Second World War

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Second World War & Scotland

No event in modern history has caused as much upheaval in Scotland as the Second World War.

The battle against Hitler once again saw Scots in the front line of the fighting - only this time, civilians at home suffered as much as the soldiers, sailors and airmen who were confronting the enemy directly.

The war brought death, misery and destruction to Scotland on a huge scale. But it also helped to make Scots of all classes rub shoulders with each other, and to give the economy a lift it desperately needed after the dark years of the Depression.

When war with Hitler was declared in 1939, there was little enthusiasm in Scotland for the fight, although there was a stern resolution that Nazi-ism was an evil which had to be countered.

In the first few months of the fighting, virtually nothing happened. This was the so-called Phoney War, although there was one huge exception towards the end of 1939 when a German U-boat torpedoed the HMS Royal Oak at Scapa Flow off Orkney, where, ironically, the German fleet had been deliberately scuttled after the First World War.

A total of 800 men died when the Royal Oak went to the bottom, many of them entombed in the wreck to this day.

The biggest disruption suffered by most people came in their ordinary, everyday lives. Children and mothers with youngsters were evacuated from the cities to the safety of the countryside. It was a huge logistical task, requiring the splitting up of families and causing a huge amount of trauma. Within months, some youngsters were drifting back home.

Rationing was also introduced with the aim of ensuring that a minimum standard of living and basic supplies such as tea, cheese, jam, butter and sugar were available to all. In practice, however, there was a vibrant black market and the better off could buy virtually anything they wanted at a price.

As in the Great War, conscription was also introduced. Men were called up not only to fight in the front line, but also to serve in essential industries such as mining and agriculture. Legendary wartime stories such as the London blitz and the Battle of Britain, which was fought in the air principally over the Home Counties, suggest that Scotland played a subsidiary role in the war effort.

This is totally untrue. The Scots were huge contributors to the fight against Hitler. The Clyde, for instance, became Britain's main port, with more than 52 million tons of munitions and supplies landed there. More than 100,000 men also toiled endlessly in the shipyards to build vessels such as the aircraft carrier Indefatigable and the warships Howe and the Duke of York.

Rolls Royce workers in Scotland built the famous Merlin engine which was used to power Spitfires while the ordnance factory at Bishopton in Renfrewshire manufactured explosives.

Scotland's remoteness and position also made it ideal for other wartime tasks, such as housing prisoners of war. In 1941, when the Italian army was defeated in North Africa, nearly 20,000 PoWs were brought here and put to work on the farms and on building the famous Churchill Barriers in Orkney, designed to prevent further submarine attacks on Scapa Flow.

One of the less savoury aspects of the war was the rounding up of Italians resident in Scotland after Mussolini joined the conflict in 1940. Many were completely innocent civilians who suddenly found themselves locked up in incarceration centres. The public outcry was such that they were eventually released.

Concrete anti-tank barriers were built along the East Coast to head off an invasion. In the Highlands, vast tracts of land were turned into an armed camp and used for commando training purposes. The area was practically sealed off, with anyone wanting to go north or west of the Great Glen only being allowed to enter with a special pass.

Ironically, it was in one of the most remote parts of Scotland - Orkney - where the first British civilian died in a World War Two air raid. James Isbister, a labourer in the remote island hamlet of Bridge of Waith, near Stenness, was hit when a German bomber dumped its explosives after an abortive raid on Scapa Flow.

There was, though, much worse to come. On March 13 1941, the Germans launched a massive raid against Clydebank. Over two nights of intense bombing, a total of 500 planes dropped 500 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs, leading to the deaths of more than 1200 people.

The devastation was immense. The fire services were completely overwhelmed and help had to be drafted in from other parts of the country. There was a similar sense of horror when bombs rained down on Greenock a few weeks later.

However, on this occasion central government took control, and the Scottish Office moved quickly to evacuate the terrified and angry population. There was a widespread belief that follow-up raids would cause similar devastation.

However, those raids never came. Hitler decided to launch an attack on Russia and the Luftwaffe was redeployed to prepare for raids on the Soviet Union. The switch of tack was a blessing, because it is doubtful for how long central Scotland could have continued to withstand such fierce attacks.

At the same time as the bombers were turning east, however, the most remarkable event of the entire war took place on Scottish soil. Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess, crashed his plane in a field near the village of Eaglesham on the outskirts of Glasgow while apparently attempting to broker a peace deal with the Duke of Hamilton.

It was a bizarre event. Hess was found, still wearing his parachute, in a field by a local ploughman, David Maclean, who invited him into his house and offered him a cup of tea. He was later taken away by the authorities for questioning and held for the rest of the war. The whole affair is still surrounded in mystery and many unanswered questions remain about why Hess tried to make the journey.

In February 1941, Churchill had appointed Thomas Johnston as Secretary of State for Scotland. Johnston was a Labour politician who was to turn out to be one of the most brilliant government ministers in Scottish history.

On being offered the appointment in the coalition government, Johnston's key condition was that he should be allowed to form a committee consisting of all the past living Secretaries of State. The Prime Minister readily agreed, and effectively offered Johnston a free hand.

He was so efficient that Churchill dubbed him the King of Scotland. Johnston, who had been a Red Clydesider, did not allow ideology to subvert his political pragmatism. He was as happy to work with Tories as with Labour politicians if it was in Scotland's interest.

One of his greatest achievements was that he was visionary enough not only to run Scotland during the war, but also to put in place the plans needed for the peace which was to come.

He created the Scottish Council on Industry - a sort of early version of Scottish Enterprise - which brought government and business together for the common good. He charged it with bringing investment and creating jobs north of the border, so stopping Scots drifting off to England in search of work.

He also set up the Clyde Basin Hospital Scheme - a forerunner of the National Health Service.

New hospitals had been built in the thirties in the belief that the war would mean huge civilian bombing casualties. But the injuries never came and the buildings, though staffed, were virtually empty. Johnston used them instead to provide treatment for Scots workers in munitions factories. It was a brilliant idea - the scheme was quickly extended to all of Scotland and wiped out a waiting list of 34,000 patients before the war ended.

Recognising the importance of tourism to as peacetime Scotland, he established the Scottish Tourist Board in 1945. He also foresaw the Forth Road Bridge - finally opened in 1964 - and the importance of developing Prestwick Airport for international flights.

Arguably his most important contribution, however, was the formation of the North of Scotland Hydro Board. In was launched in 1943 to provide desperately needed electricity to the Highlands and Islands, and lives on today, in privatised form, as one of Britain's most successful power companies - Scottish and Southern Energy.

By the time the war ended in 1945, more than 57,000 Scots had died. The casualty toll was less than half that of the Great War, but the fight had been every bit as traumatic.

Only weeks before the fighting had finished, however, there had been an interesting development in British politics. A parliamentary by-election in Motherwell had been won by a candidate standing for a new organisation - the Scottish National Party.

It was the first time that a party devoted to independence had managed success at Westminster - and it was to be far from the last.

NEXT WEEK: The rise of nationalism and the taking of the Stone of Destiny


Meanwhile...

  • 1939

Germany invades Poland

  • 1939

Conscription begins in Britain

  • 1939

"Gone with the Wind" is released

  • 1941

"Citizen Kane", Orson Welles' first film, is released

  • 1941

Rudolf Hess, Hitler's Deputy, lands in Scotland

  • 1941

Churchill and Roosevelt sign the Atlantic Charter

  • 1939

A German U-boat enters the Scapa Flow and sinks the battleship, The Royal Oak

  • 1941

The SS Politician is wrecked in the Sound of Eriskay with a cargo of whisky - and inspires Compton MacKenzie's, "Whisky Galore"

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