It was a cold, snow covered morning on the 3rd February 1940, when the crew of the impressively large Radar station situated at Danby Beacon located and confirmed the presence of enemy bombers patrolling the seas off the North East coast of England.
The information was immediately relayed to the only airfield not snowbound that morning at Acklington in Northumberland, which was home to Flight Lieutenant Peter Townsend and the 43 Squadron. Once alerted to the imminent danger a section from B flight was dispatched to intercept the enemy force.
RAF Danby Beacon radar station as it looked in 1940
Flight Lieutenant Townsend and B flight eventually made contact with the Germans just off the coast at Whitby. The enemy plane sighted was a Heinkel III (a slow moving German bomber), which had been part of a bigger operation that day, its objective was to locate and destroy British shipping in the North Sea.The German plane stood little chance as the three British Hawker Hurricanes swarmed around it. Shot to pieces, the Heinkel limped on, desperate to escape the British onslaught.
The bomber, now out of control and losing altitude, made for land, and so it was that the town of Whitby awoke that morning to a dreadful sound as the damaged plane screeched over its roof tops.The bomber finally crashed on the outskirts of town at Bannial Flatt, narrowly missing the farm house that stood there. Tragically two of the aircrew Rudolf Leuchake (observer) and Johann Meyer (flight engineer and ventral gunner) were killed in the attack. Of the two remaining airmen Unter Offizer Herman Wilms (pilot) survived and Karl Missy (radio operator and dorsal gunner) received severe wounds.
Then Flight Lieutenant Peter Townsend
The pilot having managed to free himself as well as being able to burn the official flight documents, tried to make good his escape, but was quickly apprehended by George Walker a postal worker who having seen the plane crash had been one of the first arrive on the scene. His Great Granddaughter Anna Welford would later recount George’s version of that mornings events:
“The pilot then gave himself up, however my Great Grandad and the other witnesses did not realise that the German was carrying a gun, luckily no harm came to him or the other witnesses.
As soon as the situation was under control my Great Grandad had to resume his postal duties…..all in day’s work”
A second witness, Roy Steele a ten year old boy from Hawsker, had been helping his Grandfather on the farm that morning when he happened to hear machine gun fire, looking up he saw the approach of the damaged bomber seconds before it crashed into the farm yard.
Quickly coming to the aid of the crash victims the boy was told by his Grandfather to climb into the wreckage and free the gunner who had been trapped in the rear of the plane. Both the surviving airmen were then unceremoniously locked in the farm’s coal house, where they stayed until Special Constable Arthur Barrett arrived with reinforcements.
Upon discovering the outcome of the attack Flight Lieutenant Peter Townsend along with two other pilots went to visit the survivors of the crash in hospital, bringing with them gifts of fruit, cigarettes and a sense of camaraderie for men, who like themselves, faced their fate every time they took to the air. The dead German crewmen were buried with full military honours at Catterick. A wreath was placed on their coffins, with a card that read 'From 43 Squadron with sympathy'.
It would later emerge that this was in fact the first enemy plane to be shot down over England since World War One, but the significance of the bravery, heroism and tragedy of that day would somehow be lost as the war years continued to grind on and the subsequent death toll reached overwhelming proportions.