Blind-flying duel over southern England

23rd May 1942: A blind-flying duel over southern England

The Heinkel banked steeply over to the left and came running back at us, the gunners firing broadsides as they flashed past only a hundred yards away on the beam. John had the Beaufighter already staggering around after them, the force of the turn pressing me down outrageously into my seat.

The first production Beaufighter Mark IIF night fighter, R2270, fitted with dihedral tailplanes and equipped with AI Mark IV radar, in flight. This aircraft served with No. 406 Squadron RCAF.
The Heinkel He 111 was a relatively familiar sight over Britain during the summer and autumn of 1940, the mainstay of the German bomber fleet.

The Luftwaffe continued to make hit and run ‘nuisance raids’ over Britain, and the RAF continued to develop the means to respond to them. When it became apparent that they were taking advantage of unseasonably bad weather to creep over the south coast in thick mist and low cloud, the night fighters were brought into action early to deal with them.

John ‘Cats Eyes’ Cunningham was already developing a reputation as an skilled night fighter pilot. British propaganda credited him with especially good night vision – hence the nickname – but this was largely a ruse to cover up the effectiveness of airborne radar which was now giving the night fighters a particular advantage. Flying with Cunningham was navigator observer / radar operator C.F. Rawnsley. His post war memoir was to include a long description of the two and a half hour battle that took place in the late afternoon gloom of 23rd May 1942:

At four o’clock in the afternoon we scraped off after them into the drizzle and set course for Swanage. The earth was gone in a flash, and we were alone in the centre of a ball of white emptiness. Only the needles of the instruments of the blind-flying panel could tell us what was happening: air speed, height, rate of climb, altitude, direction. Without them we were anywhere and nowhere, and we had to believe them or perish. We were still, floating motionless in a void, going neither up nor down, until we looked at the instruments.

Calling Starlight, John received an answer in the reassuring voice of Keith Geddes, who was now on a rest from operational flying and acting as a controller at the G.C.I. [Ground Control Interception] Keith gave us a lead to a quick and easy stern chase, and very soon John had a Heinkel in sight a thousand yards ahead. And almost immediately it was obvious to us that the crew of that aircraft were not going to be caught napping.

The Heinkel banked steeply over to the left and came running back at us, the gunners firing broadsides as they flashed past only a hundred yards away on the beam. John had the Beaufighter already staggering around after them, the force of the turn pressing me down outrageously into my seat.

But this German pilot knew what he was about, and he had already faded into the mist before we were around. I pushed my head down into the visor, but my eyes had been so dazzled by the glare outside that nearly a minute passed before I could make out anything on the face of the cathode ray tubes; and by that time there was nothing worth seeing.

The Heinkel was only briefly lost because they were guided back onto the target by the ‘Starlight’ Ground Controller, soon the Heinkel pilot knew the chase was back on:

I wondered what his feelings were and if he was beginning to despair when we reappeared behind him a few minutes later. He certainly showed no signs of any panic for he immediately repeated his sound tactics of turning in to our attack.

But this time John was already turning inside him, determined not to be thrown off. The turns steepened until the Heinkel appeared to be almost upside down over our heads. The effects of the “ G ” were becoming intolerable as the duel developed into a grim winding match, a term John always used to describe two aircraft trying to out-turn each other. My eyeballs were dragging at their sockets, and my neck muscles were aching with the sheer effort it took to try and hold up my head. Over the intercom I could hear John’s breathing becoming laboured as he relentlessly lugged those tons of metal around the sky.

The punishing evasive manoeuvres continued and Rawnsley became acutely aware, from the instruments alone, of how close they were to the ground at times. Finally the Heinkel seemed to escape them and disappeared off the radar and could not be re-located. Cunningham followed the homing beacon back to the airfield at Middle Wallop and then dipped down below the cloud to find the runway.

And then we were told that our adversary had also seen the blessed earth again, although it could only have been for a brief horrifying moment. The German was still diving almost vertically in a last desperate bid for escape when he broke cloud a few hundred feet above that unexpectedly high ground of the sodden slopes of Cranbourne Chase. He must have failed by only a few feet to pull out in time; and close to the lonely crossroads of Alvediston there was found the wreckage of the Heinkel with what was left of that spirited pilot and his crew.

They were flying at 340 miles an hour when they lost contact with their quarry. Cunningham had outflown Hauptman Langar the Commanding Officer of the Luftwaffe’s development unit K. Gr. 100, having not fired a single shot himself.

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

A view of the Beaufighter's cockpit.

4 thoughts on “Blind-flying duel over southern England”

  1. I read this on a day 75 years after the incident described above and when another type of terrorist attacks and kills British civilians. I know from reading this website regularly that today, in 2017, the British people will persevere as they did in the face of greater threats in 1942.

  2. Funny, I just read that Nightfighters book. Great stuff, not super imaginatively written, but “cracking” nonetheless.


  3. I had only seen Beaufighters with radial engines and didn’t realise some were fitted with Merlins. The Mk 11F must have been an early model, as the ones in operation in Malaysia were definitely fitted with Bristol engines and were very quiet in flight.

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