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Forgotten frontline exhibition tells how Luftwaffe fought with soldiers on Kent marshes

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Exhibition organiser Mark Harrison overlooks the site of the battle
Exhibition organiser Mark Harrison overlooks the site of the battle

Battle ground - exhibition organiser Mark Harrison overlooks the site of the historic encounter

by Ron Green and Mark Harrison

The Luftwaffe bomber was in trouble. It had dropped its 4,000lb cargo of bombs over London and was heading home. As it flew over Kent it was hit by anti-aircraft fire from a gun emplacement beside the Medway at Upnor.

Then pursuing Spitfires and Hurricanes pounced – but for once they didn’t seek to blow the enemy plane from the sky. The pilots from 66 and 92 squadrons recognised that this was no ordinary Junkers bomber. Earlier an order had gone out to all units to capture one like it, intact.

The bomber pilot, Fritz Ruhlandt, was given no choice but to attempt a forced landing on the Kent marshes. On the ground, soldiers from the 1st London Irish Rifles billeted at the Sportsman Inn on Graveney Marshes between Faversham and Seasalter heard the crippled bomber as it plunged towards them.

Under-offizier Ruhlandt, despite being wounded, brought down his plane a few hundred yards from the pub. He and his injured crew members crawled from the wreckage. A dozen or so soldiers in the pub grabbed their rifles and rushed towards the scene.

And so, on September 27, 1940, the scene was set for an historic encounter of the Second World War.

The Luftwaffe crew had armed themselves with two machine guns and a sub-machine gun and opened fire. The soldiers returned fire but were forced to take cover under a hail of bullets.

It was the only battle of the Second World War on the British mainland and the incident was thought to be the first in nearly 300 years in which armed invaders had fought with troops on English soil. The dtramatic incident is featured in The Forgotten Frontline, an exhibition at Whitstable Museum illustrating how the Kent coast was affected by the war seven decades ago.

The Irish rifles re-grouped and crept along a dyke towards the Germans. When they were about 100 yards away one of the airmen waved a white flag but as the soldiers closed in fighting erupted again before the Germans were over-powered.

The drama didn’t end with the surrender of the aircrew. Like many Nazi planes, the Junkers 88 was fitted with time-bombs to prevent it falling into enemy hands.

The soldiers had discovered and removed just such a device. Unknown to the prisoners, one of the soldiers could speak German and he heard the fliers talking about a second time-bomb due to go off at any moment.

Captain Cantopher from the Irish Rifles courageously rushed back to the plane, found the second device and defused it in the nick of time. By doing so he helped the war effort – for the Junkers 88 was only two weeks old and was fitted with a secret and extremely accurate new bombsight.

The outcome

Captain Cantopher received the George Medal for his bravery. The Junkers 88 was taken to RAF Farnborough for examination and was said to have provided highly valuable information.

The Luftwaffe air crew went to prisoner-of-war camps. The riflemen were mentioned in dispatches for tactical ability which enabled them to force the surrender of the heavily-armed Luftwaffe crew. Unofficially, however, it is said the riflemen had their knuckles rapped for opening fire without being ordered to do so.

Historic note

The Battle of Graveney Marsh has the distinction of being the last exchange of shots on mainland Britain by a foreign invading force. The encounter was believed to be the first confrontation with an enemy on British soil since the French landed at Fishguard in 1797, although on that occasion not a shot was fired.

How the historic battle of Graveney Marshes unfolded
How the historic battle of Graveney Marshes unfolded

The Forgotten Frontline exhibition runs until Monday, November 14, at Whiststable Museum in Oxford Street. Call the museum on 01227 276998 for more information or visit http://www.timescapes.spaces.live.com/.

Mark Harrisonruns Timescapes local history group, the main organisers of the exhibition.

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