Most history books have Bonny Prince Charlie’s 1746 defeat at Culloden as the final battle to occur in this country. Of course that is just the stock answer, the actual final combat on British soil is the the virtually unheard of Battle of Graveney Marsh in the Kent countryside which took place 194 years later on September 27 1940 between the crew of a downed German bomber and a company of British soldiers who had been holed up in a local pub.
Members of the London Irish Rifles were billeted at the Sportsman Inn in the coastal hamlet of Seasalter when the stricken Junkers 88 plane came down on Graveney Marsh. The Luftwaffe bomber had just fulfilled its mission over London and was flying eastwards over the Kent countryside before plotting their path back home across the sea. However, passing Spitfires noticed the plane was of a new type and shot it down.
Although the British soldiers armed themselves, they fully expected the four-strong Luftwaffe crew to give themselves up without a fight. After all, what point would there be in fighting? They were very much mistaken for as they approached the plane, the Germans opened fire with a machine gun.
The British servicemen hit the deck and returned fire, while a smaller group crawled along a dyke to get within 50 yards of the plane before they too started shooting. Facing fire from two sides, the crew surrendered after a 20 minutes fight as it was clear to them that they were up against greater firepower. During the heavy exchange of fire with one of the Germans being shot in the foot during the brief battle. Nobody was killed.
In a dramatic twist, commanding officer Captain John Cantopher who handily could speak German, overheard one of the captured crew mention that the plane should “go up” at any moment. This was obviously connected to the reason as to why the Germans chose to fight rather than just surrender in the first place.
With that, the captain dashed back to the aircraft, located an explosive charge under one of the wings and threw it into a dyke, saving the prized aircraft for British engineers to examine. At the time the aircraft was found to be a new marque and as it was only two weeks old it provided the Air Ministry with valuable intelligence.
Incredibly, the British even had a pint of beer with the German airmen back at the pub before the PoWs were picked up. It seems like a bit of a theme doesn’t it after last weeks blog post on the final attempted invasion of Britain which also ended in a pub.
It took 70 years but the Battle of Graveney Marsh was finally commemorated at the pub where these unexpectedly historic events took place with several surviving participants now in their 90’s. Just in case anyone thinks the soldiers were alcholic, they were actually billeted at the pub.
In the summer of 1940 the 1st Batallion London Irish Rifles was sent to Kent and deployed on coastal defence duties following the Dunkirk evacuation.
As the threat of invasion by the Germans eased, their task changed to capturing any enemy aircrew brought down in the Kent countryside.
On September 27 a Junkers 88 bomber was attacked by two Spitfires over Faversham following a raid on London.
One of its engines had already been knocked out by anti-aircraft fire when the second was put out of action by the Spitfires.
The pilot, Unteroffizer Fritz Ruhlandt, crash landed on Graveney Marsh, which was seen by elements of A Company who were in the pub.
According to the regiment’s official records, Capt Cantopher then arrived at the hostelry to inspect the men.
The record states that Sergeant Allworth explained he had sent the men to the downed aircraft.
It reads: “‘They took arms I hope,’ Cantopher said.
The sergeant broke off. Sounds of machine gun fire could be heard.
‘It looks as if they should have done,’ commented Cantopher. ‘Forget the inspection, I am going over there. Bring some of your men with rifles and ammo.'”
Mr Wilkinson said: “On approaching the aircraft the men were fired on by the German crew with the aircraft’s two machine guns.
“The London Irishmen got into attack formation and having laid down heavy rifle fire on the aircraft mounted an assault of the Junkers across the marsh.
“By now the enemy air crew had been wounded by the rifle fire and decided to surrender.
“It was at this stage that Captain Cantopher came on the scene. As the prisoners were being taken away Cantopher heard one of them say that ‘the aircraft would go up anytime now’.
“He ran back to the Junkers and after a nerve-wracking search located the device and disarmed it. Cantopher was awarded the George Medal for his bravery.”
Corporal George Willis, 90, the regiment’s piper, was in the Sportsman when the men returned with the Germans.
George, from Greenwich, south east London, said: “The men were in good spirits and came into the pub with the Germans. We gave the Germans pints of beer in exchange for a few souvenirs.
“I got a set of enamel Luftwaffe wings.”
For two very different but incredible military tales why not check out my post on the very first black soldier in the British Army and the totally incredible I AM THE ARMY tale of William Brydon, you won’t have read anything like it as nothing quite like it ever happened.