What was Portlethen like during World War II? Was there much wartime activity in the area or did life go on much the same as it always had? I decided to ask my father for his memories of the war years and what life was like in Portlethen at that time.
Despite its proximity to Aberdeen and the radar station situated at Schoolhill there were no major air raids or battles in or around Portlethen and most of the activities that were happening were related to raids on Aberdeen, or maritime affairs well away from our coast. However, like most areas around the country at that time, Portlethen was impacted by the war years, and occasionally there were incidents within the district that indicated that there was a war on.
A very common occurrence was the appearance of naval convoys sailing north or southwards along the coast, in fact it was more likely that these convoys would be heard rather than seen because their movements tended to happen under the cover of darkness. It may have been possible to minimise the visual impact of these convoys by sailing at night but it wasn’t possible to hide the steady and rhythmic beat of the ships engines and this became a familiar sound to the villagers as they lay in their beds at night.
Any conflict between German bombers or U-boats and British shipping tended to happen well offshore and away from the coast and there are a few examples where British trawlers (commissioned in the war effort, primarily as mine sweepers) were sunk by the enemy. The casualty rate wasn’t totally one sided as there are references to U-boats being sunk and enemy aircraft being gunned down as well. This did happen off the Kincardineshire coast but was rarely witnessed from the shore as most of these skirmishes were fought out of sight and well over the horizon. (*see footnote).
What was observed in the bays and rocks around Portlethen was the debris and the occasional piece of wreckage that may have been the result of some of these skirmishes. My father and his friends were always told not to touch anything that they found washed ashore and, generally speaking, they did leave things as they were found although they always remembered what they did see.
During the war years there was more flotsam and jetsam being washed ashore than you would expect to see in peacetime; as well as the occasional piece of boat wreckage it was possible to see plenty of deck cargo such as planks of wood and commercial freight. One of the more unusual cargoes was barrels of fat or lard which were regularly washed ashore. In fact, I have a recollection of my own from the 1970’s when large “lumps” of lard suddenly started appearing on the coast near Old Portlethen. On asking what this was and why they were being washed ashore I was told that they were part of a ships cargo that had went down with the vessel during wartime and were suddenly being released from the rotting hold nearly thirty years after the boat sank. I wonder if it’s possible that this type of wartime cache could still be washed ashore in the future.
From time to time a floating mine would appear in the bays and sloughs close to the shoreline. Usually these would have been spotted long before they got near the coast but in some occasions they managed to “slip through the net”. If a mine was seen close to shore the villagers would contact the local coastguard and they, in turn, would report it to the bomb disposal squad.
The bomb disposal squad would attempt to make safe any mine before it washed up on the beach or rocks and it was rare for a live one to reach the shore. To make the mine safe the bomb squad would take the ends from the mine and then remove the detonators, the explosives were left in place and since they were open to the elements such as wind, rain and sea, they were deemed to be safe since the explosive content would become damp or wet.
A few of these mines did get beached on the rocks after they had been made safe, and for young lads like my father and his friends, they were a source of curiosity and an item to be explored. What do you do with a large mine without detonators that has been washed up on the beach? It would appear that the local youths thought it was a good idea to remove all the small brass screws that were attached to them. By the time the war ended my father had quite a collection of useless brass screws!
There was one occasion which reminded the villagers of Downies and Portlethen that not all the mines that were sighted along our coasts had been made safe. One evening, under the cover of darkness, a mine came ashore and when it struck land near Strathfresh Rocks, about half way between these villages, it exploded in a crescendo of noise that was heard for miles around. One piece of shrapnel travelled through the air for a distance of over a quarter of a mile and went through the roof of one of the steadings at England Farm. Thankfully, as it was late evening, no one was in that vicinity at the time.
Today, it is still possible to see the rock fall at the base of the cliffs where the mine went ashore and as a result it is possible to gauge just how much damage these mines could create – if it had struck a ship it would have been blown clean out of the water.
The war at sea wasn’t the only aspect of the conflict that touched the lives of the people of Portlethen, occasionally there would be sightings of enemy aircraft flying overhead and it was quite common to hear the air raid sirens from Aberdeen when there were bombing raids over the city. Whilst that was going on the night sky to the north of Portlethen was often lit up and it was common for the local kids to dive for cover under their beds, even though they were seven miles to the south of the intended bomb targets.
On one occasion my father recalls a single enemy aircraft coming in over the village from the North Sea which ultimately crashed to the west of Portlethen. He can’t recall if this aircraft was already damaged as it flew over Portlethen or if it had been shot by local coastal defence troops as it flew low over the land however the enemy pilot was determined to try and make the weapons at his disposal count before his plane crashed and bombs were dropped, but without any of them hitting a local target.
On other occasions bombs were dropped without exploding at all, it seems that the most likely target was the railway line but fortunately nothing landed too closely to the intended target. Apparently one of these unexploded bombs landed near Hillhead farm (Hillies) and narrowly missed a young local farmer, Rab Shand, who was working in a nearby field at the time. Another bomb actually landed at Hillside, near Hillside House itself, and caused some damage to a nearby cottage, but not as much damage as it would have caused had it actually exploded.
My father also recalls another time when a German bomber came in quite low and strafed a field full of corn stooks. Maybe the aerial perspective made the pilot think that the field was full of people rather than the aftermath of the hairst season!
As well as bombing raids and the naval convoys there were other obvious signs of conflict in the area. RAF Schoolhill, which we covered in an earlier section, played an important role in the war effort however there were other buildings and constructions which had began to appear during the war years - an observation post and hut at Hillhead (Hillies), anti tank blocks built at Portlethen Shore and the same also at Muckle Shore and three coastal look-out posts - one each at Old Portlethen and Downies and a more substantial version at Findon Ness.
My father did say that there were occasions where there were personnel involved in shooting practise which took place at Muckle Shore, specifically the area known as “The Targets”, a shelter/bunker area to the south of the shore and located at the top of the cliff. (This area is still there today). He also remembers, that when there was shooting practise or an exercise being played out at Muckle Shore, there were sentries positioned to the north, west and south of the shore, as well as a series of warning flags, to let local folks know that entry to that area was forbidden.
Furthermore, care had to be taken in respect to any stray shots being made to the east and seaward in case there were any small craft in the area. The local salmon coble had a warning siren of their own which the crew sounded before they entered the sea area directly opposite Muckle Shore and at that point all gunfire was halted as the coble made the two minute journey across the bay, they sounded the siren again once they had crossed the bay so that shooting could resume. The same signals would be given on the coble’s return.
The final snippet I have in this section is one of my own memories and is one of finding a few spent shells and cartridges on the braes and slopes around Muckle Shore in the late 1960’s, a sure sign that war did visit us in Portlethen to a small extent between 1939 and 1945. If you look long and hard enough you may still find the occasional spent cartridge in this area.
*My resources cite a large number of British and neutral vessels being attacked, and sometimes sunk, through enemy gunfire, bombs, mines or other reasons related to wartime activity. Between the dates of October 1939 and June 1941 the vessels listed below were attacked between Aberdeen and south of Stonehaven, and although many of these attacks occurred some distance from our coast it is possible that some of the debris may have washed up along our local shores.
Stromness, a steam trawler, ran ashore near Aberdeen due to the blackout; Trinity N.B, a British trawler, attacked by enemy gunfire; Mars, a Swedish steamship, struck a German mine; Gowrie, a British steamship, attacked by enemy gunfire; Robert Bowen, a British trawler, bombed whilst minesweeping; Fort Royal, a British trawler requisitioned as a minesweeper, sunk by enemy aircraft; Belona II, a steamship, attacked and set on fire by German aircraft and sinking south of Stonehaven; Creemuir, a British steamship, sunk by German aircraft; Trebartha, a British steamship, sunk by German aircraft; St. Catherine, a British steamship, sunk by German aircraft; Cairnie, a steamship, bombed by German aircraft near Todhead lighthouse and eventually sinking close to Aberdeen; Rattray Head, a steamship, bombed by German aircraft about 8 miles east of Girdleness; Cushendell, a steamship, foundered and lost after being attacked by German aircraft near Stonehaven; St. Briac, a merchant ship, stuck a German mine. Additionally there are also reports of at least one German U-boat being lost near our coast during the war.
In addition to these vessels a number of aircraft, from both sides of the conflict, foundered off the Kincardineshire coast. Although these losses are significant by any standards, there were even more maritime losses during the years of the First World War in 1914-1919.