The Background Story of the German Air Crash at Lodge Bottom
How many times have you driven through Lodge Bottom on the Hambledon Road and glanced over to the statue standing at the far side of the dewpond? Most of us know some of the story behind it but the whole story is full of fascination. With the help of a wealth of material provided by Lady Gillian Brunton who lives at North Munstead Farm and articles written by Frances Morris I will attempt to bring to life the characters who took part in the events of 9 April 1941.
There was a survivor, a young girl involved in the rescue of the survivor, and the air crew who shot the plane down and all have a story to tell. Our story must start however with Gillian Brunton because little would have been known about the crash if she had not researched it in the first place.
Her story started when the Brunton family moved into North Munstead Farm in 1970.
She tells us, “Soon after moving to the farm, an old gardener who had worked there since he was a boy, told us about ‘The German bomber that crashed in the pond field’. He led us through the garden and down a steep slope until we reached the dewpond at Lodge Bottom. On the way he described how the disabled plane had crashed through the treetops and swerved into the valley before coming to land on the bank at the edge of the pond.”
He went on to tell her that all the crew were killed, except for one survivor who was taken in an ambulance to the local hospital. He had never heard if he lived or died, but did say, “they buried the others in Milford graveyard but dug them up after the war and moved them to a cemetery up north somewhere … it all caused quite a stir at the time … but life had to go on, war or no war, and the whole thing was soon forgotten … “
She relates how she remembered his words and the sadness that was felt as they stood there on that lovely peaceful spot in the pale autumn sunshine.
As the years passed, she would always stop by the pond to think about the young airmen and of their families who must still be grieving for them and wondering exactly where or how they had died. There was nothing to mark this place where their lives had ended so abruptly, and it worried her that there might come a time when their story would be forgotten or fade into some half remembered myth. So she decided that before they left the farm, some permanent reminder must be erected on the spot to record the details of the bomber and of her crew. It was then that she realized just how little she knew about the plane, the crew or the circumstances surrounding the crash. Before she could begin she would need to build up a detailed picture of all these factors.
A visit to Milford churchyard proved fruitless, as neither the young minister nor the verger had heard of the airmen, nor could they find any record of their exhumation and their reburial.
In January 1989 a man called John Castle telephoned Gillian to ask if he could come with a young friend, Stuart Mina, to use their metal detectors on their land. Stuart had mentioned to him that a plane had been brought down in a particular field where they hoped to find the site of the crash.
It soon became clear that if anyone could shed light on the German bomber it would be John, for he had a brilliant and enquiring mind with a prodigious memory that stored a mine of information. His enthusiasm was matched only by his great stamina and dogged determination.
On the west bank of the pond John and Stuart found twisted bits of alloy and corroded bullets, which were standard German machine gun ammo (7.92mm). The fact that these had not been blown open indicated that the plane had not caught fire.
Fired with enthusiasm, John returned with a new and more powerful metal detecting gun to resume his search.
Some weeks later he appeared at the door flushed and shaking with excitement. He held in his hand a small grimy piece of metal. Beaming, he said “This is it … the fingerprint … the aircraft plate!” On it was written:-
B Nr. 407 W Nr. 1423
Z Nr. 111.60001 01-IAbnahme 18.11.38
John had found the key that would open the door to all the technical information that he was looking for. He gave Gillian the address of Colin Pratley at Croydon Aviation Archaeological Society and suggested that he might have some information on the bomber and her crew.
Using a metal detector John Castle and his colleague had discovered a metal fragment with the identification marks of the crashed plane. This provided the key for information to be obtained from Croydon Aviation Archaeological Society:
Heinkel He-111 P2 wr 1943 5/KG. 55 G1+DN
Shot down by Flight sergeant E.R. Thorn D.F.M. (Pilot) and Sergeant F.J.Barker D.F.M. in a Defiant of 264 Squadron, Biggin Hill.
Crashed Shepherds Hanger, Busbridge, Surrey 11.55 9.4.41.
Uffz A Muller Killed
Gefr R Langans Killed
Uffz G Neumann Killed
Gerf H Berg P.O.W. – injured
A month later Gillian was sent a copy of the Personal Combat Report accompanied by the understatement of all time “ I thought that this might be of interest”
Nothing could more graphically capture the atmosphere the facts or the drama of the situation than the copy of the War Ministry’s Official Report on the crash.
Personal Combat Report 9.4.1941
I took off from Biggin Hill at 2250 hours on 9/4/41 being under Kenley G.R. control. We gained height and finally orbited 15,00 feet. We were vectored after our A/E on approx 300 vector but were unable to make contact and so returned to Biggin Hill and once more orbited.
We were then given a great number of vectors rapidly and finally on a 090 vector we sighted E/A (enemy aircraft) at about 1000 yards ahead and 200 feet above us flying on the same course at 18,000 feet.
We closed in on his starboard side and made a beam attack with a burst of 2 seconds. The de Wilde ammunition was observed to be bursting in the fuselage and there was return fire, of which only one hit could be traced subsequently in the starboard wing. We then crossed under the port side and gave another good burst of 2 seconds, and the port engine was seen to glow.
E/A then started to lose height and turned away to starboard and coming over above him we fired a burst at the pilot. Returning to the port side we gave him another burst in the fuselage, and there was again return fire, but now from one forward gun.
We then asked Control for our position, which was given as aprox over Brooklands. We followed the enemy aircraft down to 9,000 feet and it disappeared into cloud in a steep dive with lots of white smoke coming from it, which I thought to be Glycol, heading in aprox a southerly direction.
E/A was clearly seen to be He 111 and is now established to have crashed at Godalming in Surrey.
There was no anti-aircraft or searchlight co-operation and Kenley Control was excellent.
The weather was very clear above a white cloud base 10/10 at 7,000 feet.
We used 1079 rounds of ammunition and landed back at Biggin Hill at 0016 hours on 10.4.41.
We claim one He 111 destroyed. My gunner was Sgt. Barker. , Sgt. Thorn (pilot)
Sergeants Thorn and Barker proved to be 264 Squadron’s most successful fighting partnership, being eventually credited with 13 victories and each receiving a DFM award.
Barker and Thorn’s successful partnership ended when Thorn was posted to 32 Squadron and in 1943 Fred was posted to the Middle East Gunnery School as an air-gunnery instructor. He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer in 1944 and released as a Flying Officer in 1946.
E.R. Thorn, the pilot of the Defiant was killed in a flying accident on 12.2.46 and he was buried in St. Peter’s churchyard, Bishop Waltham, Hants.
The Heinkel He-111 P that came down in the field off Hambledon Road in April 1941 was a bomber built in the autumn of 1938. After it had been brought down by the RAF Defiant fighter, 303 ammunition strikes were found in the tail unit and the fuselage. As it crashed through the trees, one of its wings was tom off and the nose portion smashed. Crucially, there was no fire, as the fuel had been jettisoned, but parts of an explosive charge for destroying the aircraft were found in the wreckage, unused. Three of the four crew members were killed; only one survived. His name was Heinrich Berg.
It had been a fine spring day, the 9th of April 1941, but for us, the four-man crew of the Heinkel111, it ended in disaster at 23.45.
After 60 years, I will try to remember just how this came about.
Our orders were to bombard Birmingham. But even before we reached the town we were intercepted by an English fighter plane … a night hunter … and shot at several times.
It was a full moon and the enemy came very close to us “out of the moon” (i.e. with the moon behind, therefore invisible to us)
I was the radio operator and I was shot at full blast, as I was the only one with a movable gun. I could not get in a shot, myself, but the whole radio system was destroyed – therefore I had no contact with my comrades.
We trailed a huge cloud of smoke behind us (probably the cooling system was broken as well) we were an easy target in the bright moonlight and there were several more attacks. Were my comrades still alive? Suddenly we lost even more height, had our pilot Alfred Muller decided to land? (We were already too low for parachuting) I remember that we collided with some trees which made a terrible noise inside the plane … then nothing.
I have no idea how long I was unconscious … 56 years later I learned what had happened and who was there …. but that is another story.
When I regained consciousness, I saw our plane, completely destroyed about 10 to 15 meters away on the ground. I tried to get up, but it was impossible. I was in terrible pain which was caused by a broken leg and several broken vertebrae in the lower spine. I heard a car, and a policeman told me that I was in England. I was put on a stretcher and transferred into an ambulance. I was taken to a hospital where I was cared for and where I had an operation. (56 years later I learned that the hospital was in Milford)
Waking up the following morning, in a pretty room which I had to myself, except for two soldiers with guns beside my bed! (they were there for my protection and to see that I did not escape)
Realizing that I could not move they reduced my escort to one soldier, who slept most of the time. (We could not talk together, as I did not know any English)
I was well looked after and the several interrogations by an officer were courteous and polite. My parents were informed that I was wounded and in England. I learned too, what I had feared, that my comrades were killed in the crash.
After about 10 days in this hospital I was transferred by ambulance into the unknown. A short stop in Birmingham and the next morning on to Nutsford in Cheshire … the prisoner of war hospital. So once more I could talk in my own language.
Here they discovered that I had broken vertebrae and a board was put under the thin mattress to keep my spine straight. I was not allowed to leave my bed for three months!
It was a “hard time” but even so I was lucky.
When I could get up at last, they gave me a walking plaster, but still the break had not healed. Meanwhile we had moved to Bury, Oldham and then to Wales (I have forgotten the name). From there we could see the Bristol Channel and the balloons over the town, to protect it from low flying enemy aircraft.
My broken leg still had not healed after a year and a half, and I was advised to have another operation. I agreed as it was obviously necessary, and being imprisoned there would be time for the healing process.
Under a repatriation exchange scheme for wounded prisoners agreed between Germany and Britain, he eventually boarded,a hospital ship in Glasgow with other POWs, and set sail home to Germany.
The three members of the crew who perished were Alfred Muller, Gerhard Neumann and Rudolf Langhans, all in their twenties. Gerhard Neumann left a wife and two sons. Gillian Brunton, who now owns the land on which the plane crashed, is in touch with his family, which had been traced for her by the German Military Information Office. Neither Alfred Muller nor Rudolf Langhans had children.
The bodies were buried at the churchyard at Milford; an evacuee recalls that local people placed flowers on their graves. They remained there until exhumed in 1962 when, under the auspices of the German War Graves Commission, they were taken for burial to the German Cemetery at Cannock Chase. They lie there, side by side, along with some 5,000 other German war dead.
In 1996 the curator of Godalming Museum received a letter and, knowing of her interest, forwarded it to Gillian Brunton, the owner of the land off Hambledon Road on which the plane crash had occurred.
The letter was from Olive Thomton (nee Smith), now living in Sussex. She had recently visited the museum and wondered if the incident of the crash had ever been recorded in the Godalming archives, and what had become of the surviving member of the crew. She described her involvement in the drama in the letter:
“In early 1941, aged 17, I was living at Busbridge Hall, caring for very young children evacuated from London.
A German Heinkel111 crashed at the lower end of the estate across Hambledon Road, in a meadow. I was billeted in the head gardener’s house near the field, and this happened in the middle of the night.
1 grabbed the blanket off the bed, and Dickens (the head gardener) and I went to the rescue, as we could hear someone calling for help, in German.
We were able to get one man out (the rear gunner, I believe) and I stood by the crashed plane, holding his hand, while Mr. Dickens went to call the ARP [Air Raid Precaution).
It seemed an eternity before he returned and, standing there in the moonlight, knowing of the crew around, was quite an experience. Eventually, I saw the young man taken off in an ambulance, wrapped in my blanket!”
When the ARP and the police arrived, the area was sealed off and a guard posted around the plane, its swastika and black cross clearly visible.
As Olive watched the tail lights of the ambulance disappear towards Hydestile Hospital, she would have found it difficult to believe that on the same day 57 years later, she would again hold the hand of the German airman that she had comforted in the moonlight, as he lay injured by his stricken plane. Olive and Heinrich were put in touch by Gillian and soon afterwards, a large bouquet of flowers was delivered to Olive with a heartfelt note: Danke Schon – Thank you.
Olive attended the dedication of the statue with her daughter and in the following year (1998) made the journey to Germany for an emotional reunion with Heinrich Berg on the 57th anniversary of the crash.
As her investigations into the crashed Heinkel bomber progressed, Lady Gillian Brunton, the present owner of the land off Hambledon Road on which the plane crashed, learned the names of the German air crew, what role each had played and their dates of birth. They were no longer anonymous Germans, but young men of flesh and blood who had lost their lives when far too young to die.
Her original idea was to mark with a plaque the exact spot where the plane had come down in the field opposite the gates of Busbridge Lakes but, as she learned more about them, this seemed to be too impersonal and inadequate: they should be given their own unique memorial.
It is not difficult to find the details and the resting places of airmen who were killed and buried in this country; survivors are another matter, and so the search for Heinrich Berg continued. Nevertheless, she decided to make a statue to honour the dead and to give thanks for the survivor.
A visit to the Imperial War Museum proved most helpful and she soon learned everything that she needed to know about Luftwaffe uniforms worn by bomber crews at this time.
An experienced model-maker, Derek Jones, helped her make the metal armature (frame) from an old bedstead. Wood, chicken wire and polystyrene were wired around the ‘skeleton’ to bulk out the form. The first two attempts were foiled when the statue keeled over due to the weight of the clay. A friend came to the rescue by welding heavy-gauge metal to support the original frame.
Her problem was that she was working ‘blind’, for she had no idea of the build of the surviving airman, his height or what he looked like. At this stage she knew only his date of birth and that he had not been killed; a photograph would have been a great help! She sculpted the face three times before she felt happy with it.
As this was her first attempt at a full-sized figure~ she had no idea of the amount and weight of clay and plaster that were needed. She was working in a room upstairs, above the sitting room as the ceiling started to sag. To avert disaster, two telegraph poles were cut to size and put under a beam, in the middle of the room, to bear the weight. It was a great relief once the mould could be removed and the clay figure dismantled. Safely on the concrete floor of the garage, the long and laborious task of making the fibreglass and bronze statue from the mould continued.
Several weeks after the figure was finished and after months of correspondence with various authorities in Germany, one can only imagine the excitement when Gillian received this fax in January 1997:
Dear Mrs. Brunton, I got the information that you want to know my address. I live in [address in Lohne, W Germany]. Please tell me why do you want to know it. Yours sincerely, Heinrich Berg.
After several letters had passed between Gillian and Heinrich, he sent her a photo of himself as a young airman: the likeness was uncanny and it was hard to believe that he had not sat in person for the sculpture.
Fifty-six years to the day after the crash, the statue was dedicated at a private ceremony on 9 April 1997. It was a simple but moving affair attended by about 30 people, mainly family and friends, together with others who had been involved with the project. Sadly, Heinrich Berg was not well enough to make the journey, but was delighted when he was sent a video of the event.
Lady Brunton’s husband, Sir Gordon, read the following lines by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, which appear on the memorial to the fallen at Gallipoli:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives;
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace …
You, the mothers who sent their sons from far-away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace.
After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.
In the stillness of the fading light, the gathered family and friends bowed their heads as a bugler played the ‘The Last Post’; the notes seemed to fill the valley before drifting away across the empty fields.
We gratefully acknowledge the contribution of: Francis Morris and special thanks to Lady Gillian Brunton for allowing this series to be published in the Parish Magazine.
You can see an extended version of the complete story with many more photos, in Lady Gillian’s booklet “The Survivor” in the library in Godalming Museum, or buy a copy for £7.50 from Craddocks Printers, Gt. George St, Godalming (Tel:416552).