27 September 1940
Seasalter is a small village located on the north coast of Kent, facing the Isle of Sheppey and the estuary of the River Swale. This part of the coast is famous for its oysters, fishing and sea marshes, which over the centuries came to serve as a source of salt production, giving the settlement its name. Eastward, the village is a stone’s throw from a fishing town of Faversham. To the west, a vast expanse of swampy marshland stretches broadly in all directions, bounded only by the sea to the north. Mud, clay and the badness of the water made the place unhealthy for settlement. There was one exception: the Sportsman Inn, a remote pub established in the 17th century at the coastal road between Whitstable and Faversham.
Throughout the late summer of 1940, the marshes gained a new role as an emergency landing ground for crippled aircraft. Located alongside an aerial route towards London, the marshy flats were often picked up by airmen to bring down their damaged aircraft. Even though the wheels-up landing could be treacherous if made on a swampy part of the marsh, this quality was not easily observable from the air and anyway, the approaches were clear of obstacles in all directions. A Dornier Do 17 came down on the mudflats at Seasalter on 13 August 1940. Another bomber crash-landed just off The Neptune pub at Whitstable on 16 August.
Waiting for even more downed airmen and aircraft was a detachment of 1st London Irish Rifles, billeted at the Sportsman pub with orders to capture any aircrew shot down in the countryside.
On 27 September, a Luftwaffe bomber would crash-land almost at their door.
The aircraft was a brand-new Junkers Ju 88A-5, the newest variant of this bomber which had been put into service only a few weeks previously. It was characterised by the extended wings, improved handling and upgraded navigational aids, and represented a state-of-the-art of the Lufwaffe’s bomber arsenal.
Piloted by Unteroffizer Fritz Ruhlandt, the Ju 88 was among a force which, despite fierce RAF opposition that day, fought their way through to the capital. Bad luck struck on their return leg from London, as Ruhlandt’s aircraft was hit by the anti-aircraft fire. The blast damaged one of the engines of the bomber, which lost power and gradually had to fall back from its formation. This made it a subject of further interest on the part of roaming Spitfires, which made repeated attacks trying to finish it off. Soon, both engines were out of action and Ruhlandt had no choice but to nurse his aircraft down to a crash landing.
The men gathered at the pub watched as the stricken aircraft approached the Graveney Marsh just outside their windows. The pilot brought down his plane skilfully on the grassy part of the marsh. It came to a halt several hundred yards from the pub.
The Captain of the London Irish regiment gathered an armed patrol of a dozen or so soldiers of the “A” Company, who grabbed their rifles and then departed to investigate the crash scene and put the crew under arrest. Although the aircraft was visible from their position, the distance across the marsh left the Germans a few precious minutes to act. This time was resolutely used by Ruhrland and his crew, who first evacuated the aircraft and then started working on destroying it. An explosive charge was placed under the wing. To secure the destruction of the classified equipment on board, the Germans decided to shot it to pieces, using hand-operated machine guns which were part of the bomber’s armament.
The sound of the machine gun fire had a startling effect on the unsuspecting British troops. They took immediate cover on the ground, taking it as shots being fired at them. They also returned fire. It is debatable whether there was an officer’s order to do it, or if shots were fired through panic and confusion of the moment. Either way, the Captain ordered his small force to split, positioning some of the men along the dykes of the marshland to provide cover for the second group, which advanced along another dyke towards the Junkers.
As they crouched within 50 yards of the aircraft, the Germans, realising they were now under fire, tried to wave a white flag. Unfortunately, this time the British troops were highly suspicious towards their intentions and the shooting continued until the Germans were finally overpowered. No one was killed, but two of the Germans were lightly injured during the fighting.
As the crew was about to be taken away, one of the British soldiers overheard a remark about a bomb in the aircraft which the crew expected to go up shortly. Reacting quickly and with considerable bravery, Lieutenant Christopher Cantopher managed to defuse the demolition charge.
So typically for the Battle of Britain, the entire episode ended in a pub. The captured crew was taken back to the Sportsman and invited for a pint of beer and cigarettes. The tension settled down completely, Ruhlandt’s foot injury was attended to and souvenirs were exchanged between the sides.
“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.”
Corporal George Willis, piper of the 1st London Irish Rifles
In the end, the Luftwaffe air crew was picked for further investigation and then sent to a prisoner of war camp. The largely intact Junkers Ju 88 was recovered from the marsh and taken to RAF Farnborough for closer examination, the recovery operation providing another break in the monotony of life at the marshes.
A bit later, the story of the skirmish on 27 September seem to have got a life of its own. Nicknamed the “Battle of the Graveney Marsh”, it became a part of the Regimental history of the 1st London Irish Rifles, in a form which emphasized the vigilance and exploits of the troops. It has subsequently been heralded here and there as “the last military conflict on the British mainland”. As such, the Battle of Graveney Marsh ranks as one of the folklore stories of the Battle of Britain – often told in rather more colourful fashion than the humble reconstruction described herein.
But, as they say, why let the truth spoil a good story?. It could have been a real battle.
– Daily Mail, 21 September 2010
– Winston G. Ramsey: Blitz Then and Now: v. 2, After the Battle, 1988