Flight of the Condor over the Forth

The Republican message: today Spain, tomorrow the world

It was the moment the Spanish Civil War came to Scotland – eight months after it had ended in Spain.

October 16, 1939 saw the first Nazi air raid over Britain to bomb ships in the Firth of Forth. Many of the Luftwaffe aircrew had previously served in the Condor Legion supporting Franco’s fascist army.

One of them was Hans Sigmund Storp who deliberately ditched his Junkers 88 dive bomber off Gullane to save his crew after being hit by Spitfires. A fishing boat picked him and his crew up – saving their lives. Storp was so grateful he gave the skipper John Dickson his Luftwaffe gold ring.

This remarkable Gaumont newsreel (2 min) interviews both of them -Dickson on the quayside and Storp in hospital at Edinburgh Castle.

Three years earlier volunteers from around the world travelled to Spain to join the International Brigades fighting Franco – under the mantra Today Spain, Tomorrow the world.

The four young men who left from Prestonpans and suffered the attentions of the Condor Legion in Spain would have had no idea that prophecy would be fulfilled so soon on their very doorstep.

Their story is brilliantly told in a play 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War which has just toured Scotland and all the better for the production’s meticulous historical research. The experiences of two other Scottish volunteers is recalled in the excellent Connectando exhibition which ran at Edinburgh University library and this podcast.

The Condor Legion used Spain as a training ground for the World War which followed. Its most notorious attack was the carpet bombing and machine gunning of Basque civilians in Guernica.

The raid over the Forth was different. Contrary to myth, the Forth Bridge was not the target. Hitler had given specific orders to attack Royal Navy ships in the Forth and to avoid any civilian casualties – at this stage of hostilities there was still the prospect of a negotiated settlement.

There was a common bond between the aviators on both sides – all nervous young rookies with brand new aircraft. Spitfire crews from 602 (Drem) and 603 (Turnhouse) auxiliary squadrons visited and took gifts to their Luftwaffe counterparts in hospital.

Newsreels also echoed a sense of chivalry, giving equal respect at the funerals of German airmen and British sailors.

This was a far cry from the last deadly encounter of the First World War – also off Scotland – in June 1919 – well after the Armistice. Nine German sailors were shot dead and 16 wounded by the Royal Navy in the act of surrender after the scuttling of the German fleet in Scapa Flow. Strangely, the Imperial War Museum refers to this as a “brawl” – if so it was hardly equal with only one side having rifles.

Those sailors are buried on the Isle of Hoy. It seems strange now that the War to End All Wars scarcely managed it for two decades – during which countless thousands on both sides continued to suffer and die from bodies and minds broken in the trenches. Many babies born in 1919 were soldiers in 1939. Including my dad.

Although not reported at the time, the Forth raid was partially successful. Two ships, HMS Edinburgh and HMS Southampton suffered damage and 16 crew members on HMS Mohawk were killed. My Twitter chum John Duncan recorded a poignant interview with Jock Kerr one of the Mohawk survivors:

After his time as a prisoner of war, Hans Storp returned to Germany where he made a career as a musician. The starboard wing fuel tank of his Junkers lay buried in the sands of Gullane beach for more than 50 years before being recovered by two aviation historians. A keen walker on that beach in his sprightly later years was Gullane resident, Lieutenant General Sir Chandos Blair. In 1942 he became the first British prisoner of war to escape from Germany. He made it home via Madrid.

Efforts to help refugees in the Spanish Civil War were spearheaded by the cross-party National Joint Committee for Spanish Relief chaired by Katharine (Kitty) Murray, Duchess of Atholl. She was Scotland’s first female MP (despite her earlier opposition to women’s suffrage) and the first female junior minister in a UK Conservative government. Murray witnessed the devastation caused by the Condor Legion in a visit to Spain in 1937 and was deselected by her local party because of her association with figures from the left.

First hand experience of war also shaped Conservative prime ministers. Harold Macmillan, who made Britain’s first attempt to join the EU (then the EEC), carried the severe wounds received on the Western Front with him for the rest of his life.

As a young officer, Ted Heath, who eventually secured Britain’s accession, witnessed the slaughter on the beaches of Normandy in 1944. The 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings will be marked next month.

October sees the 80th anniversary of the raid on the Forth – the same month, under the current Brexit pantomime timetable, when Britain leaves the EU.

Published by Lochlann

Further reading

Standard sources on Spanish Civil War can be found at the end of previous posts on Belchite and Guernica

Annie Brown’s fine piece in the Record on the 70th anniversary of the raid.

Remarkable recent interest in the Brigaders is reflected in a great site by Kevin Buyers, poignantly listing each Brigader with photograph, the extensive digital collection at the Marx Memorial Library. And Nick Lloyd has not only produced a terrific web resource – he also conducts walking tours of Barcelona based on Civil War history.

Categories: digital history, gems from the archive, history on the web

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2 replies

  1. Great article – I think you meant 75th anniversary for D-Day

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