Almost a year would elapse before the Luftwaffe returned in strength for the next phase of their attacks on the Midlands, this time with Kampfgeschwader 2 (KG2) – the Holzhammer Gruppe – in the van. From April until September/October 1942, Dornier Do217s spearheaded the notorious Baedeker air raids against historical British towns and cities. Mounted in retaliation for the RAF’s escalating attacks on the great cities of Germany, these raids were stimulated in particular by those upon the Baltic ports of Lübeck and Rostock in March and April 1942. Dornier Do217s of KG2, together with other units, were heavily involved in the Luftwaffe plan but by the end of that summer would, once again, suffer heavy losses to the RAF’s night defences.
Almost coinciding with the beginning of the Baedeker phase, 151 Squadron – still based at Wittering – became only the second squadron to re-equip with the de Havilland Mosquito NF II and made its first Mosquito patrol on April 30. The last of 151’s pilots went solo on the Mossie on June 20 and that day its diarist recorded confidently that, “the whole squadron can now be left to its own devices”, and in common with other night fighter units, soon got to grips with the enemy once more.
Plt Off Wain in DD608 and Flt Lt Pennington in DD628 reported some AI contacts in their patrols on the night of May 28/29 but it was during enemy mining sorties to The Wash and anti-shipping raids in the Great Yarmouth area on May 29/30 that the squadron’s first real engagement occurred with the new fighter. First up from Wittering were Pilot Officer John Wain and Flt Sgt Thomas ‘Jock’ Grieve in DD608 who tackled a Dornier 217 but could only claim it as damaged. The same night the A Flight commander, Flt Lt Denis Pennington and his RO Flt Sgt David Donnett in DD628, intercepted and fired at what he thought was a Heinkel He111 out over the North Sea but spirited return fire made him break off with an inconclusive result for him, too.
With faster fighters and more effective radar cover, the profile of night air combat was changing distinctly, but because defending fighters were now intercepting more enemy raiders out over the sea, it would also become more difficult to verify some of the results of their combats and subsequent claims.
On Wittering’s patch it was the CO of 151 Squadron, New Zealander Wg Cdr Irving Smith, who led the way to success with the new Mosquito. Airborne at 22.45 hours in W4097 for the first patrol of the night of June 24/25, he and his RO Flt Lt Kerr-Sheppard were vectored by Neatishead GCI out to sea from The Wash towards an incoming raid. At 12,000 feet altitude, Kerr-Sheppard soon picked out a contact and guided the wing commander into visual contact at one hundred yards range. It was a Heinkel He111 and in his combat report, he said it looked to be carrying “two torpedoes under the wings.” The crew of the Heinkel spotted the incoming Mosquito for it suddenly dived vertically but not before Wg Cdr Smith put a burst of cannon fire into the port engine, which started to blaze and the starboard torpedo – if indeed that’s what it was – dropped away. Smith clung to the bomber, firing more short bursts at it from his machine guns as it first dived then pulled up into a stall turn, shedding pieces as the rounds hit home. Now the Heinkel dived again with the Mosquito still on its tail, this time firing another burst of cannon. Diving hard, the two aircraft were enveloped by cloud and although Kerr-Sheppard followed it on the AI set it gradually went out of range. Smith continued to follow the descending track of the Heinkel and at 7,000 feet altitude Kerr-Sheppard regained a contact off to port still losing altitude but again the target disappeared off the display. Wg Cdr Smith claimed a ‘probable’ for this one and climbed back up to look for more trade. Control put him onto the track of another bandit and at 7,000 feet altitude in bright moonlight he saw the aeroplane two miles distant, in fact just a few seconds before Kerr-Sheppard called out the AI contact. Smith opened up the throttles to close the range and then eased the Mosquito in to 300 yards behind and below another Heinkel He111, also carrying what he also described as “a torpedo under each wing.” He just managed to get in a one-second burst of cannon that brought hits on the underside of the wings and fuselage before the Heinkel dived vertically. This time, with its port wing on fire, the enemy bomber continued to dive until it struck the water, where it left a circle of burning wreckage. Claim one He111 destroyed.
The patrol was hotting up indeed and Wg Cdr Smith was directed towards a third bandit on which AI contact was made but then lost at extreme range. Circling at 7,000 feet, control put him onto a fourth bandit, which this time was held on AI right down to visual contact at 300 yards on a Dornier Do217. Smith fired all his remaining cannon ammunition in one long burst at this target, spraying it with hits until wings and fuselage were blazing and parts of the engine cowlings were seen to fall away. The Dornier crew put up a fight, though, and fired back at their tormentor from the dorsal guns but calmly closing the range to a hundred yards, Wg Cdr Smith silenced the return fire with several short bursts from his own machine guns. With the Mosquito windscreen covered in oil from the stricken bomber he was obliged to break off the attack, but by now the Dornier was flying very slowly and losing height rapidly. Wg Cdr Smith drew alongside the bomber and his last view of it was as it flew into cloud, burning fiercely and eerily illuminating the cloud from within. Out of ammunition he headed back to Wittering, landing at 00.52 hours to claim two E/A destroyed and one probable. On the question of the torpedoes under the wings, while it is true that the Heinkel He111 could carry such ordnance, it is possible that on this occasion – and in view of Plt Off Wain’s combat report below – Wg Cdr Smith mistook a pair of large calibre bombs loaded on the two bulbous hard points situated at the wing roots, for torpedoes. The He111 had to carry bombs larger than the SC500 externally and two SC1000 or alternatively, two parachute mines – the latter might bear some resemblance to torpedoes when seen in poor light – and these could be what Wg Cdr Smith saw. Furthermore, the squadron diarist didn’t do modern researchers any favours when he logged two sorties by Mosquito W4097 at the same time on the night of 23/24 – but flown by two different crews: Plt Off Fisher and Wg Cdr Smith. It seems clear, though, that Wg Cdr Smith’s sortie date was flown on that hectic night of 24/25.
Plt Off Wain and Flt Sgt Grieve left Wittering in DD616 shortly after the WingCo. They were handed over to Happisburgh CHL control where trade was still brisk and sent off towards an inbound bandit fifty miles out from The Wash. Wain’s combat report was equally brisk, stating:
A visual was obtained against Northern Light at one mile and identified at 600 yards as a Heinkel 111 with two bombs stowed externally. Fire was opened at 250 yards with cannon and machine gun. One long burst caused starboard wing to explode and one third of the wing came off. E/A went into vertical dive leaving a trail of smoke. Time 23.40 hours. An aircraft burning on the sea was seen by Wg Cdr Smith, who was in the vicinity. It is claimed as destroyed.
The night was still young and next off was Sqn Ldr Donald Darling with Plt Off Wright (RO) in DD629 at 00.25. At 01.15 Neatishead GCI put him onto the track of a raider heading south-east at 6,000 feet and shortly afterwards Wright got a blip below and to starboard. Darling got a visual at 700 yards range on a Dornier Do217 but while closing to 200 yards the Mossie was spotted and the bomber dived towards the clouds. Darling put in a short cannon burst as the Dornier entered the cloudbank and with Wright following it on AI he loosed off another burst as they emerged from the cloud. Return fire came from the dorsal turret but this stopped when more bursts of cannon fire from the Mosquito brought hits on the fuselage. Sqn Ldr Darling was unable to stay with the Dornier as it dived hard into the cloud once more so he abandoned the chase and climbed for more trade. After another unproductive chase Plt Off Wright held a new contact, which they turned into a sighting of a Ju88 but once again in the good light conditions the Mosquito was seen and this bomber, too, dived away to sea level where contact was lost. Claim one damaged. Flt Lt Moody flew the last, uneventful, patrol of the night.
Moody was on ops next night when the bright moonlight of June 26/27 brought bombers from Holland in over The Wash in an effort to creep up on Norwich from the least expected direction. A Do217E-4, wk nr 4266, of I/KG2, was lost when Flt Lt Moody and his RO Plt Off Marsh in Mosquito NFII, DD609, caught up with it over The Wash.
Neatishead put Moody on to what turned out to be a friendly then directed him towards a bandit dead ahead. As Marsh was trying to pick out a contact they got quite a fright when a stream of tracer fire zipped past them. Moody dived out of danger and started again. GCI gave him another target at 10,000 feet altitude and Marsh got an AI blip at maximum range. The Mosquito was easily able to overhaul the bandit and in less than a minute Moody had a Dornier 217 in his sight at 800 yards range. He closed in from down-moon and opened fire as the Dornier began a gentle turn to port. Hits on the fuselage were followed by a faint glow and suddenly the bomber blew up, falling into the sea where it exploded again. The aircraft was U5+ML flown by Fw Hans Schrödel, who died with his crew in this engagement.
With the arrival of the Mosquito NFII the science of night fighting had taken great strides since the days of the Blenheim just two years earlier.
During the process of re-equipment, B Flight of 151 Squadron soldiered on with Defiants well into that summer and the tenacity of those Defiant crews – working mainly with the ‘eyeball Mk 1’ – had fulfilled an important job in plugging gaps in the night defences.
Although by now usually relegated to pottering around on searchlight cooperation sorties, it is interesting to find a few Defiants – described by the squadron itself as “Old Faithfuls” – still around on 151 Squadron in June 1942 – for example AA425, AA436 and AA572 and on the 26th one of these, believed to be AA572, even managed to muscle in and take a slice of the Mossies’ action.
Flt Lt Colin Robertson with air gunner Flt Sgt Albert Beale left Wittering at 00.56 hours on the 26th for one of the regular searchlight cooperation sorties with sites around The Wash. They were old hands on the Defiant and when flashes from exploding bombs and fires over in the Norwich direction grabbed Robertson’s attention, with the turret fully armed, he could not resist the opportunity to go and investigate. Five miles west of Coltishall Flt Sgt Beale saw a Dornier Do217 coming up behind them at 2,000 feet altitude. Calling for “turn port!” he brought the turret round and opened fire at the bomber from just eighty yards range. Beale saw his fire hit the rear fuselage and this was answered by a stream of tracer from the Dornier’s guns as it went into a steep dive under the Defiant, where it was lost to sight.
Turning south-east Robertson saw another Dornier silhouetted against the moon, almost stern on but turning towards them. The Defiant was still only at 1,000 feet altitude when Beale asked for “starboard!” to close the range to 150 yards. Opening fire, he scored hits on the nose and fuselage and stopped return fire from the dorsal gun position. Then Beale’s guns chose this moment to jam and the bomber escaped. Landing back at Wittering at 03.14 hours they filed a claim for two Do217s damaged and the Squadron ORB noted: “As Defiants have not been used operationally for some time, this is likely to be the last combat in which this type will engage.” Or so they thought.
Always keen to keep his hand in with ‘his’ squadrons, Wittering station commander Gp Capt Basil Embry borrowed a 151 Mosquito for a dawn patrol to try his luck at catching the ‘regular’ German PRU Ju88. Much to his disgust he was unsuccessful and since the Luftwaffe looked like staying away for the rest of the month, when the weather clamped in, a squadron party was organised on the 30th to celebrate the month of June successes. But Jerry managed to spoil Robertson and Beale’s party by sending a single raider in the wee small hours of June 29/30.
Ground radar tracked an incoming raid across the southern Fens and Flt Lt Robertson with Flt Sgt Beale were scrambled from RAF Wittering. Lashed by rain and hail, their Defiant soon emerged from heavy cloud at 5,000 feet and after twenty minutes, at 03.21 hours, Robertson called “tallyho” on a Ju88. Closing on the Junkers, it was seen flitting in and out of the cloud tops until, when it emerged for a third time, Flt Sgt Beale let go a five-second deflection burst of 200 AP and 200 de Wilde incendiary rounds at the bomber from a range of one hundred down to fifty yards. Later he was of the opinion that the enemy aircraft flew right into his gunfire but it dipped into cloud again and did not re-emerge. The Defiant crew could only claim one Ju88 damaged and a radio fix put them in the vicinity of the town of March in Cambridgeshire.
While much has quite rightly been written about the air war from a pilot’s perspective, the achievement of Flt Sgt Albert Beale DFM, in being personally credited with three enemy aircraft destroyed and four damaged while flying in Defiants, is a fine example of the contribution made by air gunners to the night air defence campaign.
151 Squadron continued to make successful interceptions with its new Mosquitoes, even though Luftwaffe incursions were reducing in size and frequency again and thus there were fewer targets to find in the same volume of sky. Apart from the obvious factor of an individual crew’s skill in closing a kill, that the squadron could still shoot down the enemy is the most obvious demonstration of the complete effectiveness of the GCI/AI system – it didn’t matter how many of them came, radar would find them.
While seeking a target of opportunity along the north Norfolk coast on July 21/22, Ofw Heinrich Wolpers and his crew, including the staffelkapitän Hptmn Frank from I/KG2, ran into a 151 patrol just after midnight. Controlled by Flt Lt Ballantyne of Neatishead GCI, Plt Off G Fisher and Flt Sgt E Godfrey in Mosquito W4090 (AI Mk V) chased the Dornier in and out of cloud cover from The Wash to fifty miles off the Humber estuary, before finally despatching it into the sea. The fight was not all one-sided either. Fisher got in several bursts of cannon and machine-gun fire that eventually put both the ventral and dorsal gunners out of action, but not before their own fire had peppered the Mosquito under the fuselage and engine nacelles and damaged one of the cannon spent-round chutes. Both aircraft were twisting and turning; climbing and diving steeply from 9,000 down to 5,000 feet and back again and it was during one of these dives towards patchy cloud cover that Fisher fired a telling burst and the Dornier’s starboard engine caught fire. Going down in an ever steepening dive the flaming engine was suddenly swallowed up by the sea and Fisher who, in all the excitement had not registered his own rapid approach to that same patch of sea, heard Godfrey yelling at him to pull up. He pulled out of the dive at 200 feet – and went home. It had taken twenty-five minutes of hard manoeuvring; 197 rounds of 20mm cannon and 1239 rounds of .303 machine-gun ammunition to despatch Dornier Do217E-4, U5+IH, wk nr 4260.
One particular night in July 1942 can be seen as indicative both of the success of the defensive night fighting force guarding The Wash corridor, of the continuing wide-ranging radius of the sorties and of the recurring problem of confirming combat kills in darkness, often over water. Because of the intensity of air activity over the whole region on this night of July 23 1942, in contrast to the usual rigid censorship and no doubt to bolster civilian morale, the Lincolnshire Free Press newspaper was, on the occasion of the night’s outstanding events, allowed to print an unusual amount of detail.
For the RAF, while – loosely speaking – Beaufighters of 68 Squadron covered the Norfolk/Suffolk region from RAF Coltishall, 151, having recently completed its conversion from Hurricanes and Defiants to Mosquitoes at RAF Wittering, was assigned The Wash area while the Canadians of 409 Squadron at Coleby Grange (Lincoln), also equipped with Beaufighters, watched over the rest of Lincolnshire towards the Humber. These then were the primary night fighter units in the region in mid 1942. In addition, though, other squadrons added support, so that the umbrella over the approaches to the Midlands by night left few holes for the enemy to pass through unmolested. Not least of the other units were the radar-equipped flying searchlight Turbinlite Havocs of 1453 and 1459 Flights (later 532 and 538 Squadrons) that flew variously from Wittering and Hibaldstow. Until September 1942, when they were re-formed into integrated squadrons, comprising one flight of Havocs and another of Hurricanes, the Havoc flights drew their satellite fighters from Hurricane units with whom they shared a base. In the case of 1453 Flight at Wittering, when 151 re-equipped with Mosquitoes, it called upon the Hurricanes of 486 (NZ) Squadron to make up their Havoc/Hurricane teams. However, in addition to its Turbinlite commitment, 486 Squadron also mounted independent Fighter Night patrols of its own. Generally speaking, though, the twin-engine fighters patrolled about fifty miles out to sea and the singles inland from the coast but inevitably, once the action started, it will be seen there were no rigid areas and overlaps by all units occurred frequently.
Including the two being discussed in detail here, claims for a total of seven enemy aircraft destroyed over East Anglia were submitted for the night of July 23/24 1942. Five of these were made by Beaufighter crews of Wg Cdr Max Aitken’s 68 Squadron based at RAF Coltishall, their victims apparently falling either in the sea off the Norfolk coast or in Norfolk itself. Wg Cdr Aitken claimed two, Sgt Truscott one and two Czech crews one each. The other two claims were made by Flt Lt E L (Peter) McMillan of 409 Squadron and Flt Lt Harvey Sweetman of 486 Squadron. Examination of German records in recent years, however, indicates only three enemy aircraft were lost over England that night, while a fourth – almost certainly the result of McMillan’s second combat – crashed on landing back at its base. Such is the benefit of hindsight!
With the likelihood of some or all of these defending aircraft chasing around the night sky after declining numbers of enemy aircraft, inevitably duplicate claims were bound to happen. On this night, just such an event occurred.
Oblt Heinrich Wiess of II/KG40 was briefed to attack an aircraft factory in Bedford with four 500kg bombs. With his crew, Fw Karl Gramm, Fw Hermann Frischolz and Ofw Joseph Ulrich, he took off from Soesterberg in Dornier Do217E-4, wk nr 4279, coded F8+CN, just as the moon was beginning to rise. His route from Soesterberg airfield in Holland took him across the North Sea, down the length of The Wash, making landfall over Boston at 10,000 feet before turning south towards the target. It was only five minutes after this point that the Dornier was caught in a searchlight beam and one of the crew saw a single-engine fighter below them about 1,000 yards away to starboard. Oblt Wiess took evasive action by diving the Dornier, first to starboard then curving to port to get back on course. The fighter seemed to have been shaken off but soon another single-engine fighter was spotted below, on the port side this time, flying on a roughly parallel course. After being interrogated later, the transcription of flight engineer Ofw Ulrich’s recollection of events went as follows.
He said he fired a few machine-gun rounds in its direction and the fighter turned in to attack the Dornier from below. The first burst from the fighter set the port wing on fire and the crew baled out. During his parachute descent he saw a twin-engine fighter fly past but he was positive that the aircraft at which he fired and which then shot them down was a single-engine.
Flt Lt Harvey Sweetman, a New Zealander from Auckland, commanded a flight of 486 (NZ) Squadron at RAF Wittering and was a founder member of the squadron in March 1942. The Hurricane IIbs of 486 were usually tied, at night, to the apron strings of the Turbinlite Havocs, but the results of this technique of night interception had been singularly unimpressive so far. On this night, however, it was Harvey’s turn to go off chasing the Hun on his own freelance patrol and from his combat report we can piece together his version of events.
Sweetman eased Z3029, SA-R, gently off Wittering runway at a quarter to midnight on July 23 1942. According to his recollections after this sortie, at first he headed north before turning on a reciprocal course that brought him to the vicinity of Spalding. There, outlined against a cloud layer below and to starboard of him, he spotted the menacing shape of a Dornier Do217, flying south. As he closed in, Sweetman’s Hurricane was spotted by the Dornier crew and its dorsal turret gunner let fly with a burst of machine-gun fire. The bright red and white tracer rounds were way off target though. Banking to starboard, Sweetman closed to seventy yards, loosing off a deflection burst at the nose of the Dornier from his eight machine guns, but without any visible effect. The Dornier dived rapidly in an effort to escape the line of fire but Sweetman hung on down to 5,000 feet altitude, firing two more bursts as he followed his prey. These seemed to produce an immediate result as “twin streams of thick smoky vapour flowed from the enemy aircraft.” Furthermore Sweetman reported that the Dornier “turned right over on its back and dived vertically down out of sight.” Although it was bright moonlight, there was some broken cloud around at 3,000 feet and as he orbited the spot, Sweetman saw “the flare of an explosion below”, which he took to signal the end of his victim. Calling up Wittering sector operations, his position was fixed to within six miles of the crash site and he set course for base, landing back at 01.00 in an elated mood.
It was established that an enemy aircraft had crashed in a field at Fleet Fen south of Holbeach and according to 58 Maintenance Unit (58 MU) inspectors, it was a Dornier Do217E that was entirely destroyed, with wreckage strewn over twenty acres. It was their task to salvage as much material as possible and gather intelligence about this latest model.
The German crew had baled out and landed in a string between Fleet Fen and Holbeach itself and the occupants on duty in an Observer Corps post just outside the town had quite a shock when a German airman walked in and gave himself up! He was left in the care of two slightly bewildered observers while a colleague, quickly picking up the only rifle in the hut, ran outside and rounded up another of the crew a short distance away. A third German was found hiding in a farmyard and the fourth was apprehended nonchalantly walking down the road in his stockinged feet, having lost his boots when he abandoned the aeroplane.
Flt Lt Sweetman duly submitted a claim for one Dornier 217 destroyed but that signalled the beginning of another battle, this time with one of his own side. When the 486 Squadron Intelligence Officer made enquiries to support Sweetman’s claim, the crash having been confirmed by a searchlight battery at Whaplode Drove, he was told that a 409 Squadron Beaufighter crew, Flt Lt E L (Peter) McMillan (pilot) and Sgt Shepherd, had submitted a claim for the same aircraft. It was also verified that there was only one enemy aircraft shot down in that district that night.
In an article written by Bill Norman and published in the December 2000 issue of FlyPast magazine former night fighter pilot Peter McMillan recalled his two particular air combats with the enemy in July 1942 and remembered how he had to share his success with another squadron. Flying 409 Squadron Beaufighter VI, X8153, it was the first of his claims that he believed was the Fleet Fen aircraft – the one he, too, claimed as destroyed. Peter claimed only a damaged for his second engagement. From the details contained in McMillan’s combat report – just as with Sweetman’s – it is impossible to reconstruct clearly his precise location at the time of the Fleet Fen combat. However, a D/F bearing put him in the vicinity of Holbeach, and having fired off 339 rounds of 20mm cannon ammunition, he most certainly had a go at something that night.
McMillan’s combat report outlines his version of events. He wrote: “Take-off from RAF Coleby Grange was at 23.05 on the 23rd and after a short while the Beaufighter was handed over to Orby radar station to begin a GCI exercise.” This was a quite normal procedure during a patrol so that the night fighter crews could get in as much practice in the air as possible, at the same time as being instantly available if ground control detected a potential target. On this occasion, very soon GCI reported trade and McMillan was vectored northwards. Anticipating imminent action, he told Sgt Shepherd to set the cannon armament to ‘fire’ which involved Shepherd leaving his seat to go forward to the central weapons bay, between himself and his pilot. While he was doing so his intercom failed owing to a broken headset lead. Fortunately McMillan could still hear Shepherd – vital for the interception – but Shepherd could not hear his pilot’s responses. There was a buzzer link between the cockpits, however, and they found by speedy improvisation of a simple code they were able to continue with the interception.
Orby GCI put them onto a vector of 100° and warned McMillan he would have to turn quickly onto the reciprocal of 280°. When the instruction to turn came he brought the Beaufighter hard round and there on Shepherd’s display tubes was the blip. But the target was jinking around and the contact was lost just as quickly. The Orby controller gave a quick course correction and Shepherd was back in business and this time he held on to it.
McMillan opened the throttles to 280mph at 9,000 feet altitude and began to close in on the target. At 650 yards range he obtained a visual to port and above and thought it to be a Dornier Do217 that was weaving and varying altitude. Calmly McMillan slid the Beaufighter over to bring his quarry slightly to starboard then closed to 250 yards range to make quite sure it was a hostile.
Confirmation was soon forthcoming because at this point the enemy opened fire, fortunately inaccurately. Slight back pressure on the yoke brought the gunsight on and McMillan let fly with three short bursts of cannon fire of two or three seconds each. After the third burst, a white glow appeared on the port engine and the target began to slow down. This caused the Beaufighter to overshoot its prey but as he passed below the Dornier McMillan saw the port engine was on fire. He hauled the Beaufighter round in a tight orbit and regained visual contact with the enemy aircraft silhouetted against the moon. He was in time to see two parachutes detach themselves from the aircraft just before it went straight down with the port engine blazing fiercely. He wrote: “My observer saw it explode on the ground and I claim this as destroyed.” This is a much more visually positive result than Sweetman was able to offer.
Now 486 Squadron would have nothing to do with this ‘sharing’ rubbish and the whole squadron closed ranks to validate Sweetman’s claim. Sweetman himself, accompanied by Sqn Ldr Clayton from Wittering operations and Plt Off Thomas (the squadron intelligence officer), visited the crash site the next morning where they consulted with Flt Lt Morrison of 58MU from Newark. The latter was responsible for examination and removal of the debris. 486 Squadron documents record that Flt Lt Morrison declared that, despite searching for evidence of cannon strikes, he could find none. It was known of course that Sweetman’s Hurricane was armed only with .303 machine guns. However, on this latter point, the recollections of two former 58MU recovery team NCOs, interviewed by Sid Finn for his book Lincolnshire Air War, provide a contrary view as they said they worked at the site for many days and found evidence of 20mm cannon strikes on the wreckage.
The New Zealanders did not let it rest there and proceeded to interview the police constable who had arrested the German crew. He stated that one member of the crew said they had been shot down by a Spitfire. This remark was taken to indicate that a single-engine, rather than a twin-engine, aircraft was seen which lent support to Sweetman’s claim, it being easy to confuse a Spitfire with a Hurricane in the turmoil of a night battle. In their opinion, a final corroboration of 486’s claim came when Captain G A Peacock, a Royal Artillery officer stationed at Wittering, made a formal written declaration, carefully witnessed by an army colleague and Plt Off Thomas. In his statement Capt Peacock wrote:
At about midnight I was walking in the garden of a house at Moulton Chapel, where I was staying on leave. My attention was attracted by the sound of machine-gun fire in the air. I saw two bursts of fire. . . after which an aeroplane caught fire and dived steeply. It passed across the very bright moon, making the perfect silhouette of a Dornier. The aircraft crashed, a mile from where I stood, in a tremendous explosion… looking up again I plainly saw a Hurricane circling and it was from this aircraft that the gunfire originated. No other aeroplane fired its guns in the vicinity at the time of this action.
The lengths to which 486 Squadron went to back up their claim graphically illustrates the high degree of morale and camaraderie existing in RAF night fighter units at this time. The outcome was that 486 Squadron believed Harvey Sweetman had proved his case conclusively, yet ironically his original combat report does not carry the usual HQ Fighter Command ‘claim approved or shared’ endorsement. Peter McMillan’s report on the other hand is endorsed ‘shared 1/2 with 486 Sqdn’.
What seems clear now is that there were several enemy aircraft and RAF fighters in close proximity that night for, in addition to the Fleet Fen Dornier, at least one more Dornier was lost from each of KG40 and KG2 at unknown locations. The “twin streams of vapour” reported by Flt Lt Sweetman do not necessarily mean the Dornier had been hit, since it was known that aviation fuel had a propensity to produce black exhaust smoke when engine throttles were suddenly rammed open. It might be felt significant that Flt Lt Sweetman also lost sight of his target – last seen in a radical manoeuvre quite in keeping with its design capabilities – at a critical moment, while Flt Lt McMillan recorded that his gunfire set one engine of his target on fire and Sgt Shepherd had it in view down to impact. On the other hand, when questioned by 486 Squadron, the MU officer – without, it has to be said, the benefit of a lengthy inspection – is reported as saying he “found no evidence of cannon strikes”, yet his recovery team senior NCO, who spent more than a week at the site, firmly expressed the opposite view. Even one of the German crew admitted seeing a twin-engine aeroplane fly past him as he fell from the bomber.
Well, in the historian’s ‘paper war’, evaluation and accreditation may seem important – and there are certainly puzzles enough in this incident! But in the ‘shooting war’, while there was clearly a healthy element of unit pride involved, the only important thing in the end is that someone actually shot down a raider when the enemy was at the gate.
This busy night was not yet over for Peter McMillan though, and once again with the advantage of hindsight, the outcome of his second combat was not quite as he thought.
As soon as he had reported the first kill to Orby he was passed to sector control for position fixing and then back to Orby GCI. More trade was reported to the east. McMillan was vectored onto 100° and advised of a target at four miles dead ahead at 8,000 feet altitude. McMillan increased speed to 280mph to close the gap and calmly asked Orby to bring him in on the port side as the moon was to starboard. A stern-chase followed and when he got within one and a half miles range of his quarry Orby GCI advised him they could not help him any more and told him to continue on 110°. After a while Sgt Shepherd picked out and held an AI contact although the target jinked around before settling on a course of 090°. McMillan’s vision was hampered by cloud now but Shepherd neatly brought him down to 1,500 yards range and there, off to port and slightly above, was the silhouette of an aircraft. Keeping it in sight he crossed over to approach with it slightly to starboard. With the lighter sky behind him and fearful of being spotted, McMillan swiftly closed to 500 yards, eased up behind it, identified it as a Dornier Do217 and let fly with his cannons, all in a series of smooth, decisive movements. He saw flashes of his fire hitting the enemy aircraft, which immediately did a quarter roll and dived away. McMillan endeavoured to follow but lost sight of the Dornier and it disappeared into the ground returns (electronic ‘noise’) on Sgt Shepherd’s screens. When they reached 4,000 feet with 320mph on the clock he pulled out and returned to base, claiming the Dornier as damaged.
Peter McMillan’s second adversary that night was Feldwebel Willi Schludecker, a highly experienced bomber pilot who flew a total of 120 ops, of which thirty-two were made against English targets. Survivor of nine crash-landings due to battle damage, Willi came closest to oblivion the night he ran into Peter McMillan. Willi Schludecker was briefed by KG2 to attack Bedford with a 2,000kg bomb load carried in Dornier Do217, U5+BL, wk nr 4252. Approaching The Wash, Fw Heinrich Buhl, the flight engineer and gunner, had trouble with one of his weapons and let off a burst of tracer into the night sky. Willi thought that may have attracted a night fighter because a little later the crew spotted an aircraft creeping up from astern. This is believed to be McMillan’s Beaufighter. Displaying a considerable degree of confidence, Willi decided to hold his course and allow it to come within his own gunners’ range. Both aircraft opened fire simultaneously with the greater muzzle flash of the Beaufighter cannons preventing McMillan from seeing return fire and the Dornier crew thinking their own fire had made the Beaufighter explode! When the Dornier made its violent escape manoeuvre – bear in mind it was an aeroplane designed and stressed for dive-bombing – they never saw each other again.
In fact Peter McMillan would have been justified in claiming two Dorniers as destroyed that night because Schludecker’s aircraft was so badly damaged in the encounter that he had to jettison the bomb load and head for home. It was with the greatest of difficulty that he made it back to Gilze-Rijen in Holland, where he crash-landed the Dornier at three times the normal landing speed after making three attempts to get the aircraft down. That was Willi’s ninth – and last – crash-landing because he spent the next six months in hospital as a result of his injuries and it put an end to his operational flying career.
On March 9 2000 Peter McMillan, Willi Schludecker and Heinrich Buhl came face-to-face for the first time when they met in Hove at a meeting arranged by Bill Norman. This time it was a friendly encounter between men who, in Heinrich Buhl’s words, “had been adversaries but never enemies” and who found they had much in common.