The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome
No. 4 Summer 2000
Bill's search for his brother, a Blenheim pilot shot down after a raid on Cologne
by Bill Corfield
On 12 August 1941 grouse shooting began in Scotland with slaughter at low level, and forty eight twin-engined light Blenheim Bombers flew to Cologne.
Early that morning, nine aircraft from 21 Squadron at RAF Watton, in the depths of Norfolk, were prepared for this then unique raid. They were joined by nine aircraft of 82 Squadron from the satellite airfield at Bodney, just down the road. The 18 Blenheims lazily took off under the weight of their full fuel and bomb loads, into a still sky, with a lingering mist.
Thirty minutes later, they met up with thirty other Blenheims, nine from 18 Squadron, nine from 139 Squadron and twelve from 114 Squadron. The forty eight Blenheims were then joined by 263 Squadron Whirlwind Fighter aircraft from 263 Squadron, but with only enough fuel to escort them to the Dutch coast.
Over the North Sea, the Blenheims fanned out in line abreast, to lessen their target area, and dropped down to 50 feet above the waves. They stayed at this low height for the whole of the trip, which demanded unbroken concentration of the pilots. Across Holland, startled eyes looked up as the planes roared overhead and the gunners looking back told their crews of mad waving as the British planes were recognised. Over German soil, people looked up in apparent stunned amazement, or so it seemed to the gunners. It was all so quick.
Eventually, Cologne Cathedral appeared on the skyline and they were there. The Germans had obviously been taken by surprise, as no fighter aircraft had been seen. The two targets at Knapsack/Oldenburg and Quadratfortuna/Koln were then plastered with delay-fused bombs, dropped in relay, and the long anxious flight home began.
As expected, German wrath was met at the Dutch coast. Ack-Ack fire from lowered barrels took their toll, with damaged aircraft and stragglers falling prey to Messerschmitt Bf 109s of JG1 and JG26, over the sea. A Spitfire Squadron sent to rendezvous with the Blenheims over the Dutch Coast was late. Twelve Blenheims in all did not return. A terrible but repeated story of the time. My brother, Pilot Officer Jimmy Corfield, the day before his 25th birthday, was one of them. He is buried together with his Observer, P/O Arthur Williams and Wop/AG P/O Maurice Williams in the military cemetery at Den Burg on Texel Island, off the Dutch coast, and where their bodies were washed up ten days later.
By a strange coincidence, I was contacted last year by Maurice Williams' son, Michael, and together with much work from Michael we found Arthur's relatives. Touching letters have been exchanged, written by the crew, and giving a glimpse of the times - good food in the mess in austere Britain, in a letter to our mother from my brother; in a letter from 28 year old Arthur to his brother telling of tiring hours flying low-level over the sea, and a talk with my brother on their determination that they would survive this war; in a letter from 32 year old Maurice to his wife, telling how my brother sank a ship with an accurate bomb drop; and another to his aunt, saying how he had sprayed the decks of a ship with his guns, making crew members dive into the hatches.
A week before the raid, my brother came on leave and, as a hero-worshipping schoolboy, I told him that if the war lasted long enough I would become a pilot like him. I can remember his look to this day. He quietly told me that I did not have the temperament, and to get a ground job instead. I little realised at the time that he was trying to save my life.
When he was killed, I was shattered, and determined to prove him wrong I duly became a wartime pilot.
In 1982, the lure of flying drew me back and I obtained a private pilots licence which is still current today.
On the 12th August 1986 I flew alone across the North Sea to Texel Island to visit my brother's grave. I landed at Texel Airfield and the airport manager, Ed de Bruijn, kindly drove me to Den Burg, about five miles away. We made friends and kept in contact.
Four years later I met, by chance, John Foreman, a British Researcher into RAF wartime incidences. He looked into the Cologne raid and thought that my brother and his crew had been shot down by Germany's top Ace, Adolf Galland, with a score of eighty two British planes at the war's end. He said he had tried before to contact Galland on other matters, but it had become well known that he never replied to any requests for information.
Adolf Galland 'regrets consequences of war'
The trail then went dead, until, in April 1991, I flew into Southend Airport with my wife, and met again by chance three wartime ex-Luftwaffe Messerschmitt 109 fighter pilots, who had flown over to visit Duxford Imperial War Museum.
Hearing German being spoken, my wife asked them where they came from and we began chatting. One of them indirectly knew Adolf Galland. My wife, twenty years my junior, is of German/Hungarian parentage.
Her father, an Oberleutenant in the German army, was killed on the Polish border on the 12th January 1945, at the start of the Russian push, which ended the war in May with the meeting of the Allies in Berlin. My wife had been born the previous October, but her father never saw her. Her father and my brother were both born in 1916. their photographs stand together in our living room as a salute to them both and a reminder of the war's futility.
After our meeting with the ex-Luftwaffe pilots, my wife Annelie wrote a polite and well-phrased (very important, especially to older Germans) letter to Adolf Galland, via the pilot we had met at Southend. Adolf Galland wrote back to me, almost by return of post. He gave details of the place, time and how, on the 12th August 1941 he had shot a Blenheim into the sea, which had been lagging behind some 17 other Blenheims flying back to England. It was two miles off the Dutch coast, not far from The Hook of Holland. The letter was one of regret on the inevitable consequence of war and congratulated my wife on her well-written German. I wrote to Ed at Texel Airfield, sending him a translated copy of the letter. He showed this letter to a Dutch fisherman friend, Bram van Dyk, a local wartime researcher, who found from old records of the time, the place and where my brother's body and his crew were washed up. Then, using his intimate knowledge of the coastal tides, he confirmed they had indeed been shot down by Adolf Galland. The tides had taken the bodies 118 miles in ten days. I had already found out from RAF records that my brother's body (exhumed after the war for definite identification, as were all casualties) had Ack-Ack shrapnel in the right leg.
No doubt, one of the two engines had been damaged and this was why his aircraft was lagging behind when Adolf Galland had pounced.
The fisherman wrote the story for the island's magazine. This was read by a woman in her late forties, who remembered as a child going with her mother to tend an airman's grave (her father and mother had been in the Dutch Resistance). She checked with her mother, still living on the island, who confirmed it was my brother's grave which they had looked after.
On the 12th August 1991, I flew with my wife this time to Texel. On the way, we circled the spot where my brother had been shot down. As we landed, there waiting for us was the fisherman, the lady who had tended my brother's grave, her husband and her two daughters, one of whom had read the magazine article.
Fifty years on I was able, at last, to lay my brother to rest. As we all stood by his grave and those of his crew, I bowed my head to the very many young, and not so young, Blenheim crews who had so vulnerably sacrificed their lives in war, in this sadly forgotten Bomber.
On August 12th 1992, a dream came true. After much negotiation and with invaluable help from Julian Horn, the voluntary creator of the 21 and 82 Squadron Museum on Watton airfield, I got permission through the MoD to fly in to this long disused airfield. As I dropped down on final approach, with my wife beside me, my thoughts were such as to defy words. Part of the deal was that I would take ATC cadets in relays for short flights round Watton. I was flying a single-engine four-seater Grumman AA5B.
The first flight with two cadets in the back and one in the front passed without incident. But, on the next trip, with two boys in the back and one girl in the front, the brakes failed as I taxied down the runway for take off. I immediately shut off the engine and the aircraft gently swung to port. The airfield was grazed by sheep, kept off the runway by mild electric fencing which the propeller neatly sliced, winding the wiring round the boss, and we came to a halt. A radio message to a hand held at the normally deserted flying control, brought a car and a tractor to the rescue. The electricity had been turned off and my ATC passengers soon unwound the wire and tied it together again. Then off they went in the car, and the tractor towed me back to the control tower. When I got inside, my ATC girl passenger was busy writing in her diary. Curiously, I asked her what she was writing. Without a word, she handed me the diary. There I read in bold letters: "Today, I survived my first flight and air crash".
Julian Horn somehow persuaded a mechanic to fly in from a nearby airfield to repair the defective brakes. But it cost me! It took some time, and when he had finished I taxied out and took off into a tranquil August evening to fly back to Elstree. An evening, surely not unlike that of 51 years ago to the day. Before we left, in the growing dusk, the ghosts of long ago were there, and smiling.