Requiem for an aircrew
On an August day in 2006 I stood near a hedge bordering a cornfield on the south coast of England, by a damp hollow from which a ten-foot tall bush has grown. (In April 1944, a pond stood there.)
I stood on the engine hood of my car to take this photo above the level of the tops of the hedges. The body of water is the Solent and beyond that, on the horizon, is the Isle of Wight. In the distance (behind the camera in this view) bracketed by trees and misted by summer haze was Exbury House, which in April 1944 was the ‘granite frigate’ HMS Mastodon. On that rough ground, more than sixty years ago, seven aviators aged 19 to 23 were killed when their Junkers 188 twin-engine bomber crashed.
The Exbury Junkers, a World War II Mystery, by John Stanley
Woodfield Publishing, 2004, ISBN 1-903953-60-X
Review by Everard Cunion in 2006
This slim volume (I read it over a weekend) results from “A personal investigation into the wartime riddle of a lone German bomber, its seven-man crew and its ill-fated final mission,” to quote the text on the front cover. The mystery is many-fold: Why were there seven men aboard an aircraft normally crewed by four (as was thought by the allies then) all of corporal rank or below? Why were they flying at low level over the area containing the invasion fleet – where they were almost certain to be shot down? Why were RAF fighters not scrambled to intercept the lone aircraft when it was picked up by radar crossing the channel? Why did the crew not attempt to defend themselves when attacked by Typhoons that accidentally came upon the rogue bomber?Incidentally, the Ju 188 was successor to the Ju 88 of the Battle of Britain, in which a planned invasion in the opposite direction was forestalled by RAF Hurricanes and Spitfires four years previously.
Later on the day of the crash, after the victims’ bodies had been removed, an officer in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve happened upon the scene as he drove back to Mastodon after participating in pre-invasion exercises a few miles away:
Only a few miles on I came on an enigma of this curious war, in a small country lane with fields on either side, very near the sea. A German aeroplane, a Ju 188, had crashed across the road that morning; it had spread itself over the field in the manner of a modern aircraft…
— Lieutenant-Commander Nevil Shute Norway (quoted from the book)
That event, with some of the facts altered, became a cornerstone of his 1955 novel, Requiem for a Wren. (See Shooting a line–my review of the novel.) That story became so well known that a chapter of Stanley’s book is devoted to separating fact from fiction.
As she fired the wheels came down; she knew that something had happened but it meant nothing to her. She went on firing and the glass and perspex nose of the cabin shattered, and three bright stars appeared inside the cabin quickly in succession. It reared up suddenly and passed right over the L.C.T.s in a steep climb towards Mastodon; she scrambled round with the gun to get it on a reverse bearing, but now her own ship blanked her fire.
— from Requiem for a Wren, by Nevil Shute
The only criticisms I have of Stanley’s book are the poorly printed photos (all black-and-white) and occasional fogeyisms like referring to ‘the last war.’ (The last war? The second Gulf War? Afghanistan?) But, hey, aviation heritage is a minority interest and we are lucky indeed to have this book available at all. Besides, you can find more images of the Ju 188, the Hawker Typhoon, and other related items on the web.
Stanley’s book solves several puzzles concerning this bizarre event and he puts forward some likely theories for others. However, at least two of those mysteries remain entirely unsolved.
Kathleen Maskell was a Wren stationed nearby…
As I walked in to the sick bay which was a building built specially in the gardens, I saw a German airman sitting on the floor. I looked at him and I thought, he could be my brother, he’s probably got brothers and sisters, a mother or a wife, and I thought how futile war is. I thought he looked so ill. I never knew until a re-union in 1992 that he’d died.
—from Requiem for a W.R.E.N, by Dunstable Town Centre. (Link now broken, sorry.)