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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin


Hetty Munro's War Diaries
(by Elizabeth Rintoul)

The following extracts from the War Diary of the late Henrietta Munro of Thurso come from the North Highland Archive in the Wick Museum and are published with their permission.


2nd November 1939
I suppose I really should have started this sort of diary earlier, but (the) good intentions which I had went the way of that kind of thing and it is only now that I have started to write some sort of impressions of things and rumours that have interested me since this mess began in September.

When War broke out I was in bed. 1 had been rather ill and was at the stage of getting up for a few hours per day, so at 11 o'clock that Sunday morning I was lying in bed waiting for the fateful announcement which we all expected and which even so was such a shock when it came. The rain was lashing against the windows and it was just about the most depressing weather that one could wish for. Yet, in spite of that, after hearing the Prime Minister announce that Britain was at war with Germany one had a feeling of relief almost. That sounds rather a dreadful thing to say about a War, but I think quite a number of people felt the same way. For days after that the wireless set was never turned off and one listened to all kinds of news and announcements not that they meant anything to anyone except the people in the areas concerned, but still one listened as if to find comfort from the calm voice of the announcer, or perhaps because we were living in a small northern town rather far from the centre of things at that moment, but a place we knew would be very much in the heart of things if and when the War really started. Between times we listened to gramophone records and one of the clearer memories of this time is a record of someone singing "0 Peaceful England". That record came on three times during the first week of the war and seemed rather out of place.

Of course, even before the actual war started, our small town was full of sailors and soldiers, passing through to Scapa and also before the war actually started most of the local regiments and batteries were called up along with the reserves. I rather missed seeing things as I was still an invalid, but one day 1 was out on a short walk and met someone whose husband had just gone to France. That, although I hardly knew her or her husband, I think brought home to me more than anything the fact that we are again at war with Germany. I was at home for about three weeks after the war was declared and of course all sorts of rumours were going around the place. We were capturing one submarine every day at least and always we captured them just inside the Bay; we had captured a submarine refuelling a ship plus a submarine crew and submarine, altogether also in the Bay - and so on until it became almost a joke.

At this time one of my illusions about War was shattered. One had heard so much about air raids, falling buildings and general confusion that my impression was that as soon as war was declared the sky would immediately become black with aeroplanes raining bombs down on defenceless people. As it was, nothing happened for so long that when I saw my first air raid I was not a bit frightened, but only interested.
On the 19th September I was pronounced well enough to go over to Orkney to recuperate. At least I could not travel very far and that seemed the best place to go. When I suggested to the doctor that I should go there he was absolutely horrified and said that I would probably be bombed to bits and if not bombed, certainly shelled as just about that time all the guns in Orkney had suddenly let fly at the first machine they had seen since the War began and in consequence most of the island was covered with splinters and some of the gardens in Finstown had had large unexploded shells in them. Stennes Hotel itself where I was going to live had a large shell fly over the roof and come to earth in the field next to the hotel. All this did not for some unknown reason worry me at all and on Tuesday September 19th I flew over the Pentland Firth to the Islands.

The only difference between that flight and the usual ones was that Scapa Flow had become a prohibited area and that now we flew over the Firth all the way and round by the Old Man of Hoy. Below us we saw a large battleship with an escort of destroyers steaming her way through the Firth. Apart from that there might never have been a War and we arrived in Howe without any further incident. When I got to the Hotel I knew there was something on. Nearly everyone had uniform on and I was quite glad of my A.T.S. badge. People had talked about this uniform complex before, but I had never realised that I myself would become a victim of it. But now I found myself going around asking people the name of their regiment and wondering that people in civilian clothes were not joining up.

Of course the gossip on this side was rumour as well as on the other side of the water, with the difference that some of it might be fact as it came from wardrooms and messes. Some of the Fleet Air Arm were staying at the hotel and they used to tell us every night what they had seen on the dawn and dusk patrols. Sometimes they thought they had a submarine, sometimes the wind was so high that the 'plane had nearly turned over: Once it was very exciting as they came back to say that they had shelled a submarine and got her or were almost certain that they had got her periscope. And the best time of all was when they came to say that they really had got a whacking big German ship with her entire crew and a terrific cargo. We went over to Kirkwall to see her and there she lay, a huge ship, painted black with a white superstructure right at the innermost end of the entire contraband fleet numbering about 30. The numbers in the harbour varied from 30 to 44 and on a sunny day it was a most impressive sight.

Life went leisurely on for a week or two and no one knew or cared very much about the war except to listen to the news at night and then to make comments about it. Most of the time we went walking, boating on the loch and motoring around the island. A very pleasant and unusual kind of life for one living in the heart of a naval base for the country.

One heard about one's friends being put here and there and even about some people one knew by name being killed, but still the War did not seem to have started. Arrangements were made for a trip to Flotta by the W.D. boat which was only cancelled because of the weather. Indeed life was even more interesting than usual because of always meeting new people and hearing more interesting gossip than one usually heard over the tea table.

There was some talk about air raid warnings on all the islands in the Flow at different times, but everyone said "oh, false alarms" and took no more notice. One morning I was in Stromness doing shopping when suddenly the car in which I was going home came dashing up to me and whisked me away. There had been an immediate warning given at the Battery but I had never heard it and anyway no one ever saw anything or took any notice of warnings. Why worry?

One day going into Kirkwall we made arrangements as to what we would do if we were caught in air raid but of course no one took them seriously. It was just something to pass the time on the way in.  And then one day we heard about the loss of the Royal Oak. That rather shook us as it happened so near. When we went into Kirkwall we heard stories of all the awful sufferings of the survivors and somehow we began to be shaken a little and think that war must be very near if a German submarine could penetrate the confines of Scapa Flow. But none of the drowned were known to us very well and the whole thing was like a very bad accident or illness. It was so great a tragedy that one could hardly feel it much. When one hears of the loss of 800 men it is so much and seems so incredible that the fact really hardly registers.

To go back. I forgot to say that before I left Thurso I saw Winston Churchill pass through on his way to visit the Fleet in Scapa. He was a very fat man and the senior Naval Officers car was very small so poor Winston looked very uncomfortable all tucked up in the back of the car with someone sitting beside him. As he was accompanied by Sir Archibald Sinclair, our local M.P., Caithness felt rather proud and as though they were really doing something to win the War. We hoped to see him pass back but he flew down to Invergordon in a big bomber which we saw pass overhead on the following day.

Another distinguished personage who passed up here just before the sinking of the Royal Oak was his Majesty King George VI. We heard that there was a "very high up person" coming to Scapa one Saturday but could not find out any more about it than that. We tried all the Army officers and no one knew anything. Then all of a sudden we met a local lady on the street in Kirkwall and she told us all about the whole visit. Apparently the Town Crier had gone out that morning and told the entire population the exact route of the King's car and all the times and everything.

We went down to the foot of Scapa Road and watched the procession of cars pass. I thought the King looked very well indeed but it must have been an awful strain for the Naval authorities at Kirkwall to have him there just in the middle of the War with no one knowing when the bombs were going to fall. Certainly they never had fallen at that time but one never knew how marvellous the Intelligence Service of the Germans was and they might quite conceivably have known that the King was to visit the Fleet, although it was kept very dark and Mother in Thurso said that no one hardly knew when he was going through except the Specials and one or two officials. When he was coming back through everyone knew and gave him a great reception. In Kirkwall everyone knew and all the shops were shut so that the whole population had a good view of the procession such as it was.

After the King had passed we went back to the car and the officer whom I was with was stopped by a small fat clergyman who asked him all about his regiment etc. He said his name was "Clayton" and immediately "Tubby" flashed into the minds of both of us. And it was. The great Tubby Clayton himself had been sent to Orkney to open a hall for Toc "H" and to keep the troops cheery. With characteristic "Tubbyness" he told us that the War Office would not let him go to France but that he was going to buy a bottle of hair dye next time and he was sure that he would deceive them with it! And this from an old man of about 70 -I think, although he certainly did not look that age. I have seen him several times since then and always he was so charming and full of humour. He knows the Orkneys inside out and has lots of marvellous tales to tell of the islands. Last time I saw him was a few nights ago at dinner when he tried to inveigle us all to come to a Church sale of work in Finstown to raise �40 for the Church fund. Perhaps we will go if I am off duty in time. Another time he brought his batman - who accompanies him everywhere into the Hotel for lunch as a celebration for his birthday. Very characteristic also. He is a very broad minded man and I don't wonder that all the troops love him and think there is no one like him. When you see him in Kirkwall he goes up and stops and talks to everyone in uniform and becomes friends with them immediately.

And then quite unexpectedly the war started to make its presence felt. One day we heard that there had been an air raid warning in Kirkwall and that the drone of enemy machines had been heard. The next day it happened. Early in the morning of that Tuesday we heard gun fire out of the Firth and one of the ladies who was staying at the Hotel was out for a walk on the Orphir Road and saw a German machine fall onto Hoy in flames. All the time the sky was full of puffs of smoke from the guns and we heard another German machines was brought down along with the first one. That night we believe all the batteries and 11 ships which had been firing celebrated the fact that they had brought down the German machine although no one really knew who had done it. And still we were not afraid.

I don't know why and can't explain it but I can honestly say that I wasn't a bit frightened and I am a very scared person. Nothing of the brave in face of danger about me. I'm usually absolutely terrified of the darkness and I cannot begin to explain why it was that I was not frightened of this raid, I think a lot of my fearlessness was due to the fact that I was outside and saw all that was happening because I am sure that if I were shut up in an air raid shelter I should be very scared. Just after lunch that day I was walking in the garden when a large black bomber came over flying very low and with its engines making a bumpy sound as if there was something the matter with them. She was carrying no bombs and seemed intent only on getting home as fast as possible. Just as she passed over the Hotel the sound of the engines changed and she suddenly shot up into the air very rapidly and made off in the direction of Holm, but we heard later that she had been seen over Holm flying very low and sputtering badly and when we heard next day that one machine's crew had been picked up in the North Sea in a collapsible boat we thought it might be the same machine, although there was no confirmation of this.

The following day or maybe it was the one after that, the Germans again came over but were stopped at Wick, although that afternoon a lone machine came over the island flying at a great height. We could not see her from the loch where we were at the time but we could hear her and the guns firing. Indeed the puffs of smoke in the clear blue sky all around the sun looked most beautiful although that sounds a horrid thing to say about a war but it really was lovely and as the machine got safely away I suppose I can say it was a beautiful sight. As for us we never moved off the loch where we were bailing the boat but just stayed there looking up at the puffs of smoke and thinking how lovely the world would be if only men stopped having wars.

That night relatives of everyone  in the Hotel were on the phone enquiring about our welfare and all very worried. They thought we were quite quite mad when we said we really had enjoyed the raids.
Since then we have had several false alarms but no more machines have been seen except lone reconnaissance ones which one only really heard but did not see.
One night we had to do the National Registration Forms and had quite a lot of fun with all the people staying at the Hotel. All very confidential about their ages etc. as if I was interested! Soon after this we got our identity cards which we were supposed to carry around with us everywhere and now we hear that rationing is to start quite soon.

Of course we are quite used to machines flying over all the time as the hotel is practically in the line that they all use and now we never even look up unless it is to see one of the Spitfires that arrived recently. One day 1 saw a Spitfire and another bigger machine come along and the wee machine was making circles around the big one - just playing with themselves I expect or maybe they were practising something or other but whatever it was it looked pretty good in the clear sky.

When those baby machines pass overhead they go so fast that you can hardly see them at all - at least in comparison to the big ones.

Soon after all this 1 heard that my companions in the A.T.S. were coming over to Stromness to work and I decided that it was time that I, too, should start to type again so about the end of October I hied my way over the Firth on a very blowy day and managed to get myself passed fit by two doctors, my uniform altered to fit me in the places where it didn't, see most of my friends, pacify my relatives and go to the hairdresser once, the pictures twice and the Bank once -all in the space of two days and then betook myself back to Orkney by plane on one of the worst days that I have ever seen - we took 35 minutes to go over instead of 15. Of course this time I was in uniform too, and felt quite at home amongst all the people I knew.

The following day I started work in the Stromness Hotel with a very considerate boss who explained all the odd things one does in the Army and why it is done. The first few days were rather odd but we soon settled down.

Just after we started to work here the parachute scare came. Someone got the idea in the War Office that the Germans would land men by parachute or by sea in the Orkneys and all of a sudden one Saturday night we were set to do a terrific lot of operations orders covering the islands with troops in small bunches in case Jerry landed by parachute. The "Scotsman" wrote the matter up in a leading article and altogether a good time was had by all for a few days and now the place is covered with bunches of men billeted in the awfullest places. We hear of one man who took pneumonia and he was in a hen house and when the doctor came there was a new laid egg at his head. Still I suppose things might have been worse but how much worse no one knows. Anyway here we all are still waiting for the parachutes and the man. The local farmers think that they should make easy targets as they glide down but somehow or other I don't think they can land in enough numbers to do harm. Still one never knows.

And now here we are settled down to work with the Army and hoping that the Army will be left in Orkney for a long time, the during if possible as there are lots of worse places that one could be in during the War - or at least I think so.

17th March 1940
Well, I certainly do not have the excuse this time that I have nothing to write about as we have just been involved in the first land air raid of the War.

As we were sitting at dinner on the Saturday night we heard the noise of planes overhead. We thought they were Huns and then when we heard the guns we were sure of it. Of course we never thought of bombs being dropped as, after all, the Germans had never done that kind of thing before so we calmly went on eating. A few moments afterwards we went into the sifting room to have coffee and I was left there alone for a little time with my companion. Major Mansell, he went upstairs to prepare his room for the guests he was expecting that night for a dance. Just after he had gone we went out of the door to see the shooting. It was rather lovely seeing all the lights in the sky, like lots of rockets going off at once. The Fleet were all in Scapa and we gathered that some of their guns were firing. However it was very cold so we went back to the fire.

Just after I had gone back into the sittingroom the most dreadful sound was heard. One would think that huge iron bails were bouncing off the roof. This happened four times in succession, then another four times and then three times. Just after the first bangs we all rushed into the front hail. No one knew really what had happened but from the front door we saw that two incendiary bombs fail a few hundred yards away in a field and then a small fire started in a rickyard about the same place. By this time the sky was full of searchlights and bursting shells and we were made to keep away from the doors and windows. Alter the last salvo of three bombs no more were dropped and we went outside again. We could still hear the guns and see the searchlights and bursting shells but the sound of the aeroplanes had gone. There was a huge fire lighting up the sky in the direction of Stromness and some smaller ones nearer. The officers went to Stromness on duty but some of the Navy ones went to put out the small fire near the hotel. When they came back they said that at least one civilian had been wounded in the leg and there were reports of some people coming down by parachute. Alter this the Navy would not take the girls with them but hunted around for revolvers, rifles etc. and went away in the direction of the flames at Stromness.

While Major Mansell was dashing to Stromness to report, he, by good luck, completely missed a large shell hole in the road. He ought to have gone right into it but he never saw it. But after that he went head on into a despatch rider and gave the car and the bicycle a nasty jolt.

By this time there were all sorts of stories going about. Two people had been killed, Stromness was in flames, Hatston was bombed, ships were hit etc. etc. so no one knew what to believe. However soon after the people came back from Stromness and reported that it had not been touched but that some people had been injured at the Bridge of Waith and it was thought that one man had been killed. This was later confirmed some cottages had been damaged but only one badly hit and some small incendiary bombs had been dropped on the edge of Hatston.

No one of course thought about there being any dance at all but to everyone's surprise people began to come along about 9.30 and we had a grand time dancing until very late. It was just the thing one needed to make one forget the horrid noises.

At the dance, Major Hall told me that when he heard about the raid in Stromness he dashed to report at his H.Q. in Kirkwall. As he was going along the roared he was watching the firing in the Flow and thinking what a grand sight it was but just as he passed the Bridge of Waith the bombs began to drop and as he said himself he put his foot on the accelerator and made straight for Kirkwall without thinking any more about the lovely sight.
The padre said that he had been at Tankerness House in Kirkwall and some shrapnel fell in the next garden and they had seen three German planes over the town, two high but one very low. Luckily she had no bombs.
Captain Garden who had been on his way from Kirkwall to Stenness for the dance had to stop on the road and get into the ditch while it was going on.

The fighters went up from Hatston and Wick but eventually there were so many planes in the sky that no one knew which was friend or foe so they all came down again.

One of the curious things about the raid was that we saw the aeroplanes overhead just before the sound of the bombs dropping was heard and the experts said that the bombs must have been released as the plane was over Stromness so that the sound of the plane was heard before the sound of the bombs it had dropped.

The next day as we were going to work, we saw the damaged cottages. All of them had their windows smashed but only one had been hit. The man who was killed was standing at the door of the cottage opposite to the one that was hit and some shrapnel entered his head. There was a woman in the house that was hit but she only had a flesh wound on her back. Altogether there were 19 craters within a couple of hundred yards radius of the Bridge and lots of unexploded bombs were found round about. It was estimated that about 100 bombs were dropped altogether. All the telephone wires were down and one battleship was hit but not badly damaged, although seven people were killed.

Of course, it has been the one topic of conversation ever since and all sorts of stories are still going around although the wireless story was very accurate and very true.

All day yesterday people were flocking to the spot to collect bits of the bombs and there were so many that mostly everybody has a bit or two.

Well, at least it was an experience and while one cannot truthfully say that one enjoyed that actual raid, no one seemed to be really frightened after the first loud noises were over and everyone behaved extremely well.

16th April 1940
I certainly don't have the excuse any more that 1 have nothing to write about as we have had lots of air raids but the trouble is that I haven't the time to write about them all.

On March 31st there was a single enemy plane over about 8.30 am which was shot at but not taken down. Of course we all expected a raid that night but nothing happened at all.

However, on April 2nd some seven or eight planes came over the Flow at twilight as usual. By this time our barrage was ready and seemed to frighten the enemy as they didn't do any damage at all.

During this raid we were listening to the wireless in Stenness and believe it or not we didn't hear a thing until people came up to say that there was an air raid on! It just shows how near the things can be without one noticing it. During this raid four planes were reported to be down with a possibility of a fifth one.

On 8th April we heard all about it. It was the noisiest one we had since the first one in March. About 18 planes took part over the Flow although it is believed that 24 had come over altogether. One plane came over the hotel quite low and went lolloping over the loch with black smoke coming from it. Some people went out to look for it as it was reported to be down quite near but it was not to be found but we think it must have come down in the sea. It is certain that four planes came down and probably more - one report states seven at least.

One landed at Wick aerodrome with two dead and two alive. Three Germans were picked up in a rubber boat and questioned at Lyness. They were from Lubeck and belonged to the Red Lion Squadron which has to fly to Orkney to get their wings.

No damage was done, although lots of very big bombs were dropped.

On the 10th they came back again, this time with about 60 planes in waves of 3 and 4. Our fighters were up and those combined with anti-aircraft fire kept the enemy from coming through in large numbers.

2nd May 1940
Lots of interesting things have been happening lately but I do not seem to have had time to write about them.

We have had some more air raids but luckily so far they have done no damage at all but they are very noisy and horrid when they are on. Still that is to be expected in Orkney.

We hear rumours of the fighting in Norway and that the 6th Gordons are wiped out along with another battalion probably the Sherwood Foresters as we know that they are there also. It is a lovely night tonight for an air raid and there are heaps of targets but I do hope they won't come. Some of the Hatston people have been over in Norway and some of them have not come back but none of the ones whom I know well.

Some German prisoners have been captured from Norway and passed through here about a week ago after they had gone we saw their passports and things, some of the Captains were very young.
We are kept busy at the moment and when I can think of something to put in this diary I never have time to write it down.

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