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Thursday, November 3rd, 2011 at 4:25 pm
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Book Reviews

A Time of Tyrants, Scotland and the Second World

Trevor Royle’sA Time of Tyrants, Scotland and the Second World War (Birlinn, £25.00)starts symbolically with the Empire Exhibition in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow, in 1938. Glasgow perceived itself as ‘the second city of the Empire’ and with some legitimacy.

Glasgow’s wealth rested on an imperial base. But for a decade that industrial base had been declining as a result of the depression. The Empire Exhibition offered only some tentative sense of optimism for the future. In 1938 Glasgow was also, like much of Britain, loathe to face another conflict and although there was relief at the outcome of Munich, the mood was changing. Royle’s previous work, The Flowers of the Forest, Scotland and the First World War, told a different tale.

In this sequel his task is more difficult. Far more Scots in the Second World War fought in UK, rather than Scottish formations. Not only were the RN and the RAF far more important in 1939-45, but there was a far greater place for technical units, RAOC, REs, RASC, which, again, recruited on a UK-wide basis. There is therefore a less distinctively Scottish military story but Royle does a splendid job in relating the story of the Scottish formations which did operate as such.

He tells the tale of the 51st Highland Division with the BEF in France, committed to a last delaying and defensive action at the time of Dunkirk and almost entirely bagged at St-Valery-en-Caux. He describes 52nd Lowland Division’s five day campaign in Normandy in June 1940. He thenturns to most powerful descriptions of several other early and foredoomed military actions, particularly the Far Eastern campaigns, and the role of the Argylls in the defence of Singapore and of the Royal Scots in Hong Kong. He captures too the brutality faced by the men of these regiments as prisoners of war.

Especially powerful is his description of the unwavering courage of Captain Douglas Ford of the Royal Scots, executed by the Japanese for having had medical supplies smuggled into his prison camp.

The role of Scottish soldiers in the great campaigns, in North Africa, in Italy, in North West Europe and in Burma, as well as in the lesser known fights, in Madagascar, in Syria and in Eritrea, is described, using, almost always, the words of participants. There are also telling descriptions of the air battles over Scotland, where the first enemy aircraft were engaged and destroyed. Scotland’s role as training base for countless allied servicemen, the role of women in the war, the naval engagements in and around Scotland (including the calamitous destruction of the HMS Royal Oak in Scapa Flow), the place of Scotland as a host to countless European servicemen, especially the Free Poles and Norwegians, the impact of German air-power, particularly the Clydebank and Greenock blitzes, are all covered. What Royle also achieves is a perceptive view of Scottish politics and culture during and after the war. Although he rightly examines various pacifist and anti-war movements, the overwhelming Scottish support for the war effort is apparent. He quotes Dundonians, who did suffer Luftwaffe bombing, but little compared to London: “If only they (German bombers) would give us a turn, they might give London a night’s rest.” Churchill received a rapturous welcome in ‘red’ Glasgow on his post-war tour. (It helped sustain his illusion that he would be re-elected.)

Major changes had however occurred. The Beveridge Report, a government paper which actually encapsulated a mass, popular mood, envisioned a future free of want and insecurity. Tom Johston was the coalition’s Secretary of State for Scotland, one of the great successes of war-time government. He had operated precursors of the NHS in Scotland during the war, vigorously defended Scottish interests and reinforced a mood that there should be no return to pre-war social conditions. There were also deeper shifts in the political culture. Today the rise of the SNP is seen as primarily a post-1960s phenomenon. Royle points out that in February 1944, despite an anti-conscription candidate, and a history of anti-war sentiment, the SNP took 42% of the votes in the Kirkcaldy by-election and in 1945 Robert McIntyre won Motherwell in a by-election.

These events were however essentially ahead of their time. The returning troops and the civilians who had suffered the blitz (let alone pre-warpoverty) were committed to state intervention and cooperative efforts. They did not trust the market or the pre-War politicians. In that sense Scotland, in the post-1945 decade, was not only thoroughly in tune with the rest of Britain but was more British than it had ever had been – and more British than it would ever be again. Royle has both a sure touch in capturing the mood of war-time Scotland and a profound grasp of what makes Scotland tick. His post-script is the re-opening in 1999 of the Scottish Parliament. That exhibition in Bellahouston was indeed ‘the last hurrah’, but the changes it presaged are still unfolding.

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