From factories to East Lothian beaches '“ how the Second World War was won

In his new book, Colin Philpott explores the hidden and secret places in Scotland which played a crucial role in the Second World War, many of which remain today.
Arisaig House near Lochaber, where hundreds of SOE agents were trained.Arisaig House near Lochaber, where hundreds of SOE agents were trained.
Arisaig House near Lochaber, where hundreds of SOE agents were trained.

A bracing walk along Gullane Beach in East Lothian is an invigorating experience. However, as people enjoy this beautiful stretch of coastline, many will be unaware of the crucial role the area played almost 75 years ago when Britain faced an existential crisis.

The invasion of mainland Europe by Allied forces which pushed the Germans back from the French coast and brought about the German surrender in the Second World War started on 6 June 1944. But the planning for D-day started much earlier and the level of preparation and rehearsal was extensive and took in many parts of the country – many of them far removed from the south of England where the invasion force of more than two million people eventually assembled for the journey across the Channel. D-Day rehearsals took place on beaches across the UK including an extensive section of the East Lothian coast. Many miles of beaches were cordoned off for the rehearsals stretching from Prestonpans in the west to Dunbar in the east. The remarkable thing about this practice area was that it was selected because of the nature of the sand. The beach at Gullane was chosen to practise landings because its sand was the same as that of the intended invasion beaches in France. Naval frogmen had gone on night time missions to the French coast to take soil samples.

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This level of preparation was typical of the planning for D-Day. Almost nothing was left to chance. Extensive rehearsals took place at Gullane and the other sites in the months leading up to the invasion in order to test out the suitability of landing vehicles and to plan tactics. Three weeks of practice landings were held at Gullane in the spring of 1944.

It was impossible to conceal these rehearsals because large numbers of personnel and craft were involved. However, by 1944, the Allies had largely achieved air superiority so the German Luftwaffe’s ability to disrupt military preparations across Britain was substantially reduced.

Gullane Beach is just one of a number of ‘secret’ Scottish sites which played a crucial wartime role between 1939 and 1945. The traditional narrative of the Second World War often focuses on London and south-east England. Plucky East Enders facing up to the Blitz and dashing RAF pilots flying from airfields across the south-east are often the go-to British heroes of the Second World War. Whilst both groups did play a crucial role, so did people and places right across Britain, and Scotland was no exception.

Part of the success of Britain’s wartime industrial machine was the so-called ‘shadow factory’ scheme. The idea of the scheme was to utilise the skills and expertise of existing engineering companies to boost Britain’s capacity for aircraft and other war-related production. The Government partnered with a number of private companies and built, at public expense, new factories close to the location of the company’s existing production facilities. The private companies managed the ‘shadows’ alongside their original factories and learnt the skills required for adapting their expertise to the needs of military aircraft manufacture. This also meant that industrial capacity was dispersed so that, if one factory making a particular type of aircraft or other war requirement was hit, there was capacity in reserve.

One example of this was at Hillington on the outskirts of Glasgow. Rolls-Royce ran this factory as a ‘shadow’ adjacent to the Renfrew Aerodrome producing Merlin aero engines for Spitfires, Hurricanes and other aircraft. Rolls-Royce continued to use the site until 2005. It is now a business park.

Other important Scottish wartime factories included ROF Bishopton in Renfrewshire which manufactured cordite, employed 20,000 people and continued as a factory into the 21st century. Today, it has partly been redeveloped as housing and a business park. Another factory was at Charlesfield near St Boswells in Roxburghshire. It is claimed that this factory and a partner one at Kilmarnock produced 90 million bombs. Today the Charlesfield site is a business park.

Wartime factories like these were at least in part ‘secret’. Most were extensively camouflaged. Many were protected by decoy and dummy sites including dummy versions of the factories some miles away to try to confuse the German airforce. There were very strict regimes imposed on those who worked in factories to discourage leaking of information. Official figures now in the National Archives show that all of this was quite effective in protecting wartime factories. Although around a quarter of Britain’s key wartime installations were bombed, the damage was often superficial. Time and time again, as you read the weekly summary reports of air raid damage, you see phrases like ‘No disruption to production’, ‘Minimal impact on production’, ‘Production resumed within two days’ or similar.

Another important contribution to the war effort was the network of around 60 radar stations built on the eastern and southern coasts of Britain as part of the extensive system of early warning against bombing. Drone Hill at Coldingham in the Scottish Borders was the first Chain Home station in Scotland and it came into operation in early 1939. After the war it became RAF Crosslaw and also an important Cold War centre, the location of a Government nuclear bunker. The site is now a caravan park but some of the Second World War buildings remain.

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Deception and cunning played an important role in the Allied victory including the activities of the Special Operations Executive which engaged in operations in occupied countries and behind enemy lines. A whole range of country houses across Britain were used as training bases. One such was Arisaig House near Lochaber in Inverness-shire which was an important centre for paramilitary training for SOE agents. Hundreds were trained there including many Czech and Slovak exiles. A memorial in their memory was unveiled at the site in 2009.

Perhaps one of the most sinister secret sites in Scotland was Cultybraggan Prisoner of War Camp near Comrie in Perthshire. It was a ‘Black Camp’ for those PoWs classified as the most committed to Nazi ideals. It opened in 1941 and housed up to 4,000 prisoners. It was the scene of one of the most gruesome events in any British PoW camp. In 1944, the ringleaders of an escape plot centred on the American run camp at Devizes in Wiltshire were sent there. Also sent by mistake was Feldwebel Wolfgang Rosterg, an opponent of the Nazis. He was lynched by other inmates. Five PoWs were convicted of his murder and executed. After the war, the camp became a military training area and later a Cold War Regional Seat of Government bunker was built on the site.

What seems remarkable in the age of social media and wikileaks is that ordinary people working at these sites or living near them did seem to keep quiet about them. An extensive propaganda campaign under the banner of so-called ‘Careless Talk’, new laws creating offences of giving away information and more deferential attitudes towards authority seemed all to have contributed to the very low numbers of breaches of official secrets. For example, only 131 people were convicted throughout the whole course of the war for ‘publication of disturbing reports’. It appears that people did heed the message that ‘careless talk costs lives’.

Secret Wartime Britain by Colin Philpott is published by Pen and Sword Books at £25,, out now.