Ledger reveals extent of war damage to Kirk properties

The staggering extent of bomb damage caused to properties owned by the Church of Scotland during the Second World War has been revealed in a unique ledger.

Bearsden South Church
Bearsden South Church

It’s prompted one couple to recall how the sky was alight as their local church was completely destroyed 75 years ago.

The Register of War Damaged Properties records in meticulous handwritten detail every incident that befell churches, manses and halls across the country at the hands of the German air force – the Luftwaffe – in the 1940s.

It sets out the date, the extent of damage caused to around 800 properties and the cost of temporary and permanent repairs in communities including Peterhead, Fraserburgh, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Greenock, Clydebank, Lossiemouth, London, Kirkcudbright and Kirkcaldy.

Great challenges and trauma

The ledger, which has been preserved for decades in the basement of the Kirk’s offices in Edinburgh, also outlines moveable property damaged in church buildings such as organs, sewing machines, scenery for amateur dramatics, writing desks and pews.

It will soon be deposited in the National Archives of Scotland to enable historians to pour over it for the first time.

Dr Jeremy Crang , a senior lecturer at the University of Edinburgh’s School of History, Classics and Archaeology, said the “fascinating” tome casts fresh light on the impact of the war on Scotland.

He added that the black hardback bound ledger, which measures ;18ins by 18 ins and is 1.5inches thick, illustrated that the Kirk was “very much in the front line” and provided an “insight into the great challenges and trauma” that members faced.

Dr Crang, who is married to Dundee University Chaplain Rev Dr Fiona Douglas, said: “The geographical spread of the war damage to churches recorded in the ledger reminds us that the German air force ranged far and wide across Scotland during its bombing campaign.

“There is a sense here of bureaucratic defiance - that order had to maintained in the midst of chaos.”

A total of 89 cities and towns were bombed across Scotland by the Luftwaffe during the war and official figures suggest that an estimated 2,298 people were killed, 2,167 seriously injured and 3,558 slightly injured.

Research carried out by Les Taylor, author of a book titled Luftwaffe Over Scotland who said the figures were likely incomplete, revealed that the vast majority of casualties occurred during a two-night raid on Clydebank in March 13-14, 1941 – an incident that left 528 civilians dead and more than 617 severely injured.

The ledger, which is more than 70 years old, shows that many buildings in the Dumbarton Presbytery area were severely damaged during the Blitz.

Audrey and Peter Taylor
Audrey and Peter Taylor

Engagement ring and frogs

Bearsden South Church near Glasgow, now known as Bearsden Cross Church, had to be rebuilt after it was hit by an incendiary bomb dropped by a German warplane returning from the bombing raid on Clydebank.

The ledger states: “Totally destroyed – only walls standing.”

Audrey Taylor, who has been attending the church since she was three-years –old, vividly remembers the night of the attack.

“The air raid warning went off and my father was out on duty on the road with the other men because he was an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) warden ,” said the 81-year-old.

“My mother, my grandmother, who was staying with us, and I were under the dining room table in case a bomb dropped on us.

“That’s what we did because the Anderson shelter in the garden was always water logged and full of frogs.

“When the siren went off my mother always made sure she had her engagement ring and her fur coat on just in case she needed to sell them to buy food.

“My father came back in and said there was a fire at Bearsden Cross because the sky was alight and it turned out the church had been hit by an incendiary bomb.”

Mrs Taylor, who recalled going to school with a gas mask round her neck, said she had been told the Church had been turned into a make-shift refugee centre for people affected by the Clydebank Blitz and was full of straw mattresses.

“It was devastating for Bearsden because it is was the only building hit.

“But it brought the community together and people really rallied round and we just soldiered on,” she added.

Her husband Peter Taylor, 84, said; “I remember being terrified because I was outside in the garden that night looking up and could see planes flying overhead.

“The skies were very clear and I was worried the bombs would come right down on top of me.”

St Columba's Pont street
St Columba's in Pont Street London was devastated

Threatened in ordinary life

The original Cardross Old Church in Dumbarton (pictured) was hit by a bomb on May 6, 1941 and the ledger entry merely states “completely destroyed”. It was never re-built.

St Columba's Church of Scotland in London’s Pont Street, built in 1884, was destroyed in a matter of hours on the night of May 10, 1941 during wartime bombing.

The ledger entry states: “Totally destroyed”.

The building was later rebuilt and the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh attended a 60th anniversary celebration at the church last December to mark the re-dedication of the building. The foundation stone was laid by the late Queen Mother in 1950.

Churches now led by recent Moderators of the General Assembly were damaged during the war and listed in the ledger. Buildings belonging to Renfrew North (Very Rev Dr Lorna Hood) and Orwell (Very Rev Dr Angus Morrison) were both damaged in 1941.

Rev Bill Hogg, convener of the Church of Scotland’s committee on church art and architecture and minister at Sanquhar and St Brides’s churches, said:

“This ledger provides an insight into what church people faced during the Second World War and how they must have felt threatened in their ordinary life.

“Damaged churches must have been quite devastating for communities because they are regarded as places of stability and continuity.

“What this register represents is the attempt the Church was making to keep things going.”

Les Taylor said the most bombed town was Peterhead which sustained 28 multiple attacks followed by Aberdeen, 24 and Fraserburgh,23.

He added that enemy airmen frequently engaged in so-called terror raids to scare civilian populations and church buildings, due to their size, were far more vulnerable to the effects of “proximity” bombing than surrounding houses and buildings were.

Rev Bill Hogg
Rev Bill Hogg

Bombing not a fine art

Mr Taylor, who lives near Fraserburgh, said: “This was especially the case in smaller towns, where the local kirk would have towered over virtually every other building in the settlement, and so received the bulk of any nearby blast.

“Most of the entries in the ledger are clearly ‘collateral damage’ with broken windows and slates the most common theme, as well as damage to plasterwork, much of which of course, can be quite ornate and relatively fragile.

“This is consistent with the wide-ranging ‘overpressure’ blast effects of the high-capacity 500kg and 1,000kg bombs routinely dropped by German medium bombers active over Scotland during wartime.

“The thousand kilo bomb, for example, had a blast shrapnel range of about 600 feet, and a fragmentation range - for breaking glass and loosening slates -of up to 3,000 feet.”

Mr Taylor said church buildings would not be deliberately targeted and simply were in the wrong vicinity at a dangerous time.

“Bombing was not a fine art in those days, it was quite literally hit or miss,” he added.

“The majority of air raids on Scotland were made against east coast towns , usually by solitary aircraft flying from Norway, who simply dropped their bombs on the first settlement they flew over, in order to scarper from the imminent attentions of RAF fighters.

“Most bomber aircraft of the period had to drop their bombs before attempting to land - the airframes could not handle the extra weight of a heavy landing, not to mention the danger of armed bombs going off.

“So bombs had to be jettisoned before any aircraft returned to base.

“Rather than drop them over the sea, dropping them ‘blind’ or in the dark over Britain was a better bet since anything they might have accidentally destroyed would surely do no harm to the German war effort.”

Inside the ledger
An entry in the ledger
War ledger
The War Ledger

A selection of entries in the ledger can be viewed here.