like the anonymous “FU” reflects “Mo Mo is fat”.

Pantsy told me “My art is simply a reflection of what humanity does to the underdogs and I don’t need to defend it”.

I asked if he was expressing something deeper.

The response came fast and sharp.

“Keith lads suck, Lossie lads are much better, in fact ten times as good, maybe even more. Try them at darts is all I can say. But I’m not sure.”

When further questioned Pantsy revealed his Irish heritage.

He told me of his grandparent’s experiences during the Irish rebellion of 1916. How those patriots were mistreated by the Black and Tans. How the ordinary folk of that island, were mistreated. How the folk in his country were vilified by a war torn Britain who only saw the rebellion as a treason in the face of the common enemy who threatened death and destruction from the air, land and sea.

Seemingly his great uncle was murdered by the men of the Staffordshire Regiment and a cousin far removed met a similar fate in rural Cork.

It’s really no great surprise though that the Irish needed their independence. There had been the British indifference after the harvests failed and folk in the south began to starve.  There had been the issues of the setting up of a general election set up by the British authorities in 1918 where 70% of the voters decided to support candidates pledged to abstain from the ties of English authority but were ignored.

There had also been the issues of Easter 1916 when a “terrible beauty was born” and many good Irish folk died by shooting and hanging in the cause of shedding the yoke of an oppressive and often uncaring ruling elite.

Tom Barry wrote in “Guerrilla Days in Ireland” about those dark but somehow progressive days. Tom was Commandant General of the West Cork flying column and in his early career was pitted against the combined might of the British Army in the days just after the first war to end all wars.

People like Major Percival and Montgomery were on his hit list.

orkney 205 italian chapel

The first, who was later to surrender his entire army to the mercy of the Japanese in Singapore, due to his extreme anti-Irish attitude and encouragement of torture. The second because of the man’s habit of allowing his troops free reign to murder and pillage at will.

Percival survived the assassination attempt seemingly due to his habit of raiding and murdering IRA sympathisers at random, he was out on a raid on the night in question it seems.

Montgomery simply went to tea with a new mistress on the night in question thus avoiding the assassin’s bullet.

One ended up as a prisoner of the Japanese and the other ended up as the heroic general who led his troops to victory in the Western Desert at El Alemain.

After Montgomery’s desert victory, there were many prisoners a number of whom were brought back to the UK to live out the rest of the war in captivity. The Italians were the most numerous. Their leader Mussolini had neglected to provide them with much transport and their German allies stole what was left forcing most of the Italian desert troops to surrender at the first opportunity.

orkney 205 italian chapel

Out of over one hundred thousand Italians who surrendered in 1942, around 1300 were sent to Orkney and housed in three prisoner of war camps tasked with building the Churchill Barriers following the disastrous sinking of the HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow by the U 47.

From the desert heat and water issues they then faced the freezing winds and belting sleet of an Orcadian winter.

This beautiful chapel is their legacy.

Built using found materials and the parts from two Nissan Huts it survives to this day as a memorial to the spirit and resourcefulness of the people of Italy in the face of the defeat of Fascism.

If Tom Barry had succeeded in the assassination of General Montgomery then in all probability this chapel would not exist.

Now there’s a thought.

With grateful thanks to Wm Yeats, Pantsy and Tom Barry without whose help this article could not have been written.

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Aug 152013

Something for the weekend, sir? Duncan Harley comments on the newspapers you might like to read if you had the time, the money and the inclination. This week he looks at The Times Saturday.

At a cool £1.50 a pop, The Times Saturday Scotland Edition is quite a heavyweight. My bathroom scales are a bit creaky but I reckon this week’s 70960th edition weighs in at just over 0.62kg, including inserts. That’s a fair weight indeed. If US figures are to be believed, then around 500,000 trees are required just to make the paper to print the Sunday papers in the USA.

The UK weekend papers probably consume proportionally as much timber. However, digital may well be the way to go with offerings from DC Thompson, The Sun and Aberdeen Voice pioneering a tree-free eco-press.

On the moon of course, this week’s Times Saturday would weigh a mere 0.1kg due to reduced gravity, but when I last checked there were no trees on this side of the moon. This might make printing somewhat difficult.

This week’s newspaper leads on two stories. The first is an extended piece about Robert Mugabe’s secret deal to sell uranium to Iran. It seems this ‘secret’ deal may lead to ‘retaliatory action by the international community’, according to correspondent Michael Evans. More sanctions against the ordinary folk of Zimbabwe are on the horizon it seems.

Alongside this front page leader, runs a story about some cute pandas. Apparently Tian Tian, who is one of only a thousand pandas left in the world, may be pregnant.

Edinburgh Zoo spent £250,000 constructing a state-of-the-art panda enclosure and currently pays China fees of £650,000 per year, a fact not many people will know since The Times has not chosen to incorporate this information in the cute panda article.

Times cartoonist Morten Morland has drawn on the affair with a parody on page 23, two adult pandas are pictured lying slumped after a meal of bamboo shoots with a speech bubble reading, ‘Alex Salmond says the birth will be announced on an easel outside the Scottish Parliament’. Not very original perhaps, but certainly very revealing of the editorial stance of the newspaper.

On page 27, Pickles features again

All is not doom and gloom, however. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government makes the news in two articles.

On page 13, Eric Pickles is slated for suggesting that UK birth certificates will soon be replaced by an EEC compulsory registration document. It seems this may be complete rubbish, and Karl Turner, Labour MP for Hull East is quoted, ‘This looks very embarrassing for Eric Pickles. He’s been caught red-handed, scaremongering in the desperate search for a headline’.

On page 27, Pickles features again. In a somewhat scathing piece, the paper’s Chief Political Correspondent Michael Savage lives up to his name quoting a peer’s take on the so-called Go Home adverts currently being funded by the Home Office. These have led to more than 60 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, and are ‘nasty’ according to Lord Ouseley.

The paper’s France correspondent Adam Sage reports from Paris on Pyrenees farmers threatening to shoot the local population of brown bears after a spate of attacks on sheep. It seems there are around 22 of the rare creatures surviving in the wild. President Holland is seemingly under pressure to ‘bring in another bearbut‘, whatever that may mean.

Not one to disappoint those of a masturbatory disposition, The Times does of course have a Page 3 girl. In this weekend’s edition she is on page 41 hidden in the somewhat discreet World section of the paper. With a headline The Carnival is over, the lovely Luma de Oliveira bares her body for all to view!

the Edinburgh Festival has a new Eric and Ernie act

The Scotland Edition sports section covers cricket. With some quite breathtaking images and comment on cricket in England, the Sport pages headline with England slain by Lyon King. Hollywood perhaps or just the Aussies?

In other parts of the paper we read that Richard Wilson is gay and will only say I don’t believe it for charity, the Edinburgh Festival has a new Eric and Ernie act, and Roger Bushell was working for British Military Intelligence in Prague during 1942.

If you’ve ever seen The Great Escape you will, of course, know that Roger, AKA Big X, was shot dead by the Gestapo following a mass break out from Stalag Luft III during the Second World War. The Times, perhaps in a re-run of the Hitler Diaries fiasco, will be serialising a new book by Simon Pearson about the role Roger Bushell might just have played in the assassination of the acting Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia almost 70 years ago.

Damian Whitworth has penned the helpful lines, ‘Pearson writes that it is not possible to say that Bushell was involved in the plot, but establishing that he was among Prague’s resistance fighters at the time places him tantalisingly close.

The Times Saturday Scotland Edition is a good read. On a scale of one to ten stars I think a score of six might be appropriate. Of course I am, as always, open to suggestions.

Next week in Something for the Weekend Sir? I will be taking a look at one of Scotland’s oldest family newspapers, The Sunday Post, the paper we prefer to send to friends around the globe rather than read.

Something for the weekend sir?’ is, of course, what local barbers used to ask customers in the days before discrete prophylactic services became available via the internet.


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Jul 182013

In part one of his feature on the terror of summer 1940, when the Luftwaffe unloaded its murderous cargo on Aberdeen, Duncan Harley poked gentle fun at the contemporary media. This week, in part two, things get a bit more serious as Duncan explores the archives to make vivid the events of that fateful afternoon.

It’s the 73rd anniversary of the Battle of Britain this year.

The battle was fought over the whole of Britain between 10 July and 31 October 1940 and was probably the first occasion in the history
of warfare where two air forces literally fought each other to the death.

According to the Royal British Legion, RAF Fighter Command destroyed 1733 German aircraft during the battle and lost 915 of its own aircraft during the summer and autumn of 1940. One sixth of UK aircrew members did not survive.

Many people of course will associate the Battle of Britain with Luftwaffe attacks on cities and airfields in the south of England. However, the reality is that the whole of the UK, including NE population centres Aberdeen, Fraserburgh and Peterhead came under intensive aerial bombardment, resulting in many civilian deaths and massive destruction of property.

There are many remnants of that era still around if you take the time to look for them. The Aberdeenshire coastline is littered with evidence of coastal defences ranging from anti-invasion pill boxes, also evident at many strategic bridges and road junctions, to the aptly named dragon’s teeth which blocked routes deemed to be vulnerable to sea-borne enemy tank landings.

Long abandoned airfields are still in evidence further north, such as RAF Dallachy, near Spey Bay, where dispersal areas and the original 1940s control tower can still be found.

Local archives list places which were bombed and machine-gunned from the air and the Trinity Cemetery and houses on Seaforth Road in Aberdeen still bear scars of these attacks. Somewhat worryingly, there are maps in existence which mark the positions of unexploded bombs, quite a few of which were almost certainly neither recovered nor made safe.

It was overcast with low cloud on 12 July 1940 in the South of England, but sunny and bright in Aberdeen. It was two days into the Battle of Britain and the Granite City had been attacked twice in the previous fortnight with considerable loss of life. Early in the war it had been assumed that

Scotland was relatively safe from aerial attack but the invasion and conquest of Norway in April 1940 changed that. Raiders could now reach the coast of Scotland easily, and often undetected, until they made landfall. Typical targets were shipyards and harbours both of which attracted the enemy to Aberdeen.

Aberdeen had always been a secondary Luftwaffe target at that stage in the war

In mid-morning on 12 July, a flight of six duck blue camouflaged Heinkel HE111H-3 light bombers took off from Stavanger Airport and made their way over the North Sea towards the Scottish coast.

Some reports suggest that the intended target was RAF Leuchars and the harbour at Broughty Ferry, with the Tay Estuary the intended landfall, but that for some reason, possibly faulty navigation or a mid-flight alteration to plans, the attack was concentrated further north.

Whatever the truth of the matter, Aberdeen had always been a secondary Luftwaffe target at that stage in the war but on that bright summer day the bombers headed up the coast in search of the city.

Bomb loads usually consisted of both high explosive and incendiary bombs when attacking cities.

The high explosive devices were dropped first to blow open buildings and allow the secondary incendiary devices to drop through the damaged roofs and start fires. But on this mission, it appears that only high explosives were carried, reinforcing the idea that RAF Leuchars had indeed been the original target with the plan of destroying the runway and disrupting fighter defences.

At 12:45, the first bombs began to fall on the Hall Russell shipyard. There was no air raid warning when the bombers approached the city from the sea. Indeed, the first anyone knew was when around sixteen high explosive bombs exploded in quick succession. The boiler shop was worst hit with around ten bombs exploding in and around it.

Many years ago, policeman’s son George Robertson told me that several dozen of his workmates had been killed while queuing to buy lunch just outside the yard. He had been a young apprentice at the time and the memory of that dreadful day haunted him for the rest of his life, ‘There were bodies everywhere,’ he recalled, ‘some minus arms and even heads, it was not a sight for any young man to see’.

It was a bloody affair indeed, and shocked the city to the core.

The bombing continued unabated with the Neptune Bar on the waterfront receiving a direct hit. In those days it had an upper floor which collapsed on to the lunchtime drinkers below, killing 40. A fragment from the bomb cut the end off the tail of the bar’s cat who went around with a shortened tail for the rest of its days.

they came under fire from machine gunners on top of the Station Hotel

Urquhart Road, Spa Street, York Street and Regent Walk received hits as did Kings College’s grounds, 32 George Street and 7 Roslin Terrace, where an unexploded bomb later had to be defused. The London boat in Waterloo Quay was also badly damaged, with loss of life.

As the raiders continued across the city they came under fire from machine gunners on top of the Station Hotel, which was then occupied by the military. No hits were reported.

During the attack one of the bombers became detached from the main group.

Three fighter aircraft from Dyce Aerodrome had been scrambled minutes after the first bombs had exploded. They were manned by pilots of Yellow Section 603 Squadron and led by Pilot Officer Caister. Seeing that the single German plane had become separated the Spitfires headed towards it with the intention of shooting it down. The bomber pilot, sensing the danger, headed out to sea only to be headed back inland by the pursuing fighters.

For around six minutes the game of cat and mouse was played out in the Aberdeen skies with hundreds on the ground watching the unfolding drama. Eventually, after receiving several bursts of machine gun fire and some ineffective shots from Torry Battery which put the pursuing fighters at some risk, the bomber burst into flames and began a slow but inevitable descent to earth.

None of the aircraft’s four man crew survived

Some at the time wondered if the pilot had tried to avoid crashing into houses in Morningside Crescent and South Anderson Drive.

Others assumed that he had been dead at the controls, as perhaps was the rear gunner, who seemingly continued to fire his machine gun all through the final descent. Whatever the truth is, we will never know.

The end came suddenly and violently as the aircraft’s wingtip struck a tree at the foot of Anderson Drive near its junction with Ruthrieston Road. Already alight and out of control, the Heinkel smashed into the newly-built Aberdeen Ice Rink which collapsed in flames around it.

None of the aircraft’s four man crew survived, although one was reportedly found half way out of the escape hatch with his parachute harness on. A ladies shoe was also found in the wreckage, perhaps the property of a wife or girlfriend.

In true boys own rhetoric, the newspapers of the day reported on a ‘Thrilling Dog-Fight with Spitfires’ and ‘bullets rattling on our roof like a sea of hail.’

The official record of the episode reads:

“9./KG26 Heinkel He 111H-3. Sortied to attack Leuchars airfield with harbour installations at Broughty Ferry, Dundee, as alternate. Shot down by Yellow Section No. 603 Squadron (Pilot Officer J. R. Caister, Pilot Officer G. K. Gilroy and Sergeant I. K. Arber) over Aberdeen 1.10 p.m. Crashed and burned out at the skating rink in South Anderson Drive. (Ff) Lt Herbert Huck, (Bf) Gefr Georg Kerkhoff, (Bm) Uffz Paul Plischke and (Beo) Fw August Skokan all killed. Aircraft 1H+FT a write-off. This crew were buried in Graves 155, 150, 149, and 152 in the Old Churchyard at Dyce on July 16, 1940.”

I visited the German fliers’ graves today. It’s such a strangely captivating place. Who amongst us could fail to be impressed with the Pictish stones in the roofless church above the bend on the River Don with converted mill buildings on the far bank?

Unusually perhaps, their remains were not transferred to the German War Cemetery at Cannock Chase when the conflict ceased, so they lie there still, alongside two fallen comrades from a different plane crash.

The Commonwealth fliers’ graves are there too, including Canadians and South Africans. Other graves hold the remains of two Polish Air Force pilots and even an unfortunate ferry pilot from the Royal Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Pilot Officer Caister, who was credited with the kill, force-landed near Calais three months later. He was taken prisoner and spent the rest of the war in captivity.


Evening Express Friday July 12th 1940

Google overlay of bombing incidents in Aberdeen:

BBC Peoples War 1996:

Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives:

With grateful thanks to George Robertson (deceased)

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Nov 122012

By Bob Smith.

Lit’s nae foget the sacrifice
O oor brave loons an quines
Fa perished in war’s carnage
An a puckle lost their myns
Lit’s nae forget the sacrifice
At the Somme or Passchendaele
Lit’s nae forget the bravery
O the chiels fae toon or vale
Lit’s nae forget the sacrifice
O the billies fae learn’t tae flee
In Spitfires an in bombers
A hullock o them wid dee
Lit’s nae forget the sacrifice
O D-Day an El Alamein
Or at Cassino ower in Italy
Oot o bodies life wid drain
Lit’s nae forget the sacrifice
In Burma or Singapore
An biggin railways in the jungle
Fit’s gin doon in war folklore
Lits nae forget the sacrifice
By some sailors on the ocean waves
Fin convoys they ran the gauntlet
An U-boats sint them tae their graves
Lits nae forget the sacrifice
In Kenya, Malaya an Korea
Or in the island o Cyprus
Aroon the toon o Nicosia
Lits nae forget the sacrifice
In Aden Arabs made their pitch
Far squaddies tried tae keep the peace
Some led by yon “Mad Mitch”
Lits nae forget the sacrifice
On Falkland’s lan an sea
An ower in Northern Ireland
Fowk fae conflict warna free
Lits nae forget the sacrifice
In Iraq an in Afghanistan
Far loons and quines hiv perished
In attacks fae the Taliban
Lits nae forget the sacrifice
O firefighters an ambulance crews
An the nurses in the front line
Durin wars like World War 2
So remember aa these gallant fowk
Fa deet so we’d bide free
Fa pyed the ultimate sacrifice
As their lives they did gie

©Bob Smith “The Poetry Mannie” 2012