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.