Neatishead GCI was involved with so many interceptions at this time, to the extent that occasionally, in its own words, it became “overcrowded”. Just such a situation occurred on July 27/28, a night of lively action when Wittering’s Mosquitoes claimed two more Do217s off the north Norfolk coast, part of a raid heading for Birmingham. Neatishead GCI took on 151’s Sqn Ldr Dennis Pennington and Flt Sgt David Donnett (RO), then handed them back to Coltishall sector control because of too many plots. Fortunately, while waiting for Coltishall to start the ball rolling Donnett picked out a contact for himself – freelancing, as it was called, which was something all night fighter crews trained to do for these circumstances. They tracked down a Dornier Do217 and although it was hit hard and seen going down, Pennington’s night vision was suddenly impaired when an instrument light shield fell off in his cockpit and he lost sight of the target. In action nearby was Mosquito DD629, flown by Plt Off Ernest Fielding and Flt Sgt James Paine (RO) who confirmed they saw an aircraft burning on the sea in Pennington’s vicinity. This is believed to be U5+FL from I/KG2 flown by Lt Hans-Joachim Möhring who, with his crew, was lost that night. About the same time, Fielding and Paine, patrolling the swept channel coastal convoy route under the control of Neatishead GCI’s Flt Lt Ballantyne, themselves exchanged fire with another Do217, claiming to have hit it hard. The bomber was last seen trailing sparks and flames that disappeared suddenly at sea level east of Cromer, prompting them to claim one Do217 destroyed. Fw Richard Stumpf and his crew from KG2 failed to return that night and it is possible that Fielding was the cause of his demise.
If there needed to be yet further evidence of the high state of morale among RAF night fighter crews at this time, it was emphatically demonstrated yet again on the night of July 30/31 1942, in a war-torn night sky over Peterborough. That night saw a heavy raid on this engineering and railway centre, from which the Luftwaffe did not emerge unscathed, two aircraft falling to the defences, one to AA and another to the RAF.
In the first incident a Junkers Ju88A-4, wk nr 2086, 1T+CR, of III/KG 26 is believed to have been hedge-hopping its way back to a base in Holland (although the unit was actually based at Rennes) when it was hit by anti-aircraft fire over Peterborough. It was seen heading north-east away from the city, at low level and on fire. So low was it that the Junkers collided with overhead electricity cables near the village of Thorney. It staggered and as the pilot fought to keep it airborne, it was hit repeatedly by fire from a .303 machine gun wielded by Sgt Fox, one of the crew of a nearby searchlight post. 1T+CR crashed in Green Drove, Thorney, killing all on board – Ofw V Bechthold, Fw L Drees, Ogfr K Heberling and Gefr H Bredemeier.
That same night a Mosquito crew of 151 Squadron had several lively encounters with enemy raiders, believed to be en route to attack Birmingham, despatching one Dornier Do217 into the cold waters of the North Sea, sixty miles off the north Norfolk coast and another, nearly as far inland, into the depths of the peaty Fenland soil.
It was 22.30 when Fg Off Alex McRitchie, an Australian pilot with 151 Squadron, lifted his Mosquito NFII, DD669, from the runway at RAF Wittering and set course for Cromer in company with his Nav/RO Flight Sergeant E S James. They were briefed to carry out a patrol some sixty miles off the north Norfolk coast. It will be remembered that Alex had cut his teeth flying Fighter Nights on Defiants with the squadron a year earlier and now he had a chance to add to the success that 151 Squadron was enjoying with its new Mosquitoes.
There was just time to get in one practice interception before Neatishead GCI passed McRitchie over to the Chain Home Low (CHL) station at Happisburgh on the north Norfolk coast, which had plotted an incoming raid. After being put onto a chase that turned out to be a false alarm, five bandits were detected heading towards the English coast. McRitchie was vectored onto a course for a stern-chase on one of these incoming aircraft. His target was quickly overhauled and identified as a Dornier Do217 that, after two brief but devastating bursts of cannon and machine-gun fire, caught fire and plunged into The Wash below. Alex McRitchie’s victim was Dornier Do217E-4, wk nr 5469, U5+GV flown by Ofw Artur Hartwig of IV/KG2 who, along with his crew, died in the encounter.
At this point McRitchie’s radio was playing up and without guidance from ground control it seemed pointless to continue the patrol so he decided to return to Wittering. It seemed he was actually following the raiders since, as he approached the coast, his course was taking him towards some distant AA fire. Almost immediately Flt Sgt James, peering hopefully at his AI Mark V screens, picked out a target at extreme range but lost it equally quickly. Well satisfied with the night’s work Fg Off McRitchie turned again for home and was in the Wittering circuit when he noticed yet more AA fire and searchlights probing the sky to the south, over Peterborough. Keen to have another crack at Jerry, he climbed back up to 12,000 feet, and above the prescribed AA level and with the aid of searchlights, worked his way into the vicinity of the raid. This was, to say the least, somewhat hazardous since AA crews were inclined to bang away at anything and ask questions later.
Before long Flt Sgt James detected a target, again at maximum range, about three miles away.
This time they hung on to it.
McRitchie sighted his quarry in the flickering light half a mile away and slightly above him. Suddenly a searchlight lit up both the Mosquito and the enemy, moving alternately between them. The alert enemy crew spotted the Mosquito and their aircraft was thrown into a spinning dive down to 6,000 feet. Despite diving after it, with 400mph on the clock, McRitchie could not keep it in sight. Once again this tenacious Mosquito crew climbed back to 12,000 feet to have another try, AA gunners or no. Their persistence paid off, for it was quite a sustained raid on this engineering and rail centre and there was still some trade about.
One of the raiders was caught in a searchlight beam and McRitchie turned towards it. Flt Sgt James was no doubt by now sweating in his helmet and oxygen mask, with his face pressed against the radar display visor, trying to sort out from the clutter of signals anything that looked remotely like a target. Again he found one. It was head on this time and closing fast. McRitchie judged his moment, hauled the Mosquito round in a tight turn and James had it firmly on the tubes. The searchlights chose a good moment to light up the bomber and McRitchie went in for the kill.
Although closing very fast, the searchlights now worked against him, for his aeroplane was spotted again. This time the enemy, identified as a Dornier Do217, corkscrewed violently several times but the Australian clung to its every move. This particular Dornier had been caught before it could deposit its lethal cargo and now, faced with a tenacious adversary, that bomb load was jettisoned almost on top of the Mosquito. At the same time, one alert gunner among the crew drew first blood by directing a burst of machine-gun fire at the Mossie, peppering its starboard wing. McRitchie closed the throttles, dropped astern and let the Dornier feel the weight of his own armament in reply. Cannon strikes rippled along the enemy’s starboard wing. Still jinking like a cornered animal the Dornier posed a difficult full deflection target but McRitchie fired again and his cannon shells were taking more effect now, on both the wings and fuselage of the enemy aircraft.
By this time the dogfight had brought both aircraft down to 1,500 feet and McRitchie had great difficulty in keeping the Dornier in sight against the darkness of the ground. Having expended all his ammunition and being very low on fuel, he had no option but to break off and return to Wittering. He had been in the air for four hours; had flown hundreds of miles; fired all his ammunition and had engaged and beaten the enemy at least once. This most eventful patrol illustrates graphically the skill, aggressive spirit and teamwork that were the hallmark of the RAF night fighter crews.
And what of the second Dornier?
At 02.00 on July 31, Dornier Do217E-4, wk nr 5470, U5+ET of III/KG2, with its unfortunate crew, Fws K Laub, K-A Gussefeld, H Werner and Uffz H Hammelmann plunged deep into the peaty fen soil near the village of Conington, five miles south of Peterborough. They now rest together in the tranquillity of the German war cemetery in Cannock Chase.
In 1978 members of the Derbyshire Historic Aviation Society excavated the scene of this ferocious battle. Despite the soft, peaty soil, the speed at which the Dornier impacted, and the subsequent explosion, shattered the aeroplane into many fragments, much of which seems to have been removed at the time. Of the parts recovered in 1978, most recognisable were propeller blades, a crew seat, the tail wheel and some cylinder barrels from a badly smashed engine. The whereabouts of even these few relics is, however, in doubt, as much of the DHAS collection was stolen some years ago.
Although McRitchie and James claimed only a damaged, it is almost certain this was ‘their’ Dornier, even though its downfall was subsequently credited to the anti-aircraft gun defences.
Shortly afterwards, Kampfgeschwader 2 took quite a mauling on anti-shipping operations during the Dieppe raid in August 1942, losing another quarter of its already depleted strength. This unit was now only capable of mounting sporadic attacks on Britain and a few aeroplanes were being sent out, in ones and twos, on nuisance raids.
Oberleutnant Graf (Count) Romedio Thun-Hohenstein was staffelkapitän of III/KG2 and it was up to him to try to raise the flagging spirits of his hard-pressed crews. With declining resources, no one was exempt from flying. On the evening of August 7 1942, therefore, Thun-Hohenstein assembled his crew, Fw H Kunze, Uffz H Arnscheid, Uffz P Bremer and took off in Dornier Do217E-4, wk nr 5455, U5+DR, from their base in Holland. It would not be long before U5+DR and its crew joined the growing list of losses sustained by KG2.
At this time RAF Coltishall was home to Wg Cdr Max Aitken’s 68 Squadron Beaufighters and six of these were on patrol that night guarding the Norfolk coast, waiting for incoming raiders, some of whom were bound for Cambridge. Although 68 was from a neighbouring sector this combat is mentioned here as it was brought to a conclusion in the middle of Wittering sector.
Around midnight of August 7/8, patience was rewarded as several bandits were called. Among the six Beaufighters was X7553, a Mark I crewed by Plt Off Peter Cleaver and his Nav/RO Flt Sgt Bill Nairn. Originally, this crew was sent off on patrol between Coltishall and The Wash at 22.25 hours but it was recalled and sent out twice more before a raid threatened the sector. At 00.45 hours GCI advised Cleaver of a bandit and vectored him westwards towards it. Then, over The Wash, another better target was offered and Sgt Nairn picked this one up on his AI Mark IV set at 10,000 feet altitude. Plt Off Cleaver obtained visual contact and saw the target was…
jinking violently and it may have spotted our aircraft. We turned to port and closed to 200 yards at which range the bandit was identified as a Dornier. I opened fire and saw strikes on the E/A. It dived with flames coming from the port wing between the engine and fuselage and there was some slight return gunfire. I followed the E/A down through cloud and saw it dive into the ground with a large explosion.
They had caught up with Thun-Hohenstein not far from RAF Coningsby and the Dornier crashed in flames into the middle of Shire Wood, Revesby, in Lincolnshire, but all the crew managed to bale out, even though Arnscheid and Kunze were injured. A gamekeeper, assisted by stalwarts of the local Home Guard, quickly rounded up the Germans. All, that is, except one. He, his identity perhaps fortuitously unknown, reversed that unspoken rule among military captives by actually parachuting into the middle of Moorby prisoner of war camp, whereupon he was pounced on by camp guards, thus no doubt saving everyone a great deal of trouble!
In 1983 that same gamekeeper who, years before, had helped round up the Germans, retold this story to a member of the Lincolnshire Aviation Society. A visit to Shire Wood revealed little sign of the result of this skirmish, beyond some damage to mature trees at the edge of a slight water-filled depression. Closer inspection among the detritus, however, showed the ground to be fairly littered with small fragments of twisted alloy, proving that local reports of a violent explosion were correct.
Further careful searching of the surface produced one or two serial number plates and small identifiable components. Then came the first important find – a crumpled piece of alloy with the all-important aircraft type and wk nr stencilled on it, confirming it as a Dornier Do217E-4 wk nr 5455. Of even more interest was part of a radio tuning dial with not only the werke nummer stamped on it but also the date of manufacture: April 8 1942. Allowing for a short period of time to elapse before this Dornier reached KG2 from the factory, it seems to indicate that it was in Luftwaffe service for only about three months. The RAF was indeed exacting a heavy toll upon this unit.
25 Squadron had moved from Wittering to Ballyhalbert in Northern Ireland in January 1942, then back to England in May of the same year. Fg Off Joseph Singleton, in a Beaufighter IV, X7643 from 25, now based at Church Fenton, caught another of these bandits on the night of August 23/24, about ten miles east of Bourne in Lincolnshire. He and his RO, Plt Off Chris Bradshaw, operating under the control of Neatishead GCI, attacked a Dornier Do217 near the village of Cowbit, a few miles south of Spalding. They found 10/10ths cloud from 800 feet up to 3,000 feet, 5/10ths up to 10,000 feet, then it was clear above that.
The enemy bomber was flying in and out of broken cloud and difficult to track visually. While trying to get within range Fg Off Singleton’s fighter was spotted and he was fired upon from both the dorsal and the ventral guns of the bomber as it took violent evasive action. As it dived for thicker cloud cover at 3,000 feet Singleton stayed with the elusive target, firing short bursts at it and getting several back in reply. He lost it for half a minute then saw it well below him and dived into the attack again. The flash of cannon shell strikes could be seen hitting the port wing of the Dornier but the kill was frustrated when his ammunition ran out. The E/A disappeared into thick clouds at 3,000 feet so he had to settle for this one as damaged. It is interesting to note the way that interceptions were being set up now, with for example, this fighter from Yorkshire being guided by a GCI station in mid-Norfolk to a target flying over south Lincolnshire.
There was a cluster of searchlight posts in the vicinity of this combat and speaking in 1990, Joe Singleton recalled that, although they helped at first to indicate the direction of the enemy, they ended up blinding him and illuminating his own fighter. It was at that point, he thought, when Jerry spotted him and began to get nasty. This was his first night engagement and although on this occasion he fired off a lot of ammunition for little result, his future combat record shows he soon mastered his craft. Joe remained with 25 Squadron, subsequently being credited with the destruction of seven enemy aircraft at night and rising to command the squadron after the war, as a Wing Commander with the DSO, DFC and AFC.
Despite the poor weather over 12 Group that night of August 23/24 the Luftwaffe was still active, putting the Group’s night defences under some pressure. In an effort to cope with the situation, 96 (RAF Wrexham) and 256 (RAF Woodvale) Squadrons from 9 Group were ordered to mount patrols towards 12 Group’s area, as also was 255 Squadron, from RAF Honiley, in Warwickshire.
255 Squadron put up four aircraft, of which two patrolled locally and two other Beaufighter Mk VIs, X8266 and X7944, were handed over to the control of Digby sector. One of these, X7944 with AI Mk IV, flown by Fg Off Hugh Wyrill with Flt Sgt John Willins as RO, according to the 9 Group diary, “effected no less than six interceptions resulting in one enemy aircraft destroyed and one damaged.”
Taking off from Honiley at 22.10 hours, Fg Off Wyrill was ordered to reinforce Digby sector and then passed along the control system to Wittering sector. At 22.45 Langtoft GCI senior controller, Sqn Ldr Grace, instructed him to patrol at 12,000 feet on a north/south line near Wittering. A transcript of his combat report is contained in an intelligence form dated 24/8/42 submitted to HQ Fighter Command. The date of the interception is shown clearly as ‘23/24/8/42’ and Wyrill wrote:
I was given several vectors towards a bandit, finally turning onto 120º at which point Flt Sgt Willins picked up a contact well to starboard at maximum range of 4,000 yards. He held the contact as the bandit did hard turns to port and starboard. At 240mph I closed in and obtained a visual at 1,000 yards range on an aircraft flying at 11,500 feet altitude – slightly above and to starboard of me. I closed to 300 yards to identify but the bandit opened fire, made a vertical bank to port and dived away. It presented a good silhouette against the bright moonlit sky and I identified it as a Dornier Do217. I was south of Peterborough and opened fire with all guns
[four 20mm cannon and six .303 machine guns]
at 200 yards range and I continued firing as the E/A took extremely violent evasive action, consisting of stall turns and half rolls. At one time I was firing almost vertically downwards. Return fire ceased after my second burst and the Beaufighter sustained no damage. Cannon strikes were seen on the E/A and several good bursts were fired while it was held in sight. After the third burst Flt Sgt Willins saw a large piece of the E/A break away. Visual and AI contact on the bandit were finally lost in haze at 3,000 feet altitude.
This frantic exchange had taken just four short minutes.
Hugh Wyrill’s night was far from over, as no sooner had he disengaged from the Peterborough combat than he was directed east to chase the last vestiges of the attacking Luftwaffe force from the mainland. He had another inconclusive encounter with a retreating Dornier Do217 near Ipswich but, like Joe Singleton earlier, exhausted his ammunition – in all 700 x 20mm shells and 2700 x .303 machine-gun rounds – before he could complete a second kill.
Meanwhile, the sequel to this busy night was played out back near The Wash. Mortally wounded, Wyrill’s first Dornier staggered towards the coast. No one will know the actual effect of the devastating firepower of the Beaufighter upon the aircraft or its crew, although return fire ceased early in the conflict. Shortly before midnight an explosion lit the sky around East Walton wood, six miles east of King’s Lynn. Dornier Do217E-4, wk nr 4267, U5+CK of I/KG2 was totally destroyed and its passing is marked now only by scarred trees and lumps of molten alloy in the soil. The unfortunate crew, all of whom perished, were Ofw R Bodenhagen, Hptmn R Hellmann, (staffelkapitän), Ofw G Ruckstruh and Ofw T Romelt.
In some accounts ‘Wyrill’s Dornier’ is credited to the 25 Squadron Beaufighter team of Sqn Ldr William Alington and Fg Off D Keith but this is believed to be inaccurate since the date of their combat is one day earlier. Furthermore, the Langtoft GCI controller who tracked this interception is quoted thus: “Sqn Ldr Brace [sic] considers this Dornier was the one attacked by Fg Off Wyrill, as it was finally lost by them flying in the direction of King’s Lynn at 1,000 feet.”
It is perfectly reasonable that Sqn Ldr Alington submitted a claim for the previous night’s work but at best he could only claim a damaged – and from the following description it appears he and Keith were lucky to be alive to do even that!
Airborne from Church Fenton on August 22/23 in V8329, Alington and Keith came under Easington CHL control who sent them towards a bandit near The Wash. Initially the controller’s instructions made them overshoot without Keith picking up an AI contact. More directions put Alington’s Beaufighter on a course to cut across the bandit’s track and this time Keith found a blip off to starboard. A tight S-turn brought the AI blip to 1,200 yards in front of the Beaufighter and as Alington closed the range he got a visual of the target 1,000 yards dead ahead and slightly below. Fg Off Keith watched what happened on his Mark IV AI set and described the rest of the interception:
At this point the chase was greatly complicated and nearly terminated by the appearance of another Beaufighter that approached from the left and turned in behind. The blip of this aircraft, which showed IFF, then completely obscured that of the E/A. Pilot got in a one-second burst on the E/A and saw strikes on fuselage and wings, E/A turned very steeply to port and dived straight into cloud. Immediately the third aircraft opened fire on us from point blank range behind but his shooting fortunately was of the same standard as his recognition [!] When the blips separated, instructions were given to us at first to chase the wrong one, by which time E/A was behind, on left and below and too far round to pick up again satisfactorily.
CO of 25 Squadron, Wg Cdr Harold Pleasance, with Flt Lt Dennis Britain (RO), was also airborne on the night of 23/24 and he, too, submitted a claim – dated one day later than that of Sqn Ldr Alington – for a Dornier Do217 destroyed twenty miles east of Mablethorpe. He saw one of the Dornier’s crew exit the blazing aircraft and a parachute open, then the bomber exploded and dived into the sea.
Some of the most significant factors to emerge from the events of both these nights are the quantity of night fighter squadrons at Fighter Command’s disposal to cope with Luftwaffe incursions at this stage of the war, and the scale and flexibility of organisational control. This latter was clearly able to move aircraft around the country, like chessmen to relieve pressure, reminiscent of the Battle of Britain days. Concentrating so many night fighters into the blackness of a relatively small aerial arena, each picking up and losing both radar and visual contacts, inevitably led to multiple claims – even to accusations of ‘poaching’ or attack from one’s own side. In view of the relatively small numbers of enemy aircraft involved at this stage of the war, this scenario does not of course compare with the scale of the Luftwaffe’s own night defence of the Reich later on, but it is a far cry from the lone Blenheims and Fighter Night aircraft stumbling about the sky in 1940 and a portent of what destruction could be wrought on a bomber force by organised defenders with the right equipment.
Towns around The Wash, however, had still remained subject to sporadic air attacks since the middle of 1942, with Stamford being hit on June 13, Skegness (six killed) and Boston in the daylight of July 27. Spalding was relaxing on August 2, the Bank Holiday Sunday, when around tea-time a lone bomber – a Dornier 217 according to reliable eye-witnesses – popped out of low cloud and laid a stick of HEs along the High Street, Church Street and into Ayscoughfee Hall public gardens, causing considerable property damage but fortunately few casualties – except in the case of the public gardens, where a bomb annihilated the entire population of the bird-house! Those same eyewitnesses cheered out loud when the sound of gunfire was heard and the unmistakable shape of a Beaufighter could be seen dipping in and out of the cloud in hot pursuit of the enemy bomber. The accuracy of this tale was confirmed years later by reference to the 68 Squadron ORB. Examination of the records of all twin-engine fighter units in or near the region showed 68 Squadron as the only unit in eastern England to have scrambled an aircraft that day. It was quite usual to have radar-equipped night fighters on standby during daytime bad-weather conditions as, naturally, their interceptions were unaffected by thick cloud. The incident is described thus:
2 August 1942. 68 Sqn, Coltishall. Beaufighter R2248.
Pilot: Plt Off D P Paton. Nav/RO: Plt Off G E Bennett.
Airborne 15.05. Landed 17.50.
Scrambled, very cloudy. After lunch an E/A approached off sector in 10/10 cloud conditions. P/O Paton had four visuals during a chase of over 300 miles in and out of the cloud but the enemy bomber managed to escape.
Eleven HE bombs caused four deaths in yet another raid on Boston during the night of August 22/23, but these raids finally petered out in the Fenland region after brave little Skegness was hit yet again on the nights of September 15/16 and October 24/25. Three people were killed in the first of these attacks and fourteen in the second.
With little enemy air activity over the UK during the previous ten days, night fighter Mosquito NFIIs of 151 Squadron, Wittering, at last found some trade during the late evening of September 17, in what appears to have been a final fling by the Luftwaffe – at least for a while. KG2, for example, had taken quite a beating during the past six months and needed time to draw breath and rebuild. On some occasions the teamwork of RAF night fighters and GCI stations could be almost clinical in its effectiveness as a killing machine and is well illustrated by an incident on this date.
With just scattered light clouds, a half-moon promised good visibility as Flt Lt Henry Bodien and Sgt George Brooker (RO) eased off Wittering’s runway at 21.43 hours. Flt Lt Bodien’s name will be remembered from 151’s early Defiant days. He had come a long way since then, rising through the ranks and earning an enviable reputation on the way and certainly with a more potent weapon in his hands now.
Flying Mosquito NFII, DD610, they were taken over by Sqn Ldr Grace, CO and senior controller at the nearby Langtoft GCI station, who guided them to the vicinity of nine raiders coming in over The Wash, heading for King’s Lynn. Brooker, head down under the visor of the latest AI Mk V set, got a momentary contact to port then lost it, but despite there being a lot of interference on the set, picked out another target slightly to starboard. It was 1,000 yards ahead, level with them at 7,000 feet altitude and going in the same direction. In a classic interception, Henry Bodien obtained a visual when the enemy’s outline took shape as it turned to port in front of him. It was a Dornier Do217, one of the enemy aircraft attacking King’s Lynn and it had just released part of its bomb load. Bodien eased closer from astern and slightly below. From the way the Dornier began to make diving turns to right and left, losing height to 4,000 feet, the German crew may have spotted the Mosquito but there was no defensive fire during the engagement. Bodien came in from slightly below and let fly with several short bursts of cannon from 200 to 300 yards range as the target jinked in and out of his gunsight, first hitting the port wing then the engine, which caught fire. His cannon fire now raked the Dornier’s fuselage as it darted from side to side trying to escape the hail of shells that sprayed into the starboard engine. The port engine blew up and now going down with both motors on fire, pilot Fw Franz Elias jettisoned the remaining bombs and ordered his crew, Gefrs G Buchner and W Berg and Uffz F Leibrecht, to bale out. The stricken bomber, U5+UR, wk nr 4265 of III/KG2, plunged to earth between the villages of Fring and Shernborne about ten miles east of King’s Lynn and the crew were all taken prisoner. Local inhabitants’ memory of this incident has faded now and few realise why the final resting place of this Dornier was known locally as ‘the aeroplane field’.
By September 1942 KG2 had lost so many crews that it was reduced to twenty-three out of its original complement of ninety and the remainder of the year was spent in mounting occasional nuisance raids. Once again RAF night fighters had given the Luftwaffe enough of a bloody nose to make it necessary for it to withdraw and regroup its resources. But it was not through yet.