Air raid on Scapa Flow kills first civilian in Britain

On the evening of Saturday, March 16th, fourteen German Luftwaffe bombers flew 550 miles over the North Sea to the British Naval base at Scapa Flow.

The German bombers arrived just at sunset, and in the words of a German pilot who took part in the raid, “the jaws of Hell opened” the moment they were sighted. Searchlights pierced the gathering gloom and battery after battery of anti-aircraft guns opened fire. For an hour the German pilots held to their objective; altogether they dropped nearly a hundred bombs, but the only damage they were able to do was to damage slightly one warship, killing seven of the personnel. As soon as British fighter planes arrived on the scene, the raiders turned tail. In their hurry to get away from the pursuing fighters the Germans jettisoned their remaining bombs over Brig o’Waithe, Stenness, Orkney. Nineteen of those bombs dropped by a Junker JU 88 fell on targets which had no military significance whatsoever, damaging cottages and roads and killing a 27 year-old County Council employee, James Isbister – the first civilian to be killed in a raid on Britain during the Second World War.

Junkers JU88 bomber
Junkers JU88 bomber

When the bombs started to fall James Isbister was at home with his wife Lily and baby son Neil. Across the road a bomb blew apart the house occupied by Mrs Isabella McLeod. James ran to her aid but collapsed a few feet from his own front door, struck down by a shower of shrapnel. The attack was over in minutes and although others were injured, including Mrs McLeod who crawled from the shattered remains of her home, James Isbister was the only fatality.

The cottage in Bridge of Waithe village where the first British civilian lost his life in an air-raid during an attack on Scapa Flow
The cottage in Bridge of Waithe village where the first British civilian lost his life in an air-raid during an attack on Scapa Flow

Air raid warnings in Kirkwall and Stromness had been largely ignored that Saturday night as people crowded into the streets to watch the attack and the response from the ships in the Flow and the shore batteries.

By the onset of peace, five years later, tens of thousands more non-combatants were to have perished due to enemy action, from those lost at sea to imprisoned in internment camps by the Japanese to those, like James Isbister, caught up in air raids, which claimed around 40,000 civilian lives.

Nearly half of those (17,500) were Londoners, but several other cities were also badly hit, with Liverpool next worst off in terms of civilian deaths (2,677) followed by Birmingham, Bristol, Hull, Plymouth, Coventry, Portsmouth, Belfast and Glasgow.



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