VE Day: Who were the thousands of Scots laid to rest far from home?

By Marc Ellison
Data journalist, BBC Scotland

  • Published
The names of hundreds of Scots, who were killed in North Africa during World War II, are etched into headstones and memorials at El Alamein cemetery in northern Egypt.Image source, CWGC
Image caption,
The names of hundreds of Scots - killed in North Africa during World War Two - are on memorials at El Alamein cemetery in northern Egypt

To mark the 69th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day BBC Scotland has created an ONLINE DATABASE of 21,740 of the 57,000 Scots who died during World War Two.

Etched into sun-seared stone, the names of hundreds of Scots can be read on the seemingly endless rows of headstones criss-crossing the small cemetery in northern Egypt.

Names like Bruce, Cameron, McCallum, and Stewart appear alien in a landscape so different to that of their homeland.

El Alamein is now the final resting place for 7,240 soldiers - approximately 498 of them Scottish - who lost their lives fighting the Axis forces in North Africa during World War Two.

The names of another 423 Scots, who have no known grave, can be found on the panels marking the entrance to the cemetery.

But headstones and memorials like these which commemorate Scotland's war dead are not unique to Egypt - they can be found worldwide from Albania to Greece, from Hungary to Zimbabwe.

Image source, Black Watch Museum
Image caption,
Pipe Major Rab Roy (Black Watch regiment), also known as the Piper of Tobruk, plays for some of the wounded at an aid post after an attempted breakout from the besieged fortress of Tobruk.
Image source, Black Watch Museum
Image caption,
On 20 November 1941, the 2nd Battalion of the Black Watch regiment took part in a breakout from the garrison of Tobruk. Here, Second Lieutenant Macdonald and Corporal Wallace man the captured trenches.
  • To mark Victory in Europe (VE) Day - the anniversary of the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allies - BBC Scotland has created an ONLINE DATABASE of 21,740 Scots who died during World War Two.
  • Readers can search the database to find out where they came from, how old they were, which regiments they served for, and where they have been laid to rest.
Image source, BBC Scotland

In reality, the final total for Scotland's war dead is far greater than the 21,740 figure.

The Scottish Roll of Honour, maintained by the Scottish National War Memorial in Edinburgh, contains the names of more than 57,000 soldiers who died during the conflict.

BBC Scotland searched the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's database using the names of Scottish counties to create this data set.

However, due to discrepancies in verification forms submitted by families of the deceased, the county name was not always recorded by the next of kin.

The mandate of the commission, formed in 1917, is to ensure the commemoration of the 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars and it maintains cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations, in 53 countries.

Peter Francis, a spokesperson for the commission, said: "By looking after their graves we're helping to keep their names and memory alive.

"It's so important to remember them because we ultimately owe these men and women a debt that we can never truly repay - they gave their all for us."

Analysis of the commission's data reveals most Scottish soldiers came from Glasgow (5,085), Edinburgh (2,586), and Aberdeenshire (1,756).

The "rank" field within the data reveals it was not only those in immediate harm's way that lost their lives.

Carpenters, coders, cooks, musicians, surgeons, and telegraphists also paid the ultimate price.

Scottish women also took part in the war - 117 were killed while serving in the navy, air force, territorial service, as sisters and nurses.

And while the average age of death was 21 (1,999), the data shows Scots ranging in age from 15 to 65 also sacrificed their lives.

  • BBC Scotland has also produced an INTERACTIVE TIMELINE allowing readers to see when Scottish soldiers died during the course of World War Two.
Image source, BBC Scotland

Deaths peaked on 24 October 1942 when there were 129 casualties. There were another 114 casualties recorded on 6 April 1943 and 26 June 1944.

Outside of the main branches of the armed forces, the Black Watch (Royal Highlanders) regiment suffered the greatest number of casualties (1,003).

The regiment lost 44 soldiers in a single day at El Alamein in October 1942 - a battle which Mr Francis called a turning point in the war in the Middle East and North Africa.

Mr Francis said: "El Alamein was the really the first time that the British Commonwealth forces defeated the Germans.

"But it was hugely important not only strategically, but also from a morale point of view."

Image source, Black Watch Museum
Image caption,
Members of the 7th Battalion of the Black Watch regiment train in preparation for El Alamein.

The significance of the Allied victory in northern Egypt was not lost on Britain's war-time Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

He wrote in 1951: "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat."

The Scottish regiment also fought in the siege of the Libyan town Tobruk where it lost another 32 men on 21 November 1941.

Image source, CWGC
Image caption,
The names of more than 90 Scots, killed during the World War Two siege of Tobruk, can be found on headstones in the cemetery in northern Libya

Other Scottish regiments, such as the Gordon Highlanders (949) and Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (874), also suffered huge losses during the war.

The INTERACTIVE TIMELINE shows that cemeteries and memorials maintained by the war graves commission include the names of those who died as late as December 1947 - two years after the end of World War Two.

Mr Francis explained this was partially done to honour those who may have died from their wounds in the aftermath of the war.

But the period for reporting post-war deaths was also extended for consistency, to mirror the period of 1914-1921 when the commission recorded World War One deaths, said Mr Francis.

Although the armistice was signed in 1918 the British government did not formally recognise the end of the Great War until 1921, based on the provisions laid out in the Termination of the Present War Act.

Mr Francis said: "And this is a good thing.

"Otherwise, those who had served their country, and deserved to be commemorated, wouldn't have had a war grave."

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