IT was 80 years ago this week that the Second World War came to Scotland with a bang. On October 16, 1939, aircraft of the German Luftwaffe carried out the first air attack on Britain since the First World War in what became known as the Battle of the River Forth.

There had been mock raids over Britain by the Luftwaffe since the declaration of war on September 3, but no actual bombs were dropped nor had there been any fighting between the German raiders and the Royal Air Force. The Luftwaffe did take plenty of photographs following the outbreak of war – most early air-raid warnings were in response to reconnaissance flights – and the archive shows that the rivers Clyde and Forth were early targets.

All the peaceful preparation for war changed on the third Monday of October when the Luftwaffe mounted its first bombing raid.

Two days earlier, the battleship Royal Oak had been sunk by a U-boat at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys with the loss of 834 men, so the War Ministry knew the naval bases on the east coast of Scotland were major targets for the Germans.

Warships anchored or sailing outside the Rosyth naval dockyards – not the Forth Bridge as has often been claimed – were the original target as the Germans were particularly keen to cripple or sink the Royal Navy’s mightiest battleship, HMS Hood.

Hitler’s orders at that time were for the Luftwaffe not to attack ships that had actually gone into the docks as he wanted no civilian casualties that would end his hopes of a negotiated peace with the UK, but ships outside the docks were a legitimate target.

Reconnaissance flights from the Luftwaffe base at Westerland on the island of Sylt in North Frisia came over the Forth during the morning and showed the Germans that a large battlecruiser and other capital ships plus destroyers were all massed in the Firth of Forth.

Defending the fleet were two squadrons of Supermarine Spitfires, No 603 City of Edinburgh Squadron based at RAF Turnhouse and No 602 City of Glasgow Squadron, usually based at RAF Abbotsinch but which had been moved to RAF Drem in East Lothian only three days before the raid.

The pilots were all members of the Auxiliary Air Force who had been “embodied” into full-time service with the RAF only two weeks before the outbreak of war.

They had been flying Gloster Gladiators, biplanes which would soon be outclassed by the Luftwaffe’s fighters and fighter-bombers, but had switched to Spitfires just in time to tackle the first German raiders.

The reconnaissance force was chased away by 602 squadron – Flight Lieutenant George Pinkerton was credited with firing the first shots of the air war over Britain – but the German pilots had already radioed their base to say that HMS Hood was entering the Firth of Forth. It was actually HMS Repulse, which quickly made the safety of the Rosyth dockyard and was thus no longer a target.

Three groups of four Junkers JU 88 twin-engined fast bombers, each with a crew of four, took off from Westerland just before noon and hastened across the North Sea. The first trio was led by Hauptmann Helmuth Pohle with Oberleutnant Hans Storp in charge of the second group.

Westerland being the nearest Luftwaffe base to Britain, it took the attackers under two hours to reach their target, and the Chain Home radar stations spotted them while the Royal Observer Corps and anti-aircraft batteries confirmed the attack was on.

What exactly happened next is still disputed, but having landed and refuelled following the morning action, just after 2pm 602’s Spitfires led by Fl Lt Pinkerton went up to engage the enemy, with 603 squadron following shortly afterwards.

Pohle and Storp both managed to drop their bombs around the cruisers HMS Edinburgh and HMS Southampton but were pursed by Spitfires and by anti-aircraft fire from the ships and shore batteries.

Storp’s port engine was destroyed by .303 bullets from the Spitfire of Fl Lt Patrick Gifford of 603 squadron – a lawyer by profession – and a gunner named Kramer was killed, becoming the first casualty of the war over Britain. Storp did not want his new JU 88 falling into British hands and ditched in the sea off Crail – only then did the spectators who had gathered on the Fife coast realise this was a real wartime attack and not an exercise. A fishing boat rescued Storp and his two crewmen.

Pinkerton and Flying Officer Archie McKellar were able to spot Pohle’s

JU 88 in the clouds and shot the aircraft’s engines to pieces. The bomber crashed into the sea, killing three crewmen, but Pohle was also saved by local fishermen.

The third and fourth bomber groups pressed home their attacks and two 500kg bombs landed beside the destroyer HMS Mohawk, splinters killing 16 of her crew including her captain, Commander Richard Frank Jolly, who insisted on guiding his ship into dock despite the severe stomach wound from which he died. He was awarded the George Cross posthumously, while Gifford and Pinkerton were both awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for their feats of shooting down the first two German aircraft over Britain in the Second World War.

A third JU 88 was damaged and managed to limp across the North Sea, all four of her crew being killed in a crash landing. Both sides claimed victory, and the propaganda war was under way.

The following day, October 17, 1939, the Luftwaffe attacked Scapa Flow anchorage and damaged the battleship HMS Iron Duke so badly she had to be run aground to stop her sinking.

The war had definitely come to Scotland.