Force History – Vignettes

First Blood to the Auxiliaries

War came to Scotland on 16 October 1939. Four waves each of three Junkers 88s led by Hauptmann Helmut Pohle came to the Forth in search of HMS Hood.

Above: Luftwaffe Junkers 88

Hitler had decreed in the early stages of war that only ships that were underway could be attacked. Although the intended target was HMS Hood which was thought to be in the area, it was HMS Repulse which had been misidentified by the Luftwaffe and which, in any case, was now tied up in Rosyth dockyard being armed. The actual ships in the Forth were HMS Edinburgh and HMS Southampton which were at anchor and HMS Mohawk which was underway east of the Forth Rail Bridge. There was very little warning of the raid since the basic radar equipment at Cockburnspath was not working, and only late notice was given by the Observer Corps. Now faced with an imminent attack, the ships manoeuvred wildly in efforts to confuse the Junker 88s.

Above: German aerial photograph of the attack on HMS Southampton. Edinburgh and Mohawk

HMS Southampton can seen in the photo above dragging her anchor across the sea bed in confusion. To compound her difficulties, Southampton was conducting gun drills at the time with blank ammunition, and there was considerable delay in replacing these with live shells. It was a salutary lesson for the Royal Navy. Some 16 seamen were killed and over 40 wounded – mainly on Mohawk.

Aircraft of 602 (City of Glasgow) and 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadrons of the Auxiliary Air Force were scrambled to meet the threat.


Above: 602 and 603 Squadron Spitfires

Flight Lieutenant Patrick Gifford, a solicitor from Castle Douglas and a pilot with 603 Squadron, was the first to shoot down a Junkers 88. It crashed a few miles off North Berwick. Sadly, Pat was killed over Belgium in some months later.

Flight Lieutenant George Pinkerton, a fruit farmer from Renfrew, along with his wingman, Flying Officer Archie McKellar, a Paisley plasterer who became a legend in the Battle of Britain, both attacked Helmut Pohle’s aircraft., and a salvo from Pinkerton’s guns brought down the second Junkers 88. Thus, the day’s engagements resulted in a kill each for 602 and 603 Squadrons and the first victories for the Supermarine Spitfire in combat. Pat Gifford and George Pinkerton both received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Above: Flight Lieutenant Pat Gifford from 603 Squadron next to his Spitfire ‘Stickleback’ after the Forth Bridge Raid

Above: Flight Lieutenant George Pilkerton (1st on the left) with fellow pilots outsde 602 Squadron crewroom

This engagement was the first in the war where enemy aircraft had been shot down by aircraft operating from the UK. It prompted Air Chief Marshal Sir HughDowding, the Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command, to declare publicly “Well done. First blood to the Auxiliaries”. Moreover, although this engagement was the first to destroy enemy aircraft over British waters, it is a matter of great pride to the same 2 Auxiliary Squadrons that less than 2 weeks later on 2 October 1939, they were again the first to shoot down enemy aircraft over British soil

Helmut Pohle, the Junkers 88 formation leader, spoke reasonable English. He had actually been briefed personally by Herman Goering stressing that HMS Hood, Repulse and Renown had to be destroyed – on Hitler’s direct orders. With his aircraft badly damaged by McKellar and Pinkerton and having lost his canopy and rear gun Pohle crash landed in the sea off the coast near Crail. He had sustained a broken jaw but was picked up by a Scottish fishing boat. Pohle thought the boat was Norwegian and demanded to be taken to Germany.

George Pinkerton visited Pohle in hospital a few days later. With typical air force humour knowing Pohle had broken his jaw he presented him with a box of toffees. Despite the war there developed a clear and remarkable respect between the two men. In an excerpt from one of Pinkerton’s letters to Pohle after visiting him in hospital on 22 October 1939, he wrote:
”I much appreciated the opportunity of visiting you on Monday last and I hope you are now feeling more comfortable and on the way to a speedy recovery from your injuries. We are at war but that doesn’t stop me from acknowledging the very gallant fight which you put up’.

Pohle replied, from hospital a few days later in pretty good English and on Church of Scotland notepaper: “Dear Flt Lt Pinkerton, You have me marked with your surprising present and a very much gladness especially I just turn in this day to comprehend the fate of a prisoner of war. I think nothing is more bad for an airman who has acquired the magnificent emotion and passion through flying. I thank you for the final conduct, wish you the best and greet with you likewise the other pilot. Signed, an old airman in comradeship”. Helmut G W Pohle, Hauptmann der Luftwaffe.

Pohle survived as a prisoner of war and went back to farming on the Baltic coast as did Pinkerton in Renfrew both living into their 90s. Pohle wrote many letters subsequently saying how well he had been treated as a POW.