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Whitstable at War - World War II

Story of a Dogfight

     

As we have said many times, Whitstable was not the focus of enemy attention but it was a witness to the fierce battle in the "front line" skies above it. In the early days, the Battle of Britain raged as the RAF struggled to defend its very existence. Later, fighter planes scrambled to intercept Luftwaffe bombers and their escorts as they headed towards or returned from London.  

Within a war and within a battle, individual duals occurred. They were well remembered by local residents and not least of all by children. They also created lifelong curiosity.....

   

Story of a Dogfight 

by Brian Smith

  

Like so many boys of wartime southern England I spent many exciting times watching the aerial activity over Whitstable and the surrounding countryside.  During air raids I would if possible escape from whatever shelter I was in to watch any activity going on above.  I do not recall any fears, just interest and excitement.

Although I was quite young at the time, about 4, I have to say that the most exciting time for me involved witnessing one of the classic dogfights of the late Battle of Britain period.  A dogfight which came within about 12" of ensuring I wouldn’t be around to write this. 

My mother was in ‘Tankerton’ hospital recovering from major stomach surgery.  A close friend looked after me.  We visited, as I understand it, her mother out at Yorkletts.  Alongside the cottage, on a rising bend overlooking the Seasalter marshes, there was a ‘pillbox’. (It was still there for my return visits in the ‘90s and, perhaps, still there today). Certainly it was an excellent vantage point for any gun emplacement with such clear views sweeping across from Faversham over Sheppey to Whitstable. 

During an air raid I was sent under a front room bed while the two adults sheltered under a mattress elsewhere. Why I was left alone at such a young age I know not but it allowed me to escape outside. I clearly recall a mass of vapour trails above and wherever I looked across the estuary.  But to my great joy, two planes appeared - swinging in from off Whitstable roughly over Blue Anchor corner. To my eye, one was a Spitfire on the tail of a Messerschmitt 109.  What else would they be? 

   

 

 

Many years later, I would learn my Spitfire was a Hurricane. But joy of joys, they were diving straight towards me and I still clearly see the ‘Spitfire’s bullets tracing across the ‘pillbox’, across the ground towards me then up the side of the cottage passing about 12" over my head.  Fantastic!  I nearly got shot.  What fun!  

It didn’t register with me that I could have been shot by one of our own. Both planes swooped up, from my ‘mind’s eye’, little more than 100 feet from the ground. Here the ‘Spitfire’ pilot made a classic mistake in pulling up inside the enemy plane’s loop.  I can still see the German plane rolling upright as they leveled out pointing toward the end of Sheppey although they would have been over the Coastal Road (Thanet Way). As he leveled out, I saw the German pilot firing.  Both must have scored fatal hits.  Although still quite low both pilots baled out, as I found out later reasonably safely i.e. they weren’t killed on impact. 

The British pilot baled out landing close to the railway bridge over Seasalter Road just out of my sight on the other side of the railway embankment. The ‘Spitfire’ slowly lost height turning slowly towards Faversham eventually crashing beyond some trees. I saw flames and smoke rising.  

The German pilot also baled out but a little further on - landing somewhere around the Blue Anchor shoreline. 

 

 

However, his plane continued - slowly losing height.  In my mind’s eye, I can see the eventual splashdown off Sheppey so clearly I feel as though I could direct searchers very close to the actual location of the Messerschmitt wreck.

There were three sequels to the above story  - one following on immediately after the event the remaining two many years later here in Australia.  My mother was still in what was then a crowded hospital when both the British and German airmen were admitted.  She saw both and learnt of their injuries etc little knowing the event had nearly included me as a casualty.

The British airman had both legs broken plus head and other injuries.  I do not know what injuries the German pilot sustained but I think he was able to walk out of hospital within a day or so.  However it wasn’t before matron vented her feelings on him.  As she handed him a cup of tea she spat into.  Not very British but understandable under the prevailing wartime conditions and, not knowing her personal experiences, perhaps including the loss of loved ones through enemy action.  For his part, the German airman graciously accepted the tea, offered his thanks and drank it.

Early in the 1970s, I worked for Australia’s Ford Motor Company - a delightful job wandering around the various engineering manufacturers solving their manufacturing problems.  The aim of course being to keep Ford’s production lines going. Whilst it was nice having a company car to swan around in and have the authority of ‘Mr Ford’  when arriving at the various sites, the job was rather boring when there weren’t any problems to attend to. On such occasions I had a string of contacts I could call upon for a morning, afternoon or perhaps even a lunchtime ‘cuppa.   

My favourite was to visit Alby a very close but sadly lately demised friend of 50 years. Alby invested a small redundancy package into pursuing his favourite hobby – he established a gunshop in Footscray.  Although born in Australia and at that stage had never visited Britain, he was nevertheless very focused on the Battle of Britain activities and the air war over South East England and Europe. 

A number of Air Force personnel from Point Cook airbase not far from Footscray became his customers. Point Cook was the very first Australian air corps base and, although no longer operational, still has an Air Force presence as well as being home to the Royal Australian Air Force Museum and museum flights. In the early 1970s, an association of air force personnel both active and past, both Australian and British, enjoyed many a social evening watching old films etc. Alby, although having worn khaki, became a periodic invited guest.  Whenever any past airman came into his shop his questions inevitably searched out the former active wartime pilot and if possible he had them telling ‘their story’. 

Alby was amazed when the story of one appeared to closely match my story above.  So amazed and intent on checking with me that although he said he had heard an account witnessed by “his mate’, he didn’t think to ask the old pilot his name or arrange any form of follow-up contact.  Unfortunately, in those days, mobile phones were still the province of Dick Tracey, the closest being a crude form of pager.  Mine was a house brick sized lump of black plastic which lived in a rack under the car dash.  When it received a call its red light merely winked at me prompting me to call back to Head Office for instructions.  

Needless to say, by the time I received a message from Alby, his customer was long gone. Alby’s eventual narration of the former fighter pilot’s story convinced me his customer was my ‘Spitfire’ pilot although he told Alby it was a Hurricane he flew in that action.  

I would not have known the pilot’s name nor did my mother recall if she had known it.  Unfortunately a spate of break ins and related incidents took its toll, Alby‘s shop being closed down when my good friend suffered a near fatal nervous breakdown.  So, the second sequel to that wartime event ended inconclusively.

The final sequel also happened here in Australia.  During the late 1970s, I worked in Maidstone - a suburb in Melbourne’s West.  In the early 1980s, my work took me to neighbouring Footscray, So you can see, I didn’t move out of Kent at least by association.  In Footscray my general practice was to go for a lunchtime stroll - buying my lunch and wandering wherever fancy took me.

Initially  that was to Footscray library where I would peruse the shelves on a theme basis.  I had left until last a theme related to the air war over Britain & Europe.  The last because, among other reasons, I owned or had read most of the titles the library had on the subject.  

The last book I borrowed was one insignificant looking book by an ex RAF pilot whose name was Frank or George Brown.  I am unsure of his first name due to some confusion with a well known aviation photographer/ illustrator.   However, within its covers, I found an account of the very dogfight I had witnessed, and yes.... the British pilot was in a Hurricane not a Spitfire.  In a sense, I felt as though I was at the foot of a rainbow and had found my pot of gold!

Unfortunately, when I returned the library book I had unwittingly left my ‘bookmark’ within its covers, a bookmark containing the book, author and publishers references hence my confusion about the author, the British pilots name.  To make matters worse, when I realised what I had done, I discovered the library closed for rebuilding. All books had been securely archived pending re-opening.  

Like many municipal building projects, building completion and re-opening suffered extensive delays. It re-opened some 18 months later but I found ‘my book’ no longer listed. Most likely, it was scrapped due to age.

An interesting part of the British pilot’s story will raise the eyebrows of anyone familiar with the area from Seasalter Road across the golf links to Collingwood Rd. Although I was quite young and his final touchdown hidden behind the railway embankment, I was (and am still) sure the pilot landed on the marshes side of Seasalter/Faversham Road.

From memory of the pilot’s account, he hauled himself with both legs broken “across two ditches, across a golf course to houses a mile away” where he received help.  

There was a time period over which this transpired without him being discovered which I found unbelievable.  Regardless of the number of ditches or the accuracy of my memory, it was a bright sunny day and you can be sure that his dogfight and subsequent bailing out etc were observed by others although one would expect them to be in their shelters.  Perhaps they were.

In the pilots defence, one would expect him to be suffering considerably from his wounds with little real comprehension of his bearings and activities prior to rescue. My belief is that he, in a confused and perhaps concussed state, may well have crossed the small dyke which existed near the roadside, hauled himself across the road to the houses on the Whitstable side and from there was rescued.  Perhaps later descriptions by others of where he landed and was found became confused. Perhaps, some related that to the golf course which he accepted as fact.

I would be very interested in hearing from others who may have heard something of this story perhaps from rescuers directly involved.

Brian Smith

   


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