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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. Earlier extracts were published in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin vol 6 No 8 April 2004 page 39 et seq.
NHA COLLECTION NO P365
4 June 1941
We have had such fun over the “Orkney Blast” this week. This is a paper started in January for the troops, originally by Eric Linklater who was stationed here. Its become quite well known outside the Island and of course with the troops - we can’t cope because of paper restrictions. It’s had lots of ups and downs and the first edition came out in a raging blizzard by dint of stupendous efforts on the part of George Tuck, Jeremy and Crichton. Since then we’ve had the famous edition which had a poem by the General which mentioned “Skeabrae” and the entire staff worked for hours to cut the word out of 2000 copies. Until this week we never had any real trouble with censorship but this week, on the Monday, two days after publication, A.C.O.S. suddenly rang up and said that there was something censorable in the “Blast” and that all copies must be returned at once and burned! Imagine the excitement in the units! Everyone immediately read the paper frightfully carefully and found something censorable in practically every paragraph! No one knows what it is but everyone has their own ideas on the subject. We’ve got a lot of copies back but I’m sure we’ll never get them all and anyway I think we should just have said nothing about it, whatever it was, and no one would have noticed it.
On Saturday afternoon I packed a spare “face”, some chocolate and cigarettes in my sleeping bag, changed into slacks and a battle dress blouse and made my way to Binscarth camp where the first conference was due to take place at 1800. It was rather exciting, cars driving up and muddy officers leaping out and rushing into the very tiny room in the hut where the Comd. Major Daniels, Capt. Elliot, Lt I.O. M.C.O. and I were seated. Verbal orders ref. the defence of the neighbourhood and of the vital aerodrome were issued by the Comd. By 18.30 or 18.45 it was over and the unit commanders had dispersed to visit their troops and make sure they knew their role. As the landing was not due to take place until 19.30 hours and as the movement of troops and general activity seemed to have slowed down, we all decided that we’d be very “un-warlike” and go back to H.Q. for dinner. By the time we’d returned things had started up again and soon lots of messages came in ref. the battle positions, enemy aircraft seen, intelligence summaries and sitreps.
Now the blackout was drawn and the small room in the hut was very “warlike”. The tables were covered with maps, papers and a typewriter. The stove in the corner glowed red while the wind howled and the rain poured down outside.
About midnight a tall red haired “Gordon” came along and gave us some hot black tea and thick slices of bread - very acceptable.
Afterwards - again out of keeping with the war and the Commanders role, we went to watch the landing. It was very dark and wet as we got to the top of the seam above Waukmill Bay and for some time nothing could be seen. Then gradually, cars and men appeared out of the gloom and finally two large ships could be seen just offshore. Slowly they came nearer and then silently but very quickly the landing craft were seen pulling away.
It was eerie and rather awesome - we knew those men had sailed many miles, we knew they were only ten minutes late and only a few hundred yards “off’ their objective. It made one realise that perhaps the “high ups” really weren’t sleeping all the time but really had gone in for this idea of Combined operations in a large way. One knew that the thought and planning that had gone into this exercise had been more than usual and one knew this was the first big exercise that had ever been done, that all the “high ups” including a very distinguished personage were watching this show from somewhere in the darkness near one. At that moment - I think more than at any other since, the war started and since that day in September 39 when I had been “called up for service” - at that moment I really felt “Gosh! I’m glad I’m in this racket. I’d hate to be anywhere else just now”. I usually want to laugh at “patriotism” of the kind that makes one weep to see marching soldiers or hear crowds in the Albert Hall singing “Land of Hope and Glory”. At that moment I felt so “patriotic” that I’m quite sure I could have stood and recited “This England never did and never shall, lie at the feet of proud conqueror...” without feeling the least self conscious.
After about half of the men had come ashore, we left and
drove back to our H.Q. to attend to the battle.
About 04.30 I was awakened and after I’d tidied up some messages etc and done some typing, we all had breakfast cooked and served by the red haired Gordon - bacon and eggs and lots of black tea and bread and butter - lovely.
The battle was proceeding according to plan and our next move was to retreat to a s/l site at Dounby, very near to Skeabrae aerodrome.
We all piled into the U.T.V about 08.30 and raced for Dounby. It was a lovely clear morning and we could see miles across the flat countryside - Brew carriers dashing from Stromness to Finstown, lorry loads of troops being rushed up for reinforcements, M.C.O.’s [Military Commanding Officer] rushing madly around and umpires with white armbands careering around in U. T.V.’s. [Utility Transport Vehicles] Aircraft swooped and dive bombed all round us and placid Orkney cows and sheep gazed with untroubled eyes at all the destruction made by man.
When we got to the s/l site, they insisted on giving us more breakfast as the battle was progressing as well as could be expected but there was a slight lull on just then.
Later I went around to see some of the men who were
guarding the “Battle HQ”.
About lunchtime, we packed and got ready to move to our next H.Q. but owing to various delays we didn’t leave Dounby until late in the afternoon.
During the afternoon a captured tank was brought in and the Corporal in command demanded a receipt for it, which amused me mightily.
The battle progressed according to plan during the day except that the resistance put up at Binscarth by the Home Guard was so strong and determined that the Commandos were much later in breaking through to the north than was expected, so our retreat to Yonbell didn’t start until 18.30 instead of at lunch time.
Before we left, lorry loads of troops passed H.Q. rushing up to defend the aerodromes. Dive bombers were still playing around and one had a rather nasty feeling that had this been the real thing, lots of those troops would never have reached the aerodromes and our “Battle H.Q.” would certainly have been put out of commission very early on.
The drive to Yonbell was rather exciting - stopped by sentries several times and at least once almost being driven right into an ambush.
The site we were making for was well hidden in the moors overlooking the aerodrome of Twatt and Skeabrae and one had to be very careful to hide from the watchful hurricanes the fact that lots of M.T. [Motor Transport] was dashing up the narrow hill road and stopping before the hutted s/l site.
We all jumped out of the car and U.T.V. [Utility Transport Vehicle] threw everything out on the roadside, taking special care of the dixie full of hot “McConnechie” and then the drivers hurriedly backed away and left their vehicles parked inconspicuously on the surrounding moors. So good was their camouflage and so quick were the H.Q. movements that fully 3 hours passed before the first dive bomber spotted our huts and started “plastering” us.
After our arrival and after communications had been established, we took stock. There was one largish room with three trestle tables and two hurricane lamps, and one smaller room which had a stove with a pan of water but absolutely no other utensils. Luckily we had all had a good lunch so thought everything would be all right and we could live on our sandwiches until after the battle which we knew would stop at 06.00 hours. However the kind s/l people had brought this McConnechie and luckily some plates. The only cutlery were spoons and it was a strange sight to see a Brigadier, a Major, two Captains, one Lieut., one Cpl A.T.S. [Auxiliary Territorial Service] and one orderly, all sitting around the same table eating stew with a spoon!
After dinner we went out to watch the “battle” in the fading light. Below the edge of the brae where we were, we could see the troops and M.T [Motor Transport] on the hill road and further away aircraft taking off and landing on the aerodrome. There was a dog fight going on in the foreground and away in the distance heavy guns were firing and some s/l had started exploding. To the west the sun was sinking in a wonderful glory of colour and soon it became too dark to see much except various lights and s/l so I went back to the hut.
Inside the blinds were drawn, maps had been pinned up on the wall and strewn over the tables and the staff were arguing over a C/A [Counter Attack] plan in the corner. Soon, the door opened and General Kemp and the Army Commander along with two or three Generals came in - booted and spurred and the whole scene began to look rather like war as seen by Hollywood. The flickering light from the storm lanterns, the earnest faces of the army officers bent over the maps, the low voices - “but we’ll have to attack here....” “if we send a recce group there we’ll have….” “you can’t have Hurricanes twice in one....” and the deeper voice of the Army Comd. “Is your plan ready Peck? H.M. [George VI] will probably be around here soon”:..., the whole set up gave one an eerie feeling of WAR at its grimmest. I also felt that if this was going to be the form when the blitz really started, one could feel pretty confident that one was on the right lines - and the right side.
A few hours later H.M. [George VI] did arrive - grave faced, interested and keenly alive to what was going on. He’d been out for the two days most of the time and got wet heaps of times by insisting on going to watch the battle at odd times and in odd places, but there he was, still going around and seeing things for himself in the most interested and delightfully informed manner. After he and the Chiefs of Staff had left, the Commander decided that as the attack was not scheduled to take place until 05.30 hours, we might have some tea and snatch a couple of hours sleep.
I boiled some water in the dixie but couldn’t find a tea pot. Brig. Peck produced some china tea and eventually I found an empty jam tin in which I brewed the marvellous china tea. Anyway it was very good and with it we had corned beef sandwiches and cheese and biscuits. After that the four officers lay down on the floor with their heads to the wall. In the middle was one of the tables. I finished off some typing and was just going to lay out my bed on the floor when I saw a beetle. That decided me and I laid my sleeping bag on the table in the corner, climbed up and settled down. This intrigued the Comd. who wanted to know why I didn’t sleep on the floor. After I had mentioned the beetle, he also decided to take a table which he did - the one in the middle of the 4 sleeping officers. After the light was turned down the scene was faintly reminiscent of someone lying in state!
By 05.00 we had all turned out, drunk more china tea out of the jam tin and the Counter Attack was launched.
When we looked outside, it had begun to rain again and very little of the battle which we knew was taking place around the aerodrome could be seen.
At 06.30 the final “whistle” blew and about 07.30 we were loaded into the cars and started off for Stromness. On our way down we passed a company of Gay Gordons marching in a parade ground manner through the rain - after 3 days with very little sleep and heaps of fighting, I realised the Battalion lived up to its reputation and name.
By 09.00 I’d bathed, changed and was back at my desk in the office. The next few days were full up with conferences with all the Chiefs of Staff etc. etc. That was very exciting also and I felt very lucky to be so privileged.