World War II Recollections
We are publishing and sharing stories from in and around the town – all as part of Cupar’s Year of Stories, contributing to Scotland’s Year of Stories. Bill Pagan is Chair of Cupar’s Development Trust. He was born in the town and has spent the vast majority of his life here. This is his story … his recollections of life in Cupar during and after the second world war.
“I was born in Castlebank House, over-looking the Fluthers, during the Second World War. My two older brothers, and older sister, were unimpressed by my arrival, and, when invited into the house to meet me for the first time, said they would rather stay in the Fluthers where they were watching a car being repaired.
My earliest memories are framed by the war. Polish troops were based across this part of Fife, and several Polish officers were billeted in our house. An early recollection is of being on the knee of one of them. I learned much later that his name was Harry Balcerzac. He survived the war, and returned safely to Poland. My parents kept in touch with him for some years, but their exchanges stopped, and my father told me they had to assume he had fallen foul of one of the Polish regimes. My father encouraged me to learn to play the Polish National Anthem, “Mazurek Dąbrowskiego” – one-fingered! – on our piano.
Cupar welcomed the Polish soldiers, and many family connections were made. I have been told of a daily routine bugle call, sounded from the balcony or tower of the Corn Exchange. It is historic and poignant: “St Mary’s Call” was played from Krakow’s church tower as a warning to the citizens of enemy troops nearing the city. In 1241, as a sentry sounded the alarm of a Tatar attack, an arrow killed him and stopped the call. To this day, and certainly during the war years in Cupar, I am assured, any sounding of St Mary’s Call always ends abruptly at that same moment.
Another war memory was being taken (possibly shortly after the war ended) to the T-junction on the far side of Dairsie to look at a bomb crater left by a German bomber who was meant to attack RAF Leuchars. Whether the Germans missed, or did not like the look of the anti-aircraft barrage above Leuchars, we shall never know. There is still a small dip in the field below what is now a roundabout, between the Dundee road and Pittormie House.
Unless a family member had been lost or injured (physically or mentally) in the war, the longest-lasting effect was rationing, which did not end until 1954. Ration books, with coupons which were torn out as used, were issued to each individual. Without the right coupon, nobody could buy meat, eggs, milk, cheese, coffee, tea, butter and other items taken for granted in Scotland today. Young children were allotted a ration of a special orange juice to provide Vitamin C, and I remember being taken to collect mine every week, from the Food Office, which for a time was in Rathcluan House, also in Belfield House.
My family kept hens, and my mother had a special wooden box made to post eggs weekly to her parents and family in London. The box had a smart small padlock, with a key kept at each end of the journey.
An important item strictly rationed was petrol. Many cars were taken off the road since they could be used so rarely, and many drivers and mechanics were away at war. We were not able to drive to England to visit our relatives, whom my parents had not seen since 1939, until the summer holiday of 1948, after saving petrol coupons for the journey. Living in the centre of Cupar, where every item needed, and every service required, could be found in walking distance of the front door, meant that the family car covered few miles. In 1951, my father bought a 1934 Morris which had been in store throughout the war – at Belfield House. That car stayed in the family until 2021.
My family had lost two young men in the First World War, one in 1916, the second in 1917. We naturally knew families who suffered losses in the Second World War, and I grew up knowing contemporaries who had lost fathers, and knowing men who had lost limbs. In those days, families were expected just to get on with life – as were those who had lost years of their lives in Prisoner of War camps. Many soldiers from around here were trapped either at Dunkirk or subsequently at St Valery. One of my professional seniors had spent five years as a POW, making – a small consolation – many friendships and business connections.
Until relatively recently, the entire nation came to a complete halt at 11am on 11th November, Armistice Day, annually. People outside would come to attention, vehicles and trains would stop, and nobody would dare continue working, let alone make a phone call. Small ceremonies still take place on 11th November annually, whatever the day of the week, but the major events are held on Armistice Sunday, the Sunday closest to the 11th. Cupar continues that proud tradition, where the Fife Lieutenancy, as Her Majesty The Queen’s representative, lays the first wreath.”
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Thanks for reading.