The Squadron’s first World War II victory was shared by three pilots just six weeks into the war, on the late afternoon of 17 October 1939.
At 15:47 that day, B Flight’s Green Section, comprising of Fg Off Peter ‘Cowboy’ Blatchford, Flt Sgt Edward ‘Shippy’ Shipman and Sgt Plt Albert ‘Bill’ Harris, was scrambled to investigate Raid X18.
Once airborne, they were ordered to the vicinity of Whitby. Just before 16:25, whilst still heading south to Whitby from Saltburn at an altitude of approximately 9,000 feet, they spotted a lone Heinkel He111 bomber below them, flying north about eight or nine miles off the coast.
Flt Sgt Shipman was the first to see it. He and the Heinkel’s crew must have spotted each other simultaneously, as the aircraft suddenly dived away to the east, heading out over the North Sea. He alerted Harris and Blatchford, and from their position above and behind the Heinkel, they opened their throttles and gave chase to confirm its identity. When he was close enough, Shipman noted the aircraft bore a “Black cross on red on fuselage, black cross on white underneath wings halfway along the span. Tail mud colour with green marking (diamond shape).”
Flying to the fore of the trio, he immediately came under fire from the aircraft’s dorsal turret. He quickly dropped below the Heinkel’s altitude and fell back approximately 600 yards, out of range of both the dorsal and ventral guns, and was not hit. From this position, he also noticed the belly of the Heinkel was painted pale blue.
Shipman positioned himself dead astern, narrowed his range to 500 yards, and gave a burst of fire to check his guns were operating. The chase had already taken him almost 20 miles east of Whitby. Closing now to 450 yards, he opened up again from dead astern, to which the Heinkel’s dorsal gunner replied with machine gun fire of his own. Shipman saw tracers pass down his port side and fired at the Heinkel a third time. Opening his throttle again, he closed to around 250-200 yards and fired off his remaining ammunition, around 2,200 rounds in all, noting “the rear gunner ceased to fire and both engines began to smoke badly.”
The resulting failure of the Heinkel’s engines increased Shipman’s rate of closing and he soon found himself in the aircraft’s slipstream, making control difficult. He broke off his attack and dived away. This was the sign for Sgt Plt Harris to take over the attack, and he moved in behind the Heinkel, positioning himself for his own stern attack. Whilst he opened fire, Shipman turned back for RAF Catterick alone, leaving Harris and Blatchford to finish the job.
The reason for Shipman’s swift exit was that he had suddenly realised his left leg was drenched with fluid and assumed it must be glycol from his cooling system. Concluding he must have been hit by return fire, he was eager to make landfall as soon as possible, particularly as he had forgotten to don his Mae West in his haste to get airborne. On his return to base, however, he found he had not been hit after all. His wet leg proved to be only rainwater from the floor of his aircraft, which had splashed on him in the turbulence he had experienced in the Heinkel’s slipstream.
Unfortunately, Harris does not appear to have submitted a Combat Report for the skirmish. Therefore, although we know he was the second pilot to attack the bomber, little more is known except that Blatchford recorded in his own report that Harris was forced to break off his attack as one of his guns was jammed.
As Harris dived away, Blatchford took over, also positioning himself dead astern, and about 200 feet below the bomber. In his first of two attacks, he fired a 10-to-12-second burst from a range of 400 yards. However, the Heinkel’s speed was falling away rapidly and, at the same time, Blatchford’s was too great. Realising he had misjudged his rate of closing, he was forced to pull up over the tail of the enemy aircraft in order to avoid hitting it.
Blatchford’s attack had drawn no return fire and the aircraft made no further attempt to defend itself. Flying up its starboard side before turning for his second attack, Blatchford looked back to see the gun in the dorsal turret pointing skywards with no gunner in sight.
Having now suffered serious damage from the three attacks, the Heinkel had become the proverbial ‘sitting duck’. Returning to a No. 1 position, dead astern of the limping aircraft, Blatchford commenced a second attack at a range of 400 yards. Adjusting his speed to match the Heinkel’s, he held the range and expended his remaining ammunition into it. When he broke off, Harris moved into position and made his own second attack and, minutes later, the Heinkel ditched.
Circling the sinking aircraft for a short time, Blatchford and Harris stayed long enough to see two men clamber out of the cockpit onto a wing, and deploy a dinghy. They noted the location was approximately 20 miles out to sea on a bearing of 40° magnetic from Whitby, and watched the He111 sink. Turning west, they reported the airmen’s position over the R/T and made a heading for Catterick.
Note: The pilot, Obfw Eugen Lange, and radio operator, Uffz Bernhard Hochstuhl, both survived and became Prisoners of War, but the gunner, Uffz Hugo Sauer, and observer, Joachim Kretschmer both died in the incident. Sauer’s body washed ashore near Whitby and is buried in Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery but Kretschmer was not recovered. The aircraft was subsequently identified as Heinkel 111 H-1, F6+PK, of Münster based 2.(F)/Aufklärungsgruppe 122. They were conducting a photo reconnaissance flight to the Firth of Forth, searching for the Royal Navy’s battle cruiser, HMS Hood.
[Excerpts from 'Blood, Sweat and Courage' (Fonthill, 2014). Sharing permitted, but no reproduction without prior permission, please.]
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