'They say Leith got off lightly.. they're wrong'

THE day began for six-year-old Margaret Redpath like any other. Up at 7.30am, she had her breakfast, dressed in her school clothes and kissed her mum Cathie as she packed Margaret and her brother off to school, waving them off from the door of their Gorgie Road home.

Now, 65 years on, the image of her mum standing with her arm raised and a smile on her face is 71-year-old Margaret Alexander's most treasured memory. For on July 18, 1940, her mum died when Leith was hit by the bombs of the German Luftwaffe.

It was the day that, contrary to the song that has become the port's anthem, the sun stopped shining on Leith. A "stray" bomb from a lone German raider demolished part of the tenement at No 8 George Street, killing seven people, including 41-year-old Cathie Redpath and her mother, whom she had decided to visit. They were two of the 20 civilians killed by wartime bombs in Edinburgh.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

For Margaret, the loss never gets any easier and, while the rest of the UK commemorated those who fought and died in the Second World War in a national day of remembrance at the weekend, she is still waiting for her own anniversary next Monday.

"I was just six years old," she says, "so of course it's all very vague. My brother was three years older and he had a better grasp of what happened that day, but he has never talked about it. He has clammed up all these years.

"He chose to live with it, bottle it all up so to speak, but I'm a different sort. Not that I've talked about all that much, simply because I get weepy, but the few times 'the bomb' has been discussed, either by myself or by others, I've felt the better for it once I wiped away the tears.

"What prompted me to bring it up and, yes, shed a few more tears, was reading recently that 'Leith got off lightly' in the war. I felt my personal experience justified telling my story."

Margaret has long been resigned to the fact that fate played a particularly cruel hand that day, fateful in the extreme.

"We lived at 20 Gorgie Road at the time. That morning, around half past eight, my brother and I were packed off to school, to Dalry Primary. Our mum's day was cut and dried before she'd get back to Gorgie. She was going to catch a tram down to George Street to spend it with her own mother, Cathie Baird, who was 74."

There had been no sirens warning of an air raid. The plane flew out of the early evening clouds and dropped a single bomb. Then it went back up, circling before releasing eight more.

But that first bomb glanced down the roof, before exploding on the common stair, causing the building to collapse.

The plane was forced down over the Forth by RAF fighters and the pilot, slightly injured, was brought to Leith Hospital.

His display of "typical Nazi belligerence" in the hospital ward didn't subside until he was shown the damage he had done in George Street. Informed that the bomb had cost lives, he reportedly shed tears en route to a PoW camp.

There were virtually no tears from Margaret Redpath. "All they said to me that night was 'your mum has gone to heaven'. It was as well, I've sometimes thought, that I was then what onlookers called a picture of innocence, much too young to understand."

The July 18 raid was the first of the war on Edinburgh. A bomb also fell on 13 George Street, killing Jane Rutherford, 17. Yards in front of a stationary tramcar in the Commercial Street area, another of the bombs exploded leaving a huge crater. Side glass blew out but amazingly, the 20 passengers were unhurt.

Wardens rounded up children playing in the street, shepherding them into shelters. Houses were evacuated temporarily after a bomb landed in the road in Nicoll Place without exploding.

Then, four days later, a morning raid was launched on Granton with no casualties. In ensuing sorties, bombs fell on Portobello and another hit the lawn of the Palace of Holyroodhouse. The lip of the huge crater came within a few yards of the walls of the historic building, and the shudder of the explosion drew some of the audience from the Regent Cinema in Abbeymount to see what had happened.

RAIDS followed on two successive nights in September. In West Pilton, a two-storey block was flattened and rescue workers dug for two hours to reach the body of Ronald McArthur, aged eight. Nearby lay his little sister, Morag, who was to die later. Their mother had been shielding her as the whistling roar of the bomb became deafening. She was thrown out of the house.

Another bomb struck a bonded warehouse in Duff Street and burning whisky flowed in the gutters, to the boom of bursting casks in an inferno which shot flames 100 feet into the sky.

On October 7, four bombs fell, damaging roofs in Marchmont and two fell in the open at Edinburgh Zoo on November 4.

The Capital was then more or less left alone until 100 incendiary bombs were dropped on Abbeyhill as massed bomber formations made for the shipyards of Clydebank on the nights of March 13 and 14, 1941.

Then, on April 7, 1941 the tremendous power of a mine shattered a roof at Leith Town Hall. The infant annexe of David Kilpatrick School next door was demolished and a church hall badly damaged.

Tenements in Largo Place were hit and several residents were killed. Three churches and up to 200 shops and 270 houses were also damaged in the raid, in which just two mines had been dropped.

Overall, there were 20 deaths and 210 injuries in Edinburgh from bombing. George Street was demolished after the war and a new tenement built on the site. The street name itself vanished, to avoid further confusion with the New Town's George Street.

"I've learned to live with it all these years," says Margaret. "But when I'm asked if I feel what happened that night 65 years ago made a lasting impact, if it changed me as a person, I answer with a definite yes.

"That's when I can claim, from a personal point of view, that Leith certainly didn't get off lightly throughout the war."

Perils of living beside 'suicide alley'

THE Allies did such a good job of defending the Forth that it became known as "suicide alley" to the Germans who tried to pass above it.

It was heavily guarded because of the nearby Rosyth naval base and the strategically important Forth Bridge.

However, Luftwaffe bombs still got through, and killed civilians for the first time in the Capital on July 18, 1940. Ironically, one 18-year-old girl died because she had gone into an air raid shelter in Leith rather than stay in her home.

Brother and sister Ronald and Morag McArthur became the city's youngest victims when they were killed by a bomb which fell on their home in Crewe Place on September 29. They were aged just seven and five.

Another bomb struck a bonded warehouse in Duff Street, and the glow from the burning whisky could be seen as far away as the Teesside port of Middlesbrough.

Tenements in Leith's Largo Place were hit and several residents were killed that November.

The following month, four men were killed and an elderly disabled woman died of shock when high explosive and incendiary devices fell on Milton Road and Portobello.

The final raid killed two and injured four in Loaning Crescent, Craigentinny, on August 6, 1941.