WW2 Beach defences in Thurso, Scottish Highlands

I recently had a short holiday, visiting the north-west of Scotland, then Wick and Thurso, before spending a couple of days in Edinburgh. My missus is from Thurso and my in-laws still live there, the most northern town on the UK mainland.

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Thurso and Orkney. Red spot is Thurso, A and B refer to locations mentioned in the text. (Google Maps)

Thurso had close connections with the Vikings: the name derives from Thjorsá – “Thor´s River”. Across Thurso Bay, to the north, the shelter provided by the headland known as Holborn Head provided a safe haven for ships against the harsh conditions typical of the region. Defence against seaborne enemies – also typical for the region – was provided by a castle – likely the “Borg” mentioned in the Orkneyinga Saga – which was, we are told, destroyed in a vicious conflict in 1196 between the the legal heir of Caithness – Harold the Younger and a very nasty piece of work from Orkney – the Norwegian Viking Harold the Elder. It did not go well for the Caithness man: the earth on Clardon Hill ran red with blood and gore – and a chapel marks the supposed spot Harold the Younger met his death.

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The Battle of Clardon Hill, re-imagined with the help of those Saxon ladies who created the Bayeaux Tapestry and Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver”. It really could have happened this way 🙂

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the herring fishing and flagstone industries dominated the local economy – it was far quicker and cheaper to export by sea than by land. The “Silver Darlings” – as the herrings were nicknamed, were salted and packed into barrels before being shipped out. If you have never had herrings before I really recommend them – they are especially delicious in a cream sauce served with new potatoes, although if you shop at IKEA, you will see them for sale, pickled in a sweet brine or vinaigrette. These are also very nice.

Just a few miles away are the Orkney Islands – once home to Neolithic farmers and much later, to Viking settlers. At the onset of World War One, it became a vital port for the Royal Navy: a foil perhaps, to any German attempt at reaching the Atlantic  – or the closer home waters – from the Baltic.

It was here that that very same German fleet was scuttled in 1919. When the Treaty of Versailles dictated (It was called the “Diktat”, or “Dictated Peace” by the Germans) that Germany be disarmed, it specifically called for a vast reduction in surface vessels: they were to be handed over and split up between the Entente powers.

For the proud – and in their eyes – undefeated sailors, this was an indignity would could not come to pass. Putting into action a carefully prepared plan, they scuttled them on 21 June 1919. Many wrecks were later raised and scrapped. A few were salvaged. Seven still lay on the sea floor, a mecca for sport divers and marine archaeologists.

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“SMS BAYERN down by the stern and sinking at Scapa Flow” (Royal Navy/Public Domain)

Twenty years later, with the outbreak of WWII, it was feared (rightly as it happened) that the area would again be of interest to the Germans. In fact, less than 2 months after the opening of hostilities, on the 13th-14th of October 1939 Scapa Flow was the scene of an audacious attack by U-47, under the command of  Käpitenleutnant Günter Prien.

Günter Prien. A patriotic propaganda postcard painted by war artist Wolfgang Willrich  (Authors collection)
Käpitenleutnant Günter Prien. A patriotic propaganda postcard painted by war artist Wolfgang Willrich  (Authors collection)

Prien, an experienced sailor and submariner  was able to manoeuvre into the anchorage and sought out a suitable target: he found one in the shape of the WWI era battleship HMS Royal Oak.

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HMS Royal Oak, sometime after a major refit in 1924. (Royal Navy/Public Domain)

U-47 made two attacks, launching a total of 8 torpedoes, 4 of which found their mark. The ship quickly sank, taking with her 833 souls – 100 of which were Boy Sailors – apprentices not yet 18 years old.

Prien made for Germany, being awarded the coveted Ritterkreuz(Knight´s Cross of the Iron Cross) on October 18th. A national hero, he would meet his own sailor´s death on March 7th 1941.

While the loss of life aboard the Royal Oak was tragic, the loss of the ship was not going to change the outcome of the war: an outdated design, she was deemed as unsuitable for front-line operations. If anything, her loss had a positive outcome: it was a wake-up call for the Admiralty to drastically improve the defences of the entire Scapa Flow area – the war would not necessarily be fought in distant foreign waters, but quite possibility in the home waters, skies and perhaps even on land.

With hindsight, one might think it absurd that a German landing of any scale was considered a real threat – Hitler gave vague orders to clear the skies of Southern Britain, to allow an invasion force to disembark in relative safety, but never really put his heart into the plan, hoping that elements within the British government and establishment would instead plead for an armistice.

The Kriegsmarine, (German Navy) Heer (Army) and Luftwaffe (Air force) all had different ideas as to how a successful invasion could be achieved but inter-service and personal rivalries conspired against them. (A fact encouraged by Hitler with his fondness for Social Darwinism.

However, following the defeat of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F) and France in May and June 1940, anything seemed possible. Indeed, Churchill himself said so himself in his speeches to the commons during this period:

“….Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may

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Churchill, c.1942 (Public Domain)

fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…” (June 4th 1940)

On June 16th, shortly after the French had intimated that they would sue for for peace his told the assembled MP´s:

What General Weygand has called the Battle of France is over … the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war…”

In anticipation of defeat in France, on the 27th of May 1940 a Home Defence Executive was formed under General Sir Edmund Ironside, Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces, to organise the defence of Britain. Since the expected invasion would need to make a landfall, priority was given to defending coastal areas. Inland, a number of defence lines were constructed, utilising both existing features like rivers and canals, as well as bunkers – more commonly known as “Pillboxes” – anti-tank obstacles, road blocks, and mile after mile of barbed wire. Garden walls had loopholes cut through them, potential landing fields for enemy gliders flooded. Airfields – as shown in the attacks in Holland in may 1940 by German paratroop (Fallschirmjäger) and air-landing troops (Luftlandetruppen) would be key targets of the coming attack – were defended by ingenious retractable turrets called Pickett-Hamiliton forts.

In addition these myriad defences, the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV – soon to be rechristened the Home Guard) were raised to both man them and to act as lookouts in vulnerable spots. In fact everyone was encouraged to keep their eyes and ears open – for both enemy troops and 5th columnists:

spot at sight

Fascinating – but what does all this have to do with my recent trip?

Defending Thurso Bay

Thurso, being in close proximity to the naval base at Scapa Flow, was destined to play a role in its defence. Lynch pin of the local defence installations was the pillbox. It was built on a promontory and site of a medieval bishop´s palace – essentially a castle-like structure. Today it is in a perilous condition as the underlying rock is being eroded at what seems to be a fairly rapid rate. The following pictures relate to point A on the map.

 

The pillbox is of a design known as FW3/24. These types are of an irregular hexagonal design, five of the faces being 2.4 metres long with a rifle loop and the rear wall being just short of 4 metres long with an entrance flanked by rifle loops. Made of brick, the roof is constructed of corrugated asbestos with concrete on top.

General views through some of the loopholes showing arcs of fire.

Parts of the palace were excavated back in the 1970´s by the Caithness Field Club but one wonders whether in light of the erosion in this part of the site whether another program of survey or excavation would be desirable.

The beaches to either side of the pillbox were defended by anti-tank blocks:

A massacre and a mermaid:

These pillbox and tank blocks are on the western seashore of Thurso. Across Thurso Bay, to the east is Claredon Head which is bisected by the A836. The road here boasts a settlement known as Murkle – which is derived from ancient Norse for “Dark Hill”. During the battle between the two Harolds, it seems that the Norwegians were put to flight and headed this way, being pursued by the Caithness men. However, they had lost their leader early on in the fight and here, in Murkle, they lost their other officers. With them dead, the men lost heart and fled the field in disarray: easy pickings for the Norwegians who had a second wind.

Legend has it that a fisherman is still, to this day, trapped by magic in a nearby loch for doing the dirty on his mermaid lover. She was giving him gifts of gold and silver from all the

local shipwrecks but was inclined to spend it on sex, drugs and rock-n-roll with the local Thurso girls in the Comm. She offered to show him the source of the fabulous wealth – which of course lay under the ocean. She told him that as long as he held  her hand he would be able to breathe under water. Into the loch they went – and sure enough after swimming down the depths came upon a secret – magic – room…. a room filled with the most precious treasures you could imagine: but there he is still today…. trapped between a king´s ransom and a very put-out mermaid. If you can avoid the temptation of looking for her treasure in the loch, the road will shortly bring you out at the base of an impressive sweep of sand dunes.

 

Legend has it that a fisherman is still, to this day, trapped by magic in a nearby loch for doing the dirty on his mermaid lover. She was giving him gifts of gold and silver from all

mermaid
“Havfrue” By Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, 1873

the local shipwrecks but was inclined to spend it on sex, drugs and rock-n-roll with the local Thurso girls in the Comm. She offered to show him the source of the fabulous wealth – which of course lay under the ocean. She told him that as long as he held  her hand he would be able to breathe under water. Into the loch they went – and sure enough after swimming down the depths came upon a secret – magic – room…. a room filled with the most precious treasures you could imagine: but there he is still today…. trapped between a king´s ransom and a very put-out mermaid. If you can avoid the temptation of looking for her treasure in the loch, the road will shortly bring you out at the base of an impressive sweep of sand dunes.

Both of these tales relate the area known as Dunnet Bay – point B on the map.

Dunnet Bay

Unlike the beach at Thurso, this is a lovely sandy beach and really quite a beautiful spot. The bay is protected to the north by Dunnet Head, an impressive headland and home to many different types of seabird: we saw Puffins nesting, Razorbills and Gannets, as well as seals basking on the rocks. If you are in the area and want to kill a few hours, I recommend you take a tour.

I did not go to the beach that day with my history or archaeology head on: it was an unusually warm, sunny day. Very unusual for Thurso in May – no better reason then to get down the beach for a paddle and maybe an ice cream…

The tide was out, revealing a wide, flat sandy beach. Pretty solid sand, even where it had dried out…. potentially good for landing craft to disgorge troops, tanks and other vehicles…..

 

In Conclusion:

Despite being far removed from what many would consider the frontline of the war against Hitler´s Germany, the north of Scotland was a hive of activity. This has left traces – both physical – as in these beach defenses – as well as mental: the nearby town of Wick suffered the first daytime air-raid on mainland Britain in July 1940, killing 15 people, 8 of whom were children: you just would not have thought it.

The scene of these tragic deaths is now a memorial garden and will be the subject of a future post.

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