Categories 1940Tags

Air raid on Scapa Flow kills first civilian in Britain

Scapa Flow was an important anchorage for the Royal Navy in both World Wars.

James Isbister, 27, an Orkney resident became the first British civilian to be killed in an air raid on March 16th 1940. Fourteen Ju-88 Luftwaffe bombers attacked the British fleet at Scapa Flow and hit HMS Norfolk but some bombs hit cottages on the Mainland. The Royal Navy was making more use of Scapa Flow after the defences had been augmented following the sinking of the Royal Oak on 14th October 1939. The building of the ‘Churchill barriers’, which closed some of the channels between the islands around the anchorage, would not be completed until almost the end of the war.

The inaccuracy of the bombing resulted in the first civilian fatality on British soil as a result of enemy action during the war, while a further five civilians were injured and there was substantial civilian property damage across Orkney. The civilian casualties happened in the Stenness area with five of the six casualties occurring at a cluster of cottages on the Kirkwall side of the Bridge of Waithe, beside the junction of the Orphir road and the main Kirkwall-Stromness road, while the other casualty, James Jamieson, occurred at Bankburn.

Several of the residents had come out to their doorways to watch the bombing over Scapa Flow and the fierce anti-aircraft fire which was being directed at the raiders when a cluster of bombs fell across the road from them.

Mr James William Isbister (27), a council worker, was one of those who was watching the raid. As a result of the bombs exploding just across the road from the cottages, Mr Isbister was hit by pieces of shrapnel and splinters and died within moments. Even more tragically, Mr Isbister’s wife of just two years, Lilian Fraser Tait Isbister, and his eight-month-old son were inside the cottage and witnessed his death, although they were uninjured.

James Isbister, the first civilian casualty of the war in the United Kingdom.

Further eye-witness accounts emerged in the immediate aftermath and one, given by a farmworker, Mr John Flett, graphically described the raid and the impact of the bombs at Bridge of Waithe. Mr Flett had been in Stromness when the raid began, but thought that it might be safer to get outside the town and into the surrounding countryside and therefore set off on his bicycle.

He also described the lull in the action followed by a resumption as he was approaching the aerodrome at Howe. When just outside Bridge of Waithe he saw several aircraft in the light of a searchlight and observed a line of incendiary bombs falling in a line towards him. There was then a number of shattering explosions and Mr Flett, admitting that he felt a momentary flash of panic, threw himself from his bike into a roadside ditch.

There were several more explosions and Mr Flett described clods, divots and stones landing on the road like hail. He was himself struck by several clods as he sheltered in the ditch. One bomb made such a din that he believed it might have fallen within 10 yards but must have been more like 50 yards. Mr Flett admitted, ‘Anyway, it was a bit too close for my liking’.

Aerial view of the bomb damage at Bridge of Waithe on the Mainland, Orkney.

After the raid seemed to have passed Mr Flett got out of the ditch and made his way quickly by bicycle to the cottages of Bridge of Waithe to see if he could help. Approaching the rear of the cottages on foot he fell into a bomb crater but was able to scramble out. He then reached the cottage which had been most damaged. He described the cottage as still standing but with massive damage, the roof torn off, plaster and brickwork crumbling and falling, and a pile of debris at the front entrance. A man then grabbed his arm and shouted that there was ‘a wife in that hoose’.

Mr Flett and two other men were attempting to gain entrance to the cottage when Miss McLeod appeared and they were able to help her from her ruined cottage. Mr Flett said that in his opinion it was a miracle that she survived as most of the roof had fallen in on her but despite her obvious injuries Miss McLeod, when asked if she was hurt, simply replied ‘No so bad’

See Orkney and Scapa Flow at War 1939–45 (Towns & Cities in World War Two)

HMS Hood as seen from HMS Rodney in Scapa Flow, later in 1940, illustrating the size of the anchorage.