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Page last updated at 11:33 GMT, Friday, 20 August 2010 12:33 UK
Battle of Britain Peewit convoy attack remembered

Diving the wreck of SS Coquetdale

On a cloudy August day in 1940, the skies and seas around the Isle of Wight witnessed the first sustained clashes of the Battle of Britain.

With the Luftwaffe able to fly from occupied northern France, shipping along England's south coast was an easy target for the German bombers.

Convoy CW9 - codenamed Peewit - was hauling coal from Medway before dispersing off Swanage when it was hit.

Three fierce air battles ensued as the RAF attempted to fend off the strikes.

Home waters

The attack on the Peewit convoy on 8 August 1940 marked the first day of sustained engagements with German forces, and the first time the RAF was really tested above home waters.

With the threat of invasion looming, the Luftwaffe was attempting to strangle Britain's lifeline of its merchant shipping.

The merchant vessel, the SS Coquetdale was in a smaller convoy of six ships which sailed from the Solent to join the main Peewit contingent.

The vulnerable convoy had been spotted by German radar, and despite an escort of nine navy ships, it was hit by Stuka dive bombers in three progressively more intense attacks throughout the day.

Historian Andy Saunders has studied the ensuing air battle as the RAF Spitfires attempted to break the line of German Messerschmitt fighters which were defending their dive bombers attacking the ships.

He describes "a massive tangle of aircraft all over the sky - wheeling, diving, being shot down, parachutes coming into the sea, planes falling on fire."

The wreckage of one Stuka fell at St Lawrence on the Isle of Wight.

Last survivor

Dennis Robinson

The last known survivor of the air battle is 92-year-old Denis Robinson who lives in Winchester.

As a 22-year-old sergeant pilot, he flew a Spitfire from Warmwell in Dorset with 152 Squadron.

He recalls the intensity of the battle and shooting down a Stuka bomber in the early encounters.

Mr Robinson said: "We knew the Battle of Britain was critical ... we knew if we didn't do our job, everything depended on it. I was surprised we were able to get in amongst them and we were able to attack."

However during the second attack later in the day, the front of Mr Robinson's Spitfire was hit by enemy fire and he made a forced landing in fields near Wareham in Dorset.

He recalls: "There were clouds of black smoke as the aircraft went down vertically, I managed to get it out of a dive, then the engine stopped.

"That's the time to decide whether to use the parachute, I thought to myself, 'it's bloody dangerous' so I didn't do it. I was stuck with having to fly it.

"I was pretty lucky - I really didn't think I was going to make it."

"Absolute mayhem"

Meanwhile, the attacks on the Peewit convoy continued.

Crash picture
Sgt Pilot Robinson made a forced landing near Wareham

On the SS Coquetdale, Captain Harvey reported his vessel being hit by several bombs amidships with the port side completely blown out.

Although merchant ships, the convoy vessels did have some anti-aircraft guns but historian Andy Saunders insists, "the reality was, it really wasn't desperately effective."

He added: "Gunners were still firing, bombs were exploding in the water all around - there was absolute mayhem onboard that ship."

The ship sank, all the crew escaped. The wreckage now lies on the seabed, in 40 metres (131 feet) of water, 24 km (15 miles) south west of St Catherine's Point on the Isle of Wight.

It has been surveyed by the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology and signs of the attack and blast damage are still visible among the wreckage.

For Denis Robinson who was sent straight back into service despite his crash, the memories of that day and the rest of the Battle of Britain summer of 1940, remain fresh.

He said: "I feel immense pride because of the loss of my colleagues. They just didn't come back, we never knew what happened to them - that was one of the worse things."

Andy Saunders' account of the Peewit convoy, Convoy Peewit 1940: The First Day of the Battle of Britain is published by Grub Street.


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