POTTED HISTORY No 8: Battle of the Forth
The Sea Battle of the Forth 16th October 1939
On 16th October 1939 passers-by on the Terrace in Elie were treated to what they thought was an exciting practice for the war. Margaret Gaunt (nee Moyes) recalls – “I was seven – we were in the gardens fronting Archbold House on the Terrace. Everyone was standing out there cheering – we thought it was a rehearsal. The planes seem to be bombing and hitting the boats and we watched them thinking it was a practice. In fact we were cheering when the planes seemed to sustain a hit on the ships. I and quite a few others had a grandstand view. The man from ARP came and told us it was real and told us to get inside and then we realised it was the real thing.”
Felicity Mitchell (nee Jamieson) recalls. “I also remember, aged about eight, standing in the park ground in front of Archbold or Wade House watching the Germans attacking some shipping, but we thought it was just a practice until the ARP warden told us it was for real and to get indoors in case we got hurt.”
Jimmy Linton says “I remember the Battle in Forth, but it was not so much a battle. HMS Mohawk was in the Firth and German bombers came over and then the Spitfires started chasing them. They chased after them firing at the planes and bullets were dropping down at Ardross. They chased them over the water but one of them dropped a bomb or two on HMS Mohawk, which was a destroyer. We were at the tatties as the time at Kincraig looking down from the point could see right across the village. They shot it down further south having chased it all the way. The story was that they were trying to knock out the Forth Bridge. Of course we were not told of casualties at the time.”
So what happened here? This is an official account of the action:
Whilst providing escort for a North Sea convoy on 16th October 1939, HMS Mohawk (Cdr RF Jolly RN), was attacked by a German Ju-88 aircraft.
Before the aircraft was destroyed it released two bombs, which fell to starboard (abreast of the bridge) and to port (abreast of the torpedo tubes). The bombs exploded on the surface of the sea well before most men had time to reach their action stations. Machine gun bullets and jagged metal splinters decimated the mooring party on the fo’c’sle, slashed through the bridge, the wheelhouse, the director and the communications system. The personnel manning the machine guns, the search light position and after control position were mowed down by the projectiles. Fifteen men were killed and thirty injured, mostly experienced officers.
On the bridge, Cdr RF Jolly RN suffered a mortal stomach wound. While denying the comfort of medical attention, and in great pain and suffering, he commanded his ship for 35 miles until she was safely in port. After being taken to hospital at South Queensferry, he died several hours later. For his gallantry, the Captain was awarded the George Cross posthumously. The ship was patched up at Rosyth then made her way to the Hawthorn Leslie Yard on the Tyne river for permanent repairs and a refit.
And CPO Steele, who served on the Mohawk, remembers what happened:
“In the early afternoon of October the sixteenth, the Luftwaffe airfield at Sylt on the Island of Westerland was buzzing with activity. Nine Junkers Ju-88 Schnellbombers of 1/KG30 were taking off for an attack on the Royal Naval Base at Rosyth, believed to be the location of the pride of the Royal Navy, HMS Hood. Just before 14.30 hours, the German bombers had sighted the distinctive peaks of the Forth Rail Bridge, beyond lay the Naval Base. At the RAF Station Turnhouse, recently acquired Supermarine Spitfires of 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron, Auxiliary Air Force were scrambled to intercept the raiders. Airborne at that time were also Spitfires of 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron, from RAF Drem, East Lothian. They were assigned to patrol the Midlothian skies at 20, 000 feet. The stage was set for the first air battle over Britain since 1918.
Hauptmann Helmut Pohle, the Commander of 1/KG30 could see several warships in the harbour, including a large battle cruiser at Rosyth, though none of them was HMS Hood. The decision was made to attack nonetheless, though Pohle was advised against bombing the dockyards for fear of inflicting casualties on civilians. At approximately 14.35 hours, bombs rained down on the vessels moored in the harbour, anti-aircraft fire opened up from land positions and from the vessels in the harbour, adding to the conflagration from the exploding ordnance.
No sooner had the 603 Squadron Spitfires left the ground when they made contact with the first wave of three Ju-88s at 4,000 feet. The German formation was scattered, with the bombers being pursued in all directions. Three Spitfires of ‘Red’ Section, led by Flt Lt Pat Gifford encountered a stray ’88 that had veered away from the first wave of their attackers. The fighters pounced on the bomber and sent it earthward, Gifford himself firing the final shots into the doomed Junkers. The aircraft dived into the sea four miles off the coast of Port Seton. A local fishing boat picked up three survivors. It was one-nil to the RAF. Meanwhile, the flight of 602 Squadron Spitfires received the signal: “Enemy aircraft bombing Rosyth. Patrol five miles north of present position.” Aircraft were sighted and hotly chased.
Royal Navy Blackburn Skuas on training operations out of Donibristle had strayed into the aerial battlefield causing some confusion, being mistaken for enemy aircraft in the heat of combat. During his diving attack on the vessels in the Forth, the cockpit canopy of Hauptmann Pohles Ju-88 flew off, leaving the four crewmembers open to the elements. In his embarrassingly exposed position, Pohle climbed away northwards to observe the efforts of his unit. Almost instantly, .303 shells began pounding his aircraft from behind, 602 Squadron had entered the battle.
Pohle struggled to shake off his Glaswegian assailants, Flt Lts George Pinkerton (below L) and Archie McKellar (below R), who chased the Junkers out to sea.
The stricken bomber plunged into the water three miles east of Crail, nearly colliding with a coaster. Pohle was recovered, bleeding from facial wounds suffered in the crash; the other three crewmembers were dead on impact.
The German raid continued into the early evening before 1/KG30 returned to Sylt, battered and bruised from the days pounding. They failed in their objective to sink the Hood, losing two aircraft with four crewmembers killed and four captured, including their commanding officer. Though they did inflict damage upon the vessels in the Forth, notably HMS Southampton, a light cruiser at anchor and HMS Mohawk, a destroyer escorting a convoy assembling in the river. The total Royal Navy casualties were 16 killed and 44 wounded.
The day’s efforts were a kill each for 602 and 603 Squadrons and the first victories for the Supermarine Spitfire in combat. Both Pat Gifford and George Pinkerton received Distinguished Flying Crosses (DFC) for their efforts. Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, Commander-in-Chief Fighter Command sent the following message to 602 Squadron the next day, “Well done. First blood to the Auxiliaries”.
This was the first aircraft ever shot down by a Spitfire, and the first enemy plane downed on British territory during WWII.
Hauptmann Helmut Pohle, the leader of the Junkers flight, was captured although wounded. He claimed to be a personal friend of Goering and demanded a Red Cross plane to fly him back to Germany! Not surprisingly sympathy was in short supply so he was taken off to the Tower of London – it is assumed he was repatriated after the war but he spent a long time as a POW.