Orkney stirs up old memories for veteran Fred

WW2 veteran Fred Nicholls (92) at Highland Park distillery in Orkney in July 2013. He returned to the scene of his first hot bath of the war.
WW2 veteran Fred Nicholls (92) at Highland Park distillery in Orkney in July 2013. He returned to the scene of his first hot bath of the war.
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It is unlikely that you will have ever heard of Fred Nicholls – a 92-year-old proud Lancastrian with a mind as sharp as the next man and a lust for life which remains undiminished by the passage of time.

His seemingly unstoppable energy aside, this great grandad is very much your Average Joe whose main passions in life are maintaining his rigorous daily routine and his family.

He isn’t famous nor, by his own admission, has he changed the world but he is a central figure in my life as I am proud to call him grandad.

I have long been in awe of the Old Man’s remarkable engine and his refusal to accept that his advancing years could prove something of a handicap so I was not in the least bit surprised when, earlier this year, he announced he would be returning to Orkney – one of several wartime haunts.

Although he has never been reticent to talk about his memories of the Second World War his service record long remained a mystery to me as his anecdotes related largely to general tales of wartime spirit and the hardships faced by he and his family.

For instance it wasn’t until several years ago that I learned he spent a significant part of the six years of conflict stationed in the less-than-glamorous outpost of Orkney, a collection of islands positioned where the North Sea meets the Atlantic.

Although, as it later turned out, he had long secretly

harboured a desire to return to the scene of his first ever posting. It was not until

earlier this year that the ball really started rolling on what was an unlikely pilgrimage.

Grandad has never been backwards in coming forwards and decided to write to islands’ newspaper, The Orcadian, to lay the foundations for his first ever return to this far flung corner of the British Isles.

His letter sparked an impressive response and from this correspondence he made at least half a dozen contacts with whom we would later meet.

Once we had decided on going, my grandad contacted the National Lottery’s Returning Heroes Fund who provided us with a grant. We were all set.

The prospect of spending the best part of a week in a far flung northerly quarter of the British Isles with a 92-year-old relative is hardly something which would fill most with relish but I saw this as a chance to connect with my grandad as he embarked on an emotional journey along Memory Lane.

As it turned out our trip lived up to both our expectations, although it did not seem that would be the case when our small plane touched down on the tiny runway at Orkney’s Kirkwall Airport.

We had left behind shorts weather in the North West of England but were greeted by slate grey skies, a mass of green with very few buildings and lots of water which, considering we were on an island, is understandable!

As we peered out of our window, initial silence was broken when I lent over to my grandad, touched his arm and poignantly asked: “So, do you recognise it then?”

The Old Man paused for a moment, straightened his regimental blazer then replied in his straightforward Lancastrian manner: “No.”

Before clarifying his point: “You see, when I was here the place was covered in snow.”

As we made the short journey from the airport to Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital city (although it has the same population as Longridge) he slowly began to regain his bearings.

Much of the island is uninhabited and as we passed one of its many bleak stretches of peatland it stirred a deep memory – one that I had never heard before.

He wondered whether this particular patch of field was the scene of perhaps his closest shave.

He asked aloud: “I wonder if that is where I was shot at?”

At this point he had my undivided attention before he continued: “It was a Sunday morning and I was on water duty – of course we didn’t have running water so we had to go and collect the water.

“It was my turn and I wasn’t really away and I heard a plane over head then gunfire. It really woke me up let me tell you.

“They were that close that I could see the rear gunner’s face as they flew past.”

He added, with a hint of a wry smile, that his German assailant signed off with a two fingered salute ... not the international sign of peace.

I learned a lot in our short time in Orkney, a place so far north that it doesn’t go dark until nearly midnight:

In June 1939 a teenage Frederick Nicholls, the second of five children, who had grown up in the desperate poverty of Blackpool in the 1920s and 1930s, decided along with many of his peers that he would volunteer for the army.

He recalls: “We knew that war was coming and we decided something had to be done.”

He joined the Fulwood

Barracks-based 62nd Searchlight Regiment, which had previously been known as the Loyal North Lancashire regiment.

He joined up at the Drill Hall in Lytham and was one of 100 men and teenagers who were attached to the 436 Battery. There were two other Batteries, in Chorley and Preston, and the recruits in these three groups spent the next three to four months being put through their paces as the war in Europe got into its full swing.

In October of that year a German U-Boat managed to evade the security measures which had been imposed on Scapa Flow, an enormous natural bay which the British Navy had chosen to be a safe harbour, and torpedoed the Royal Oak, costing the lives of 833 men, many young lads.

It was then the Government of the day decided security on Orkney needed to be upped and Winston Churchill himself visited the tragic site of the sinking, the effects of which are still felt today.

Then, in the first week of 1940, the troops of the 62nd Searchlight Regiment, were sent on their first mission, which turned out to be something of a mystery tour.

My grandad remembers it well: “We didn’t know where we were going but once we got on the train at Preston Station we soon realised we were headed north but there was much speculation amongst the lads as to where we were going.”

After an overnight stop in Berwick-on-Tweed the train continued up into Scotland until the soldiers disembarked at the northern port of Scrabster where they took the St Ola across the Pentland Firth – an unforgiving stretch of water which separates the Orkneys from the mainland. It is a crossing which remains etched on the Old Man’s memory even after seven decades. He says: “You can only imagine what it was like in the first week of January, and we now know it was one of the worst winters they ever had.

“We were all very poorly. I do not think there was a soul on that ship who could have done anything for quite some time afterwards.”

They arrived in a freezing cold Orkney with nowhere to stay and on that first miserable night they slept in the back of their army vehicle.

The coming days were not much better and grandad and his comrades were expected to set up their positions from where they would set up the searchlights and guns which would be used to detect , and dispense with, any German aerial threat.

My grandad now laughs somewhat bitterly when he recalls how ill equipped they were. He said: “We were given a 1914 machine gun which was fixed on a bracket to a piece of four by four wood. It was what our dads would have used in the First World War.”

Our visit stirred many memories that had been locked away in a mental vault as grandad got on with a life which saw him get married to Molly two years after the war, have two children, Susan and Rodney, relocate 250 miles to Hampshire and hold down two jobs – as a meter reader for the gas board and a telephonist for the GPO.

In Orkney we stayed next door to an imposing stone-built distillery, which is now home to Highland Park scotch, but the Old Man remembers it as belonging to a company called Grants.

He has fond memories of the place as it was the scene of his first hot bath in months back in 1940.

He recounted this memory to a wide-eyed tour guide as we shuffled around the distillery with 20 fellow tourists.

He told the assembled group: “We had been posted out in the middle of nowhere and we really could not get a proper wash. It was decided by the powers that be that we should have a hot bath so they commandeered this place and the engineers set to work.”

Hundreds of troops were treated to a welcome dip inside the huge metal vats which were (and still are) used at the beginning of the whisky making process.

However, he remembered it was not always the most relaxing of bath times: “The Royal Engineers, who were Jocks, were in charge of the flow of the water into the baths and they used to play tricks on us, where they put either too much hot or cold in.”

During this tour, in common with the rest of our trip, my grandad was approached by folk who wanted to shake his hand, speak to him or, in one case, have their picture taken with him. On at least half a dozen occasions I heard locals utter the words “It has been a great honour to meet you Mr Nicholls.”

Our visit gave us the chance to meet lots of interesting people including Marion Scollay who was the niece of Jennie Bews, a kindly woman who showed great kindness to a young Gunner Nicholls and his pals by giving them eggs and butter as they struggled to survive the harsh winter on the shores of Scapa Flow. It gave me the chance to deepen an already strong bond with my number one male role model and learn more about him than I had ever imagined.

I learned he saw a lot more wartime action than I had previously given him credit for and that he is much more than the elderly church going man, with a tendency to regale me with familiar tales whenever I visit his Portsmouth home every couple of months.

The sad thing is that the passing of time dictates that there are a dwindling number of Fred Nichollses left.

Grandfathers, great uncles and next door neighbours have uniquely fantastic stories to tell. Listen to them... before it is too late.