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.
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.