River Forth played crucial role during World War II

The launch of the Robert Middleton at Grangemouth Dockyard Company
The launch of the Robert Middleton at Grangemouth Dockyard Company

The magnificent replica Spitfire in Bo’ness Road is a permanent reminder of Grangemouth’s contribution in World War Two, but for the people of the town and their neighbours in Bo’ness it was the River Forth that dominated their lives during the years of conflict.

Britain’s centuries old dependence on sea power meant that once again the port and dock facilities along the river and the skilled men and women who worked there found themselves forming the ‘Forth Front’ from the moment in 1939 when war was declared.

As in earlier conflicts both towns, and many smaller settlements on the river, were given over to a whole range of military activities including ship building and repairs, the conversion and refitting of merchant vessels and supplying provisions, weapons and manpower.

Hundreds worked in these vital occupations and their contribution has often been overlooked in our understandable wish to honour those who fought on the front line. Now their story has been told in Geoff Bailey’s excellent new book called ‘The Forth Front: Falkirk district’s maritime contribution to World War II’.

A few years ago Geoff produced ‘Hard as Nails’ about our local Home Guard based on the recollections of those who served. This time he has spent many hours speaking to those who worked in the docks and shipyards and to their families and friends.

In 1939 Grangemouth was Scotland’s third busiest port and on the outbreak of war the docks were declared a ‘Protected Place’ under Defence Regulations. Anti-aircraft batteries were set up to protect the refinery and the town and security was stepped up with Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders arriving in large numbers to guard the port facilities.

The soldiers were soon a familiar sight and set the hearts of many Portonian lassies fluttering as they marched in uniform to Sunday services and the same happened when Dutch submariners arrived. The local civilian workforce all along the river turned their attention to the task of building new ships for the navy, converting trawlers and pleasure craft for military use, carrying out emergency repairs on ships damaged in action and manning the huge ‘Naval Victualling Depot’, set up to supply all manner of necessities to all the ships using the port and many others beyond. Grangemouth built over 50 ships and at Carriden more than 20 motor launches came from Thomson and Balfour’s new yard for service.

In Bo’ness one of the earliest initiatives had been the establishment of the Forth Patrol in which civilian ‘weekend’ sailors deprived of their hobby by wartime regulations became the eyes and ears of the military on the river.

Other ‘civilians in uniform’ were the young men and women of the various Sea Cadet and Sea Ranger companies which the authorities saw as a way of identifying the young folk and their families with the national struggle. The ‘Forth Front’ has hundreds of great photographs and is a real tribute to all those who served the country so well but have few honours or medals to show for their efforts.

It is available priced £11.99 from Waterstones, Callendar House or Falkirk Local History Society.