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First WW2 bomb on UK mainland landed near Watten

By David G Scott

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Caithness has its fair share of historic sites to visit but one particularly significant location is well off the beaten track and never mentioned in tourist brochures – the site of the first Nazi bomb to fall on British mainland.

The location is on barren moorland at Acharole – a couple of miles from Watten – and only known to a few local history buffs and some of the folk who work the land there.

If marked at all on maps there is little to show its true significance with it usually just referred to as a “pond”.

The historic bomb site now makes a nice pond for dogs to cool off in. Pictures: David G Scott
The historic bomb site now makes a nice pond for dogs to cool off in. Pictures: David G Scott

“This is Flow Country land that stretches for miles,” said sprightly pensioner David Forbes from Haster as we attempted to find the obscure location on a sunny Monday morning recently.

David had helped the late farmer, Angus Sinclair, to work the land at Acharole for many years and despite knowing the area well he admits it can be a struggle to find the bomb pit.

“It’s located on farm holdings 21 and 22 up here. The government, at that time, split the estate up into numbered areas to make it easier for the army.

“They actually used the area for shelling practice during the war but the holes were much smaller than where the German bomb landed.”

David had originally visited the site with Angus Sinclair 20 years ago and said it was much bigger when he first saw it.

“The sides seem to be falling in and it’s gradually getting smaller and smaller now. It could be deer using it as a watering hole that’s affecting it but it was way bigger in the past anyway.”

After veering off from a wooden cottage at Acharole and up a slope by a small tree plantation, the landscape of the Flow Country is relentlessly barren and featureless – not a perfect place to find a hole in the ground.

David’s dogs, perhaps in need of a cooling off period, led the way however and the sound of happy Labradors splashing about in water signalled that the bomb site was successfully located.

“Even since the last time I was here it’s got a lot smaller. The old photo from the war shows it was a lot bigger back then.”

The photograph David referred to was reproduced in the Groat of April 19, 1940 and showed two men standing at the bottom of the bomb crater which then measured 40ft wide by 15ft deep it was stated.

“The first enemy bomb to be dropped on British mainland fell in Caithness, but as it landed on a moor about a mile from the nearest habitation the discovery was not made until a few days afterwards,” reported the paper.

It went on to say that the bomb was dropped by one of the German planes taking part in a raid on Scapa Flow.

“Most of the people in Watten parish were out-of-doors during the raid and the explosion of the bomb was clearly heard.”

One of those who heard the bomb drop was Thurso man John Black who was then living at Stirkoke where his father worked at the wool mill.

“I was just six-years-old and could hear the plane coming over. We knew it was a German plane by the sound of its engines.”

John said he recalled going up with his father to the site at Acharole and how his dad pulled out a large bomb fragment from the peat "with some difficulty".

“We tried cutting it up and went through several hacksaw blades as it was so tough.”

The bomb fragment has recently been lodged with Wick Heritage Museum where it will go on display in the near future.

It was reported in the Groat that numerous "souvenir" hunters visited the site to look for bomb fragments and Angus Sinclair, who owned the land at Acharole, had some of the prize pieces.

When Angus passed away six years ago he left the bomb fragments to relative Bib Harrold from Reiss. The pieces of bomb casing are deceptively heavy with the largest weighing almost a stone and a half.

"We took them from Angus' shed in west Watten and there's a metal ring that he had as well that came from the bomb. I got a shock when I first lifted one of the bits - what a weight in it!"

Bib said she wanted to make sure the historic fragments were not lost to posterity and intends to eventually donate them to the local museum.

When the bomb landed on the evening of April 10, 1940 it was during a period of WWII known as the Phoney War due to the lack of major hostilities taking place.

There had been bombing incidents in Orkney and along the Firth of Forth but Caithness was largely untouched. One curious incident happened in Bower, however, when a farmworker fell ill after a “gas attack”.

A suspected German aircraft had flown over the area shortly before Alexander Cormack began to complain of a strong smell that created a “choking sensation in his throat and chest”, it was reported.

Despite an extensive check of the area no evidence of a gas bomb was discovered and it was suspected that the “sulphurous” aroma had come from an airman making a deposit of a slightly different nature than a gas bomb. Much less dangerous to have the contents of a Luftwaffe lavvy come down it was no doubt agreed.

There may have been few major incidents over the first months of the war but Britain was geared up for defending itself from attack with constant air raid drills and black-outs.

A buzzard flies over the bomb site bringing back memories of the night in 1940 when a German aircraft dropped its payload here.
A buzzard flies over the bomb site bringing back memories of the night in 1940 when a German aircraft dropped its payload here.

David Forbes thinks there would have been heather burning at that time by gamekeepers for grouse shooting and that the German bomber returning from a raid on Orkney jettisoned its extra bomb when light was spotted – possibly mistaking the barren moor for an airfield.

The first bomb on mainland Britain clearly demonstrated that the Phoney War was over – and that nowhere, not even rural Caithness, was now safe.

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