The Fleet Air Arm’s war on Scotland?

The first air raid on Britain during the Second World War is usually held to have taken place on 16 October 1939, when a dozen Ju 88s struck at the Royal Navy base at Rosyth, on the northern shore of the Firth of Forth. But there was in fact an earlier attack, on 27 September, also in Scotland, at Bellochantuy (variously spelled Bellochanty, Ballachantuie or Ballachantuy):

MACHINE-GUN fire from the air sprayed the Ballachantuy Hotel, ten miles from Campbeltown, Argyllshire, yesterday [27 September 1939]. A window was broken and the roof of the garage belonging to the hotel was also struck. No one was hurt. An aeroplane was heard roaring high overhead, and there was a rattle of machine-gun fire.1

Some 'nickel-cased bullets' were found around the hotel. But no aeroplane was seen, even though a gamekeeper 'focussed a powerful telescope on the sky [and] the sun was brilliant and there were no clouds'.2 An aeroplane was heard again a quarter of an hour later, along with 'three rapid bursts of machine-gun fire', but again nothing was seen. Then peace returned.

Ironically, the hotel was full of evacuees who, with the newspapers full of the bombing of Warsaw, had left areas felt to be more at risk of bombing in the still-anticipated knock-out blow:

The hotel is crowded with visitors. One of them, Mrs Macquisten, of Greenock, had brought her grandchildren all the way from Surrey, believing, as she put it, 'that Ballachantuie was just about the safest place in Britain to live in during war conditions.'

Many children, including evacuees from Glasgow, were playing on the beach and a number of people were about in the hamlet at the time of the machine-gunning, but there were no casualties.3

Why did Mrs Macquisten believe that Bellochantuy was so safe? If you look at a map, it's easy to see. Bellochantuy on the Kintyre peninsula, in the southwest of Scotland, facing into the North Atlantic. You could have got further from German air bases, but not much further. It certainly seems quite unlikely that German aircraft would fly all the way around the coast of Scotland just to attack such a strategically insigificant target. (A Condor could do it, but why?) And Sir Kingsley Wood, the Air Minister, explicitly denied this possibility when questioned in the House of Commons:

Mr [David] Kirkwood: May we take it from the reply of the Secretary of State for Air that there is no truth in the rumours which have been going round the West of Scotland, that it was an enemy aeroplane which fired into Campbeltown?

Sir K. Wood: Yes, Sir.4

So who was it, if not the Germans? According to the Daily Mirror, 'It is thought possible that a [British] pilot was carrying out practice at a great height and did not realise there were houses underneath him'.5 And this is the obvious explanation. According to Wood, though, 'it has been established that no Royal Air Force or enemy aircraft were operating in the neighbourhood on the day mentioned'.3 If it wasn't Germany and it wasn't the RAF -- then that leaves one realistic6 possibility, as Wood admitted: 'The Admiralty are making investigations and it may be -- I do not know whether it is possible or not -- that Fleet Air Arm [FAA] aircraft may be involved'.3 Though Wood promised to provide an update, I can't find any evidence that he did so publicly (he may have done so privately), and so I don't know what the outcome of the inquiry was. Still, it seems most likely that an FAA aircraft was responsibile for the 'attack' on Bellochantuy.

I'm sure somebody has the definitive answer to this question, but if so I can't find it: there's very little about the Bellochantuy incident on the web or in print, that I can see. Travel websites about the Argyll Hotel (as the Ballachantuy Hotel is now called) often feature the same copy saying 'the hotel was sprayed by machine gun fire – not as first thought by an enemy plane but by a British pilot testing out his guns regardless of the alarm he was causing', which is good enough. But the other scattered references I can find state that it was a German pilot,7 and the Wikipedia page for Bellochantuy claims, without evidence, that 'Argyll Hotel Bellochantuy became the first mainland building in Britain damaged by enemy action when strafed by a German aircraft'.

In 1914-15 the Royal Navy's first air arm, the Royal Naval Air Service (RNAS), undertook some of the very earliest strategic bombing raids and was responsible for the strategic air defence of Britain; but the FAA rarely figures in the history of strategic air warfare. Credit where credit's due, then: it was -- probably -- the first air force to attack Britain in the Second World War.

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  1. Daily Mirror, 28 September 1939, 20. []
  2. Birmingham Gazette, 28 September 1939, 1. []
  3. Ibid. [] [] []
  4. HC Deb 4 October 1939 vol 351 c1925. []
  5. Daily Mirror, 28 September 1939, 1. []
  6. The Irish Air Corps did have some combat aircraft which could have reached Bellochantuy. But apart from the fact that there is no evidence for Irish responsibility at all, de Valera had already declared Ireland's neutrality. An unprovoked (and utterly pointless) attack on Britain would have risked the independence gained just two years earlier. []
  7. E.g. Andrew Jeffrey, This Time of Crisis: Glasgow, the West of Scotland and the Northwestern Approaches in the Second World War (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1994). []

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