Six weeks into World War II, on 16 October 1939, the first air attack over Britain took place, above the Firth of Forth.
Nine German planes took part in the raid, which their crews soon discovered was at the extreme limit of their bombers’ range. The raid took British air-defence completely by surprise. No alarm was sounded, and the performance of the early-warning system gave serious cause for concern.
Anti-air-raid gunners on the Forth were engaged in a gun-drill at the time, and quickly had to exchange their dummy ammunition for live as the German planes appeared overhead. The Germans’ target was the Royal Navy fleet and base at Rosyth. They damaged three boats: the destroyer HMS Southampton and two cruisers, HMS Mohawk and HMS Edinburgh. Sixteen Royal Navy crew died and a further 44 were wounded, although this information was not made public at the time.
Supermarine Spitfires of 603 Squadron ‘City of Edinburgh’ were quickly scrambled from Turnhouse Aerodrome, as was 602 ‘City of Glasgow’ Squadron based at Drem in East Lothian. They shot down two Heinkels into the Forth and a bomber off the May Island. The crew of a local fishing boat picked up two German survivors. These were the first enemy aircraft of the war to be brought down over Britain.
Though the Forth Rail Bridge was not targeted during this raid, many passengers on a train crossing at the time thought they were the target.