Watching and listening to the battle overhead

Locals watch as troops and police inspect Messerschmitt Bf 109E-1 (W.Nr. 3367) "Red 14" of 2./JG52, which crash-landed in a wheatfield at Mays Farm, Selmeston, near Lewes in Sussex, 12 August 1940. Its pilot, Unteroffizier Leo Zaunbrecher, was captured.

Locals watch as troops and police inspect Messerschmitt Bf 109E-1 (W.Nr. 3367) “Red 14” of 2./JG52, which crash-landed in a wheatfield at Mays Farm, Selmeston, near Lewes in Sussex, 12 August 1940. Its pilot, Unteroffizier Leo Zaunbrecher, was captured.

As the Luftwaffe steeped up their attacks they moved inland from the attacks on convoys in the English channel. Increasingly people living in the south east of Britain became witnesses to the conflict.

Hubert S. Banner describes how the air battle fascinated those watching below:

Enemy activity was steadily on the increase; for now we were well into the opening phases of the Battle of Britain. Air-raid warnings in our area [Tunbridge Wells] averaged twelve or thirteen a day, and seldom any longer were they false alarms.

Time after time we would hear the heavy rumble up among the clouds which betokened a formation of German bombers, and there you would spot them as they sailed across the intervening patches of blue sky, dainty and silvery like little moths in the August sunshine, with still tinier moths that were their protective fighters weaving in and out and making rings around them as well-trained dogs encircle a flock of sheep.

And then often would be added the sound of our intercepting aircraft as they came tearing across the sky to do battle. Faint bursts of machine-gun fire would reach our ears, and sometimes a shower of the ‘empties’ would descend upon us… to bounce off the roofs and rattle all over the streets, whereupon there would be a frenzied rush of children scrambling to fill their pockets…

There was a period when the pupils of the Maidstone Grammar School had to go over every foot of their football-ground before each game in order to clear it of splinters…

The red-letter days were, of course, those when the exchanges overhead produced visible results in the form of Nazi airmen floating to earth. First you would discern a white speck against the blue, apparently stationary. But the speck would grow larger until you could make out its unbrella-top shape, and then at last you would be able to see the minute figure dangling beneath.

And what a rush there would be in the direction of the spot where the figure seemed likely to descend. Sometimes there was more than one. On one memorable occasion I saw five on their way down simultaneously, and the difficulty then was to decide in which of the five directions to rush…

I saw my first Nazi at close quarters during those memorable days. My wife and I had just finished lunch when we were startled by a ‘zoom’ that ended in a loud crash. Rushing to the window, we saw a column of black smoke rising above the tree-tops, and a few moments later began a crackling fusillade that reminded one of the Fifth of November. ‘Machine-gun ammunition popping off in the bonfire,’ I decided.

We jumped into the car and drove towards the smoke and noise, and soon we were overtaking a throng of cyclists and pedestrians all heading in the same direction.

The scene of the crash was on a golf-course, and a good-sized crowd had arrived there before us… The German fighter-bomber had hit the tree-tops in its descent, and there it lay, sprawling broken-backed on the greensward… It was consuming rapidly in its own flames, and the empty cartridges-cases leaped out of the pyre in all directions. The police had formed a cordon. Sternly they ordered the mob to keep its distance, but the small boys were too much for them. They dived and ducked through the cordon singly and in dozens, cheerfully contemptuous of the awful penalties attached to interfering with captured enemy property…

Beneath the trees… lay the Nazi airman. A First-Aid Party was in attendance. Tender hands were bandaging his cut forehead and broken leg. He was silent now, but I learned afterwards that when first dragged from his burning ’plane he had made noise enough until one of the men saidto him: ‘Be a man and shut up, can’t you? You asked for it, and now you’ve got it.’ Not another squeak had come from him after that rebuke…

Meanwhile the police were examining his effects… They drew forth in turn a carton of Californian dried raisins, a large slab of Cadbury’s chocolate, and – crowning insult – a packet of twenty Gold Flake. Many of the men who had thus far kept silence could no longer restrain their feelings when they caught sight of those Gold Flakes. They might be able to forgive the German for having come over with the intention of blowing them to bits, but not for having brought with him cigarettes looted from our abandoned stores in France.

See Hubert S. Banner: Kentish Fire

Soldiers guarding a crash-landed Junkers Ju 88A-1 of Stab II/KG 54 at Portland Head in Dorset, shot down by a No. 213 Squadron Hurricane over Portland Harbour, 11 August 1940. The censor has obscured the background.

Soldiers guarding a crash-landed Junkers Ju 88A-1 of Stab II/KG 54 at Portland Head in Dorset, shot down by a No. 213 Squadron Hurricane over Portland Harbour, 11 August 1940. The censor has obscured the background.

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