A cloudy day with continuous rain and good to poor visibility. At 12:20, Flt Lt Norman Ryder, was sent up to investigate an inbound raid off Whitby. Within four minutes of Raid X32 appearing on the board in 13 Group Headquarters’ Operations Room, he was airborne from Catterick, flying Spitfire Ia, N3114.
He was initially sent to Redcar, with an order to sweep the area between the Redcar and Whitby, on his way to the coast. When just north of Guisborough, however, Ryder was advised the aircraft was now bombing shipping three to four miles north of Whitby, and ordered to immediately head to that location. He opened up to 4½ lb. boost and crossed the coast at Staithes at a height of just 400 feet. He could not fly much higher as the poor conditions would not allow him. The cloud cover was 9/10ths to 10/10ths at a base of around 600 feet, and visibility was very poor with fog and driving rain.
When a few miles out to sea, Ryder was given a new vector of 30° to intercept the still unidentified aircraft. He soon spotted it, however, 60° to starboard, approximately three to four miles off the coast, on a course of 080° and at an estimated airspeed of 100 mph. Ryder approached the aircraft, and circled it anti-clockwise whilst he identified it as a Heinkel 111H, recognising it by the “cutaway “V” in rudder and long glass nose and fine shaping of fuselage and tail. Starboard cross [on] fuselage hardly distinguishable, but port cross very clear and looked very white with two figures behind it which could not be distinguished.”
Ryder also noticed that the port engine was disabled, which was the result of anti-aircraft fire from HM minesweepers 'Lilac' and 'Walnut', accounting for its low airspeed and his ability to circle the bomber without difficulty. When the Heinkel’s crew saw Ryder, they attempted to climb away but were making slow progress owing to the damaged engine. The pilot was unable to take any other evasive action, and could therefore not avoid Ryder’s expected attack. However, they were not going to go down without a fight.
Ryder needed to be quick if he was going to make an attack before the bomber disappeared into the cloud cover, and so came around behind it as fast as he could, lining himself up dead astern for a ‘No. 1 Fighting Area Attack’. As he did so, he saw red flashes emanating from the dorsal gun, but no tracers. It was misty and raining at the time, but he judged his position approximately 400 yards behind the aircraft, and made a wingspan allowance of 80 feet. Aiming his reflector gun sight on the starboard engine, he opened fire with a single six-second burst as he closed to 200 yards, with his closing speed of approximately 70 mph.
Although he had expended around 800 rounds, he observed no effect of his fire on the engine. He felt this may have been the result of rain on his windscreen and the light buffeting he experienced in the bomber’s slipstream. Deciding to try again, he broke away to port to make a full 360° turn and execute a second No. 1 Attack. Just as he broke off, however, he heard two distinct bangs under his engine, though there was no noticeable effect on his aircraft.
As he came around full circle, readying himself to open fire when the He111 was in his sight again, he saw “grey smoke from above and black smoke from below [the] starboard engine, and [a] momentary burst of flame from [the] region of the spinner”. Realising his first attack had indeed hit the target, he did not open fire after all, but rather continued through on an arc to port.
The He111 now reacted to the damage. The starboard engine was only idling and the aircraft started to lose altitude; it was not far down to sea level. Realising the bomber was finished, Ryder discontinued his attack and positioned himself off its starboard side to watch it slowly descend towards the sea, now around 15 miles northeast of Whitby.
Despite the rough sea, the bomber floated for around five minutes on its wings and fuselage, allowing Ryder to circle it a few times, intending to draw nearby ships to the crew’s aid. Before long, the Scarborough drifter Silver Line approached.
Whilst circling, Ryder checked the state of his aircraft in an effort to determine the cause of the two bangs he had heard during his attack. He checked the airframe over, then the instruments, and thereby noticed his oil temperature was steadily rising. He deduced that he had probably been hit by return fire and felt the two bangs were likely the sound of a bullet entering and then exiting his engine.
Realising that there was no way his aircraft would make it back to the coast in this condition, he circled a nearby trawler so they knew he was there and in difficulty. With his oil gauge now reading almost 100° Centigrade, his engine failing, and his cockpit heating up and filling with oil fumes, Ryder radioed Control to inform them of the situation.
Weighing up the possibilities, he realised he would not make it to the coast, and his low altitude also meant a parachute descent was out of the question. As his altitude fell further and time was running out, it became quite clear that his only option was to ditch. When just 40 feet above the surface of the water, with seconds of flight left, he informed Control he was doing just that.
Then he hit the water. He later recalled, “I stalled on the water at 65 m.p.h. with a loud crash. [The] aircraft immediately dug its nose in and came to [a] vertical position, tail up, and sank immediately. I think the whole touch down and sinking was simultaneous.
My next clear recollection was realising that I was below the surface, and that everything appeared green. I undid my harness and commenced to get clear. The A/C was sinking rapidly and when almost clear my parachute caught under the sliding roof. I then got partly back into the cockpit and out again, and finally got clear and commenced to swim to the surface. The tail plane passed just in front of my face. Pressure was very great and green light had changed to dull black.”
By the time Ryder broke to the surface, his lungs had almost reached bursting point and he gasped for air. Now rising and falling in a five-to-six-foot swell, he released his parachute and trod water, hoping the trawler he had circled would soon find him. He attempted to remove his flying helmet but each time he stopped paddling to remove it, he sank, so gave up. He then tried to blow more air into his Mae West, but the strain on his lungs from holding his breath, coupled with the physical effort of treading water to keep his head above the surface, made this impossible, too. He felt his sodden clothing getting heavier, but kept himself up with the assistance of his parachute, which he kept hold of throughout, though in time it, too, became waterlogged and began to sink.
As he came to the peak of a roller, Ryder was relieved to see a trawler not too far away, coming in his direction. Moments later, it pulled alongside and a boat-hook was extended towards him. He was heaved on deck and taken into a cabin to reduce his exposure to the elements. He was told he was aboard the Grimsby-crewed trawler, Alaska. The crew helped him to remove his wet clothing as he was physically exhausted and vomiting sea water. They did not have any alcohol or spirit to warm him, but made him as comfortable as possible.
Meanwhile, at Catterick, 41 Squadron were anxious and had difficulty finding out what was going on. It wasn’t until 14:30 that news was finally received, much to everyone’s relief, that Ryder had been picked up alive. He was landed at Hartlepool and hospitalised for three days.
The five-man crew of the Heinkel was brought ashore at Scarborough by the drifter Silver Line and taken into captivity. They were identified as Gruppenkommandeur Obstlt Hans Hefele, who was a passenger on the operation, Lt Rudolf Behnisch, the pilot, Lt Georg Kempe, the Observer, Uffz Albert Weber, the Wireless Operator, and Uffz Alfred Bächle, the Mechanic. Kempe had been wounded in the head and was taken to hospital, but the remaining four men were taken to the police station, where they were fed before being collected by the military. At Burniston Barracks, they revealed they were on an armed reconnaissance flight in He111H-3, 1H+AC, of Lübeck-Blankensee based Stab II/KG26.
As this was the first time a Spitfire had ditched in the sea – and the pilot had survived to tell the tale – both the Air Ministry and Supermarine were interested in the circumstances of Ryder’s escape. He was asked to make recommendations and his detailed report provided invaluable information for training pilots in what to do when ditching; it is understood he spent some time lecturing other pilots on surviving ditching in the sea. Some of these recommendations are included in his Combat Reports, and suggest that a pilot finding himself in such a situation should:
• Tighten straps and inflate “Mae West”,
• Open hood and possibly door.
• Close radiator flaps and pancake at 70 m.p.h.
• Aircraft immediately tucks its nose in (with sea running) and assumes a vertical position, tail up, and sinks.
• Release Sutton harness and parachute and evacuate, push away hard to clear tail plane.
Whilst this was 41 Squadron’s first loss of an aircraft in action during the War, the major newspapers reported it was also the first British home based fighter to be shot down by an enemy aircraft, for fifty German aircraft already shot down by the RAF. Additionally, the 13 Group ORB records that Ryder’s He111 was the 27th enemy aircraft shot down by the Group since September 1939.
Ryder was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross on 19 April for the ‘coolness and courage’ he showed today, thereby receiving the first decoration to be bestowed upon a 41 Squadron pilot during World War II, and the first DFC awarded the unit since 1919. The citation reads,
“During April this officer was ordered to investigate an enemy raid at sea and took off alone in bad visibility and low cloud. He sighted an enemy aircraft and, observing that its port engine was out of action, he promptly attacked the starboard engine and after disabling it with one burst of fire the aircraft fell into the sea. Afterwards Flight Lieutenant Ryder found that his own aircraft was losing power and he was forced to come down on the sea, whereupon his aircraft immediately dived. When at a considerable depth he managed, with great difficulty, to extricate himself from the cockpit and was then picked up by a nearby trawler. His accurate flying made the interception a success, and his coolness and courage materially contributed to his own rescue and the collection of much valuable information. He set a splendid example of courage and discipline to his squadron.”
[Text: Excerpts from Steve Brew's book "Blood, Sweat and Courage" (Fonthill, 2014; Images: 1. A portrait of Flt Lt E. Norman Ryder DFC, drawn by Captain Cuthbert Orde on 4 January 1941. Crown copyright expired, 2. Flt Lt Norman Ryder DFC, late Nov 1940, snip from IWM Image CH 001871, 3. Ryder was flying Spitfire Ia, N3114, EB-J, when he claimed a Heinkel He111 on 3 April 1940, but was shot down by return fire and ditched in the North Sea. This profile commissioned specifically for "Blood, Sweat and Courage" © Gaëtan Marie]
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