Memories of Sept. 1, 1939 -- The Day World War II Began For A Scottish Boy
Authorities Feared Invasion, and Their Bomb Shelter Was Frequently Visited
Written by Al Hutchison. Last updated Tuesday September 1st, 2009
By AL HUTCHISON
It was September 1, 1939. I was five years old. My parents, my sister (Edna was two years older) and I had driven from the east side of Dundee, Scotland, to the west side to have dinner with my mother’s sister, her husband and their son (Scott was 18 months older).
Seventy long years later, I’m positive it never crossed our minds that we would not be taking similar car trips for a long, long time.
After eating, Edna, Scott and I were upstairs, in Scott’s bedroom, playing some sort of a child’s game. I only vaguely remember the nature of the game (it somehow involved using a blanket as a tent), but I clearly remember my father trudging up the stairs, opening the door and giving us the bad news.
Dad had promised Edna and me that on the way home that night he would drive us to the top of the Law Hill, the highest point in our home town, for a close-up look at the illuminated war memorial that seemed to preside over Dundee and the River Tay, which flowed past Dundee and into the North Sea a few miles to the east.
“We can’t do it,” Dad told us. “Germany has invaded Poland. The war has begun and the monument lights won’t be lit.”
War? What was he talking about? At my age, I didn’t do a very rigorous job of following the news. Maybe Edna and Scott weren’t surprised, but it was such a jolt to me that I’m sure that explains why I still remember that evening with such clarity.
At first, I didn’t anticipate the huge changes World War II would bring to our lives, but it wasn’t long before serious adjustments were made. Most significantly, my older brother, Richard, left home to join the Royal Air Force. He’d been in the RAF Volunteer Reserve while working as a journalist in Dundee, but when Hitler invaded Poland, his newspaper career ended abruptly.
Later, just before his 22nd birthday, Richard’s RAF Beaufighter ditched in the North Sea off Norway while being pursued by a German fighter. He and his pilot, Martin Smith (an English potato farmer in civilian life), were first reported missing - they’d drifted for three days without food or water and were captured by the Germans on a tiny Norwegian island - and later were reported to be prisoners of the Germans. Although Richard would be freed in early 1945, he would succumb to illness on April 6 while in an American field hospital in Germany. (Martin died a few years ago at his home in England. He and I had become friends in his later years.)
My father, a man who had run away to sea at 15 and earned his unlimited master’s license (meaning he was qualified to captain the very largest ships) by the time he was 23, had come ashore and settled in as the owner of a service station in Dundee. In the first week of World War I, he’d been captured by the Germans at sea, off the west coast of Africa, but had been rescued by a passing British warship. He couldn’t abide being ashore during this new war.
(Interestingly, in 1914 the Germans aboard the Kaiser Wilhelm had allowed Dad and all their other prisoners to get away, on lifeboats or rafts, in anticipation of the gun battle that was about to begin, but before doing so they had made them all sign an oath that they would never again take up arms against the Kaiser, upon pain of execution. The British sank the Kaiser Wilhelm and all of my father’s mates were rescued and very soon went back to sea, oath or no oath.)
Running a gasoline station during a war - where would his customers come from? - held no appeal to Dad, so he begged the British Admiralty to give him a ship but the best it could offer was a desk job in London. In the meantime, desperate to contribute to the war effort somehow, he took a job in a Dundee munitions factory. I remember him grousing about the incompetence of the factory’s manager, who was English. He didn’t take too kindly to have an Englishman as his boss.
At this time in the war, Dundee was being bombed with some frequency by the Germans so my father and some neighbors built an air raid shelter in our back yard, one that was big enough to accommodate several families. When the air raid sirens sounded, like good soldiers we’d all troop down into the shelter. As long as I live, I’ll never forget the peculiar odor, a mixture of damp cement and candle wax, in that underground sanctuary. One memorable night, all the women and children were in the shelter, chatting away, when suddenly the men came rushing in, their faces as white as chalk. A bomb screamed overhead and landed harmlessly in a cabbage patch just behind Dad’s service station. To his dying day, Dad insisted (to this skeptical son) he wasn’t scared, that his pallor was nothing more than a reflection of the dim candlelight. He was probably right, because, truthfully, I don’t think any of us were frightened, ever.
It may seem extraordinary now, but we children never were scared. Maybe we should have been, but we viewed the nighttime treks to the shelter - we often were rousted out of a warm bed on a cold night - as more a nuisance than a necessity. So, in fact, were the daytime ones when we’d be herded from our classrooms into the school’s shelters. Eventually, we actually grew totally indifferent to air raids and the shelters were abandoned. We still, however, lived under blackout conditions until near the end of the war.
And I can remember very clearly spending the entire duration of any of the relatively few post-1940 air raids watching, fascinated yet not afraid, from my bedroom window as the searchlight beams gracefully swept across the sky, seeking out the enemy aircraft, and as tracer bullets sped toward their targets along Dundee’s busy waterfront.
Early on, the authorities feared a German invasion so they had built a pillbox (for machine guns) a few feet from our house, but to the best of my recollection it was never occupied. They also erected barricades on the main roads, presumably to at least delay the German tanks, but they didn’t remain in place very long. I don’t remember any of us ever really believing that an invasion was imminent.
My most precious memory of those days was waving to my brother - and seeing him wave back - as he and his pilot flew very low over our house. That was the last time we saw each other (I was eight at the time), and for years afterwards I began to wonder if I had dreamed of that too-brief moment. Years later, I visited Martin Smith, the pilot, at his home in England and immediately asked him about that long ago day. He silently rose from his chair, disappeared into another room and returned with my brother’s official log. He showed me the entry that validated my memory. It was a magic moment for me, believe me.
After Richard was taken prisoner, my sister and I accompanied our mother to special meetings sponsored, I believe, by the Red Cross and were told about conditions in the German prison camps and given instructions about mailing packages and letters. At fairly decent intervals, we actually received letters from my brother. I still have some of them.
My parents had spent several years in the United States, so Dad had decided to make his way back to America (he landed a job as a bosun’s mate on a ship bound for New York) where he had useful contacts in the shipping industry and he wound up spending the rest of the war aboard Liberty ships, serving as skipper on all but his first voyage. At least twice he made it safely to and from Murmansk, in northern Russia, the most dangerous convoy route of all. One of my few regrets in life is that I didn’t take notes when Dad regaled my wife and me with tales of those risky convoys, but somewhere I have a letter from the Russian government thanking him (and all his colleagues) for their contribution to the war effort.
My mother had taken over the family business (there was still a need for gasoline, which we called petrol, but it was only for vehicles that were deemed essential to the war effort) while Edna and I attended school and lived what seemed to us to be quite happy and satisfactory lives. We had friends, we had things to do, we simply carried on with our lives. There were no adult males in the house, but somehow we managed, and I don’t remember ever hearing my mother complain.
On the other hand, I never did get to the top of the Law Hill until long after the war.
(Al Hutchison is a retired journalist and resides in Inverness, Florida)