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