Scotland's War: The great arsenal of the Allies

THE British declaration of war on 3 September, 1939, was met with deep trepidation in Scotland. Unlike the opening months of the Great War, there was little evidence of jingoistic triumphalism; instead, the civilian population waited in dread for the bombers of the Luftwaffe to strike.

Massive urban destruction and huge loss of life were regarded as inevitable. Thousands of children were evacuated to places of relative safety. In the event, however, Scotland was spared the horrific scale of aerial bombardment visited upon London and other English towns and, later on, the cities of Germany. Some raids did take place, but the only ferocious night blitz in Scotland took place in Clydebank on 13-14 March 1941. Two-thirds of the homes were destroyed and much of the population took to the moors surrounding the town in terror.

But Clydebank was not an awful portent of further devastation to come. In general, the civilian Scottish population between 1941 and 1945 had a relatively quiet war. Their main anxieties concerned food rationing and, more fundamentally, the menfolk fighting at the front, in the air and at sea, which brought the constant fear of an official telegram delivered to the family home containing the terrible news of the death in action of a beloved son, husband or brother.

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Yet while the direct military damage inflicted on Scotland was negligible, the nation soon became the great arsenal of the Allied forces. Greenock and the Clyde were the main assembly points for the crucial Atlantic convoys. Scapa Flow in Orkney once again was restored to its First World War function as the fortified anchorage of the home fleet and central to its strategy of containing German surface raiders and preventing their escape from home waters to prowl the sea lanes of the world.

Parts of the Highlands became an armed camp, most famously to provide a challenging training ground for the new commandos and other special forces. Along the east coast, a potential landing area for German invaders, minefields, blockhouses and gun emplacements were sited in large numbers. Eventually, they were garrisoned by Polish troops, who turned the head of many a Scottish lass.

The Scottish industrial economy, which had languished in depression for much of the two decades between the wars, came into its own once again. The Clyde was rejuvenated, turning out an average of five ships a week from 1943 to compensate for the terrible losses sustained in the Battle of the Atlantic. Dundee jute manufacturers struggled to meet orders, such was the voracious demand on all fronts for sandbags.

Indeed, the war not only restored, but increased Scotland's dependency on the old industries. By 1945, they employed about a quarter of the labour force, compared with 16 per cent in 1939. This massively inflated sector would be an enormous burden for the Scottish economy during the decades of peace that followed. Little healthy diversification occurred. The giant Rolls-Royce factory at Hillington, which built Merlin engines for the Spitfires and Lancasters, was one of the few that offered the possibility for fresh developments post-war. At the time, of course, this mattered little. The nation was engaged in a fight for survival. All economic considerations, in both the short and long term, had to be subordinated to that end.

Conscription and the industrial boom meant not simply full employment for the duration, but an acute shortage of male labour. In December 1941, Britain became the only combatant nation on either side to conscript women aged 20 to 30, primarily for manufacturing. Women had served in industry in the Great War, but the extent of their role between 1940 and 1945 was unprecedented. They also worked in large numbers in agriculture, as part of the Women's Land Army, alongside German and Italian PoWs. In many ways, apart from electoral emancipation, the First World War was something of a false dawn for women. In that sense, these years were more fundamental. Women managed to hold on to more previously male-dominated jobs in peacetime than before, partly because of high employment levels after 1945 and the disappearance of the marriage bar in the professions.Yet more equality for women in wages and opportunities remained a distant possibility.

For the ordinary Scot, the daily impact was the rationing of essential foods, such as tea, butter, jam, sugar and meat, which lasted well after 1945 until it finally came to an end in 1954. But the wartime diet was much healthier than before (or since). The poor gained more than most from better and fairer food distribution and the provision of free milk, cod liver oil and orange juice for mothers and young children. The number of Scottish children who died before their first birthday fell by over a quarter during the war years, the biggest fall in western Europe at the time, while the average height of those in their early teens in Glasgow rose by just under two inches. Full employment also generated a rise in wages: people were eating better because they were better paid.

Guiding the nation through the conflict from 1941 was Tom Johnston, Labour MP, former Red Clydesider and widely acknowledged as Scotland's greatest-ever secretary of state. He was given immense powers, Churchill himself acknowledging him as the "King of Scotland". State intervention for the common good was his credo and his policies resulted in marked improvements in health care, industrial investment and energy supply, notably in the Highlands with his visionary scheme for regional hydro-electric power.

Johnston's initiatives showed that Scotland could successfully exploit advantages within the Union without the need to embrace nationalism. They were also a powerful vindication that the state could be a formidable instrument for improving the life of all citizens. If such intervention could help to crush the German menace, so, it was argued, it could also defeat the age-old ills of poverty and unemployment.

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The government had instilled a common purpose against the common foe in a condition of total war. Those who had made that common sacrifice were not prepared to return to the old discredited ways of the pre-war world. "Never again" were the watchwords. It was a mood that swept Labour into power in 1945 to become the greatest reforming government of modern times.

The aftermath of the war also ushered in an age of hegemonic unionism, which only started to crumble with Winnie Ewing's famous by-election victory at Hamilton in 1967. The victory of Robert McIntyre for the SNP proved to be another false dawn. In the 1940s, the party foundered on the rocks of personality conflict and ideological dispute. By the 1950s, it was more like an argumentative sect than a political organisation. The post-war increase in living standards, coupled with the remarkable development of the Welfare State, drew the teeth of nationalist alienation from the Union. But the great victory against Nazism was also relevant. A keener sense of Britishness had been discovered in the common fight against the Axis powers. It was an attitude which lived on after the war, renewed by nostalgic song, boys' comic stories, wartime recollections and the seemingly endless series of films about plucky Britain and its valiant struggle, standing for a period alone, against an evil foe.

• Tom Devine is the Sir William Fraser Professor of Scottish History and Palaeography, University of Edinburgh.