Until I read Trevor Royle’s latest book, A Time of Tyrants, I’d almost forgotten how much my own family had been involved in World War Two. I had one cousin who navigated Lancaster bombers over Germany, another who fought his way up Italy with the Highland Light Infantry, another who manned a tank landing craft on D-Day, and yet another who was a gunner with the British/Indian army which hounded the Japanese out of Burma. A more distant cousin (with the same name as myself) was a paratrooper with the US 101st Airborne and dropped into Normandy behind the German lines. My father spent his war on a lightship perched on the edge of minefield at the mouth of the River Clyde in danger of being run down by troop ships or being attacked by U-boats.
The large number of Rosie relatives involved in the war effort, as Royle makes clear, was not unusual. It was probably the norm. World War Two was nothing if not inclusive. Just about every family in Scot-land had much the same story to tell, of (usually) male relatives serving in strange corners of Europe, Asia and Africa or on the Atlantic while the folk they left at home lived under the threat of German bombs. That threat was pretty remote on the northern edge of Edinburgh, but I do have a memory of hearing air-raid sirens and spending time with my mother in one of the air-raid shelters that sat in front of our tenement in the Lower Granton Road.
There have been wars since, of course. In the 66 years since WWII ground to a halt thousands of Scots servicemen and women have risked life and limb in a string of conflicts: Palestine, Malaya, Korea, Suez, Cyprus, Aden, Kenya, Yemen, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq (twice) and Afghanistan. Many were killed or maimed while the rest of us watched at a safe distance. But the six years of WWII were different. That was a time when we really were “all in it together”.
And that, it seems to me, is the great strength of Royle’s book. Where most ‘general-reader’ accounts of WWII lean heavily on military events, Royle pays almost as much attention to what was going on in the homes, factories, farms, and offices of Scot-land. The two strands of his narrative are interwoven, as they were at the time. Servicemen in the field worried almost as much about families and friends at home as families worried about sons and daughters on the various fronts. Whether on the home front or a foreign theatre of war, you were potentially in danger.
Royle makes excellent use of official archives (from Edinburgh and London) to peer into just about every facet of Scotland at war: how the government was organised; MI5’s misgivings about Scottish Nationalists; the huge swathes of the country that were used to train commandos, spies and saboteurs; the performance of our crucial shipbuilding and engineering industries; the role of the “land girls” (farm workers) and the “Lumber Jills” (forestry workers); the regime of the (now) legendary Secretary of State for Scotland, Tom Johnston; even the poetry written by wartime makars.
He does a good job of reminding us how quickly the war came to Scotland. The first British ship to be sunk by a U-boat was the Glasgow-registered liner Athenia en route from the Clyde to Montreal, torpedoed on the day that war was declared. The first Ger-man aircraft to be shot down over British territorial waters was a Dornier flying boat which ran into trouble 20 miles off Aberdeen. The first victory for an RAF Spitfire was over East Lothian in October 1939. But that same month the Royal Navy suffered its first major blow when a U-boat crept into Scapa Flow, found its way through the block ships and sank the battleship Royal Oak, killing more than 800 seamen. They were the opening shots in a war that was to touch everyone in Britain.
One of the most interesting chapters in Royle’s book is the one entitled `Sikorski (and other) Tourists’ about the presence of foreign troops in Scotland. By far the biggest contingent was Poles, 120,000 of whom escaped the German invasion to make their way to Britain. Most were posted to Scotland where they manned the coastal defences around Fife, Angus and Kincardineshire. Many of them married Scots girls and are still here. There was also a large contingent of Norwegians, a few thousand Americans, and growing numbers of Italian and German prisoners of war. The POWs were held in 45 camps scattered around Scotland, the most notorious of which were the two “black” camps at Watten in Caithness and Comrie in Perthshire. These housed the hard-case Nazis, mostly SS men, U-boat crews and paratroopers. (As a seven-year-old I got know a few of them in my aunt’s washhouse in Wick where she used to ply them with tea and sandwiches).
It’s no criticism of Royle to say that most of the great military episodes he describes are well enough known: the so called ‘phoney war’ before the Germans struck; the rout of the British regiments in France and the capture of the 51st Highland Division at St. Valery; the airborne heroics of the Scots fighter squadrons posted south for the Battle of Britain; the battles that turned the tide against the Germans in North Africa; the invasion of Sicily and then Italy and the slog up the peninsula; the Normandy landings in June 1944 followed by the savage encounters in northern France and the Low Countries as the Allies ground their way toward Berlin; the hunting of the Japanese through the forests and paddy fields of southeast Asia until the Americans atom-bombed them into surrender.
Having said that, Royle has uncovered some telling fragments from regimental war diaries and personal letters. Here’s Second Lieutenant Donald Ritchie of the Gordon Highlanders having to surrender at St. Valery. ‘I was completely overcome by emotion. Tears rolled down my cheeks…. I’ll never forget platoon sergeant Herbie For-syth giving me a wallop on the back and a bottle of brandy to swig from and saying “It’s not your fault, sir.” It was a terrible thing and we were completely unprepared.’ But five years on, and in another part of the world, an armoured unit of the Gordon Highlanders was still fighting ‘and to their men falls the honour of being the last armoured regiment to come out of action in the war against the Japanese in Burma’.
They were the opening shots in a war that was to kill an estimated 26,000 Scots servicemen and women plus another 2,500 civilians. This makes a total of around 28,500 dead or just under 9 percent of the 320,000 British body count. Compared to the butcher’s bill that we were handed in World War One, the Scottish casualty figures, while bad enough, were relatively light. And as the English and Welsh cities took the brunt of the German bombing raids (Lon-don was blitzed 72 times) the proportion of Scottish civilian deaths was only 4.2 percent of the British total.
The worst that Scottish civilians suffered from German aircraft came on the nights of the 13th and 14th March, 1941 when waves of Luftwaffe bombers attacked Clydeside. They killed more than 1,000 people, injured another 3,000, destroyed or badly damaged around 12,000 houses and swamped the emergency services. Royle quotes an ofﬁ-cial report on Clydebank which records that ‘by the evening of Saturday the 15th March probably more than 40,000 persons or more than two thirds of the population had left the town. They left, however, in a quiet and orderly manner.’
These bombing raids inﬂicted ‘a huge radius of damage which stretched from Bar-head in the south to Balloch in the north-west and Cumbernauld in the east’. Police, ﬁre services, ambulance crews, and especially hospitals were overstretched to the point of breakdown those nights on Clydeside. A few weeks later it was Greenock’s turn to suffer, although casualties were much lighter and the emergency services were prepared. The death rate might have been much worse had it not been for the intervention of a squadron of night ﬁghters from Ayr which panicked some German ﬂyers into dropping bombs too soon and a dummy built-up area around Loch Thom in the hills behind the town.
One of the many things I liked about Royle’s book is that he makes no extravagant claims for the Scots. He never suggests, as popular historians are prone to do, that we were somehow braver, better, more warlike, more tenacious, more enduring than anyone else. We had our heroes, it’s true, but we also had our share of weaklings. Most of the folk involved in that war were ordinary people who just put their heads down, did their best, and hoped to come out the other side.
The traces of that war lasted long after the fighting had stopped. In a primary school playing field near us sat a collection of Nissen huts and timber sheds called Lochin-var Camp. Well into the 1950s that dismal place housed Scots families and DPs (displaced persons) who had nowhere else to go. There were four such camps in Edinburgh. Like most kids in Granton I spent a lot of time roaming the shoreline, but under strict parental instructions not to touch anything metal that could be an unexploded mine. As a nine-year-old my pride and joy was 9mm Luger handgun (minus the magazine) that my father had brought back from somewhere. My little brother took it out to play cowboys and lost it.
I only have one criticism. I’d like to have read more about the men who manned Britain’s wartime merchant ships. Their casualty rate was awful and their working conditions were a disgrace; when a merchant ship was torpedoed the crew’s wages were stopped that very day. And no British shipping line suffered more than the Scottish Clan Line. On the Merchant Marine memorial on Tower Hill in London there’s a list of all the Clan ships that were sunk; Buchanan, Campbell, Ferguson, Forbes, Fraser, Macarthur, Macdougall, Macfadyen, Macfarlane, Macinver, Mackinlay, Macnab, Macphee, Macquarrie, Mactavish, Menzies, Monroe, Ogilvy. Eighteen ships, all from the same shipping line.
But that’s a minor complaint about what is a fine piece of work by an author and historian whose authority grows with every book. A Time of Tyrants is a handsome addition to Trevor Royle’s canon and a fitting sequel to his book on Scotland’s role in World War One, The Flowers of the Forest. As a one-volume history of six extraordinary years in Scotland’s history I don’t think it could be bettered.
A TIME OF TYRANTS – SCOTLAND AND THE SECOND WORLD WAR
BIRLINN £25.00 416PP ISBN 978-1843410553