Memories Of Wick - Connie Dunnet Sutherland - Part Five
23rd February 2014
Connie Dunnett Sutherland ( late of St Fergus Arms, Wick, now domiciled in Edinburgh).
Connie has sent us some of her memories of growing up in Wick.
Memories of German Prisoners of War
In 1946/7 a train crashed in Hatfield, Herts. One of those killed was a German Naval Officer P.O.W, about to be repatriated and en route to London to be reunited with his English mother. He was very tall, young and handsome. It was said that because of his height - well over 6ft - he would have had no chance of survival- broken neck in the carnage. What a tragedy. He was popular with everyone-his own men and our own British Officers and men in the P.O.W camp in Watten Village, Caithness and with my own Mother and Grandmother in our restaurant in Back Bridge Street, Wick. He came to say goodbye to Mum as she served him downstairs in the restaurant and then asked Mum’s permission to go upstairs to the kitchen to say goodbye to my Grandmother. The train left Wick at 3.15pm and the crash occurred next morning outside Hatfield, Hertfordshire. The shock news spread quickly. After fraternisation, there had been a great deal of liaison with the townspeople, Councillors and the like and the POW camp organised entertainment 3 and an Orchestra for concerts for the people of Wick and Thurso. Many of the prisoners with children of their own spent their free time making wooden toys for sale to boost funds for recreational items musical instruments etc. For a rural area like Caithness the opportunity to attend the POW camp to listen to an orchestra of their quality was a unimaginable treat.
The John O’ Groat Journal for Caithness and Sutherland, a weekly newspaper, devoted a whole column about the tragedy. He had been on the way to be reunited with his English Mother who lived in London. His father, I believe, was a university professor. Educated in England and Germany, he had been called up to fight for his country, just as our men had been. His poor mother must have felt the shattering grief that our Princes William and Harry experienced when their mother Princess Diana was also killed the very day they had expected to be reunited with her. It is not too extravagant to say the whole community was mourning his loss. My mother and grandmother felt the tragedy deeply for a very long time – how much more so his mother. The genuine grief at his death felt by the whole community must have been some comfort to her – not at the time certainly but definitely later.
Our restaurant had been a public house, converted out of necessity when some sections of the community voted the town ‘dry’. The stout bar counter remained in place as it supported the whole three storey building. Some of the tables were screwed to the floor and there remained the separate little room called ‘the snug’. Like the popular sitcom ‘all ‘allo’ (-popular with the Germans also I understand), we as a family had to make a living from the restaurant and obey the rules from the powers that be at all times. We were told that if British troops were present, we were forbidden to serve the German POW’s. The local farmers employed working parties from the POW camp and required the workers to be on hand at the same days at the cattle mart a hundred yards away. They brought the men in with them and we served them in the snug!
The young officer and my grandmother had lengthy conversations on days that we would appear in the mornings for breakfast. The counter and the dark wooden beams supporting the building plus the tables screwed in the floor were a source on interest to him. It reminded him of being on shipboard at sea; that and the large oil paintings around the walls of the three ferryboats between Scrabster, Orkney, Shetland and Aberdeen – the St. Ola and St Suniva and the St.Ninian. Years later, the St.Ola was in the film ‘the Spy in Black’ starring Conrad Veidt and I think Kenneth More, with Valerie Hobson, concerning Scapa Flow in the first world war. I never actually met him but he would hear and see me running down the stairs past the open door, leading into the dining room from our private lobby and I would look in to see this handsome, tall German POW on my way back to the GPO in the market square after my lunch break. He reminded me of
the actor, Curt Jurgens. No doubt he would think – ‘ah, that’s the Granddaughter.’
Most of the POW’s, Germans and a very few Italians (-dark brown battledress type uniforms compared to the German light grey/green). They were decent men, like our own soldiers. Not all Germans were Nazis, although worryingly, there have been hints and rumours in the media in recent years that there is a nucleus of Nazism which appears like a disease infrequently and then dies down the next time. One or two married locals girls and settled in Wick. I remember dancing with one of the Germans who were billeted in one of the ‘Mains’ farms outside town and he told me he liked Scottish Country dance music – but not the actual dances because ‘you just get a girl in your arms and the next minute you lose them to another dancer. That particular man, Gunther Harke, was eventually repatriated and years later returned to visit the family he was billeted with (Gunn Reiss, I think). His wife had secretly saved the money up and one day said to him
“here you are – you are always talking about how well the Caithness people treated you – well, go back and see them!” He did just that and the John O’ Groat journal again had a story to relate. He rented a room in a local hotel and invited all the people who remembered him to a sumptuous buffet. He told how he knocked on the farmhouse kitchen door and it was opened by a tall young man whom he recognised as one of the children he used to walk up the farm road to the school bus. I was saddened to have missed the opportunity to get reacquainted as years before, my family and I had left Wick and gone to work in Edinburgh. He had been one of a group who dined every Saturday night in the snug before going to the
pictures. He sent us a Christmas card thanking us for ‘understanding’ at a time when that was just a word”.
There was at the camp a group of Nazis who were segregated from the others. I remember being on duty at the GPO counter when the camp British soldiers arrived to collect their mail from the adjacent large sorting office. They had their prisoners in the back of a Bedford truck with a canvas tarpaulin ‘roof’ and devised a way of keeping them ‘inside’ by backing the truck up against the wall so tightly they could not escape but could look down upon us behind the counter – so we were imprisoned instead. There were no customers for us to attend to- I think they had been temporarily ordered to keep away from the truck and so could not get in. I had never seen the like before or since. These Germans were unbelievably cruel-looking and very frightening. So much so that the eldest of the counter staff went through to the sorting office and 4 actually ordered the soldier in charge to “get that truck out of here!” Thankfully they had already been ‘working’ the mail at the double and soon cleared off.
Memories of Wick - Part One
Memories Of Wick - Part Two
Memories Of Wick - Part Three
Memories Of Wick - Part Four
Memories Of Wick - Part Five
Memories Of Wick - Part Six
Memories Of Wick - Part Seven
Other Wartime Related Items On Caithness.org
Wings Over Wick
A collection of memories on RAF Wick - World War Two compiled by Primary 7 Hillhead School (first published in 1993)