Other than the locally recruited Territorial Army units, the majority of the Orkney Garrison and the personnel from the ships of the Fleet came from the mainland UK and the commonwealth. These men and women were used to postings where they had access to amenities and entertainments when off duty and many struggled to adjust to the rural island lifestyle of Orkney. In an effort to counter the ensuing decline in morale, recreational facilities were constructed at the main military hubs. Flotta had its own Fleet Recreation Centre which included gymnasium, squash courts, recreation rooms, canteens and a cinema.
Lyness was home to the Royal Naval Recreation Centre which opened in September 1939 with the south end being used as a restaurant, grocery shop and clothing store whilst the north end was turned into a 200 seat cinema with a restaurant and reading room for Chief and Petty Officers. In February 1940 the cinema was expanded to 900 seats and a stage installed for live performances. The auditorium was equipped with top quality modern projection, sound and lighting equipment and even motorised curtains.
The Chief and Petty Officers amenities were converted into a billiard room with four tables and an educational centre was established offering lectures and classes in languages, handicrafts and office skills. A barbers shop equipped with proper fittings was built in the north end of the building in June 1942 and the billiards room was partitioned so that a quiet room and a table tennis room could be installed. Badminton and boxing matches took place from 1943 timetabled around the three times daily film showings. Dances for up to 250 couples were also a regular occurrence and by 1943 the average number of personnel attending activities at the recreation centre was conservatively estimated at 1800.
Entertainment was predominantly provided by ENSA, the Entertainments National Service Association bringing many celebrities and major stars to Orkney to perform for the troops including Gracie Fields, Flanagan and Allen, George Formby and Tommy Trinder. In addition to the shows and dances, sport was considered an important means of keeping personnel both fit and occupied. Many batteries, camps and ships fielded their own football, rugby or hockey teams that competed regularly in matches for a variety of trophies.
Social gathering places were also essential for off-duty men and woman and canteens were provided by a number of organisations including The Church of Scotland, Toc H (the movement begun from the WWI soldiers club at Talbot House in Belgium) and the NAAFI (Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes). Six mobile canteens also ran to the more remote sites where the personnel would seldom have the opportunity to enjoy the facilities of those serving near the towns or larger military complexes. Several Forces’ newspapers were published in Orkney over the duration of the War and were greatly enjoyed by the troops.
The Orkney Blast, edited by Gerry Meyer was the first armed services newspaper to be printed in the UK during WWII and appeared weekly with a run of 6000 from January 1941 until the end of the war. The paper was a major boost to morale appealing to all branches of the British armed forces as well as civilians, including a woman’s column for the thousands of female personnel who served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service, Auxiliary Territorial Service and the Woman’s Auxiliary Air Force in Orkney. The newspaper not only reached every military camp in Orkney but also had a readership that extended well beyond the islands shores being enjoyed in Shetland as well as aboard countless naval vessels departing from Scapa Flow on operations.
(c) Gavin Lindsay