Secret Scotland

If it's secret, and in Scotland…

World War II is still lying around – in some places

It was nice to see our Commando and SOE (Special Operation Executive) training areas in the Highlands near Fort William get a mention in an article inspired by the occasions where old ordnance is still uncovered in unexpected places. Well, unexpected for those who haven’t been hunting the stuff for years.

In a fairly long article for the BBC, the idea of enjoying q nice wander in the countryside was tempered with:

But some of these idyllic spots hide potentially explosive secrets.

Every year, unsuspecting members of the public stumble upon dozens of undetonated shells and bombs, most dating back to World War II.

So what happened in these remote places during the war? And how much do we know about the people who lived and worked there?

Of the Scottish training, it said:

The D-Day landings of WWII were key to the liberation of German-occupied western Europe. Although bloody, brutal and chaotic, they had been rehearsed at length.

Training took place around the UK, including at Lochaber in the Scottish Highlands, where troops dodged live bullets as they practised beach assaults.

Commandos were based at Achnacarry, near Fort William, with Special Operations Executive (SOE) at Lochailort, near Mallaig.

Local coastguard Craig Burton said: “Camas an Lighe, more popularly known as Singing Sands, on the north coast bears witness to that history. The beaches and their dune system were used for live fire landings training prior to many operations, including D-Day. One in particular, known locally as number three beach, contains most of the evidence.”

He said: “Operations involved using fixed-height machine guns, fired above the troops as they landed. They returned fire as they advanced up the beach using rifles, machine guns, mortars, grenades and other ordnance.”

While most of the ordnance left over from those days has either been found or cleared, there’s still a chance that something might be uncovered, and remain hazardous, so anything found is best left alone and notified. High explosive is bad enough, but there have been mortar bombs with phosphorous, and they can be nasty if damaged.

Via On the trail of Britain’s WWII ‘explosive’ beauty spots

We have also looked at a number of these sites, and a number of SOE training schools are listed here:

Secret Scotland – Special Operations Executive

And for the Commandos:

Secret Scotland – Achnacarry House

The Commando monument at Spean Bridge now looks out over the area, in their memory.

July 2, 2013 Posted by | military, World War I, World War II | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inverbervie Cold War Radar Station up for sale again

Last placed on the market back in 2010, Inverbervie CEW Radar Station is up for sale again.

Few details are given in the news stories relating to the offer, and when we checked the agent’s web site and searched it for details, the property was not listed – in fact, it only came up with one house for sale when we asked it for all properties in Scotland with no other criteria.

Back in 2010, offers over £250,000 were being sought.

Our summary notes:

In 1953, a Centimetric Early Warning (CEW) radar station was built on the headland. Five radar systems were installed to provided coverage of the North Sea and north coast of Scotland, and give advance warning of the approach of any potential threats.

In 1968, the station was taken over by the US Navy, and operated in conjunction with the major monitoring station based at RAF Edzell, a little over 10 miles to the west. Edzell closed in 1977, followed by Inverbervie in 1978.

The facility lay unused for the next six years, until 1984, when it was designated Reserve Headquarters for Group Headquarters and Sector Control at Craigiebarns, Dundee.

The station was finally closed and withdrawn from service in 1993.

The bunker lay unused for a further six years, purchased by the current (2007) owner in 1999.

Information recorded by RCAHMS identifies aerial photographs of the location dating from 1954, 1957, 1967, and 1973, all of which show a small T shaped building on the headland, set within an area if approximately 40 m x 20 m, assumed to be the roof of an underground structure, with related structures nearby. The underground structure is further described as lying beneath what appears to be a cottage, but is actually part of the structure’s domestic infrastructure, such as water tanks. The entrance to the underground facility is reported to be protected by a blast door, with the interior provided with artificial lighting and ventilation. While being locally rumoured to date from the 1930s, the installation is recorded as having been built in 1952, with further work carried out in the 1960s when the mezzanine floor was added.

More details and some interior shots can be found on our Wiki page.

Inverbervie CEW Guardhouse

Inverbervie CEW Guardhouse 2001 © Nick Catford

As always, our thanks to Subterranea Britannica for permission to reproduce their material.

June 28, 2013 Posted by | Cold War, military | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Info sought on 1972 exercise to repair Rockall beacon

The site has received a request for help in location information relating to a small military exercise which took place on Rockall some years ago.

In 1972,  a group of marines were taken to Rockall on board RFA Engerdine, and tasked with repairing/rebuilding the damaged beacon which had been placed on the islet.

One of those involved would now like to find any information relating to this operation, to pass on to his grandchildren.

As ever, any information would be greatly appreciated, and passed on to the originator.

Rockall is not the best environment for any sort of beacon to be expected to survive in, and it seems the beacon referred to was one of four which have been established there over the years.

The last attempt seems to have been in 1998, but that too had failed by 2005, and current information is that no further attempts to mark the rock with a beacon have followed.

Via Michael’s List of Scottish Lighthouses: Section T

The picture of Rockall, dating from 2008, actually shows the latter beacon, just visible on the summit of the islet.


Rockall © Andy Strangeway via geograph

June 7, 2013 Posted by | Appeal, Maritime, military | , | Leave a comment

Arctic Convoy exhibition opens at Edinburgh Castle

A reminder that the War Museum at Edinburgh Castle is hosting a special exhibition about the Arctic Convoys – admission is included with admission to the castle.

The date seems to have changed slightly compared to the advance news of the exhibition, when the opening date was given as May 24, 2013, and the date given now is today, May 29.

The museum’s web page does not indicate when the exhibition ends, but it was previously given as March 2014, so you don’t have to rush.

Then prime minister Winston Churchill admitted the mission to keep the supply lines of munitions, tanks, lorries, fuel and food open was “the worst journey in the world”, and they were dubbed the “suicide missions” by many of those who served on them, as the convoys had to run the gauntlet of submarine, air, and battleship attacks in harsh sub-zero conditions through the Arctic Ocean.

Arctic Convoys: 1941-45

Open daily 9:45–17:45

Material has been gathered from numerous sources, including private collections, loans from the Imperial War Museum, and museums in Russia. The exhibition will also include recordings of personal testimonies from surviving veterans of the convoys. It is often forgotten that many of those who took part in the convoys were not actually in the Royal Navy, but were simply merchant seamen or fisherman who had been called up for duty.

Those involved with efforts to establish a permanent museum to the Arctic Convoys, to be located at Loch Ewe, where many of the convoys formed and departed from, have also helped with contributions to the Edinburgh exhibition.

Jacky Brookes, manager of the Russian Arctic Convoys Museum Project in Loch Ewe, said: “We’re delighted the exhibition is happening and hope it will help raise the profile of getting a permanent museum”

We have had occasion to mention the museum project at Loch Ewe before:

Ross-shire museum call for Arctic Convoy veterans

HMS Scylla, a Dido-class cruiser of the Royal Navy, served with the Home Fleet on Arctic convoy duties, and is seen below while anchored on the Clyde:

HMS Scylla on the Clyde

HMS Scylla on the Clyde

Click on the image below to see a British Pathé short, shot in Scandinavian waters, and showing various shots of ships in a large convoy en route to Russia where:

Aboard the cruiser ‘Scylla’ Lieutenant-Commander McKean in a fur hat keeps a running commentary on the battle for the benefit of the ship’s company.

A column of black smoke rises into the sky after one of the ships is hit. The Scylla draws alongside the minesweeper ‘Harrier’. The two ships are lashed together while travelling at speed as the Scylla and takes on survivors of a torpedoed freighter.

The escort Commander, Rear Admiral Burnett, is put in breeches buoy and slung across to a destroyer so the Scylla can go ahead with survivors. C/U of Burnett on a ship, smiling and looking through binoculars.

May 29, 2013 Posted by | Maritime, military, Naval, Transport, World War II | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pssst!… Want to know some secret French stuff?

Antenna tower

This sort of story always has me near helpless on the floor with laughter…

Those who, in theory at least, should be a lot smarter, have yet to grasp the concept of how the greatest creator of publicity for something, anything, is to demand it is given privacy.

The French Secret Service is certainly a stranger to the concept, as are most people who demand privacy. After all, isn’t the best and cheapest way for a waste-of-skin celebrity to get their unwanted faces plastered across the media for them simply to start up some gripe about not being given privacy?

In this case, the French seem to be demanding that Wikipedia take down a page (from 2009, four years ago!) that they seem to have suddenly developed some sort of phobia over:

French agents at the Direction Centrale du Renseignement Intérieur (DCRI), apparently turning their attention to Wikipedia for the first time in years, demanded last month that the Wikimedia Foundation delete an entry about a military radio relay station written in 2009.

When Wikimedia refused, the DCRI approached a French man with administrative editing rights on Wikipedia about taking down the page. The man told them that he had no involvement with the page’s creation or hosting. And that his mother told him not to talk to strangers.

Via French Secret Service Freaks Out About Seemingly Nonexistent Military Secrets On Wikipedia | Gizmodo UK

There’s even a video of the chief of the radio relay station, station hertzienne militaire de Pierre sur Haute, giving an interview about the station’s operations, and taking a reporter on a tour of the facilities.

This one warms up a sore spot I have, and would almost post a pic just to get revenge, but the house and location are too recognisable and the incident too recent – I just had an altercation with a home owner who came running up to me and asked me what I thought I was doing. I though I was standing in a public street taking photographs of some interesting decorations, but he seemed to think I was taking pictures of his house, was interfering with his children (who were at school at the time of day concerned), and even threw worrying his wife into the pot at one point.

I pointed out, and showed him (aren’t digital cameras wonderful?) that I had not even caught his hovel in any of my shots, let alone take any pictures of it, but regardless, we did not part the best of friends.

Yes folks… there are still nut jobs out there, fuelled by the dregs of the media and their alarmist stories carrying tales of evil people openly carrying cameras in public.

Just wait until they learn about miniature hidden cameras and phones that have cameras built in, and can even take moving pictures, so people can wander about taking covert pics and not even be noticed.



April 8, 2013 Posted by | military | , , , , | Leave a comment

Exercise Joint Warrior JW 131 2013 starts soon

The twice yearly military exercises of Joint Warrior are due to begin in various area in and around Scotland, on land and sea, are due to begin soon, and always generate interest in those keen to pop out and grab some pics of the participants, usually as they gather in the Firth of Clyde, but also as they move around the country.

The exercises usually start with the maritime element in April, and the notification is given below.

The second part of the exercise will take place in October.

Joint Warrior (JW) 131, will take place from 15 until 29 April 2013 and will comprise of a programme of exercises conducted by land forces, warships, submarines and aircraft across the UK. The maritime element (15 until 25 April) is focussed in the offshore and coastal waters to the north east, north and north west of Scotland.

See the note issued by the Joint Tactical Exercise Planning Staff…


JW112 Brief to FV Ferry – 20130301-JW131-Brief-for-fishing-vessels-and-ferries-U-SOSM.pdf  

The fun could be deemed to have started already, as Loch Striven has just seen some exercises have just taken place off the Isle of Bute:

Zak caught HMS Brocklesby on Wednesday, one of eight Hunt-class mine countermeasures vessels based in Portsmouth (launched in 1982 and commissioned 13 months later), which had been joined by  HMS Pembroke, a Sandown-class minehunter based at HMNB Clyde at Faslane, for an exercise with a Dassault jet in the area off Ardbeg and Port Bannatyne, where the sound of gunfire caught folk’s attention (seems the local paper went for a look, but was way behind ‘our’ favourite photographer):

Rafale vs minesweepers

Dassault Falcon 20E – G-FRAD vs minesweepers – © Zak – Click image for original

Smoky minesweeper

Smoky minesweeper – HMS Brocklesby – © Zak – Click image for original

Best part of a week behind SeSco, the media has finally woken up and mentioned JW!

More than 5,000 UK personnel are to take part in the largest military exercise in Europe this year, the MoD has said.

Exercise Joint Warrior will test their ability to work together with the forces of nine other countries.

It will take place across Scotland from 15 to 29 April and will involve 5,250 UK military personnel.

Defence Secretary Philip Hammond said the exercise will ensure the forces are prepared “to meet any challenge”.

“They give us the chance to test the way the different services and different nations work together, something that is vital in a multilateral world,” he added.

The exercise will involve 13,000 military personnel in total, including forces from Sweden, Germany, Brazil and the US.

There will be an airborne assault and amphibious landings as well as training in counter-insurgency, counter-piracy and interstate war.

49 ships from various navies as well as up to 40 aircraft will be involved, including RAF Tornados and Typhoons.

The Royal Marine Commandos will make a landing at Barry Buddon training camp in Angus, near Dundee.

Further activities will take place near Stranraer, Dumfries and Galloway, where all nearby residents have been informed and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) expects it will cause “no real disruption”.

Live ammunition will be used in certain exercises, on cleared ranges where it poses no risk.

Via UK deploying 5,250 personnel for Exercise Joint Warrior (April 11, 2013.)

April 6, 2013 Posted by | Maritime, military | , , , , , | 4 Comments

World War I era Peterhead lifeboat to be restored in Shetland after 100 years

Clinker built wooden boat

We don’t spot many stories arising from World War I, so it’s nice to see one which is accompanied by a tale of genuine good conduct and life saving.

We’re told that the steam drifter Ugie Brae was one of 16 Scottish vessels unfortunate enough to meet U-36 on 23 June, 1915, and be sunk some 35 miles off the Skerries. However, the crew of the German U-Boat allowed the crews time to launch their lifeboats and leave. One fisherman died a few days later, a result of a shrapnel wound, while ten men and one dog escaped from the Ugie Brae.

Their lifeboat was a 16-foot clinker built item, and was left where they landed – with some difficulty as they were exhausted and needed help to land – on the Skerries (a small archipelago about four miles north-east of Whalsay), where it was recycled and became a sheep shelter. Later still, a floor was added, and it was used to house accumulators used to power a radio.

However, a century of exposure has left the old boat in poor condition, but it is to be saved, and will be fully restored by local boat builders Robbie Tait and Jack Duncan in the boat shed at Shetland Museum and Archives in Lerwick. Dr Ian Tait, curator of Shetland Museum, explained:

“Time and the weather have, however, taken its toll and the condition of the boat had deteriorated badly. Shetland Amenity Trust was therefore approached by the Skerries community to see if ways could be found to save this historic part of Skerries heritage. It was agreed that, if the Skerries folk arranged for the boat to be transported to Lerwick, then the Shetland Museum and Archives carpenters would undertake the restoration work.”

He added: “Once restored, the lifeboat will be returned to Skerries and it will be reinstated in its landmark position as a boatie-hoose again.”

Via: WWI Shetland lifeboat to be restored – Heritage –

You can see pics of the work here: Historic lifeboat to be restored | Shetland News

A second lifeboat landed, from the Uffa, but did not survive its time exposed to the weather.

March 20, 2013 Posted by | Maritime, military, World War I | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bomber Command veterans receive Bomber Command clasp award

Bomber Command clasp

Bomber Command clasp – Crown Copyright via Royal Navy

I decided to write a separate post regarding the final award of the Bomber Command clasp to veterans of Bomber Command today, as the event was largely overshadowed by the many reports which covered the equally significant award of the Arctic Convoy medal, but then went on to mention the Bomber Command clasp as a footnote to their main content, while some even failed to mention it at all.

I could say more, but this is most certainly not the occasion.

Rather, just be glad that recognition has come at the individual level after a long wait, and follows the recently completed, and similarly long overdue Bomber Command Memorial in Green Park, London.

The Prime Minister David Cameron ended nearly 70 years of waiting for two groups of Second World War veterans, as he presented the first Arctic Star medals and Bomber Command clasps in two separate ceremonies on Tuesday.

Mr Cameron praised the veterans, apologised for their long wait for recognition and spoke of the sacrifices made by both groups.

More than 3,000 seamen died over four years from 1941 on missions to keep open supply lines to Soviet ports, travelling what Winston Churchill dubbed the “worst journey in the world”.

The Prime Minister also described how 55,000 of the 125,000 people who joined Bomber Command lost their lives.

Doug Radcliffe, secretary of the Bomber Command Association, said: “It is an honour to be here, and to have enjoyed a life and been lucky enough to survive.

“It means so much, not so much to the lucky ones like us who enjoyed 60, 70 years of life and family, but those who lost everything.”

Via Video: Bomber Command veteran welcomes ‘late honour’

Also Scots veteran Eddie Grenfell first to receive Arctic Star medal | Dundee & Tayside | News | STV

And Convoy veterans given first Arctic Star medals


March 19, 2013 Posted by | Aviation, military, World War II | , , | Leave a comment

Arctic Convoy veterans finally receive Arctic Star medal

Arctic Star medal

Arctic Star medal – Crown Copyright via Royal Navy

It’s a little unfortunate that almost every story relating to the presentation of the Arctic Star medal to veterans of the Arctic Convoys is accompanied by some reference or other to their 70-year fight to have their efforts recognised in this way. However, it is also probably fair to include that reference, since it also pays tribute to their tenacity over that period, and the efforts of those who supported them.

We haven’t been able to do much, but we have been able to mention the convoys and their preparation at Loch Ewe, prior to departure on what was described as “The worst journey in the World”, and where efforts are still ongoing to create a permanent museum to the convoys and the men who made them possible. Loch Ewe is also the place where a dwindling number of veterans assemble to mark the convoys each year, with as few as 40 being expected to make the trip there in 2013.

An exhibition is currently on show in Edinburgh Castle’s War Museum, Arctic Convoys: 1941-45, running from May 24, 2013 until March of 2014: Exhibition to give front-row seat on ‘worst journey in the world’ taken by Arctic convoys

There is even a distinctly Scottish connection to this award, as it seems that the veteran behind the medal campaign is a Scot originating from Montrose:

The leading figure behind the campaign to award the Arctic Star medal has had his award presented at a special ceremony.

Commander Eddie Grenfell, now 93, was too ill to travel to main presentation in London so his award was instead presented in Hampshire.

Mr Grenfell was born in Montrose, Scotland, but left at the age of 16 when he joined the Royal Navy and made Portsmouth his home.

He has lobbied tirelessly for 16 years for the medal to be created and was the first veteran to receive the star.

After the decision was made last December to award the star, the government was urged to act quickly because of the advancing age and ill-health of Mr Grenfell as well as other veterans.

Mr Grenfell was only released from hospital three weeks ago where he had been since last October.

He has suffered a heart attack and two cardiac arrests but managed to build up enough strength to attend Tuesday’s ceremony.

The chief of the defence staff general Sir David Richards attended the special event at the Mayor’s Parlour at Portsmouth Guildhall, Hampshire, to award Mr Grenfell.

The head of the UK armed forces had personally requested to attend the event to recognise Mr Grenfell’s lobbying efforts as well as his service on four of the Arctic convoys to Russia.

Mr Grenfell’s campaign gained massive popular support with a petition of 42,000 signatures being handed to Downing Street in 2004 as well as gaining support from local MPs.

Via Scots veteran Eddie Grenfell first to receive Arctic Star medal | Dundee & Tayside | News | STV

Also Convoy veterans given first Arctic Star medals

And Video: Bomber Command veteran welcomes ‘late honour’

March 19, 2013 Posted by | military, Naval, World War II | , , , | Leave a comment

The secret cow stampede of Eilean Mor and the World War II spies

The tiny island of Eilean Mor (Mòr) in the Scottish Hebrides gets a mention in the book by Ben Macintyre, Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies (Crown, 2012).

You can see the page here, and this is the relevant section:

When six cows stampeded on the tiny island of Eilean Mor in the Scottish Hebrides, this was immediately ascribed to secret enemy activity. That the spies were invisible was merely proof of how fiendishly clever they were at disguising themselves. Even pigeons were suspect, since it was widely believed that enemy agents had secret caches of homing pigeons around the country that they used to send messages back to Germany.

Cow spy

Innocent cow, or spy giveaway?

While this may be easily dismissed as mere paranoia, it would be unfair to do so without reflecting on what was happening at the time, and had gone before.

It seems that in World War I, more than 100,000 carrier pigeons carried important messages, saving many lives.

And in World War II, British Intelligence used more than 250,00 pigeons, and Macintyre claims that Flight Lieutenant Richard Melville Walker (who worked for MI5), was convinced “that Nazi pigeons were … pouring into Britain, by parachute, high-speed motor launch, and by U-boat.” Such was the anti-avian frenzy of the time that “Some experts claimed to be able to identify a pigeon with a German ‘accent.'”

And there were other used that they served, saving the lives of aircrews when their normal means of communication (radios) were rendered useless. See the story of Winkie, the pigeon that saved the lives of a downed bomber crew, and won the firs Dicken medal.

February 19, 2013 Posted by | military, World War I, World War II | , , , , | Leave a comment

New exhibition to mark 100 years of the Montrose Air Station

RFC roundel

On 26 February, 1913, The Royal Flying Corps (RFC) set up its first air station, at Montrose.

A special exhibition will open during February 2013 to mark the start of celebrations to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the establishment of Britain’s first operational military airfield at the air station. It would become one of the main training centre for Britain’s pilots during both World War I and World War II, as well as one of the main operational stations during those conflicts.

On 23 February, 2013, Montrose’s Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines will open to the public in a ceremony led by by Councillor Helen Oswald, the Provost of Angus, who will be accompanied by RAF airmen from 2 Squadron – the first squadron to be based at Montrose.

Dr Dan Paton, curator of Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre, said the exhibition would include several of the fascinating artefacts from the station’s proud history.

He explained: “The exhibition also features several items that have been loaned to us especially for the occasion, such as Winkie the Pigeon, who is normally a resident at Dundee’s McManus Art Gallery and Museum.

“During the Second World War, caged pigeons would often be carried in planes so they could fetch help if anything went wrong. Winkie was in a bomber flying from Leuchars when it was hit by enemy fire and went down in the North Sea. On release from her cage, Winkie flew to Broughty Ferry, where she raised the alarm and the crew were saved. In recognition of her bravery, Winkie was awarded the Dicken Medal and, after she died, her body was preserved so future generations would remember her.”

The exhibition will also feature a diorama providing a miniature 3D aerial view of Montrose Air Station as it was in 1940 and the cross from a grave in France of a British pilot who trained at Montrose and was killed in action in 1917.

Via Montrose military airfield to celebrate 100 years – Heritage –

Winkie the pigeon – first recipient of Dicken Medal

The story about Winkie is actually somewhat more impressive than the above summary suggests:

Winkie was a blue chequered hen bird that had been carried on board a Beaufort bomber which had been forced to ditch in the North Sea, after completing a raid in Norway. Such pigeons were often carried on missions in case something went wrong.

Unable to radio their position – somewhere around 100 miles from home – the crew released their pigeon in the hope that she would be able to fly home to her loft in Broughty Ferry, and alert their colleagues in the air base at RAF Leuchars of their predicament.  Winkie made it home, after flying 120 miles, and was discovered exhausted and covered in oil by owner George Ross who immediately informed the air base.

But, more remarkable was the fact that Winkie  was not carrying a specific message. RAF personnel were able to calculate the position of the downed aircraft using the time difference between the plane’s ditching and the arrival of the bird – taking into account the wind direction and even the impact of the oil on her feathers to her flight speed.

A rescue mission was launched and the men were found within 15 minutes – there can be little doubt that the crew would have died without the bird’s effort.

Winkie became the first recipient of the PDSA Dickin Medal.

Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre

Opening Times:

The Air Station is open from April 1st until September 30th, Wednesday to Saturday, 10am – 4pm.

Open Sundays all year round from 12pm to 4pm. Other times by arrangement.

Entry via Broomfield Industrial Estate, follow tourist ‘brown’ signs.

Admission fee applies – check web site for current fees.

Follow A92 to the North end of Montrose and turn into Broomfield Road following the Tourist Signs, then turn left into the Industrial Estate, continue down this road until you reach a bend in the road and you will find Montrose Air Station on the left hand side.

Via Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre

Displays Displays and exhibits at the centre

The museum has been growing steadily over the years, and is well worth the time it takes to explore.

February 13, 2013 Posted by | Aviation, military, World War I, World War II | , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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