IT was a fun afternoon at the beach, but young Richard Demarco would soon find himself in the middle of a war zone.
Moments earlier he had turned his eyes to the sky, drawn by the rhythmic drone of a plane’s engines to be rewarded with the sight of a flash of silver as it trailed overhead.
But his thrill quickly turned to shock as he turned to look again, to see a German bomber just 100ft above his head not only on fire, but apparently pumping bullets into the soft sand around his feet.
He didn’t know it at the time, but he was witnessing the first German air attack of the Second World War, a dog fight to the death between a dozen Nazi Luftwaffe bombers and the RAF’s new – and soon to become legendary – Spitfires.
“I could see this terrible smoke and the sound was horrific,” he recalls. “I thought it was coming from the engine, then I realised it was the sound of machine guns firing full blast.” Mr Demarco, now 84, went on to become a leading figure in Edinburgh’s art scene. But, as he played on the Portobello sand in October 1939, he very nearly ended up as the first child not only to die on British soil during a Nazi raid, but to perish as the result of friendly fire. Now his vivid eye-witness account of the dramatic Second World War incident is to form part of a new exhibition which recalls the dramatic moment RAF Spitfire planes piloted by part-timers from the 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron based at Turnhouse and their comrades from 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron based at Drem, East Lothian, took on and beat the Luftwaffe.
Organised to mark this year’s 125th anniversary of the opening of the rail bridge, the exhibition features photographs, film footage, Spitfire models, a pilot’s helmet, oxygen masks, goggles, a log book and a plane control panel. It also shares space with a poignant diary entry from Prestonpans Primary School written in the aftermath of the incident and explaining what had happened.
The raid on Royal Navy vessels in the Forth was launched by a dozen of Hitler’s Junkers JU88 bombers in an attempt to wound British warships and strike first blood in the early days of the Second World War. However their plans to attack were thwarted as the fast and deadly Spitfires gave chase.
Part time pilot Pat Gifford from the 603 Squadron shot down the first bomber which crashed just off the coast at Port Seton. A second was shot down off the coast at Crail by Flight Lieutenant George Pinkerton from 602 Squadron. And a third limped to Holland, where it crashed killing all on board. The nine remaining bombers made it back to their base on the island of Sylt.
The incident left eight German airmen dead but only two bodies – from the plane which flew over the nine-year-old Mr Demarco’s head – were recovered. He later attended their full military funeral in Edinburgh, where their coffins were draped with Nazi swastikas and they received a ten-gun salute.
According to Norman Davenport, acting Warrant Officer at Squadron 603, the raid was a key moment in RAF history and helped seal tactics for the Battle of Britain. “It was an immense achievement,” he says. “it was a dress rehearsal for what was to come.”
Exhibition curator Mark Taylor, of Queensferry Tours, who worked on it with local schoolchildren from Queensferry High agrees the incident was hugely significant but is largely forgotten. “It was the first time Spitfires were used in combat – an important event that should not be forgotten.”
The exhibition, The Forth Bridge Raid, will be on display until June 1, 2015 at Queensferry Museum.