London Irish Regiment training on Graveney Marsh in 1940.
On the night of 27 September 1940, Luftwaffe pilot Fritz Ruhlandt and his crew dropped their 4,000lb cargo of bombs over London and headed home. Flying over Kent, their Junkers 88 bomber was hit by anti-aircraft fire from a gun emplacement beside the Medway at Upnor Castle. One engine was destroyed.
Spitfires and Hurricanes from 66 and 92 squadrons gave chase, under instructions to destroy it if they had to or, better still, force it to land. The Junkers 88 had come into service the previous September as soon as the war had broken out and had seen action over Poland, France and southern England. In those skies it had proved capable of taking heavy flak and continuing to fly. Its maximum speed was 292mph, its ceiling was 17,290ft and it had a range of 1,696 miles. It was a valuable asset and RAF scientists and designers dearly wanted to know its secrets. A general order had been issued to all units to capture one more or less intact. The RAF pilots succeeded in their aim, harrying the damaged aircraft engine until Ruhlandt had no option but to attempt a forced landing on Kent’s Graveney marshes. Unteroffizier Ruhlandt, despite being wounded, brought down his plane and he and his injured crew members crawled from the wreckage.
The descent and crash landing was heard by a unit of A Company, 1st Battalion, the London Irish Rifles at their billet at the Sportsman Inn in nearby Seasalter. As the threat of invasion by the Germans eased, their task changed to capturing any enemy aircrew brought down in the Kent countryside. During the Battle of Britain and throughout the late summer of 1940, the marshy flats had gained a new role as an emergency landing ground for crippled aircraft, both British and German. A Dornier Do 17 came down on the mudflats at Seasalter on 13 August 1940. Another bomber crash-landed just beside The Neptune pub at Whitstable on 16 August. The London Irish riflemen recognised what they had heard and around a dozen men rushed to the scene. They fully expected the four-strong Luftwaffe crew to give themselves up without a fight, but as they approached the plane, the Germans opened fire with a machine gun.
The British servicemen hit the deck. The soldiers returned fire but were forced to take cover under a hail of bullets. The Irish Rifles regrouped and a small group crept along a dyke towards the Germans. When they were about 50yds away one of the airmen waved a white flag but as the soldiers closed in fighting erupted again before the Germans were overpowered. One of them was shot in the foot during the brief battle. Nobody was killed.
During the exchange, the Rifles’ commanding officer, Captain John Cantopher, arrived at the pub for an inspection. According to the regiment’s official records, a Sergeant Allworth explained he had sent the men to the downed aircraft.
‘They took arms I hope,’ Cantopher said. ‘No sir …’ The sergeant broke off. Sounds of machine gun fire could be heard. ‘It looks as if they should have done,’ commented Cantopher. ‘Forget the inspection, I am going over there. Bring some of your men with rifles and ammo.’
Witness Nigel Wilkinson said:
On approaching the aircraft the men were fired on by the German crew with the aircraft’s two machine guns. The London Irishmen got into attack formation and having laid down heavy rifle fire on the aircraft mounted an assault of the Junkers across the marsh. By now the enemy aircrew had been wounded by the rifle fire and decided to surrender. It was at this stage that Captain Cantopher came on the scene.
The soldiers knew that enemy bombers were fitted with time bombs that enemy crew would prime on crash landing. The soldiers discovered such a device and removed it. Unknown to the prisoners, one of the soldiers could speak German and he heard the fliers talking about a second time bomb due to go off at any moment. Cantopher dashed back to the aircraft, located it under one of the wings and threw it into the ditch, saving the prized aircraft for British engineers to examine.
The soldiers took the captured Germans back to the pub. Corporal George Willis, the regiment’s piper, was in the Sportsman when the men returned with the Germans. He recalled: ‘The men were in good spirits and came into the pub with the Germans. We gave the Germans pints of beer in exchange for a few souvenirs. I got a set of enamel Luftwaffe wings.’
The Luftwaffe aircrew went to prisoner-of-war camps. The riflemen were mentioned in dispatches for their tactical ability, which had forced the surrender of the heavily armed Luftwaffe crew. Unofficially, however, it is said the riflemen had their knuckles rapped for opening fire without being ordered to do so.
The Junkers 88 was transported to Farnborough airfield where RAF technicians discovered it was only two weeks old and had been fitted with a secret and extremely accurate new bombsight. The aircraft was characterised by extended wings, improved handling and upgraded navigational aids, and represented a state-of-the-art example of the Luftwaffe’s bomber stable. Which explains why the crew, doing their own patriotic duty, were so willing to fight until their aircraft was destroyed.
Cantopher was awarded the George Medal for his bravery. But otherwise the incident was kept quiet during the war as the British did not want the Germans to know that they had captured nearly intact one of their most modern bombers. Newspapers made no mention of it and memories faded over 70 years.
In September 2010, the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association marked its seventieth anniversary by unveiling a commemorative plaque at the Sportsman pub.
The ‘battle’ of Graveney Marsh was the last exchange of fire involving a foreign invading force to take place on mainland Britain.