Twinkling with the stars of memory

When a display of wartime model planes was held at the Memorial Hall, Ian remembers: “I was most impressed by those planes – most likely Spitfires, Hurricanes, Lancaster bombers, Swordfish torpedo-bombers, etc.”
(Picture: Dave Stewart)

In my bedroom I have an alarm system that remains switched on during the night. It has two small fixed lights, one red and one green, and when my bedside lamp is turned off those two colours, glowing side by side in the darkness, frequently remind me of the war years and when I was living at Cruesbreck.

I was born there in 1940 and lived there until 1948 when the family moved to the present home at Antabreck. Although quite young during the last years of the 1939-1945 war there are nevertheless some memories which remain especially clear from those far away days.

The two lights, which provide the inspiration for this letter, are similar to the direction identification system used on ships and aeroplanes – red for port and green for starboard. From 1940 until almost the end of 1945 Norway, a country closely connected in many ways with Orkney with its Norse history, was occupied by German forces. Shetland, of course, has the same historical links but probably more so because of their closer proximity.

During the conflict in Norway there was the famous ‘Shetland Bus’ link when many Norwegians escaped mainly by fishing boat across the North Sea to Shetland. A few years ago I bought a book with the title of The Waves are Free by James W. Irvine (a Shetlander) which is a comprehensive history of the war time Shetland/Norway links – there is also of course David Howarth’s definitive book The Shetland Bus.

One of the very impressionable memories I have of those last years of the war is of the dark starry skies, when frequently the sound of aeroplanes would tempt me outside to see what was happening. Then one would see those little green and red lights, that I’ve mentioned, seemingly among the stars, tracing their way across the blackness of the sky. The sound of the passing war-planes brought a feeling of some excitement and speculation – what sort of mission were they flying; would they survive and come south again – or would they be shot down over Norway or the North Sea.

Though I cannot recollect the heavy raids that went over to Norway that my late father used to talk about, when the sound of the droning engines were heard for some time, there is no doubt that those occasions must have been exciting, and also unforgettable, from the distinctive noise of so many planes flying thousands of feet above North Ronaldsay.

During those war years there were stationed on the island, RAF personnel who were billeted at Holland House. The house, which belonged to the Laird of the island, was unoccupied during the war, and it was about the only place of sufficient size to accommodate a number of men – at one time there was as many as 12 on duty there. Also, the building is fairly highly situated on the island, and it has a tower from which a good lookout could be maintained.

The purpose of their occupation was to keep watch for enemy planes that might be on their way to bomb the Scapa Flow Naval base, or report on passing war ships or whatever. They had a radio operator who relayed such information to the relevant authorities.

When those RAF men were here I was too young to know much about their presence, or how they took part in the life of the community and so on. But what I do remember especially, though, was an exhibition of war-time model planes which they organised. The Memorial Hall was the place where the models were displayed, and the planes were laid out on one of those long wooden tables, supported on trestles, which were used for catering. I was most impressed by those planes – most likely Spitfires, Hurricanes, Lancaster bombers, Swordfish torpedo-bombers, etc. I remember the detail of one of the models very well because a school contemporary of mine had received a present of one, and on occasion we would play with the plane. It was a fairly large model (probably a Lancaster bomber) 20in or more wing span I should think with the distinctive red, white, and blue identification markings. It was painted in a khaki hue, dark green, and black I seem to recall, and in a wavy design. It also had the little green and red navigation wing-tip lights, which actually worked, perspex (I think) cockpit, and similarly made revolving gun turrets.

There was, by the way, a rear-gunner on a bomber who came from North Ronaldsay – Flight Sergeant John Thomson, from Howatoft – and that of course made the model even more fascinating. Marion Chester (nee Tulloch, Kirbest) was the owner of this present – I wonder if she still has it? Apart from those rather sophisticated and substantial models from Holland House, there were also a number of small metal ones manufactured by ‘Dinky’ which some of us as individuals had – I suppose they would have been cast in white metal or aluminium, and we would probably have received such toys in our Santa Claus stockings.

They were very neat little models, silver coloured and accurately made. I seem to remember one in particular as it had a twin body with the cockpit section situated in the middle, two joined tail sections, and three-bladed propellers, painted red, that turned easily when one blew on the blades Ð I think it was an American plane (a Lockheed Lightening (P38)) Alastair Henderson (recently retired Lighthouse keeper in North Ronaldsay) and his wife Dorothy, now living in Stromness, tell me.

As well as the ‘Dinky’ planes there were also a range of model naval ships made by the same company, and when we eventually came to live at Antabreck in 1948, I remember finding one of those toys – a destroyer, that had been left forgotten on the ledge above the door in my then new bedroom. I imagine the little model belonged to my cousin Rognvald Scott when he and the rest of the family stayed at Antabreck when it was their home.

You might think that somebody only aged five and less, living in a place so remote from the momentous events that were taking place, would hardly recall much about those war years. Yet there were many things that happened, and many connections that impressed young minds. There was, for instance, the National Geographic magazines which my father used to get from his sister, Mary. She was a teacher in Aberdeen at the time and subsequently taught there for many years. Those magazines had graphic and impressive illustrations of the war activity – encounters on the sea and in the air – apart from pages of photographs.

I’ve just had a look at some which we still have -they take me away back to those times. I remember too, Mary’s sister Bella, who was a nurse working not that far from Aberdeen in the wartime. She used to tell us, in later years, about the ‘poor RAF boys’, as she described them, that were brought into a special hospital dealing with the terrible burns and other injuries that many of them suffered in combat, or when their planes crashed. Then there was always the talk about the great things that were happening. There was the wireless with the latest news, and I remember Sir Harry Lauder singing World War One songs that were still favourites, songs like “It’s a Long way to Tipperary” or “Pack up your Troubles”. Those songs would probably have been recordings since by that time he would have been in his mid-seventies – dying in 1950 aged 80 – but maybe, on the other hand, he still continued to broadcast.

Then there was Lord Haw-Haw, the Nazi broadcaster from Germany, whose voice came over the airwaves with his propaganda. I can’t recall much of him except the talk about his treachery and the ridicule piled upon him by the folk at Cruesbreck. My uncle Bill was particularly incensed with his broadcasts. Anyhow, Lord Haw-Haw (William Joyce) was born in the USA of Irish parents. He was captured at the end of the war, subsequently tried, and executed as a traitor in 1946.

Once a sea-plane landed in Nouster Bay which appeared very big and unusual looking, I thought, as it floated high in the water. And earlier in the war a RAF plane -possibly a Hurricane or Spitfire, made a forced landing in a field north of Antabreck. It was brought to a stop by running into some fencing wire.

I certainly remember the accident being talked about, but at that time Antabreck was not yet our new home. In any case I was too young to remember the actual event. However, the pilot was unhurt and the plane had only suffered a damaged propeller. A spare was sent out and the plane flew back to its base and so lived to fight another day.

When we were at Cruesbreck where our family were living during the war years. I was just thinking that there would have been nine of us actually staying together at the time – my father and mother, brother and sister (another two brothers and a sister were born later) my grandparents, and my two uncles and myself.

One day is especially clear in my mind, as on that day a German plane flew very low over Cruesbreck. We must have heard the plane approaching in time to be able to get outside, and see the huge black coloured bomber roar over the house, and head south in the direction of Sanday, and no doubt on towards Scapa Flow on a raid.

In Sanday one could see the towering, early-warning radar pylons that were so prominent against the skyline, and a relative of mine living there, Mary Anne Fotheringham, tells me that one of the civilians working at this station was killed by a bomb dropped during an enemy raid. Mary Anne also mentioned that in addition to the RAF, the Army had a substantial presence, and the island had its own Home Guard unit made up of upwards of 70 men. In North Ronaldsay, by comparison, there was no Home Guard. There were, however, a number of men who acted as ARPs, and there was a Special Constable, John Tulloch, Hooking, a World War One ex-RNR, who was in charge. There was also a Coastguard unit to keep an eye along the beaches for war-debris, mines, and so on.

A number of mines landed and exploded, or were defused. Such work was carried out by army disposal officers, one of whom had been in North Ronaldsay, was killed while working in another location. And, still on this subject, I also remember hearing about John Tulloch, Purtabreck, another First World War RNR(T), veteran, who had served on the mine-sweeping trawlers of the Northern Patrols. He had actually defused a mine – the rusting remains of which is still in existence at the old home. Those mines that did go off caused windows to break here and there, apart from other damage done close-by. It must have been quite frightening with shrapnel falling well inland – though I do not actually recall hearing the explosions. (Some of my age do.) Pieces of shrapnel were examined, talked about, and regarded with some awe by myself and my school contemporaries.

Another connection with the planes was the target practice carried out by the RAF when they would frequently make mock-attacks round and near the Seal Skerry. Their pilots were shooting mainly at the remains of an old ship’s boiler (Alice Doods, pronounced “Dods” locally, ship-wrecked in 1911) which was prominent on the skerry. It’s still there, but slowly settling as salt, rust, and time takes its toll. A German plane that passed over very early in the war, fired on the wreck of the Hansi (Norwegian cargo boat loaded with wood-pulp) thinking it to be a worthwhile target. At that time the Hansi had not been long ashore below Scottigar, where she had drifted after having been holed on the Reef Dyke in 1939.

In later creeling years, when we were working from the Noust of Sandbank in the sixties, we used to occasionally lay up our ‘Sea-Gull’ outboards for protection in one of the wheel-house sections that had come ashore by that time. One could see the impressive damage of the German’s attack, and British plane’s target practice, evident by the many holes torn savagely into the iron. But one of the results of the sweeping practice-raids by the British planes was the dropping of spent cartridges (and clips) – mostly at the north end of the island. Empty cartridges such as the 20mm cannon shells falling from a height would have been fairly dangerous – for example, one landed in a fishing boat on shore and went through the bottom of the boat, I’m told. Many of the discarded brass cartridges were collected and polished, and there were very few houses that did not have them as ornaments on their mantelpieces.

Even after the war I remember finding odd cartridges round Antabreck, and some are still to be seen in an island home or two. In fact I’m looking at two different sized ones at the moment. They have the dates 1941 and 1942 stamped on the bottom, and also the calibre information .50 and 20 mm. There was a smaller cartridge, a .303, – the smaller calibre were machine-gun ammunition, with the 20mm being a cannon shell fired on the same principle.

Added to those mixed recollections are many others like: the compulsory black-out blinds for windows, which prevented any light from being seen from the air by enemy planes at night. The fixing for the rollers remains in some houses – for instance, they are still to be seen in almost every room in Antabreck; ration books for clothing, food etc. – maybe not such a hardship in an island context, since North Ronaldsay, at that time, would have been almost self-sufficient. I do remember though our folk receiving fruit, dates, very rich cakes full of currants, etc. from relations in Canada; then there was the bottles of cod-liver oil and concentrated orange juice -spoonfuls of which we young folk had to take – one after the other with the unpleasant one being taken first; gas-masks which we were supposed to carry to school every day, and the special much larger, and quite sophisticated ones, which I think young babies could actually be enclosed within. They had a form of air-pump to supply air; felt blinds being put up in the Memorial Hall when evening functions were on – they are still to the fore and used for slide or film shows on occasion. And such chores as byre work at night had to be carried out with the minimum of light – indeed flashlights were forbidden and those responsible for this law were on the look-out. John Tulloch, who was, as I mentioned earlier, a Special Constable, acting under strict orders, was said to have been particularly vigilant in this respect having been known to knock the flashlight from out of the hands of more than one offender.

Well, those are some of my few war-time memories with bits and pieces added for interest. They are the recollections of a four or five-year-old living in a fairly isolated island, with a population at that time in the region of upwards of 270, and with a school attendance at the end of the war of around 36. Today the school role is 30 less and the population is at least minus 200.

During the time that I have been writing and cross checking this relatively short account, many stories and other interesting information have come to light. For instance, Jimmy Thomson, formerly of Nether Linnay, aged seven at the time, tells me that he actually saw the helmeted face of a gunner seemingly looking at him from a German plane. This was during the attack on the Hansi mentioned above when the plane concerned flew very low over his home as it approached its target. Or salvage work on the Hansi and the grounding and total loss of another Norwegian ship called the Mim about a week earlier etc. But such additional material is too long for this particular letter.

I should perhaps mention though – thinking about ‘isolation’ referred to above – that during those times there was a passenger plane-service which had operated twice a day, three times a week, from 1934/35 until 1939, but then reduced to only intermittent, mostly emergency flights, during the war. This service was operated by Captain E. E. Fresson OBE – one of the pioneers of British Airways. He had, in addition to establishing the North of Scotland and North Isles air-service, just begun carrying the Royal Mail to the North Isles in 1939, but this was discontinued at the outbreak of hostilities. It would be nearly twenty years later, in 1967, before Loganair restored that combined service.

An island boat with an inboard engine, known as the Post-boat, made the Royal Mail and passenger connection to Sanday – a six-mile, hour or more long, open-boat journey, and the main steamer sailing’s between Kirkwall and the island would have been once every two weeks – though often it was much longer between. Such connections were dependant on weather, and in those earlier years there is no doubt that the winters were more severe. Snow with huge drifts was not uncommon when we were going to school in the forties, and often, even if the steamer reached North Ronaldsay, the pier could not be berthed. Incidentally, I also remember a tarpaulin covered gun up for’ard on either the Sigurd or the Thorfinn – maybe on both.

Here I am at last bringing this letter to a close and thinking back to the two little coloured lights in my bedroom with which I began this letter. Sometimes, but very seldom nowadays, I might hear the sound at night of one of those older type propeller-driven planes. If such an occasion arises I’m up and outside in an instant searching the dark skies for the little red and green lights – looking just a ‘peedie’ bit ahead of the far-away droning of the engines. I have heard them a few times but less and less as the years pass. And when I do, and when I identify those magic lights among the stars, that trace once again the war-time paths of long gone airmen, and light up the navigation buttons of the mind – there seems to be a feeling of lost times that pervades ones thoughts – a certain nostalgia – a kind of sadness maybe, that comes and goes like the Northern Lights. The old Eskimos used to believe that this phenomenon of the shimmering lights was the souls of their dead dancing in the sky. Perhaps they do, and perhaps once in a while the lost aircrews will join with them to dance in skies still twinkling with the stars of memory.