Wednesday, 18 August 2021

The Lundy Island Heinkels (1941)

Lundy Island, in the Bristol Channel, is a remote and beautiful place which attracts a limited number of visitors, particularly in the two or three months up until the end of July when the Puffins are around. Their spectacularly colourful beaks and liking for precarious cliff-top locations, make them an attractive subject for bird watchers and photographers. To some extent I was drawn to the island by the prospect of seeing birds as well - but not the feathered variety, rather the remnants of two German Heinkel HE III bombers which crash landed on Lundy in 1941.

3 March 1941, Heinkel HE II Crash Site

The Bristol Channel was a critical lifeline for Britain during the Second World War. The deep water passages around Lundy were (and still are) used by a huge number of merchant vessels heading for Avonmouth, Portishead, South Wales and smaller ports further up in the Severn Estuary. During the Battle of Britain period the Heinkels of Kampfgeschwader 27 Boelcke (KG 47) were active over the area. Often operating in pairs, the German raiders would seek out and and attempt to sink merchant vessels in the Channel. Their leader, Oswald Boelke, was a a First World War fighter ace and the squadron sported an emblem showing a black eagle with red beak and claws overlayed with a sword.

Lundy Island in the Bristol channel

The history of the two Lundy Island Heinkels has been thoroughly researched by the South West Aviation Historical Society and made public in Graham Lewis's excellent booklet Eagles on Lundy (from Leesthorpe Publishing). The history is one thing, but would I be able to find the crash sites and would there be anything to see? I knew one was readily accessible but the other one looked like it might be a challenge, particularly since the aircraft crashed into a cliff face on the wild and windswept western side of the island.

All That Remains at the First Crash Site

The first crash on the 3rd March 1941 resulted in no fatalities. The Heinkel medium bomber had taken off as one of a pair from its base near Brest in France. Just off the Welsh Coast the two aircraft spotted a Dutch merchantman, the SS Simaloer and proceeded to attack. The bombs missed but as the second aircraft passed over the target, the gun crew on the Simaloer managed to disable the plane's port engine. The pilot gained a few hundred metres before spotting what he thought were was one of the Scilly Isles. Anxious not to land on water, the pilot managed to crash land the aircraft on what turned out to be Lundy Island. 

Looking south towards the First Crash Site

Graham's book tells us that the five crew scrambled out of the aircraft and that the navigator fired a signal pistol into the fuel tanks. The crash site still bares witness to this in that there is a circle of ground devoid of vegetation and covered in shards of melted aluminium. A local lighthouse keeper was the first on scene and was somewhat non-plussed to find that the flyers were not Polish, but German. To avoid retribution from vengeful locals, the Germans concocted a story about searching for a missing aircraft. The true nature of their mission was subsequently uncovered during interrogation and the five men went into captivity as PoWs. The youngest member of the crew, Elma Botcher, returned to the island and the crash site in 1991 where he was received warmly by the small local population. 

1 April 1941, Heinkel HE III Crash Site

The second site, known to the locals as the Forgotten Heinkel is a little trickier to find. I'd planned a round-the-island walk and luckily, Simon Dell, one of the Lundy island Ambassadors was on hand to give me some advice. What remains of the second aircraft is a couple of hundred metres from the coastal path underneath a rocky outcrop known as Parrot Rock. Access was easier than I thought though I wouldn't recommend it for anyone suffering from vertigo! The story of this aircraft is also revealed in the Eagles over Lundy booklet. The remains of one of the Heinkel's two engines is jammed between a couple of rocks and there other pieces of the aircraft scattered around. 

Heinkel HE III Engine Crankshaft

This German raider had been operating with two other aircraft and after crashing, locals surmised (incorrectly) that it had attacked the Kestrel, a trawler, some four weeks earlier. The trawler's first mate had been fatally injured and the skipper had managed to put his stricken vessel onto the landing beach. The crashed German aircraft had four ships painted on its tailplane which attracted the attention of locals still shocked by the Kestrel incident. Three of the Luftwaffe crew had bailed out over the sea but the pilot and his observer who had tried to guide the plane to safety were killed instantly when the plane crashed into the soaring west side cliff. 

Parrot Rock, the Crash Site is bottom left

The surviving three aircrew were apprehended by four Royal Navy men who were incensed by the earlier incident and made their anger apparent. Eventually the Luftwaffe men were put aboard a boat called the Lerina for onward transportation to North London's Trent Park House interrogation centre and then on to a PoW camp. Investigation revealed that this aircraft had been involved in a successful attack on the MV San Conrado, a 7,892 oil tanker on passage from Curacao to Milford Haven. The second Lundy Heinkel had been hit by anti-aircraft fire which damaged the starboard engine. Whilst attempting to go over the cliff and crash land on the centre of the island, the pilot lost 75 feet of height and, as described above, hit the cliff.

Friday, 6 August 2021

The Battle of Sedgemoor - 6 July 1685

Whilst overseas travel is still problematic, there are plenty of opportunities to walk battlefield sites in the United Kingdom. England's last proper battle was fought near Bridgwater on the Somerset Levels and I recently revisit the Battle of Sedgemoor site in the company of a local guide and fellow miltary history enthusiasts.

Battle of Sedgemoor Monument

The accession of James II to the throne in 1685, following the death of his brother Charles II, was controversial. James was a Catholic and many feared that under his reign Non-conformists and Anglicans would be persecuted. For many, the answer lay in Charles's illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, who had been brought up in the court and had earned his spurs commanding the Royalist forces during the third Dutch War and in defeating the Scottish Covenantor Army at Bothwell Bridge in 1679. 

Arms of James II and The Duke of Monmouth

The West Country appeared to be a hotbed of dissent and after the Duke of Monmouth had landed at Lyme Regis and gathered support in his ride north it would seem that the country was ripe for rebellion. The gauntlet was thrown down on the pavements of Taunton where the young pretender was proclaimed King in front of an adoring crowd. The flags presented to him by the Maids of Taunton, 13 schoolgirls from leading local families, would serve as potent rallying points and by the time he reached Bridgwater, the Duke had acquired an army numbering about 10,000, including over 600 irregular cavalrymen and a small artillery component.

Map of the Battlefield in Westonzoyland Church

However, James II had responded with alacrity. A well-equipped Royal Army under the command of the Earl of Faversham was speeding towards the West Country. The five regiments of foot soldiers led by the highly respected John Churchill were quickly in theatre, speedily followed by the Earl of Oxford's Horse (approximately 400) and three troops of Horseguards (approximately 200 each). Finally a large artillery train was on its way from Portsmouth and 1500 Wiltshire militia were on notice to join the fight. 

Filled with confidence, the rebel army moved north, intent on taking Bristol. Moving to the east of the city, the rebel army had some success against the Royal Army during a skirmish in Keynsham. however, as they regrouped and sought support from neighbouring areas, the tide began to turn. Monmouth's action in the South West was to be complemented by a rebellion in Scotland provoked by the Duke of Argyll. The failure of this second thrust, the growing power of the Royal Army, bad weather and growing disillusionment with the wisdom of supporting the rebellion began to impact Monmouth's army. 

Monmouth's Route

Seeking to revitalise his waning support, Monmouth withdrew to the rebel heartlands. Returning to Bridgwater just 12 days after his arrival, the reception was cooler. However the diminished rebel army was still a potent force and with the Royal Army encamped in the village of Westonzoyland, a few miles east of the town, Monmouth spotted the opportunity to launch a daring night attack. If he could defeat this Royal Army in the field then the tide of support would once again run towards him. The rebel army moved out at around midnight on the 5th July 1865. With the help of a local shepherd guide (Godfrey) they would bypass the Royalist village of Chedzoy, traverse the marshy Somerset levels and cross the Bussex Rhine (a wide ditch) before sweeping into the enemy camp and catching the sleeping Royal Army unawares. 

The Royal Army Camp

Surprise was everything but sadly for Monmouth he lost the initiative in the early hours of the morning. A Royal Army picket raised the alarm by firing his musket and the Royal Army quickly formed up ready to repel the attack. It was a foggy, dark night and realising the element of surprise was lost Monmouth had no choice but to commit to the battle anyway. He launched his cavalry at the enemy camp using two crossings across the Rhine. In the poor light the horsemen setting out for the Upper Plungeon crossing bumped into a Royal cavalry patrol. They missed the bridge and rode across the front of the Royal Army. The inexperienced horses and horsemen scattered in the face of concerted Royal musket and artillery fire. The fleeing rebel cavalry rode headlong into two of the advancing rebel foot regiments and chaos ensued. The second rebel cavalry troop was successfully seen off as well. 

Battlefield Walkers

Regaining their composure the rebel army rallied for an attack and their three small cannon, manned by professional Dutch gunners, caused Dumbarton's Royal Scots to give ground. The Royal Army soon began to dominate the battlefield however, after Churchill moved Kirke's and Trelawney's regiments from the left to the right hand flank to cut of the eastern Rhine crossing. With the aid of six Royal artillery pieces the remainder of the Royal Army were fed into the fight. The rebels fought bravely but over time the discipline and fire-power of Churchill's professional troops took their toll. As dawn broke, the Royal Army crossed the Bussex Rhine and the rebels were routed. Legend has it that some 1,000 were killed in what the locals still call 'Grave Field'.

Replica Cannon in the Visitor Centre

After the battle 505 rebel prisoners were lock up in Westonzoyland Church. Five of these died of wounds and twenty were hung in the vicinity. Sadly no vestiges of these burials remain but nearby in Middlezoy Church one can find the grave of Louis Chevaleir De Misiers who 'behaved himself with all the courage imaginable against the King's enemies commanded by the rebel Duke of Monmouth 'whilst in the service of the English'. For those who escaped the battlefield retribution came in the form of the Bloody Assizes and the energetic pursuit of the rebels by Judge Jeffrys. Many were hung without trial, others were transported as slaves to the West Indies and Monmouth himself was beheaded in front of a large crowd on Tower Hill, London. 

The Frenchman's Grave - Middlezoy Church

In recent years a Battle of Sedgemoor Visitor Centre has been installed in Westonzoyland Church. It has a number of interactive displays and numerous artefacts associated with the Monmouth Rebellion. The battlefield is well-signposted and easy to access.