I Was There! - My Spitfire was the First to be Shot Down
Crippled by attack from a Spitfire, which itself came down in flames, a Heinkel was finally dispatched by the crew of a drifter. Here are first-hand stories of the incident told by the British pilot and the crew of the drifter.
On April 3 a battle took place over the North Sea between a Spitfire and a Heinkel, which resulted in the loss of both machines – the Spitfire being the first British loss in coastal defence during the war.
The British pilot's account of the fight was sent to his aerodrome through the radio telephone, while he was actually engaging the enemy.
First he reported to his base: "Shot down Heinkel. It has landed in sea."
The he reported: "Fishing boat picking up German crew."
There was a pause. Instructions were about to be given to him. Before they could be spoken, the pilot said: "I am on fire."
He was told to make for the coast, come down on the sea, or take to his parachute.
A few seconds of tension. Then came his final message: "Am making landing on sea."
The rest of the story was told by the pilot after he had spent three days in hospital.
"I stalled on the water at 65 miles an hour with a loud crash," he said. "The aircraft immediately dug its nose in and came to a vertical position tail up and sank at once. I think the touch down and sinking were simultaneous.
"My next clear recollection is that I was below the surface and that everything appeared green.
"I undid my harness and began to get clear. The aircraft was sinking rapidly and when I was almost clear my parachute got under the sliding roof. I then got partly back into the cockpit and out again, and finally got clear and tried to swim to the surface.
"The pressure was very great and the green light had changed to black, and by the time I broke surface my lings had reached just about the limit.
"I then undid my parachute and trod water, but had great difficulty in keeping up. There appeared to be rollers at regular intervals about 5 ft. to 6 ft. high. I tried to remove my helmet, but went under each time I tried. I then tried to put more air into my life-jacket, but found this impossible as I was winded.
"Finally I got a glimpse of a trawler coming approximately in my direction. I continued to tread water, and with slight help from my life-jacket kept up about five to ten minutes, during which time I found the weight of my clothing increasing rapidly.
"I released my parachute, and immediately realized that it was giving me considerable buoyancy, so I held it with my left hand. It did not begin to submerge for several minutes, when it gradually sank to waist level.
"Then the trawler arrived alongside, and I was handed a boathook."
The skipper of the drifter which picked up the German airmen described how his Lewis gun was brought into action against their 'plane.
"We were fishing off the Yorkshire coast," he said, "when we saw a Spitfire fighting with a German 'plane. Suddenly the German machine flew low over us and my son Tom 'let go' with our Lewis gun. He put eight or nine shots in the right place, and the 'plane wobbled and dropped into the sea about a quarter of a mile away."
The drifter slipped her fishing lines and found one of the German airmen in the water and four others clinging to the fuselage. The ship broke a wing off the aeroplane as she drew alongside. One of the crew covered the airmen with a rifle and ordered them to throw their revolvers into the sea.
The skipper of the drifter said: "We got the Germans aboard, dried their clothes, and gave them brandy and tea and proceeded to harbour. One gave my brother Bob a ring and another gave Tom a wristwatch.
"One of the Germans who spoke a little English told me after we had rescued them that one of the engines was put out of action in the fight with the Spitfire, another had not functioned properly before, and that our fire finally disabled his aircraft.
"We told them that about three weeks ago we were bombed by a German 'plane while fishing, but not hit, and one of the Germans replied that he did not shoot at fishing vessels, only 'big boats.'"