Monday, 7 March 2011


3 April 1940: up to this date the Spitfire had downed several Luftwaffe intruders without losses, but this situation was about to finish. . . 

On Wednesday the 3rd, a call came to RAF Catterick: a German Heinkel He 111 bomber was attacking fishing boats off Whytby. No. 41 Squadron was ordered to scramble one fighter to intercept the intruder. The task was given to Flight Lieutenant Edgar Norman Ryder. Ryder took off in Spitfire MK.I N3114 at 12.20. He gained altitude at headed to the coast, quickly reaching the damaged trawler Alaska;  when the pilot sighted the Heinkel, it was clear that the fishermen had mounted a spirited defense.
The bomber,  an He 111H-3 of KG 26 was flying 200 feet over the North Sea with one engine disabled; Ryder dove on the enemy and fired a four-second burst, noticing a couple of bangs on his fighter from the Heinkel’s gunners. Pulling away, the pilot saw smoke and flames erupting form the bomber. He then turned and prepared for a second attack, but the Henkel rapidly lost height and ditched, the five-man crew quickly escaping from the floating aircraft.
Ryder circled above the survivors and headed home. Only at this point he noticed that the cockpit’s temperature was rather “hot”. A quick glance at the instrument panel told him that the oil temperature was rising. The enemy’s return fire had obviously been more accurate than what he had thought. Thick smoke soon filled the cockpit and the temperature became intolerably hot; the pilot called his base reporting being on fire and was told to reach the coast, but the young Lieutenant knew to have little choice but to ditch. He choose to do it near the trawler he had rescued, and as soon as he opened up his canopy, the engine seized up and stopped. The Spitfire hit the water at sixty-five miles per hour, with waves  six-seven feet high. The fighter dug its nose hitting the water and came to a vertical position with its tail up, rapidly sinking.

The Spitfire had been show down in combat for the first time. 

Ryder tried to escape from the wreck but the front panel of the open cockpit hood caught on his parachute pack. The pilot was trapped with his aircraft slipping below the waves. Ryder struggled to extricate himself, pulling desperately until finally succeeding in its aim. By the time he reached the surface his lungs were almost empty and he was physically exhausted. Ryder’s problems were not finished: the high waves rolled over him and everytime he tried to breath he could barely grasp air before the water submerged him again and again. He then tried to release his parachute pack to enhance his movements, but the move had an opposite effect: its thick clothes, satured with water, were keeping him afloat and without it he could not keep his head above the water. Ryder started to sink, and just as he was slipping out of his consciousness, the trawler approached and grabbed him with a boathook, saving him at the very last moment.
After recovering the pilot, Skipper Watkinson and his two sons – one of them the man who damaged the Heinkel with the boat's Lewis gun – turned to the German crewmen, picking them up from the water. The Alaska then headed to Hartlepool, reaching its destination after a six-hour journey.

Flight Lieutenant Ryder was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his victory. 
The Germans, Oberstlt Hefele, Lt. Behnisch, Lt. Kempe, Uffz Weber and Uffz Bachle, became POW.

John Grehan. Britain at War. Issue 36, April 2010. p. 60.
Winston Ramsey. The Blitz Then and Now, Volume 1. Battle of Britain prints International, London, 1987.

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