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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

Christian Auer

World War II

World War II

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  • 4 I. Crichton Smith, Selected Stories, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1990, p. 7.

What the war had to do with them the people of the village did not know. It came on them as an alien plague, taking their sons away and then killing them meaninglessly, randomly. They watched the road often for telegrams.4

1When the war broke out there was no general reaction of enthusiasm as it had been the case in 1914. Scotland nevertheless took an active part in the war: it has been estimated that by 1944 there were half a million Scots in the British armed services.

2The Scottish civilian population felt the impact of the war through such measures as the blackout, the rationing of food (which was to last until 1954) or the evacuation of city children to the countryside. 175,000 children from the cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee, 37 per cent of the school population of Scotland, were evacuated over a period of several days.

3During the first air raid on Britain in October 1939 bombs were dropped near the Forth Railway Bridge. In 1940, the Germans carried out several raids on Shetland, Orkney and the northeast ports. But it was the region of Glasgow—a strategic centre for heavy industry and shipbuilding—that was to suffer the most from the bombing of the Germans. On the evening of 13 March 1941, 236 German bombers attacked Clydebank, the Govan shipyards and the Rolls-Royce factory in Hillington. The 270 tons of high explosives and 1,700 incendiaries dropped by the Germans killed 1,200 people and wounded another 1,100. German raids on Clydeside devastated Clydebank and killed over a thousand people. Nearly all of Clydebank’s houses were damaged and 35,000 of its 47,000 inhabitants were left homeless.

4The Scottish industries contributed fully to the war effort: the demand for steel, coal, iron and all the products of heavy industry increased enormously. Engineering and shipping quadrupled the value of their output from 1935 to 1948. The traditional heavy industries employed about 16% of the employed population in 1939; in 1945 the figure had risen to 25%.

  • 5 “Johnston was a giant figure in Scottish politics and is revered to this day as the greatest Scott (...)

5The appointment in March 1941 of the Labour MP for West Stirlingshire Tom Johnston, the former editor of the Independent Labour Party paper Forward and a passionate supporter of home rule, as Secretary of State for Scotland, can be seen as one of the most important events in twentieth-century Scottish politics.5 Johnston believed in a strong but benevolent state and was convinced of the importance of planning as an economic strategy. He created a Scottish Advisory Council of ex-Secretaries (usually referred to as the Council of State), which enabled him to take decisions and to launch schemes with the backing of different political parties. In 1942 he set up a Scottish Council of Industry consisting of trade union and business leaders to encourage communication between government and industry. By 1945 the Council had managed to attract 700 new industrial units employing a total of 90,000 workers to Scotland. In 1943 he established the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board, probably one of its greatest achievements. Johnston also created a miniature National Health Service on Clydeside. Several hospitals had been built in the late 1930s to treat the victims of the war. He decided to use these hospitals to examine and treat civilian war workers. This is what he wrote about the decision in his Memoirs in 1952:

  • 6 Quoted in T.M. Devine, Nation, op. cit., p. 553.

The success of the experiment by April 1945 was such we had wiped out the waiting lists of 34,000 patients on the books of the voluntary hospitals – was such that our scheme had been extended from the Clyde Valley to all of Scotland and blazed a trail for the National Health Scheme of post-war years.6


4 I. Crichton Smith, Selected Stories, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1990, p. 7.

5 “Johnston was a giant figure in Scottish politics and is revered to this day as the greatest Scottish Secretary of the century” (T.M. Devine, Nation, op. cit., p. 531).

6 Quoted in T.M. Devine, Nation, op. cit., p. 553.

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