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Earlsferry in World War II

 

This is my dad, Tom Reekie, in WWII. His large lapel badge

with the crown atop signifies that he is a local defense

volunteer and a designated Air Raid Warden. 

 

In one form or another few places in Britain escaped the effects of Adolf Hitler's wrath including the village of Earlsferry.

 

The first air raid of World War II occurred on the 16th of October 1939 when German aircraft bombed the HMS Southampton which was laying alongside of the HMS Edinburgh as the two cruisers were laying at anchor alongside of the Forth Bridge near the Royal Naval dockyard at Rosyth.  The pride of our navy, the battleship HMS Hood was  at anchor within  Rosyth dockyard but it was not attacked. That same day the destroyer HMS Mowhawk was on escort duty in the Firth of Forth.  When the Mowhawk was operating in the shipping channel and straight out from the Kincraig Cliffs at Earlsferry, it was dive bombed and damaged. On the Mowhawk sixteen men were killed including the captain of the ship, Commander Jolly.  A number were wounded by bomb fragments and flying debris.  I do not know the exact number of the wounded as I have read differing accounts as to the number.  The ship limped to Rosyth for repair. One of the attacking aircraft a JU88 dive bomber was shot down into the sea by a Spitfire of 602 City of Glasgow squadron between Crail and the May Island. This was the second German aircraft to be shot down that day. Just 10 minutes earlier a Spitfire of 603 City of Edinburgh Squadron, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Patrick Gifford of Castle Douglas, Scotland, shot down a JU 88  German bomber that crashed into the Firth of Forth off Port Seton. This was the very first German aircraft to be shot down over Britain during World War II. Seven months later on the 16th of May 1940 Patrick Gifford was killed in action in his Hurricane in the skies over Belgium.  When 30 year old Patrick Gifford died  he was Squadron Leader Gifford, Distinguished Flying Cross.

 

First we had an imposed blackout as it was reasoned that most air raid attacks would come during the hours of darkness. All windows had to be covered so that not one chink of light could be seen from the outside.

 

To prevent injury from broken window glass all windows were crisscrossed with adhesive tape to lesson the effect of flying glass fragments.  All vehicle headlights had to have an attached metal shield to prevent any light being visible above the horizontal plane. In their gardens, many in the village dug and installed underground Andersen  and similar air raid bomb shelters as a place to go to when the air sirens went off to give warning that German aircraft were in the vicinity.

 

The country went on a severe austerity program.  Ration books were issued to everyone for all essential commodities such as food and clothing.  Children were assigned to walk the hedgerows to gather wild rose hips. These were used to be processed into vitamin C as a source of nourishment for babies.  At war's end there were few overweight people in the country.  Austere as our food supply was maybe that was when we were at our fittest.

 

Fuel for cars was almost unavailable. You had to have a very good reason in order to get even a tiny allocation of petrol. Some ingenious individuals actually made coal burning devices that they attached to the front of their cars. The burning coal fire cooked other coal that produced coal gas that was plumbed to the carburetor. In beating the energy crunch innovative Victor Boullet our baker par excellence was away ahead of the crowd and his time. He stunned the village by converting his delivery vans to electric/battery power.

 

During World War II, in concrete emplacements, three large naval guns were installed on top of the cliffs at Earlsferry.  During the days of target practice the windows of the houses in Elie and Earlsferry rattled with the concussion.  The shells that were fired were so big that they could  be followed in flight with the naked eye.  Only once did the big guns fire in anger.  On the tenth of June 1940. on the day that Italy declared war on Great Britain, an Italian ship was in the process of leaving Methil Docks further up the Firth.  The captain decided to make a run for it.  When the ship was right abeam of Earlsferry, the big guns on the cliffs opened fire.  The first shell landed a half of a mile in front of the ship's bow. The second landed a quarter of a mile in front. The ship didn't slow.  The third landed a few feet in front of its bow.  The captain knew that the fourth would be right down his smokestack.  The ship came to a screeching halt and surrendered.

 

Camouflaged observation posts were built and manned near the quarry at the top of the Ferry Road and also near the Elie Lighthouse. A concealed machine gun nest was built  into the sea wall at the west end of the Earlsferry beach.  If a landing had been attempted on the beach this gun emplacement was capable of sweeping the entire length of the beach including to the harbour. All around the shoreline of the beaches heavy concrete blocks were built and spaced at just the right distance and of a height such that vehicles that might try to come ashore would become high centered.

 

Fairways on the golf course and the farm fields had rows of telephone size poles implanted such as to make the safe landing of German aircraft and troop carrying gliders impossible. The Germans did the same thing on the fields of France.   After D Day these  wrecked havoc with our men who were onboard our Horsa  troop carrying gliders.

 

The call went out for scrap metals to be converted into munitions. Many of the houses in Earlsferry had decorative iron gates and railings around the properties. These were all cut off and donated. Almost a quarter of a mile of closely spaced heavy five foot high iron fencing rods that belonged to the Lilburn family of Craigforth House, where it bordered their field and the West Sea Road, were donated. The large heavy wrought iron gate that barred the entry way to the Dome Park also went.  Women thinned out their kitchen cupboards and donated several of their aluminium pots and pans to be melted down to be made into aircraft parts. Between World War I and World War II Isaac Newlands, scrap merchant, who lived at Pittenweem had amassed an enormous pile of scrap metals. His scrap yard was swept clean. No doubt the shrewd Isaac had anticipated this event. At the Earlsferry chapel and at the Elie harbor were several old World War I artillery cannons. These all disappeared in the name of the cause. (Also read my "Shipwreck") page.)

 

A large detachment of Polish army personnel occupied the Golf Hotel where they trained as paratroopers.

 

At all times every man, woman and child carried a gas mask that was slung on the shoulder. 

 

A Home Guard unit was formed of volunteer men who also acted as Air Raid Wardens.  A high powered siren that could be heard for miles was installed on the roof of the Earlsferry Town Hall.  Another was placed near The Toll Green at Elie.

 

School age teenagers enlisted in cadet training services of the armed forces, of which I was one and were issued military uniforms. Trains started to arrive at the Elie railway station that brought evacuated children from London, Glasgow and many other cities that were likely to be targeted for concentrated air raids. The local people met the trains at the railway stations and one by one the children, who all had pinned-on labels with their name and family information, found foster homes for the duration.

 

Many of the local men and women went off to fight in the various services, some never to return.

 

The merchant ships that plied the waters of the Firth of Forth flew barrage balloons  for protection from attacking  German dive bombers.

 

In an attempt to augment the food supply the Dome Park at Chapel Green was ploughed up and planted to potatoes. This was really an exercise in frustration as at harvest time the yield was hardly worth the bother of picking up. As I recall after the first year the ground was allowed to return to it's original state of wild sea tolerant grasses.

 

As the Battle of Britain raged at the time of our darkest hour Winston Churchill buoyed the nation as he  growled the words that made every man, woman and child in the country stand taller, "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and it's Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour." It certainly was Winston's. Our island homeland became his frontier of freedom. 

 

Later "The Spectator" was to declare, "We are a free people because a man named Winston Churchill lived."

 

Vera Lynn sang "We'll Meet Again"   and "There'll always be an England."  That was all right.  For our unenlightened English friends we used to add,  "as long as Scotland's there."  

 

Even school children were influenced by the war.  While I was at Waid Academy  my school class made a field trip  to visit the Henry Balfour factory at Leven. This factory made both the  left and right wings for Spitfire fighter aircraft.  First, on scrap metal, we learned how to use pneumatic  drills to drill  holes in wing skin panels then correctly install rivet fasteners. After we drilled  a sufficient number of practice holes  and  installed  rivets in the holes and  we were declared proficient we each got to drill holes and install  rivets in a  wing that would end up on an actual fighting Spitfire. 

 

Lumber Camp

 I'm at the center of the middle row

 

I'm at the center of the front row

Elie's Alan Mc.Roberts on my right.

 

Another Waid Academy field trip I went on was for the whole eight weeks of one summer. Since most all of the  men of military age were off fighting the war there was a shortage of manpower for other jobs. This field trip was to the village of Deskford near the town of Cullen in Aberdeenshire.   For the summer we stayed in the village school where we slept on straw filled mattress palliasses, (which we renamed "friendly donkeys.") We worked as forestry workers. After trees were felled our job was to cut off all of the side branches. These telephone pole size logs were planted in level fields at places where it was thought that German aircraft might try to make a landing.   We were issued razor sharp axes and sharpening stones. It's a wonder that none of us was seriously injured although several quite large wounds were inflicted by skidding and bouncing axes. This was in the day when the chain saw was yet to be invented.

 

On nights that German bombers headed our way the throbbing and groaning of the engines of the heavily bomb laden aircraft could be heard ten miles or more away. The primary target in Scotland was Glasgow and the surrounding area where our heavy industrial factories were located, the shipbuilding yards on the River Clyde, the Rolls-Royce engine plant at Hillington, the torpedo manufacturing facility at Greenock to name just a very few.   The Royal Naval dockyard at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth was another prime target. 

 

First the air raid sirens would sound with a rise and fall undulating wail to indicate that enemy aircraft were in the vicinity. Then the searchlights on the golf course would stab the darkness and sweep the skies. As bombers were caught and held in the glare of the intense beams of light the ack-ack guns, that were in place alongside of the lights, would open up. A few bombers would turn back but the rest would push on to their targets. Before morning many civilians in the Glasgow area would die.

 

"Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

 

In the fell clutch of circumstance,

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody but unbowed."

 William Henley

 

 

It was always a relief when the monotone wail of the sirens signaled the "All Clear" to indicate that the danger had passed. It just so happened that from the take-off airfields in Germany, Earlsferry  and the East Neuk of Fife lay under the flight path of the bombers that were heading for Glasgow. When the coastal searchlights caught and held an enemy aircraft the usual response from the aircraft was the indiscriminate jettisoning of the bomb load and the fleeing for home of the aircraft before being caught by our night fighters. One night one of my best friends, a Waid Academy classmate who lived at Crail,  was shutting up his pet rabbits for the night in their hutch at the end of his garden.  A jettisoned high explosive bomb took his life. Not one thread of his clothing was found. Several times Earlsferry and other of the coastal villages were the recipients of these abandoned bomb loads. Small fire starting incendiary bombs were held in large containers nicknamed Molotov Breadbaskets. The incendiary bombs were made of a magnesium casing with a core of phosphorus.  After being dropped the doors on these containers sprung open to shower the bombs in all directions. Many fell on the Earlsferry golf course. On nights of air raid attack we local boys scooped buckets of sand from the bunkers on the golf course, to smother the intensely hot but slow burning bombs. At daylight after the smothered incendiary bombs had time to cool off we collected the finned tail cones as souvenirs and as boys will be boys we gathered up the half burned out bombs, took them down to the beach where we made them into a pile and reset them on fire till they burned out to nothing. Just about every boy had a collection of shrapnel, high explosive bomb fragments which made great boy type trading stock.

 

There were times that German submarines attempted to penetrate the Firth of Forth. Our destroyers on detecting one would race up and down the Firth as they heaved depth charges overboard. When this happened the shoreline of our beaches for miles became strewn with all kinds of fish that were killed by the concussion of the blasts. Few fish went to waste as the East of Fife residents ate as many as could be hauled home.

 

Our beaches became strewn with flotsam and jetsam from deck cargo as our ships were torpedoed by German submarines and sunk in the North Sea. The saddest thing was the number of Royal Navy and Merchant Marine  hats that floated in to arrive on the tide lines of the beaches - the only thing now visible of the men who had worn them before they sank beneath the waves as the sea claimed them.

 

There was one high explosive bomb that really ticked me off. Straight down from the Cadgers Wynd was my favourite lobster hole. This rocky place was inshore to the extent that even in a neap tide the sea would go far enough out for me to get good sized lobsters. Until one day. I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  Where my fail-me-never lobster getting place had been was an enormous bomb crater. I never could decide if this crater was caused by a high explosive German bomb or whether it was caused by one of our own anti-submarine mines that had broken loose from it's moorings out in the firth and had drifted in to the shore where it had exploded as the waves threw it against the rocks. We had several instances of our mines breaking loose from their moorings and drifting in to the shore to end up unexploded at the high tide mark. These were carefully removed by personnel of the army's bomb disposal squad who took them to a remote area to be exploded.

 

Even the Earlsferry lobsters felt the brunt of the war.

 

When the winds of war blew across the Pacific had Japan not committed it's ultimate act of folly by attacking Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941  I very much doubt that I'd be writing this today.  

 

The old Scottish adage was verified.  " It's an ell wund that disnae blaw somebody some guid."    After two years and three months of Britain and it's allies fighting alone against Germany, the USA declared war on Japan and Germany and joined us in our struggle. Just before Pearl Harbor, Great Britain was in dire straits and there was a high level of concern that the island homeland would be invaded by Germany. As there were but few of us who could speak German and could answer the question, Sprechen sie Deutsch ?, it's more than likely that had we been invaded the streets would have run red with our blood.

 

For the United Kingdom, World War II began on September 3rd 1939

Italy teamed up with Germany and declared war on Great Britain on June the 10th. 1940

The United States entered the fray on the Monday after Pearl Harbor, December 8th 1941 (Although, before Pearl Harbor, the USA was not in this war, a "Special Relationship" had been formed between the USA and the UK.)

The conflict with Germany ended on May 8th 1945

The conflict with Japan ended on August 15th 1945

 

During these years of war it has been tabulated that over 60 million people died. Just one of the 60 million is one too many.

 

For both sides, war is the ultimate expression of mankind's failure. 

 

To celebrate the end of the conflict the people of the towns and villages all over the country collected combustible materials of every type imaginable to build enormous victory bonfires.  The Earlsferry and Elie bonfire was built above the  quarry near The Ferry Road. Our bonfire was so illuminating that night became almost like day. The heat was so intense that  onlookers had to move to a considerable distance from the flames.  Bonfires could be seen burning  at each of the  towns all along both the southern  and the northern shores of the Firth of Forth. We sang "Roll out the Barrel".  Partying and merriment went on all night long and right into the next day.  After daylight the remains of our bonfire  smoldered for over a week.

 

It seems like those who want to dominate and subjugate others will never learn that, in the long run, war accomplishes nothing but death, destruction, misery and poverty.

 

Around the world, cities, towns and villages acquired  new war memorials and "The bells of hell went ting-a-ling-a-ling" as the names of more of the world's most beautiful young men and women got chiseled into polished granite. The surviving maimed and disabled returned to their homes to cope as best they could.

And ---to those who never made it home----

 

Lest we forget

 

 remember that ----- 

 

  "In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses row on row"