The story of Fair Isle's Heinkel

The contribution made by Shetland Islanders during the wars plus the story of the plane that crashed

While Shetland can, at times, feel remote and separate from world events, the wars of the past hundred years have affected these islands no less than anywhere else.

During the First World War, Shetland lost more than 600 people – a higher proportion of the population than any other part of the UK. Fair Isle itself saw eight men fail to return home, which, in a population of little more than 100, was a severe tragedy indeed.

The Second World War provided a further crushing blow to the isles, and by the time peace returned in 1945, just over 350 Shetlanders were dead, 80 per cent of whom were serving in the Merchant or Royal Navy.

For those who did not serve, however, there was no escaping the effects of that war. At the time, Shetland was seen as a vital British outpost in the North Sea, and also as a potential route of invasion for the Germans. Indeed, the first bombs to fall on Britain were dropped on mainland Shetland in November 1939. According to legend, the earliest of these attacks killed just a single rabbit, and gave rise to the song, ‘Run Rabbit Run’.

Fair Isle too saw its own share of action, with troops from both navy and army stationed here during the course of the war. The island’s north and south lighthouses both came under attack several times, and in the winter of 1941 the wife of a light-keeper at the south light was killed by aircraft guns as she washed dishes in their kitchen. Just weeks later, the wife of another keeper died along with their ten year old daughter, in a bomb attack on the same lighthouse. A soldier was also killed as he manned an anti-aircraft gun nearby.

Perhaps the best-known of Fair Isle’s war stories, though, concerns a German Heinkel 111 aircraft, which, on January 17th 1941, crash landed at Vaasetter, killing two of its crew. The plane had been on a weather reconnaissance mission when it was pursued and shot down by allied aircraft. Miraculously three crew members survived the crash, and were met by a small group of islanders, led by George ‘Fieldy’ Stout, who made a citizen’s arrest. The men then awaited the arrival of a naval detachment, which had been beaten to the scene by quite some time.

The authority’s embarrassment however, did not stop there. An RAF rescue launch, sent to take the German prisoners back to Shetland, ran aground at the south end of Fair Isle the next day. A second vessel was then despatched to collect both men and boat. It too ran aground, and had to be refloated with the help of the islanders. Finally, on the 19th, the Lerwick lifeboat arrived, and the three Germans were taken to Shetland. Karl Heinz Thurz, the pilot of the Heinkel, turned 21 that day.

Heinz Thurz returned to Fair Isle in the late 1980s, to revisit the scene of the crash. Both engines, plus a large section of the tail and fuselage still remain at the site, and are probably the most complete German aircraft remains to be found above ground anywhere. While on the island, Thurz also met some of those who had been here at the time of the crash, including Jimmy Stout, who had witnessed the event, and had been one of the first on the scene.

Heinz Thurz died in 2006. Jimmy Stout, now in his mid-nineties, still lives in Fair Isle, and remembers only too well the events of January 1941.

Photograph by Dave Wheeler

Malachy Tallack is 26 and lives in Fair Isle. He is a singer-songwriter, journalist, and editor of the magazine Shetland Life.
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The Brexit Beartraps, #2: Could dropping out of the open skies agreement cancel your holiday?

Flying to Europe is about to get a lot more difficult.

So what is it this time, eh? Brexit is going to wipe out every banana planet on the entire planet? Brexit will get the Last Night of the Proms cancelled? Brexit will bring about World War Three?

To be honest, I think we’re pretty well covered already on that last score, but no, this week it’s nothing so terrifying. It’s just that Brexit might get your holiday cancelled.

What are you blithering about now?

Well, only if you want to holiday in Europe, I suppose. If you’re going to Blackpool you’ll be fine. Or Pakistan, according to some people...

You’re making this up.

I’m honestly not, though we can’t entirely rule out the possibility somebody is. Last month Michael O’Leary, the Ryanair boss who attracts headlines the way certain other things attract flies, warned that, “There is a real prospect... that there are going to be no flights between the UK and Europe for a period of weeks, months beyond March 2019... We will be cancelling people’s holidays for summer of 2019.”

He’s just trying to block Brexit, the bloody saboteur.

Well, yes, he’s been quite explicit about that, and says we should just ignore the referendum result. Honestly, he’s so Remainiac he makes me look like Dan Hannan.

But he’s not wrong that there are issues: please fasten your seatbelt, and brace yourself for some turbulence.

Not so long ago, aviation was a very national sort of a business: many of the big airports were owned by nation states, and the airline industry was dominated by the state-backed national flag carriers (British Airways, Air France and so on). Since governments set airline regulations too, that meant those airlines were given all sorts of competitive advantages in their own country, and pretty much everyone faced barriers to entry in others. 

The EU changed all that. Since 1994, the European Single Aviation Market (ESAM) has allowed free movement of people and cargo; established common rules over safety, security, the environment and so on; and ensured fair competition between European airlines. It also means that an AOC – an Air Operator Certificate, the bit of paper an airline needs to fly – from any European country would be enough to operate in all of them. 

Do we really need all these acronyms?

No, alas, we need more of them. There’s also ECAA, the European Common Aviation Area – that’s the area ESAM covers; basically, ESAM is the aviation bit of the single market, and ECAA the aviation bit of the European Economic Area, or EEA. Then there’s ESAA, the European Aviation Safety Agency, which regulates, well, you can probably guess what it regulates to be honest.

All this may sound a bit dry-

It is.

-it is a bit dry, yes. But it’s also the thing that made it much easier to travel around Europe. It made the European aviation industry much more competitive, which is where the whole cheap flights thing came from.

In a speech last December, Andrew Haines, the boss of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority said that, since 2000, the number of destinations served from UK airports has doubled; since 1993, fares have dropped by a third. Which is brilliant.

Brexit, though, means we’re probably going to have to pull out of these arrangements.

Stop talking Britain down.

Don’t tell me, tell Brexit secretary David Davis. To monitor and enforce all these international agreements, you need an international court system. That’s the European Court of Justice, which ministers have repeatedly made clear that we’re leaving.

So: last March, when Davis was asked by a select committee whether the open skies system would persist, he replied: “One would presume that would not apply to us” – although he promised he’d fight for a successor, which is very reassuring. 

We can always holiday elsewhere. 

Perhaps you can – O’Leary also claimed (I’m still not making this up) that a senior Brexit minister had told him that lost European airline traffic could be made up for through a bilateral agreement with Pakistan. Which seems a bit optimistic to me, but what do I know.

Intercontinental flights are still likely to be more difficult, though. Since 2007, flights between Europe and the US have operated under a separate open skies agreement, and leaving the EU means we’re we’re about to fall out of that, too.  

Surely we’ll just revert to whatever rules there were before.

Apparently not. Airlines for America – a trade body for... well, you can probably guess that, too – has pointed out that, if we do, there are no historic rules to fall back on: there’s no aviation equivalent of the WTO.

The claim that flights are going to just stop is definitely a worst case scenario: in practice, we can probably negotiate a bunch of new agreements. But we’re already negotiating a lot of other things, and we’re on a deadline, so we’re tight for time.

In fact, we’re really tight for time. Airlines for America has also argued that – because so many tickets are sold a year or more in advance – airlines really need a new deal in place by March 2018, if they’re to have faith they can keep flying. So it’s asking for aviation to be prioritised in negotiations.

The only problem is, we can’t negotiate anything else until the EU decides we’ve made enough progress on the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals. And the clock’s ticking.

This is just remoaning. Brexit will set us free.

A little bit, maybe. CAA’s Haines has also said he believes “talk of significant retrenchment is very much over-stated, and Brexit offers potential opportunities in other areas”. Falling out of Europe means falling out of European ownership rules, so itcould bring foreign capital into the UK aviation industry (assuming anyone still wants to invest, of course). It would also mean more flexibility on “slot rules”, by which airports have to hand out landing times, and which are I gather a source of some contention at the moment.

But Haines also pointed out that the UK has been one of the most influential contributors to European aviation regulations: leaving the European system will mean we lose that influence. And let’s not forget that it was European law that gave passengers the right to redress when things go wrong: if you’ve ever had a refund after long delays, you’ve got the EU to thank.

So: the planes may not stop flying. But the UK will have less influence over the future of aviation; passengers might have fewer consumer rights; and while it’s not clear that Brexit will mean vastly fewer flights, it’s hard to see how it will mean more, so between that and the slide in sterling, prices are likely to rise, too.

It’s not that Brexit is inevitably going to mean disaster. It’s just that it’ll take a lot of effort for very little obvious reward. Which is becoming something of a theme.

Still, we’ll be free of those bureaucrats at the ECJ, won’t be?

This’ll be a great comfort when we’re all holidaying in Grimsby.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.