The First Mainland Air Raid on Britain in World War 2

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Indifferent to the grey sky and mizzle, our son scampered on the wet sand. The only family on Portobello beach with the only sandcastle. In front, the River Forth, behind, just yards from the beach, the solid sturdy stone of Towerbank Primary school. Memories of 1960s school days and that feeling of sand in my shoes occupied my thoughts. More than 20 years before me, another Towerbank pupil played here.

Nine year old Richard builds sandcastles with his younger brother on Portobello beach: close by eight year old Cameron plays with his friends in the field behind his house overlooking the Firth of Forth; Margaret, a newly qualified primary teacher walks along Portobello high street; A few hundred yards away Joe and his mate Frank are painting a house in Abercorn Terrace. They are all enjoying an Indian summer in October. Fourteen year old David is staring through the sunroof of his father’s Austin 10 as they travel back to Edinburgh from Dunbar; meanwhile two boys, Frank and Edward have just boarded the 2.30 p.m. Edinburgh to Dundee train which will shortly cross the the Forth Bridge. Portobello is seconds away from taking an unexpected theatre seat in a display of gladiatorial fighting to the death. The stage will be the sky.HMS-Southampton-under-attack

It’s the16th October 1939 and the phoney war had come to an end. Group Commander Helmut Pohle has left Westerland on the German island of Sylt, off the Danish coast. He is leading his 12 Junkers 88s to Rosyth Naval Yard using the unmistakable Forth Rail Bridge as a guide. They are hunting the British battle cruiser HMS Hood. German Intelligence- reported earlier by two reconnaissance Heinkels- has, however, mistaken HMS Resolve for the Hood. Reich Marshal Goering had summoned Pohle to Berlin to relay Hitler’s orders that the Hood must be attacked in open water to avoid civilian casualties. This short lived restriction was not a sign of the Fuhrer’s humanity: he still believed he could come to an agreement with the British people. Among the hand picked pilots Lieutenant Sigmund Storp, aged 25, was a veteran of the Condor Legion, whose Stukas caused such terror during the Spanish Civil War. So far they have been lucky. At 12.25 p.m. a power cut had disabled Drone Hill Radar station so there is no air raid warning and they had been assured by intelligence that were no Spitfires based in Scotland. The first confict with Germany in British airspace of World War Two is about to begin.
Their luck is about to vaporise; HMS Repulse is docked so, mindful of Hitler’s orders, they attack the light cruisers HMS Edinburgh and HMS Southampton together with the destroyer HMS Mohawk. At 400 miles per hour, the stress of the 17 ton dive on the ju88 causes Pohle’s cockpit canopy to fly off. At 2.35pm he releases their 500kg bombs on HMS Edinburgh, then circles above to observe the second wave of bombers. At 2.38pm Storp’s plane drops a bomb which hits the Southampton but travels through the decks of the ship and exits sinking the admiral’s barge and a pinnace lying alongside.

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The Galasheils Observers Corp. have triggered the scrambling of the 603 (City of Edinburgh)from Turnhouse and the 602 (City of Glasgow) squadron based at nearby Drem. The elite Luftwaffe are about to be met by the “weekend flyers”, the auxilliaries, in particular a farmer, a solicitor and a plasterer. As Storp pulls the plane up the spitfires arrive. The first burst of fire knocks out his left engine and kills the rear gunner. Three spitfires including Patrick Giffords, a  flamboyant 29 year old solicitor chase and pepper the plane as it heads east with only a brief respite as they pass over Edinburgh’s city centre. Finally the elevators are hit and moments later at 2.45 p.m. Storps plane hits the water. It becomes the first German aircraft to be shot down over Britain in this war. Seconds before he had managed to eject and release himself from the seat, and now surfaces above the water. Two other crew have also survived, before the plane with Obergefrieter Kramer sinks.
Pohle’s Ju88 is also in trouble. A burst from a Spitfire’s Browning machine guns hits the cockpit wounding radio operator August Schlicher and the rear gunner. He desperately heads for the open sea where a disguised waiting German trawler is waiting and could rescue them. There is no escape – George Pinkerton spots the plane emerging from the cloud and attacks. Flight Lieutenant Pinkerton, a quiet fruit farmer is joined by 27 year old plasterer’s assistant Archie McKellar, in the chase along the Fife coast. The second engine is hit and Pohle ditches the plane into the sea off the village of Crail and hits his face off the contol panel. It’s 2.55pm.
He thought he had downed the first aircraft of the war. In fact ten minutes earlier Patrick Gifford had shot down Sigmund Storp’s plane four miles north of Port Seton; three of the four crew had managed to bail out and were rescued by a fishing boat. A newsreel shows the fishing yawl, Dayspring arriving with the three airmen who were rescued. Storp, Rohnke, and Heilscherwere picked up by the captain John Dickson and his crew. The fisherman addresses the camera and tells how Storp gave his Luftwaffe gold ring to him as a souvenir for saving his life.
Although the first waves have been scattered by the spitfires, the fourth wave of three bombers attacked the Southhampton and the escort Mohawk as they move upstream. Twelve of the HMS Mohawk’s crew were killed; the wounded Commander Jolly refused to leave the bridge, until the ship was back in port . He was taken to hospital but died the same day.
Overall the Royal Navy suffered 16 killed and a further 44 wounded.
Two boys Edward Thomson and Jack Thomas are enjoying the view of the fleet from their train which is crossing the Forth bridge. Suddenly they see a waterspout as high as the bridge and the admiral’s barge alongside it rise into the air. Edward Thompson’s later account seems without fear. Not so others who assumed the bridge was the target. The train came to a halt while the bridge’s painters ran for shelter. The train then continued unharmed. In Portobello they are unaware of the air raid as no sirens have sounded. The German planes are desperately trying to escape. Marjory Morton Shaw, a primary teacher is walking along the High Street:
Suddenly I was overtaken by the war in full blast in the form of a ground hugging bomber heading for Rosyth and hotly pursued by a couple of Spitfires each with eight machine guns blazing and showering brass cartridges over Portobello High Street and the power station a quarter of a mile further on. It all happened very suddenly of course. First from the East a rising crescendo of aircraft noise and gunfire then the sight of a bomber so close that I could clearly see the face of one of the German airmen in it! A Luftwaffe communique stated the following day “ Our bombers were flying low enough to see Scottish peasants waving to us!” Perhaps that was me! I was stunned!
On the beach, Richard hears the drone of the Junker followed by the roar of the Spitfire’s Rolls Royce Merlin engines:

We watched this burning plane coming towards us. It looked like a dragon. I could see the German pilots inside, it was so close. Then, suddenly, the sand was flying around us like little golden jewels, and we realised there was a Spitfire behind the plane, shooting it down. If we’d been hit that would have been it.

They collected up the still hot metal shrapnel before returning home with his brother to receive a “walloping” from his horrified mother.
Richard seems to have been more terrified and bewildered by his mother’s reception than the combined fire of a Spitfire and a Junkers 88s.
In Abercorn Terrace Joe McLuskie, a painter and decorator, is up a ladder supported by his mate Frank Flynn. Seconds after hearing the bomber and spitfires he is hit in his stomach and rushed to Leith hospital for emergency surgery. It was assumed that the bomber shot him in fact the bullet that was from the pursuing Spitfires.
Confusion over the events continues to this day. Many still believe this was an attack on the Forth Bridge. It was not. The target was the Hood . Civilians caught up below a dogfight thought they were being attacked, in fact the bullets that hit Joe Mcluskie were from a Spitfire. Some sources claim he was the first civilian to be killed in a raid. First casualty perhaps, but he did survive and received compensation payments while in hospital. Many witnesses and reporters thought the attacking planes were Heinkels and reports of the number of planes varied. How many were shot down? The day after the raid Hansard records that in response to a parliamentary question by Clement Attlee, Neville Chamberlain replied, “Four enemy bombers were brought down, of which one was shot down by gun fire.” The same day New York Times reported that the British claimed four and the Germans two. The Germans were correct but wrong in claiming two Spitfires. Some anti-aircraft gunners still believe they hit one of the planes. Arguments as to which pilot shot down the first enemy aircraft into British waters in World War Two took years to resolve.
Two bodies were recovered. The Daily Record reported in 2009 that Under Officer Kurt Seydel, and his Observer August Schleicher were 19 and 17-year-old respectively.In fact   they were not teenagers. Kurt Seydel,was born in the city of Leverkusen on the 27th of September 1913 and August Schleicher was born in the village of Abtsroda on 28th April 1917.

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There followed an extraordinary response from Edinburgh’s women. Perhaps mindful of the shocking WW1 losses together with their own sons’ recent enlistment, they empathised with the mothers of the German airmen. These were the first enemy airmen to be shot down and the Edinburgh public, particularly the mothers applied pressure for the men to be given a full military funeral with their coffins draped with swastikas

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Four days later ten thousand lined the route to Portobello’s St. Philip’s Church. Pipers from the squadrons that had downed them played Over The Sea To Skye. Their coffins draped in the swastika were even allowed in the church itself. Two wreaths were laid. One message read: “To two brave airmen from the mother of an airman”, and “With the deep sympathy of Scottish mothers”

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The squadrons Padre officiated. A few days earlier he had fired an anti aircraft gun at the Junkers. He admitted later that he had secretly written to the mothers in Germany in an attempt to comfort them.

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And what of the little boy playing on the beach? Surviving the Junkers, Spitfires, and his mother’s wrath, Professor Richard Demarco O.B.E., C.B.E., now 82, became an artist and theatre director. He co-founded the Traverse Theatre,and ran the Demarco Gallery. He is still a leading figure of the Edinburgh Festival and became Scotland’s most influential figure in contemporary art.
George Pinkerton survived the war, rising to the rank of Group Captain, returning to his farm in Renfrewshire. He died in 1993. Pinkerton and Gifford visited Storp and Helmut Pohle in Edinburgh Castle’s hospital, later sending him sweets and cigarettes. The two farmers, Pinkerton and Pohle kept in contact with each other after the war.
In September 1940 Helmut Pohle was sent to the officers’ POW camp in the Lake District’s Grizedale Hall where he helped other POWs to organise a tunnel escape.
Storp became friends with the fishing family that saved him and maintained contact post war.
All four ships met their nemesis between 1941 and 1942: the Mohawk was torpedoed by an Italian destroyer off Tunisia without loss; the battle cruiser Repulse was torpedoed by Japanese planes off the coast of Malaya losing 508 men; the Southampton was sunk by stukas off Malta with 81 men lost and the Edinburgh was torpedoed on the 28 April 1942 while escorting a Russian convoy with the loss of 58 men.
The first pilot to shoot down a German plane in World War Two was Patrick Gifford who received the Distinguished Flying Cross and left 603 to lead a Squadron in November 1939 in France. Six days later, he was killed. His body was never recovered.
In November Archie McKellar of 602 Sqn shot down a Heinkel 111 which crashed on British soil, the first to do so in the war. In 1940 he was shot down over Kent

9 thoughts on “The First Mainland Air Raid on Britain in World War 2

  1. Sir,
    I am extremely interested in your account of the UK’s first air attack of WW2 in the Forth Estuary. It was widely misreported at the time, perhaps understandably, and many of the ‘facts’ that were released were in error. As a result, later researchers have been thwarted or mislead however innocently, and what appears is often a mis-mash of fact and fiction.

    I am part of a voluntary group including the acclaimed tapestry designer Andrew Crummy who are looking at this unique historic event afresh. We have been successful to date in East Lothian Council granting planning permission for a permanent memorial. It is one of a few we hope to install on the famous John Muir Way that follows the line of the south coast of the estuary.

    I have read many accounts, but have to say yours is among the most detailed and comprehensive. By coincidence I attended Richard Demarco’s Edinburgh lecture last night, 3rd April 2014, when we discussed the raid in detail and he reviewed my latest campaign material. He has promised to support our aims enthusiastically.

    We are an apolitical organisation and we approach these events in the spirit of the historian and not triumphalist in any way.

    I hope this will encourage you to get in touch. I shall try and complete a facebook entry you invite, but I am hardly au fait with the medium.

    We are in an active phase of our project at the moment, and so an early reply would be much appreciated. Please note, our Website is still under development.

    David J. Ostler

  2. I was extremely interested to read the account of the raid on the 16th October 1939 on the Forth in Glenbanna today. I was a schoolboy in my back garden near Granton that day when a German bomber (Junkers 88) closely followed by Spitfires firing machine guns roared overhead at rooftop height flying towards the east. The pilot was clearly visible as was the iron cross on the side of the fuselage. In the past many years I have read lots of accounts of this action and had always thought that it was George Pinkerton and Archie McKellar who were in the Spitfires but from your account it possibly was more likely to have been Patrick Gifford and co. judging by the timing, the co-ordinates. and the direction of travel. There has been plenty of speculation over the years as to who did what when and where, and who was first to do this or that, but all things considered it may not matter. What is clear is that these young pilots responded magnificently to the challenge of the day and incidentally gave a small schoolboy something exciting to remember.
    Thankyou for a lucid and interesting account.
    Harry MacAnespie.

    • Harry
      I’m glad you enjoyed my article and I agree with you about the heroism of these part time flyers. Thank you for taking the time to relate your wonderful first hand account. You have obviously remembered every detail of those few minutes to this day. I read your message to my 89yr old mother and it brought back memories for her too. Many thanks
      Glen Banna

  3. My father aged 17 years old was stationed at Carlingnose Army Camp. North Queensferry – Inverkeithing as a Territorial Soldier called up for service on the 30th August 1939 with the City of Edinburgh (Fortress ) Royal Engineers. They were shipped out daily to Cramond Island in the River Forth as working parties working on the Forth Defences on the various Islands in the Forth. He always said that they were supposed to warm up the generators an hour or so before dusk, but it seemed nobody bothered about this! Who thought the first ever attack on Britain would be the River Forth? Forty seven days after joining up,this was the night the Luftwaffe attacked the RN Ships in the Forth. During this attack a Naval Seaplane from Donnybristle Naval Air Station continued to carry out an exercise of dive bombing practise runs as the Luftwaffe flew up the Forth.He also stated that they did ask an officer for permission to “open fire” with their 303. rifles, the officer said no as they have bigger guns than what we have! Most main armaments on these Islands were using dummy ammunition for practising and live ammunition had to be hurriedly transferred from the magazines to replace the practise ammunition After complaining to the O.C. that this was an “Old Mans Post” they shipped out to North Africa, Egypt, Italy (twice) Palestine & Greece ending his war in Graz Austria.

    • Interesting story. It is one of what was most likely any number of similar accounts of what went on that fateful day, but no less valuable for that. There is a resurging interest in this story bubbling under with a memorial planned for Prestonlinks to commemorate events, not least that the shooting down of the Luftwaffe Ju88 flown by Hans Sigmund Storp represented the first successful interception by the iconic Spitfire aircraft.

      Thank you for this contribution.

      • Dear Dave / glennanna,

        Thank you, much indebted to you for still another strand in this fascinating story. Would you be kind enough to contact me, at your convenience that we might compare notes further.

        Pleased to buy you lunch some day; I’m on 07753 163184

        Best wishes,

        Davie O

  4. My fathers brother & sister David & Lily Duff were killed in the collapsed tenement R 8 George St Leith…it was the family home. My father James Duff was a fireman at the time and was called out to the fire

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