Operation 'Snowdrop'

The cold winter of 1955
by Philip Eden

'Operation Snowdrop' was the name given to the military operation to deliver food and medical supplies to snowbound districts in Scotland exactly fifty years ago. The RAF operated fixed-wing aircraft out of Kinloss primarily to drop animal fodder, and the Royal Navy flew helicopters from Wick to carry supplies to villages and farms cut off by drifts over 30 feet high. The services flew nearly 300 sorties in all to provide relief to communities in Shetland, Orkney, Caithness, Sutherland, Ross and Cromarty, and Inverness-shire.

The winter of 1955 was the coldest and snowiest between the two Big Freezes of 1947 and 1963, but in many parts of the Scotland it was reckoned to be the worst of the lot. Severe weather lasted from January 4th-22nd, and returned from February 8th until March 11th. The snow in northern Scotland arrived on a gale force northerly wind, and even when the snow stopped falling the wind continued to blow it into deep drifts thwarting all attempts to clear roads, most of which remained impassable until well into March.

Level snow lay 60cm deep by February 23 over the northern half of Scotland, and was measured at 90cm deep at Drummuir Castle, southeast of Elgin. The wintry weather extended to England and Wales for long periods too, especially during the second half of February with a dramatic snowstorm in Cornwall during the closing days of the month.

During the same winter one particular meteorological event scared the living daylights out of Londoners � literally. The date was January 16, 1955, and families all over the capital were sitting down to Sunday lunch. The Billy Cotton Band Show was on the wireless.

It had been a gloomy morning, but at 1.15pm light levels dropped abruptly to less than one-thousandth of that equivalent to a fine January day. In other words it had become completely dark in the middle of the day.

It must have been a very spooky experience. Newspaper switchboards were inundated, thousands of 999 calls were made, and afterwards people said they thought �the world was coming to an endö or �they�ve dropped the bombö.

The cause of this extreme example of day darkness was not difficult to determine. The Clean Air Act was still a year in the future and London�s atmosphere remained heavily polluted. A gentle south-easterly airflow affected the Home Counties during the morning, carrying London�s smoke towards the Chiltern Hills where it lay trapped beneath a layer of warm air aloft. Then a strong north-westerly wind set in, sweeping the polluted air before it, rather like rolling up a carpet. By the time it crossed London again, the layer of smoke and pollution was 1000 metres deep, sufficient to cut out every last glimmer of daylight.