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  • Spitfires and Radars in 1944 November 12, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    Beachcombing has a terrible record of not respecting anniversaries. But today, in part to subvert all the 11.11.11 nonsense (has the meteor already gone by?) and in part to assuage his own guilt at not having a red poppy in his lapel (the price of living in Italy) he thought he would remember, through an anecdote, the British war dead on Remembrance Day.

    A slight story that has always fascinated Beach appears in R. V. Jones Most Secret War (412) and describes the exploit of three spitfire pilots in 1944 on the coast of Holland. It is the kind of thing that would – and for all we know – has been sketched out for a boy’s own war comic, specially the 1950s vintage. Beach can almost hear the corny dialogue. But, before we get to the details, corny or otherwise, some background…

    In the lead up to D-Day British fliers undertook the arduous task of destroying German radar posts on the coast of continental Europe: knocking, as it were, the mortar out of the Atlantic Wall. These attacks demanded precision that strategic or even tactical bombers could not provide and so fighter pilots would cruise in low and hard, opening fire when they came within range of the radar hoardings.

    The Germans had naturally planned for just this eventuality and their radar posts were defended by the Wehrmacht’s excellent flak guns. And not surprisingly ‘losses among senior and more experienced pilots were heavy’ [Official Dispatches].

    Jones (422) describes an attack on a radar position on the Hague Peninsula and his source was a German on the ground who had somehow – the Red Cross? – got his account back through to the UK.

    ‘[T]hree of our fighters had attacked in line astern, and one was hit by flak. The pilot had dived his aircraft into the hoarding, finishing it – and himself – for ever. The German said that it was the bravest thing  that he had ever seen. It was agreed on the Air Staff that if I could find who the pilot was I should write a citation for a posthumous Victoria Cross; but two of the three aircraft in the attack with their pilots lost, and we could not establish which was the aircraft which had destroyed the hoarding.’

    Beachcombing is fascinated by this account because of the privacy of courage. After all, when De Gaulle decided to keep on walking in Notre Dame he knew that the world was watching and that the world would judge. The spitfire pilot who used his plane as a battering ram had no such consolation: his final act was and remains anonymous.

    But almost as poignant is the fact that we only know of this desperate act thanks to the decency of a German serviceman. Tributes could be passed backwards and forwards between the German and the British armies in the Second World War, because the pitch of hatred between the two nations never reached that which was found, for example, between the US and Japan or between the Reich and the Soviet Union. Churchill openly praised Rommel in Parliament and in 1940 the HMS Glowworm’s final attack (‘stand by to ram’) was described in detail by a German captain writing to the Admiralty through the Red Cross: a posthumous Victoria Cross was given, in part, because of the German report.

    Beachcombing would be interested in other examples of conspicuous courage depending on the accounts of enemy soldiers: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    Several comments on this. Open Sesame ‘There is an interesting article to be written about German air-crashes in Britain and the way German crews (dead and alive) were treated. The following is an interesting example. A bomber came down at Findon village in 1941 and all four Germans on the plane were killed. There was then a debate as to whether they deserved a Christian burial or not. The villagers seem to have come down strongly in favour and they were actually given a military funeral (photos as link) with a North Country Regiment standing in. The minority voice against stated that they had no God but Hitler and that they should not be interred in the cemetery. As it was they were in any case repatriated after the war. Can I also ask your readers a favour. Somewhere in the UK there is a monument from a village to a German crew who, they said, avoided their village when crashing down and who as such deserved to be remembered. I suspect they were just trying to survive but it is a nice example of ‘fair play’. Is it cobblers though?’ Next is Invisible with a remarkable example from WW1: ‘I also ran across a painting “To the Death! A Glorious Incident of Aerial Warfare on the Western Front“, William C. Boswell, The Tatler 27 March 1918. The caption reads “The outcome of this dogfight is grim yet ‘glorious’ in that the British airman, in combat with the famous German pilot Mesinger, realised his plane was in flame and decided to deliberately crash into Mesinger, ensuring that he would bring his opponent down with him.‘ Beachcombing should note here that the effect of the picture is rather that the British plane is mating with the German one: Beachcombing has tortoises. In any case, Invisible continues: According to The Tatler, this knight of the air was part of ‘one of the many incidents of heroism and devotion with which the record of the war in the air is so rich.'” I don’t know who witnessed this or if the illustration is imagined, but perhaps another incident reported by the Germans as well as the British. A quick search online does not show an reproductions of the painting. It is from Brushes & Bayonets, Cartoons, Sketches and Paintings of World War I, Lucinda Gosling. (In Association with The Illustrated London News Picture Library). A rich collection of practically unknown works’ For examples of chivalry between the airforces in WW1 see an earlier post on air mines. Thanks Invisible and Open Sesame!

    BH News Stories follow: thanks to all contributors!