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Scotland and D-Day

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D-Day, the 6th of June 1944, the day of the Allied landings on the coast of France and the commencement of the campaign to free German occupied Europe, was one of the most historic days of the 20th century.

On that early summer morning the focus of the long awaited preparations and the battle itself was   on the south coast of England, the   English Channel and the beaches of Normandy where five great assault forces assembled, crossed the dangerous Channel waters and landed. Assault Force ‘S’ at Newhaven, Shoreham and Portsmouth, destined for SWORD beach; Assault Force ‘J’ at Portsmouth destined for JUNO beach; Assault Force   ‘G’ west of Portsmouth destined for GOLD beach; Assault Force ‘O’ at Poole, Portland Bill and Weymouth destined for Omaha Beach and Assault Force  ‘U’ at Brixham, Dartmouth and Salcombe destined for UTAH beach. The force comprised 156,000 men, 6000 vessels and   9,900 aircraft made up primarily of Americans, British and Canadians, of which almost half the total was British.

It was an awesome, inspiring and amazing site but behind this great Allied effort is another story, the forgotten story of   Scotland and D-Day. For such a force to the assembled, supplied, equipped, trained and made ready it required an enormous preparatory effort and it was in that effort that Scotland played an often secret, largely unknown but considerable part.

The preparation began after the fall of France in 1940. It is difficult now to appreciate just how vulnerable Britain was that summer with Nazi Germany occupying Europe from Norway to southern France making the whole of Britain vulnerable to attack from enemy aircraft and from seaborne invasion. Nowhere was exempt, least of all Scotland.

Scotland’s part in D-Day falls essentially into seven categories:

  • Convoys and Military Ports

  • Training

  • Manufacture and Industry

  • Intelligence and Meteorological Information

  • Deception

  • Background support

  • Effects and Follow up

Convoys and Military Ports

Key to the resupply of the beleaguered islands and the long term preparations for the reconquest of Europe were trans Atlantic convoys, the “Atlantic Bridge”, bringing in food, supplies, men and equipment from Canada and the USA, the latter remaining technically neutral until December 1941. Huge convoys of ships comprising Royal Navy and Merchant Marine vessels, many of them  “Lend/Lease” ships from the USA, regularly assembled in the Clyde and in the deep waters of Loch Ewe ready to run the gauntlet of the Atlantic and the German U Boats.

The authorities however envisaged the possible total destruction by air raids of Britain’s main west coast ports, Liverpool and the Clyde and they therefore set about building emergency deepwater ports from scratch at alternative sites. Two of these ports, Faslane and Cairnryan, Military Ports   Numbers 1 and 2, were built in Scotland.  These two ports were constructed in record time using military labour, mainly men from the Royal Engineers and the Pioneer Corps. At Cairnryan seven miles of railway were constructed in eighteen months and although Cairnryan never worked to full capacity, both facilities handled incoming men and equipment destined for the invasion force.


For the landings to be successful and for breakout from the bridgehead on the French coast to be achieved the men of all three services not only had to be equipped they also had to be trained.  It was to be training like no other, rigorous, realistic and relentless and much of it took place in Scotland.

Barracks, drill halls, training camps, anchorages, airfields and billets in Scotland were occupied and used to the maximum. Land and houses were requisitioned.

One of critical elements was the tactic of Assault Landing from the sea using the combined force and skills of all three services. The whole operation and all of its component parts had to be practiced and rehearsed in detail.  Training for the landings began with what were called “dry shod” exercises where the troops “disembarked” from vehicles on to an imaginary beach start line and then assaulted a series of concrete and other obstacles under fire, often live fire. One such training area for these  “dry shod” exercises was Sheriffmuir near Stirling where some seventy metres of concrete wall was built with defensive positions and machine gun posts surrounding it to simulate Hitler’s Atlantic Wall.

Troops then progressed to full-scale “wet shod” exercises which increased in realism and danger as the months progressed.  17,000 men of the 3rd Assault Division who were assigned to SWORD beach trained in Scotland in 1943 and the winter of 1943/ 1944.  They began in Galloway, progressed to the Divisional Battle School at Moffat, moved to the Combined Training Centre (CTC) Inveraray and practiced their assault landings at Loch Fyne, Dorlin, Kilbride, Eigg, Rhum and Kentra Bay, with the Field Artillery Regiments practicing live firing of their 105mm howitzers over the bows of the LCTs (Landing Craft Tank) on to the island of Inchmarnoch.

After reconnaissance, it was found that the area around Nairn and Forres on the Moray Firth, and at Inver on the Dornoch Firth, bore a remarkable resemblance to the Normandy beach areas where the landings were to take place. In the late autumn of 1943 the civilian population was cleared from these areas, livestock sold and crops removed before seven full scale 3rd Division practice assault landings and firing practices took place. For these, the troops, guns and tanks embarked into LCTs on the beach below Fort George and were taken by sea to the area off Wick before turning south for landfall, the length of the journey and the freezing north east coast seas more than simulating the actual cross Channel conditions on the day. At least one man is known to have been killed during these exercises but there were no major casualties similar to those of the US forces at Slapton Sands. The remains of two Duplex-Drive DD “swimming” tanks still lie on the seabed off Burghead and north of Findhorn Bay.

Much of the 3rd Division’s planning was done at Dunphail House and the Divisional Battle School was located at Aberlour House. The last full scale exercise for the 3rd Division was held on the night of 17th/18th March 1944 when the Division began to move south for the real thing. Other practice assault landings took place in the west on the beaches of Arran, amongst other places.

Aircrews trained on the numerous airfields in Scotland. Port Edgar, HMS Lochinvar, trained mine sweeping crew; Tobermory Bay, HMS Western Isles, under the command of the formidable Vice Admiral Sir Gilbert Stephenson, trained convoy crews; amphibious warfare and aircraft carrier training was based in Largs; HMS Osprey at Dunoon and HMS Nimrod at Campbeltown were anti submarine training bases; radar training was carried out at Sherbrooke House in Glasgow; Royal Marines of the Special Boat Section trained at Fort William and at Holy Loch; the main Combined  Operations Base was at Inveraray with a  further centres at Castle Toward on the Cowal peninsular and Rosneath; Royal Naval Commando formed at Coulport House in the Firth of Clyde, HMS Armadillo at  Glenfinart near Ardentinny and at Inveraray, and they also trained at HMS Dundonald near Troon; the Commando base was at Achnacarry. The list for all three services is almost endless but the above does serve to show how important Scotland was in this training and preparatory phase of the D-Day operation.

The 52nd Lowland Division were particularly and deliberately visible both as part of their training and as part of a major deception plan. Designated a Mountain Division, the 52nd trained with Norwegian troops and Indian muleteers in the Highlands of Scotland this training culminating in two huge Divisional exercises, GOLIATH 1 and GOLIATH 2. Polish and Czech troops trained in Fife and the Borders.

Destined to play a key role in the D-Day landings were the Midget Submarines or X Craft whose daring crews, along with the crews of the “Chariot” Human Torpedoes, trained in considerable secrecy in Scotland.  Their depot ships were HMS Titania, “Tites” as she was known throughout the submarine service, and HMS Bonadventure. In early 1942 Titania was sent north to establish the secret base “Port D” at Loch Erisort near Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis while Bonadventure anchored in Loch Cairnbawn and was code named Port HHZ. Training areas and shore bases included Loch Striven, the Kyles of Bute Hydropathic Hotel, named HMS Varbel, and Ardtaraig House, Varbel II.

It was X20 under the command of Lieutenant Kenneth R Hudspeth, Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve and X23 under Lieutenant George B Honour, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, who on Friday 2nd of June 1944 began Operation GAMBIT. Their task was to secretly position themselves at the mouth of the River Orne off the Normandy beaches and to provide the vital beach navigation markers for the incoming invasion fleet. The landings were delayed due to the terrible weather in the Channel but, finally, in the early hours of Tuesday 6th of June the invasion began. These two tiny, cramped X Craft had spent seventy-six hours at sea, sixty-four hours of that submerged. Hudspeth and Honour were both awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.

Manufacture and Industry

Scotland’s contribution to D-Day also drew on her manufacturing and industrial base. It was the Clyde built paddle steamed Talisman that was the HQ ship for the Mulberry Harbours and large sections of the Mulberrys themselves were tested and made in Scotland. Trials for a floating, sectional pier and   harbour system with breakwaters which could respond to the tide and enable to Allies to land on the shallow shelved beaches in France where there was no major port, first took place at Garliston in South West Scotland. Eighteen pier heads were made by Alex Findlay & Company of the Parkneuk Works in Motherwell and many of the  “Hippo” sections were made by Henry Robb at Leith and finished at the pier now made famous by Harry Ramsden’s Fish and Chip Shop. Over one hundred Scottish firms were involved in the sub contracting arrangements of this massive undertaking.

Sections of PLUTO, the cross Channel fuel supply system, ships, landing craft, navigation equipment, precision instruments, uniforms, aero engines, ammunition, armour plating, hessian, catapult and towing hawsers (made at the Brunton Works in Musselburgh) and the X craft built on the Clyde are examples of Scotland’s contribution, which along with timber, coal, distilling, farming and fishing all helped to make the assembly of the massive invasion force possible. 

Intelligence and Meteorological Information

The North also played its part in the intelligence war before D-Day. There were a considerable number of Scots working at Bletchley Park on the Enigma material. Y Stations which intercepted the German signals, such as that at Dirleton supplied to Bletchley the endless pages of seemingly meaningless groups of random letters for decoding. These Y Station operators never really knew the importance of this tedious and demanding work and none breathed a word about it until at least thirty years afterwards.

For a cross Channel operation on such a scale in early summer accurate meteorological intelligence was also vital. The incoming frontal systems from the Atlantic and the dangerous and unpredictable nature of the English Channel made accurate forecasting as important as the tides and the phase of the moon. In 1944 the only way to obtain this meteorological information was by Meteorological Reconnaissance Sorties flown by specialist RAF Squadrons. Two of these Squadrons were based in Scotland, 518 Squadron based on Tiree and 519 Squadron based at Skitten near Wick. Between the 4th and the 6th of June 1944 these Squadrons flew fifteen sorties along set paths and following set heights, codenamed RHOMBUS, RECIPE, BISMUTH and MERCER, covering the sea area around Holland, Norway, Iceland and the North Atlantic. The information that these flights provided was instrumental in the decision initially to delay the landings and then finally to go ahead in spite of the bad weather.


An important part of D-Day planning was the deception operation in support of the landings. Operation OVERLORD was the codename for the landings and the deception plan was called FORTITUDE. Plan FORTITUDE was masterminded from London Controlling Station, Norfolk House in St James’s Square by the Eton and Oxford educated barrister Roger Hesketh.

From the outset it was appreciated it would not be possible to hide the movement of troops, ships, landing craft and planes but the plan aimed to convince German Intelligence that not one landing but at least three were being planned and that there were going to be a number of diversionary attacks. FORTITUDE therefore set out to persuade the Germans that there were to be possible landings in Norway, Pas de Calais and the Bay of Biscay and that German reserves would have to be deployed accordingly.

Plan FORTITUDE was divided into two parts FORTITUDE NORTH and FORTITUDE SOUTH. The northern element, a potential invasion of Norway, was Scotland’s and Northern Ireland’s part in this complex deception and in Scotland it was commanded by a Grenadier Guardsman General Sir Andrew Thorne based in Edinburgh. There were three methods used in implementing FORTITUDE NORTH, wireless deception, physical deception and special means, or double agents, all trying to create the idea that there was a battle ready Fourth Army, comprising British, American and Norwegian forces, assembling and training in Scotland for attacks on Narvik and Stavanger.

But the Fourth Army did not exist as such. The 52nd Lowland Division at Dundee, the Norwegian Brigade at Callander, the 55th British Infantry Division in Northern Ireland, the 113th Independent Infantry brigade in the Orkneys and the American XV Corps in Northern Ireland were real enough but one British Division, one US Division, three US Ranger Battalions and the whole of the Fourth Army structure was fiction.

Wireless traffic to simulate the activities of the Fourth Army was generated by Number 5 Wireless Group, US 3103 Signals Service Battalion and CHL Naval WD units. Traffic was recorded in advance and transmitters adapted so that one transmitter simulated six and one wireless truck was therefore able to transmit the radio traffic of a whole division.

Physical deception was also important. The 52nd Lowland Division being particularly visible during their arduous mountain training in Scotland. Surplus shipping assembled off Methil in the Firth of Forth in the second week of May 1944. Some of the physical deception was however truly deception.

Masterminded by Colonel Sir John F Turner, Royal Engineers, Day Decoys (K Sites) and Night Decoys (Q Sites) were established throughout Britain early in the war to deceive enemy bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. Much of the design and building of these sites and the dummy aircraft was done by Sound City Films at Shepperton Studios whose General Manager was Campbeltown born Scot Norman Louden. Simulating factories, railway yards, docks, urban layouts, airfields and the effect of incendiaries, the K sites, QF (Q Fire), QL (Q Lighting) and SF (Special Fire or “Starfish”) sites were built in many parts of Scotland. There were for example four Starfish sites around Edinburgh and nine in the Glasgow and Lanarkshire area. Specifically for the purposes of the D-Day deception plan dummy Boston and Spitfire aircraft were displayed at Peterhead, Fraserburgh and Fordoun.

Special Means or double agents were also a key element of FORTITUDE NORTH. A number of agents were involved but two in particular stand out in the Scottish context, Roman Garby-Czerniawski codenamed BRUTUS and Juan Pujol codenamed GARBO, known to the Germans as BENEDICT. In respect of Scotland their task was to persuade German Intelligence that large Allied troop numbers were training in Scotland and that an attack on Norway was planned. 

BRUTUS was a Polish officer who persuaded the Germans that they had turned him but, in fact working for the British, it was he who relayed to German Intelligence the main outline of the battle formation of the fictitious Fourth Army in Scotland.  GARBO’S part was more complex.  Recruited in May 1941 GARBO was the cover name for a Spanish born double agent and political idealist Juan Pujol. Pujol convinced the Germans to the end that he was the hub of a network of at least twenty-seven German agents all of whom, except GARBO himself, were entirely fictitious. Two of GARBO’S   “agents” worked in Scotland, “3” a Venezuelan of independent means and  “ 3(3)” a Greek seaman deserter. As part of the intricate web of deception both of these agents reported on activity in the Forth and Clyde, on shipping lying off Methil in April 1944 and on landing exercises in Loch Fyne in May 1944.

While there is debate as to how successful all of this actually was, the proof has to be the fact that the Germans did keep large numbers of troops in Norway, they are believed to have overestimated the Allied divisions by about 50%, they did hold back reserves after the Normandy landings took place unsure if it really was a feint or not   and, above all, the Allies did succeed, not only in the landings but also in the all important breakout. For his outstanding work Pujol received the MBE and a gratuity of £15,000. After the war he lived in Venezuela and was only after many years persuaded to return briefly to Britain when he had an audience at Buckingham Palace with Prince Philip who, on behalf of the   Nation, was   able to formally express the Allies’ gratitude to him. Pujol died in 1988.

Background Support

No great venture such as D-Day was of course possible without a massive national effort. It was to be another year before the war ended and while the attacks took place Scotland still had to function and be defended and guarded. Air, sea and coastal rear defence continued to work around the clock, the 52nd Lowland Division, the Poles and the Czechs left for the battlefields but the Home Guard stayed to watch key points and installations releasing fighting men for the battles in Europe. The members of the Women’s Land Army, the Women’s Timber Corps, the Women’s Royal Volunteer Service, the Red Cross, the Police, the Fire Brigades, the Bevin Boys and the factory, munitions and farm workers all contributed in their way to making the invasion possible.

Effects and Follow up

D-Day also had its repercussions on Scotland in respect of the follow up to the operation. Prisoners of War from the continent in their thousands came north and many of them occupied   the very camps that   the Allied   invasion force had trained in prior to leaving. Gosford House at Longdiddry for example housed 3000 German Prisoners of War and an overflow camp had to be established at Amisfield. Many Scottish hospitals received and treated battle casualties from the beaches and Scottish fire crews were recruited to form special units to help deal with the restoration of key services to destroyed French towns. And there were social repercussions too. Scotland’s now vibrant Polish/Scottish community stems directly from the wartime days when the Free Polish Army came north to train capturing the hearts of a large number of Scottish girls. At the same time isolated communities in the west and the far   north were suddenly opened up by the hundreds of young men and women from all over the world who arrived to serve at such stations at   Tiree, Skitten and Twatt.

While the service men and women may have long gone, Scotland still lives with the physical remains of their camps, harbours and airfields, a constant reminder of a vital part played in making D-Day possible.


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