First of the Few is honoured, 70 years on

HE WAS a dashing young Scottish lawyer who made a bet with fellow auxiliary fighter pilots in his squadron that he would be the first man to shoot down an enemy plane.

• Flight Lieutenant Patrick Gifford was shot down in May 1940. Picture: Complimentary/Dumfries council

Tomorrow, 70 years after he was killed in action, a memorial is to be unveiled in Castle Douglas in honour of Patrick Gifford who won his bet by becoming the first pilot to successfully target an enemy bomber in British airspace in the Second World War.

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At the outbreak of the war, Flight Lieutenant Gifford, 29, was working as a lawyer in the family law firm in Castle Douglas. But in the evenings and weekends, he flew fighter planes as a part-time airforce pilot, with 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron Auxiliary Air Force based at RAF Turnhouse.

Then, on 16 October 1939, Flt Lt Gifford was among pilots who pursued a dozen Luftwaffe Junkers 88 twin-engined divebombers targeting Royal Navy ships in the Firth of Forth, east of the rail bridge.

He took the final shot, forcing down the first enemy plane into the sea near Prestonpans in East Lothian.

The German bombers had been spotted approaching the Scottish coast in waves of three between Dunbar and Berwick, heading towards Edinburgh and the Forth Bridge. The first two waves of enemy aircraft attacked the ships, but Spitfires from 603 and 602 Squadrons, based in East Lothian, scrambled to intercept them as they tried to make their escape.

Flt Lt Gifford was leading a section of three planes from 603 equipped with brand new Spitfires.

On patrol near Dalkeith, they suddenly found themselves confronted with a fleeing German bomber heading towards them, which had been caught by another 603 section.

Flt Lt Gifford and his fellow pilots swiftly got on its tail as the bomber headed north, each spraying it with bullets as it dropped lower and lower. Flt Lt Gifford fired the last shots into the Ju 88 before it flopped into the sea.

He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and promoted to Squadron Leader. He then went on to command a regular RAF Squadron.

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However, on 16 May 1940, his Hawker Hurricane was shot down over Belgium. His body was never found and he has no known grave.

Tomorrow, the granite memorial will be unveiled in the grounds of Castle Douglas library by the Right Honourable the Lord Douglas of Selkirk, QC, Honorary Air Commodore 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron.

An appreciation of Mr Gifford will be given by Wing Commander Jeremy Milne DFC, officer commanding 3(F) Squadron.

Author Bill Simpson, who last night launched the first biography on the airman – Spitfires over Scotland: First Blood to the Auxiliaries – the life of Squadron Leader Patrick Gifford DSC – said: "Initially, people didn't know the pilot was Gifford, but then news got out and he spoke to a correspondent from The Scotsman a few weeks later. His story was later reported in the New York Times."

Councillor Patsy Gilroy, chairman of Stewartry area committee, and whose father-in-law was in the RAF with Mr Gifford, said: "I'm very pleased that 603 Squadron and the council have worked together on this memorial to Patrick Gifford.

"Unfortunately, in recent years, his story was largely forgotten. But this memorial and the book should rekindle interest in one of our local heroes."

• Spitfires over Scotland: First Blood to the Auxiliaries is available from GC Books of Wigtown, 12.99.

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