The Hardest Day

Today, the 18th August 2020, is the 80th anniversary of what became known as ‘The Hardest Day’; the day during the Battle of Britain when both sides lost the most aircraft. The garden at Oxted Place still bears a scar from the events of that day.

The Cedar of Lebanon that lost its top to a Do17

As part of Germany’s plan to invade the UK, known as Operation Sea Lion (Unternehmen Seelöwe) the Luftwaffe first had to achieve air superiority and on Sunday 18th August 1940 they launched a massive attack against the RAF’s Biggin Hill and Kenley airfields, both of which contained sector operations rooms from which the the RAF’s fighters were directed.

27 Dornier Do17 bombers of 9 Staffel (Squadron) from the Luftwaffe’s Kampfgeschwader (bomber wing) 76, based north of Paris were tasked with attacking Kenley airfield. Their flight plan had them crossing the coast at Brighton and following the route of the main rail line north towards London. A Do 17 usually carried a crew of four: the pilot, navigator and two gunners, however the Germans were so confident of success on 18th August that a number of the planes also carried a journalist to provide press coverage of the event.

The lead Do17 of 9 Staffel was piloted by Hptm Walter Stoldt with Fw Johann Beck as navigator and gunners Uffz Paul Gengel and Ofw Wilhelm Lautersack. Walter Surk, a war correspondent, was also aboard.

As the Dorniers flew over the Sussex countryside Hurricanes from the RAF’s No. 32 Squadron, based at Biggin Hill, were scrambled to meet them. The lead Hurricane was piloted by Alan Eckford and what happened next is recounted in an article by Alfred Price in the Royal Air Force Yearbook; Death of a Dornier.

Squadron Leader Alan F Eckford DFC

“Early on the afternoon of 18 August, as a formation of 27 Dornier Do. 17s of Kampfgeschwader 76 were running in to bomb the airfield at Kenley, the Hurricanes of No. 32 Squadron moved into position for a head-on attack. As he closed on the enemy planes, Pilot Officer Alan Eckford worked out his attack plan. “The bombers were stepped up, in close formation. I remember thinking as I was approaching the formation, that if I opened fire at the first one and then gradually lifted my nose and kept the button pressed, several would have to pass through my fire.” The plan failed to take into account the tremendous closing speed of the opposing forces.

“Eckford had time for only a short burst at the Dorniers, before he had to push hard on his stick to avoid colliding with his victim. Once he was past the enemy formation he looked back and saw the bomber he had attacked pull into a drunken half roll before falling into a spin.

“Lying on his stomach on the floor of the Dornier and manning the rearwards-firing machine-gun, Oberfeldwebel Wilhelm Lautersack had heard a crash as Eckford’s rounds rammed into the bomber and saw smoke spurt out of the starboard engine. When the Dornier fell into a spin he was pinned to the floor by G forces. Glancing forwards, he saw his pilot was slumped lifeless against his harness. With a strength born of fear Lautersack inched his way to the escape hatch in the floor of the cabin, pulled the release lever and as the door fell away he tumbled after it. After a long delay he pulled his ripcord and was relieved when the canopy opened with a loud ‘thwack’. The navigator followed him out the hatch, but none of the other crewmen escaped.”

The doomed Dornier hit and broke the top off one of the Cedars of Lebanon next to the drive at Oxted Place with the remains of the aircraft then landing in a field this side of Hurst Green.

A Do17 downed by 32 Squadron on 18 August 1940, possibly the one which took the top off our tree.

The bodies of Walter Stoldt, Walter Surk and Paul Gengel were  buried in St Mary’s churchyard in Oxted although after the war they were re-interred at Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery. Wilhelm Lautersack and Johann Beck were made prisoners of war. Alan Eckford went on to have a distinguished career and died on 6 December 1990.

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