Gun Crews

Gun Crews

He hed a piece a wire…right fae da lodge ta da bothy an up at da hoose. So whin dey wir a call oot du just hed ta ring da bell…It did aright. Dey wir...surely eight o wis, I tink, in a bothy...Dey wir gunner sergeant at cam up fae Lerwick an we wir ta do two or three roonds on da target laid away oot ida bight o da voe dere…a peerie bit ta eastard o [Volister at]...Whalefirth. So old Gordon towt at dey wir a fine emplacement fur da gun, doon back ower. Hit wis da gref o a paet bank...Weel, da gun wis pittin in dere an...da gunlayer wis laid da gun an all an ready ta fire...An, of coorse, he give da order ta fire...sho recoiled…sho recoiled an sho gud right in troo da face o da bank. We hed ta go fae da hoose wi shovels an dell her oot. God, I could shaw dee dat paet bank ta dis day.  SA 3/1/60/2 William Irvine (1891-1986), Westsandwick, Yell.

When Willie Irvine was recorded by Robert L Johnson in 1982, he told about how he had served in a naval gun crew in his home island of Yell. Lieutenant William Gordon was in charge, running the operation from his home at Windhouse. He ran a wire from his house to signal the crew, who were staying in the nearby steadings. They practised firing one day, unfortunately placing the gun in the bottom of soft peat bank, and had to dig it out following recoil. It’s a tale somewhat at the expense of the officer, Gordon. Unsurprisingly, Willie remembered the peat bank well.

The districts of Unst, Yell, Hillswick, Voe, Walls, Lerwick, and Sandwick had gun crews, manned by naval reservists, and often officered by men from the local middle class. Six pounder guns, with a towing vehicle, intended to destroy submarines reported by RNR lookouts and others. Along with patrolling, it was a kind of integrated defence system. It occupied about 250 men. In the rural areas, apart from sightings of naval vessels, the gun crews were the most obvious sign that Shetland was defended.

The difficulties are obvious in retrospect. The lookouts operated from land, aerial operations not being available. The Shetland road system was inadequate, the vehicles unreliable. Not least, the U-boat had to remain in place until the gun was brought into range and could be fired.

After the war traditions emerged. One involves a Shetland seafarer meeting a German one. They talk, and then it emerges that the German knows about some of Shetland’s smaller isles. The German served on a U-boat. The crew stopped off at an island, picked up a couple of sheep, and slaughtered them for fresh meat. Probably apocryphal, but a gun crew’s success against u-boats depended on an unlikely combination of things going right.

The system did improve as the war progressed, the lookouts moved away from signal fires and used telephones, there were better trucks. In April 1918, Lieutenant Colonel Collard reformed it radically, reducing the number of lookouts, and using gun crews from Chatham. The gun crews part in the war is honoured in the breach in popular memory. In 1924, a popular farce commemorated them in Lerwick  -- Lieutenant Knox-Goschen's Gun’s Crew. The guns never had to be used in anger.

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Gun crew, Windhouse, Yell
Royal Naval Reserve Gun Crew, Windhouse, Yell. Lieutenant William Gordon, with his dog "Airlie." Shetland Museum.