In August, the Luftwaffe stepped up their campaign launching Unternehmen Adlerangriff (Operation Eagle attack). Targeting RAF airfields and RDF stations (later renamed RADAR), the Battle entered a crucial stage when on the 15th Aug 1940 the aftermath of one particular raid brought the war uncomfortably close to the inhabitants of Rotherfield.
This critical day played a part in influencing the outcome of the entire Battle and was referred to afterwards as “Black Thursday” by the Luftwaffe. One of the units involved was the elite Erprobungsgruppe 210 (ErPro210). Led by Swiss born Hptm Walter Rubensdörffer, a decorated veteran of the Spanish Civil War, the unit specialised in low level precision bombing attacks. They flew twin engine Messerschmitt Bf110c Zerstörer’s (Destroyer’s), a two seater heavy fighter used in a ground attack role as well as utilising bomb carrying Messerschmitt Bf109e’s. ErPro210 had already carried out a successful attack on the 15th, when in the early evening they made their way towards another target, RAF Kenley.
Around 6.30pm, 24 Bf110’s & Bf109’s approached Dungeness. Flying into an early evening mist it was not until they reached Sevenoaks that they discovered they had lost their fighter escort. Undeterred, Rubensdörffer lined up to attack what he could just perceive as hangars in the distant haze. What he didn’t realise was that he was about to attack Croydon aerodrome by mistake.
On the ground, 9 Hurricanes of 111 Sqn that had just refuelled after an earlier sortie were hurriedly scrambled. Frantically opening their throttles to achieve height a pilot spotted the German airplanes below diving on the aerodrome. As Rubensdörffer led the attack the RAF fighters pounced and a vicious dogfight ensued. Many of the bombs fell well wide of their mark as the Bf110’s formed a defensive circle. Despite German propaganda claiming the Bf110 was invincible, they were no match for nimble modern single engine fighters that were faster and more manoeuvrable. More Hurricanes this time from 32 Sqn arrived and with fuel beginning to run low, the Germans broke formation and raced hell for the Coast.
“Pauke-Pauke” Oberleutnant Habisch’s Bf110D commences his bomb run on Croydon aerodrome. Like his CO and 5 others, he would soon be shot down, taken prisoner this time at Hawkhurst.
They left behind a scene of utter carnage, despite not being able to attack as they had wished, the Terminal building, hangars, workshops, the armoury and Officer’s Mess were all ablaze or wrecked and the airfield was heavily pockmarked. On the Purley Way civilian buildings had also been damaged, the Bourjois Perfume factory taking a direct hit. Tragically 68 people perished, 62 were civilian and over 185 were wounded. Now it was time to pay the bill. Harried by the RAF, Erpro210 aircraft were shot down at Nutfield, Hooe, Horley, Ightham and Hawkhurst. Rubensdörffer’s aircraft (serial S9+AB) was also damaged over Croydon, Sqn Ldr John Thompson reporting in his AAR “I fired a five second burst…climbing vertically from astern and observed bits of cowling, fuselage, etc. flying off in all directions”.
Rubensdörffer was escorted by Lt Horst Marx’s Bf109 attempting to protect him as he headed south, however at Crockham Hill near Chartwell, Rubensdörffer was attacked again possibly by Plt Off Byron Duckenfield’s Hurricane of 501 Sqn who hit the fuel tanks rupturing them and setting the aircraft on fire. Over the intercom Rubensdörffer informed Marx he was wounded and his radio operator OGefr Ludwig Kretzer dead or unconscious. At Frant, with the Hurricane still on his tail, his escort was shot down, crashing at Lightlands Farm. Marx managed to bale out and on landing flagged down a police car heading towards an ominous pall of smoke 4 miles south…
Now alone, Rubensdörffer’s luck gave out. Flying at tree top level as he approached Rotherfield he just managed to clear the spire of St Denys before dropping low over Yewtree Lane looking for a place to land. At Bletchinglye Lane he finally lost control and ploughed headfirst into a tree lined bank. The impact was so violent that the aircraft cartwheeled bursting into flames causing the ammunition to explode and sending pigs from the piggery at Bletchinglye farm squealing for cover. Both crewmen would have died instantly. When they arrived on the scene, all that was left for Marx (in police custody) was to identify the bodies. Rubensdörffer and Kretzer, were buried at Tunbridge Wells cemetery before being re-interred at the German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase, Staffs after the War.
An interesting postscript to this story is that Rubensdörffer was posthumously awarded the Knights Cross for his bravery. Had he survived he may instead have been court martialled for going against Hitler’s strict order forbidding the bombing of any London targets.
Official dig in 1988 where a few fragments including this saddle drum magazine were unearthed. Some relics are also on display at Newhaven Fort.
Readers should note that the crash site is on private land although visible from the roadside on Bletchinglye Lane. I would like to acknowledge the help from John Vasco and Simon Parry who managed to confirm so much of the detail.
Crash site visited by the author in 2014. L-R Looking from crash toward Piggery and Bletchinglye Lane, gradient of field, not the best place to try a landing & from Bletchinglye Lane looking toward crash
Final resting place of the crew of S9+AB at Cannock Chase visited by the author in 2014