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Issue 31 - On the war path

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 31
February 2007


This article is 11 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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On the war path

Sally Toms picks out a few places to visit in connection with World War II

The most famous period of Scottish history is arguably the era of the Stuart Kings and the ‘45 Jacobite Uprising.

Less romantic but as important, of course, was World War II (1939-45). Widely believed to be the defining event of the 20th century, it shaped Scotland’s history and landscape as much as any other event in the nation’s history. Perhaps more so, because it is still within living memory.

There are numerous WWII sites around Scotland to visit. In almost every town there are memorials to those who fought and died, but there are other physical reminders such as disused airfields, pill boxes, outlook posts and sunken wrecks.

Many visitors to these sites have a personal interest in them; Allied forces from across the world were stationed at various Royal Air Force or Naval fleet bases around Scotland, such as those at Holy Loch and Scapa Flow.

We have selected a few places you can visit to learn about Scotland’s more recent history, and to honour those who died in the defence of their country.

Any World War II trail around Scotland will lead you to Orkney. The Orkney Islands had the largest concentration of air and sea defences in the British Isles, many of which have survived to the present day.

The natural harbour at Scapa Flow has been used as a major Naval fleet base since the First World War. The islands’ location meant it was easy to deploy ships containing supplies and agents to and from German occupied Norway. The base, known as HMS Prosperine, was decommissioned in 1965, but in WWII many thousands of troops were stationed here.

But it was no secret to the Nazis, and therefore became the focus of attack. In fact, the first civilian casualties of the war were a result of a German bombing in 1940.

Due to the vulnerability of the surface oil storage tanks it was decided, in 1939, to construct underground storage tanks, and highly skilled Norwegian miners were employed to work on this massive excavation. The size and extent of this storage network is truly one of the wonders of World War II, and there are plans to open them up eventually as a visitor attraction.

Today, the Lyness Interpretation Centre on Hoy interprets the experience of Orkney during World War II. Situated in the former naval fuel pumping station and a converted storage tank, the exhibits include a large 3D representation of the island, as well as a fascinating outside collection of military equipment such as vehicles and guns.

Hoy is accessible by local ferry several times daily. The Centre has catering facilities for day trippers and is open all year from 0900-1630, and from May to September 1030-1600.

During both World Wars the defence of Scapa Flow became of vital and strategic importance. Its submarine defences were simplistic; World War I block ships (exhausted merchant vessels) were scuttled in the shallows in 1914, and are visible to this day, but they proved an inadequate protection against the U-Boats of 1939.

On 14 October, U-47 took advantage of a high tide to get past the blockships and into Scapa Flow. It torpedoed HMS Royal Oak before leaving the way it had entered. More than 800 members of the Royal Oak’s crew were killed. It was clear that defences needed to be stepped up.

Work began on the Barriers in 1940. They were stone and concrete constructions linking the South Isles on the eastern side of Scapa Flow, and were intended to further protect this harbour from enemy submarines.

More than 1300 Italian POWs were used to build the barriers.

Prisoners-of-war were prevented from working on military projects by the Geneva Convention, so officially the barriers were causeways linking the southern parishes. They are still used as roads today.

They stretch 2.3km and entailed the manufacture of some 66,000 concrete blocks, weighing up to 10 tons each.

One of the most popular sites to visit is the Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm.

Italian prisoners-of-war, captured in North Africa, were stationed on Orkney between 1942 and 1945 to help with the building of the Churchill Barriers.

In 1943, a long Nissen hut was provided for the prisoners of Camp 60, which they converted into a small, ornate chapel. The corrugated iron was lined with plasterboard and painted to appear like brick and carved marble. An altar was cast in concrete (not in short supply when building the barriers).

A POW named Domenico Chiocchetti painted most of the frescos inside the chapel from a picture on a card he kept throughout the war, including the Madonna and Child behind the altar, and a white dove with the symbols of the four Evangelists around it.

Outside, a concrete facade was erected with an archway and pillars to conceal the familiar shape of the hut. A belfry was mounted on top and a moulded head of Christ was placed on the front of the arch.

It was still not fully finished when most of the Italians left the island early in 1945, and Chiocchetti stayed behind to finish it.

The effect is stunning. It must have been even more poignant for the POWs, in the midst of war-torn Europe and incarcerated on an enemy land.

The Italian Chapel attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year, and is a fitting memorial to those lost in wartime.

Nearby is a statue of St George constructed from barbed wire coated in concrete, also made by the resourceful prisoners.

Many of the war’s most important reminders lie under water. Diving in cold, murky waters around Scotland’s coast may not appeal to everyone, but Orkney’s wrecks are regarded as world class. An entire German fleet was scuttled in Scapa Flow in 1919, and parts of the the sea bed are littered with wrecks including U-Boats from WWII.

The best wrecks are not exclusive to Scapa, however.

The Breda, just off the coast of Oban, is a popular dive. ADutch cargo ship which fell victim to the German bombers, she went down with a full cargo which means that there is lots of treasure still to be found on the seabed.

On the west coast of Scotland, the minelayer HMS Port Napier went down in 1940 in the Kyle of Lochalsh after a fire broke out on board. Again, it is a relatively easy dive with a maximum depth of 21 metres.

Wreck-diving can be dangerous and many are unsuitable for beginners, so it is best to go with a reputable tour company.

Not all Scotland’s World War II wrecks are of the marine variety, to this day people visit the sites of downed aircraft, still strewn with wreckage and marked by memorial plaques, such as that on Ben Edra.

In 1945, a brand new B-17 Flying Fortress was being flown in from the USA when it collided with the mountain in thick cloud.

Local people rushed to the scene, but the American crew perished. A substantial amount of debris remains at the site including the landing gear, aluminium skin, engines and turbochargers.

Scores of aircraft met a similar fate.

Another such crash killed HRH the Duke of Kent, brother of the King George VI.

There is not actually much to see in this field near Glasgow, but it is worth visiting because of its peculiarity.Amemorial stone marks the spot where Rudolph Hess, Hitler’s deputy, parachuted into Scotland on May 10, 1941.

He was apprehended by the Home Guard, who probably couldn’t believe their luck. In one newsreel clip, farmer David McLean claims to have arrested Hess with his pitchfork.

Hess demanded to go to Duke of Hamilton; he had hoped that by connecting with Britain’s aristocracy he would be able to get round Churchill and negotiate peace.

Hitler responded by declaring Hess insane and immediately disowned him.

Hess was imprisoned for the rest of the war (for a time at the Tower of London) and eventually tried at Nuremburg.

Hess left a trail round Scotland rather like that of Mary Queen of Scots, numerous sites claim ‘Hess was here.’ A memorial stone was placed to mark the exact spot where Hess landed, but it has since been subject to attacks and vandalism.

At Spean Bridge in the Western Highlands, where the main A82 crests the hill, you will find the dramatically imposing Commando Memorial.

Three gigantic bronze figures in battledress commemorate the many members of the elite Commando units which trained in the area during the war.

The 17 foot high memorial was designed by Scott Sutherland from Dundee College of Art in 1949, and unveiled by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 1952.

The Commando training centred on the Achnacarry estate, home of the Camerons of Locheil, though nearly all the big houses in Lochaber were taken over for the purpose. Many American, French, Belgian, Norwegian, Polish and Dutch troops were trained in the area, the Highland landscape lending itself perfectly to their rigorous training. One of the exercises involved reaching the summit of Ben Nevis (4,406 feet), only an 18 mile run from Achnacarry, while the lochs and rivers were used to acquire skills in handling small boats and to practice assault landings.

The commandos went on to play a vital role in WWII, including the invasion of France on June 6th 1942 (D-Day).

Because of the sensitive nature of the Commando training, the Government banned people from visiting much of Lochaber. In fact, nobody could cross the Caledonian Canal unless they lived beyond it, or had a special pass.

Today, hundreds of veteran Commandos make the annual pilgrimage to attend the annual Service of Remembrance held at the memorial in November. There are photographs and other memorabilia on display at the Commando Exhibition in the nearby Spean Bridge Hotel. There is also a Commando Trail, which takes in many of the locations used during training.


Moving farther south, there are several museums that have exhibitions about World War II. In the magnificent setting of Edinburgh Castle, you can experience all of Scotland’s military history under one roof at the National War Museum.

Open daily from April to October 09:45- 17:45, November to March 09:45-16:45, closed on December 25 and 26. Entry to the museum is included with admission to Edinburgh Castle, which is priced at £10.30.

The classrooms at Scotland Street School Museum in Glasgow recreated various periods throughout history.

The World War II classroom features gas masks on desks and evacuation checklists on the blackboard, and is a poignant reminder of how the war affected children as well as soldiers.

At the onset of hostilities, many pupils from this school were evacuated to the Ayrshire countryside, whilst those who remained attended on a part-time basis only, with lessons often interrupted by gas mask drills and visits to the air raid shelter.

The museum is open from April to September: Monday to Thursday and Saturday 10:00 to 17:00, Friday and Sunday 11:00 to 17:00. Admission is free.

This museum is housed in the original World War II, hangars and buildings of East Fortne airfield in East Lothian. It is the most complete airfield still existing.

Its hangers are filled with planes charting the history of flight across the 20th century, including many World War II aircraft and even one of the engines from Hess’s downed Messerschmit.

Open daily from April to June 10:00-17:00; July and August 10:00-18:00; September and October 10:00-17:00; and weekends only from November to March 10:00-16:00.

Admission is priced at £5.


Spean Bridge Hotel
Spean Bridge, by Fort William, Inverness-shire, PH34 4ES
Tel: +44 (0)1397 712 250

The Lyness Interpretation Centre Hoy, Orkney
Tel: +44 (0)1856 791 300

Scotland Street School Museum
225 Scotland Street, Glasgow, G5 8QB
Tel: +44 (0)141 287 0500

National Museum of Flight East Fortune Airfield, East Lothian, EH39 5LF
Tel: +44 (0)1620 897 240

National War Museum Edinburgh Castle, Edinburgh, EH1 2NG
Tel: +44 (0)131 2474 413