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.
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.
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.
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
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”
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.
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.
Archie McKellar of 602 Sqn was shot down over Kent in 1940.