REMOTE, rugged, romantic. Over the centuries, Scotland’s landscape has hidden many a secret. It was in the Highlands that Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his rebellion against the Hanoverians. And after Culloden, thanks to the sealed lips of his followers in the clans, he evaded his pursuers before fleeing to France. A century and a half later, Highland lochs sheltered Britain’s Grand Fleet from the prying eyes of the Kaiser’s Germany.
But it was in the Second World War that Scotland really came into its own as a base for secret war and wartime secrets. It had space aplenty, a highly trained workforce, and some of the best scientific brains in Britain. In conventional war, Scotland’s role was more crucial than ever before; the Battle of the Atlantic could not have been won without the help of the Royal Navy and RAF based in Scotland, or the heroism of the Clydeside convoys.
Yet the war against Hitler’s Germany was also waged by a unique and extraordinary marriage of science and skullduggery. In war, desperate times require desperate measures. Britain in the summer of 1940 was in dire straits. Its main ally, France, had been knocked out. Hitler’s forces were on the English Channel and invasion seemed imminent. The US remained neutral and Stalin’s Soviet Union was allied with Hitler. How could Britain ever win, even supposing it avoided defeat?
Churchill decided it was time to take the gloves off. Playing by the rules hadn’t worked. The Nazis had got their way in Europe; now it was Britain’s turn. Ungentlemanly warfare became the new name of the game, and Scotland became its training ground. An early witness to this new way of warfare was Inverailort House, not far from Glenfinnan - where Bonnie Prince Charlie had raised his standard of rebellion two centuries before. Its role now was to foment revolt in Europe. Churchill’s declaration of unconventional war prompted the creation of the top-secret Special Operations Executive (SOE). Its agents would cause havoc behind enemy lines.
In the autumn of 1940 the first recruits began to arrive at Inverailort, SOE’s initial Highland training HQ. Here, far from prying eyes, they absorbed essential paramilitary skills; how to survive in the wild, how to handle weapons and explosives, how to wage guerrilla war and how to kill silently. To teach them came a legendary duo from Shanghai, men used to policing the toughest and roughest city of its day - Major Bill Fairbairn and Captain Eric Sykes, who jointly invented the famous double-edged commando knife. Recruits first encountered them rolling down the main stairs at Inverailort in a startling display of hand-to-hand combat. Eventually, Fairbairn moved on to train secret agents in the US, where his grim expertise was handed down to the post-war CIA. This exotic duo were not the only bizarre characters at Inverailort. Its visitors’ book, which still survives, features the name of Kim Philby, Moscow’s most loyal and notorious British agent, who spent a few days there in 1940. Ironically, subversive war was an art he’d learned from Stalin’s Comintern. Now it was unknowingly harnessed to Britain’s war effort.
SOE eventually transferred its Scottish training HQ to Arisaig and Inverailort became a commando training school. Again Scotland’s demanding terrain proved ideal for exercises in this new type of behind-the-lines warfare. Like SOE’s secret agents, commandos were inspired by Churchill’s bulldog determination to take the fight to the enemy and, in December 1941, they launched their first successful raids.
Heading across the North Sea to Norway, they attacked German military installations and fish oil factories at Vaagso and in the Lofoten Islands. An added bonus was their capture of a German Enigma coding machine, which helped Bletchley Park experts on their work on top-secret German ciphers. Infuriated by this and subsequent commando raids, Hitler decreed that all captured commandos should be immediately shot.
Yet Churchill’s offensive spirit would have come to nothing if Hitler had penetrated Britain’s defences. Aerial warfare meant Britain was no longer an isolated island, and scientists manned the front line of defence. Was it inevitable the bombers would always get through? That the answer proved to be no was largely thanks to the genius of a Scottish physician from Brechin, Robert Watson Watt, head of Air Ministry research in the 1930s. Discovering that radio waves could detect aircraft, by 1940 he had established a network of radar stations from Orkney to the Isle of Wight that gave 30-minute warnings of incoming planes - a margin sufficient to help win the Battle of Britain. Progress was fast and radar was soon airborne in Allied aircraft raiding Germany.
Nazi scientists were hard at work too. By 1942, they had developed a device codenamed Liechtenstein to counter such radar. How did their invention work? Capturing a German aircraft equipped with it would provide the answer.
In May 1943, a factory-fresh Junkers-88 bomber landed at Dyce airport in Aberdeen carrying Liechtenstein. Had the Luftwaffe pilot defected, or been bribed by British intelligence? The answer remains unclear. The capture enabled Britain to remain one step ahead in a race that saved the lives of hundreds of RAF pilots.
Scotland also witnessed a more sinister marriage of science and warfare. Thankfully, unlike radar, it was never used. In 1942, the Ministry of Defence purchased the unpopulated Ross-shire island of Gruinard, to the west of Ullapool - deserted that is, except for rabbits, sheep and birds. The island was declared a Prohibited Secret site and visitors banned. Soon afterwards, dead sheep washed up on the shores of the mainland. The deaths were blamed on a Greek freighter which had supposedly thrown infected carcasses overboard. In reality Gruinard had become a testing site for a biological weapon - anthrax - and the sheep had been infected by spores deliberately released in trials by experts from Britain’s biological warfare laboratory at Porton Down. Churchill, as pragmatic and inventive as ever, was determined to develop the weapon - known as the "N" bomb - but it was only to be used if Hitler deployed it first.
The Gruinard trials worked, although the island proved too small for more ambitious tests and the site was abandoned. By the time the anthrax experiments concluded, D-Day was approaching. Plans for the Normandy landings, the key to Britain’s return to Europe and for Hitler’s defeat, were protected by layers of secrecy and deception. Here, too, Scotland played a crucial role.
In late 1943, the shoreline around Garlieston in Dumfries and Galloway suddenly became a no-go area. Mysterious objects began to appear offshore, large blocks the size of small ships which floated up and down with the tides. These were concrete pontoons for the Mulberry harbours which were to be built in sections around Britain and towed across the Channel to provide an artificial port, off the coast of Normandy, for the unloading of allied supplies.
It was Churchill who came up with the basic idea. "Hold the harbours," Hitler had said, "and we will hold Europe." So why not fool him, asked Churchill, by doing the unexpected? Moveable floating harbours had never been tried before. Garlieston had a shoreline and huge tidal range similar to the Normandy beaches. Final testing took place in April 1944. Then the pontoons headed south to the English Channel for D-Day.
The most vital of all supplies after the Normandy invasion was fuel. But how could the allies safely ship the millions of gallons needed for their tanks, jeeps and trucks? The answer lay with PLUTO, the PipeLine Under The Ocean. Secretly constructed in thousands of sections, the pipeline also owed its success to Scotland. It was an Inverness-based company, AI Welders, that came up with the crucial trick of making strong but flexible seamless welds that enabled the pipeline to be coiled on gigantic drums and laid across the Channel in one single moonless night.
Hitler was also tricked by Allied deception. Operation Fortitude was the codename of the plan to make him believe the landings would take place elsewhere than Normandy. Fortitude South, based in England, aimed to convince him the landings would take place in the Pas-de-Calais.
Fortitude North was the deception’s Scottish arm. Its goal was to persuade Berlin that the Allies would attack Norway. It worked mostly through the sending of thousands of false radio messages suggesting the creation of a 4th Army in Scotland (supposedly headquartered at 15 Douglas Crescent in Edinburgh) for an attack across the North Sea.
To sustain the illusion, a handful of men in radio trucks drove around Scotland simulating a vast army on the move. Real British troops were sent for mountain training in the Cairngorms to lend credence to the deceit.
Dummy aircraft scattered around the countryside suggested an invasion plan. Captured German agents, some caught in Scotland and "doubled" by British intelligence, also played a role. In the end the Nazis were fooled about the place and timing of the D-Day landings and the German High Command swallowed the illusion of a 4th Army in Scotland hook, line and sinker.
Less than a year after D-Day, Hitler was dead, the war in Europe was over, and Scotland was at peace again. But it took years for these wartime secrets to be revealed. Files about the training of SOE agents have only recently been released, while the inner secrets of Fortitude North remained off-limits for decades. Only in 1990 was Gruinard Island declared clear of anthrax, and it took until 1997 for original documentary footage of the anthrax trials to be made public. It’s clear that without Scotland’s help, Britain’s secret war against Hitler would have been a tougher fight than it was.
David Stafford is project director at the Centre for Second World War Studies at the University of Edinburgh and the author of Secret Agent and Ten Days to D-Day. BBC Scotland’s six-part television series, Scotland’s Secret War, begins tonight at 8pm on BBC2.