The last battle on British soil? Little-known conflict at Graveney Marsh finally remembered after 70 years
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
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
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.
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
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 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
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
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
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 Kent in 1940
course the men of the London Irish
Rifles spoke about the battle. It
went down in folklore within the
‘But it seems to have been
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 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
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,
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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