Sirens sound the beginning of the Second World War

The Dalkeith Auxiliary Fire Brigade (1940)
The Dalkeith Auxiliary Fire Brigade (1940)

At 11 o’clock on Sunday, September 3, 1939, Britain declared war on Germany. I was living with an uncle, aunt and cousin in a three-apartment flat in a tenement block known as Elmfield Bank.

Opposite the entrance was a small confectionary shop managed by Mr and Mrs Buchan. At the age of nine, I was in that shop with a list of goods required by the family.

I was being served by a young woman when the noise of a siren broke out. The assistant became very excited and called out, “Run hame as hard as you can. It’s war.” I had left my purchases on the counter and had to return for them.

Later on in the day, I heard the noise of heavy vehicles and from my bedroom window I saw a convoy of military trucks pulling artillery into Newbattle estate from the Newmills Road side. A rumour circulated that the Germans had invaded and that Dalkeith was in a line of defence.

The nation was preparing for conflict. Everyone had been issued with a gas mask, contained in a square cardboard box.

Sandbags were built around buildings which might have had some military significance. Examples were the local police station and the bus garage at the end of the High Street. It was a storage for petrol which might be required by the Army.

A fairly substantial building was erected in the centre of the roundabout at Eskbank Toll with a gun outlet facing each of the six roads. It was decorated to look like a place of worship. Would the Germans be so naive?

Air raid shelters were provided in different places including the school playgrounds. There were “trial air raids” to see whether we could leave our desks in a brisk but orderly manner.

In the event of a black-out, property occupants would be required to ensure that light was not shown. Ration books and identity cards were supplied, to be used immediately after the outbreak of war.

By a stroke of good luck I extracted the last bar of chocolate from a machine at the railway station. Rationing would be imposed and it would not be until 1953 before it was removed.

A company from the Durham Light Infantry moved into Dalkeith. There was an alleged incident. An ice cream shop owned by an Italian family was located where the County Hotel is now. Words developed between the daughter and a soldier in the course of which she taunted him over the British retreat from Dunkirk.

The soldier left and returned with a few of his friends who inflicted damage to the property. Another vendor was Gaicomo Forte, who owned a cafe in mid-High Street. He placed a notice in the window to the effect he was a loyal British subject.

Polish troops were also in Dalkeith. Some occupied part of the Palace and others were accommodated in private houses. Every Sunday morning the town was roused as a column marched smartly from the palace gates to St David’s Church. They sang as they marched. Onlookers lining the pavement would applaud. The Poles were well-conducted. I have traced only one incident in which the peace was disturbed. For drunken behaviour one was taken to the police station.

Later, another charged into the station with a menacing sten gun, ordering the release of his mate. It must have given the constables some concern before they realised the weapon was unloaded.

After the war, some settled in Dalkeith. One painted some old property in the Back Street. The picture is now held by the History Society.

Dalkeith was not bombed but its population was made well aware of approaching enemy aircraft. The first air raid warning affecting Dalkeith was on October 30, 1939 during the morning and there was another in the afternoon. During the first six months of 1941, air raid alerts were regular. The blitzing of Clydebank was the worst experience. The devastation was spread over two nights, the first lasting nine hours, and seven on the second. Only seven houses out of the town’s 12,000 were left undamaged.

Wardens visited the occupants of upstairs houses and advised them to seek shelter on ground floors and basements. My relatives accepted the advice and we took heavy bed clothes and hot drinks into the lobby area.

It was not long before the drone of aircraft engines became a feature. Lesser engine sounds also became apparent. It seemed our own fighters were interceding.

The sky was brilliant with searchlights. Then there was the road of anti-aircraft fire. Some bombs were probably released before their destination. I was excited at the beginning then tiredness took over. After two nights of destruction the schools closed long enough for pupils to recover.

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany great celebrations were held all over the United Kingdom. In Dalkeith, the town council closed White Hart Street to traffic and introduced a programme of music, singing and dancing.

Provost James Lean, who served in the Royal Flying Group in the Great War, stressed the necessity for racial harmony if a third world war was to be avoided.