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The Forth Bridge Raid


On the afternoon of 16 October 1939, around twelve German bombers arrived over the River Forth on the east coast of Scotland, dropping bombs over the famous rail bridge and almost hitting a train which was crossing the bridge at the time.

Fighters were scrambled from local aerodromes, and a couple of bombers were shot down. It was the first raid by the Luftwaffe over Britain, and the British were swift to report the raid as having been a complete failure highlighting the fact that this was the first time that German airmen had been taken prisoner on British soil. Such was the euphoria surrounding this first downing of German planes by Spitfires that a thrilling documentary was released a few months later which included a mock recreation of the dog-fight within an otherwise routine film about the workings of the Barrage Balloon squadrons. The film gave the distinct impression that the rail bridge had been the main target – hence why the incident came to be known as the ‘Forth Bridge Raid’.

The British media coverage of the raid was actually quite wide of the mark. The Forth Bridge had never been the bombers’ intended target. The Germans had actually been hoping to attack HMS Hood but, as it was not to be found on the river and they were under orders not to attack civilian targets, they had turned their attention to three other naval ships sailing near the Forth Bridge. Press reports not only suggested that damage to these ships was minimal and that naval casualties were light but also indicated that as many as six German planes were shot down that day.

This was not entirely accurate.

Damage to one of the ships was actually quite significant and no less than sixteen sailors were killed and a further forty-four wounded. Little of this was made public at the time and, in fact, only two German planes were shot down with a third crashing in Holland on its way home.

So, while certainly a significant result for the British, the whole incident was perhaps not quite the complete triumph and as one-sided as was suggested, especially when it was later acknowledged that the only reason the raiders were able to reach their target at all was because of the failure of the nearby radar system at Cockburnspath.

However, if the British gave a somewhat misleading impression of the raid, then the Germans were equally dishonest. The Nazi Press claimed that two British cruisers had been badly damaged and that they had shot down two fighters, with two of their own aircraft reported ‘missing’. Given that the Germans did not shoot down any British planes whatsoever and that they actually lost three rather than two planes of their own, it just goes to show how the Germans tried to make just as much propaganda out of this confrontation as the British, In fact, the British and the Nazis were both prepared to play rather ‘fast and loose’ with the truth and, by so-doing, both sides were able to claim success.

Now, the false reporting of a single incident may not seem of much significance. However, the misleading coverage of this event was rather symptomatic of the sort of practices which persisted throughout the war, and not just with regard to the reporting of individual incidents but also of whole campaigns.

By Ian Garden

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