The First Air-Raid on Britain in WW2


HMS Southampton, Edinburgh and Mohawk by the Forth Bridge


Battle of the River Forth (16th Oct 1939)
Allied : 6 – 12 Supermarine Spitfires, 2 cruisers and 1 destroyer at anchor
Axis : 12 Junkers 88

Allied : Three ships damaged, 16 dead, 44 wounded
Axis : 2 Junkers shot down, 1 damaged. 8 dead, 4 POW
Result : Axis victory

British air attacks on German coastal targets began on the same day as war was declared, 3rd Sep 1939, and targeted military and merchant shipping in the North Sea and Heligoland Bight. Very little damage was done and no ships sunk for losses in bombers of over 30%; to be frank, the raids’ main value was as an unwitting live fire exercise for the Germans to tighten up their defences.

Hitler was at first reluctant to countenance heavy air attacks against Britain; in these early days of the war he still hoped that the British would come to their senses and reach an accommodation with him rather than risk another conflagration like 1914-18. Added to this both sides had an eye to neutral opinion elsewhere in the world, particularly the USA, and trod carefully in their selection of targets. Just as with the Baedecker raids and the V-weapons program later in the war, Germany launched this raid as a retaliation for the earlier British attacks. Even so, 6 weeks had elapsed before the first German attempt to attack the British coast with aircraft took place.

At 09.40 on the 16th, the radar station at Coldingham detected aircraft approaching the Forth Estuary in Scotland. Ground observation confirmed a Heinkel 111 at high altitude over Dunfermline heading towards Rosyth naval base, a major installation with many ships at anchor; protected by anti-aircraft batteries and a fighter squadron nearby at RAF Leuchers. Three spitfires led by FL George Pinkerton were scrambled to intercept and spotted the aircraft as it was turning away, having photographed the ships in the estuary. Pinkerton opened fire, but the Heinkel dove into a cloud bank and contact was lost – it returned safely to its base on the German island of Sylt, near the Danish border, at that time the closest Luftwafe base to Britain. Those were the first shots of the air war over Britain.

Heikel and JU88

Junkers 88 and Heinkel 111

The plane radioed that it had spotted several warships in the estuary including a battleship, which they thought was HMS Hood – actually it was the Repulse. About two hours later, 12 JU88’s, each carrying 2 500kg bombs, and led by Hauptmann Helmuth Poule took off from Sylt to attack the ships. The JU88 was designed as a multi role aircraft, used for reconnaissance, anti-submarine, bombing and as a night fighter. Its slow speed and lack of a tail gun however made it vulnerable to fighters – over 300 were shot down in the battle of Britain, more than any other aircraft.

As the Luftwafe formation approached the coast, it split up into 3 waves of 4 aircraft each, which separated and attacked the target from different direction. Radar picked them up at 14.00 and Spitfires were scrambled from Leuchars; the RAF managed to get 20+ machines into the air, but most were spread out across east-central Scotland trying to find the bombers and took no part in the battle. Consequently, the first wave was able to attack before being intercepted. Repulse was docked in Rosyth by now, as was aircraft carrier HMS Furious, but Poule’s orders forbade attacks near built up areas. Instead he attacked 2 light cruisers, HMS Southampton and Edinburgh anchored by the Forth Bridge and a destroyer HMS Mohawk, heading for the base. A civilian travelling on a train crossing the bridge witnessed the raid

“ …. there was a giant waterspout as high as the bridge alongside one of the capital ships and a barge tied up alongside; it seemed to fly up in the air! In later life I discovered it was HMS Southampton. There were two or three other explosions further off and one of the ships was actually struck.”

In fact, all three ships were hit; Mohawk took the most damage with 13 dead. Southampton also took a direct hit, but the bomb passed through the ship and out the other side, finally detonating when it hit the water. As the second wave arrived, the Spitfires intercepted them and a running air battle developed over the estuary and the Pentland Hills, south of Edinburgh, with 2 Junkers shot down and 1 damaged; that aircraft made it back to Sylt, but crashed on landing killing all 4 of the crew.

The British press presented the incident as a victory, but in reality it was anything but that. The RAF squadrons contained a high proportion of auxiliaries, basically reservists only just called up; none had ever been in combat before. Also, the squadrons had only recently been upgraded to Spitfires; 6 months earlier they were still flying Gloucester Gladiator biplanes. The Luftwafe men however were all veterans of the Polish campaign; their superior tactics and skill in the attack were very apparent.

Despite powerful fighters and radar, raid had reached Rosyth naval base. HMS Repulse and Furious were recently docked and had their full complements on board – 2,000+ men and were sitting ducks. Where it not for Hitler’s early scruples about bombing built up areas in Britain, there might have been a mini Pearl Harbour that day. A year later, during the Blitz, 12 lumbering JU88s in daylight with no fighter cover would have been easy meat for the RAF – they would have got every one.

Copyright ©2017 Savereo John