Military East Lothian

Diana M Henderson

A stranger arriving in East Lothian in 1945 would have been left in no doubt that they had entered a county under arms. The evidence of war was everywhere and it was clear from the physical evidence and the numerous returning ex-servicemen that East Lothian had played a full and important part in the war effort.

During the 55 years that followed, the closing of facilities and the dismantling of military structures changed the landscape and the demographics of East Lothian. However, strategically placed at the entrance to one of the United Kingdom’s major Naval Bases and anchorages, life in East Lothian during the Cold War and beyond, continued to have important military links.

The three major airfields at Drem, Macmerry and East Fortune, all of which had seen considerable action during the war, were gradually run down from being active service stations. Three German JU52 aeroplanes arrived at Drem on the 11th May 1945 carrying German Officers to offer the surrender of occupied Norway and thereafter the field was used as a night fighter school until 1946. Macmerry closed in 1953 and reverted to agriculture with part of the site being developed as an industrial estate. East Fortune was transferred to Fighter Command in 1946, allocated to the United States Airforce in 1950, sold by the Air Ministry in 1960, used as Edinburgh Airport in 1961 during runway repairs at Turnhouse, and from 1971 became the home of the Museum of Flight of the National Museums of Scotland. All of these former air stations, together with the Ground Control of Interception Station at Dirleton and the satellite landing ground at Lennoxlove, remained of considerable interest to military archaeologists in that the original layout and many of the buildings were still visible.

Anti-invasion defences also continued to make a major impact on the East Lothian landscape long after the war was over. It was many years before the barbed wire and wooden posts were removed from the threatened beaches or were simply eroded by the sea. These posts and landing obstacles on the beaches, primarily at Gosford, Aberlady, Gullane, North Berwick, Tyninghame and Dunbar together with posts embedded in concrete on potential glider landing sites, were reinforced by long lines of large concrete anti-tank blocks intersected by road blocks and gun emplacements. Polish Forces had done much of the concrete work and local labour early in the war and scattered examples of this complex defence system can still be seen at several sites including Prestonpans and Tyninghame.

A common sight in East Lothian at the end of the war and for several years thereafter were Prisoners of War working in the fields and doing road and ditch repairs. There were two Prisoner of War camps in the county, at Gosford and at Amisfield. By 2000, it was difficult to find evidence of these sites, which once held almost 4000 men. Also working in the area for several years after the end of the war and not released from duty at the end of hostilities were the conscripted women of The Women’s Land Army and, in the coal mines, the Bevin Boys.

During the Second World War a number of secret sites had been used in East Lothian. Firstly, the Auxiliary Unit ‘hides’ at Janefield Wood, Smeaton and Drylaw Hill were filled in around 1944 and only re-identified in the 1990s. Secondly, the Special Operations Executive (SOE) used Belhaven Hill House as a special training school until it was handed back to civilian ownership in late 1945. Thirdly, sensitive testing of methods of jamming German radar was carried out at The Admiralty Signals Establishment Extension at Tantallon. This site continued to be used by the Admiralty until 1984 when it was sold to Ferranti. And, finally, Royal Observer Corps Posts were located at Aberlady, Athelstaneford, Dunbar, Garvald, Humbie, New Mills, North Berwick and Tranent, all of which were closed around 1968.

Off shore, the anchorages, particularly Aberlady Bay (once used by hundreds of Naval vessels), remained unchanged and were used for more peaceful commercial purposes. The Firth saw one of the largest post-war assemblies of warships during the Coronation Review in 1953, and the arrival of the huge warship USS Nimitz in 1976. In the late 1940s and early 1950s a constant reminder of the dangers of war were the numerous mines washed up on East Lothian’s beaches.

The end of the war and the changing military situation over a period of 55 years resulted in a number of other changes in the built structures in the county and in the people of East Lothian themselves. As a result of deaths in service, nearly every war memorial in the county was adapted to include the names of those killed between 1939 and 1945. Names were also added to some memorials as a result of the Korean War. Many British Legion Scotland premises were extended at the end of the war to cater for the influx of new ex-service members and, in North Berwick, the Legion ran a special holiday hotel at ‘The Bradbury’ on Dirleton Avenue, which closed in the 1960s. Following cuts in the Territorial Army in the 1960s and again in the 1990s, a number of once famous Drill Halls, Camps and Firing Ranges were sold for civilian use and the names of historic units such as the Lothians and Border Horse Yeomanry were removed from the Army List (see Stephen Bunyan, Services, this volume). What did endure were the garden ‘Allotments’ which were part of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign and, although many fell into disrepair at the end of food rationing in the 1950s, some still existed right up to the 1970s such as those on the slopes of North Berwick Law.

The changes in the population itself since 1945 from the military point of view were interesting. The numbers of men in East Lothian in 1945 boosted by the POWs and by the servicemen at the airfields declined steeply soon after the war ended. A feature of the coastal towns throughout the 50s and 60s was the number of older people from all branches of the services and from the Indian Army and the Indian and Colonial Civil Service who chose to retire to the area with fine sea views, good golf and healthy breezes. They formed an important part of the community in the county, as did those who chose to stay or those who could not return to their native lands who included Poles, Czechs, Germans and Ukrainians.