Escape from the Nazis that ended in coastal crash
PUBLISHED: 14:37 14 September 2014 | UPDATED: 14:39 14 September 2014
A new book charts the story of one of the most dramatic defections of the Second World War - the Herringfleet Messerschmitt and her fugitive pilot.
It was, by any standards, a strange manoeuvre, but, then again, there was nothing about the errant Messerschmitt’s flightpath which was remotely normal on that cloud-shrouded spring evening in 1944.
Descending through the murk that had masked its mysterious progress across the North Sea, the unarmed aircraft suddenly lowered its landing gear before continuing its unscheduled low-level approach towards the hostile shore.
Intended as the aeronautical equivalent of a ‘hands up’ signal of surrender, it proved an unnecessary precaution.
More by luck than judgment, the camouflage-mottled ME 109 trainer had contrived to make an unhindered landfall, evading detection and defences as it climbed to pass seemingly unnoticed above the Norfolk seaside village of Hopton-on-Sea.
Only minutes remained of a remarkable flight into the unknown. The aircraft’s fuel was almost exhausted when the wheels were retracted in readiness for a belly-landing. Moments later, Messerschmitt 109 G-12, White ‘22’, DG+NR, was seen dropping earthwards.
Aiming for Herringfleet Common, between St Olaves and Somerleyton, it overshot, tearing through the top branches of a tree before ploughing into a small valley, where its broken remains came to rest in three parts on a steep incline.
Incredibly and against all the odds, Oberfeldwebel Karl Wimberger, who lay injured and trapped in what was left of his shattered cockpit, had succeeded in pulling off one of the most dramatic defections of the Second World War.
The remarkable story of the Austrian fugitive’s great ‘escape’ is grippingly retold in a compelling new book detailing some of the conflict’s more astonishing flights that ended in often ignominious and invariably unheralded enemy landings in the United Kingdom.
Arrival of Eagles is a cornucopia of hair-raising escapades involving desperate dog-fights, muddled missions and scientific subterfuge drawn from more than 40 years of research by aviation historian Andy Saunders.
A former local government worker who has forged a second career as one of the country’s most respected writers on our wartime aeronautical heritage, he hit on the idea of the book while trawling through papers gathered through the course of a lifetime’s fascination with the air war over Britain.
“I had written up some of the stories as a series of magazine articles,” he explains, “but then I realised I had a whole mass of similar tales waiting to be told. It was just a case of having a filing cabinet full of unrelated stories which had the common thread of being about aircraft that arrived or crashed in Britain during the war in extremely unusual circumstances.”
The result is a spellbinding series of aerial adventures and misadventures featuring the heroic and the hapless which proves beyond all doubt that truth is far stranger than any fiction.
As well as offering fresh analysis of Nazi renegade Rudolf Hess’ startling descent onto a Scottish farm in May 1941, Saunders examines a clutch of less well known but no less extraordinary tales.
They include a fire-fight between a Territorial Army unit and a downed German bomber crew that was purportedly the first clash on British soil in almost 150 years, the wayward sortie of a flying postman who made the unexpected delivery of a German postal biplane in the summer of 1940 and the suicidally brave actions of a Hurricane pilot who rammed an enemy raider during a daring rooftop pursuit at the height of the Battle of Britain.
Even more unconventional were the methods used to lead enemy bombers astray during the Blitz. Saunders relates examples of the successes achieved by the so-called Meacon or masking beacon, an electronic counter-measures system designed to override the aircraft’s navigational bearings with a false setting.
“What fascinated me,” he explains, “was that as well as those aircraft which were known to have been deliberately misled into landing or crashing in Britain by Meacons, there were quite a few others which I cover in the book who claimed to have got lost or suffered what they described as failures of their onboard navigational equipment.
“They wandered all over the country, before eventually landing, not knowing where the hell they were. And it has led me to wonder if there were not far more aircraft brought down or forced to land as a result of electronic counter-measures than we have previously realised.”
Among the bombers which he believes may have fallen victim to what he calls “this piece of clever chicanery” was a Dornier 17 Z-3 which came down in East Anglia in utterly bizarre circumstances in the early hours of October 22, 1940.
Hopelessly lost and running low on fuel after its electrical and navigational equipment were apparently rendered useless by a storm, the aircraft’s crew had baled out over Wiltshire.
Their abandoned aircraft had then flown on, pilotless, across five counties until its fuel ran out and it made what Saunders describes as “an absolutely perfect and utterly remarkable landing” on tidal mud flats at Ness Point, prompting a vain search for the absentee airmen and an appeal from the Chief Constable of Suffolk for the public to keep a look-out for the German crew and “to report anything suspicious”.
In another not dissimilar tale of an aerial Marie Celeste, he charts the barely credible last flight of an unmanned Dornier 217 M-1 which crash-landed on a swathe of allotments in Cambridge, some 60 miles north of where its crew had parachuted to safety after being spooked by flak.
According to Saunders, the landing was “more than miraculous”. With its load of incendiaries still aboard, the twin-engine bomber had “skimmed” roof-tops before dropping down on the vegetable plots where its alarming slide towards a row of houses was only halted at the last moment by a large concrete post which snagged one of the wings.
Yet, remarkable though it was, the arrival of the first relatively intact Dornier 217 M-1 bomber on February 23, 1944 was rendered positively mundane just three months later by the exceptional exploit of a reluctant recruit to the enemy’s day-fighter force whose greatest sortie of the war was an audacious one-way trip to give himself up.
Saunders originally came across the story of Karl Wimberger several decades ago. “I picked it up in the County Records Office at Ipswich,” he says. “There was a police incident report about his arrival and then, over time, I gathered a lot more information from a local researcher, Christopher Elliott, who was the first person to try and piece the story together.”
More material, including correspondence and eyewitness accounts, were passed to him 10 years ago and the incredible saga of the Herringfleet defector took shape from there.
Wimberger was, plainly, no ordinary Luftwaffe pilot. An Austrian who claimed to have never sworn the oath of allegiance to the Nazi Party, he had been training to be an observer when his country was swallowed up by Hitler’s Germany in the 1938 Anschluss.
Initially discharged, quite possibly on account of his political convictions, he was recalled to service at the outbreak of war and posted to Vienna for instruction as a pilot.
It marked the start of a singularly unspectacular wartime flying career that would be detailed in his subsequent interrogation carried out by British intelligence officers. “By all accounts,” says Saunders, “Wimberger was not a terribly proficient pilot, though whether it was a case of him not being what you’d call the ‘right stuff’ or him not having the desire to fight for a regime he showed no loyalty towards is open to speculation.”
What is certain is that following an undistinguished spell with a target-towing unit based in Germany and then Norway, he was posted to a night-fighter training school where he was hospitalised following a crash that resulted in him being declared “unsuitable night-fighter pilot material”.
Transferred instead to 1 Jagdfliegerschule, a day-fighter training school, at Zerbst, near Innsbruck, in his native Austria, he arrived at a bleak moment. As well as struggling to combat the Allies’ relentless bombing offensive, a beleaguered Luftwaffe was fully engaged trying to slow the Russian advances on the Eastern Front in the full knowledge that an Anglo-American invasion in the West was just around the corner.
With the writing on the wall, it did not take the disaffected airman long to decide on his best course of action. In fact, just seven days passed between his posting and the opportunity he craved.
On the afternoon of May 15, following a training sortie of ‘circuits and bumps’ with an instructor, Wimberger was let loose alone in a fully fuelled Messerschmitt 109 G-12 trainer complete with a 66-gallon drop tank slung beneath the fuselage.
On any other day, flying conditions might have been judged less than ideal, but for what Karl Wimberger had in mind they were absolutely perfect. From 6,500 feet the sky was a blanket of cloud, just right for concealing a solitary defenceless aircraft bound on a mission that was a secret to all but the man at the controls.
At 5.10pm, Wimberger took off and vanished into the smother. A one-hour cross-country training mission had become a 435-mile escape flight that was reliant on holding fast to a memorised course intended to take him direct from Zerbst to the nearest point on the East coast of England.
Luck, as Saunders points out, would also play a significant part. In fact, it would stay with him all the way across Germany, occupied Holland, the North Sea and the Norfolk coast - until the very last moment when he began his final descent.
Wimberger had successfully traversed more than 400 miles of potentially hostile territory, most of it in cloud, without apparently arousing the slightest suspicion prior to its arrival over Herringfleet shortly before 7pm.
Something about the noise of the aircraft didn’t sound right to Kathleen Bell. Stepping outside her cottage at East View, she was just in time to make out the black crosses and mottled markings of what was clearly an enemy aircraft before it dropped out of sight.
Moments later, notes Saunders, she heard the “muffled sound of a distant crash” and immediately rushed back indoors to tell her husband, Harry, a sergeant in the local Home Guard. While Kathleen leapt on her bike to pedal off to Somerleyton police station to raise the alarm, Harry headed off on foot towards the apparent crash scene.
He arrived, “more than a little breathless”, shortly before another soldier to discover a scene of devastation. The aircraft’s nose had shorn off, its complete span of wings lay upside down, a single wheel leg pointing forlornly towards the sky and the main fuselage, with its cockpit canopies still closed, formed a third piece of the shattered wreckage of ME 109 White ‘22’.
On first impression, it seemed to Harry Bell unlikely that anyone could have survived such a catastrophic impact. “At the very least,” writes Saunders, “any occupant would likely be quite badly injured.”
In fact, as Bell quickly discovered, Karl Wimberger was neither dead nor grievously hurt. Peering inside, the Home Guard sergeant saw signs of movement which he soon realised was a pair of “wriggling feet”.
With the help of the soldier, he succeeded in heaving the canopy open before hauling the still conscious Austrian out of the cockpit for the first time since departing Zerbst.
As he lay on the ground, nursing a bleeding left wrist and a badly broken left leg, Wimberger’s first thought was to ask, in broken English, where he was. When told “England”, his slightly mumbled but evidently enthusiastic reaction took his rescuers completely by surprise.
“Good,” said the gallant defector and left it at that.
His extraordinary ‘escape’ was over. Though hardly a ‘home run’, it was, as Saunders says, “an outstanding achievement” let down at the last by a forgivably poor crash-landing. “For somebody who was apparently not the greatest of pilots,” he says, “it was a remarkable piece of flying which showed his absolute determination to turn his daring plan into reality.”
As for his eventual fate, little more is known about the brave Austrian. “Several years ago, I tried to track him down but got absolutely nowhere,” says Saunders. “He’s probably dead now, but I’d have loved to have met him and found out what really motivated him to risk everything in such an incredible flight.
“I assume he’d have been placed in a prisoner of war camp where he would have had to concoct a story about his arrival in England in order to avoid being tried as a traitor in a kangaroo court. It’s a tantalising part of his incredible story that’s still waiting to be told.”
Arrival of Eagles: Luftwaffe Landings in Britain 1939-1945, by Andy Saunders, is published by Grub Street, priced £20.