Chapter 70

When Disaster Struck at Valleyfield Pit


Mid-summer 1938 was clouded by the arrogance of Hitler. Many elderly people who knew the distress of the South African War and the First World War, were very anxious indeed.

Month after month, the tension grew. Organizations in Civil Defence, Observer Corps, Ambulance Duties and the erection of shelters, trench digging, sand bag filling and other semi-military classes took place. The day came for the issue of gas masks and the setting up of Aid Raid Warden Posts. Young men and women joined up. We, who had gone through World War I knew the struggle would be long and bitter.

In September 1939, a Sunday at eleven a.m., I had just time to hear the Prime Minister say, 'We are now at war' before I entered my pulpit. I carried through the service and after the benediction, I said to my packed congregation: 'We are now at war with Germany. Go quietly home. I beg you to instruct your children to keep indoors if raiders come.' I had just reached the word 'come' when the sirens sounded. It turned out to be a false alarm.

Outside, a number of mothers were waiting for their children. Quite a number of elderly mothers were weeping -two for lost sons in the First World War and because their grandchildren were now of calling-up age. It was a sad Sunday. For the first time since trenchwork in France during the First World War, I dug soil on a Sunday, making a pit for our Anderson air raid shelter.

We were at war indeed. Blackouts went up on all windows:

window panes were criss-crossed with sticky brown paper tape. The church bell was silenced: organizations ceased, rationing was started overnight; a nation was geared to war. As in every emergency the Scots stood united, determined, alive to the problems to be overcome. Every person had an identity card.

We didn't have long to wait to realize war had reached our village. A German plane flew over in daylight. Anti-aircraft guns were in action, shells bursting near the plane. People rushed out to see what was going on. Children ran to open spaces for a better view. Few had any idea of the danger from flying shrapnel, unexploded shells coming down, bombs, gas or bullets. I advised them to take shelter, as splintered shells could wound or even kill.

One of our twins said to me, 'Have a heart Dad. We love the fun.'

Two days later, a German plane flew over at roof-top level, machine-gun fire and anti-aircraft shells crashing around at five hundred feet, splinters pitting the ground and splitting roof tiles and slates. An enemy night raider dropped bombs in a wood a mile away, doing no damage except for cracking a few window panes. At first, when sirens sounded, it was a rush to our air raid shelters , most of which were fitted with beds and heaters.

Schoolchildren hoped for night raids after ten pm, for the next day was a school holiday! We had only a few isolated anti-aircraft guns, also a few Lewis machine gunners on rock shore posts.

One day I was visiting a post when sirens wailed. Within seconds a plane, flying low with clear German markings, passed up the Firth of Forth. A young officer, Lieutenant Jones, of Larbert, took the Lewis gun and sent bursts of fire into the aircraft. I was behind him and distinctly saw tracer bullets enter the fuselage. The plane wobbled and took evasive action, but something was wrong. It lost height and came down on the south side of the Forth. I notified Edinburgh Command and Rosyth Dockyard of the action of Lieutenant Jones and the accuracy of his firing. Later, I was told an anti-aircraft crew was credited with the kill, a statement I disputed. During the whole action I didn't see one shell anywhere near the plane.

Two or three days before the end of October, I was in Edinburgh for a medical. On the bus we were asked to show our identity cards. This happened again at the railway stations and in a tram. It was the only time I had to exhibit the card during the entire war, except for entry into Rosyth Dockyard and Edinburgh Castle. The reasons were the Mrs Jordan spy scare and stories of a spy impersonating a high ranking Naval Officer who was supposed to be in the Forth area.

On my return home the twins told me a Naval Officer had spoken to them at Crombie Point. The gold braid on his tunic was different from the braid on an Officer we knew so at once I got in touch with Rosyth and an alert was put into action. We learned later the man in question was caught inside the dockyard.

Soon I was Honorary Chaplain and Welfare Officer to various military units, and my wife started supper evenings in the Manse for soldiers on anti-aircraft gun crews. A valuable service in which members of the Women's Guild helped. The commanding officers of all units were helpful. They sent a car for me to help in welfare cases and problems arising from billeting and evacuees.

A very different calamity from air warfare struck our community. One of my church Elders called on me before going out to night shift in Valleyfield Colliery. He was a young, strong man. Tonight he looked pale. His words sent a chill down my spine.

'I'm afraid this is goodbye. At my funeral service please sing "Nearer My God to Thee",' he said quietly and unafraid.

I tried to reason with him saying, 'In many of my serious illnesses, I have felt like you, but the mood passed and faith triumphed.'

Calmly he spoke again - 'It's bound to happen. So many illegal things are happening down the pit. An explosion can take place any time. I feel it will blow up tonight.'

My wife was upset, so was I. He walked with his head erect towards the pit, a very brave man. Many other miners probably felt the same way that night. Duty called them and they obeyed. I understood their motive from my war service days.

Early next morning I was called to Valleyfield Colliery office. Hundreds of people were gathering and by the time I came out of the office a dense mass of people stood in silence. The only movement was rescue men equipped for emergencies and boys and girls carrying their pet canaries in expensive cages.

The general manager handed me the casualty list - he whispered, 'Thirty-six dead, seventy injured.' I read the names of the dead. Physically I felt weak, but my spirit was strong.

'May God bless us all,' I began. 'Here are the names of the men who have died this morning in Valleyfield Pit. 'Robert McFarlane' (the Elder who came to say goodbye the previous evening).

As I named the dead, a low flying German plane machine-gunned the pit. Anti-aircraft shells burst overhead, but no one looked up. It was an ordeal reading the names of men I knew and respected, young lads I loved and admired. The women were marvellous; no screaming; no panic. Sobs yes and long sighs. One girl, expecting her first baby, fell at my feet when her husband's name was called.

When I had finished the manager offered me a glass of brandy which I declined - tea was poured out of a flask which I gratefully accepted. I moved among the crowd, offering imperfectly, but sincerely, my sympathy and politely requesting people to go home.

We were in the midst of another war, the war against black damp and gas in the bowels of the earth where miners worked. It took a long time to get all the bodies out of the exploded coal seams. My wife and I felt that God had endowed us with spiritual strength to help the needy in their hour of trial.

The night before the disaster I had managed to patch up a quarrel between a couple who had been separated for some weeks. Later the same night the couple walked down to the pit gate together, kissed and said cheerio. They were never to do so again.

The church was packed for Bob McFarlane's funeral service. We sang 'Nearer My God to Thee'. Bob was a twin. His brother died with him.

For fourteen days I spent ten hours daily visiting the bereaved and the homes of the injured and in hospital, also conducting many funerals. I often marvel how God's precious words gets into the hearts in time of crisis, whereas when things go well, God is left out.

Welfare work in the army unit took up a lot of my time, so I decided to start a Church of Scotland canteen in our church hall. It was an outstanding success. Men and women in the services came privately to me with their problems, most of them I solved. My wife drew around her a capable band of workers and when the war was over my wife had worked 1,008 days without a break; and 52,000 had passed through the canteen.

On Sunday evenings there was always a service in church before canteen time. It was a happy get-together. RCs, Anglican, non-conformists, Jews, Agnostics attended. I based the idea on what I had learned from Padre Read in 1916 to 1918. The singing was impressive.

After the canteen closed at nine o'clock, the men would ask for more hymn singing, which was granted. Once a week I organized lectures in the church which were part of an announced series with titles like, 'Life Abundant', 'Patriotism and Profit', 'Soldiers and Duty', Spiritual Freedom', 'Reward from Obedience', 'Bible Heroes', 'What Makes a Church?', 'Volunteering for Christ', 'Honesty', 'The Price of Freedom', 'Security and Peace' and 'Triumphant Grace'.

The addresses were popular, so much so that I visited other units some miles away to repeat them. Most of the addresses were based on my own experiences in World War I and on ideas gleaned from Tubby Clayton who had formed 'Toc H'.



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This work, Going With God, is copywrited by Ronald R. Caseby, 1993.   All rights reserved.  Used here by express permission.