Some readers may recall my writing in the past about growing up in Wick, in the far north of Scotland, during the second world war. That my home town, only a few miles south of John o'Groats, could ever have been subjected to attack by the Luftwaffe I assumed would come as a surprise to most readers, so I did my best to reconstruct the experience.
I described how, in the late afternoon of 1 July 1940, I heard a loud explosion, rushed out into the vegetable garden at the back of our house, and saw a pillar of black smoke rising from the harbourside below and across from me. Two bombs, it turned out, had fallen on a busy street. In what was one of the earliest daylight bombing raids of the war, no fewer than 15 men, women and children had been killed, and many more injured. The bombs had either been aimed at the shipping in the harbour, or that failing to find its real target, the German plane had simply been dumping its bombs before heading home.
I now know that these speculations were entirely wrong. 'Scotland from the Sky' is a beautifully produced book published by Historic Environment Scotland in association with a BBC documentary of the same name. What the book provides is a history of aerial photography from its beginnings early in the 20th century up to the present day. It emerges that a crucial element in that development was a military one. From the period of the first world war onwards, spying from the air grew increasingly important. And the German military were as aware of it as the British.
In the summer of 1938, Germany's Lufhansa civilian aircraft toured the Scottish coastline, ostensibly to map out new routes for the airline, but in fact, using concealed cameras, involved in photographing key strategic locations. With the outbreak of the war in 1939, German aerial spying on potential bombing targets intensified. The Forth Bridge was photographed, and likewise such targets as Clydebank shipyards, Grangemouth oil refineries, aircraft engine factories and other industrial sites. But 'Target Scotland' ranged across the length and breadth of the entire country including the Highlands and islands. Including, it turns out, Wick's small airfield on the north side of the town and less than a mile from the harbour.
The proof is irrefutable. On page 20 of 'Scotland from the Sky' appears a reproduction of a German aerial photograph of Wick, with the location of the airfield clearly identified as a target by a pencilled cross. What had occasioned the July 1940 bombing raid? It's impossible to know for certain but it is at least possible that by then German intelligence had learned that the RAF had decided to make the Wick airfield – with its nearby, fortuitously recently-completed New North School – the headquarters of Coastal Command.
The July bombing missed its target but in October 1940, the Luftwaffe tried again. This time a night-time raid did some damage: at least one bomb struck Hill Avenue, very close to the airfield, destroying a bungalow and killing three people, one of them a school classmate of my brother. However, the airfield at Wick and Coastal Command continued to play significant roles up to the end of the second world war.
Nothing makes up for the loss of life that resulted from these bombing attacks on Wick, but within months of that second raid the airfield made possible what may be seen as an act of retaliation. According to James Crawford in 'Scotland from the Skies', on 21 May 1941, a Spitfire took off from Wick on a reconnaissance mission. Piloted by 20-year-old flying officer Michael Suckling, it refuelled in Shetland then headed for Bergen in Norway.
In a remote fjord, and from a height of 25,000 feet, the pilot spotted a large German warship which he was sure was the Bismarck – Germany's largest and most powerful battleship. Having successfully photographed the Bismarck, within an hour Suckling was landing in Wick and developing his aerial photographs. Almost immediately he was back in the air, aiming to deliver them himself to Coastal Command in London. Running out of fuel, he landed in Nottingham and went on to London by car. The rest is history.
The Bismarck in the following days tried to escape into the north Atlantic, pursued by the aircraft and ships of the British navy. The so-called 'Battle of the Denmark Strait', on 24 May 1941, saw the sinking of the HMS Hood but two days later, on 26 May, the British battleships Rodney and King George V were finally able to sink the Bismarck. The Wick that had paid a price after being targeted by Germany even before the war began, went on to contribute to its eventual defeat.