Monday 23 August 2010 | World War 2 feed

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Kent battle between German bomber crew and British soldiers marked after 70 years

A little-known skirmish between a downed German bomber crew and a group of British soldiers, the last ever military conflict to take place on British soil, is finally being marked 70 years after the event.

 
London Irish Regt training on Graveney Marsh in 1940: Battle in Kent between German bomber crew and British soldiers marked after 70 years
London Irish Regt training on Graveney Marsh in 1940 Photo: BNPS

Most history books have Bonny Prince Charlie's 1746 defeat at Culloden as the final battle to occur in this country.

But the virtually unheard of Battle of Graveney Marsh in the Kent countryside 194 years later was actually the last action involving a foreign enemy.

The battle took place 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 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.

Although the soldiers armed themselves, they fully expected the four-strong Luftwaffe crew to give themselves up without a fight. They were wrong.

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.

There was a heavy exchange of fire before the Germans surrendered, with one of them being shot in the foot during the brief battle. Nobody was killed.

In a dramatic twist, commanding officer Captain John Cantopher overheard one of the captured crew mention in German that the plane should "go up" at any moment.

With that, he 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.

Incredibly, the British even had a pint of beer with the German airmen back at the pub before the PoWs were picked up.

Now for the first time the Battle of Graveney Marsh will be officially remembered by a military organisation.

Next month, the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association will mark its 70th anniversary by unveiling a commemorative plaque at the pub which is still standing today.

Nigel Wilkinson, vice-chairman of the association, said: "Although it barely gets a mention in the history books Graveney Marsh was the last battle to take place on British soil involving a foreign enemy.

"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.

"Of course the men of the London Irish Rifles spoke about the battle and for a time it went down in folklore within the regiment.

"But it seems to have been forgotten about. We were aware the 70th anniversary was coming up and thought it was about time that something was done to officially recognise and remember it.

"Because the men were billeted at the Sportsman, and the pub is still standing today, we thought a plaque that will serve as a permanent reminder was appropriate."

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.

'No sir...'

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."

It is expected that 60 members of the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association will attend the event at Seasalter, near Whitstable, on Sunday, September 26.

There will be parade in front of the association's president, Major General Corran Purdon, who won the Military Cross for the famous raid on St Nazaire and was imprisoned in Colditz.

There will then be a drum head service before the unveiling of the plaque.

 
 
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