Shot Down for the King
King George and John Cunningham, Middle Wallop 7 May 1941
King George VI stood in the darkened “Starlights” caravan behind Squadron Leader Brown. Together, they peered down at what seemed to be a fuzzy image on the radar’s cathode ray tube display.
From his position on the ground, Sqn/Ldr Brown relayed headings and altitudes directly to the Beaufighter R while the King listened in the speaker system behind. He would guide it to within three miles, hoping to position it above and behind the target, a German night bomber.
As the Beaufighter closed to within two miles of the target, he verified with Sergeant Rawnsley, the radar operator on board the plane, that he had a solid radar fix on his on his Airborne Interception (AI) equipment then he handed off the interception. If everything went properly, the rest of the interception would be done by the pilot and radar operator in flight.
Sqn/Ldr Brown realized that the Beaufighter was directly above their site — the Sopley Ground Control Interception (GCI) station. He turned to the King and suggested they go outside to watch the interception. Stepping out into the moonlit night, the two men lifted their eyes upward, searching for any sign of the two planes — the German plane and the pursuing Beaufighter piloted by Squadron Leader Cunningham. A faint drone from the engines was all that could be heard — then they saw something that looked like a faint red glow.
Right RAF Sopley’s Mobile GCI unit on January 5, 1941. Sopley was the most effective GCI in Britain, ending the war with over 100 victories.
Earlier in the Night
There was little warning of the King’s visit to with 604 Squadron at RAF Middle Wallop on Wednesday, May 7, 1941. Nonetheless, everyone managed to get the airfield and into a presentable state. Accompanied by Sir Sholto Douglas, the King dined in the Officers Mess and then inspected and talked to the flight crews. For a time, the King spoke with Squadron Leader John Cunningham and then as quoted in the 604 Squadron History, he “asked Sergeant Rawnsley his score and on being told nine he commented, ‘Nine eh? Will you get one for me tonight?’ Rawnsley very much overcome by the occasion, promised to do his best. His Majesty then left to be shown around Starlight GCI at Sopley.”
It was 10:03 pm when Sqn/Ldr Cunningham and Sergeant Rawnsley boarded their Beaufighter Mk.IF (R2101 NG-R) and took off to patrol the English Channel. Their aircraft was fitted with the Airborne Interception (AI) Mk IV radar, a system that had been introduced in late September 1940 and had served the RAF’s night fighter squadrons well.
Armed with four cannon and six machine guns and with a top speed of 320 mph, the Bristol Beaufighter was a formidable night fighter, made even more so when integrated into the innovative British Chain Home radar network that looked out to sea and warned of any approaching German aircraft. The flaw with the radar network, however, was that it left a void inland. Once a German plane crossed the line of coastal radars, it disappeared into the unmonitored heartland. To address this gap, the Ground Control Intercept (GCI) radar system was developed based on a mobile system, the so-called “Starlight” caravans. The first mobile installation was established at Sopley in December 1940.
The Radar System
The GCI radar unit was based on an adapted Army Gun Laying tracker, known as a Type 8 Radar. This was serviced by two aerials that were aligned onto a target by two airmen, known as Binders, who would pedal a stationary tandem that operated a mechanical linkage to turn the aerials based on instructions from the operator looking at the screen. It was a crude system by later standards, but at the height of the early war period, it was the best available.
Large Crossley trucks were used to mount the transmitter and receiver each connected to an aerial, while the operations room was housed in a Brockhouse trailer. In turn, this held the crew of three — a height finder operator, a fighter controller who sat in front of the Plan Position Indicator [PPI] scope, and a plotter. Curtained off from the other crew, the plotter calculated aircraft speeds, headings and tracks of targets using a map and a Dalton computer. Sopley was also equipped with Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system that allowed quick identification of Allied aircraft.
Left - The RAF Sopley Type 8 Mobile GCI Radar System, c. 1941
Integrated Radar Coverage
The mobile unit did not stand on its own, however, as initial radar contacts were provided by the Chain High and Chain Low stations that looked across the English Channel for incoming German planes. Contact information included the range, bearing, speed and height of the contact. The GCIs accepted the transferred plot and took over as the enemy aircraft crossed the coastline — from that point onward, the job was in the hands of the RAF’s night fighter units.
A high degree of skill was required to co-ordinate height, course and speed data, particularly at night. Squadron Leader Brown had with the help of Edward Bowen, a major contributor to the development of radar who personally developed the necessary control techniques. Ultimately, he would become probably the most successful GCI controller of the war.
Even with the extraordinary capabilities of the ground-based mobile GCI system, the real action typically culminated on board the night fighter. Once brought within close range, the AI operator in flight would look through a leather visor at two luminous green cathode tubes, on which he could read the horizontal and vertical positions of his target. Once in range, the echo that bounced off the enemy aircraft would appear as a blip on both screens. The operator would call instructions to the pilot, bringing the plane into visual range – from there, it was the job of the pilot to shoot down the enemy.
With Sergeant Rawnsley calling instructions to Sqn/Ldr Cunningham, the two men navigated in behind the enemy aircraft — just what type of plane it was would be a mystery until they got within visual range.
The town of Rennes in northern France served as the home of 7 Staffel Kampfgeschwader 27 (Boelcke), which was part of Luftlotte 3 within Fliegerkorps IV. That night, one of the Staffel’s bombers, a Heinkel He 111P-2 (Werke Nr 1639 IG+DR), had taken off into the cold evening air. On board were a crew of four — Pilot Oberfeldwebel Heinz Laschinski, Observer Feldwebel Heinz Shier, Wireless Operator Oberfeldwebel Otto Willrich and Flight Engineer Feldwebel Fritz Klemm. As with many in the Staffel, the men were an experienced night bomber crew.
Laschinski had joined the Lufwaffe in 1934 and had then flown for Deutsche Luft Hansa before being recalled to the new Luftwaffe for service in Spain as part of the Condor Legion. He served with distinction with 2nd Staffel Kampfgruppe 88 receiving amongst other awards the Spanish Cross with Swords, awarded for having taken part in combat missions against the Republican forces. He was then assigned as a ‘blind flying’ instructor until in 1939 when he applied for transfer to a combat group.
The mission that night was his 121st operational flight over Great Britain. His target was the Liverpool docks. After take off from Rennes, they had come across the English Channel at 4,000 metres (12,800 feet). Once they had cleared the flak batteries on the south coast of England, Laschinski aimed his He 111 for the Bristol Channel, intending to fly between Cardiff and Bristol so as to avoid the aerial defences of both cities.
It was a clear night and he could see the reflection of the moonlight off the English Channel as he reached down and behind to his left and found the two fuel tank transfer controls. He began to transfer fuel from the outer tanks to the inner ones. It wouldn’t be long before they would reach the Liverpool docks and, after having dropped their bomb load, they expected to return to Rennes, arriving in the early in the morning of May 7th. At that moment, they had no idea that just two miles behind, an RAF Beaufighter was steadily approaching. The German crewmen were always alert, however, scanning the darkness for a telltale flash of an exhaust fire or the silhouetting of an enemy hunter against the moon’s reflection off the water.
The radar operator on the Bristol Beaufighter, Sergeant Rawnsley, focused on the AI — his only picture of the surrounding skies amidst the darkness of night. Calmly, he called out instructions to his pilot, Squadron Leader John Cunningham, asking for a steady descent toward the target ahead. The Stopley GCI had vectored them in, setting them up perfectly above and behind the German airplane. He felt the plane accelerate slightly as Sqn/Ldr Cunningham carefully edged the control yoke forward to bring the plane’s nose down and edge closer toward the target. If the German bomber didn’t change course, it would soon come into visual range and even now, Cunningham was scanning the skies ahead intently. They would have to ensure that they weren’t overtaking at a too rapid pace or they might end up overrunning the target orworse, even colliding with it.
In the moonlight, they saw the German plane ahead. Sqn/Ldr Cunningham slowed and carefully came up behind. From behind, it looked to be a Heinkel He 111, another night bomber of the Luftwaffe. The Germans were on a course to navigate between Cardiff and Bristol and were heading over the Bristol Channel. Were they going beyond or dropping their bombs one of the nearer cities? It didn’t matter, as the outcome would be the same now. Seeking positive identification, Sqn/Ldr Cunningham began to line up his attack plan.
Setting up the Attack
To prevent the Beaufighter from being silhouetted against the glistening, moonlit sea, Cunningham waited for his quarry to be over land. As soon as it crossed the coast and was clear of the Bristol Channel, he moved in. Ahead, the Heinkel’s blue exhaust flames were clearly visible and gave him an ideal focal point for holding formation. With care, he performed his customary identification check. He needed to be absolutely sure of the aircraft type — it would do no good to shoot down another Beaufighter. He knew that such errors could happen easily at night and with the excitement of the chase.
Flying underneath, he looked up at the wing plan form and confirmed his target was a Heinkel He 111 bomber after all. There was no doubt. Never taking his eyes off of the bottom of the enemy plane, he pulled back on the throttles slightly. Slowly, the Beaufighter fell back into trail as he carefully positioned himself for the attack. Night fighter tactics differed sharply from those of the daytime pilots in their Spitfires and Hurricanes. They could get into a swirling dogfight, shooting at whatever targets passed before their guns, trying to make sense of the melee, pick a target and attack. In the night, however, it was very different. Stealth, patience and ambush were the best moves. Further, you had to kill from the first shot — usually from so close that you couldn’t miss. If you engaged from farther away, the enemy might be only lightly damaged and thus, he might turn away and flee into the cloaking darkness of midnight. Even with luck, it would be difficult or even impossible to relocate him.
The Attack Begins
Sqn/Ldr Cunningham checked with Sergeant Rawnsley a final time to make sure he was prepared. He reconfirmed too that there were no other aircraft around. Except for the German He 111, they were alone. As described by Sergaent Rawnsley in his later book, “Night Fighter”, the encounter unfolded deliberately and slowly, despite the excitement of finding and engaging a German plane:
“We were right below our target, a great fat prima-donna of a Heinkel. John started pulling up behind it and the long, long wait was even more agonising than usual. But the enemy crew showed no reaction. We were right behind and there came the final moment of tension with the sharp little lurches as John brought the sight to bear. Still there was no response from the Heinkel. Then came the blessed relief of the crash of the guns and the sudden surge upwards to get out of the way of the hurtling wreckage. A wicked orange glow appeared inside the fuselage of the Heinkel and the wheels fell down in the most forlorn way. As we flew alongside, watching, the glow burst through the skin and the flames took over. The whole aircraft trembles and broke into a violent pitching and with a plume of flames streaming out behind it, the Heinkel went down in a headlong plunge to earth.”
From the German Side
From the first sounds of the bullets impacting into his Heinkel, Pilot Oberfeldwebel Heinz Laschinski was in shock. Moments earlier, he had been transferring fuel from the outer wing tanks to the inner ones, unsuspecting that the British airplane was already upon them. When he heard a rattling of gunfire, he saw his observer, Heinz Schier, collapse next to him, obviously dead. Seconds later, fuel spilled onto the cockpit floor. In an instant, it ignited and the cockpit was engulfed in flames. He shouted to the two other crew to bale out as he reached through the flames to grab the handles of his own escape hatch. There was no saving the plane. It was just a matter of survival — to get out before the plane exploded or he was burned alive.
He grasped the handles of the escape hatch and felt a stabbing pain. Blinking through the fire, he saw his hands melting onto the handles. He withdrew them and for an instant looked at his twisted, ruined fingers, as held them up before his eyes. There was only one way out, however. He reached up again and managed to unclip and slide the escape hatch back, burning his hands yet more. He stood up through the inferno to climb into the cold rushing wind from the speed of the plane as it angled through the dark sky. Even then, he couldn’t free himself. His seat parachute caught on the exit hatch, trapping him half in the cockpit, half out. He couldn’t leap clear. As the flames were roaring at his feet and legs, in a panic he pulled the rip cord.
Whether he blacked out or blocked it out he would never know, but a second later he found himself drifting below the mass of his glowing plane, flaming as it careened onward toward its end. Then his parachute was snapped open and jerked him to a stop. The plane sped off into a fiery descent. Then he passed out once again.
Oberfeldwebel Heinz Laschinski came to lying on his back in a damp field. In spite of his very painful burnt hands, he managed to release his parachute. Years later in an interview with author Kenneth Wakefield, he told of how he had walked across a field until he came to a hedge. Then he followed that to a gate. There, he decided to hide his maps and pistol in a drainage pipe. It was pointless to hide himself or try to evade — he was in England, an island nation and his wounds needed immediate care. Through the gate, he walked along a lane to a farm house. It was nearing midnight when he knocked on the door and woke the elderly residents inside. In his best English, he asked them to call the police. He could no longer feel the pain of his burns. Exhausted, he collapsed onto the grass outside to await his fate.
Shortly afterward, the Home Guard, police and some local residents arrived with a number of vehicles. Laschinski’s Heinkel had come down near Weston Zolyand and the closet hospital was at Bridgewater in Somerset. He would be taken there to receive care for his wounds. Once at the hospital, his hands were heavily bandaged. He realized too that his face was badly burned. It would be a long recovery. In later years he remembered with gratitude the excellent treatment he received — even in wartime, the English provided the finest care. He was in turn well liked at Bridgewater and at the RAF hospital at Locking in Weston Super Mare to which he was transferred a month later on June 10, 1941.
Life as a POW
When he had recovered sufficiently to be discharged, he was sent first to the POW staging area at Swindon. From there, he was sent onward to a POW camp at Bury in Lancashire. Kindly, the British had told him that two of his crew members had been found alive near the wreckage of his Heinkel, but it was only when he met up with his wireless operator, Oberfeldwebel Otto Willrich, that he found out more.
What he learned was that when Willrich had heard the order to bale out, he had climbed down into the ventral gunner’s position below the aircraft. There, he had found Fritz Klemm’s body. He had been killed by the guns of the Beaufighter — only one other, not two, had survived. After leaving the aircraft, Willrich landed near a searchlight site between Durston and North Petherton, south of Bridgewater. Almost immediately, he was taken prisoner.
As for their Heinkel He 111P, the aircraft had broken up in mid-air after the two men had escaped. The majority of the wreckage had come down at Andersea Farm in West Zoyland at 11:30 pm.
A year later in 1942, Sopley mobile GCI was upgraded with large permanent buildings and the latest radar technology and support systems. For the next 30 years there was continual development including the construction of an underground bunker.
Subsequently, in the post-war period, it emerged as a regional control facility. What had started as a handful of mobile, truck-mounted radars, communications vans and control stations had evolved into a full-scale radar base. Decades later, with the centralization of air traffic control, the unit was finally closed. In September 1974, RAF Sopley was handed over to the Army. Later, the site was put up for sale. It was sold and removed from the Army’s installation list in 1993.
As for Heinz Lashinski, he grew a beard to cover his burnt face while he was in the hospitals undergoing burn treatments. After the war, he returned to Germany in 1947 with hopes of returning to flying as a commercial pilot. The long convalescence and the shattered state of the post-war German economy prevented him achieving his ambition, however. Instead, he found employment with the German Post Office.
Finally, in the late 1970s, he made plans to visit England and meet the people who had helped and befriended him after he had been shot down. Sadly, just two weeks before his planned visit, he fell ill and died.
Allan White and Ian Macrae, Severnside Aviation Society Records
Sparks, P. A Brief History of RAF Sopley 1941-1945, 1990
Wakefield K.G., Aviation News November 1985
White, I., If You Want Peace, Prepare for War, A History of No.604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force, 2004
Published on May 6, 2013