Historian's book details how Scarborough survived the ravages of World War Two

In this extended read, PATRICK ARGENT meets historian Stewart MacDonald, who vividly recounts in his latest book the town’s survival during the perilously dark days of World War Two.

By Patrick Argent
Thursday, 27th January 2022, 4:19 pm

During 1940, Scarborough’s beaches presented a tempting potential landing site for a Nazi invasion of Northern England.

Viewing the startling layout of a Hitler Youth board game “Wir Kämpfen Gegen den Feind” (We Fight Against The Enemy), it graphically portrays a hypothetical military invasion of Great Britain.

Ominously, German air and sea forces seem to converge en masse, towards Scarborough.

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A crashed Junkers 88 Luftwaffe bomber on the outskirts of Scarborough, 15 August 1940 (Photo: Imperial War Museum).

Aimed primarily at children, this highly unusual example of Nazi propaganda had, however, an alarmingly feasible logistical basis, as author Stewart MacDonald explains: “The town’s long, wide sandy beaches with immediate access to tarmacced roads, a rail connection and a harbour provided ideal conditions for establishing an enemy bridgehead on the North Yorkshire coast.”

Operation Sea Lion

In almost a millennium, the only large-scale invading force that had successfully landed on a Scarborough beach was that of Harald Hardrada’s Viking army in September 1066, prior to the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York. This encounter was to be a key factor in events leading to the eventual defeat of the Anglo-Saxon monarch Harold Godwinson by William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings on October 14.

The mid-20th century threat from across the North Sea as part of Operation Sea Lion, codename for the invasion of Britain, was fortunately never realised.

ETW Dennis's printing works was badly damaged in the Scarborough Blitz of 1941. Fortunately the building was empty.

The impending danger of Nazi occupation was eventually lifted in 1941, when Adolf Hitler diverted his strategic attentions to attacking Soviet Russia.

Mr MacDonald is quick to dispel the commonly-held misconception that Hitler had ambitions to commandeer the Grand Hotel as his headquarters, “an often-repeated, but completely untrue urban myth”, he adds.

Scarborough was, however, subjected to regular bombing raids by the Luftwaffe in its own experience of the ‘Blitz’ between 1940 and 1942, a less well-known part of the town’s history than the infamous First World War Bombardment of December 1914.

Stewart MacDonald at the launch of his latest book.

This and many other such other dramatic events and circumstances are exhaustively detailed in Stewart MacDonald’s latest book, Scarborough At War – The Impact of The Second World War on Scarborough, North Yorkshire.

Wider context

Recently published by Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society, the title is the first to fully and coherently chronicle the periods before, during and after the conflict, placing into a wider context the effect of the war years on the town.

A native of Glasgow and former lecturer at Scarborough Sixth Form College for over three decades, this is the second book authored by Mr MacDonald, who began his career reading Medieval and Modern History at the city’s university.

The Hitler Youth board game “Wir Kämpfen Gegen den Feind” (We Fight Against The Enemy).

His initial historical volume was a biography of the 16th century Emperor Charles V (1500-1558), published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2000. A contemporary of Henry VIII (1491-1547), “Charles is rather underacknowledged, although he was the dominant figure in Europe at the time,” the author is keen to stress.

Through extensive research in both national and local archives, Scarborough At War, in its chronological and thematic structure, examines in exacting detail the many unusual and intriguing aspects of the wartime era.

On his motivation for writing this latest title he stated: “I have always been interested in the impact of World War Two on British society and the way it changed people’s outlook and mindset. I wanted to assess the ramifications of the war on Scarborough and also examine the important role the town had nationally.”

Child evacuees

The significant function of the Navy’s secret wireless station, the town’s important light industries, the hosting of child evacuees and the mass influx of military personnel are among notable and often extraordinary factors that contributed to the war effort.

Additionally, a contentiously-fought by-election, the emergence of such social issues as the changing role of women, “youth running wild” (an unusual reference for the period, being normally associated with the Mods/Rockers era of the 60s or 70s punk rock) and “good-time girls” all combine to evocatively illustrate Scarborough’s story during the 1939-45 period.

A crowd gathers outside the Queen’s Hotel, on North Marine Road, to view the damage after Scarborough’s own ‘Blitz’ on the night of 18/19 March 1941. The frontage was so severely blasted that it was never repaired and it was demolished in 1948.

The book’s later chapters analyse the response to numerous post-war challenges that the town would consequently face.

These would include a housing crisis, the re-establishment of the town as a resort, health, education, public services, the onset of nationalisation and the regeneration of local industry.

“The question was also about how much things were changed by the experience of the war, both immediately after and also in the longer term”, he added.

From a historical distance of some 75 years, Scarborough At War is both an authoritative record of the conflict itself and its subsequent influence on post-war social and municipal life.

Interestingly, certain aspects of the era (the abandonment of the ambitious 1938 Adshead Report on tourism development, for example) would significantly determine the town’s future status as a resort.

In fully documenting this era of Scarborough’s more recent past, Stewart MacDonald has contributed a scholarly yet highly accessible addition to the published record of his adopted Yorkshire home.

Emphasising his versatility in a broad range of historical writing, he is currently researching his third book, a detailed account of the anti-landlord revolt by Isle of Skye crofters during the 1880s.

'Balanced and informative'

Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, the eminent historian and one of the world’s leading authorities on World War Two and The Third Reich, told us: “I read Stewart MacDonald’s book with much interest. I admired his structure of the book, his careful use of sources, his writing skill, and his ability to put colour into the story of wartime Scarborough, whilst embedding it in the wider, national history of the country at war.

"I particularly liked the chapters on evacuation, on wartime tourism, food and housing. His evaluation of the attitudes, opinion and behaviour of the population was always balanced, as well as informative. I was intrigued to read that seagull eggs were collected and ‘made good eating’. Despite food shortages, people don’t seem to have eaten the seagulls themselves.”

Scarborough At War – The Impact Of The Second World War On Scarborough, North Yorkshire is available from Scarborough Maritime Heritage Centre on Eastborough, Mrs Lofthouse’s Emporium bookshop on Queen Street and online on the Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society’s website.