Exploring Moray’s war-time past
Scotland is pretty well interpreted from a visitor point of view, I think. Sometimes though, the past is easily overlooked, its memorials too easily passed by.
Park in many designated carparks and you find the inevitable panorama or information board – history, geology, nature conservation and wildlife are just some of the usual themes.
Yes, we are pretty good at these – though many now belong to that era when local councils and tourism groups had a bit of cash for such tourism fripperies, say, a couple of decades back.
Some of these ‘information points’ are getting a bit time-worn. But, overall, we are still pretty good at interpretation for visitors, as part of our ‘tourism infrastructure’.
However, there are still places where you have to dig around – or just be very observant – to find out the significance of a place.
Spey Bay For Dolphins
Take for example, the mouth of the River Spey in the old county of Moray. Summer haunt of ospreys, hunting grounds for our unpredictable Moray Firth dolphins, the estuary here has a carpark at the road end that is nearly always busy.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society have a wee café and gift shop here.
Inevitably there are – yes – information panels, to waylay the shingle-beach strollers and earnest tooried birdwatchers. (Eh? Oh, a toorie is what I call a woolly hat with a bobble or tassel.)
Just about every car though, en route to the River Spey estuary carpark, has passed by another informative feature, though few will have stopped there.
This one isn’t in weatherproof plastic or acrylic or whatever they make info boards out of. (That was never my problem. I just had to write ‘em sometimes.)
No, this informative place has some of its wording in gilt letters, carved in stone.
It should still be there when all these other plastic panels have crumbled and faded away. It is the solemn memorial to RAF Dallachy, an RAF Coastal Command Strike Wing airfield.
You can find it on the east side of the road at the strung-out little village of Bogmoor.
Probably the red of poppy wreaths will catch your eye.
Dallachy – A Strike Wing airfield
What is left of the taxiways and runways is just a few minutes walk away.
There are no other information panels in the immediate vicinity. Only a curious foursquare mostly boarded up structure in a barley field. This was the control tower.
Deviate from the main A96-to-Spey-Bay road (the B9104) via the cosy bungalows and cottages of the wee settlement of Nether Dallachy and you will find yourself driving round what was the perimeter track of the old airfield.
At several points the distinct bow-shape of dispersal points on either side of the road are quite plain, though I don’t imagine that folk, unless they look at the Google street view of the Spey Bay area, recognise them for what they are.
But just imagine, if you had come along this way over 70 years ago. You would have been within the airfield boundary and you might have met, coming the other way, a flight of taxiing aircraft, each with two big radial engines roaring.
There’s a westerly blowing and you might have seen them reach the eastern side of the field, turn into wind and take off.
Imagine, the crew probably glimpsing the River Spey below them, with its braided estuary channels, before they began their turn out, over and beyond the big shingle beaches that run round to Lossiemouth.
Then it was away to the north-east because the planes were bound for Norway.
Some of the young men who flew were already far from their own land, because 404 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force was here, as was 455 Squadron Royal Australian Air Force and 489 Squadron Royal New Zealand Air Force, as well as units from home.
And, especially, if somehow you had seen them take off on the 9th February 1945, you would have seen aircraft that left the ground, in this tranquil stretch of coastal Moray, and never returned.
Neither did the young men who flew them. That date, almost at the end of World War II, became known as Black Friday in the annals of Coastal Command, when the Dallachy crews suffered their greatest loss of any Strike Wing in a single operation.
But that is another story, though well documented should you choose to explore it – with even marine archaeology playing its part in unravelling what happened that day in Førde Fjord, far across the North Sea.
(See, for example, tv series, “Secrets of the Deep: WWII Beaufighters” Season 2 Episode 1.)
But if you are wandering down to the mouth of the Spey, on the east side, look out for the memorial at Bogmoor. Park, if you can.
Walk through the gate that leads to the control tower. Maybe even walk a bit of the perimeter track.
Look closely both on the southern perimeter track and at the western end of the main runway and there are the tiniest glimpses of the past.
These presumably date from the winter of 1942-3 when the runways were under construction.
Set into the concrete are footprints: a naughty dog or two, a tentative roe deer and a few enquiring birds (probably crows), as well as the hobnail boots of someone I like to think of as the foreman of the concrete laying squad.
There are bike tracks as well, including one who seems to have got off his machine when he realised he was leaving his mark.
I like to imagine him as ground-crew perhaps, with the civilian workmen in the squad shouting at him to get off their latest bit of cement-laying!
Today, it’s a tranquil scene, with the birds of summer, the yellowhammers and whitethroats, singing. There are now abandoned bits of farm machinery and silage bales on concrete hard standings that once saw busy ground crews working to keep their aircraft at readiness.
Admittedly, the east ends of both runways are disappearing under less than picturesque heaps of tangled metal – the working materials of a recycling centre.
And then there is that forlorn control tower with its ghosts.
The main accommodation blocks were on the higher ground to the south. Their remains – mostly just foundations – are now deep within woodland.
But you can still see the outlines of the huts, sometimes with broken porcelain plumbing scattered around, as well as air-raid shelters.
To be honest, it’s slightly spooky – made worse on the occasion during a winter dog walk there when the dog wouldn’t budge as soon as I entered the wood.
Refused to come another step. Spooked me, let me tell you! Just saying.
Mind you, he is a comfort-loving Border Terrier.
Anyway, today there is the memorial, there is the control tower and the silent vanishing runways. And a street called Beaufighter Road which runs into the village of Nether Dallachy and along much of the northern and eastern parts of the old airfield perimeter.
More information in the Fochabers Folk Museum
Just a few minutes’ drive from Dallachy, the community museum at Fochabers has a lot of background on the wartime role of the airfield.
It also has the sobering exhibit of a Beaufighter crew seat with a cannon-shell hole in it – from the ‘Black Friday’ operation mentioned above.
The shell wounded navigator F/O ‘Spike’ Holly and their aircraft crash-landed in a fjord.
Holly and his pilot P/O P.C. Smith were taken prisoner. Lots more detail in the highly recommended museum – and information on 144 Squadron RAF on the (currently not secure) website http://aircrewremembered.com/smith-percival.html
Along with some other relics from the crash site, the seat was recovered from the fjord by Norwegian divers in 1979 – and actually given to F/O Holly!
Those Strike Wing crews were based in rural Moray for the last six months of the war. And they flew off across the grey sea and saw and did terrifying things amid the mountains and fjords of occupied Norway.
Worth a few minutes of your time, just to remember them, wouldn’t you say…before you go down to the peaceful and endlessly-flowing River Spey, in case the Moray Firth dolphins are about?