Air Raid Islands: the Luftwaffe over Shetland During World War Two
On a grassy knoll at the foot of Staney Hill is a concrete slab, the visible part approximately 17 feet wide by 17 feet long. A short distance away are two hut bases and a small store which has been crudely built into the hillside, its roof long since having rotted away. Recorded by Archaeology Shetland and Scotland’s Urban Past in the summer of 2017, this seemingly unimpressive collection of wartime structures owe their existence to one of the most spectacular episodes in Lerwick’s history—which virtually no one has ever heard of!
On the morning of Sunday 2nd March 1941, a German Junkers Ju88 aircraft was engaged by a Bofors gun positioned on top of the Knab as it flew towards the southern entrance of Lerwick Harbour. The Bofors, which was capable of firing 120 40mm high-explosive rounds a minute, was a mobile light anti-aircraft gun designed to tackle fast low-flying aircraft. Once beyond the Knab, the Ju88 made straight for the telegraph ship HMTS Ariel anchored off the Deuk’s Neb, machine-gunning the ship as it passed. The next line of defence, the heavy anti-aircraft position at Cruister on Bressay, which at the time consisted of two 3-inch 20 cwt heavy anti-aircraft guns, were rendered impotent as the aircraft was flying so low they couldn’t open fire for fear of blasting the town. The battery’s ground defence Lewis guns were, however, able to trade machine-gun fire with the Ju88 which strafed the open-topped command post, causing those inside to duck for cover behind the walls. The Junkers then banked around the harbour and attacked the Ariel once again, this time releasing several bombs which overshot the vessel and raking the deck with its rear-facing machine-gun as it sped past. Three of the crew manning the ship's 12 pounder anti-aircraft gun were badly wounded in the firefight and would later be transferred to hospital for emergency medical treatment. As the aircraft roared out of the harbour and escaped out to sea, it opened fire on the Bressay lighthouse—a final act of violence which fortunately caused no damage.
A few hours later, just as a semblance of calm had begun to descend over the harbour once again, the air-raid siren wailed out for a second time as three Dornier Do215s came screaming down the east coast. Initially they were high enough for the heavy 3-inch guns to engage, causing the formation to split before all three aircraft banked low around Ander Hill and dived towards ships in the harbour, forcing the guns at Cruister to cease fire once again. A brief machine-gun battle then broke out between the Dorniers, the ships’ gunners and various army machine-gun posts located around the town. In the ensuing chaos, the collier SS Kirkwood was damaged by two bomb blasts sending a large plume of steam billowing into the sky. People on their way home from church were caught in the crossfire and several near misses were reported as stray bullets flew around the town striking buildings along the waterfront. The action quickly ended when the Germans, fully aware that Hurricanes from Sumburgh could appear at any moment to ruin their day, scarpered out of the North Mooth, the Bressay guns letting off a few token rounds as they climbed and disappeared from sight.
Within hours of this second attack, a meeting of the military top-brass was hastily convened to discuss why the defence of the harbour had been so useless. The blindingly obvious was quickly concluded: anything flying below a few hundred feet had a free-hand to run amok through the harbour unopposed by anything more dangerous than a .303 bullet. This lack of foresight is even more startling given the fact that just a few weeks earlier a Dornier Do215 had appeared out of the low-hanging clouds and dropped two bombs which straddled Garthspool Road and exploded, causing minimal damage but injuring two soldiers and killing a small dog. In the military’s defence, Bofors guns in Shetland were at a premium at the time and 5 of the 6 available were positioned around the critically important airfield at Sumburgh and the flying-boat base / naval anchorage at Sullom Voe. However, it was decided that one of the Sumburgh guns could be spared and within 24 hours a new position had been established at the foot of the North Staney Hill; probably just temporary earthworks and tents at first, followed shortly after by wooden crew huts on concrete bases, a hard-standing for the gun, an ammunition store and an access road. These are the remains alluded to at the top of this article, recorded for posterity by Archaeology Shetland one sunny July afternoon in 2017 as part of the Defence of Lerwick project. Soon, most of the site is to be turned into a lagoon as part of the new Staney Hill housing development. However, I am reliably informed that the hard standing is to remain, hopefully with a small plaque telling of how it came into existence or, in my wildest dreams, a decommissioned Bofors gun looking out over the harbour. Now, that really would be something to sit and munch your sandwich on!
If you enjoyed this story, you may be interested in my new self-published book Air Raid Islands: The Luftwaffe Over Shetland During World War Two. From the start of the war, right through until 1944, Shetland and its surrounding skies were constantly being visited by German aircraft. While most were keen to avoid confrontation, some did arrive with hostile intent. By using archival research from primary wartime sources, newspaper reports, personal memoirs and field evidence, Air Raid Islands is a chronological record of these occurrences within 50 miles of the Shetland coastline and the efforts of the RAF, Army and Royal Navy to defend the isles from these unwelcome visitors.
Some incidents, such as the famous raid on Sullom Voe on 13th November 1939 which allegedly succeeded in killing only an innocent rabbit, or the attack on Lerwick Harbour nine days later which set fire to a flying-boat moored off Gremista are reasonably well known—albeit widely misunderstood. Others, such as the bombs that fell on Lerwick, Bigton, Sandwick, Brae and Sumburgh; the three attacks on HMS Coventry in Sullom Voe; the countless raids on the Unst radar stations and the widespread machine-gunning of civilian targets in June 1941, to name but a few, are no longer common knowledge. Trawlers fishing off Shetland also found themselves in the firing line and several vessels were sunk with the loss of 29 men. The detailed survivor accounts given by the skippers of the Star of Scotland, River Ness and Gorspen make for particularly harrowing reading. Likewise, the attacks on the Fair Isle and Skerries lighthouses, which tragically cost the lives of four civilians and a soldier manning a machine-gun post, are also reconstructed from eyewitness accounts recorded at the time. The Germans didn’t have everything their own way and several aircraft were shot down or severely damaged, most notably over Fair Isle, Sullom Voe and Bressay. Others were intercepted by RAF fighters off the coast and crashed into the sea with the loss of all on board. It was not uncommon for the bodies of some of these airmen to wash ashore from time to time. Perhaps most interesting of all is the fact that evidence of attacks on Shetland still exists today in the form of bomb craters dotted around the countryside, proof that, just like the Staney Hill Bofors site, even the most mundane piece of concrete or hole in the ground can have its origins in extraordinary events.
Air Raid Islands: The Luftwaffe Over Shetland During World War Two is 178 pages including black and white photographs and an extensive reference section. It is available now from The Shetland Times Bookshop, Amazon or by contacting the author direct: firstname.lastname@example.org, price £12.99 + postage (where applicable).