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WW2 in Caithness

Friday 17th July 2020

As World War Two slips more and more into history, The Wick Society is committed to ensuring that artifacts, pictures and memories that tell of the times, are preserved.





Our Museums may be closed but our heritage still matters

As World War Two slips more and more into history, The Wick Society is committed to ensuring that artifacts, pictures and memories that tell of the times, are preserved. The Wick Heritage Museum maintains a dedicated Military Display, containing a number of wartime related items. 

At sea the War was never far from Caithness. Fishermen were called up and fishing boats were requisitioned.

This Johnston Photograph portrait shows a Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, the RNVR was an officer only force and wore a unique rank braid with wavy lines and a square shaped loop – hence the term the ‘Wavy Navy.’

HMS Exmouth was sunk by a German U-boat off Noss Head on January 21, 1940. Six bodies were washed up near Wick, with another nine found on the coast 12 miles away. It was decided the sailors should be buried at Wick cemetery with full military honours. More information can be found in this article from the John O' Groat Journal.

The war in the air, of course, had devastating effects on Wick. On 2nd July 1940 two bombs fell on Bank Row, killing seven men, three women, and five children

Wick also served as a major air base during World War Two with a number of squadrons being stationed here over the duration of the war. Unfortunately, Caithness witnessed a number of our own aircraft become the victims of crashes.

On December 1943 a Beaufighter aircraft of 404 Squadron took off from Wick. Warrant Officer William Kerr ‘Red’ McGrath of the Royal Canadian Air Force was the navigator. The aircraft was carrying a full fuel load along with its bombs. Shortly after take-off the engine failed and at approximately only 100 feet above the ground, the aircraft crashed at 1233 into a piece of moorland near Strath about 1.5 miles west of Watten. On impact the aircraft burst into flames, witnesses recalled seeing a fireball burst into the sky. The tail of the aircraft was almost severed, and some undercarriage was found 50 yards away.

The pilot, Flying Officer J S Cummins, was trapped and unconscious but Warrant Officer McGrath who was uninjured managed to extricate himself from the aircraft and then went to the aid of the pilot whose right foot was locked under the rudder bar and the control column had been forced against his stomach. McGrath went about releasing the pilot by unlocking the top hatch he was able to move the control column, unfasten the seat belt and remove his right flying boot. With something of a superhuman effort McGrath managed to get the pilot out of the wreckage and dragged him across the rough ground to relative safety. McGrath then made for the nearest farmhouse to get assistance. Pilot Cummings, undoubtably owed his life to his navigator. In recognition of his efforts he was awarded the George Medal.

Protecting those at home were members of  the Home Guard. They were volunteers who were for various reasons unable to join the regular army.  For some their day jobs were necessary for the continued running of the country. They came from all walks of life. Life at home was by necessity different. Many people had their movement restricted and were required to carry identity cards. Yet it was also important that a normal semblance of life was maintained. 

Caithness provided many men and women for service during World War Two.

The Home Guard unit in front of Miller Academy, Thurso


Life at home was by necessity different. Many people had their movement restricted and were required to carry identity cards. Yet it was also important that a normal semblance of life was maintained. Caithness provided many men and women for service during World War Two. Nucleus; the Nuclear and Caithness Archive’s ‘Caithness at War’ series provides an excellent account of the was at both home and abroad.


Further information

Nucleus; the Nuclear and Caithness Archive’s ‘Caithness at War’ series provides an excellent account of the wars at both home and abroad.

https://www.highlifehighland.com/nucleus-nuclear-caithness-archives/caithness-at-war/ 

Wick Voices has been able to preserve some personal memories of wartime – listen to Robbie Larnach from Lybster retell about the confusion of D-Day.

Click here to listen to the recording




Written by Ian Leith

The Wick Society
18 - 27 Bank Row, Wick, Caithness, KW1 5EY

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