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War Time In Caithness
Frank William Memories of
Frank Williams Memories
For postings you were taken from an alphabetic list, or at least I assume so, because 3 of us with surnames beginning with “W” ended up in the North of Scotland. Presumably they started in the South of England with the “A’s”. One of the men posted North with me ended up in Orkney. On our arrival at Watten we had a pep talk by our Commanding Officer who pointed out that there was very little entertainment in Watten so we would have to make our own.
The remoteness of Caithness was the first thing to strike me, because to get from Norfolk to Watten took me from 3 o’clock one afternoon to 5 o’clock the following afternoon. I had never heard of Watten or Wick, and a few miles out of London the ticket collector said we had passed the station because there was a Watten an hour out of London!
When we arrived we realised that the Commanding Officer had been right about entertainment, because whenever there was an excuse for a party - a birthday, a wedding, Burn’s Night - we had a good “do” in the Sergeants’ Mess, usually a dinner-dance. Music was provided by the German prisoners’ dance band. The prisoners, under that charge of our own Sergeant Boxall, provided first class cooking. They over-did the haggis on Burn’s Night because for a few days afterwards we had haggis soup, haggis rissoles etc.
Another thing that struck me was the cold, especially after India. The camp by that time was getting a bit dilapidated and you could see daylight through the corrugated iron sheets of the Nissan huts. The only way to keep warm in bed was to wear your overcoat. All the camp was heated by round stoves fuelled by peat, dug by the German prisoners who went out in work parties.
There must have been a couple of hundred prisoners, some of whom were SS. The SS prisoners were kept inside the compound, but others were taken out on working parties around local farms. Prisoners provided music, cooks in the mess, mechanics, and often put on first class classical concerts.
My duties were working 24 hours as Guard Commander with about 24 men, after that 24 hours off, then 24 hours as Camp Orderly Sergeant before the routine was repeated. When I was Camp Orderly Sergeant I had to go around camp with the camp’s Orderly Officer of the day to see if there were any complaints about the food. One of the most common complaints was kippers for breakfast which still had their heads on. The men didn’t like the way they looked at them!
Occasionally a group of prisoners had to be taken to London for screening for war crimes. That was a nightmare trip, leaving Wick about 7 o’clock in the morning and reaching Euston at 6 o’clock the following evening. They had to be transported to Kensington Palace Gardens where the Interrogation Centre was. One thing that struck me on the journey was how well fed the prisoners were, while we had the usual rations of corned beef sandwiches, cheese sandwiches and slab cake. When the prisoners opened their ration boxes they had hard-boiled eggs, ham, lots of cheeses etc. Either the prisoners were very light-fingered when they were working on the Caithness farms, or the Caithness farmers were very generous - probably the latter.
We had to be at Euston at 7 o’clock in the evening again, and we would be back in Watten at around 5 o’clock the following afternoon, often to face a dinner-dance.
The natives of Caithness were very friendly towards us. One problem was transport to town from Watten because of the infrequency of the bus service. The last bus on Sunday evening was the 7 o’clock and what stuck in my mind about that was that the papers, which didn’t arrive in Wick till the Sunday afternoon, were thrown out of the bus by the driver seemingly at random intervals often when we were in the middle of nowhere, but presumably someone collected them. Sometimes my pal, Alf, from Blackburn, sorted out transport problems for the evenings and weekends. He was the Staff Sergeant in the R.E.M.E. in charge of the transport section. So whenever he got a vehicle in from a neighbouring camp he gave priority to their repairs and maintenance. He had a white board with “R.E.M.E ON TEST” printed in red which was tied on to the front bumper, and he decided the best way to test them was to drive into Wick in the evenings and on weekends. So sometimes we went in an ambulance, sometimes a jeep, or even a 6-ton truck.
Incidentally, Alf got in touch with me again after nearly 50 years. He wrote to the Town Clerk of Bangor and with a bit of hard work and research they tracked me down. I thought he had emigrated to Australia, but he and his wife were coming to Llandudno one Christmas and wanted to meet up. He wrote a couple of weeks before Christmas but I didn’t get his letter until two weeks after he had left. The following year, however, we did meet up and had a very good night.
I was only in Watten for 8 months, after which time I was demobbed, so in March 1948 I returned to Bethesda. A fare from Wick at that time was £12 which we considered very expensive, so I was able to visit Wick only once, and my (now) wife came to Bethesda once. Luckily she was eventually able to get a job in a local hotel where they provided accommodation, and we were married in Bethesda in 1950.
My overall impression of Caithness was the remoteness, the cold, and the people, who couldn’t have been better to us. Rationing was still on but sometimes we were not asked for coupons. I particularly remember going to the sweet counter in Woollies where we were never asked for our sweet coupons.
The people of Caithness were very friendly towards us, and one in particular was very friendly indeed and we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary September 2000. I spent my 21st birthday in Watten and met my wife a few days afterwards. A few of us were having tea in the County Café on Sunday afternoon. Myra came in with her friends Grace and Edith and sat nearby. We started going out as a group at first and they came to one of the classical concerts in Watten.
There were some amusing incidents during our courting days. On one occasion at a camp dinner-dance Myra put her dog’s name, Hugo, on her raffle ticket. A few days later Sergeant Vickers, who was in charge of entertainment, came round to her house asking if “Hugo” lived there, so her golden Labrador got the prize which was towels. On another occasion Hugo followed us all the way to the cinema and up to the balcony seats. We didn’t notice him till the film was underway but he sat quietly throughout. When he followed us to the Trinkie we had to lift him over the rocks as he couldn’t jump!
Another soldier at the Watten camp, Paddy O’Sullivan, was a career soldier in the Black Watch. He married a girl from Haster and was posted to Korea where he was wounded and won the military medal. He settled in Wick and worked for many years in the telephone exchange.
The attached photograph is of myself (on the left) and Sargeant George Day (known as Night & Day after the song which was popular at the time). Behind us are the Nissan Huts, and immediately behind are winter cabbages planted by the prisoners. The dog, Rex, belonged to my mate Alfie who found a good home locally for him when he left Watten.