James Shaw II

The Biter Bit

An exercise that did not go to plan

My grandfather was an Air Raid Protection (ARP) warden in the Marchmont district of Edinburgh during World War 2. The following is a story that he wrote down at the time.

The housing in the area is predominately multi-storey 'tenament' blocks, several households sharing a common entrance or 'close'. To the rear of each tenement would be a 'back green', a shared space, primarily intended for drying clothes.

Children, particulary the older ones, were not encouraged to play there as it could cause rows with the other tenants. (The older children probably didn't want to be watched over either!)

row of multi-storey appartmentsgroup of three tin soldiers and three toy planes
Edinburgh tenaments

A few months ago a sector decided to stage a “mock” air raid and the deputy Group Warden undertook the organization of the show. His idea was to have an incident on each side of a certain street. These incidents were to take place at the same time but something of which had never dreamed happened which entirely changed the “action” of the whole exercise.

All of the usual preparations for the carrying out of such an exercise had been made, cooperation of Report Centre, umpire and incident but no services were to be called out. The only information given to the wardens was that the in the back well of a certain stairway they would find a member of the permanent staff, who being questioned, would give all the details required for sending in of messages. On the “alert” being sounded in the Sector Post the wardens went out in pairs to examine and search their own particular area of the sector.

Very soon the incident on the east side of the street was discovered and the appropriate messages were taken to the Incident Post, which had been established by the Senior Warden in a nearby shop. Meanwhile the wardens on the west side of the street were still searching for anything which might indicate an incident on their patrol. Three wardens were employed here, one more or less a veteran in the service and the other two who were recent recruits.

To cover the area as quickly as possible forces were split, the veteran taking one back green while the recruits took the next. It may here be explained that shelters were being built in some of the back greens in consequence of which piles of bricks and other building materials were to be found in some greens whilst others were in their usual peace-time state.

group of three tin soldiers and three toy planes
...three small aeroplanes and three toy soldiers were found amongst the bricks

In one of the greens three small aeroplanes and three toy soldiers were found amongst the bricks. Had these anything to do with the exercise? A discussion took place amongst the wardens. If this is part of the exercise and no report is sent in there will be a reprimand for lack of observation 1; if it is nothing to do with the business in hand and a report goes through there will still be a row, so what? Decision – send report.

The report was written, taken to the incident post, examined by umpire, incident officer and senior warden and finally passed to the lady telephonist for despatch to Report Centre. The receipt of the message in the incident post caused a mild sensation and while the message was being transmitted to Report Centre many questions were asked but when the message arrived at Group Post, where the organizer was stationed, he began to have ideas that he was being made the victim of a violent leg-pull.

Interrupting the story at this stage it should be explained that the Deputy Group Warden was at one time a member of the sector which was now being tried out. He is rather a pawky lad 2, liked a bit of fun, and on many occasions had led his fellow wardens “up the garden path”. He was in a dilemma, right on the horns of a dilemma in fact. Were these wardens trying to get one over on him, attempting to get their own back on him for something he had done to them on some former occasion?

What attitude should he take up in the discussion which was to follow the “all clear”? Would he treat it as a joke or would he be stern and read these wardens a lesson which they would never forget? He decided on the latter course, and began to think of what he should say and how he would say it. He was wroth.

Meanwhile the same wardens all unaware of the upheaval their former message had caused among the high heid yins 3, were busy on incident number two of the organizer’s plan. The Express Message had gone and the Supplementary was just being completed when another warden arrived to say the exercise was finished and all wardens were to return to the Group Post, adding “there is ‘helova’ row going on in the Group Post about crashed aeroplanes and paratroops”.

On the way back to the post one of the wardens picked up the toys and taking them up to the organizer’s table said “there’s your toys, all present and correct”. In return for this he was rewarded by a look such as, could looks have killed, the bearer of the toys would not only have been dead but probably half-buried as well. In answer to the question “Will I put these in the back room?” the warden received a very curt “Yes!”.

Very shortly the discussion of the planned incidents began in an atmosphere which appeared “not to friendly”. The organizer could not get through his criticism of incident number one quickly enough; he was all in a fever to let these fellows know what he thought of them.

With this in mind the worthy Deputy Group Warden opened his remarks with “I was very much surprised when a message came through with information of crashed aeroplanes and paratroops. It savours very much of what happened at – Road, and in view of the notice on the Group Post wall about the incident, I never thought that wardens of this sector would allow their imaginations to run away with them to such an extent as to send in a message. I am very disappointed indeed”.

He got no further. The warden who was responsible for the message jumped to his feet, as it was only then realized that something had gone wrong with the exercise, so very carefully prepared for weeks before, and here was the organizer dealing out a severe slating to him and his mates. He asked to be excused for butting in at this stage but he felt he must stop the organizer of the exercise before he said which he might afterwards regret.

“Do you mean to tell me you found this and it is not just your idea of a smart joke?”, said the Deputy, to which the warden replied, “This is no flight of imagination, no practical joke, but a record of what was actually found, the evidence of which is actually in this place”. Turning then to the assembled wardens who were now enjoying to the full the discomforture of the organizer the erring warden told the full story of how and where the toy soldiers and planes had been found, of the warden’s discussion and decision as already recorded, finishing by saying, “knowing our Deputy Group Warden as you do and remembering the tricks he has played in days gone by, would you have done other than we have done had you come across some such a layout”? “Even Hitler’s plans don’t always work out as he meant them to do”.

This sally was greeted with great laughter, in which the worthy Deputy joined very heartily. What a change! In continuing his remarks the organiser said that instead of reprimanding the wardens he had to offer them his hearty congratulations on being so alert and observant an expression in which the umpire later agreed when he gave his criticism of the exercise as a whole.

It was later discovered that the toys had been left in the back green by some children who had been playing with them there. All unknown to themselves and our Deputy the latter now knows the full truth of the saying “the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley” 4. Incident number four was staged by the lady wardens who provided a very delectable cup of tea, a perfect finish to a most enjoyable exercise. We hope to have another soon.

The planned incidents faded into insignificance.

Post Script: At 7.45 p.m. on 7 October 1940 five bombs were dropped on the Warrender Park area of Edinburgh, damaging 6 Roseneath Place and the roadway, 12-14 Marchmont Crescent, 21 Marchmont Road and 20 Meadow Place. 11 people were injured. A few years earlier James Shaw and his family were living at 10 Marchmont Crescent but at the time of the bombing had moved to 23 Marchmont Crescent.
1. Be it known that in a real blitz, which had taken place some time before, wardens had sent in the wrong information which had caused the unnecessary calling out of services. Such a serious view had the authorities taken of this that they had sent a special circular to all Group Posts, a copy of which was even then displayed on the wall of the post to which this particular sector belonged, warning all wardens to be sure their information was correct before submitting it to Report Centre.
2. Shrewd, sly; often also characterised by a sarcastic sense of humour.
3. 'high heid yins' - 'high head ones', the bosses, leaders or commanders.
4. Burns, Robert, To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough, November, 1785