Skip to content

Research at St Andrews

The darkest of days as war looms again

Press/Media: Relating to Research

School of History

Description

‘For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war’. 

Dr Derek J. Patrick

University of St Andrews

 

The 3 September 2019 will mark the eightieth anniversary of Britain’s entry to the Second World War, the deadliest conflict in human history. In all an estimated 70-85 million died as a result of the conflict or associated factors, amounting to some three per cent of the world’s population.

 

On the evening of 3 September 1940 King George VI addressed the Empire. ‘In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history, I send to every household of my people, both at home and overseas, this message … For the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now enemies. But it has been in vain. We have been forced into a conflict. For we are called with our allies to meet the challenge of a principle which if it were to prevail would be fatal to any civilised order in the world … The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead, and war can no longer be confined to the battlefield, but we can only do the right as we see the right and reverently commit our cause to God. If one and all we keep resolutely faithful to it, ready for whatever service or sacrifice it may demand, then with God’s help we shall prevail’. I doubt the King or very few of his subjects could have imagined how dark some days would become before the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany on 8 May 1945 brought victory in Europe.

 This was a global conflict, a total war, which impacted on men, women and children across the world. To me the war seems familiar but somehow strangely distant. Growing up, my grandparents’ generation had a direct connection to the war. In my hometown of Lochgelly many men and women had served in the forces, or been engaged in some form of war work, and the names on the memorial in the centre of town is testament to the sacrifice made by the local community. However, Lochgelly, a relatively small Fife mining town, was far from unique. The same connections were evident in almost every village, town or city across the country, and beyond. My own family played its part and bore a share of the burden, but its shared experiences will be similar with those of many Scots families. 

My maternal grandfather, Joseph Scott, was called up for military service on 17 February 1942, aged 19. On enlistment he stated his trade was ‘transport driver’ and he was subsequently posted to the Royal Armoured Corps before transferring to the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment. He served with the 1st Cheshire Regiment during the liberation of France, and in Germany, before being discharged as a Lance-Corporal in February 1947. He seldom talked about his service beyond recalling some of the more human stories of war, and amusing anecdotes that related to him and his comrades. However, his battalion experienced hard fighting in France and the family can distinctly remember Joe recalling the aftermath of the battle of the Falaise Gap when he found the smell of the dead overpowering. Nonetheless, he did enjoy the routine of army life, and as a stickler for cleanliness and order was an ideal non-commissioned officer.

On discharge he was described as ‘a first class N.C.O. who has performed the duties of Company M.T. N.C.O. with conspicuous success … He is likeable, intelligent and enterprising, and has shown both pride and keenness in his work. He can be most readily recommended to any employer’. That employer was the Co-op where he spent most of his working life.

 

My paternal grandfather, Thomas Patrick, like many men in the Cowdenbeath-Lochgelly area, was a coalminer. Family photographs would suggest he was a pre-war Black Watch Territorial soldier, but as a miner his war would be primarily fought at the coalface. The government was not prepared to repeat the mistakes of 1914 when indiscriminate recruitment threatened industrial output. Mining was a reserved occupation considered essential for the war effort. In addition to carrying on his employment Tom served in the Home Guard from 8 July 1940 to 31 December 1944, reaching the rank of Sergeant, and receiving the Defence Medal in recognition of his service. 

My paternal grandmother’s brother, Alexander Beveridge, a native of Bowhill, Fife, was the only member of the extended family who would lose their life in the Second World War. He was serving as a Donkeyman on the Ben Line’s S.S. Benalbanach, when the ship was hit by two aerial torpedoes fired from a single aircraft, and sank just east of Algiers, on 7 January 1943. The Benalbanach was a Clyde-built 7,153-ton cargo ship, launched in June 1940, with a crew of 74. She was carrying a cargo of explosives, ammunition, petrol and services’ stores, bound for Bona in North Africa. She also had on board motor vehicles and tanks, together with a number of service personnel, comprising three naval signallers, six army officers, nine staff sergeants, and 357 other ranks, when the convoy she was part of was attacked. The ship caught fire, exploded, and sank almost immediately. ‘Only those on deck had any real chance of survival’. Donkeyman Beveridge was lost with 43 of his shipmates and 366 service personnel. He was 33 years old. Alex Beveridge is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial, London, which honours some 35,800 merchant seaman who lost their lives in both world wars, and have no know grave, and, closer to home, on the Auchterderran war memorial.

 

These stories and family experiences make the war seem familiar and, despite the passage of years, relatively close. Nonetheless, the tangible links with the past, those men and women who lived through the often ‘dark days’, who experienced the war with its highs and lows, are increasingly rare. For me, and my family, they are sadly gone and much missed. Growing up I was too young to appreciate the fact that several veterans of the 51st Highland Division’s stand at St Valery lived literally streets away, or that near neighbours I saw on an almost daily basis had accompanied the first waves of assault troops on D-Day. Perhaps only a few would have been inclined to share their stories but I was not inclined to ask. In all honesty I could not anticipate the impact of the passing years, and, in some respects, had not imagined local communities without these stalwarts. The generation who lived and fought through the Second World will inevitably fade. Consequently, it is crucial that we remember and carefully preserve their reminiscences of a conflict that devastated large swathes of Europe, as evidence of how the human spirt can prevail in often the most trying circumstances, ‘whatever service and sacrifice may demand’.

Media contributions

TitleThe darkest of days as war looms again
Degree of recognitionRegional
Media name/outletThe Courier Secord World War 80th Anniversary Supplement
Media typePrint
CountryUnited Kingdom
Date29/08/19
DescriptionThe Courier Secord World War 80th Anniversary Supplement
PersonsDerek John Patrick

ID: 260937022

Top