German Junkers 88: September 27th 1940
One Friday morning in September 1940, hundreds of people along the West Somerset coastline craned their necks to the sky to witness three British Spitfires chasing a German Junkers 88 fighter down the channel. The climax came over Porlock. Two short blasts of machine gun fire from the lead Spitfire crippled the Junkers which then crash landed on the beach not far from Porlockford.
Three German crew members stepped from the Junkers and were immediately arrested by an armed Fleet Air Arm officer who happened to be on the beach, overseeing the recovery of a British Fairey Albacore plane which had crashed on the marshes two weeks previously. Witnessed by a crowd of villagers, the three German survivors were handed over to the local constable, PC Curtis, and driven to the cells at Minehead Police Station.
Subsequently, a fourth German airman, the gunner Corporal Wilhelm Reuhl, was found dead in the wreckage of the plane. His remains were buried in the Hawkcombe cemetery with full military honours, a swastika draped over his coffin. Villagers put flowers on his grave, which has been tended ever since.
High tides later washed the wreckage of the Junkers further up the beach. Despite a military guard, there were reports that parts of the plane were looted. Later, the machine guns were donated to the Air Training Corps at Minehead School.
On examination, the Junkers was found to be carrying sophisticated high altitude cameras, planning to photograph the dock gates on the Manchester Ship Canal, before it was intercepted by the three Spitfires over Bristol.
USAAF B-24D Liberator: October 29th 1942
A long range reconnaissance/bomber of the United States Army Air Force, a Liberator B-24, crashed onto Porlock Marshes at around 3.30 pm on 29th October 1942. Attached to the 330th Bombardment Squadron, the Liberator had taken off from Holmsley South Airfield in the New Forest at 7.20 am on a mission against German U-Boat submarines in the Bay of Biscay.
The Liberator turned for home four hours into its flight but, returning in heavy rain and poor visibility, it clipped the top of Bossington Hill which was in low cloud. Two local boys, Alan Perkins and Brian Richards, saw the plane swing westwards over Porlock. Debris fell from the stricken plane, a wheel and part of the undercarriage plummeting onto Sparkhayes Lane before the plane crashed on the marsh.
Among the first on the scene were members of the Royal Observer Corps, from their lookout post on Sparkhayes Lane, and the District Nurse, Nurse Bragg. There was, sadly, little they could do. Eleven men died in the crash; the only survivor was one of the gunners, Staff Sergeant H E Thorpe.
A memorial to those who died was erected by the Porlock branch of the Royal British Legion. It was later moved to its present position on the coastal path.
British Halifax bomber, Mark B V: June 11th 1943
Eight months after the crash of the Liberator, another plane based at Holmsley South Airfield, a British Halifax bomber, crashed in thick mist into the woods at Ashley Combe, near Porlock Weir. There were six crew on board, four of whom died. The pilot and the flight engineer survived. But for the heroic efforts of three local woodsmen, it could have been so much worse.
The Halifax, part of the 295 Glider Towing Squadron, had taken off from Hampshire bound first for Portreath in North Cornwall. It was taking part in an ambitious operation whereby Halifax bombers towed troop-carrying Horsa gliders more than 3,000 miles to Tunisia in North Africa, in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily.
The weather was poor and deteriorating for this first leg of the flight. With a low cloud base and in poor visibility, the Halifax crashed into the wooded hillside, narrowly missing Ashley Combe House.
At the time, the house was being used by Dr Barnardo’s charity as a nursery for vulnerable children. One eyewitness said that the Halifax skimmed past the windows at the back of the house before crashing into the hillside and catching fire.
Three local men were working in the woods, Henry Pollard, Tom Rook, and Jack Ridler. They rushed to the scene to try to drag the airmen from the burning aircraft but the Halifax exploded, badly injuring Jack Ridler. All three men later received commendations for their bravery.
A memorial to the four airmen who died was later erected in Ashley Combe woods.
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