Monday, March 9, 2015

How the Battle of Britain started with the Battle of Scotland

The City of Glasgow Squadron at Abbotsinch in 1939.

By Trevor Royle
Luftwaffe pilots dubbed the Firth of Forth ‘suicide corner’ after falling to Scots air aces – eight months ahead of ‘the big one’.

Across blue skies above fields awaiting the harvest, Spitfires and Hurricanes wheel in the air. Spiralling plumes of flame herald a shot-down enemy ‘bandit’.

These are the familiar images of the Battle of Britain, which began 70 years ago this weekend, when around 3000 young RAF pilots took to the skies and fought throughout the summer of 1940 to gain ascendancy over Hitler’s Luftwaffe above the rolling landscape of Kent and Sussex. 
  But these were not the first RAF shots fired against Nazi Germany. In fact, the Battle of Britain could be said to have begun with the Battle of Scotland.

The first exchange between the RAF and the Luftwaffe was on September 4, 1939, when a German Dornier Do 18 flying boat was engaged by an aircraft from RAF Leuchars. The first kill came on October 8, when another

Do 18 was shot down by another Leuchars-based Lockheed Hudson from 224 Squadron while on patrol over the North Sea 20 miles off Aberdeen.

The war began in earnest on October 16 – some eight months before the Battle of Britain got under way – over the Firth of Forth when Spitfires of the 602 (City of Glasgow) and 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadrons became the first British fighters to engage enemy raiders over the Scottish mainland, shooting down two Nazi fighters as astonished crowds watched from below.

The pilots were part-timers who had joined the Royal Auxiliary Air Force (RAAF) out of a sense of adventure and a desire to serve their country. They included men such as Renfrewshire farmer George Pinkerton, who would emerge as an ace during the Battle of Britain. With the war scarcely six weeks old the young pilot and his fellow reservists found themselves in new Spitfires tackling enemy bombers.

Both squadrons had been earmarked for the defence of Edinburgh and the east coast – 602 at Drem in East Lothian and 603 at Turnhouse outside Edinburgh. Two Heinkel 111 aircraft appeared over the Firth of Forth, returning home when they were intercepted near May Island at 10.21 by two Spitfires of 602 Squadron.

Although the German aircraft managed to escape into the clouds, the pilots – Pinkerton and Paisley-born Archie McKellar – became the first to engage enemy aircraft over the British land mass. It was also the prelude to a day of action when a larger force of German bombers flew over the same area with orders to attack the battleship HMS Hood, thought to be in the waters below. Before leaving his base on the island of Sylt, German commander Helmut Pohle had received instructions from Hitler that the town of Rosyth was not to be attacked, to prevent civilian casualties. German intelligence was wrong about the Hood being in the Firth of Forth, but there were a number of ships in the dockyard, including the cruisers Southampton and Edinburgh, and these were legitimate targets.

In the early afternoon Pohle’s aircraft approached over East Lothian and, although the radar station at Cockburnspath was temporarily out of action, the response was impressive. From Turnhouse three 603 Spitfires took off, led by Flight Lieutenant Pat Gifford, a Castle Douglas solicitor, and were immediately joined by another section. One of the Junkers 88 bombers was intercepted and shot down, crashing into the Forth where three of its four-man crew were rescued by a fishing yawl from Port Seton.

Meanwhile, Pinkerton’s Spitfire section – on patrol 20,000 feet above Dalkeith and heading towards the Fife shore – saw Pohle, who had just completed a bombing run. Pinkerton and McKellar kept on the tail of the Junkers and shot it down, with Pinkerton getting credit for the kill. The bomber crashed into the sea off Crail, where Pohle was picked up. McKellar would go on to become one of the most deadly aces of the Battle of Britain, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order medal after being killed in action in November 1940.

Although the Germans were beaten off on October 16, they had succeeded in damaging a destroyer and killing 16 sailors. They had also given the locals a grandstand view of a two-hour aerial attack. There were some minor civilian casualties on the ground but it was a more innocent time. Four days later, the bodies of two of the German aircrew were buried in Portobello with thousands lining the streets while a piper played Over The Sea To Skye.

Historians have largely skirted the Scottish air war but Les Taylor, a Fraserburgh-based writer, has written Luftwaffe Over Scotland, an account of “this important period in the history of the modern Scottish nation”.

First blood had been drawn by RAF Fighter Command, the kills made by Scottish pilots of the RAAF. However, it came at a cost. The operational record book of 13 Group, responsible for air defence in Scotland, reveals that the squadrons expended thousands of rounds of ammunition at levels unsustainable in a lengthy war of attrition.

Taylor says that the attack on Rosyth was only the start. The next day the naval base at Scapa Flow on Orkney was bombed and the Forth estuary acted as a magnet for German bombers throughout the war. The defending RAF air crews reaped a grudging reward when the pilot of a downed Heinkel 111 admitted that they had not expected to encounter Spitfires over Scotland and regarded the Firth of Forth as “suicide corner”.

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