pictured in Haddington in 2020
George Gillan, Civilian
I interviewed George on the 24th September 2018 in his home in Haddington. George was born on the 25th March 1925 in Dunbar and what follows are his memories of certain aspects of life in Dunbar and its surroundings over the war years. In 1939, of course, George was only fourteen, so he wasn’t in any immediate danger of being called up. He lived in 7 Castle Street at the time. His memories come in no special order.
"This was up and running long before the war but was taken over by the military when war broke out. The actor, James Mason, had had a brother who’d worked there as a teacher pre-war. When parties of FANYs arrived, all speaking in posh English accents, the locals thought they were just doing their bit (as everyone had to) in a quiet area. Locals didn’t know what they were doing The FANYs didn’t mix much with the locals and it was only after the war that their work became known [see Special Operations Executive under Fighting Back]. Even George, who did lots of joinery work in the school getting it ready for occupation by the FANYs, didn’t have a clue what the place was being used for. There were areas one simply wasn’t allowed to enter and, of course, like all the military buildings in Dunbar, they were guarded by sentries and passes were needed to enter. George had his work pass and he also did some joinery work in the PoW camps in the county. He never had any problems with the prisoners."
"The officer cadets came from all over the land and appeared to be well educated and upper crust to most in the town. They occupied the Bellevue Hotel (Owner Jack Hitchman), the Roxburgh (owner Jack Anthony, a Scottish comedian) and the Bayswell Hotel. The cadets didn’t socialise as much as the other military units in the town, but they did have a large building at the bottom of Silver Street which they used for social events such as dances. Lots of bands from Glasgow played there. George remembers when the cadets were all given bikes and the amusement of the locals at the efforts of the would-be officers to ride them. Most of them had never mastered the art! For three or four weeks they were all over the place causing mayhem."
Entertainment And Work
"Dances were a regular occurrence throughout East Lothian and were an effort to maintain the populace’s morale. The Rox was an upper-class dance hall where dances were held every fortnight. One needed a tie to gain entrance! The Rox stood above Dunbar’s outdoor swimming pool and it was also the scene of lots of entertainments. The Craig en Gelt (owners Tom and Jack Craig, racehorse trainers in West Barns) was another used for the same purpose. George was a bit of a musician then and was taken on to play piano by a local band. He mastered eight tunes and folk got a bit restless when he repeatedly romped through the same list! In the daytime George was a joiner and helped to prepare and repair all the hotels and buildings used by the army in Dunbar. His employers, Horsburghs, was the largest joiners’ firm in the town and had the Ministry of Works licence for the area. One job was to lay Nairn’s cork linoleum on the floor of the Bellevue to deaden the noise."
"There were many military units stationed in the area: the Americans were in Tyninghame (obviously post 1941), the Poles were everywhere, and the navy had a unit at Cockburnspath. The barracks at the end of the High Street was complete then, even including stables and a lovely drill hall, and was full of troops. Troops had been there from before the war, as it had been a training base. George remembers the horses and mules kept there."
"The Battery, by the harbour, wasn’t used for any military purpose during the war but wooden anti-glider pylons were all over the beaches like Belhaven Sands and Winterfield Golf Course was covered by aerials and wires - purpose unknown at the time. These were, of course, later realised to be connected with the secret work going on in Belhaven School. Minefields lay in many areas all along the coast and George, instructed by his father to find work, went to East Links and Hedderwick to help the teams building the anti-tank obstacles. He remembers the first thing he was told was where not to go! The minefields were marked off and signposted and, once the war was over, the mines were lifted by German PoWs.
The teams of workers dug a deep pit and filled it with cement and then erected a braced high-sided metal square into which more cement was poured to raise the obstacles higher. As the war continued the shape of the tank obstacles became more varied. George’s job, as a youngster, was to supply the working teams with tea! He was called ‘the Nipper’ and was well paid (£6.18.0 per week) since he worked long hours. This was actually more than his father got! George wasn’t supplied with the necessary fuel to boil the water, so he had to scrounge or nick the necessary wood. The Edinburgh firm of Best built the traps and Nimmo, also of Edinburgh, built the various gun emplacements. The latter were lined with very thick six-inch mats of coconut to deaden the sound and, George presumes, to lessen the danger from sparks."
"This didn’t have a huge presence in the harbour. No boats were stationed there during the war though naval units did anchor offshore and sailors were transferred ashore in launches. Certainly, the harbour was used in emergencies and George does remember the odd vessel coming in damaged. A Flam Fougasse was housed in a small brick built shed at the mouth of the harbour to deal with any invasion craft."
Fear Of Invasion
"George remembers the period when there was a strong likelihood of invasion. He doesn’t remember feeling fear but rather he wondered what he could do to repel invaders. He owned an old Martini-Henry .22 rifle, as he was a member of a local shooting club. He had a few rounds and the rifle was registered with the police. He reckoned he’d have gone to the beach and tried his luck. George’s first real war-work was as a runner for the Fire Brigade. His wife-to-be, Margaret, was in the Naval Girls Training Corps.
Once, delivering groceries to No. 11, Countess Road, George heard the rapidly approaching discordant noise of a German bomber with two RAF planes in contact. Shell cases started to fall all over the road and the lady of the house, Miss Angus, told George to come in for safety’s sake. One would often hear the unsynchronised engines of German aircraft overhead during the night. George remembers one German airman being buried in St Mary’s, Haddington.
The Maltings at West Barns went on fire one night and George was employed as runner throughout the evening. The Fire Brigade was called out and played its hoses on the silos. In fact, this did more damage than the fire as the grain soaked up the water, expanded and burst the container walls. George’s last memory of the war was the speed with which everything changed when it ended. One minute the place was full of military: the next they were all away.”