Wartime Memories

Wartime Memories - A Sort of Evacuee

I am John Mackay, Grandson of Charles Mackay, the Tailor and Outfitter on Victoria Street - now Glen's. He died in 1930. My father, Jack Mackay was lost at sea on 19th October 1935, leaving a widow and 2 young children. I was just 3 and my sister, Jenny, was under 4 months old. Jack was first mate on the S S Vardulia which went down in an Atlantic storm, carrying coal from West Hartlepool to St. Johns, Nova Scotia. The Mackays had always been on Bute and came from Kilchattan, Kingarth and the Dunagoil area. I was born in South Wales - Jack had met my mother on his many visits to Cardiff, Swansea and Bristol and they got married in Rothesay in 1932. The family tree runs out in the early 1700s and includes McFie, McKirdy, Jamieson, Duncan, Fraser etc.

In 1940, I left Rothesay with my mother and we went to live in Wolverhampton. 2 months later I was sent back to Rothesay to spend the rest of the war with my Grandmother and the Aunts and Uncles still on the island. So this evacuee went to the Academy and stayed at Striven View, Marine Place. I was glad to miss the air raid shelters and the bombing endured by my mother and sister but Rothesay was the place for a boy to see the war. I was younger than some of your other correspondents so my memories are different in detail.

The war at sea dominated my years on Bute but I can remember the bombing of Greenock and Clydebank - the glow in the sky and the distant sound of explosions. A couple of days later I passed through still smouldering Greenock on the Glasgow train, the Tate and Lyle warehouse was still burning. This trip to Wemyss Bay became a somewhat erratic service as we could be diverted to Craigendoran, Gourock or Helensborough if there was a problem with the Anti-submarine boom, or a scare over mines etc. Arriving back at Platform 13, for the 5.13 last train from Glasgow Central was always an adventure since you weren't certain where you would be going. A mince pie and a pint mug of tea was the standard snack before leaving.

Somehow, we knew when one of the "Queens" was leaving the Clyde and I can remember the grey shape speeding past Toward Light and out towards the Atlantic. Three years ago I spent a night aboard the Queen Mary Motel (!) in Los Angeles and this was the first time I had seen either of the ships in peacetime colours.

In the early part of the war we saw many bizarre paint jobs on the naval ships at Rothesay -to break up the lines of the ship - but mostly it finally settled down to battleship grey. Most of our paddle steamers went off to war and we were left with the Duchess of Fife... The boats were soon fitted with degaussing cables as a defence against magnetic mines... Minesweepers appeared towing catamarans - sledge-like barges mounted with a large coil of wire which were supposed to set off magnetic mines. The early minesweepers were wooden trawlers. From time to time we would hear the deep thump of depth charges out beyond the boom. Warships would arrive and leave again each day, Monitors, Aircraft Carriers, Battleships, Destroyers and Cruisers. Destroyers with extensive damage from ramming U Boats, even pieces from conning towers hanging from the bows. Oil covered survivors being brought ashore. Children suddenly arriving as evacuees from Glasgow and Clydeside. We kids went down with a succession of skin diseases. Scabies meant painting with gentian violet or coating with a foul smelling ointment and all infected clothes were burnt. One of my pals died from diphtheria. We caught pneumonia, measles, mumps etc. Impetigo, lice, ringworm too. The Island kids probably had less inbuilt immunity.

Early in the war, the Volendam was towed in and beached on the north shore of Port Bannatyne. She was very low in the water by the bow and had been full of children on the way to Canada. An early escape from disaster. Then a Greek steamer, listing at a dramatic angle and loaded with timber. The Cyclops took up permanent residence on the admiralty moorings and gathered her submarines around her. Liberty boats passed continuously and the pier at Port Bannatyne was wired off for ever. Some big Dutch ocean going tugs arrived and we saw our first allied seamen, Dutch, Belgian, French, Polish, Greek etc.

A whaling ship was towed in and created an ecological problem which lasted for some months as she leaked whale oil. I can still smell the yellow, stinking mess. I ruined a new suit that had just been bought for me when I slipped on the rocks and became covered in oil. That must have caused problems with the clothing coupons...

All of our rowing boats were taken away and Jimmie Leitch from Ardbeg went off to sea. We began to see the Flower Class corvettes and some new and strange craft too. Floating docks became a permanent sight at Port Bannatyne and the shipyards were taken over with small naval craft - Ardmaleish was out of bounds as was the whole Toward shore and Loch Striven.

An early, and famous, casualty was the San Demetrio. She was in the Jarvis Bay convoy, I think. A Tanker which had been shelled, set on fire, abandoned and then re-boarded days later to be sailed back some 300 miles under jury steering rig and anchored a couple of hundred yards off Ardbeg point. The subsequent film (San Demetrio, London) did not show clearly the white sheets which hung over the burnt bridge area with the legend "SOS HELP" in paint. I bought the video recently and then found that she had been repaired and subsequently torpedoed and sunk 2 years later in Chesapeake Bay.

My best friend, Laurie Howell, lived in Wyndham Road and his father was a Master Mariner, serving on tankers..... his war was eventful because he lost several ships and survived. One of his ships was torpedoed some 300 miles out. He was posted as missing and times were traumatic for a few days. Our house was on the sea front and early one morning a tanker was towed in, down heavily by the stern, and anchored off Ardbeg Point. I had my binoculars on her and I was sure this was Laurie's father's ship - they had no news as yet. I ran around to Laurie's house and shouted "your Dad's ship has come in!" Of course they didn't believe me at first but it was true. Anchored 400 yards from home! The torpedo, which may have been acoustic, blew a mighty hole under the engine room. The engines, together with the duty engineers, dropped straight out. She then had no power but was luckily picked up by a tug and brought in to Rothesay. We were taken out to see the ship and saw the clean square hole where the engines had been and there was a clear view of the sandy bottom below the hull. After the war, Laurie's father retired to one of the cottages at Ascog point. One of the relatively few to survive a war on oil tankers. Laurie went to sea with me in 1950, stayed on and ended up as Master of the Tokyo Bay c550,000 tons.......

We had our first sight of "frogmen" when two waded ashore at Ardbeg dressed in wetsuits, carrying fins, masks etc. It wasn't long before we lads had fins with blades made from bits of tyre and strapped on with rubber strips. I've used fins since then and became a diver much later... We never got the masks right - ex RAF flying masks would not seal. We had an early sight of the 2-man Chariots or human torpedoes when one cruised slowly past the point. We heard rumours about accidents and deaths - not surprising when they used oxygen rebreathers and trained in Loch Striven. Then came the X Craft or midget submarines which became quite a common sight around Port Bannatyne or even passing Ardbeg Point with a sailor standing on the deck to "con" the craft.

One visitor to the bay was the "Faraday", a cable laying or boom defence vessel. Distinctive snout on the bow with a large device for handling cable. I dived on her at Marloes Bay, Milford Haven a few years ago. Torpedoed, I think, late in the war.

My uncle, Baillie William Mackay, ran the shop in Rothesay but also ran the Boys Brigade in Rothesay and became a Major in the Home Guard. So I progressed as a Lifeboy then Brigade member and played the bugle in church parades. We used to spend many of the summer weekends in "camp" at the church hall in Kilchattan. We boys used to walk over to Dunagoil or the West Bay to swim and then might walk all the way around Garroch Head back to Kilchattan. All sorts of stuff used to get washed up - from bodies to mines or buoys and lots of wood, canvas and tar which we used to make crude boats and rafts. The rafts came in very handy when a German merchant ship was beached at the Wee Bay, Kilchattan. A prize capture. We swam out to her. She was stripped of furniture and any loose fittings in no time..... We spent the rest of the war using heavy German Crockery and cutlery on our BB camps.....We "liberated" some distress rockets too, set one off behind the church which shot up about 30 feet, turned sharp left and shot off behind all the houses towards the pier...at that point some adult confiscated our stock. There was a large green painted wooden shed a few doors from the church and we were able to creep in there and sit in the open charabancs which were stored in there for the duration.

An unfortunate visitor to the West Bay was an American Flying Fortress which crash landed on the shore and we were able to paddle out to explore her. Fairly intact too. There was also an Avro Anson I can remember exploring. Any field which could be used for a landing was spiked with robust poles designed to wreck any aircraft trying to land. Another oil tanker arrived at Kilchattan - well the stern did. The Imperial Transport. She was split in two by a torpedo, the bow including the bridge sank. The stern remained afloat and was towed to Kilchattan where she was beached on the flat rocks close to the pier. She remained some time and the salvage people marked off sections close to the break, took measurements and a new bow was built. She was finally towed away and made into a complete ship again.

The Home Guard armoury seemed to be held at Striven View...much of it under my bed. There were .303 rifles and Bren Guns which I was shown how to strip, clean and reassemble. We even had some Sten Guns. Pride of place was a .22 Japanese Snipers rifle and I learned to shoot with that....must have been 11 or 12 at the time.

In the interests of the War Effort early in the war we collected scrap metal, paper etc using a big 2 wheeled hand barrow. Later we went off for days to collect sphagnum moss for field dressings and also the very short curly seaweed - this was mostly found just north of Rhubodach. We collected sack after sack of the seaweed but it was very hard on the hands collecting the stuff. Rationing affected us but we could help ourselves. Brambles were never neglected and we always had jelly. I had a couple of ferrets which went with me down to Kilchattan each week-end and kept the Boys Brigade going with fresh rabbit meat. The odd pheasant might also get hit by a sling shot or we might collect peewit or seagull eggs. Our home made rafts were used with home made spears and we paddled out to spear flounders and very large skate too. Funny thing about the locals was that we never ever ate shellfish, crab or lobster. Only used as bait for fishing. After the war the commercial fishers came and made the seas around Bute an underwater desert where once we had a big scallop population that had been ignored by us. We had a large garden which was well planted with vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, sprouts etc and I had my first job working for the market gardener who had his plot in the lane off Wyndham Road. On Fridays Johnnie Dickie would stop off with his horse drawn milk cart, selling fresh milk, "soor dock" and butter if you were lucky. He farmed with his two sisters at Ettrick Bay and worked his way towards (probably) "The Hole in the Wa'" at Rothesay before being taken home by his horse when he had had enough...

I never thought much about it then, but St.Blane's Church was a favourite haunt. The graveyard is full of my ancestors but we used to visit the "wishing well" where a hand round the ankles meant one of us could fish upside down for the coins thrown in by visitors...

As a lad in Rothesay, I made friends with a lot of old folk. The Misses Bowers were a few houses away, a connection with the Scott Expedition. Retired sea captains, like Captain Malcolm next door or my own Uncle Jack McFie who lived at Stonefield were always pleased to see a youngster who would pop out and get a roll or some milk from Mary at the Dairy, Wyndham Road. Jack had been a sea captain with the New Zealand Shipping Company. In those days I got used to men with missing limbs - or blind. Casualties of the Great War. We had no mains electricity then so one of the jobs was to go and get the accumulators charged at the Tram Depot. I can just about remember the Trams to Ettrick Bay and when the lines came up too. They used to run pleasure flights at Ettrick Bay with biplanes. A yearly treck was made to the north of Ettrick Bay where there were lots of hazel nuts so we could gather our Christmas stock.

The Canadians arrived and set up camp in Skeoch Wood. Stories of knife fights and murders spread and they were certainly a tough bunch. We had exercises when we suddenly found ourselves in the Front Line. Smoke bombs, some live munitions and low flying aircraft and then Landing Craft loaded with commandos onto the shore right in front of the house. This lot charged ashore, through the gardens and streets and up into the hills. Another lot didn't take local advice about sandbanks and lost quite a few men who were dropped straight into deep water when the Landing Craft hit an early sand bank. I only heard about that after the war.

The Home Guard used to go charging about the island from time to time "German Submarine run aground" and other emergencies. The only big disaster they had was when the Council Worthies and lots of other folk were enjoying a convivial Burns Night Supper at Kingarth village hall and Sgt Duguid with the local police caught them all red-handed using petrol on unofficial business. We heard they were trying to escape through the windows but the police would know every car and its' owner. They were fined, quite heavily. Willie's car was a Wolseley 14 (DGA 178) and the other one on the island was FYT... and belonged to the Gas Works Manager.. funny how some things stick in the memory. I wonder where all the whisky came from too? There was never a shortage.

We had lots of landing craft , Small LCIs and lots of LCTs for Tanks etc. Even the odd big ship before they suddenly all left. The two Canadians who had been billeted on us left. They were No 6 Commando so it was probably Berniers sur Mer and a very tough D Day for them. I have never found out what they went through, or if they survived. I visited the towns in Normandy but saw no definite information.

John MacKay
John is a islander now living and working in Wolverhampton at the young age of 72.

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