Hare Hill crash

Article in Konect Balerno and Calders, November 2011

by Emma Merchant

In 1943 Britain was at war. On a clear day, from the top of Hare Hill in the Pentland Hills, you could see a great deal of Edinburgh. You would recognise Corstorphine Hill gracing the city’s West, and make out the Leith Docks flanking it on the North. But on the night of 24th March 1943, the Pentland Hills were swathed in dense fog. Anyone searching for the city in the dark that night would find it difficult—and not only because of the inclement weather. 

Crash wreckage

Crash wreckage. Photo: Graeme Lister 

National blackout regulations were in full force. City windows were tightly curtained, and city streets unlit in an attempt to prevent the docks being bombed by enemy planes. Anyone flouting regulations faced prosecution. BBC Historian Andrew Jeffrey reveals that Scottish newspapers of the time were littered with blackout offence stories. He describes one unfortunate Dundee man who, using an un-shaded torch to pick his way home after dark, was hauled up before the county sheriff. Even a lit cigarette after dark might be regarded as dangerous and punishable, such was the fear of attack from above. It was believed that pilots might somehow spot the glow of cigarettes from their planes. Unlikely as this may seem, the actual threat of bombing was real enough.

On 24th March 1943, four pairs of eyes searched Edinburgh in the fog. They belonged to the four crew members of a German Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 Bomber, whose mission was to bomb the Leith Docks. They had set out from France, and had then made their way to Holland for refuelling and loading with bombs before crossing the North Sea towards the Firth of Forth and Edinburgh city docks. Disabling Leith would have severely disrupted the heavy flow of shipping traffic upon which Scotland relied, but the men were unable to locate the docks in the fog, and decided to return to base. Before making the long flight home, however, they needed to jettison their heavy cargo of unused bombs over farmland. So, they turned southwards towards the Pentland Hills.

Their Junkers Ju 88 aircraft, was a model widely used by the German Luftwaffe (air force) during the war. The dark green and black colouring on its underside made it difficult to spot in a lightless sky during night bombing raids. Its twin engines made it the fastest of the bombers, and it could be used for medium bombing, dive-bombing, torpedo bombing, reconnaissance flights and night fighting.

We can imagine the airmen in the aircraft that night: the deep drone of twin engines, the smells of fuel, steel and leather. Perhaps the pilot scans a chart and consults with his wireless operator as, together, they peer through the cockpit windows into a gloomy night, searching for landmarks in the fog.

Suddenly, the bulk of Hare Hill rushes towards them out of the darkness at impossible speed. The pilot, unable to divert the aircraft in time, ploughs helplessly headlong into the slope, where the aircraft instantly shatters. A deafening explosion rocks the surrounding hills, followed by the quieter crackle of burning fuselage and an orange glow in the night fog.

It is officially recorded that at 45 minutes past midnight on the 25th March, the aircraft “hit the ground on the side of (the) hill at a shallow angle and wreckage was scattered over half a mile”. The report states that although machine gun fire had been heard by locals earlier during the night, it was not this, but the weather which caused the crash. And a logbook, recovered from the wreckage, sheds further light on the accident. It gives a full account of the pilot’s personal flight history, and suggests that the aircraft he was flying that night was not the same model as another he had flown on every other occasion. Could it also be, then, that slight unfamiliarity with the aircraft that night led him to make a fatal error?

All four men died in the crash. They were subsequently identified as: Fritz Foerster, 30 (pilot), Horst Bluhm, 23 (wireless operator/air gunner), Heinz Kristall, 21 (wireless operator/air gunner), and Willi Euler, 21 (air gunner).

Local people, moved by the tragedy of four young lives lost, took the crew’s remains and gave the young men burial in Kirknewton graveyard, where their graves lay for some years. Later, an agreement was made between the governments of Britain and Germany in 1959 to relocate German graves on British soil to a single central location. As a result, the four men’s graves were re-interred to the German War Cemetery in Cannock Chase, Staffordshire, England.  

Crash record 1943.  Illustration with the permission of the Aircrew Remembrance Society 

A photograph of the pilot, Fritz Forster reveals an earnest looking man. 

Another, of his wife, Hilde, and their two small children shows a young family that, like so many others on both sides during the war, will have been blighted by the loss of a loved one. The two children, if they live, will be in their seventies now. Perhaps they have walked on Hare Hill, or visited Kirknewton where, in the North West corner of the graveyard, a small plaque remembers their father and his companions.

Photographs with the permission of the Aircrew Remembrance Society 

Many people are interested in the events of the past, and some superb websites exist to promote understanding and to keep memories alive. You may wish to visit the very informative Aircrew Remembrance Society website where you will find an interesting account of this particular wartime accident, with photographs and excerpts from the original documents.

http://www.aircrewremembrancesociety.com

You may prefer a visit to Kirknewton churchyard where the men’s graves first lay. Or you may take a walk up Hare Hill. There, on the North West of the hillside, you can find the memorial post erected by local man Kenny Walker, to mark the site of the accident. Perhaps, like others before you, you will stand and admire the views over Edinburgh. And there you may also imagine the rumble of aircraft engines and the fatal crash that happened one dark and foggy night in 1943.