‘I was nearly killed by Spitfire bullets’ - Edinburgh art impresario recalls narrow escape as a young boy in the Battle of the River Forth

October 16 1939 is remembered as the day World War Two started for real in the skies over Edinburgh, as twelve German bombers attacked British ships at anchor in the estuary in what would become known as the Battle of the River Forth.

Thursday, 17th October 2019, 5:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 17th October 2019, 5:53 pm

But one Edinburgh local, now a major figure in the art world, remembers it as the day he ‘should have died’ as Portobello beach became the front line of the Second World War.

Richard Demarco, then nine years old, was on the beach with his younger brother Louis, 4, when they heard a noise overhead.

Suddenly, bullets came thudding into the wet sand at Mr Demarco’s feet, missing him by ‘inches’, he recalls.

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Richard Demarco.

“The bullets were three or four inches from my toes, it was a miracle I was not shot dead,” he said.

The bullets were not from the Luftwaffe plane, but were fired from the British Spitfire it what was nearly the first civilian casualty of the Second World War.

There had been no air raid warning, which was later the subject of an investigation by authorities.

“The noise of the engines was deafening, and so was the rat tat tat of the Spitfire,” he said.

Richard Demarco in 2015.

“The bomber was in its death throes, and the left-hand side engine was on fire, it looked like a dragon coming towards me.”

The boys first spotted the planes earlier, as they flew up the Forth.

They then saw white puffs of cloud appear, each followed by the ‘dull thud’ of an exploding shell.

“I didn’t think to run away,” said Mr Demarco.

Richard Demarco could see 'puffs of white smoke' where the bombs fell in 1939.

“There wasn’t any shelter anyway. We were about half a mile from the promenade and there was no one else on the beach. There was nowhere to escape to.”

Ironically, the bombers had interrupted the boys playing pretend war games on the beach, oblivious to the very real battle going on above.

The young Mr Demarco was struck by the plight of the German pilots under attack.

“I was so worried about the bomber pilots. I could see through the glass nose of the bomber, and I could see the faces of the two pilots,” he said.

When the boys returned home to their ‘distraught’ mother, they were given a sharp smack and warned never to worry her like that again.

Two days later, when it was announced in the Scotsman that two men from the German plane, Kurt Seydel and August Schleider, would be buried with full military honours in Portobello, Mr Demarco begged his mother for permission to go.

Standing at their graveside, he “felt compassion for these two human beings who happened to be in the wrong uniform.”

As he grew older, Mr Demarco, who in 2006 was appointed CBE for services to the Scottish art world, also felt incredibly lucky for his narrow escape.

“All my life I have been living on extra time,” he said.