Published: 05:00, 02 May 2022
When Rev Silke Tetzlaff took over as chaplain of RAF Staplehurst, she had no idea of her own deeply personal family connection to the airfield.
For, more than 60 years beforehand, a Spitfire squadron which took off from the base travelled to a German airbase, where they carried out a raid which killed her grandfather - flying ace Horst Porath. Alan Smith looks back at that fateful day.
During the Second World War, a small airbase nestled away in the Weald of Kent became home to three squadrons of the Royal Canadian Air Force.
Today there is little left of RAF Staplehurst, except a memorial that stands near the site.
But in 1943 and 1944, it was a tactically important base which homed fighter planes destined for raids on Germany.
One of the Canadian squadrons were the 401s, nicknamed The Rams.
Towards the end of the war they had the unenviable task of trying to counter the Germans' newest aircraft the Arado Ar234 Blitz (B-2), the world’s first jet bomber.
It had a top speed of 450 mph (735 kph), faster than any Allied propeller-driven fighter.
A German pilot from the time, Wilhelm Kriessmann, said: “The power was exhilarating! The aircraft was very responsive. Its speed was its best defence.”
Unable to catch them in the air, the Canadians began patrolling near the German airbases to catch them taking off or landing, when they were slower and more vulnerable.
On 23 January, 1945, 401 Squadron were patrolling near Bramsche airfield north of Osnabrück.
They caught a flight of the jet bombers on a slow descent into land.
Diving from 10,000ft the Spitfires began a devastating attack and within minutes, three of the Ar234s had been destroyed and three others damaged.
One of the German pilots killed that day was Horst Porath.
Herr Porath had been born on September 6, 1918, in Dӧben, 45km southeast of Leipzig.
It’s not known when he joined the Luftwaffe, but by 1942 he was a pilot flying Heinkel He 111 bombers.
His squadron was posted to the Eastern Front in support of Hitler’s invasion of Russia.
On June 1, 1942 Unteroffizier Porath was awarded the Ehrenpokal der Luftwaffe. This was a silver cup devised by Reichsmarschall Goering and awarded ‘For Special Achievement in the Air War.’
Porath already held an Iron Cross and the Frontflugspange, the Front Flying Clasp of the Luftwaffe.
He was further decorated on September 1, 1942, with the Kreuz in Gold for repeated acts of bravery.
By January 1945, Porath was with the 8/Kampfgeschwader 76 squadron, flying the new jet bombers.
The Ar234 B-2 had a single crew member and only highly experienced pilots like Porath were picked to fly them.
In 2019, aviation writer Nick Oram organised a commemoration event to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day at the memorial stone which marks the site of RAF Staplehurst.
For that he approached the Rev Silke Tetzlaff, rector of All Saints and chaplain to the airfield, to ask her to conduct a service.
Rev Tetzlaff is German, and in conversation he discovered that Horst Porath was her grandfather.
Later, for his new book, Mr Oram interviewed the Rev Tetzlaff’s mother - Horst Porath’s daughter.
She said: “I was 19 months old when my father fell.
“I knew him only from pictures and reports from relatives, especially from my maternal grandparents.
“My father’s mother didn’t like talking about her children. She had lost both sons, Horst and Wilfried, both pilots.
“It was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when I was able to visit my father’s grave in Bramsche, that I felt real grief. And I could cry even at over 50 years old.”
Mr Oram said: “At the commemoration event Silke led a very moving service.
“As I stood next to her, it seemed an unbelievable coincidence that all these years later Horst Porath’s granddaughter should be the airfield chaplain for the former base of the same Canadians of 401 Squadron who had attacked her grandfather on that fateful day.
“It seems to me to be the very embodiment of reconciliation since those dark days of war.
“We can now stand together with people of all nations in peace and harmony, remembering everyone who fought and lost their lives on both sides.”
Spitfire Pilots: Legends of The Air by Nick Oram is now available in hardback, priced £29.99