The First Mainland Air Raid on Britain in World War 2



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.

portobello nazi burial2

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.

Twinset and Pearls


Less than ten minutes walk from Princes Street an elegant  Georgian terrace stands in Edinburgh’s  New Town.

As a schoolboy in 1970 I worked part time in Thornton’s  Sports shop in the centre’s Hanover Street.  In addition to pay, the owner would give us a luncheon voucher for each full day we worked. One day I settled on spending it in the nearby bar in Rose Street called the “White Cockade”, now the site of the Rose Street Brewery.

Although busy the restaurant upstairs served good food at a reasonable price. By the time I had finished my meal a very long queue of waiting diners extended along the wall of the congested dining room. Spotting a prim old lady complete with fur coat, twin set and pearls,and leaning on an elegant stick, I rose, approached her, and gestured towards my seat. She gave me a delightful smile and thanked me in what I thought was a posh English accent. Then, to my astonishment, she raised her stick and with a flourish pushed it against three young women behind her.  With a motherly firmness she said, “Girls, let the young gentleman past.” A number of customers raised their heads and as I squeezed past the girls, each in turn smiled at me in a benign sort of way. I reached the till and handed over my luncheon voucher. The middle aged waitress took the slip of paper and said with a straight face “Aye . . . ye’ll be getting  a discoont next time you go roond.” What was she on about?

I returned to Gordon Thorntons and, still bemused I told the other shop assistants about this . Within minutes my tale had spread; everyone was laughing and teasing me with comments such as, “Its amazing what you can pack into a lunch hour. Three was it? ” Later in the afternoon they put me out my misery: I discovered that I had encountered one of Edinburgh’s most famous citizens. Some might say that I should call Dora Noyce “infamous”, but 35 years after her death she is still remembered with something approaching affection by the Edinburgh public.

Dora Noyce was Scotland’s best-known madam, running a brothel in the heart of Edinburgh’s  New Town  at  17 Danube Street, Stockbridge. Much has been written about Dora both in newspapers and on the internet; to this day you can hear her quotes repeated in Edinburgh bars.

Born in the same road as our encounter, Rose Street (a much sleazier area in 1900), her real name was Georgie Hunter Rae, the daughter of a cutler.  She grew up here and somehow managed to develop a refined Morningside accent. Georgie or Dora began working as a prostitute but soon used her intelligence, her fledgling management skills and her charm to open a very profitable brothel (she did not like the latter word and preferred to describe her establishment as  a “YMCA with extras” or a “house of leisure and pleasure”.  She opened the establishment in 1946 and although she was charged 47 times for living on immoral earnings, it was not until 1972 that she was given a four-month sentence at the age of 71. Once released, she carried on as normal, running the establishment until her death in 1977, aged 76. Concerning the custodial sentence, Dora a firm believer in private enterprise and Conservative Party values, told the press, “Really, that was very stupid of the court. I was just a burden on the ratepayers and, goodness knows, they have enough to put up with already.”  How did she manage to stay in business for almost 30 years in the same residence?  There are probably a number of reasons. She was on extremely good terms with the police and would greet them with, “How nice to see you! Business or pleasure?” and was thought to provide them with useful information about Edinburgh’s underworld.  Always the self-publicist, she was a favourite with reporters; in Deacon Brodie’s pub on the Royal Mile she provided them wonderful copy with her witty remarks, adding at the end of the performance, “Just make sure you get the name and address right!”. If the address was an open secret, the names of her customers were not; she expected her “girls” to be discreet. Her clientele consisted of all social classes and professions. Her fifteen permanent employees worked from the basement while Edinburgh’s establishment and other special guests were entertained upstairs and would be greeted with glasses of wine and some choice nibbles . She shopped for these refreshments locally, addressing shopkeepers with the line, “I do like to support local businesses. Don’t you?”

In a recent blog campaigning  for the erection of more statues of famous Edinburgh women it was  claimed that the present ratio was 200 men to just two women. One reply to the site quipped that, “Dora Noyce is worthy of a statue – perhaps in recognition of her devoted service to the politicians, church elders and lawmakers of the day . . . ” I suspect Dora would have liked that. My favourite, and her most outrageous claim, that: “she claimed that while her busiest time was during the Edinburgh Festival, the two weeks of the Church of Scotland General Assembly ranked a close second.” On these occasions she would employ another 25 girls.

Perhaps her success and fame became too much for the law to ignore. There are many accounts of the day that the US aircraft carrier John F Kennedy docked at Leith, when queues of sailors snaked along Danube Street’s pavements and around the corner. The commander is said to have stepped in and declared the house off limits saving Edinburgh’s blushes but not before a reported £4000 had been taken.

In 1977 She defended her profession in the Scotsman by saying that she “offered a necessary social service.”

Her local MP got her support whether he liked it or not and to his horror she turned up at Conservative Party garden fetes and displayed in the window of number 17 a poster with the slogan: ”Life is better under the Conservatives.”

Today in contrast to Glasgow, the Edinburgh City Council tolerates the sex industry in the guise of 15 licensed “saunas”. The advocates of this liberal policy claim that it keeps women off the streets and provides a safer regulated environment. However, objections to the renewal of the licences have been lodged recently, making closures a real possibility.  The objections have been met with statements from local politicians with incredulous though legally and politically astute statements that range from complete denial of the sauna’s actual activities to those citing a lack of evidence.

Dora Noyce would not know what a spin doctor was, but she would have been in her element.