Moonlight Sonata: The Story of a German Bomber — November 1940

“ The first two bombs landed within one hundred feet of my parents home…”

Heinkel HEII. Image: Atlantic

For twenty-seven years the bodies of four German airman lay buried in a far corner of St. Peter’s churchyard, Wellesbourne, each with small Imperial German cross, made of metal, to mark each grave.

I know it sounds like the start of a Jack Higgins novel, but it’s true.

The German Luftwaffe launched their bombing raids on Coventry in November 1940, under the code name ‘Moonlight Sonata’, although they had bombed the city in the autumn, during the Battle of Britain. But these new raids were much more intensive, with the one of the night of November 14th to the morning of the 15th, the heaviest of them all, with Coventry Cathedral destroyed.

Most of the 500+ German aircraft used that night were Heinkel HE III long range Medium bombers, each (unless pathfinders carrying incendiary bombs)with a high explosive bomb payload of 1) 409 pound bomb, 1) 1,102 pound bomb, each fixed externally under the wings, and 8) 551 pound bombs racked internally. Each aircraft had a mix of nine machine guns and cannon, and a speed of around 270 mph.

They were a formidable aircraft, with a range of some 2,700 miles, so could hang around to do maximum damage.

On the night of the 14th one Heinkell HE III got into trouble before it even reached its target.

New technology was being used by the Luftwaffe, which included an electronic beam system that guided the aircraft to just beyond Leamington Spa (six miles or so from Coventry), with the aircraft coming in one behind the other before dispersing to seek their individual targets, which may or may not have been highlighted by the pathfinder’s incendiary bombs. Either way, identify a target could only be done by reducing height to around five hundred and using road maps, collected by tourists in the 1930s, to guide them in.

Our Heinkel began to descend toward his target in Coventry (probably the Humber works) but was hit either by AA fire, or more likely cannon fire from a Hurricane or Spitfire.

With one engine hit the Heinkel pilot turned his ailing aircraft slowly to port, and in a wide arc, and maintaining an altitude of around four hundred feet managed to get back onto a southerly course and by maintaining the arc onto a south-easterly course some five or six miles to the northwest of where he’d been hit, probably somewhere over southwestern Birmingham.

Momentarily out of danger the pilot realised he needed to jettison his bomb-load to give some much needed height if he was going to get back to Holland in one piece. He could simply have jettisoned his bombs there and then onto a densely populated area, but instead kept heading in a southeasterly direction until he was over farm land, close to Bearley, where he jettisoned a string of bombs.

Some of the craters can still be seen today.

By the time the Heinkel began to pass over Stratford-upon-Avon, at least one Home Guard unit — who’d been informed of the aircraft’s suspected route — blasted away at the aircraft with their rifles, scoring a few hits.

The Heinkel was now loosing height once more and, passing over Wellesbourne, close to the River Dene, came under fire from another Home Guard unit — which included my father — who fired in unison at the stricken aircraft, but still the pilot waited until his aircraft was over fields before jettisoning the remainder of his bombs.

The first two bombs landed within one hundred feet of my parents home, with the rest stringing out across pasture and meadow land where the aircraft finally crashed.

My mother, who had a three month old child (my sister) at the time, shouted to her next door neighbour who’d been a VAD nurse during World War One:

“ Miss Waddup? Miss Waddup, are you alright?”

“ Yes, my dear, I’m fine. Now you stay calm and put the kettle on. I shall be straight round; keep that child safe down the cellar.”

Only when my father returned home to tell my mother about shooting at the Heinkel, did he realise what a near miss my mother and Miss Waddup had had.

The chances are that the four German airmen were critically injured by the rifle fire, and were certainly all dead when the aircraft was found. They were buried with full military honours.

The bomb craters further down the meadow became great newt and frog ponds.

I remember Miss Waddup as a kindly but formiddable woman.

The bodies of the flyers were repatriated to Germany in 1967.

The strange thing is that a Heinkel HE III had a crew of five.

A crashed Heinkel HE III. Image: tracesofwar.com

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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