Who shot down the Smethwick Heinkel?

The above intriguing question has been raised following the publication of a new book “The Luftwaffe over Brum” by Steve Richards.

An extract from the author’s preface states, “Like many of my generation who grew up in the 1950-1960s, I was regaled with stories told by my parents relating their experiences while living through the Blitz. My mother especially, who lived in Warley, Smethwick, waxed lyrical. She was of senior school age throughout the Blitz period. Her most dramatic account was of a German bomber which crashed in nearby Hales Lane, and how one of the German crew landed by parachute on the roof of a house opposite her home.”

The story begins in early 2000 just after the inauguration of the Quinton LHS. Research had been undertaken by Peter Kennedy from Smethwick and Quinton’s own historian, Tony Rosser. They then collaborated in trying to bring Rudolf Muller to Quinton. The following passages have either been published in The Oracle, on the society website www.qlhs.org.ukor by letter/email since 2002.

Steve Richards contacted me a year or so ago asking for permission to use photographs from the society website. He had concerns with the accuracy of some of the information published and this article is an attempt to make our members aware of both sides of the argument as to “Who shot down the Smethwick Heinkel?”

I will begin with the articles and photos that were published over a decade ago and follow that with an extract from Steve’s book (in italics) that he has kindly given permission for me to publish.

AERIAL WARFARE OVER QUINTON

Most QLHS members will be aware by now of the aerial battle in the skies over Quinton, early on the 10th April 1941. Flight Lt. E C Deanesly in his Boulton Paul Defiant intercepted a German raid on Birmingham and a Heinkel III bomber was shot down. It careered away to the south, snagged a barrage balloon wire over Wythall and finally crashed near the “Two Brewers” public house in Smethwick, killing several civilians and two of the four crew.

Peter Kennedy (once of the Smethwick History Society) and I have spent many years trying to trace the surviving combatants. Peter, who did most of the groundwork, eventually found Deanesly, retired and living in Edgbaston. Before Deansley died, in February 1998, Peter was able to record an interview with him. His gunner, a man named Scott, has yet to be traced. Just as elusive were the surviving members of the Luftwaffe crew. Earlier this year, we tried one last throw of the dice and recruited Gisela Stuart, MP to the cause. In turn, the German Embassy got involved and the Air Attaché, Colonel Hasso Kortge traced the pilot, Feldwebel Rudolf Muller, now in his eighties and asked if he would accept a letter from us.

He responded warmly to the suggestion and we received his reply, written in German, on 8th June 2001. Needless to say, we were extremely elated to receive this letter (the first of several we hope) and its fascinating contents. As it includes nuggets of information as yet unpublished, here is a passage from the letter for you to read: -

Thank you for your letter dated 24-6-2001. Your details about my crash in Birmingham are true.

The manoeuvre and the bombardment from Birmingham were on 10-4-2001 in the early morning hours. The British fighter, which came as real surprise, and the machine gunfire, damaged our plane so much that both engines failed. In addition, we also hit the cable of a balloon and had to abandon the plane.

Muller and Strecke at Dinard

My observer, Werner Strecke, was wounded through a gunshot in his leg, but he got out. Egon Grolig and Helmut Haecke were hit in the plane and did not survive. After many different stages of interrogation, I got into the prison camp in Manchester. End of 1941 all prisoners were transported to Canada. Werner Straecker and I were together there. Due to circumstances at the end of the war, the separation of Germany and the abolishment of the “Streitkraefte” (German Army) made it quite impossible to go on with the soldier’s friendship. Werner Strecke lived in Ohlau/Schlesien, which is now in Poland. No one could so far find him. I hope you can use my descriptions in any way and will be happy to stay in contact.

I would also like you to get in contact with the Local History Society and to thank them in my name for their letter and photos of 17-7-2001. If you have any further questions would be very happy to help you.

Report from “The Birmingham Mail” dated Thursday 10, 1941

Rudolf Müller was shot down in his Heinkel bomber by enemy aircraft on April 9th 1941 during the Second World War. Rudolf Müller was the pilot; his crew members were Egon Grolig; Werner Strecke and Helmut Hacke.

The plane had taken off from its base in Dinard, Northern France. Its target was an engine factory in Birmingham. However, a Boulton Paul Defiant, with a crew of Flight Lieutenant Christopher Deanesly and rear gunner Sergeant Jack Scott, attacked the plane.

Deansley and Scott

The Heinkel did not reach its target but crash landed into the houses at 281 and 283 Hales Lane, Smethwick, killing seven civilians. The four crew members of the Heinkel met with different fates, two were killed when the plane was attacked namely Grolig and Hacke. The other two, Müller and Strecke bailed out, Müller was found in Barston Road, Quinton and Streke in Hales Lane, Smethwick.

Photo from a local newspaper

A member of a party of firewatchers on duty in the road told a reporter: 'we heard the clatter of machine gun fire and a scream as the plane came down. We threw ourselves flat on the ground in an entry and the machine crashed into the houses immediately opposite. There was only a dull explosion, but there was a blinding flash, and the wreckage of the plane and the houses was blown in all directions. I saw a member of the Home Guard run to the blazing plane and drag out a body. The airman wore an iron cross," Thomas Packer, a warden, described the capture of one member of the crew.

I was at the post when the airman was brought in by warden Simmons and Home Guards Chadney and Davies." He said they caught him at the Oval immediately after he landed. He had an injury to his foot and limped."

And a transcript of an interview conducted at Brandhall Library entitled Heinkel crash at Hales Lane

At the time of this incident I was on duty at the Auxiliary Fire Station at Castle Road East School near Warley Woods. I was told the plane had rolled upside down and had flown low over the rooftops of houses in Perry Hill Road opposite my house. One of the crew had bailed out and had landed in Barston Road. An appliance from our station had been dispatched to the crash site in Hales Lane. When they returned they said four houses had been destroyed and that they found the severed head of a crewmember in the gutter. He had been killed when the plane was attacked.

At this time the Home Guard H.Q. for the Quinton / Oldbury area was at 'High Tor', a large detached house with extensive drive, 59 Perry Hill Road (opposite Forest Road). This had been a private Commercial College pre-war but had been taken over by Colonel Fillery of the Toffee firm to serve as his base. There was a full time Military staff with motor transport.

I believe that it is possible Feldwebel Muller was taken to an ARP Wardens' base and that Home Guards from their H.O. came to collect him. John Nicholas, aged 16, and an ex-classmate of mine, was one of Herr Muller's rescuers. We had both been taught German at Holly Lodge Grammar School and he was able to communicate a little.

Mr. Owen, who lived a few yards from where Werner Strecke, the other crew member landed, was a fire watcher on duty near the Two Brewers public house at the time of the crash. The plane fell on to a house, which was the home of his sister and brother in law. He had to be restrained from trying to rescue them. His sister and two children were victims but her husband was on duty elsewhere. This information from Mr. Owen's son, a friend of mine. Ernest F. Wilson

NOW TO THE CURRENT INFORMATION EXTRACTED FROM THE BOOK BY STEVE RICHARDS:-

In the late 1990s, when helping one of my own teenage daughters with a school project about the Second World War, we decided to attempt to compile a list of air attacks on Birmingham.

The three volumes of The Blitz Then and Now were diligently studied. It was there that we found a reference to the bomber of which my mother had spoken so often. It was a Heinkel He 111 of German bomber unit KG27 which, so it was said, had been brought down by a Defiant night fighter flown by Flt Lt Deanesly. This was most exciting. However, in the months that followed, I continued my own investigations which caused me to doubt that this particular RAF pilot was, indeed, responsible for the demise of the Heinkel.

In March 2012, my wife came across a reference on the internet suggesting that a pilot named Bodien had brought down a Heinkel over Birmingham on the night in question. With this lead we were able to source combat reports, squadron ORBs (operations record books) and even personal letters written by Bodien, which left no doubt that he, and not Deanesly, had shot down the Heinkel. This was contrary to much published local history, both in print and on the internet. Until recently, published information offered by local history groups concerning the Heinkel He 111 which crashed in Smethwick, credited its destruction to a Defiant aircraft crew, Flt Lt Christopher Deanesly and his gunner Sgt W.J. Scott of 256 Sqn.

Two sources appear to be at the heart of this claim: a dissertation which was written in 1994 by local historian Peter Kennedy entitled The Air Raids on Smethwick 1940-1942 and secondly, an amazinglydetailed work, The Blitz Then and Now, volume 2, published in 1988. Referring to the latter, there is a reference (page 520) where Deanesly is cited as being responsible for bringing down the Heinkel which then crashed onto houses in Hales Lane, Smethwick. Mention is made of the fact that the RAF pilot was a ‘local’ Wolverhampton lad. It is, however, the Kennedy work which, on the face of things, seems more authoritative.

The contributor to The Blitz then and Now has subsequently acknowledged that reference to Deanesly was incorrect. Kennedy reproduces what he describes as an extract from Deanesly’s flying logbook which tells of the action against a Heinkel. Actually what he cites is a copy of the RAF combat report submitted to Fighter Command HQ, RAF Stanmore.

The Smethwick Heinkel came down in the early hours of 10thApril 1941 at 01:40 hours. That Deanesly was in action over the Birmingham area on this date is confirmed by the report and, indeed, by the squadron’s operations record book. Crucially, his take-off time is recorded as being on the evening of the 10that 21:55 and his return to base was at 23:15. In other words, Deanesly’s combat took place on the night of 10/11th(not the early hours of the 10th). On this night he brought down a Heinkel which crashed at Radway, Warwickshire. It is to this combat that the report related by Kennedy refers, and is not connected to the Smethwick Heinkel.In fact, 256 Sqn had no contact with enemy aircraft on the night of the 9/10th.

In later years two respected aviation historians, Christopher Shores and Andrew Thomas, were each able to interview Deanesly on separate occasions and inspect his flying logbook which showed that his first night victory was on the 10/11th April 1941. However, it is most likely that Deanesly was under the misapprehension that his Heinkel had crashed at Smethwick. Apparently the word through unofficial channels had reached him about a Heinkel going down on Smethwick on the 10th and he, not knowing any different, seems to have assumed this was his. Even the writer of the squadron's record book adds to the confusion by mentioning a bomber down at Smethwick in connection with Deanesly. The fact remains that the Heinkel which crashed at Smethwick had come down 21 hours earlier.

The Defiant crew who did in fact deliver the critical attack on the Heinkel were Sgt Harry Bodien and gunner Sgt Dudley Jonas of 151 Sqn. This squadron put up a number of aircraft in response to the large raid on Birmingham on the night of 9/10th. Bodien took off at 01:10 and, following his engagement with a Heinkel, landed again at 02:10. The Defiant’s gunner, believing his pilot to be dead, bailed out after they had made three attacks on the enemy machine. Jonas saw the Heinkel going down in flames and the impact as it hit the ground. Having descended by parachute, he safely touched terra firma and was taken care of by E Flight of 915 Sqn (barrage balloon). Here he was informed that reports were coming in saying that a bomber had gone down on houses killing as many as 12 people.

On the 12th, which was Easter Saturday, Bodien wrote to his sister who lived on the Isle of Wight. He described in great detail how, in the early hours of the 10th, he and Jonas brought down a Heinkel over Birmingham. His story mirrored the formal combat report. Towards the close of his letter he wrote:

My gunner has just got back and tells me our Heinkel crashed on some houses in Castle Bromwich killing about 12 people. Hope the weather is good tonight.

Cheerio and all the best, Harry’

References to Castle Bromwich and 12 people killed were inaccurate, but serve as an illustration to how half-truths and rumour were rife in the heat of battle.

The Smethwick Heinkel was the only German aircraft to crash onto houses in the West Midlands during the war. Just one other came down in the immediate vicinity of Birmingham and this was the Earlswood Heinkel which crashed in a field one month later.

Ed’s comment - My thanks to Steve Richards if anyone would like a copy of the book priced at £19.95 then please go to the website www.birmingham-raids.co.uk or it can be ordered from a bookshop the ISBN is as follows-978-0-9563708-3-9

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