In the counties of East & West Sussex only East Wittering qualifies as a ”Thankful” village, a term coined by writer Arthur Mee in the 1930’s to signify a settlement from which all members of the armed forces survived the Great War. For Rotherfield, like all other towns and villages in the county, the Great War would signify 4 years of heart breaking tragedy. In 1914-18 the parish lost over 6 times more soldiers & sailors compared to the Second World War equating to nearly 3% of the entire parish population at the time.

The majority of men who enlisted (voluntarily or later by conscription) joined regiments from the Home Counties, primarily various battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment or Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment. The Royal Sussex Regiment was an Infantry Line Regiment dating from 1881. By the outbreak of the war it comprised 2 Regular Battalions (1st & 2nd), with 2 Territorial Battalions mobilised in August 1914 (1/4th & 1/5th) and a further 6 Battalions raised in September from volunteers who answered the call to join Kitchener’s New Army. (More on these men in a future article/s).

The 2nd Battalion moved to France in August 1914 and was attached to the 2nd Infantry Brigade of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), the crème de la crème of the full time professional British army dubbed “The Old Contemptibles” after the Kaiser’s ill-judged remark and one he would rue at the Battle of Mons that month when the coordinated accurate rifle fire of the British “Tommies” inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans attacking in massed ranks more akin to the Napoleonic Wars 100 years earlier.

4 days after Mons, Private Walter Ebenezer Coomber disembarked on French soil. Coomber was born in Three Bridges in 1887 but by 1901 his widowed mother had moved back to her place of birth of Rotherfield living in Station Rd. Young Walter moved in with his Grandparents on Cottage Hill and worked as a farm labourer at Dewlands farm however by 1911 he had taken the King’s shilling and joined the army aged 23. He began his career as a Bandsman playing the bassoon with the 1st Bn before transferring to the 2nd Bn. Musicians were trained in first aid and their task in war time was a dangerous one being assigned a stretcher bearing role requiring them to roam the battlefield under fire, administer first aid and bring the wounded back to their own lines. A high proportion of Victoria Crosses during the Great War were awarded to stretcher-bearers such was the dangerous nature of their role. Coomber was joined by more Rotherfield men amongst them 29 year old Private George W Hodges born in Rotherfield and resident of Crowborough. He had joined the army in 1903 and was called up as a reservist when war broke out. The two may have seen peripheral action with the Battalion that year during the retreat to the Marne, and the battles of the Aisne and 1st Ypres. As winter set in, both sides dug in setting the scene for trench warfare for the next 3 years. During winter, all Regiments were reinforced and amongst the growing Rotherfield contingent joining the 2nd Bn was 21 year old Private Thomas Ernest Diplock a labourer from Catts Farm, Town Row who arrived on 29th November 1914. He had lived in the parish all his life, first at Stile House Cottage, Mark Cross then Town Row Cottages before Catts Farm. 6 weeks later 18 year old Private William Henry Thorpe originally from Wadhurst but subsequently residing in Rotherfield also joined the Battalion.

A new offensive in spring saw a renewed assault on the German lines at the battle of Neuve-Chappelle, west of Loos & Lille in March 1915. Despite breaking through the German lines the British forces failed to exploit the success and after a series of German counter attacks forced the British artillery to expend all of its ammunition the operation was postponed. During this engagement the 2nd Bn was held in reserve and thus being at full strength, was selected to participate in the next major offensive.

At dawn on the 9th May 1915 the 2nd Battalion was in position in the forward trenches on a 400 yard frontage. Their objective was Aubers Ridge about 5 miles east of Neuve-Chappelle. The men had been issued tea and rum at 3.30am. Ahead of them lay 300 yards of “no man’s land” in front of the German trenches heavily reinforced with concrete bunkers or “Stützpunktlinie“. At 5.00am the British artillery barrage commenced designed to soften up the German lines. The British guns were still critically short of artillery shells. Worse, many of the rounds were duds and there were too high a concentration of shrapnel as opposed to high explosive rounds. The artillery pieces themselves were also in a poor state with many of the gun tubes worn out. The result was that after just 30 minutes the guns fell silent and the German lines remained completely intact and unscathed. As the order was given to go “over the top” the infantry expecting that the artillery had done its job left their trenches to form up and advance in an orderly fashion over no-man’s land. The German machine guns wasted no time opening up on the men with devastating effect as they scrambled over their own trenches. Many did not even manage to climb off their own trench ladders before being cut down. The Battalion war diary states “assaulting troops did not get much more than 150 yards, or about half way to the German Breastworks, though a portion succeeded in getting within 40 yards of it (where they found the wire intact), and one man appears to have reached the parapet itself”……. After just 30 minutes the attack had completely stalled and at 6.30am orders were given to withdraw. Many of the men were caught in the open and with no chance of making it back to their own lines, took what cover they could all the while being picked off by enemy fire. In the afternoon another attack was launched where some of the trapped survivors joined in. The result was the same, heavy casualties and no impression made.  After enduring what must have been an unimaginable horror trapped in the open waiting for the bullet that would signal your end, darkness finally allowed the survivors to creep back to their own lines.

Aubers Ridge before the battle. British trenches in the foreground, German lines on the ridge obscured by the tree line.

This battle was an unmitigated disaster for the British Army. No ground was won and no tactical advantage gained. In the aftermath of the failure, the Times war correspondent sent a telegram with the headline on 14 May 1915 “Need for shells: British attacks checked: Limited supply the cause: A Lesson From France“. This was the catalyst for the political scandal known as the Shell Crisis of 1915 that almost brought down the Government.

More than 11,000 British casualties were sustained, many within yards of their own trench. Mile for mile, Division for Division, this was one of the highest rates of loss during the entire war. For the 2nd Battalion the result was shattering. Of 852 men, 562 were casualties; over 90% of the 224 killed or missing were never recovered and have no known grave. Walter Coomber, George Hodges, Thomas Diplock and William Thorpe were among the dead and are now commemorated “in the corner of a foreign field” at Le Touret memorial in Richebourg, panels 20-21.

More misery and tragedy would befall families from the parish during the war. Many of those to perish were the same men photographed in the village about to join up in Sept. 1914 and who were posted to the three Royal Sussex “Southdown” Volunteer Battalions. But that’s another story…….

The author wishes to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of Claire Lockley regarding background research of the fallen. Further information about them and other men who gave their lives from the Parish can be found in Nigel Allison’s Book “Crowborough, Jarvis Brook & Rotherfield War Memorials” available from local bookshops and the Courtyard Café, Rotherfield.


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September 15 is the day officially celebrated as “Battle of Britain Day” the climax when the German Luftwaffe launched some of its largest concentrated attacks (principally against London). About 1,500 aircraft from both sides took part and at the end of the day, RAF Fighter Command had successfully managed to break up most of the enemy formations stopping them from inflicting major damage. When Hitler heard of this latest setback, he postponed Operation Sea Lion, (the planned German Invasion of Great Britain) and although the battle raged for another 6 weeks the intensity lessened as his attention focused east towards the Soviet Union.

A month earlier, Rotherfield had already experienced the battle first hand when a German Messerschmitt Bf110 was shot down in a fireball at Bletchinglye Lane. Exactly a month later, another German aircraft was about to make its own fiery appearance.

On September 15th, Luftwaffe Bomber…

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The 11th Sep 1940 was the day Hitler had originally scheduled for the invasion of England, but thanks to the tenacity of the RAF it had been delayed. For Rotherfield, it was almost a month since the horrific crash of the German fighter-bomber on Bletchingyle Lane. The Luftwaffe however were stepping up the number and ferocity of their attacks and on the 11th launched 2 major coordinated raids. One comprised a large force of Heinkel He111 bombers with a 200 strong fighter escort, its target London.

Based at RAF Northolt were Hurricanes of #1 Royal Canadian Air Force Sqn (1 RCAF). Alongside Poles, Czechs and New Zealanders, the Canadians made up one of the largest groups of non UK National pilots participating in the Battle of Britain. Their numbers were also supplemented by some American Nationals unhappy at their own country’s neutrality and who took Canadian citizenship to allow them to travel to the “old country” and help defend it.

Fg Off Thomas Burgess Little

Fg Off Thomas Burgess Little

Flying Officer Thomas Burgess Little, 23, from Montreal arrived in the UK with his Sqn in June 1940. They were soon in action and Little shared in the destruction of a Dornier Do-17 on the 28th Aug. 3 days later he had his first confirmed kill “bagging” a Messerschmitt Bf109.  On the 11th Sep, 2 days after his birthday, his Sqn was scrambled to intercept a large enemy formation heading towards the Capital. Battle was joined at 4pm over Tunbridge Wells. RAF doctrine was to concentrate on the bombers over their fighter escorts. Little duly attacked a Heinkel He111 when either by return fire from the Heinkel or being “bounced” by a Bf109 fighter escort his Hurricane was shot up and caught fire forcing him to break off. The RAF had a tough time of it that day losing 25 fighters with 17 pilots killed and another 6 wounded. Little was among the wounded. On fire and realising his best chance of survival was to bale out, he successfully extricated himself from the cockpit before his Hurricane serial P3534 crashed at Lakestreet Manor, Mayfield. Drifting safely in his parachute he eventually landed in Rotherfield. He had been wounded in the leg as well as suffering burns to his face and side and was taken to the Kent & Sussex hospital. He did not rejoin his Sqn until 30 Nov 1940. Identification of the spot where he landed remains a mystery to the author.

About 10 minutes later a second parachute was observed floating towards the ground but this time from a German airplane. Bomber Gruppe Kampfgeschwader 26 (KG26) lost 4 of their number in this engagement. Heinkel He111H-4, serial 1H+KN was piloted by Fw Wilhelm Jabusch 22 from Berlin, with Lt Franz. Zimmermann, Fw Gerhard Schilling and Of Wolfgang Hasebrink the other crew members. At 19,000ft, the bomber was reportedly attacked by 15 Spifires and unsurprisingly badly damaged. The right engine was hit before they were attacked by a further 3 Spitfires one of whom hit the control column. With the bomber losing height the pilot ordered the bombs to be dumped blind and the mission aborted. At 6,000ft he baled out. Instead of more parachutes following him, the next items to be seen leaving the airplane was a greatcoat and uniform with an iron cross attached,  a ceremonial dagger on a clothes hangar, a set of shaving tackle and a large flat iron!

Jabusch landed at Ketches Farm on Burnt Oak Rd in Rotherfield Parish where he was captured by the Police. The Sussex Constabulary report stated “He was uninjured except for a bruised left leg and grazed left shoulder. I took him into custody and conveyed him to Crowborough Police Station where I informed Biggin Hill.” But what of the other crew and the bomber? Deciding that they didn’t want to spend the rest of the war in captivity they decided to take their chances and try to make it back over the formidable Channel and home. Zimmermann, the bomb aimer took over the controls and incredibly managed to steer the stricken bomber to France making a good belly landing on a beach near Dieppe.

Thomas Little made a full recovery from his injuries although he did not rejoin his Sqn until 30 Nov 1940. Almost a year after being shot down on the 27th Aug 1941, Little (now a Flight Lieutenant with 402 RCAF) was escorting British bombers in his Hurricane when somewhere over the Channel he collided with an RAF Spitfire. His body was never recovered and he was posted missing aged 24. He is remembered on panel 59 of the Runnymede Memorial (to airmen who lost their lives with no known grave) as well as the Battle of Britain Memorial at Capel Le Ferne Read the rest of this entry »


Updated 2016 with added detail of combat reports

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Sqn Ldr Rodney Levett Wilkinson - CO 266 (Rhodesia) Sqn Sqn Ldr Rodney Levett Wilkinson – CO 266 (Rhodesia) Sqn

By a strange quirk of fate, while conducting research on another airman, I unexpectedly discovered that the Parish had its very own Battle of Britain airman (ack. Battle of Britain Monument). His story is not documented, so on the anniversary of his death it felt the done thing to redress the balance and remember one of our Few.

Rodney Levett Wilkinson was born on 23rd May 1910 was born in Atcham on the outskirts of Shrewsbury on 23rd May 1910 the only child to Maj Clement Arthur Wilkinson (Kings Shropshire LI) and Ruth Violet Esther Wilkinson (née Mirehouse). 11 days before his fifth birthday he lost his father, killed at Ypres. At some point after this tragic event his mother moved to Rotherfield with her young son taking up residence at The Gables in Argos Hill. The young “Wilkie” began his education at Wellington College and then followed…

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September 15 is the day officially celebrated as “Battle of Britain Day” the climax when the German Luftwaffe launched some of its largest concentrated attacks (principally against London). About 1,500 aircraft from both sides took part and at the end of the day, RAF Fighter Command had successfully managed to break up most of the enemy formations stopping them from inflicting major damage. When Hitler heard of this latest setback, he postponed Operation Sea Lion, (the planned German Invasion of Great Britain) and although the battle raged for another 6 weeks the intensity lessened as his attention focused east towards the Soviet Union.

A month earlier, Rotherfield had already experienced the battle first hand when a German Messerschmitt Bf110 was shot down in a fireball at Bletchinglye Lane. Exactly a month later, another German aircraft was about to make its own fiery appearance.

On September 15th, Luftwaffe Bomber group Kampfgeschwader 76 (KG76) was assigned to bomb London. They flew twin engine Dornier Do17 medium bombers. (In 2014, one of the only remaining Dornier’s in existence was recovered from its watery grave on Goodwin Sands and is now being preserved at RAF Cosford). Nicknamed “Fliegender Bleistift/Flying Pencil” because of its slim shape this aircraft was one of 3 main bomber types alongside the Heinkel He111 and Junkers Ju88 used by the Luftwaffe during the Battle.

Dornier Do17 serial F1+AT (serial partially obscured on fuselage) prior to its destruction over Rotherfield -  reproduced with permission from Battle over Sussex- Middleton Press

Dornier Do17 serial F1+AT (serial partially obscured on fuselage) prior to its destruction over Rotherfield – reproduced with permission from Battle over Sussex- Middleton Press

Do17 serial F1+AT was crewed by Lt Anton Wagner, Obgfr Kurt Boeme, Gfr Peter Holdenreid and Gfr Johann Kottusch. As they flew over the English coast a series of RAF attacks on the formation pulled their fighter escort away. By the time they reached London, they were confronted by Douglas Bader’s vaunted “Big Wing” comprising 5 Squadrons of about 60 airplanes who mercilessly set about the bombers. Jettisoning their bomb loads at random most bombers streamed back over the Thames estuary towards Kent and Sussex heading for home in disarray. For once the RAF outnumbered their opponents with pilots almost having to elbow each other out of the way to get a shot in. Over the course of 40 minutes, 6 Dornier’s from KG76 were shot down at Sturry, Underriver, Lullingstone, Herne Bay and at the most photographed crash of the entire battle at London’s Victoria Station.

The last casualty was serial F1+AT attacked by up to 10 RAF fighters. As their formation broke up the Dornier was engaged by 4 Hurricanes. Shorn of its fighter escort the bomber made for the clouds in a bid to hide from their quarry. Emerging beneath the cloud base a few minutes later it appeared as if they had successfully managed to shake off their attackers but the Hurricane of Flt Sgt Josef Kominek (Blue 2, B Flight) of 310 (Czech) Sqn had kept them in sight.

Sgt Kominek (fcafa.com)

Sgt Kominek (fcafa.com)

He made three further attacks firing off over 1,600 rounds and stating in his after action combat report that “at about 200 yards some sheets started to fall off and smoke was pouring from the port engine” With one engine on fire, the bomber began to lose height. Desperately attempting to maintain altitude the crew dropped their bomb load blind over the English countryside, but they were already doomed. Now set upon by the Hurricanes of Sgt’s Charles Hurry and George Jeffery from 46 Sqn more hits were registered. As they approached Rotherfield, Belgian volunteer Plt Off Victor Ortmans and Sgt Rupert Ommanney flying Hurricanes of 229 Sqn inflicted the coup de grace shooting up the stricken bomber.

At 12.20pm the Dornier was observed ablaze and plummeting towards the earth. Only Holdenried managed to bail out from the inferno, but as he tried to jump clear his parachute fouled with the tail plane and tragically he was dragged down to his death alongside his fellow crewmen.

The aircraft was entirely destroyed when it crashed. 49 Maintenance Unit were detailed to collect the remains on the 24th Sep with special instructions stating that the aircraft was “Burnt out. Bring scrap to Faygate” All four crewmen were initially buried at Tunbridge Wells cemetery before being re-interred at the German Soldatenfriedhof at Cannock Chase Staffs nos. 1/142 – 1/145.

When the site was excavated after the war, small surface fragments were recovered including parachute buckles, uniform buttons and pieces of melted alloy.

From published sources the location of the crash site is variously given as being near the Bicycle Arms and Argos Hill. The Sussex Constabulary report written by PC128 Clem Harris described finding the aircraft and bodies “in a copse…..in a field at Red Lane Farm, the rear of Argos Hill Lodge”. Eye witness accounts confirm that the bomber burnt out fiercely setting some pine trees on fire and coming to rest on the edge of a pond in a copse. Red Lane Farm no longer exists although properties on the A267 bearing the Red Lane title are approximately where the former farm was originally located. The two photographs below taken from the copse described above show the field where the bomber crashed, parts of which would have been spread right up to the hedge line in the foreground. The field is bordered by the A267 Tunbridge Wells road to the east and the B2101 Bicycle Arms road to the south. It should be noted that this field is on private land and not accessible to the public.

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This was to be the final “manned” enemy aircraft downed over the parish during the war, although in 1944 a number of enemy vengeance “V” weapons were to be seen or heard passing over and occasionally crashing with mixed results. This was not the case for the RAF as a number of friendly aircraft crashed all over the Parish during the hostilities. I hope to eventually record all the remaining crash sites, V Weapon and Civil Defence War record bombing locations when research time permits.

I would like to acknowledge the invaluable help from Mr Clark in identifying the crash location as well as author Simon W Parry who kindly sent me copies of contemporary combat reports and accounts for study.

 

 

 


untitledIn 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.

Walter Rubensdorffer

Walter Rubensdorffer

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.

(c) London Borough of Sutton Museum and Heritage Service; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

“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.

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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.

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                 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

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Final resting place of the crew of S9+AB at Cannock Chase visited by the author in 2014

 


The first of 2 dead rubbers after Hawthorn (Ferrari) had wrapped up the championship at the last race at Nurburgring saw Farina (Ferrari) take his second successive win. Although another victory for the all conquering Ferrari team it further strengthened the opinion of what could have been if he had not had such a disastrous start to the season not finishing in the first four races and finding himself 25 points behind the leader at the halfway stage.

Result

1st – Giuseppe Farina (IT) Ferrari – 8 points

2nd – Alberto Ascari (IT) Ferrari – 4 points (6 points minus 2 dropped points)

3rd – Luigi Villoresi (IT) Ferrari – 4 points

4th – Juan Manuel Fangio (ARG) Maserati – 0 points (3 points minus 3 dropped points)

5th – Onofre Marimon (ARG) Maserati – 2 points

Lap Leader bonus point  – Felice Bonetto (IT) Maserati – 0 points (1 point minus 1 dropped point) 

Championship standings

1st – Hawthorn (GB) Ferrari – 35 points (4 wins) – 1953 CHAMPION

2nd – Farina (It) Ferrari – 22 points (2 wins)

3rd – Fangio (Arg) Maserati – 21 points (0 wins)  

4th= – Lang (Ger) Maserati – 19 points (1 win)

4th = – Ascari (It) Ferrari – 19 points (0 wins)                                                                    

NEXT – Season finale and celebrations for Ferrari in front of the Tifosi – Monza ITALY