The last battle on British soil? Little-known conflict at Graveney Marsh finally remembered after 70 years

By Ian Drury
Last updated at 11:22 AM on 21st August 2010



Billeted at a pub on the Kent coast, they had been ordered to capture any German aircrew shot down in the countryside. But the men of the 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles were to carve themselves a little-known place in military history: they fought the last ever battle to take place on the British mainland.

During the Battle of Britain, they had trooped out to pick up the crew of a crashed German bomber only to find the airmen waiting with machine guns. After a short battle the Germans surrendered – and their captors then took them for a pint at their local pub.

The extraordinary skirmish, which took place on September 27, 1940, has been nicknamed the Battle of Graveney Marsh.

Most history books record the crushing of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion at Culloden in 1746 as the last pitched battle fought on British soil.

Veteran George Wallis returns to the Sportsman Inn to celebrate the last battle on British soil at Graveney Marsh

Heroic effort: Veteran George Willis, now 90, returns to the Sportsman Inn, in Graveney Marsh, Kent, to commemorate the last battle on British soil which ended with the German POWs being taken for a pint

Now efforts are being made to give the Battle of Graveney Marsh more official recognition.

It happened when a stricken Junkers 88 crash-landed after being attacked by two RAF Spitfire fighter planes in the skies above the English coast.

One of the bomber’s 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, was forced to land on Graveney Marsh. The crash was seen by members of the London Irish Rifles’ A Company, who were holed up in the Sportsman Inn in Seasalter, a hamlet near Whitstable, and they were dispatched to the downed plane.

Battle in Britain: The downed Junkers Ju 88A-1 on Graveney Marsh in 1940

Battle in Britain: The downed Junkers Ju 88A-1 on Graveney Marsh in 1940

They fully expected the four-strong Luftwaffe crew, including wireless operator Unteroffizier Erwin Richter who had only married a couple of months before, to give themselves up without a fight.

But to their horror, as they approached the aircraft the Germans opened fire with the aircraft’s two machine guns. Some of the British servicemen dived to the ground and returned fire, while a smaller group crawled along a dyke to get within 50 yards of the plane before they started shooting.

The battlefield today: Although it occupies a special position in British military history, The Sportsman is best known today for its superior sticky toffee pudding

The battlefield today: Although it occupies a special position in British military history, The Sportsman is best known today for its superior sticky toffee pudding

Following a heavy exchange of fire, they mounted an assault on the Junkers and the Germans surrendered. No-one was killed in the battle, although one of the enemy was shot in the foot.

In a dramatic twist, the company’s commanding officer, Captain John Cantopher, overheard one of the captured crew mention in German that the plane would ‘go up’ at any moment.

He dashed back to the aircraft, found an explosive charge under a wing and threw it into dyke. It meant the prized aircraft was captured for British engineers to examine.

Keeping Guard: London Irish rifles guarding the downed Junkers Ju 88A-1

Keeping Guard: London Irish rifles guarding the downed Junkers Ju 88A-1

Captain Cantopher won a George Medal for his bravery. Incredibly, the British soldiers enjoyed pints of beer with the German captives back at the pub before they were picked up as prisoners of war.

Next month, the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association will mark the 70th anniversary of the battle by unveiling a commemorative plaque at the pub.

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 a new marque and as it was only two weeks old it provided the Air Ministry with valuable intelligence.

Unteroffizier Fritz Ruhlandt was the pilot brought down in Graveney Marsh, Kent, in 1940

Unteroffizier Fritz Ruhlandt was the pilot brought down in Kent in 1940

Of course the men of the London Irish Rifles spoke about the battle. It went down in folklore within the regiment. ‘But it seems to have been forgotten about.

We thought it was about time something was done to officially recognise and remember it.’ Corporal George Willis, 90, of Greenwich, south-east London, the regiment’s piper, was in the Sportsman when the men returned with the Germans.

‘The men were in good spirits and came into the pub with the Germans,’ he said. ‘We gave the Germans pints of beer in exchange for a few souvenirs. I got a set of enamel Luftwaffe wings.’

An element of the London Irish Regiment training near the scene of the skirmish in 1940.

An element of the London Irish Regiment training near the scene of the skirmish in 1940.

It is expected that 60 members of the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association will attend the event at Seasalter, 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 Second World War raid on St Nazaire and was imprisoned in Colditz.

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

 

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How can it be the LAST battle if it occurred in 1940? The war continued until 1945!!!!

Click to rate     Rating   331

Well done to the Germans for putting up a fight.

Click to rate     Rating   112

The men were in good spirits and came into the pub with the Germans,' he said. 'We gave the Germans pints of beer in exchange for a few souvenirs. I got a set of enamel Luftwaffe wings.'

Which really proves that neither side wanted to fight, they were just ordered to do so by a small group of madmen who wanted to control the world. Great story. I sometimes wished I'd been born 60 years earlier than 1962.

Click to rate     Rating   141

Given that no lives were lost and there appeares to be no hard feelings towards the crew it would be good if they could attend as honoured guests if they are still alive.

Click to rate     Rating   194

If this plane had crashed today the troops would not have been allowd near it until a risk assesment had been done; they would not have been allowed to carry guns as they would not have been properly 'trained' , a police armed response team would have been summoned and arrived making alot of noise. They would have to surround the crew and shouted at them whilst pointing tazers at them from every possible angle and when the bomber crew had been captured (after they had stopped laughing) the crew would be offered a house and some money and been able to send child allowance back to their childred in Germany.

We have changed since the war.....sadly.

Click to rate     Rating   175

Are any of the bomber crew still alive, if they are I am sure they would like to be represented. It would show an example of respect and reconcilliation with old enemies. Wonderfull to see some of these tales of events long ago while there are still a few who participated.

Click to rate     Rating   163

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