Fire in the Skies Above: The Battle of the River Forth, 1939

Battle of the River Forth
Paddy’ Finucane on top of his Spitfire Mk Vb “QUEEN of SALOTE”, while in command of No.602 Squadron at RAF Redhill, early 1942.

Earlier this month I spent a weekend much like any other during this past year and half, meandering around Edinburgh and exploring its many nooks and crannies. On this occasion, I found myself in Portobello, located in the north east of Edinburgh on the coast.

While walking along the beach I recalled seeing peculiar photographs taken during the early days of the Second World War. Images of Swastika-clad coffins being led down the main street, crowds gathered to pay their respects and soldiers marching in unison.

Not exactly scenes one would expect to see in war-era Britain. Nonetheless, the images are authentic and provide a glimpse into the aftermath of the first Luftwaffe air raid over mainland Britain.

The Battle of the River Forth, which took place on the 16th October 1939, saw a dozen Junkers Ju-88 bombers prowl their way across the North Sea in broad daylight to target naval installations in the Forth estuary. Lying to the north west of Edinburgh, the port of Rosyth was a prime target for the Luftwaffe and the waters of the Forth were frequented by both Royal and merchant navy vessels.

The raid saw close calls for two Town-class cruisers, HMS Southampton and HMS Edinburgh, as well as HMS Mohawk, a Tribal-class destroyer.

Also present in the Firth of Forth that day were HMS Jervis, HMS Furious and HMS Repulse, the latter of which had been docked in Rosyth for maintenance work.

HMS Hood, the pride of the Royal Navy, had been reported in the estuary earlier that day by Luftwaffe Heinkel aircraft conducting reconnaissance. This intelligence was incorrect, however, and the Luftwaffe spotter planes had mistaken Repulse for Hood.

Battle of the River Forth
The Junkers Ju 88 was one of the Luftwaffe’s most important aircraft during World War Two.

Entering the skies over the River Forth in good conditions, the Ju-88’s saw clear targets before them and commenced their attack. HMS Southampton is recorded as having sustained light bomb damage and counted three casualties.

Meanwhile, seven crewmembers from the Edinburgh were injured alongside 25 of their comrades from HMS Mohawk.

At first, it appeared the Luftwaffe squadron had caught British defences off-guard. Indeed, in the aftermath of the incident the response to this incursion was criticised as air raid sirens failed to sound in nearby population centres.

Countering the raid, however, were RAF Spitfires from two squadrons; Glasgow-based 602 Squadron and 603 Squadron out of Edinburgh.

Spitfires pursued and engaged the Luftwaffe aircraft in what would be a short but ferocious air battle in the skies above the Forth. Contemporary eye witness accounts describe frightening and intense scenes as Spitfires intercepted the JU-88’s – scenes that millions across the country would later come to see.

Notably, as the raid began to unfold passengers aboard a training travelling across the Forth Rail Bridge were given a terrifying front row view.

The responding RAF fighters successfully repulsed the German aircraft, shooting down two and pursuing the remainder out toward the North Sea. One downed bomber landed in the waters off Prestonpans, where injured airmen were picked up and later handed over to local police. It was over Portobello that the final aircraft was harried and shot down, eventually crashing into the water.

The bodies of two German airmen, Kurt Seydel and August Schleicher, were recovered and held in St Phillips Church, Portobello, before being buried with full honours in Portobello cemetery on 21st October.

Reports from the time suggest up to 10,000 people lined the streets of Portobello to pay their respects for the fallen airmen, and bagpipers from both RAF squadrons involved in the raid defence accompanied the coffins.

Reverend James Rossie Brown, serving chaplain for 603 Squadron, conducted the burial ceremony and is said to have later contacted their mothers.

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In retrospect, this incident does appear strange given what we now know and what the Swastika represents. However, one must remember the context in which this raid occurred.

The attack was carried out just weeks into the war, and it has been suggested that public opinion toward German military personnel had not yet completely soured. This was the first incident of its kind since the outbreak of war, and many of the onlookers that day would likely have remembered the First World War and the horrors it inflicted upon families on both sides of the conflict.

Crucially, during the early stages of the Second World War, British civilians had not yet been subjected to the Luftwaffe’s devastating Blitz bombing campaigns, which saw terror and devastation unleashed upon towns and cities across Britain.

Luftwaffe operations in the skies above Britain initially focused on military targets, with shipping and industrial sites representing prime targets for German bombers.

Similarly, situations akin to this also occurred elsewhere in the UK during those early days. In the footage below, for example, we see crowds looking on as deceased airmen are laid to rest in England.

Women lay flowers on the graves while RAF personnel are recorded laying a wreath on the grave.

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