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Secret WWI history involving Ross-shire-based US sailors to be recalled at Highland conference

By Staff Reporter

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A little-known chapter of World War I history involving Highland-based US sailors who installed a vast minefield across the North Sea will be highlighted at a conference and exhibition in Inverness later this week week.

The Glenalbyn Distillery in Inverness and Dalmore Distillery in Alness were transformed into bases for hundreds of sailors as US Navy vessels worked alongside the Royal Navy in the final months of the conflict to lay more than 70,000 mines for the Northern Barrage between Orkney and Norway.

The aim was to prevent German U-boats, which had been following a policy of unrestricted attacks on shipping, from breaking out into the Atlantic and also to prevent food and war material imports reaching Germany by sea.

In the final tally, four U-boats were confirmed as destroyed, eight damaged, two probably destroyed and two further possibles.

The operation's vital role will be highlighted in displays and talks hosted by the Inverness Local History Forum (ILHF) at the Spectrum Centre in Farraline Park on Thursday.

ILHF convener Dave Conner said: “The major impact of the US Navy to the war effort - and its presence in the Highlands - is almost 'secret history'.

"Our conference will go a long way to revealing that secret to today's residents of the Highlands, and showing the immense effect the US Navy had on the Inverness and Easter Ross areas in particular. It is an almost forgotten story, well worth telling.”

US minelayers in formation in the North Sea.
US minelayers in formation in the North Sea.

Carried out between June and November 1918, it involved mostly converted merchant vessels and obsolescent warships.

There were also small US Navy detachments at Corpach, near Fort William, and Kyle of Lochalsh, where the mines arrived by sea to be transported by canal or railway to Inverness and the Cromarty Firth while the Highland Hotel in Strathpeffer was earmarked as a hospital for mine force casualties.

The US Atlantic Fleet Mine Force was commanded by Rear Admiral Joseph Strauss who hoisted his flag in USS Black Hawk, formerly the merchant freighter SS Santa Catalina, anchored off Munlochy Bay.

US Mine Force flagship USS Black Hawk in the Inner Moray Firth.
US Mine Force flagship USS Black Hawk in the Inner Moray Firth.

The operation ended days before the Armistice. Afterwards, the US Navy sent a small force of 12 minesweepers and 18 submarine chasers to operate from Inverness, Alness and Orkney in clearing up the barrage for the following year.

The American minehunters were helped by over 400 small vessels requisitioned by the Royal Navy and crewed originally mostly by Royal Naval Reserve personnel but later by a specially-recruited, well-paid Mine Clearance Service, created to encourage experienced minesweeping reservists to remain for a limited period before being demobbed.

Many mines broke from their moorings in the stormy North Sea resulting in some naval casualties while several civilian ships were subsequently sunk or damaged by breakaway mines which continued to be a hazard for many years.

During their time in Inverness, US sailors were generally welcomed although they were perceived by local men, including the many newly-demobbed servicemen, as rivals for the affections of the town’s women which frequently led to scuffles.

Two US sailors take a walk with their local sweethearts on the Ness Islands, Inverness.
Two US sailors take a walk with their local sweethearts on the Ness Islands, Inverness.

The stories of around 80 Highland women who eventually married US sailors and emigrated with their new husbands have previously been documented.

Next Thursday's event features displays and talks from various groups including Invergordon Museum, Alness Heritage Centre, Groam House Museum WWI project in Rosemarkie, Archaeology for Communities in the Highlands Strathpeffer project and Ardersier Heritage.

It is sponsored by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Inverness Common Good Fund.

Places at the conference are limited to 75 but the Spectrum Centre will be open from 4-7pm for the public to see the displays. It will conclude with a talk at 7pm on the Northern Barrage by Allan Kilpatrick from Historic Environment Scotland.

ILHF honorary president Maureen Kenyon said: “This conference has come about after several years of research on a little known part of our localWorld War I history by ILHF and our colleagues in Ross-shire and the Nairn area.

“We are extremely grateful to our sponsors, to Highland Archives, ARCH, and to everyone who has shared information, including family photographs, historical images and other research on this subject.

“We hope to publish our research in a book, which will be released in the spring of 2020.”

A limited number of places at the free conference are still available by e-mailing info@archhighland.org.uk, phoning 077888 35466 or an on-line form on www.archhighland.org.uk.

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