Tighter Covid restrictions meant that we couldn’t invite Ian McGregor to the village for a special celebratory tea for his 90th birthday, but Peter and Sheila were able to visit Ian and his dog, Fern, bearing birthday wishes and, most importantly, cake!
After months of solo playing, the Ukulele group were happy when they were able to get back together for some socially distanced (outside) playing in August when the Covid regulations allowed (see below). A change in the weather in September didn’t dampen their enthusiasm – but did drive them under a tarpaulin.
Another change in regulations has now reduced the group to playing duets out of doors – let’s hope things don’t get worse and require a return to solo playing once again.
Like the Ukulele Club, most of the other village clubs and classes, along with the regular events in the Hall, have been affected by the pandemic. One group, the Book Club, have been able to continue with their programme of selected books and feeding back their reviews virtually. Linda collates their thoughts and opinions, and we have 2 Book Reviews to catch up with this time.
The book reviewed in August was ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama. It was an honest and inspiring memoir written in three sections: Becoming Me, Becoming Us, Becoming More.
This layout enabled the book to be dipped into, and most of the group finished reading the book.
A few found that, although it was a chunky book and perhaps over detailed, it was well written and could be read quite quickly.
The American/English style of writing may have been off-putting initially.
Michelle Obama presents as a feisty, well-grounded, strong individual who speaks warmly of her humble upbringing on the South side of Chicago and the strong love of her very supportive extended family. She was hardworking, focussed and ambitious throughout her education and into the workplace. It was fascinating to follow both the early careers and private and political lives of Michelle and Barack Obama and this also provided an interesting sight into American politics.
Their time in the White House was described as the most welcoming and inclusive in history and their arrival as the first African American family had a global resonance. The ethos that they brought to the White House was refreshing as they tried to balance the stifling, claustrophobic atmosphere with family life. We were appalled to hear they couldn’t even open a window (for security reasons) and it was refreshing to hear how much she and the girls valued incognito shopping trips.
Michelle went to great lengths to ensure as much normality as possible for her daughters and reached out to school children with gardening projects and healthy eating etc. Despite this, some of our group felt that her girls had lost the simplicity of their childhood.
She was a very powerful advocate for women and girls both in the US and around the world as we learnt from her projects and global visits. She didn’t let being First Lady change her priorities, indeed she used her role to highlight and progress them.
It is interesting that, although she has claimed not to be interested in going into politics, of all the recent American First Ladies, she is the one who has gained a world-wide audience regardless of political affiliation. She is possibly now as famous and globally influential as her husband.
In September we reviewed Sunburn by Laura Lippman. This book has had lots of good reviews and was described as “tantalising” and a perfect summer thriller. However, it didn’t tantalise many of our Fearnan book group!
Some didn’t like the American style of writing and found it took a while to get going. Although most of us found it hard to like, empathise or engage with the characters, we were keen to read on and follow the clues to find out what the conclusion would be.
Some did feel some sympathy with Polly, the main character who lost, through death, possibly her only supporter and recognised that despite her nefarious actions, she was trying to do her best for her children.
The book recommended for review in October is Women of the Dunes by Sarah Maine. This book is set on the west coast of Scotland and links 3 stages in history – 800 AD, the late 19th century and 2012, and unravels a myth with which the book starts. The main protagonist is Libby, an archaeologist, who has personal links to Ullaness where the story is set. According the reviews ‘Maine adroitly weaves together the novel’s three strands.’
Commemoration at Errol
In May last year, there was a joint Russian/Scottish Ceremony of Commemoration for the aircrew and their colleague who died in a wartime air crash just outside the village. Our focus at that time was the story of the 4 men who died at Fearnan but their story links to a much bigger story and one that reflects the degree of co-operation between the Russian and British allies during the war.
The crewmen were part of an elite group of airmen who were based at Errol and this year, being the 75th Anniversary of the end of the war, plans were made to install a commemoration stone at Errol. Sadly, the pandemic has meant that it is not possible for the Russian delegation to travel to Scotland, but the chosen commemoration stone is able to come, and will be installed at Errol Church on Remembrance Day. In fact, it will be on its way shortly.
Once travel becomes possible again, there will be a joint ceremony between the Russians and the people of Errol.
Following that, the intention is that the Russian group will travel to Fearnan to pay their respects at the commemoration site here in the Cowpark.
Wartime posters underline the closeness of the reltionhip between the Allies. The one on the right says: From the British people. To victory! We are with you!
Anna Belorusova, who was instrumental in the Fearnan Commemoration and is the granddaughter of one of the Errol airmen, has provided this explanation of the need for the Russian base at Errol.
From the very start of the invasion by Nazi Germany, the Russian Air Force suffered a severe shortage of aircraft. On the first day of the war alone, 1200 airplanes were lost, of which 900 were destroyed on the ground. With the enemy’s rapid advance to the east, the aircraft factories were evacuated to the Urals and time was required to rebuild the disrupted production.
Russia’s ally, Britain, was quick to respond: in less than two months , the first Arctic Convoy left for the Russian North carrying 24 Hurricanes, with a further 7,000 fighter planes to be delivered by sea before the end of the war.
But Russia was in critical need of large transport planes (which could not be carried on the convoy ships) to supply the armies with ammunition and tank fuel, to deploy the airborne troops, to evacuate the wounded and to support the guerilla resistance hiding in the dense forests in the occupied territories.
However, the UK had no transport aircraft production of its own. The solution was to identify and modify a number of medium-range bombers and then fly them for use by their Russian allies at the Eastern Front.
By autumn 1942, Churchill informed Stalin that a new twin-engine Albemarle bomber had been identified as suitable for the task and that 100 modified planes were to be made available. The only means of delivery was to ferry them to Russia at night across a dangerous air-route controlled by enemy fighter planes. To achieve this, a group of very experienced first-class pilots was needed.
The allied ferrying was classified as top-secret, with all reports going straight to the desks of the two Heads of State. RAF Command designed a special training course for the Russian aircrews, who would fly the Albemarles, each comprising a pilot-commander, navigator, flight-engineer and radio-operator. RAF Errol in Perthshire was designated as the base for the operation.
From early January 1943 Russians started to arrive in Errol, covertly flown by a British Liberator or the Russian four engine bomber PE-8 from Moscow to Scotland. The Russian strength at RAF Errol was 50 – 80 people – all of them high ranking officers decorated for their bravery in action.
The airmen, who were handpicked for this highly important mission, were part of the elite Moscow Special Assignment Airgroup – a legendary air-division formed in the first days of the war from the best civilian airmen to undertake critical tasks for High Command. They had experienced what must have been hell-on-earth during the hardest phase of war – a period of huge losses and retreat, before the turning point at Stalingrad. Flying passenger DC-3 Douglas aircraft armed with gun-turrets, they had delivered food to besieged Leningrad and evacuated the starving people; dropped thousands of paratroopers behind enemy lines, delivered ammunition to those defending Moscow from the enemy’s encircling armies, evacuated the wounded under barrage fire in the last days of the defense of Sevastopol and landed on improvised airstrips in the woods to supply the Resistance.
Coming straight from the heat of war and still in their combat dress, the battle-hardened Russian airmen arrived in Errol – which seemed another, gentler world to them. For the ordinary British people, the Russian allies represented the embodiment of hope that the brutal war would be over soon. A Dundee tailor made new Soviet uniform for them. They took English grammar lessons and made good friends with the RAF airmen. They watched Rangers FC winning the Scottish Cup Final and were entertained by the aristocracy. They came to local dances at Errol Mason Hall and bought groceries from Elsie Simon’s shop to carry with them on the ferried planes to Russia.
Eleven Russian airmen were to die in the Albemarle operation. Two aircrews were lost ferrying planes to Moscow over the North Sea. The third crew was killed during a training flight, which crashed just outside Fearnan village on Loch Tay but they managed, in the last seconds of their lives, to steer clear of the village itself. In May 2019 a memorial stone was installed at a joint ceremony with the present day villagers, and a tree planted at the site.
This year, on the 75th Victory Anniversary, the Airmen are being commemorated in Russia. A week ago a memorial stone was unveiled at Khovoinaya village to honour their heroism during the Siege of Leningrad.
In autumn 1941, the Nazi forces had closed a circle around Leningrad, cutting off all supply routes to the city. The shortage of food became critical. The daily bread ration was reduced to mere 125 grams – the size of a matchbox -and famine began. Thousands of people were dying of starvation. The only remaining link to the city was by air. The same Air Group relocated to the aerodrome hidden in the dense pine forest near Khvoinaya village east of Leningrad. Every day wedge shaped formations of nine Douglas planes loaded with high calorie food – frozen meat, butter, concentrates – performed 3-4 shuttle flights to Leningrad. On the way back along the dangerous air-route, controlled by the German fighter-planes, they evacuated the civilians who were dying of starvation. The Siege of Leningrad lasted for 900 days and claimed 1.5 million lives.
The rock of crimson quartzite installed in front of Khvoinaya village history museum carries a plaque with a dedication cast at Petrozavodsk Foundry in Karelia after the design by a grandson of one of the Airmen. These are the same people who also made the plaque for the ‘sister’ stone to be unveiled in Errol.
The Errol Stone is a piece of the famous crimson quartzite named ‘Shoksha’ which has also been used for the decoration of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Moscow.
The sculptor Aleksandr Kim carefully selected it at the Karelian quarry and worked on the surface to bring out the richness of the colour, while maintaining the natural shape, which suggests a range of symbolic interpretations – from a ‘wing’ to the ‘eternal flame’.
The Errol Stone will start its sea journey to Scotland in about a week and will be installed beside Errol Church on Remembrance Day.
There will be a proper ceremony later, when the overall pandemic situation improves, as we all very much hope.
Is this the equivalent of another end of Lockdown haircut?