Strategic Location

How Islay distilleries contributed to the war effort
By Fred Minnick
During World War II in all whisky-making regions, grains were rationed and whisky distilling came to a halt. Most distilleries in Ireland and Scotland were mothballed, but still endured the same collateral damage risks as every other building in Europe. Bombers pelted the Bushmills' Dublin offices, destroying the company's archives, while its Northern Ireland facilities were used as billets.

In America, Brown-Forman's Owsley Brown served on U. S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt's "whiskey council" to help the government create a distillery plan for the war effort. The Kentucky bourbon distilleries were forced to make grain alcohol for industrialised alcohol, requiring roughly 195-proof alcohol. Since the average bourbon still could only reach as high as 160 proof, the American stills had to be modified.

They added collar columns, applied greater pressure and reached higher temperatures during distillation. The alcohol never touched oak and would have been shipped immediately to a facility for eventual use to create grenades, jeeps, parachutes and other essential war materials. Woodford Reserve master distiller Chris Morris says World War II and the use of the distilleries created the modern Louisville. "The spirits industry in Louisville is the reason for the industrialisation of Louisville. There would be no rubber town or DuPont area if not for the distilling capabilities," Morris says.

Islay in World War II

In October 1939 close to the Orkney isles, a German U-Boat penetrated Scotland defenses and torpedoed the HMS Royal Oak, a British Royal Navy revenge-class battleship. More than 800 men died.

After this attack and many other naval battles, the British Royal Navy and Royal Air Force set up Air Force bases on Islay, Benbecula, Tiree and Lewis, as well as Royal Navy centres on the mainland. Islay became a strategic location for Allied Forces and the distilleries were extremely important facilities.

Bowmore was a coastal patrol base, housing units that were charged with attacking German U-Boats. Bowmore actually maintained secret flying boats, such as the Sunderland II W6058, that

attacked from above and in water. The Oban area was also a maintenance facility for flying boats, while Laphroaig became an armory for Allied Forces.

Scotland's Ministry of Defence agreed to pay Laphroaig £120,000 for near full usage of the distillery. It also tried to enlist Laphroaig workers.

In 1940, the Scottish Royal Artillery enlisted warehouse worker Ian MaClean as a gunner. But, distillery manager/ secretary Bessie Williamson wrote to the Service Hardship Committee, begging for an exception because McClean managed 8,000 casks worth £3 million. Williamson argued McClean was too valuable to Laphroaig to be enlisted. "Even if a thoroughly skilled cooper of over military age were obtainable at present, he would require to serve with the present man for a considerable period before he would be competent to undertake the responsibility which falls to this man's duties," Williamson wrote.

McClean was granted an exemption, but Williamson likely fought for his stay because the Laphroaig distillery was inundated with soldiers billeting there. Anybody who's spent time in the military knows soldiers like to drink and they would have quickly drained those barrels. Williamson needed all the whisky protection she could get, as a constant 200 or more soldiers billeted here between 1940 and 1944.

But, Laphroaig's greatest impact on the war effort was its storage capacity. Laphroaig might have not only been the most-important distillery during World War II, but showed the Islay facility was an incredibly strategic armoury. At any given time, the Laphroaig Distillery stored about 450 tons of ammunition.

On May 20th, 1944, Williamson approved the shipment of 32,078 no. 42 containers of small arms rounds, 4,634 shot cases, 312 high explosive shells, 1,670 cartons of cartridge cases, and 1,067 bomb carrier cases. This ammo was loaded onto the S. S. Moor and appears to be an average load for the distillery. The tonnage indicates it could have supplied a brigade level force.

In paperwork obtained during my research for Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch & Irish Whiskey, I learned Williamson not only managed the armoury, but she also maintained Laphroaig's facilities, trademarks and business relationships. And she managed all this with ease and gained the respect of her workers.

All the while, however, Williamson, Laphroaig and Islay were lucky the Germans didn't know the extent of the island's importance.

German U-Boats were seeking and destroying Allied Forces' ships and bases throughout the North Channel, Irish Coast and Bristol Channel. In October 1944, British Intelligence discovered that U-Boats were being sent to patrol off Islay. Did they suspect Laphroaig? Was it a target?

Nobody knows. But, one thing's for sure: the Germans would have struck Laphroaig if it knew of its strategic importance to the Allied Forces. Fortunately for whisky drinkers, the smoke in Laphroaig doesn't come from the war.