Thursday, 4 November 2010

Atlantic ditching! An account of a disastrous Kampfgruppe 126 He 111 H-4 torpedo bomber sortie

8 November 1940 - a small formation of three Heinkel He 111 H-4 torpedo bombers under the command of Oberleutnant zur See Helmut Lorenz came into land on the airfield at Brest- Guipavas, or Brest Nord as it was known in the Luftwaffe. This small detachment of aircraft and crews belonged to 1./KGr. 126, the Staffel selected to perform operational testing of the He 111 in the role of torpedo launching bomber, a mission previously carried out solely by Heinkel He115 floatplanes. Kampfgruppe 126 was established from III./KG26 in February 1940, then based in Nantes -Château Bougon with around thirty He 111s on strength which were deployed for mine-laying and anti-shipping bombing sorties.

The following day, 9 November, at around 13h00, Oblt. Lorenz (left) was ordered to fly a sortie against a Royal Navy convoy that had been spotted in the Irish Sea. Weather conditions were poor, with low cloud and visibility from three to five kilometres. Two of the recently arrived He 111 H-4s were hurriedly readied, loaded with fuel, bombs and two torpedoes were slung under the fuselage of each aircraft. At 14h00 the two Heinkels were airborne with Lorenz commanding the formation in the aircraft piloted by Feldwebel Walther von Livonius "1T+FH" (WNr. 6951). The other members of the crew were radio operator Feldwebel Peter Hermsen and flight engineer Flieger Otto Skusa. As the aircraft climbed for height the flight engineer busied himself loading the magazines and running his checks. Shortly after taking off the radio equipment in this machine failed but was working again as the aircraft headed out over the coastline and out into the Atlantic. Weather conditions improved with the ceiling now at 1,000 metres. Suddenly Fw. Hermsen shouted out a warning over the intercom; " an aircraft closing from astern at high speed - a heavy fighter, type unidentified.." It was 14h16. The unidentified fighter was in fact a Blenheim Mk IVF coded FA-Q of 236 Sqn. Coastal Command, a long-range fighter variant of the Blenheim bomber touting 6 Browning machine guns, four in a dorsal fuselage pack. At the controls was twenty year old Pilot Officer Dugald Lumsden - the two remaining crew were navigator Sergeant Gibbons and radio operator/gunner Sgt. Miles. They had taken off at 13h30 (12h30 UKT) from St. Eval in Cornwall for a reconnaissance sortie over Brest.

In an instant all hell broke loose. Oblt. Lorenz gave the order to open fire ...just as the first rounds from the RAF Blenheim hit the Heinkel tearing off the engine cowling panels. More rounds slammed into the pilots armoured seat back. Although they didn't realise it at the time this first salvo from the Blenheim had proved fatal for the radio operator Peter Hermsen who was lying at the back of the cockpit in a pool of blood, a round through his forehead. Wrestling with the controls the pilot jettisoned his bomb load and the two torpedos. More impacts rocked the aircraft, disabling the controls and shattering the instrument panel. Through the intercom Feldwebel von Livonius shouted at the flight engineer to switch off the automatic pilot. Suffering from serious leg injuries flight engineer Skusa dragged himself forward to the pilot still fighting the controls. " ..the intercom is out and Peter is dead! ", to which von Livonius replied insistently .." the autopilot is blocked" ...Despite his wounds the courageous flight engineer managed to haul himself back to the rear of the cabin to disable the automatic flight controls - just in time since the aircraft was now in a dive. The Blenheim was lining up for another firing pass - the aircraft commander and the pilot agreed that when the Blenheim dived on them they too would point the nose of the Heinkel down, letting the Blenheim overrun them before pulling up as brutally as the state of their engines would allow and then trying to head for the cloud banks at full throttle. Suddenly the Heinkel's port engine stopped dead - rendering the wallowing Heinkel even more vulnerable! The German crew braced themselves for the impending assault - before watching in amazement as the Blenheim turned away. In his report later Pilot Officer Lumsden referred only to an 'onboard incident' that forced him to break off the combat. Whatever the reasons for this unexpected turn of events, the Heinkel was to endure only a brief respite. The twin engine bomber had been seriously damaged - with one engine out and most of the instruments including the compass no longer functioning. The pilot had managed to turn back in the direction of Brest but the machine was barely controllable and was losing height all the time. Von Livonius shouted at the crew to fasten their seat belts - he was going to have to ditch the aircraft! At that moment the starboard engine coughed and spluttered - and finally gave up the ghost! Working the ailerons and rudder the pilot struggled to put the aircraft into the wind. At a height of forty metres the elevators refused to respond to the pilot's inputs - winding hard on the wheel, the pilot managed to move the stabiliser back and point the Heinkel nose up just as it came down into the heavy swell. It skidded across the tops of the huge waves briefly before sliding down one crest and disappearing under the surface...

Having already ditched one KGr 126 Heinkel He 111 von Livonius knew what would happen next " Don't worry .;" he shouted to his comrades, ".. the aircraft will float back up ..". Which is exactly what it did. Once on the surface the crew scrambled for the cockpit door and jumped out onto the wing. With blood streaming from his wounds Fliger Skusa shouted from the radio operator's position that he was unable to release the dinghy. Walther von Livonius climbed back into the fuselage, struggled to the rear of the aircraft and pulled the life raft from its station still in its cover. He passed it outside the aircraft to Oblt. Lorenz who had torn off its protective sheet and pulled the toggle on the gas cannister used to inflate it. It took twenty seconds to inflate the raft. The pilot was meanwhile helping the flight engineer out of the ditched machine before the two men wrestled him into the dinghy. Von Livonius went back into the sinking aircraft one last time to pay his final respects to his dead radio operator, Peter Hemsen..

As he climbed back out of the airframe Feldwebel von Livonius lost his footing and slid off the wing into the sea. It was then that the three men noticed the air bubbling away out of the raft - holed by the Blenheim's salvos. Attempting to inflate their life vests, their fingers numbed by the cold, the men found it almost impossible to unscrew the small compressed air bottles designed for this purpose. They finally managed it after several attempts. Before the dinghy sank Lorenz retrieved the flare gun and the small container of flares and attached it around his neck. Supporting the head of his wounded comrade out of the water he also managed to retrieve the canister of coloured dye designed to be released into the water to help search aircraft locate them. By now the Heinkel had slid under the waves and had disappeared for good. It was 14h45.

The three men were more than 15 kilometres from the Brittany coast line - which they could vaguely make out in the far distance when at the top of a wave. The swell was running high and gradually the three men drifted further and further away from each other. While Flieger Skusa and von Livonius clung onto each other Lorenz was soon forty or fifty metres away from them and could catch only brief glimpes of the two men inbetween the waves. More than an hour passed. Half drowned, paralysed with cold and their life jackets slowly deflating, von Livonius and Skusa were in desperate straits. And when the pilot had to let go of his wounded comrade in order to re-inflate his life jacket, Otto Skusa - unable to swim, half-dead through loss of blood and the cold - slipped under the waves and disappeared.

The two survivors had by no means given up hope of rescue. And while they had been unable to use the radio which had been shot up during the Blenheim's attack, they still has the signal flares which Oblt. Lorenz fired off at regular intervals. Von Livonius had already emptied out the yellow dye canister into the sea. What they didn't realise during these dreadful moments was that their encounter with the Blenheim had been witnessed by men of the Wehrmacht based on the coast. Reports had been rapidly passed to the local Luftwaffe units in order to identify the aircraft and a trawler had been commandeered and had already put to sea heading in the general direction of where the Heinkel had been seen to come down. Rescue was possibly closer at hand than they could have imagined. At 14h27 KGr.126 Staff had contacted 1./Seenotflugkommando based at Lanévoc-Poulmic (south of Brest) to advise of a probable ditching in square 59521 north of the Ile d'Ouessant some fifteen kilometres offshore. Thirty five minutes later a Breguet 521 Bizerte seaplane coded KD+BC and piloted by Leutnant Paul Metges took off for the area - with at least 90 minutes of loiter time according to the pilot- in order to pinpoint any potential survivors. It was obvious though that even if he located anyone in the sea the pilot would find it impossible to land given the heavy swell and that he could only hope to 'guide' the trawler to the zone.

Meanwhile at around 17h00, after some two hours in the water the two airmen spotted two Bf 109s flying a recce along the coast. Von Livonius later reported, ".. with the energy of desperation we shouted and screamed even though we knew all too well that they couldn't hear us. We waved our arms like mad men - all to no avail.." The Messerschmitts droned past and disappeared from view....

He 111 H-4 '1T+AA of the Stab/KG26, the regular aircraft of Kommodore Oberst Ernst-August Roth

(to be continued.. ...adapted and translated from an article entitled "He 111 vs. Blenhein IV" by Pierre Babin and published in Avions magazine no. 178 with permission. "Avions" is the leading French aviation bi-monthly magazine published by Lela Presse. More on Lela Presse's publications at