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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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