Northern Lights - by Duncan Harley


A friend keeps a Saturday paper for me and in return I keep him copies of the Times Crossword. I think it is a good bargain. At least I hope so since I have never completed a sudoku much less a crossword in my life.
Seemingly those Bletchley Park heroes were chosen from aficionados who could complete a Times puzzle in something less than three minutes. I am guessing that the war was won not just by troops on the ground but by folk in huts pinpointing targets and first-guessing enemy actions.

My old mum would probably have agreed. As a WAAF radar operative in that Hitler war she scanned the skies for signs of enemy bombers arriving from Norway. In four years of service, she only saw the one and recalled reporting the sighting to the sergeant who, disgracefully, took his time over a mug of Bovril before calling in the local Hurricanes, thus allowing the insurgent time to get away back to Trondheim.

She rarely spoke about her war service except to say that once she was charged with looking after a burned airman during a flight to Glasgow from Orkney and was instructed to apply olive oil to the wounds. ‘How he screamed’ she recalled and no wonder. A neighbour down the road was more open. As a fighter pilot, he had killed a few folk before going on to sell bulldozers for a living. He hated Yugoslavians but loved Slivovitz. Strip-searched at Belgrade in 1967, he vowed that neither would invade his body ever again.

Today’s batch of the Saturday papers from Michael included a P20 article from 12 January’s Your Life magazine. Headed ‘We can learn from the past’ it dwells on the Nuremberg Rallies and is  penned by writer George Mitchell.

It’s a good enough read and contrasts the burning of books with the reality of Mein Kampf.  In a later article though, George - a conspiracist theorist who writes that the Germans certainly don’t hide from their past concludes that Hitler fled to Argentina and failed to put a bullet in his brain. Seemingly George will be penning a piece about Albania soon. I can't wait.

Nuff said.

A decade or so ago I travelled north to see the Northern Lights. The trip involved a flight to Trondheim in a small plane followed by a sea-journey along the Norwegian coastline. Alongside stops at Bergen, Bodo and Hammerfest the ship called in at the port of Honningsvåg near the North Cape.

In truth the Northern Lights were absent that day although they had appeared briefly the night before but what made North Cape special, apart from the snow-plough escorted drive in, was a memorial plaque dedicated to some long dead sailors.
Some years before, a German battleship sank with most hands just a few miles offshore. It’s a well-known tale. The Scharnhorst was cornered and sunk by a British battle fleet and only 36 men were rescued out of a crew of 1,968.

North Cape is quite difficult to get to and sits within the Arctic Circle. Inside the cramped and frosty visitor centre there is a memorial to the lost crew and while viewing it, I was witness to some tears.

A young German lad in his mid-twenties, who was born some fifty years after the Hitler war had broken down due to some sense of collective responsibility for events which he had not witnessed and certainly had not engineered. In tears, he told onlookers of his shame for being German and was inconsolable. To my shame, I walked on by thinking that maybe his misery was justified somehow.

The Northern Lights are of course visible much closer to home. But that would mean getting out of bed at some night-time-silly-hour in the winter. I hope the young man is much better now.

Duncan Harley is author of The A-Z of Curious Aberdeenshire plus the forthcoming title: The Little History of Aberdeenshire- due out in March 2019
Tickets for the launch event for his next book are available @: Eventbrite



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