During the War


Just after World War II began a large part of Scotland, from Inverness northwards was declared a prohibited area. Visitors needed a permit for entry and there was a strict censorship on all outgoing mail. These were just two of the inconveniences caused by prohibition. It soon became apparent to those of us who lived in Easter Ross, and no doubt to those who lived in the west and north as well, why such restrictions were so necessary. Our fields and farmyards, sometimes known as the gardens of Ross-Shire suddenly took on the appearance training grounds for all three services. Air bases were established at Evanton, Alness, Fearn and Tain, with lots of aviation activity around our local own area.

Invergordon with its deep water harbour was as busy as ever, although the bigger naval vessels were kept outside the Suitors due to fears that they would become being blocked in. The calm waters of the Cromarty Firth soon became an anchorage point for large Sunderland and Catalina flying boats. Our beaches too, were training areas for landing craft, a large tract of land east of Hilton became a bombing and target practice range. Many people who had lived there in farm cottages and private homes were evacuated for the duration of the war. Army units were dotted all over the country. Members of the R.A.F regiment were based at Fearn Air Station (H.M.S Owl), while a contingent of the Norwegian army settled just north of Balintore. This particular Norwegian unit saw the presence of a very illustrious visitor at one time when King Haakon of Norway visited them. I can remember the car and entourage passing through the village and up the brae. Almost daily we saw soldiers in the village, often on cold days they would be offered cups of tea and home baked goods.


During the early months of the war the news was less encouraging than we had hoped for. As time went on things became even bleaker. We became accustomed to grave broadcasts announcing naval losses, military retreats and air battles in which our aircraft struggled against vastly superior numbers of enemy planes. We actually witnessed the results of enemy action in the Moray Firth. A ship just off the Suitors was set ablaze by a mine or perhaps by a torpedo, on another occasion we watched as one of our destroyers tried to fight off an attack by an enemy bomber. Trawlers too were sunk by mines. All this happened in the early days of the war.


I was at home at the end of 1939 but intended to go to Edinburgh in early 1940. Knowing that there was strict censorship of mail I wondered how I was going to get any information home. My friend and I devised a rather simple code in case any incidents occurred. Using names such as Granny, Auntie, Nellie, Jean, Bella, Maggie and many others to associate with ships, bombers, fighters and other events or military movements. We hoped that somehow we could relay items of local interest to one another. If we had to “read between the lines” the arrangement was to put a few blots after the signature. Time went on and I got lots of mail from home. Mother’s letters sometimes looked like picture frames without a picture, as almost all but an inch around the edge had been cut out. It was most irritating to know that something had happened, but being left in the dark regarding what it was. Mother wrote without guile and the censors had no pity. In some roundabout way I’d usually get the story from other sources. Months went by and I’d more or less forgotten about the code, until one day a letter arrived which puzzled me somewhat, It was from my friend, she told me that my Auntie Bella had come north for a visit and left her two children at Fearn Station. Unfortunately she couldn’t stay and returned south again on her own. I was completely mystified. My Auntie Bella lived over at Portmahomack and there was no need for her to leave her children when there were other relatives who could collect them. It didn’t make sense. Thinking she must have got mixed up with someone else I tried to forget it but it still bothered me, then the penny dropped! I remembered our arrangements and hastily got the letter out again to find, that sure enough there were two or three almost imperceptible blots after the signature. A quick hunt for the code and all became clear. A German bomber had dropped a couple of bombs near Fearn station but had got away without being intercepted. At last something escaped the eagle eye of the censor. Sometime later I received a letter from my sister, she wrote that my brother’s friend Boba had been along to Invergordon and left his walking stick near Mrs Henry’s dustbin. It was his silver mounted one too! I knew that Mrs Henry lived near the recently erected oil tanks so it was easy to guess that an attack had been made on them. The censor must have been getting slack, or wasn’t bothering anymore.

Edinburgh meanwhile was faring better than some other cities in the United Kingdom which had undergone repeated bombings. The air raid siren did wail almost every evening around six o’clock or six thirty and the “all clear” sounded about three hours later. I remember listening to the noise of the aircraft overhead, wondering if they were enemy aircraft or our own, as well as pondering where or when the bombs would drop? One bomb fell not far away from the zoo, another landed at Dalry and a land mine at Leith caused much damage and inflicted many causalities. One night was different to any other. All the occupants of the house I was in heard continuous anti-aircraft fire and we all knew it was no ordinary raid. There was no official shelter close at hand, so householders were advised to use a safe area in their homes, in our case our “safe” area was the alcove under the stairs. We assembled there but as the guns nearby blasted away we became inquisitive and decided to have a peep at what was going on. Big Bertha boomed out and flaming torrents flew high into the evening sky but even the almighty firepower of Big Bertha could not reach high enough to worry the wave of aircraft which we could see far above us. Quaking with fear, almost rooted to the spot, we prayed that the bombs wouldn’t rain down. We returned to our positions under the stairs, only to go out again when the guns roared out once more. Another wave of bombers went by followed by many more that night. Every minute we expected the bombs to fall but mercifully they did not. It was impossible to feel safe while the enemy was overhead carrying enough firepower to flatten any city in mere minutes. Perhaps the shipping in the Forth was the target?


It was many hours before the “all clear” sounded and I doubt if anyone felt like going to bed. Next morning we learned the aircrafts intentions, they targeted Clydebank which had been blitzed! There was a tremendous amount of damage and many casualties. We had much sympathy in our hearts for all who had suffered the bombardment because we knew it could so easily have been our turn. There was much gratitude too, for our own safe keeping. That night in March 1944 will be remembered in many ways. Some will feel sorrow, horror, hatred and a wish for revenge, most will just feel thankful that they survived.


Katie Ross