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70th anniversary of WW2 German plane crash near Whitby

Heinkel crash near Whitby in 1940. Illustration: Stuart Macmillan
The bomber stopped just yards from the cottages at Bannial Flatt farm

On 3 February 1940 the first German aircraft to crash on English soil in World War Two came down at a farm just outside Whitby in North Yorkshire.

In the early morning of that day a group of Heinkel III bombers had set off in pairs from a base in northern Germany.

Their mission was to locate a British convoy which was southbound from Sweden and believed to be off the north east coast of England.

Just after 9am an operator at the North Yorkshire radar station, RAF Danby Beacon, reported: 'Two unidentified at 60 miles; approaching at 1,000 feet.'

The message was received by Fighter Command in Newcastle and relayed to RAF Acklington, the only airfield in the area that was not snowbound on that extremely cold February morning.

Waiting on the runway were three Hurricanes of 'B' Flight, 43 Squadron and one of the pilots waiting to be deployed was Flight Lieutenant Peter Townsend, who became famous in later life for his relationship with Princess Margaret.

'B' flight was scrambled and, with Townsend leading, the Hurricanes sped southwards at full throttle.

As they flew, in search formation and at low altitude above the waves to minimize the risk of detection by the enemy, their radio told them that German bombers were attacking an unarmed trawler.

Crashed Heinkel with dead crew member lying in snow. Illustration: Stuart Macmillan
One of the bomber's four crew, Rudolf Leushacke, was killed in the air battle

When the Hurricanes arrived on the scene, Townsend spotted one Heinkel and the three British planes moved in to attack.

In the subsequent air battle the German aircraft was badly damaged and one of its four crew, observer Rudolf Leushacke, was killed instantly in the first hail of bullets fired by Townsend.

The pilot of the Heinkel, Hermann Wilms, was uninjured and attempted to escape by flying into cloud.

However, the engines had been hit and failing power made a crash landing inevitable. The only option left was to make for the coast, some two miles to the west.

The bomber, trailing smoke, reached open land on the edge of the North York Moors but was forced to make a crash landing at Bannial Flatt Farm.

According to reports, it gouged its way across a snowy field and towards a line of trees and a pair of cottages that blocked its path.

However, it had already slowed down considerably when it hit the trees and the bomber stopped just yards from the farm cottages, the first Luftwaffe aircraft to come down on English soil since the First World War.

Stuart Macmillan belongs to the North Yorkshire and Cleveland Defence Study Group which has studied the incident as part of its work producing 14 books on wartime history.

As well as being a historian, Stuart has also produced illustrations for the group's books, including some of the Heinkel bomber crash.

After the war North Riding County Council erected a plaque to mark the incident on a stone pillar at Sleights Lane End, north of Whitby at the junction of the A171 and A169.

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