Night Raids over Nottinghamshire

First published: May 2012
Author: David Cook, Priories Historical Society

Nottinghamshire’s history is littered with many fights and battles throughout the centuries but this month’s story celebrates the 71st anniversary of a largely forgotten incident involving men from far off lands fighting for our skies.

The Battle of Britain began in 1940 with thousands of Luftwaffe aircraft attacking airfields, industrial areas and civilian centres in order to
‘break the British’.  To avoid getting shot-down before bombing northern targets the Luftwaffe flew over the North Sea before turning east to attack.  This route meant that North Nottinghamshire was directly under their route and that scores of enemy bombers would fly over nightly to bomb their targets. In order to intercept and destroy these aircraft ack-ack guns were deployed around industrial centres and RAF night-fighters were employed to shoot them down. 

Defiant & 255 Squadron
The Defiant was rather a curious aircraft built by Boulton Paul and designed in 1935. It was armed with 4 Browning .303 machine guns,
capable of firing 2,400 rounds, in a hydraulically powered dorsal turretplaced behind the cockpit and operated by a gunner. This turret was able to rotate 360 degrees but would automatically stop firing when facing forward.  Forward firing was only possible when the pilot had his canopy closed and the forward fairing down. The decking between the gun and tail was also retractable giving a similar silhouette to the Hawker Hurricane when in the raised position. Initial success was promising; one squadron claimed 95 kills in one day during early operations as German pilots thought  they were Hurricanes, attacking from behind or above to their cost. The Luftwaffe soon found and exploited the Defiant's weakness cutting them down in head-on attacks. It was also useless in dogfights as lack of communication between the pilot and gunner meant no tactics were able to be deployed. During the end of 1940 the surviving aircraft were converted for night-fighter duties with the addition of airborne interception radar (NF Mk.1a) or flying blind without the radar (NF Mk.1). The favoured tactic was to sneak up behind the bombers to one side before firing for 15 seconds then fleeing as the German crews fired back. Our local night-fighter squadron at this time was 255 Squadron based at Kirton-in-Lindsey, Lincolnshire with NF Mk.1 and Hurricanes. The squadron comprised of 22 gunners: twelve from New Zealand and two from Poland.

HE-111 H3/KG.53
One of the main bombers of the 3rd Reich, the H-3 began production in November 1939 and was armed with five MG 15 machine guns although some carried two additional MG FF and lighter armour for ground attacks. They were powered by two Jumo 211 DI engines giving the aircraft 2,400hp.
 
Kampfgeschwader 53 was named 'Legion Condor' to commemorate the squadron’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War supporting Franco’s army. During May 1940 KG53 moved to Lille-Vembrechis airfield in France. It took part in numerous missions during the Battle of Britain attacking Nottingham, Liverpool, Hull, Doncaster and London as well as fighting during 'the hardest day' and 'Battle of Britain day' when the Luftwaffe attempted to eradicate the RAF. The squadron ceased operations over Britain on 11th May 1941 and moved to Poland to fight on the Russian Eastern Front in June.
 
Heinkel Down!

On the night of the 7th May 1941 Pilot Sergeant P.L. Johnson and Gunner Sergeant R.T. Aitchison took off on a mission to try and stop another sortie of Luftwaffe bombers over the east coast. Aitchison was born in Taihape, Auckland on 4th September 1918 and had joined the RNZAF in July 1940 and came to Britain that October. Flying at this time were HE-111's of KG53 on a mission to bomb Liverpool. Amongst these aircraft was the command aircraft of the Third Gruppe (A1+BA). The Defiant crew picked this aircraft for their hit-and-run attack and whilst over Everton they opened fire. The bomber crew returned fire but their aircraft was already badly damaged and in flames. They bailed out leaving the plane to disintegrate over the countryside. Burning parts landed in scrubland and woodland around Scaftworth starting small fires. As the Heinkel crossed the river Idle it began to roll left as it came down. The tail then came off and the aircraft plunged into the ground just south of Scrooby sand quarry. As soon as it impacted its eight 250kg bombs and aviation fuel exploded. All this was watched by the groundcrew at Kirton-in-Lindsey airfield and they described the decent “like a flaming torch”.
Despite all the crew being able to get out of the stricken aircraft Squadron Leader Emil Kolmel was unable to open his parachute and his body was found the next day near the river. Kolmel was born on 4th May 1912 and was initially buried in Gringley-on-the-Hill cemetery before being re-interred at Cannock Chase Military Cemetery in the 1960's. The rest of the crew parachuted to safety, the pilot: Gunter Merten, radio operator: Erhadt Schronberger, Flight Engineer: Hans Muller, Gunner: Oskar Wilfingseder surrendered without resistance. Three of them were captured on the main road by Special Constable Hodgson and several fire wardens whilst the fourth member was captured by a gamekeeper on Everton Carr. They were taken to Ranby Army Camp for questioning before being sent to 23 POW Camp Monteith, Ontario, on 22nd December 1941. This was a timber cutting camp in a very isolated area of Canada with only a railway line for access.

The night was not over for Johnson and Aitchison though; they attacked another HE-111 causing it damage although it was not shot down. The next day KG53's HE-111's were back over Midlands, this time bombing Nottingham and Derby.

 The remains of the HE-111 were removed over the coming days and when the quarry was enlarged in 1967 the last remaining parts were recovered. War is not pleasant but the bravery of all the Allied Forces fighting for our freedom should never be forgotten. We must also remember the German aircrew with the same respect, leaving friends and family to do what at the time they believed was right. RAF Kirton in Lindsey is still an active RAF base and is also home to the Trent Valley Gliding Club. Many thanks go to Newark Air Museum for putting me on the right track for this incident, without their help I would have not have been able to start this article.