20th Century

The Second World War

Sadly, bad news was heard again from over the hills and faraway as drumbeats sounded. It was those bloody Huns again! The alarms started to become shriller in 1938 and dark clouds from the East and South could be seen beyond Turleum Top. And so it was on Sunday, September 3rd, 1939, at 11.00 a.m. that war with Germany was declared.

At that time the village of Comrie and Highland Strathearn had a population of about 1000 to 1200 people. Comrie was home to seven grocer’s shops, three baker’s shops, two blacksmith’s smiddys, three draper’s shops, two fishmongers, two ironmongers, two butcher’s shops, one tailor, one gas works, a railway station and goods yard, six farm dairies with door to door services. In addition there were vans sent out to cover the area selling for Lipton’s, the Co-op and Coopers of Crieff, Mailer’s from Auchterarder, and various fish vans from as far afield as Aberdeenshire. Furthermore it had a tennis court, a golf course, a putting green, one bowling green, two curling ponds, a football team called Comrie Rovers and a cricket team and to cap it all off, a Pipe and Drum Band and annually held Highland Games. It also possessed a newly minted POW camp at Cultybraggan. Eventually the camp housed 4000 die-hard Nazis.

Within a very short period of time strange soldiers from foreign lands took up residence in tents and billets throughout the area. There were the Buffs from East Kent, the Sherwood Foresters (we needed a Robin Hood!), units of the Polish army (one collected all the wool left on barbed wire fences by sheep and knitted himself a pair of socks with it!), burly and brawny French Canadians (sadly many were killed at Dieppe), a mountain division, which was billeted in Strowan with horses and mules), and home troops such as the Glasgow Highlanders (52nd Lowland Division) and the Cameronians. There were also Indian troops and other Commonwealth soldiers. My grannie up the Ross had two officers billeted in her tiny home. On a recent visit there I wondered where they all slept!

The old mansion at Dunira became a field hospital for Poles and others and many wee lassies from beyond came into the area as nurses, nurses’ aides, land girls, and the like. One of our farmer friends met his future wife here. She was a nurse from the Black Isle and he was a local farmer. Electricity flew and they married and celebrated sixty years of married life, before passing on. His brother married a land girl from Port of Menteith.

Dunira House

The Church and all the halls were pressed into service as billets and for other functions. Older local people applied for jobs in the Fire Service, the Air Raid Precautions, (ARP) - they were all needed sooner than later!, the Home Guard, the Red Cross, the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS). Everyone pitched in for the War effort. There was an influx of teachers from Glasgow, gas masks were issued as were identity cards and rationing came in. Everyone had a ration card. Young people were encouraged to join the Cubs and Brownies, the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides. They collected waste paper, tin cans and all homes gave in aluminium pot and pans. Railings were stripped away and sent too many places as scrap metal. It must have been a difficult place to move around in as the road and street signs were removed and the stone milestones painted over.

“Cousin" John MacIntyre applied for a job as a porter at the Comrie Railway station. After the physical examination he was turned down as the “powers that be” thought his legs were too thin and he would not be able to carry heavy luggage! He was one of the strongest men in the area and walked for miles and carried heavy loads up to the day of his death! I well remember meeting him at after his day's sojourn in the hills. He put down his pole which must have carried ten or so hares, stoked his pipe, and leant on the gate into the filed, and told what he had seen and done that day. He was, like so many Comrie folk of yesteryear, a walking encyclopedia.

The first real enemy action experienced in Comrie was in 1941. It is not generally known but Comrie shares a common bond with London, Coventry and Clydebank in that it received unwelcome aerial visitors. It was bombed by the Luftwaffe during the Clydebank Blitz in March of that year. My heavily pregnant mother, who had survived the Blitz in London, returned to Comrie and went to stay with her mother-in-law, my grandmother in the Ross and had her baby there, my brother David, on March 3rd. On the night of Thursday, March 13th, a German bomber flew over Comrie. He had probably been hit at Clydebank and probably to gain height, dropped his bombs in Glen Lednock, near Balmuick, although one also fell near Dunira. My mother, much to the astonishment of my grandmother, dived under the table in the house on hearing the whine of the falling bombs, covering her new born baby at the same time. It is a family story that they were chasing after my mother but I know in fact that they were trying to get my brother, now residing in Crieff! Shortly thereafter a barrage balloon which had broken away from its moorings sailed less than majestically over the Aberuchill Mountains.

Later in the spring of that year, when the corn was about four inches high, a Blackburn Fighter Aircraft crash landed in Dalginross. The trainee pilot had lost his way and landed in a field. Another seasoned pilot came along a few days later and, after two tries, as the aircraft had landed in a boggy patch of the field, flew it back to its base.

Blackburn Fighter-Roc

And so the rallying cry was heard again participants from Comrie and Highland Strathearn played their part. Men and women served in every sector of the War and in every military branch. Local boys enlisted or were called up from 1939 onwards. Many local boys served in the armed forces. Ian McNaughton (the author’s uncle) was away from his home for seven years in the Royal Corps of Signals. He underwent basic training at Catterick Camp in Yorkshire. By shear chance he met Jimmie Mitchell from the Lechkin at a Church service. The coincidence is astonishing when one thinks of the tens of thousands of men training in this camp. They met on several occasions eventually agreeing that if they missed each other it was because either had been posted (Jim eventually spent five years in Burma). One day Ian did not show up at the designated point. Instead he was sent to Gourock. There, along with thousands of other soldiers he boarded a lighter which took him to a large ship one very foggy night on the River Clyde. She was camouflaged in grey, and she had sheer sides to her. It turned out to be the “Queen Elizabeth” who took the troops to Alexandria in Egypt. There he served in North Africa eventually being part of the victorious Battle of El Alamein and the big Western push.

There is a brilliant painting in the Scottish National War Museum of the commanding officer of the 51st Highland Division, Major-General Douglas Wimberley, kneeling over a map of the coming battle. In order to simplify what was going to be a fluid battle he had circled strategic areas on the map representing significant objectives. Each had been named from towns in Scotland and one easily sees designated areas named Comrie and Crieff.

The Planning of the Second Battle of El Alamein


This is a painting on loan to the Scottish National War Museum in Edinburgh castle. It shows Major-General Douglas Wimberley, Commander of the 51st Highland Division, at the second Battle of El Alamein. He is seen kneeling on a model of the future battlefield. He is pointing out and explaining to his Brigade Commanders the objectives to be assaulted. The painting identifies areas with circles which are designated from a town or village in Scotland to aid the troops. Comrie is defined behind the first wave called Elgin, Leven and Paisley. In many cases the soldiers were from these places. Wimberley was born in Inverness and wanted only Scottish troops under his command.

From there, after a futile expedition into Palestine and the Lebanon, Ian, along with thousands of other troops landed at Anzio in Italy and slogged his way through the rain finishing with Canadian troops in the town of Ortona. He was one of the famed “D-Day Dodgers!” He was given a furlough in the UK and made his way to Crieff. Arriving late in the evening and, as there were no buses or trucks going west, he had to walk from Crieff to Comrie with all his gear and rifle, including having his arm in a sling, arriving at four o’clock in the morning! His parents were astonished when they saw him at four o’clock in the morning!

This was followed by further service in Belgium. On one day his path crossed that of his brother David ( the author's father) and the two met in Brussels. They spent the afternoon at the Battlefield of Waterloo. However, to arrange this caused some real difficulty. David was an officer and Ian was not, therefore they had to get special permission to meet and spend that day together. Who would believe that, nowadays?

From there he was sent into Germany and on the way was amongst the first British troops to come across Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He never forgot this experience. He was with Montgomery’s 21st Army Group and was seconded to go to Berlin arriving there in June just a month after the city had been taken by the Russians. Things were so bad there that he was given a sten gun, not to shoot Germans, but to shoot out of control Russians! At this stage the Russians were much more dangerous than the defeated Germans. Again, he witnessed thousands of dead Germans all over the city and the whole experience cast a shadow over his life. He stayed for a year or so in Berlin where he finished his war at Tempelhof. Naturally his war service did not count in any way to his service in the railway when he came to retire. This affected his pension dramatically! So much for “Hail, the Conquering Hero comes!”

His brother, David Baird McNaughton, also did his bit serving initially in the Home Guard in Bedfordshire. He was made a Corporal with a bicycle. Later on he was given a motor bike which was, “one of the greatest prizes he was ever given!” Thereafter he went to OCTU and was commissioned into the Royal Engineers. He landed at Gold Beach, Normandy on D+1. The ship that took him here was the “Yewglen” and it ran right up on to the beach at 8.00 a.m. in the morning. The first task was to unload the ship’s cargo which consisted of almost 700 tons of Amatol. One does not want to mess about with that stuff! The "Yewglen" was originally named the "Fairmuir," then renamed "Lokrum" and further renamed the "Yewglen" and subsequently the "Holderness." Two weeks later, on June 18th, during the great channel storm she was washed up on the Juno beach. Juno beach was the Canadian landing beach. The vessel was refloated on the 21st June.

After several days there discharging cargo and troops from ships and all without washing he was allowed to take his men to a nearby river for a wash, cleanup and a swim, and a couple of hours away from the beaches. Returning by the same route with his eighty men he was stopped by a military patrol who told him that he could not return that way as the field they had walked through on their way from the beach was a minefield! Later in June he worked as a Disembarkation officer on the British Mulberry Harbour.

Three months later he was sent to Antwerp in Belgium and then seconded on to Java and Sumatra. He and his troops, mainly Indians consisting of Hindus and Muslims, were being trained to be amongst the first British troops to land in Japan. The British were to go in first, you see! The caste system was extent then, as now, and if one’s shadow so much as passed over a plate of food, it was immediately condemned by the higher caste as being defiled. As part and parcel of this system, one had wet and dry sweepers, as well as untouchables. God knows how everything was managed, but they were good soldiers though!

He finished his war in Padang where, along with his Indian troops, he had to guard 15000 armed Japanese soldiers! Everyone heard the Emperor, Hirohito, surrender on the radio and much to the delight of everyone on the British side the war was over, and they were going home soon. Not everyone, however, was happy. There was a Japanese sergeant who thought the radio broadcast was British propaganda and a trick. He lambasted his British guards in no uncertain terms. Everyone knew they were all going home soon, so why should this man not accept this? Anyway it got to a point that several British officers complained about the sergeant’s remarks and behaviour. Remember they were armed! The British Colonel had a chat with the Japanese Colonel to ask that the sergeant fall into line. For a few days all was peace, however, he again started screaming abuse at all British ranks. Again the British Colonel had a talk with the Japanese Colonel, and nothing more was heard about the matter or from the sergeant. About three or so weeks later the British Colonel met the Japanese Colonel to make the final embarkation arrangements and mentioned that things were much better now and they all would be going home very soon. He asked innocently how the Japanese had managed to control their sergeant. The Japanese Colonel said that the problem was solved and that the British would never hear from the sergeant again. The British Colonel then asked delicately what method had been used to control the sergeant. He was flabbergasted when the Japanese Colonel told him that they had executed the sergeant by chopping off his head!

Both Ian and David returned to the land fit for heroes and I can recall only smatterings about what they did in the War. They did not need therapists, never suffered from post-traumatic stress, but just got on with life. He did suffer, however, after the War from recurrent malaria.

David and Ian McNaughton. Glenview, the Ross, Comrie in September, 1944

In the fifties I was at the village square when I was very young a large black, gleaming Bentley drew up at the kerbside. This was quite impressive. From it stepped a very tall man who strode with purpose into the newsagents. In awe of the car and this stalwart I asked my father who this Colossus was. “Oh,” he said “that is Colonel M… He was in the Black Watch.” Seeing me stare wide-eyed in admiration he said “you see that wee man over there with the long grey trench coat with the grey cap talking to those two men?: “Yes,” I said. “Well then,” my father said, “that wee man has killed more Germans that that Colonel has ever seen.” The wee man in grey had been a Lewis gunner during the Great War and had been awarded the Military Medal for his bravery. Who would have thought?

The late Jim Mitchell, a great friend, and who used to shoot for Scotland, spent five years in Burma coming back having had tropical sprue, dysentery, berri-berri, jungle sores and other ailments. He very rarely mentioned to me that he had been there although I knew that he had been in the 17th Indian Division. He had been in the Arakan and mentioned that the best way forward was to spray the trees with machine gun fire as that got rid of the snipers! Later he was at Meiktila and on the way mentioned walking through a completely abandoned town. He said it gave him a real eerie feeling! I am sure it did! I asked him if he had ever seen anyone famous like Slim, Wingate or Mountbatten. He said he had seen the Chindits and none of them carried any extra fat He also saw Field Marshall Slim on a number of occasions. On one occasion they had received word that Mountbatten was coming to see them and inspect them about the end of the war. The sergeant drew up the troop and roared them to attention when Mountbatten appeared. No-one moved. It was said that they would have moved for Slim, but never Mountbatten!

An uncle of mine, the late Bill Fraser who spent his declining years in Comrie also spent five years in Burma with the 25th Indian division. – The Black Cats. I asked what he most feared during that time in the war. He said it was the loss of his bayonet. It was a court martial offence to lose a piece of the King Emperor’s equipment. He had lost this particular bayonet and the thought of a court martial plagued him throughout his time in Burma. He was once moving through elephant grass which was about twelve feet in height. Just in time he caught a reflected flash of light from the sun and turned and fired his rifle and a Jap died at that spot! His bayonet may have got caught in the stems of grass creating the flash. It was a “him or me” moment. When I asked him what he thought about it and he said with a wry smile, “Well ah wasnae gawen tae shake his hand!” One of his comrades when they were being shelled dived into a hole in the ground there to come face to face with a cobra. This he blasted to death with a bren gun! One other comrade was bitten between the thumb and the forefinger by a cobra and was lucky to survive. I recall once raving to him about Roger Bannister, the runner, breaking the four minute mile. He was quite unimpressed and said he had done that quite often. When I pressed for an explanation he said “When the whole of the Japanese army is chasing you through the jungle you can easily run a four minute mile!” He was blown out of a truck on one occasion and still, to the day he died, picked shrapnel from his legs! They were regularly shelled by the Japs at meal times because their plates were reflected in the sunlight but a General in the British army said that meal time regulations could not be changed and many were killed as a result. Eventually, in desperation, at the end of the war Bill found an old somewhat beaten up bayonet which he handed in with his rifle…and no-one said a word!

In Burma he contracted TB as well as picking up several other tropical diseases and like Jim, spent many months in convalescent hospitals in India and the UK. He was invalided out of the Army and because of his ailments when he returned to Glasgow could only take on light work. He worked as a messenger for the Halifax Building Society until he retired. They eventually screwed him out of a retirement package giving him, with reluctance, an ex-gratia payment instead. He applied for an army pension and it took over forty years for them to award him a small pension for his war wounds.

Some years ago he was able to go to the Burma Star Association march past in Perth and he had been asked by the British Legion to put on his miniatures and my late Aunt busied herself sewing them on to the medal strip. He was watching her as she started to sew in a yellow strip. At that time he said quietly, “Kay, please don’t sew that yellow medal on to the others.” When enquiring why not my Aunt was the told that he had taken it off the body of a dead Japanese colonel!

By happenstance after the war his army boss, Field Marshall “Uncle” Bill Slim used to visit a relative of his (sister) in the area. She was married to a man called Robertson who lived at Dundurn. He once called up a local tradesman mentioning that he had been kept awake by the scratching of a wee mouse and asked for assistance in tracking it down. The local tradesman used to have great delight when telling the story of how he and the Field Marshal got down on their hands and knees searching for, and eventually finding, a mousehole. Slim, was a real soldier's man, and much to the pleasure of the local barber, had his hair cut in Comrie.

Field Marshall William Slim as a Lieutenant General

Others served in different branches of the armed forces. One quiet and unassuming man flew almost 30 missions as a Tail Gunner in a Lancaster bomber. You would never know as we speed through the village! Jack Elliott came home with the complete set of German maps outlining “Operation Sealion” – the invasion of Britain! He had found them in a bombed out building in Brussels. Many Land Army girls came into the area as did nurses and others. Some stayed and were married to local chaps after the war.

Sadly more names were added to the War Memorial for their contribution. These men did not return to Highland Strathearn and are buried at different places throughout the world. They were:

Piper Duncan McLaren – 6th Black Watch – killed in France on the 24th May, 1940, and buried in Outtersteene Communal Cemetery in Bailleul.

Outtersteene Communal Cemetery in Bailleul in France

Douglas Carr – Royal Air Force – Missing at Sea, July 5th, 1940.

William (Bill) Anderson – Royal Army Signal Corps – Missing at Sea in 1942.

Private Joseph Keillour – 6th Black Watch – killed in Tunisia on 24th April, 1943, and buried in Massicault War Cemetery in Tunisia.

Massicault War Cemetery, Tunisia

Lance Corporal Duncan MacFarlane – 1st Black Watch died in East Prussia, 13th October, 1943, and buried in Malburk (Marienburg) War Cemetery.

Malburk (Marienburg) War Cemetery.

Hector Hyndman – Royal Air Force – killed in Moncton, New Brunswick in Canada in 1943. He was being trained to fly and was killed on his first solo flight. He was 21 years old and is buried in Moncton's Elmwood Cemetery.

Elmwood Cemetery in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Private Robert Sharp – 8th Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders – killed in Italy on the 8th December, 1943, and buried at the Ancona War Cemetery.

Ancona War Cemetery in Italy

Fusilier William Johnston – 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers – killed in Italy on 17thJanuary, 1944, and buried in Minturno War Cemetery.

Minturno War Cemetery

Lance Sergeant Duncan Cummings – 1st Regiment – Recce Corps – killed in Italy on the 10th March, 1944, and buried at Anzio Beachead War Cemetery.

Beach Head War Cemetery, Anzio

Corporal Jack McGowan Kay – 6th Armed Regiment – Royal Canadians – killed at Normandy on 6th June, 1944, and buried at Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian Cemetery.

Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian Cemetery

Sergeant Jonathan Allardyce Wilson – 5th Black Watch – killed in Belgium on the 16th December, 1944, and buried at the Antwerp War Cemetery.

Schoonselhof Cemetery, Antwerp in Belgium

Gunner Peter McArthur – 48th Light A/A Regiment, Royal Artillery – killed in North Borneo on 8th April, 1945, and buried in Labuan War Cemetery.

Labuan War Cemetery

They are not forgotten and many a silent tear is still shed.

Note: The photographs of the cemeteries were taken from Wikipedia.