The Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership Scheme

James Isbister - first civilian casualty of WWII

James William Isbister was born in 1913 in Orkney to John and Jane Isbister of Upper Onston, Stenness. At the age of 25 Jim met and courted Lillian Fraser Tait of Buttquoy Place, Kirkwall and they were married. They set up home at Brig o'Waithe in Stenness. By December 1939 they were blessed with a baby boy they named Neil and despite the war were no doubt looking forward to a long and happy future together.James Isbister

It was still the early days of the war but already Goering’s Luftwaffe were wreaking havoc on the home fleet in Scapa Flow, and 16 March 1940 would be a date that the people of Orkney would never forget.

That evening at around 8pm, 15 Junkers 88 enemy aircraft were reported over Scapa Flow and a number of high explosive bombs were dropped causing a fair amount of damage and injuring seven Navy personnel. Anti-Aircraft guns opened fire as did ships' guns, but despite early reports of two aircraft being shot down, no losses were recorded by intelligence reports.

As the raiders fled the scene, the aircraft still with bombs flew inland and decided to jettison their bomb loads some four miles east of Stromness as they reached Brig o'Waithe.

On hearing the raiders overhead, Jim Isbister and his wife Lily rushed to the door and amidst the falling bombs, they pulled two passers-by - Mrs Burnett and Mrs Jane Muir - inside for shelter.

Just split seconds later, a bomb fell on Miss Isabela Macleod’s house across the road and as Jim rushed from his house to go and help, another bomb exploded killing him instantly. Miss Macleod although wounded, managed to crawl from the wrecked cottage and Mrs Muir was slightly injured by splinters. Fortunately Jim’s wife Lily and baby Neil survived uninjured.

In total, five people were killed and nine injured in the raid.  Jim Isbister, became the first civilian to be killed by enemy action in World War II. A service was held for Jim at St Magnus Cathedral, conducted by his brother-in-law Rev. TG Tait, and Rev. J MacLeod of Stenness, after which he was buried in St Olaf’s cemetery.


 View of the wreckage.

The aftermath at the Brig o'Waithe. The above picture shows the damage to Miss Macleod’s house and below furniture is being loaded onto a lorry from Jim Isbister’s place. In total some 60 bombs fell on land. Of these, 26 fell at Crook Hutcheson, Stenness, 14 at Quoynamone, Stenness, 12 at Crossiecrown, St Ola, 14 at Craigiefield, St Ola, 19 at St Mary’s, Holm, 1 at New Holland, Holm and 31 (of which 8 failed to explode) at the Brig o' Waithe.

The aftermath.

HMS Rodney  HMS Norfolk, one of the targets for the attack

Prime targets for the attack in Scapa Flow by the JU88 of 1/KG-30 were Royal Navy ships HMS Rodney, HMS Iron Duke and HMS Norfolk. The latter ship received a direct hit with one bomb hitting the quarter deck, passing through the upper, main and lower decks before exploding near Y turret shell room, blowing a hole some 14 feet wide just below the waterline. Four men were killed and four officers and three ratings badly wounded. However, the ship managed to stay afloat and was then sailed to the Clyde shipyard for repairs on 19 March where she remained until June 24.

The four men killed in the attack on Norfolk were Warrant Engineer James Frederick Baxter, RNR aged 23, Midshipman John Westly Busk, aged 18, Midshipman Richard Charles Evans-Lombe RN aged 18 and Paymaster Midshipman David Bryan Pickering Pick RN aged 19. All four were buried in Lyness Naval Cemetery on Hoy with full military honours. Plot P, Row 2, graves 9 – 12.

Funeral of Jim Isbister at St Olaf's Cemetery   The four graves of the Royal Naval Officers of HMS Norfolk in Lyness Naval Cemetery, Hoy

Copyright: Dave Earl

Dave writes and edits The Argonaut, the quarterly booklet that is produced for ARGOS (the Aviation Research Group Orkney and Shetland). If you would like to find out more, please visit the ARGOS website.