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  • Writer's pictureMike Shepherd


Updated: Oct 2, 2022

In 1914 the Port Erroll Post Office was housed in the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel (where the public bar is now).

In a remarkable moment of time on July 27, 1914, three strands of world history came together in Cruden Bay: the history of flight, Antarctic Exploration, and the start of World War 1.The experience left the person involved, the Norwegian aviator Tryggve Gran, much shocked...

This is the story of that moment.

In July 1914 Tryggve Gran was in Cruden Bay (then called Port Erroll) to prepare for what would be the first manned aircraft crossing of the North Sea. His Blériot XI-2 monoplane was unpacked from its crate, assembled, and a field to take-off from had been identified. Everything was now ready for the history-making 285-mile crossing to Norway. Yet, it had been so frustrating for the twenty-six-year-old Norwegian. The weather had been unsettled for weeks, and he required a calm day to fly his flimsy wood and fabric covered aircraft over such a long distance of sea.

And not only was the weather over the North Sea unsettled, Europe had been heading towards war. Nevertheless, Tryggve remained focussed on the task at hand, that is, until the fateful day he entered Port Erroll Post Office (the post office was then part of the Kilmarnock Arms Hotel where the public bar is now located). He had been going there to send a telegram to the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, who had asked him to join his latest expedition. It was July 27, 1914.

The Tryggve Gran monument in Cruden Bay

Tryggve Gran had already taken part in the Scott Expedition to the Antarctic, and was a member of the search party that had discovered the bodies of Scott and his companions. When a cairn was built on top of the tent and the bodies of the men inside, Tryggve had removed his skis and placed them on the cairn to form a cross. He had taken Scott’s skis in their place, because he was determined that these would return home.

Shackleton was keen to get Tryggve Gran to take part in his latest Antarctic expedition, because, apart from Tryggve’s previous polar experience, he wanted to use aircraft to support the effort, and Tryggve was the obvious man for this. However, when asked, the Norwegian refused to commit himself. He was more interested in gaining glory as the first to fly an aircraft across the North Sea.

Nevertheless, he had left it late to reply to Shackleton, whose ship the Endurance was close to leaving for Antarctica (it left on the August 8, 1914). He obviously couldn’t go, but it would be polite to tell Shackleton this.

Shackleton’s 1914 expedition eventually became famous for all the wrong reasons. The Endurance sank in the Weddell Sea leaving twenty-eight men stranded on the pack ice. They eventually reached a rocky island called Elephant Island. Leaving the rest of his men there, Shackleton left with a crew of five in a seven-metre-long lifeboat, his intention to get help from a whaling station on the South Atlantic island of South Georgia. After an epic 800-mile journey, they landed on the wrong side of the island, and then made an equally epic journey across mountainous terrain to react the whaling station. All the men were eventually rescued.

Tryggve Gran entered the post office and glanced at an official notice posted there. He froze with horror when he read it. Because of impending hostilities in Europe, Britain was closing its airspace to civilian aircraft at 6 p.m. on July 30, 1914. Should war start it could be years before he would get another chance to fly across the North Sea. He had to take off before then.

Events came to a head the next day when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, and Serbia declared war. July 28, 1914, is now officially designated as the first day of World War I.

Although Tryggve was desperate to take off as soon as possible, the weather did not calm down until July 30th. His first attempt that day was abandoned after flying into a thick bank of fog over the sea. With four hours to go before the flying ban started, he took off again from Cruden Bay beach at 1 p.m.

Tryggve Gran's Blériot XI-2 monoplane on Cruden Bay beach. July 30, 1914.

Four hours and ten minutes later he landed fourteen mile south-west of Stavanger, having nearly crashed twice on the way. He now sent a telegram to Post Erroll Post Office for the attention of everyone who helped him with the historic flight, ‘Perfect landing, horrid crossing, all right.’

World War I devastated Cruden Bay as it did every other community in Britain. The equivalent of a war memorial is the Roll of Honour inside the front door of Port Erroll Congregational Church. The long list of names of those killed, wounded, or gassed makes for sad reading, as is the case with any war memorial; however, the Roll of Honour is particularly poignant for those of us who live in the village. It not only lists the names of the men it also gives their addresses. Such heightens the horror of the events of the time. For example, five men are listed from one house in 14 Main Street, Cruden Bay. For those of us still living in the houses mentioned, one can think back to the war and try to connect with the grief of those times, knowing that a true understanding of its intensity is well-nigh impossible.

My new book North Sea Heroes: True Stories from a Scottish Shore is out on October 8, 2022. The story of Tryggve Gran’s adventures is one of seven heroic tales told in the book. Published by Wild Wolf Publishing at £12.99, and available on Amazon, other online book sellers, in local book shops (and Cruden Bay Post Office!)

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