John Blair’s secret war

Selkirk Radio Ham
Selkirk Radio Ham

The wartime role of a Selkirk man who monitored secret radio messages has been revealed.

The late John Blair grew up in Selkirk, living above the family grocery businesses at the foot of the Kirk Wynd, just off the town’s Market Place.

After serving in the Royal Navy during the First World War, he returned home and started helping his parents in the grocery shop.

By the start of the war against Hitler, John was also selling radio equipment and carrying out repairs to wireless sets. But he was soon to find some of his time diverted to rather more clandestine activities on behalf of the British intelligence community.

For unknown to his neighbours, John spent most of the war running a top secret listening station in the flat above the shop, tuning in to receive coded messages from the occupied Low Countries.

His fascinating story was brought to our attention by Jean Wyllie from Edinburgh, who is married to John’s nephew, Eric Wyllie.

“John was always very interested in radio and after he got married, he and his wife, Barrie, lived in the flat above the shop and he used a spare room to house all his equipment for his hobby as a radio ham,” Mrs Wyllie explained.

“By this time his parents were living in a big house at Ettrick View.” And Mrs Wyllie disclosed that, although John was on the naval reserve list and eligible to be called up, he was not required to serve and this seems to have caused a bit of resentment in some quarters.

“There seems to have been a wee bit talk and gossip in the town about why he was never called up for the Second World War, but years later he told my husband that he had been contacted and asked if he would do some secret official work,” she explained. “This involved monitoring certain broadcasts coming out of occupied Europe. The broadcasts were at certain times, like 2am, and he had to be ready and waiting to jot down the code that was being transmitted.

“Once he had taken it down, he had to take the message immediately to the police station. But he never knew what the information contained was or what happened to it once he gave it to the police. After the war, he managed to get back in touch with several of those who had been responsible for broadcasting the coded information from Europe.”

And it seems John kept quiet about his wartime activities until years later.

“No-one knew he was doing this top secret work except the police,” she added.