The role of the Royal Air Force at Oban in the Battle of the Atlantic is well known locally and has undoubtedly left an indelible impression on the town. A lesser-known aspect of those six hectic years is that of the women who uprooted their lives from all over Britain and moved to Oban to support their husbands, fiancées and boyfriends in their fight against the foe, a fight which would all too often demand the ultimate sacrifice. Nancy Van der Kiste was one such young woman. I met and interviewed her some years ago, and she would provide a detailed insight into her experience at Oban. It was an unusual meeting in the Columba Hotel dining room. She sat opposite, alert, elegant and conversational with a black eye patch holding back her long, swept-back grey hair, giving her a somewhat piratical air. Her attention constantly flitted from me to her husband, sitting alongside her, but not then engaging in discussion. I surmised that this frail, elderly man before me, plainly betrayed the cruel ravages of dementia and that the yellow vest over his jacket was intended to enable Nancy to keep track of his potential wanderings. And yet, he would surprise me.
Nancy Kathleen Holmes was born in Aylesham, Norfolk. Her father was Dr Alec Holman, a local GP and her mother, Grace, had four children. Nancy was the eldest of two girls, known to her family and close friends as “Jummy”. Tragedy struck the young family when one of the sons died in a drowning accident. In early 1938, when Nancy was 18, she went to a dance at Bircham Newton, where she met a young RAF pilot based at the nearby airfield. Pilot Officer Guy van der Kiste was from Co. Limerick in Ireland and had recently qualified as a pilot on 206 Squadron, flying the obsolescent Avro Anson on coastal patrols. A whirlwind romance blossomed as war clouds gathered over Europe. Guy was selected as an above-average pilot and was re-trained on the new Sunderland flying boats at Calshot, before joining No.210 Squadron at Pembroke Dock in July 1939. The couple married in November of that year, and Nancy had moved to Wales, but the stay was short-lived. All too soon after the outbreak of hostilities with Germany, news came that the squadron was being sent to Oban, Argyll.
Nancy was somewhat vague about the geography of Scotland and had to consult a road map to consider how she would get herself, her young terrier, “Mike”, and the married couples few possessions to what seemed a very isolated location on the west coast. Guy owned a small Morris 8 Tourer and was entitled to a necessary petrol ration as a pilot. Much against her parents’ wishes and advice, Nancy nevertheless decided to drive from South Wales to Oban. Fortunately, one of the other officers` wives, Marjorie Burnett, offered to travel with her as she would take the opportunity to visit her parents in Glasgow on the way north to Oban. The journey would take three days, with two overnight stops; in Chester and Glasgow. All road signs had been removed in case of invasion, and the two had to navigate using an old AA book. Unfortunately, Marjorie could not drive but obliged with most of the map reading and feeding the driver toffees.. The little Morris two-seater, packed to the roof, reached Loch Lomond’s shores, and Nancy marvelled at the spectacular scenery which unfolded. Her spirits had fallen when she left Marjorie behind in Glasgow and had driven on alone. She headed vaguely northwest whilst nursing a painfully staved thumb from a backfire on the starter handle of the Morris.
As she reached Loch Lomond, the sunlit splendour of the scenery revived her spirits. After a couple of hours, Nancy reached the tiny village of Tyndrum where the road forked, and she found herself on a single-track road with grass growing up in the centre. It began to rain heavily, and the vacuum-operated thin wiper blades could not cope with the downpour, Nancy found herself having to lean out of the window to see the road ahead. She finally arrived in Oban mid-afternoon, soaking wet, and met a very relieved Guy at RAF Headquarters, Dungallan House. They were allocated a room at the Columba Hotel, then owned by the Gillespie sisters, where several RAF families were accommodated. After a few weeks, the billeting officer found them a cottage, “The Rockies”, along the Sound of Kerrera, with two bedrooms and a bathroom. It was owned by a Mrs Brown, who had a baby son. Her husband was overseas with the army. This proved a difficult arrangement as Guy was liable to a call-out at any hour, and the phone call from Dungallan House invariably woke the baby. It was a beautiful spot, however, and Nancy spent a lot of time up on the hills above, walking and sketching with the teenage daughter of one of the air traffic controllers, Jill Glynn. The pair occasionally rowed over to Kerrera, where the southern end was still accessible to the public and also visited Heather island.
In October, the Van der Kistes moved into the large guest house, Glenmorvern on Albany Street, whose owner lived in England. Nancy volunteered for farmwork after an appeal from a Mr Fraser, who requested any assistance possible bringing in his harvest from spare RAF personnel. Nancy would cycle out from Oban to the farm, where one of the benefits was a farmhouse lunch and a gift of eggs. The house at Glenmorvern had an upright piano, and Nancys young friend, Jill, was an accomplished pianist, much in demand at camp concerts playing boogie-woogie and syncopation. The Squadron Commander`s wife, Elsie Barrett, organised a canteen for the airmen over on Kerrera. Nancy went with other squadron wives over to the island in a pinnace from the North Pier to serve out tea, oxo and biscuits, with a few prized homemade scones. Some of the wives pulled out of the enterprise as they got seasick on the way across the bay.
In the autumn, Nancy learnt how to play golf at Glencruitten course but found it too slow-paced and frustratingly difficult. Reggie Baker, another pilot, and his wife Anne moved into a room in Glenmorvern, although this proved to be a rather expensive mistake as their red setter, Sheila, ate a hole in the expensive front room curtains, causing some discord with the owner. In November, Guy and Nancy moved to a flat within the large house up on Pulpit Hill viewpoint, known as “Blaven”. The house was owned by the MacKinnon family but had been sub-divided into four apartments, three of which were occupied by RAF Officers and their wives. The days shortened, the weather worsened, and Nancy found the coal ration inadequate to heat the flat, but it was far more convenient for Guy although the telephone in the hallway was liable to sound at any hour. The three wives dreaded that phone ringing when their husbands were away on patrol, and they feared the worst.
On the late afternoon of 23rd December 1940, Nancy took Mike and went for a walk in the rapidly descending gloom, up onto the hill along the track to the highest point (where the masts are today) overlooking the town below.Virtually no lights were to be seen because of the strict black-out regulations, and it was quiet and still in the freezing air. Nancy then became aware of the low drone of approaching aircraft engines from the southwest. She had heard the engines of Sunderlands on numerable occasions, but this was a different sound, and she strained to see the origin. Against the darkening sky to the west, low above the outline of the island of Kerrera, she saw three aircraft of a type she did not recognise; twin-engined aircraft with long, glazed noses – German aircraft. As she watched, the bombers began to descend, crossing Kerrera, and she thought, with horror, that the target was Oban.
Bright flares were dropped by the intruders over the bay itself, and the aircraft drew again northwards, low over the entrance to Oban harbour, out beyond Dunollie castle. Nancy began to run back to the house, and as she did so, she heard machinegun fire in the distance over the drone of the aircraft, then loud explosions. She did not know it at the time but would subsequently learn that this was an attack by three Heinkel III aircraft of the Luftwaffe, which bombed and machine-gunned three ships with heavy loss of life, causing the sinking of the SS Breda. The sequel to this attack was even more terrifying for Nancy. Three nights later, she was waiting for Guy to return from a patrol over the Atlantic and listening for the tell-tale sound of engines low in the skies above. A prevailing westerly wind dictated that aircraft would normally descend in a curve over the town to land just on the west side of Maiden Island. There it was, the unmistakable whistling sound of four Bristol Pegasus engines, throttled back. She waited to hear the roar of the engines as the aircraft landed on the sea and turned to come back into Oban Bay, but there was none. Instead, she rushed outside in time to hear the powerboats of the Marine Craft Section starting up over at Ardentrive on Kerrera and saw their lights speeding out into the Firth. She knew what this meant, and the aircraft had crashed on landing. Nancy panicked momentarily, intending first to run immediately down to Dungallan House for news but decided instead to go back into the house and wait, her heart in her mouth, for that phone to ring. In fact, after 20 minutes or so, there was a knock at her door. It was Squadron Leader Pat Lombard. He told her that it was not Guy`s aircraft; it was another pilot, Ivor Meggitt (buried at Pennifuir cemetery, Oban).
Meggitt`s Sunderland had struck a large floating crate of medical supplies, cargo from the SS Breda. Nine of the crew onboard the aircraft were killed in the crash, with only one survivor, who was badly injured and had been taken to the West Highland Hospital. Henceforth, Guy undertook to “gun” the engines of his aircraft as he came in overhead, above Blaven, to let Nancy know he was safe. Nancy found the winter weeks after the attack difficult, with raised anxiety levels and an increasing sense of isolation. Her mother, Grace, travelled up to support her for a prolonged period at Blaven.
Nancy had been gifted an expensive going-away present from her parents, a Leica camera, and she took a number of photographs about Oban and the general area. When the squadron left Oban in July of 1941, Guy and Nancy made a vow that one day they would return. Fifty-five years later, they did. I noted all the foregoing down in haste and listened as Nancy told me that Guy had been asked by his tourist bus group to speak to them that evening about his time in Coastal Command. Looking at this elderly gentleman in his high-vis vest and sadly vacant expression, I doubted whether he should be put through this ordeal. But I was wrong.
Later that evening, I sat with some trepidation n the Columba Hotel as Guy was introduced by his tour guide to the group. With the words “Coastal Command”, it was as if Guy had suddenly regained access to a long-closed part of his memories and he stood up, surveying his audience. Wing Commander Guy van der Kiste DFC then gave a faultless analysis of the role of Coastal Command in the Battle of the Atlantic and, in particular, flying operations from Oban. I saw then a brief glimpse of the man as he had once been, a confident leader. He received a very appreciative round of applause - then sat down again, drifting into a confusion of dementia. I was privileged to meet Nancy and Guy. They are both gone now, but their contribution to Oban`s past history will not be forgotten.
This contribution was made by Neil Owen. Neil is a local historian and heritage enthusiast
More information on visiting the area can be found here.