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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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser