Night fighter interception over the North Sea

 Bristol Beaufighter in flight

A Bristol Beaufighter pictured later in the war when equipped with rockets - mainly used in an anti shipping role.

In late August 1941 C.F.’Jimmy’ Rawnsley was observer with Bristol Beaufighter pilot John Cunningham. Cunningham later gained fame as ‘Cats Eye’s Cunningham’ – one of the top RAF night fighter aces. British propaganda promoted the idea that he had exceptional night vision – in fact it was just a ruse to cover the existence of airborne radar. The first sets were very crude but they were beginning to make an impact on the effectiveness of the night fighters.

G.C.I. – Ground Control Interception , ‘Seacut’ – had just told them that there were too many ‘Big Friends’ – bombers departing from East Anglia – cluttering up the ground based radar screens for them to guide them onto enemy intruders. But then Rawnsley got a blip on his A.I. – Airborne Interception – radar which had a rather more limited range:

“Contact … head on … port about,” I gabbled.”Hard as you can … its well below us.” The words came out in one exploding breath.

Without a second’s hesitation John hurled the Beaufighter around on its wing-tip.

My face was flattened against the visor, and the tubes began to grow dim with the onset of a blackout. The blip slewed over to the right, slowed up, and then began to recede.

With an effort I managed to focus my eyes, and I saw that it was sliding back towards centre. “Ease off,” I warned John. “You’re holding him at six thousand feet. Steady I ”

As we came out of the turn, the pressure eased, and I could see that we had the other aircraft cold. John’s handling of the Beaufighter had clinched that.

Oosing head-on at nearly seven miles a minute on a dark, hazy night with no moon and no horizon, he had started to wheel a heavy and rather unstable aircraft around when only a mile away, and yet he had pulled out of that turn little more than that distance behind.

When John got his visual he found that it was a bandit all right. It was another Heinkel, weaving gently and ineffectively from side to side. His first shots started a fire inside the bomb-bay. We pulled clear and flew along on the port quarter, watching it burn.

The enemy crew had plenty of time to bale out as the Heinkel went flying steadily on its course for some minutes while the fire ate its way along the fuselage. The flames began to engulf the tail, and plumed out behind. Then slowly the bomber nosed over and went down like a rocket into the Wash.

I took a fix while John orbitted, reporting to control. We were thirty-five miles north-west of base, and the time was six minutes past ten. Seacut had no more trade to offer so we went out to sea again to cool our heels for an hour off Cromer.

It was Rawnsley and Cunningham’s first kill together. Not surprisingly Jimmy Rawnsley’s gripping memoir was something of a hit when it was published after the war, revealing methods of operation that had been kept secret until then. It seems extraordinary that it is currently out of print. See C.F Rawnsley: Night Fighter

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Pilalas August 23, 2016 at 8:36 pm

Further to Doug Vernon’s comment, in my youth I used to envision UK families gathered around the telly on weekends watching Jack Hawkins, David Niven et al holding off the German hordes and eventually emerging triumphant, all in a very understated but very heroic and inspiring way. What a disappointment when I got there in the 1960s that discover I had missed the whole thing and now it was the Beatles, Carnaby Street and fun, fun, fun. I felt like a fossil while still in 20s! Don’t despair though Doug – the old favorites are still out there and the internet is the way to find them. Happy watching.

Douglas Vernon July 13, 2015 at 9:47 am

There is something that stirs the imagination upon hearing of the adventures regarding the RAF during WWII.

And oh how I miss the British produced black and white motion pictures of Bomber Command, Fighter Command and all the rest doing their level best
in combating against the evil Luftwaffe, ground forces and Kriegsmarine.

Time to unlock the film vaults and put the cinematic images back in circulation…if not in the movie house, surely on weekly television programs.

Doug Vernon
San Diego, California

Lez Fishman October 23, 2012 at 8:22 am

Having recently restored the ops training room at the old Twinwood airfield, (Glen Millers last take off base) which was used to train night fighter crews, I am always quoting the results of the training and Cunningham and the carrots he used to eat, so it is great to see an article from an actual sortie that I can pass on.

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