A discursive look at Napoleonic & ECW wargaming, plus a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Heugh Heinkel

Modern photo looking east from the crash site - Bass Rock and the houses at
Rhodes Holdings in the right distance - Tesco is behind you and to your left!
At present, my wife and I are watching the 1970s Thames TV series The World at War on DVD - most evenings we fire up the log stove and convene at 8:30 or so to watch the next episode. I last watched it a few years ago, but she has previously only seen odd instalments on the History Channel and similar. It is a remarkable achievement of TV; it's also almost perfectly timed - it's modern enough to give a pretty impartial view of the history of WW2, without the tub-thumping patriotism which often distorts such things, yet it was soon enough after the event to feature interviews with an astounding array of prominent individuals.

It is also, of course, very heavy going at times - both from an emotional point of view and through trying to grasp the sheer immensity of the tragedy. Last night was the Italian campaign, but we've also recently survived the Siege of Leningrad, so it's all excellently informative (as popular history, of course) but there are very few laughs along the way.

This is the Heugh crash - the view in the background is almost identical to the
photo at the top of this post
In one of the earlier instalments, there was some newsreel footage of what was described as the first German plane shot down on British soil, and for us this is local stuff, so we sat up straight and paid special attention. Now I'm not absolutely sure, but I think the film perpetuates a mistake which is commonly made on this subject. The first such "kill" was a bomber shot down near Humbie, south of Edinburgh, on the slopes of Soutra Hill, in (I think) October 1939. Later, about 3 miles from where I'm sitting, in February 1940, a Heinkel 111 crash-landed at The Heugh farm, outside North Berwick, on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. I'm not sure why or how, but at some point the pictures for these two events became transposed, so that it is very common to read of the Humbie incident, with attached pictures of the North Berwick one, in which the downed plane ended in a very marked nose-down situation, right on the skyline.

I must emphasise that I'm not certain without re-running the movie, but I think the mention of the first plane shot down (which was the Humbie one) in the World at War episode was accompanied by footage of the North Berwick one (that's "our" local German plane), which is a common error. Not to worry - my general ignorance of this entire subject is extensive, as may well be displayed by what follows.

And here we are looking west from the crash site, across the farm fields towards
North Berwick Law - our very own local extinct volcano...
From late 1939 onwards, German bombers were making sporadic attacks on this part of Eastern Scotland - these were mostly solitary planes having a go at Rosyth Dockyard or shipping in the Forth, but there were also bombing raids made on some surprisingly small villages - East Linton, for example - simply because they had bridges on the main London railway line. As I understand it, these planes came from Stavanger, in Norway, and since there were active fighter bases at Drem and East Fortune (and further south at Drone Hill, though that may have mostly been a radar station later in the war), any isolated raider could expect a hot reception.

There are many tales of WW2 bombs in odd locations from the "phoney war" period - the Luftwaffe managed to hit the boiler house of the walled garden here on our own farm, for example - right in the middle of nowhere. Many such bombs fell in open countryside, presumably ditched by planes aborting missions or being pursued; my first wife's father had been an air-raid warden in the village of Greenlaw during the war, and one night a single bomb fell on a house where there were soldiers billeted - the old boy was convinced for the rest of his days that this must have been deliberately targeted. Basically, in the early war years, things up here were fairly quiet, though there was a lot of understandable concern about the possibility of an invasion on the beaches in these parts. An invasion from Norway would almost certainly have been beyond the capabilities of the German forces at the time, but you can still occasionally see the remains of the anti-glider posts on our beach at low tide, and there are surviving observation posts and pill boxes on a neighbouring farm. I guess they didn't really know what to expect, though it is also evident that the farm where I live scored a personal triumph by managing to get an excellent system of concrete roads built by HM Govt to support the observation posts - they are still in good shape today - the horses slip on them in the wet, but they are still serviceable - one runs outside my front gate.

The defences caused a lot more trouble than the enemy at this time. The town council of North Berwick complained because British mines were getting washed up on the beach - I'm not sure what they wanted to be done about them, apart from prompt disposal. There is a splendid reply on file from the military authorities, who pointed out that their primary concern was prevention of invasion or enemy action in coastal waters, and offered the reassurance that mines which came adrift from their anchors were usually automatically disarmed as a consequence. Well, there was a war on.

Back to the story of our Heinkel. On 9th February 1940 a Heinkel 111 H-1 of 5/KG 26 (from Stavanger?) was attempting a sneak attack on Rosyth when it was intercepted over Fife by the Spitfire of Flt.Lt Douglas Farquhar of 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron, based at Drem. With the port engine badly damaged and his gunner seriously wounded, the pilot of the Heinkel lowered his undercarriage as a sign of surrender and crash landed on rising ground on a farm south-east of North Berwick - the farm of The Heugh [pronunciation guide will follow].

Local legend has it that the farmer, Mr Wright, apprehended the crew! After the authorities had things safely under control, there was a stream of sightseers. Sadly, the gunner died of his wounds in the hospital at Drem.

Wings removed, the Henkel is towed along Dirleton Avenue in North Berwick, on
its way to Turnhouse
King George VI visited Drem airfield 3 weeks later, for a ceremony in which Farquhar
 was awarded the DFC - I think the figure on the far left is Dowding
Since it was in very good condition, the plane was recovered - the outer wings were removed and it was towed by road through North Berwick to Edinburgh, where it was put back into an airworthy state in the workshops at Turnhouse, and it was added to a flight of captured aircraft which the RAF maintained to study German technology. I believe this is a photo of the restored aircraft repainted in British colours.

Subsequently it was destroyed in an accident, so the machine never had a lot of good fortune associated with it. 

Here are a couple of clips - firstly of the plane being towed through Musselburgh, on its way to Turnhouse, and then one of a little of the history of Drem airfield, though I suspect the combat footage is mostly library stuff.

The crash took place on a hillside, between the village cemetery and the new houses at Rhodes Holdings, just uphill (south) of the present-day Tesco supermarket. From what I can make out from current workings, it looks as though there is a new housing estate marked out for development in the near future, so the site will probably disappear - not that there's anything to see now!

Most of the pictures and links here are from the most excellent Coastrider blog, which is well worth a visit by cycling enthusiasts. If you share any of this stuff, please do mention where it came from.

[Pronunciation - for non-Scots, the word Heugh is not so easy - phonetically, it sounds like HYOOCH, just a single syllable, where the OO is quite short and the CH is like the ending of the Scottish word loch - the softest, aspirate, dry sound like the end of the German mich, but if you're getting even close to sch then it's not dry enough! - come on - further back on the roof of your mouth - here, have another beer...] 


  1. A fascinating ramble through local history. Thank you.

  2. I agree with Conrad; marvelous history and linguistic lesson! I would have been immediately identified as a foreigner had I attempted pronouncing "Heugh!"

  3. I have to agree with Mr Kinch - very interesting indeed. I would also agree with you on the whole World at War series. Your comment "It is also, of course, very heavy going at times - both from an emotional point of view and through trying to grasp the sheer immensity of the tragedy" echoes an early blog post of mine and for exactly the same reasons.

    All the best,


  4. A very interesting post and the potential model making scenario would be very good, unfortunately beyond my meagre abilities.
    Having driven around Scotland this year my wife loves the place, although the pronunciation still escapes me.

  5. Brilliant stuff - I love these local wartime stories. My old Mum has been a bit confused by things recently, but is still really clear on stuff from the war when she was a teenager. On the way home from hospital she stopped me to point out where the anti-aircraft batteries were at Greasbrough, overlooking the steelworks in the Don Valley.
    Thanks for the Scots pronunciation guide. Experience dictates that the surest way to get it right is to marry a Scot, then you daren't get it wrong. There's a village near where my wife is from called Hurlford. In my Yorkshire accent it's two syllables, in the correct Ayrshire it's four.

    1. It is tricky - the picture above shows Dirleton Avenue in North Berwick, a road which - not very surprisingly - leads to the village of Dirleton (which is famous as the site of yet another castle blown up by General Monck after the Battle of Dunbar, also as the home of the famous Open Arms hotel). Dirleton, whatever anyone might expect, is pronounced "Dirrelton" - three syllables, with the stress on the first. You'd better get that right, so you'd better re-read this reply immediately, to get some practice in. These things matter.

  6. Gentlemen - thanks for your interest and your comments. I had a quick squint at a USAF promo film made in 1943 - Combat America - starring Capt Clark Gable on commentary - it's pretty good - it isn't a dramatisation, it's a supportive documentary using real aircrew and real combat footage. It also features our repainted Heinkel - this very plane. It, and a captured Junkers, also in British colours, appear in the film, as examples of German machines for the American crews to have a look at. Apparently someone managed to stall the Heinkel during these sequences, and it had 11 people aboard, of whom 7 were killed in the resulting crash. I guess the bomb bays would be empty, but 11 sounds like rather more crew than these things were supposed to carry. Sad story, anyway, but - as I say - it was an unlucky plane. I've ordered the DVD, used, for the princely sum of £1.95. Last of the big spenders.

    I was going to take a photo of the building site, to bring us right up to date, but - you know what? - it looks exactly like a building site.

  7. Quick - borrow a metal detector, and have a mooch around before it all disappears under brick and concrete...!

    1. It's been ploughed, cultivated farmfields since 1940, so anything left might be a long way down! Anyway, what happened to the bomb load...? [Probably ditched in the sea - the plane crashlanded maybe 250 yards from the shore]