The Full Story written by David Ostler
The Full Story - Part 1
The Spitfire is more than just a beautiful aeroplane, described by all those privileged enough to have flown it as a delight, certainly! It is more even than the international icon it was destined to become for it remains arguably the most famous aircraft ever built. And yet it was never intended to be any of these things! The last creation of its dying designer Reginald J. Mitchell was to be a ‘Fighter’.
And so on 16th October 1939 in the sky over East Lothian, the Spitfire initially opened fire at extreme range on a German reconnaissance plane and later downed its first hostile aircraft. A Junkers 88 Dive Bomber, of the Luftwaffe’s ‘Elite’ 1KG.30 was initially attacked and damaged by Spitfires of Yellow Section, 603,(City of Edinburgh) Squadron over Colinton Hill, eastwards towards Wallyford where it was subsequently attacked by the Squadron’s Red Section over Prestonpans, thus becoming the first hostile aircraft to fall to the guns of this iconic machine…
The Full Story - Part 2
By chance, the ‘Green Hills’ area of Preston Links, a component of the celebrated ‘John Muir Way’, takes in the very spot where, on that fateful October day, the doomed plane involved in this first victory of the war (in British Airspace) crossed the coast and crashed into the sea off Port Seton.
This, I believe presents a classic opportunity for our Community to take its rightful place, not only in history; but also in what became ‘The Spitfire Legend also!’ This is both an internationally recognised and enduring phenomenon. This is because the Spitfire was not only flown by any number of overseas pilots; endearing it so many, but the type actually went on to serve with almost every Air Force (around 30 in number) in the Countries of the Free World.
Yes, the Battle of Britain was indeed fought and fought with distinction over green fields in Kent and the English Channel; however ‘The real Battle for Britain’s Airspace’ began here, on our very doorstep!
The Full Story - Part 3
I was fortunate to be raised in Prestonpans by parents who were respected pillars of the community. By age pointing, and following the infamous P.L. fire in 1967, I was delighted to be among the first Prefects at the newly built Preston Lodge High School. Not only that, but, fortunate enough also to have played in not one, but both of the most successful First XV rugby teams ever fielded by the school.
Also while at P.L. as one of a group of four pupils, I was selected by the late Alistair Tulloch who needs no introduction, to research and document the history of Preston Tower and that of the ‘Hamiltons of Preston.’ Our subsequent report was well received by various parties including Frank Tindall, Nigel Tranter, Register House and the heir to the Hamilton dynasty himself.
I not only enjoyed the project immensely, it was to hold me in good stead when, one day around 2005, I was driving north into West Loan past Hamilton House. Casting ‘The Tower’ its usual affectionate glance, I noticed a significant, potentially ruinous crack on the west elevation of the upper villa.
Returning home I immediately telephoned the Building Control Department in Haddington to report this obvious danger. Declining my correspondent’s, (dare I say patronising?), assurances as to how recently and by whom the building was last surveyed, I prevailed in what is best described as an ‘animated conversation’ securing an assurance that it would be rechecked that very afternoon.
To be fair, around 4 p.m. the gentleman to whom I had spoken called back to apologise; thanking me profusely while assuring me that safety barriers and signage was being erected, even as we spoke. More significantly, he confirmed that urgent repairs would be carried out at the earliest possible opportunity.
This explains why suddenly Preston Tower was ringed by scaffolding for the ensuing couple of years while it was made safe!
It rancour’s with me that this unique building, for it is the only ‘L Shaped Keep’ in Scotland that was later topped by a Renaissance Villa, has never been properly restored.
Doubtless, had so imposing an edifice been located elsewhere in our County; things would be otherwise!
During his many visits to my teenage home, I was privileged first to meet and, at his suggestion, be on first name terms with John McIntosh, our Member of Parliament. A man described as ‘the best Cabinet Minister this Country never had.’ But for his untimely death, who knows what might have been?
In student employment, I became only the second person, after Archie Mathieson himself; Scotland’s first ‘County Ranger,’ to wear its coveted badge.
Going on to a career in the Police, when, apart from Prestonpans, I served almost everywhere in East Lothian and throughout Edinburgh. That said, I found myself in the ‘Pans on many occasions; for at Tranent, we filled in whenever our colleagues were already committed. Later too I was a first line manager for the whole ‘Group Area’ (out with normal supervisory hours), while stationed at Musselburgh.
Paradoxically however, the penultimate four incidents of my operational career all took place in Prestonpans.
The Full Story - Part 4
I first learned of the interception of the German bomber over Prestonpans as a child from my late father who, by his own account, was an unhappily close eye witness to events. He mentioned it but once.
My father, as those among you who knew him will recognise, was the very antithesis of those who glamorise war. His formative years were spent honing his reading skills on columns of scavenged newspapers, detailing the tens of thousands of obituaries from ‘The Somme’, and those other charnel houses of The Great War.
How then could he be otherwise?
Extant, and available even to think I was seeking a ‘memorial to war’, I would not be lightly forgiven.
This is not what I propose.
It was only many years later that I first learned how this one action had been the Spitfire’s ‘first victory.’ I learned also of the common humanity displayed by the crew of a Port Seton fishing boat in going to the rescue of its drowning Luftwaffe crew. Who in this area has not heard tell of the ring the grateful German pilot, Sigmund Storp, gave to John ‘Tarry’ Dickson for saving their lives; a story that has long since entered folklore?
And who is to be the first generation not to know that the arrest of the allies’ first Prisoner of War on British Soil was affected by the well liked, unassuming P.C. ‘Harry’ Stevenson? No native he, but one who chose to stay; electing to spend his retirement in our town.
Not previously recorded but thrown up during my research is that the surviving crew of the second bomber lost; that flown by the Unit’s Commander, Helmut Pohle and shot down nine minutes later off the Fife Coast near Crail, were also rescued, initially at least, by a second Port Seton vessel.
Though others were seriously damaged, the third and last Ju88 lost that day crash landed in Holland, killing all on board. Incredibly one of them was a young man born in a Scottish Border Town. The reason he came to be involved with The Luftwaffe that day is an intensely human, fascinating story in itself.
Interesting too is that the RAF pilots involved visited German counterparts in Edinburgh Castle’s hospital; forging remarkably strong, however unlikely bonds.
The Full Story - Part 5
The Coastal Regeneration Forum, as I now understand it, is a properly constituted, ‘Voluntary Association,’ dedicated to the maintenance and upgrade of East Lothian’s ‘Three Harbours’ Coastline, as a civic asset and as a public amenity.
Their current area of interest takes in that same ‘Green Hills’ area, though much changed from 1939, and presents a once in a lifetime opportunity, for a complimentary approach.
As stated elsewhere my own interest in this incident dates back to my childhood, while my desire to see the event commemorated was cemented much later. In 2009, I attended a lecture to mark the 70th anniversary of what is known as ‘The Rosyth Raid’ and given at the National Museum of Flight.
In fact the German pilots were under strict instruction only to attack ships at sea, not those docked; more specifically HMS Hood, which they mistakenly believed was in the Forth.
The lecture was given by three speakers, representatives of 602 & 603 Squadron Associations, together with Bill Simpson, author of the excellent ‘Spitfires over Scotland’.
When I told the panel of my hope of one day seeing the events of that day marked in an appropriate way at Prestonpans, they wholeheartedly concurred, wishing me the very best of luck and, more recently, assisting me with my research.
Beyond them, I cannot say how supportive many locals and other experts have been. In particular, those for whom the episode or its spin-offs remain part of a living memory, have voices that deserve to be heard.
The Full Story - Part 6, summary
That the affection the Spitfire enjoys in the nation’s psyche gives our site gravitas is a given! This Diamond Jubilee Year who can forget the three Spitfires, rightly accompanied by its stable mate Hurricane, escorting the B.B.M.F. Lancaster laying its poppy trail salute over the Mall and Buckingham Palace. A moment forever enshrined in newsreel footage. (unfinished)