The beginning of the Second World War triggered off a series of events still remembered by the natives of Monifieth and the surrounding area of the Firth of Tay.
In the last few days of 1939, an Aberdeen trawler was wrecked on the `blacked out` Bell Rock, then on January 6th, a liner bound for Dundee touched a magnetic mine near the Gaa Sands at the mouth of the Tay.
Those mines were of two types, either magnetic or acoustic. The passage overhead of a ship or a nearby contact of a steel hull detonated the magnetic variety; while the noise of the engines set off the other type.
Many of the ships wrecked by mines, notably the larger ones, did not sink at once and some not at all if the damage was limited.
The 8,300 ton passenger-cargo liner “City of Marseilles” bound for Dundee, with a load of jute hit one in the New Year of 1940, was a case in point.
The engines were put out of action but the hull remained intact.
A crew of 163, made up of 26 Europeans and 137 Asians, quickly launched the lifeboats.
Two lifeboats were destroyed in the explosions; and unsure as to whether or not the devastation had been caused by a mine or a torpedo, their hasty embarkation was executed in order to avoid any further U-boat intervention.
In the unseemly rush, two lifeboats capsized and many of the Asians were catapulted into the freezing water. One sailor lost his life.
A pilot cutter was nearby and picked up the survivors. The four remaining lifeboats were taken in tow; and at Broughty Ferry the survivors saw a large crowd lining the shore, standing with supplies of warm clothing and hot drinks.
The river pilot, with several of the European crew, remained on the stricken vessel until it was possible to get a line aboard her for the tugs to pull her into Dundee harbour.
On January 27th, a smaller vessel of 3,000 tons named “Anu”, flying the Estonian flag and bound for Dundee, with a cargo from Sweden, consisting mostly of butter and ham, was also nearing the Gaa sands, when she hit a mine that completely shattered the engine room, blowing the ship apart.
She sank within minutes; and of the 19 crew on board, six were killed, including the captain and his wife.
The survivors – ten men and three women, most of them suffering from severe burns, took to the life rafts.
Eventually after a night afloat, they landed on a sandy beach and could see signs of habitation at what they were later to discover, the town of Carnoustie.
The cook was so badly injured that she was left on the dunes, while the others went in search of help
As dawn broke, they reached some cottages on the grassy links. A five hours search took place before the successful conclusion of `finding the cook`.
Later, at Dundee Sheriff Court, two of the survivors, a stewardess and a seaman were married.
Others remember the `sinking` for another different reason.
Cans of ham and crates of eggs as well as barrels of butter were all washed up on the beach at Buddon Ness and on the Fife side of the river Tay estuary, from the sunken `Anu`.
Scores of local folk duly made their way through the snow covered links, in the hope of retrieving some of the items, normally restricted by the severe restraints of wartime food rationing.
Aware of warnings from the Police and Customs officials, the beachcombers ignored the threats of prosecution aimed at those who “retained “ butter or ham picked up on the shore.
Locals still recall their own experiences.
Said one: “I took my sledge down to the Barnhill beach. It was a bitterly cold morning. I left home clad in an old pair of my father`s plus fours. The beach was deserted: but I spotted two wooden crates lying out on a sandbank beside a burn. I pulled up my trouser legs as far as I could and waded in. Even on a warm day I doubt if I could have undone the metal strap which held the crates together. Three men from a car – I later learned they were Arbroath fishermen- came out in waders and lifted up the two crates. The tins were large and oval and contained cooked ham. Numb with cold, barely able to speak, I waded back from the sandbank to be greeted by a crowd of adults, one of them a teacher at Grove Academy, who grabbed my tin and said I have been waiting the longest or words to that effect. A Barnhill resident protested. Give the boy back his tin- at least he had the guts to wade out for it. I proudly presented the tin to my mum. In those days of rationing, it was as precious as a pot of gold. The contents were shared by neighbours and friends, though we had the lion`s share. From the same vessel I later retrieved a barrel of fresh butter, also washed up on the sandbank. The spoiled top couple of inches had to be cut off but the remainder was perfect. Those were the days when only the mansions in West Ferry had fridges; so the butter was kept in containers of cold water, while home baking daily made it even better than Christmastime. The flotsam was a Godsend and neighbours shared in the spoils ; but the police put out warnings that any goods found on the shore must be handed in to them. This was generally ignored: and I even think a lot of the butter found it`s way into the bakeries at Broughty Ferry.”
Another eye witness of the great Carnoustie `clean up` recalls “My father, brother and myself took my little barrow down to the beach and loaded seven pounds of gammon and corned beef on to it, which we rapidly transported to the shed at the back of the house. This carried on until there was no space left. There were also crates of cheese, still fit to eat; but the broken spoiled eggs were no use. During the removal of the loot, the beach was seething with people and everyone was in a frantic hurry in case the customs put in an appearance. Up until a few years ago, I could not eat corned beef as I made myself sick eating so much of it when ever I was `peckish`.”
The Bonanza also brought tragedy in it`s wake.
A young local woman failed to return home after walking her dog. As she had taken her shopping bag along, it gave her father a clue that she might have gone to the dunes. He searched all night, but it was only at daybreak that her body was found near a lighthouse. The dog was keeping watch by her side. Her bag contained an eight pound tin of ham. Another tin was found a short distance away.
In poor health and not so strong, the tins had evidently been too heavy for her to carry. Either collapsing or sitting down to rest, the bitter cold had made her fall asleep from which she never awoke.
One woman from the Fife side of the Tay estuary recalls “Having heard that butter and tins of ham were being washed up along the shore at Tayport, we quickly made our way there to try our luck at recovering some. We were fortunate enough to find an amount of butter, though there was quite a lot of sand attached to it. Taking it home, the sand was brushed away and my mother being a first class baker, the butter was used to make very tasty shortbread, a great luxury in those days. Regarding the tins of rescued ham, we carefully selected a grassy part of the beach, riddled with rabbit burrows and buried it, thinking we would come back the next day and retrieve it. When we did, we forgot which burrow we had hidden it in. So, we never had cold ham to supplement our rations. That tin is probably still there in the warren”.
A Monifieth man remembers” My older brother and some of his friends brought back a load of butter, plus tins of boiled ham. We sold some of the butter to a Dundee baker and enjoyed the rest ourselves for months afterwards. My mother salted the butte – no fridges in those days- and dispensed large lumps to elderly ladies to whom it was `manna from heaven`. The road to the lighthouse was littered with encrusted butter. The local constabulary attempted to confiscate any that they could; but they only obtained a small fraction of what was washed ashore. The reality was the butter had to be put to good use before it went rancid”
The Receiver of Wrecks at Dundee Customs House declared an amnesty if anyone handed in goods from the wreck cargo. If it was not given over voluntarily, however, there were warnings that prosecutions could ensue involving heavy fines. Two customs men with horses and carts collected along the shores of the Tay. They later claimed more than five tons of butter, most of it damaged; and one and a half tons of bacon in good condition, had been recovered and put in cold storage, before being sold to the highest bidder.
Be that as it may, the wreck still managed to bring comfort to many cold, hungry folk along the icy waters of the Firth of Tay.