Charlotte: Will you tell me the story again?
Bertha: It all began one day during the war on the 15th November, 1939. The Germans had been coming across occasionally with reconnaissance planes to photograph the ships. And then this particular day they had started again. We had just sat down for our lunch in the kitchen and there was an old gentleman who lived with us, Gilbert Hawick. He was in his seventies and he had a long white beard. Anyway, we took shelter under the stairs because we were away from the glass, and then the bombing would ease off and the noise would stop and then we would say, “It’s finished,” and go and have another something to eat.
And then it started again. Well, the third time that that happened Gilbert refused to go to the shelter, he wanted to finish his dinner. I took his arm and said, “You must come away from the glass,” and this time it went on and on, a lot of shooting - the shooting was terrific. And there was the drone of the planes and then eventually there was one huge crash, a lot of noise, and the back door flew open opposite where we were keeping out of the way.
When things quietened down again, we went back into the kitchen and, would you believe it Charlotte? The whole glass from the window was lying on top of the food on the table where were were having our dinner. And on the floor sat my two large china dogs which I’d had since I was a baby and somehow they had come off the top of the old dresser, which stood along the partition, and it was quite a high dresser with shelves on top. I don’t know how the dogs would have gone from there and landed upright on the floor and there wasn’t a crack or a chip near them. I was so delighted with that!
Anyway, eventually there was no more noise and things had quietened down. The ships usually gave hoots to say that the raid had finished, like an all-clear. (During the raid my father was away at work and my two brothers were at school.)
Charlotte: What were the ships doing?
Bertha: Well, there were two tankers based in Sullom Voe. There was a base just below our shop, you know where the shop is, down at the end of the road, past the kirk. There is a pier and the local men had been working extending it so the navy men could get ashore. And the other thing they had done at that time was put up a signal box and had fixed it to the front of the shop. They also built a canteen at the pierhead for the sailors. The navy put in two marines to signal from there to the ships. So their lanterms were always flashing, and we had two marines billeted beside us for a while.
Anyway, to make a long story short, on this day I’m talking about, we saw gaps in part of the dyke which was up above our house. We walked up and there were four huge craters in the yard behind the house and also a lot of shrapnel and large pieces from the bombs. (During the war, the ground had shrapnel everywhere from the raids – the anti-aircraft guns on the ships – and when working on the land we used to find Pom-pom shells with their insides blown out. I even found them in our garden! And when taking our cows daily out to the large park, kept collecting it in case the animals happened to flick up small pieces in their mouths when grazing.)
It was an old croft house and the roof had been raised about four inches from the walls, completely lifted, but it was still on the house. And in that yard there was a little hillock where the rabbits used to have their nests. Later on people had been coming looking, and of course the word had gone to Lerwick. Newspaper men and photographers arrived, and all the excitement was because this was the first German bombs of the war which had landed on British soil. They landed on the Houll yard, four of them. So they were taking photographs and they got the old gentleman who lived with us to go down in the bottom of one of these craters with another man and they photographed him holding up a dead rabbit.
So that’s how the song ‘Run Rabbit Run’ started – about the Germans killing a rabbit with the bomb.
Charlotte: Did you ever get your lunch?
Bertha: No, it was full of glass! It took us a while to get sorted out. Oh yes and you know this dyke that was at Houll, the big stone dyke which came from the road. The main road went by the Houll house, and then this dyke came right down alongside the yard in at the back, what we call a yard in at the back of the house. And we had noticed there were huge gaps in the wall, it was a very old wall with huge stones. At the back of our house there was a sort of embankment. On the edge of it on the top there was a big hole but it had filled in with soil. It was something new, we didn’t know what on earth it was.
Later on I had been going down to the sea, to the shore, and I found another two great big holes – something had disturbed the earth and I thought that was weird. And when the authorities heard about it they had to put up a bomb disposal squad to see it if was unexploded bombs. But they discovered it was huge stones from the yard and one must have flown over the top of our house and the other one had landed right at the back door, so we were very fortunate, Charlotte!
Charlotte: There were no unexploded bombs?
Bertha: No, they’d all gone off, that four, the plane had surely got away. But I noticed that when the raids were on the planes seemed to fly low to take the shelter of the houses, you know.
Keep Reading: Part Two - Congregations and Craters