On the morning of December 21, 1940, Captain van Lott, a Dutchman in a mixed RAF unit, was about to make his debut flight in a Hurricane.
Ordinarily a Wellington bomber pilot, he had crash landed earlier that day and left his crew behind to guard their aircraft.
It contained a new top-secret bomb sight just trialled the previous night in a raid over Nazi-occupied Denmark.
Now van Lott needed to get a plane back to his base of operations at RAF Dyce, Aberdeen. He had to report what had happened at once to his commander there.
In wartime Britain, this of course was not out of place, though there was something a little strange about Captain van Lott.
Moments earlier, in a nearby hanger, he had signed the necessary paperwork to begin his first Hurricane flight.
The first four columns of the form asked for the date, his name, nationality and address. He had written:
“21.12.40. van Lott Dutch Aberdeen.”
Yet anyone who gave his paperwork more than just a cursory glance might have noticed a strange stroke of the pen over the “u” in “Dutch”.
And as for the remaining columns, the policeman who had accompanied him to the hanger told him he could just fill then in with “See AID” (Aeronautical Inspection Directorate.)
Mishearing this, van Lott had written, "Sicioed" – perhaps rather unusual for a Dutch national meant to be well versed in RAF positions and ranks.
In fact, for anyone who stopped to think about it, Captain was not even an RAF rank.
That had not, however, raised suspicions enough to stop van Lott climbing into a Hurricane where he next took instructions from a helpful nearby mechanic on how to fly it. Van Lott’s internal monologue at this point, detailed in James Leasor and Kendal Burt’s book ‘The One That Got Away’ is amusing in its extreme impatience.
Trying to make sense of the Hurricane’s compass, for instance, van Lott simply decided it was rubbish and made no sense and that he would instead navigate using the sun.
He found the stick to be “A monstrous contraption” and the hydraulic brake system “Incomprehensible”, but was still perfectly willing to get going. His bar for success was laughably low: simply not standing the Hurricane on its nose as he took off.
Literally minutes away from doing so, with the mechanic making nearby final preparations, a voice behind van Lott made him turn his head to the port side of his Hurricane.
Van Lott found himself staring down the barrel of an automatic pistol, and then up into the eyes of the station’s Duty Officer, a man he had strung along not ten minutes beforehand.
Van Lott was, in fact, Oberleutnant Franz von Werra, an adjutant in the Luftwaffe and a Messerschmitt Bf 109 pilot who had been shot down during the Battle of Britain.
The night before, in what was his second escape attempt, von Werra and several fellow POWs had finished digging themselves out of a nearby concentration camp and scattered across the countryside.
Von Werra’s plan of escape was by far the most audacious.
Rather than running for a nearby coastline, he casually strolled into a railway station, claimed to be a pilot of an imaginary downed bomber and requested a ride to the nearest RAF aerodrome. His aim? To break away the moment he had a chance, steal a plane and to fly it straight over the Channel to occupied France.
Incredibly, his bluff had fooled three police officers who had questioned him and he was able to get a personal driver dispatched specifically to give him a lift right into RAF Hucknall.
At this point, Leasor and Burt’s account becomes useful for explaining just why von Werra was able to get so far.
The Duty Officer at Hucknall had sent a car to pick up van Lott, or von Werra, precisely because he suspected something was off and he wanted to assess the supposed Dutch pilot for himself. It was only von Werra’s incredible talent for bluffing that had enabled him to keep the conversation going long enough to slip out the door and effectively make a run for the nearest plane.
This incredible capacity to spin tales was something von Werra had evidently also used on his own side.
At one point earlier in his captivity, late at night and in the midst of a large Luftwaffe raid on London, von Werra’s RAF interrogator moved the conversation into the subject of his captive’s aerial victories.
He, like the attack of which he spoke, homed in on one particular incident in which von Werra had claimed to have destroyed nine Hurricanes single-handedly.
According to the story he related to the Luftwaffe, and in a radio broadcast the British had listened in on, the oberleutnant had broken away from his formation and ended up trailing a group of Hurricanes coming in to land. Waiting for just the right moment, von Werra shot them down where they were most vulnerable, from behind and above, before unleashing his cannons on several more Hurricanes on the ground.
This, the interrogator pointed out, made no sense. How could von Werra have engaged in combat prior to his being separated from his formation, and deliberately conserved cannon ammunition in the process? Did he know he was going to come across vulnerable Hurricanes on the ground later on?
Quite apart from that, the RAF had no record of nine Hurricanes being destroyed in a single attack.
The whole thing was so preposterous that at one point his interrogator told von Werra that he was the laughingstock of every mess in RAF Fighter Command.
German pilots got the Second Class iron Cross for shooting down one enemy plane. A First Class Iron Cross was the award for downing five enemy planes, and the Knight’s Cross was awarded for 20. Evidently this system incentivised some pilots to exaggerate their successes.
Von Werra had an Iron Cross First Class, and would later be awarded the Knight’s Cross.
“The Red Devil Strikes Again!” his interrogator teased him at one point, referred to the “bold baron” who obliterated nine Hurricanes single-handedly. This appears to have been a facetious reference to the First World War fighter ace the Baron von Richthofen, and fit well since von Werra was of noble (Swiss) origin.
He Indicated too that von Werra would not be well received by his fellow detainees when his lie became known. The story he had told his own side had the effect of moving von Werra from seventh on the list of air aces to joint fourth, only a few places away from “even Molders and Galland!”.
Revealing his lies certainly had the potential to embarrass von Werra, though in the end his audacity would win over his fellow detainees (more on this below.)
The ‘Galland’ whom von Werra’s interrogator was referring to was then Gruppenkommandeur (essentially Wing Commander) Adolf Galland.
He was a veteran of the Condor Legion, or Legion Condor, that had fought in Spain on the side of Franco’s fascists against the communists during that country’s civil war, which had lasted from 1936 to 1939.
Men like Galland and other veterans of Legion Condor came to dominate the fighter geschwader (wings) of the Luftwaffe in the years that followed, and not without good reason. In ‘Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle for Britain’, Joshua Levine quotes Messerschmitt bf 109 pilot Hans-Ekkehard Bob. He observed that British pilots were very good, but that vital fighting experience in Spain, and then Poland, gave the Germans the edge in many ways.
Unfortunately for Galland and his companions in the Luftwaffe, interservice rivalry seems to have hampered the Luffwaffe’s efforts in the summer and autumn of 1940.
The Battle of Britain was, of course, meant as prelude to an invasion of Britain.
Bickering had ensued within the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht.
The German army (Heer) felt that the navy (the Kriegsmarine) had not made their proposed fleet big enough, while the Kriegsmarine felt that what it had was too big to be adequately protected.
The eventual plan – Operation Sealion - was to ferry nine infantry divisions and to airdrop two airborne divisions across the Channel and for this combined invasion force of 200,000 to swamp southern England, including London.
Yet the British soon recovered from their enormous loss at Dunkirk and had over 250,000 men, 16 divisions, across the south of England ready to oppose them.
This meant the Luftwaffe would have to tip the balance back in Germany’s favour by winning complete air superiority over the RAF.
Interviewed on the 1973 Thames Television series ‘The World at War’, Galland said of it all:
“In my opinion, the plan was not serious. Especially, the navy didn’t want to have the responsibility, and the navy has asked the air force, first of all, to establish … the absolute air superiority over the invasion area. And the preparations the navy did were not very convincing. Also, our preparation, my wing (or Gruppe) especially, was destinated to be one of the two wings transferred to England. And our preparations were … ridiculous. The air force was not trained and prepared to conduct an independent air war over England.”
With very tight ranges, or, more precisely, a short radius of action, Luftwaffe Messerschmitt pilots were pushed to the limit and beyond. Fuel limitations translated into a mere 30 minutes of flight time over England for German fighters, and Galland says this often meant only 10 minutes over London.
As a consequence, Galland says in the World at War:
“We fighting crews were convinced that we couldn’t win the battle, and we couldn’t force England to surrender by attacking without any operation from the part of the army or the navy. Therefore, we were asking High Command should order the invasion, the Sealion.”
This all makes the decision to switch from attacking RAF airfields to bombing London on September 7, 1940, that much more significant. It is acknowledged that, von Werra’s fictitious fighter-ace exploit aside, the airfield attacks were devastating the RAF.
The September 7 London air raid, the start of the Blitz and the intense bombing von Werra himself had heard while being interrogated, was therefore a useful break for the RAF.
While the bombing of civilians was of course tragic, it had the unintended consequence of helping the RAF to recuperate.
There were misgivings about this on the German side. Hans-Ekkehard Bob certainly thought the bombing of civilians was wrong:
“We had been bombing the airfields. In terms of warfare it was both understandable and important. But once London was being attacked, we told ourselves that this was something that we wanted to have less to do with.”
Bombing did not only occur on airfields and cities.
One of the most famous aspects of the Battle of Britain is of course the use of radar by the British. The Germans were actually aware of this invention, though what they did not understand was just how adroitly the British were using it.
One of those taken by complete surprise by it was Hans-Ekkehard Bob. He described a Spitfire formation appearing out of nowhere, from behind, a perfect firing position, and in poor visibility.
Lack of full understanding did not prevent the Luftwaffe from striking out at radar installations.
They did so by dive bombing.
The common perception of the German fighter aircraft that took part in the Battle of Britain, the Messerschmitt, is one model of aircraft.
In actual fact, there were two Messerschmitt models that flew over Britain during 1940, the Bf109 and Bf110.
The Bf110 was a twin-engine aircraft with a rear gun (a picture of which can seen on the cover image of this article.) The other was the Bf109, which was far more numerous and is therefore the one most people probably envisage when they think of a Messerschmitt. That is the kind illustrated throughout this article.
For the most part, the Bf109 model E, or ‘Emil’, was the variant used throughout the Battle of Britain, though a few F-1s were also used towards the end.
Bf109E-1s were used early in the war and continued to be used during the battle, as were E-3s and E-4s, though the Osprey Publishing Aircam Aviation Series volume ‘Messerschmitt Bf109B,C,D,E In Foreign Service’ examines Luftwaffe Operational Returns from July 10 to October 31, 1940 – the period spanning the Battle of Britain.
These show that Emils of all classes, from E-1 all the way up to E-8, were in operational use during the period, though the vast majority were E-1s and E-4s, at least going by the loss rates.
The book concludes that many E-3s were likely converted to the E-4 variant. Both had MG17 machine guns above their engines which used an interrupter gear to fire through the propeller, a technology that had been developed during World War 1. As Tony Holmes explains in ‘Spitfire vs Bf 109’, both variants also had 20 mm cannons in their wings, though the E-3 sometimes had a rarely seen nose-mounted cannon as well. This was uncommon because it was unpopular, due to mechanical issues caused by the cannon’s placement so close to the engine. (Holmes also explains that there was an E-9 variant, which, like the E-5 and E-6, was a surveillance aircraft. E-7s also came into service in August 1940 and could be fitted with drop tanks to increase the Bf109’s range).
Other modifications to the basic Bf109E model also existed, one of which was the E-1/B, E-3/B and the E-4/B. These were converted to carry bombs so that they could, like Stuka dive bombers, engage in low-level bombing runs.
It was this variant that was used to attack radar installations, as per the illustration below.
This might sound like it could have been critical in the German effort to dominate the skies above southern England, but quotes from Bf109 pilots in ‘Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle for Britain’ reveals another side to it.
First of all, this method of bombing, was highly inaccurate.
Secondly, it sounds as if it was incredibly dangerous for the pilots. Hans-Ekkard Bob is again quoted as saying:
“When we were flying the 109s with bombs on board, when the bomb had been set to ‘live’, if there were any technical errors, it meant that the plane would suddenly explode right there in the air. A situation like that is terrifying. You can imagine it, you have a comrade or a friend flying alongside you, and then suddenly his plane dissolves into bits – if you witness that it shakes you to the core. A crazy situation.”
For all their military might, the Germans were also behind in another important technology: radios.
In ‘Spitfire on My Tail’, Bf109 pilot Ulrich Steinhilper reveals his struggles before and in the early years of the war to get radio technology in the Luftwaffe up and running properly.
Like von Werra, Steinhilper is also a fascinating character, though also decidedly different to von Werra.
Lower-middle class and unassuming, the young Steinhilper found himself going up against the much-lauded old hands, mostly members of the legendary Legion Condor, in his efforts to improve radio communications.
In an exercise meant to simulate a bombing attack on Germany, Steinhilper had managed to put together a communication system made up of interlinked ground observers dotted around the country. They relayed information down radio lines that were collated at a central location and the relevant information passed onto fighter pilots who could then intercept the ‘enemy’ bombers.
The practice was a great success and sounds like the kind of common-sense measure that should have been in place anyway.
Yet, in a post-exercise debrief, Steinhilper asked his superiors about the system and if it had been helpful.
According to Steinhilper, the aforementioned Galland responded by sidelining him:
“Good Steinhilper, you have reminded me – you were talking too much … You were just bothering us all of the time. And as I’ve always told you, it would be best to throw out all of those damned radios! We don’t need them. We didn’t need them in Spain and without them we could fly higher and faster!”
It appears that Legion Condor men like Galland had managed perfectly well without radios in Spain, and they were resistant to them going forwards.
By the time the Battle of Britain rolled around, German planes were often kitted out with radios, but Steinhilper laments how far behind things still were.
German bombers, for instance, were frequently limited to Morse Code, hugely slowing down and complicating the process of communication between them.
Another lag concerned the state of radio communications with German rescue units back in France. One of the biggest problems for German fighter pilots was the previously referred to limit on their radius of action, made worse by having to fly slowly to escort bombers.
This often resulted in Bf109s being pushed to the absolute limit of their fuel capacity during their return flights across the Channel, and many misjudged things and ended up in the Channel.
There was a coastal rescue service ready to get these men but the radio communications to it were cumbersome. They had to go back through a central node in the network, then get passed on again in Morse Code.
This, Steinhilper says, surely resulted in a lot of miscommunication about a downed pilot’s position and unnecessary deaths, all because of the cumbersome nature of the system and the multiple links in the chain whereby vital information could get muddled up after being passed on so many times.
Steinhilper describes how incredibly nervous he was when going in for this attack, but that his nerves settled down as he focused intensely on the target, right after he aimed the nose of his Bf109 was aimed right at it.
With the comrades in his Staffel (squadron) behind him, Steinhilper’s Messerschmitt hurtled in with its guns blazing.
The target was a fuel tanker that instantly exploded, engulfing not only the Spitfire refuelling from it but two more others sitting nearby.
Swooping past the inferno, Steinhilper says he was struck by what he had done:
“Only now do I realise what power is given to a pilot with those four guns.”
Unlike von Werra’s fictitious attack, this one actually happened.
Still, that does not take away from what was impressive about von Werra: his escape attempts.
Returning to von Werra’s story momentarily, it is worth detailing his first escape attempt which occurred while the Battle of Britain was still going on.
This attempt had been made while he was imprisoned in the Lake District.
He very cleverly worked out that there was a blind spot in a regular route march the prison camp guards took German POWs on to give them exercise. What von Werra proposed was that when the party of two-dozen German POWs next reached this spot, he would lie on his back on a stone wall while several of the taller men crowded around him. From there, he would make his escape.
And so the next route march passed by the spot, as usual. When the taller men inched their way in around him, von Werra lay down on the coats they had placed across the wall. When his comrades could see the prison camp guards were looking the other way, they gave him a signal and he rolled off the wall, crouched low and ran for it.
Initially, his escape was very nearly blown by two women working in a nearby field. They spotted him running away and yelled to the guards.
However, the quick thinking of von Werra’s compatriots saved him. They simply feigned ignorance, pretending to think that the women were giving them a flirtatious wave and simply called and waved back, drowning out their faint calls about von Werra.
By the time the camp guards realised they were missing a prisoner, von Werra had disappeared into the Lake District and was only tracked down sometime later.
This first escape attempt of Von Werra’s occurred in early October, 1940. Further south, the Battle of Britain would drag on until the very end of the month. Steinhilper was continuously involved, almost until the very end.
As an oberleutnant, Steinhilper would not ordinarily have commanded a Gruppe, or wing, but on October 27, with his two superiors having to return to base with technical problems, he found himself in just such a position.
Furthermore, a Gruppe would normally have contained three or more Staffeln, squadrons – roughly three dozen or more planes. Casualties though had reduced the total formation to a mere eight aircraft.
Steinhilper makes plain just how much the Luftwaffe were feeling the strain at this late stage of the Battle of Britain. Downed aircraft were being replaced but it was the attrition rate of experienced personnel that was the real problem.
He was frustrated by having to continually escort German bombers, a duty that required him and his fellow Gruppe pilots to slow down. This made them vulnerable to Spitfire attacks even if they were flying higher than the bombers, close to their maximum flight ceiling of 32,000 feet.
Then they saw them: Spitfires, above them at 35,000 feet, waiting to pounce right as the Messerschmitts were at the edge of their radius of action, and in need of turning around and flying straight home for fear of running out of fuel.
This of course was the best moment to slow them down and hamper their return, with a dogfight:
“I glanced back into the glaring light and there, behind me, was a staircase to the sun. A staircase of Spitfires queuing for the attack, the first one already had read flames dancing along the leading edge of his wings as his guns fired.”
At this moment, Steinhilper as his Rotte, or wingman, were separated as they broke in different directions, trying to avoid the onslaught. German fighters generally flew in groups of formations known as schwarms, or flights. There were later copied by the Allies and named four-finger formations because they consisted of two pairs of wingmen able to manoeuvre around flexibly to cover each other as required.
In this instance though, the overwhelming Spitfire attack had forced the German pilots apart and now Steinhilper was on his own, up against aircraft that were more manoeuvrable that his.
There is some dispute about whether the Spitfire or the Bf109 was faster. Allied aircraft ran on higher-octane fuel at this point and this no doubt helped them.
Messerschmitts were better suited to diving due to fuel injection in their engines, and whenever they could their pilots sought to employ this strength.
But where the Spitfire did have a definite edge was in being able to turn far more tightly*, which made evading the guns of his pursuers extremely difficult for Steinhilper.
Evidently he must have been chucking his aircraft all over the sky because when an explosion did hit him, it wasn’t caused by enemy fire, but by his supercharger – a key part of his engine - exploding.
(*In ‘Spitfire vs Bf 109’, Tony Holmes explains that this tight turning ability of the Spitfire was aided further by a two-step rudder system, which enabled pilots to sit higher and keep more horizontal when turning. High rates of acceleration, also present when coming out of tight turns or sudden drops in altitude, were liable to cause blackouts in pilots. The upper limit before this happens is the maximum g-force, and the dual rudder in the Spitfire increased its upper limit by about 1G).
Steinhilper even notes that he knew Yellow 2, the name of his plane, had not been hit**.
(**The Germans had been instructed to paint the noses, wing tips and tails of their planes yellow so that they would not confuse friend with foe in the confusion of a dogfight. This gave rise to the British nickname for their enemies – “yellow-nosed bastards”).
Stuck in a broken aeroplane, Steinhilper was forced to duck into and out of clouds to evade his pursuers, and to radio his base, fully expecting to run out of fuel and crash in the Channel.
It was at this point that he stumbled upon a formation of several Hurricanes.
Having the element of surprise, he got ready to shoot at them before they noticed him, but his aircraft’s performance went into terminal decline and he was forced to bale out.
In a gripping section, he describes how he had to wrestle with the canopy release, which broke off in his hand, and then had to force the cockpit open, only for the wind to rush in and rip the canopy completely off the aircraft.
With the plane rapidly descending, he fought against the wind rushing in and pinning him to his seat. Essentially clawing his way out of the cockpit, he was hit by the wind and sent tumbling back over the body of the Messerschmitt.
Moments later he was dangling in the air under his chute and watched his plane plunge nose first into a cow field.
At that point, his immediate concern was freeing his left leg, which had become tangled in the suspension lines of his chute.
He managed it by the time he reached the ground, but his leg was injured – so there was no way to evade the farmer who closed in on him with a shotgun. Like von Werra, Steinhilper was now in captivity.
In the days that followed, the following letter found its way to Ulrich Steinhilper’s father, a World War 1 veteran, reservist, school teacher and member of the Nazi Party. It read:
“Dear Herr Steinhilper,
“As Deputy Group Commander I have to inform you that your son, Ulrich Steinhilper, did not return from a sortie against England on 27 October …
“As squadron leader I fought many air-battles with your son and I estimate his capabilities as an officer and a fighter-pilot as exceptional …
“We all hope with you that soon there will be information about him being in English custody.
“I greet you and Frau Steinhilper
Steinhilper was of course in British custody, and this that helped him to survive the war. Interestingly enough, so did his Messerschmitt. It was unearthed in 1980 and sent to the Kent Battle of Britain Museum.
His autobiography is interesting not only because it gives a German eye view of the Battle of Britain, but also because it shows his thought process about the Nazis.
Early on in the book, he refers to the extreme hardships that hit Germany following the First World War. There was large-scale unemployment in many countries that fought in World War 1, as well as hyper-inflation in Germany during the 1920s, then the harshness of the 1930s Great Depression. All of this was exacerbated in Germany by the war reparations it had to pay as part of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. When added to the sense of grievance likely to be felt by any defeated nation, this of course all made the rise of the Nazis more likely.
Or, as Messerschmitt pilot Wolfgang Falck put it in Joshua Levine’s book on the battle:
“After the First World War … There were at least ten political parties, everyone fighting against the others. It was like a civil war. The communists were trying to make revolution. Millions of people were jobless with nothing to eat. It was really catastrophic.”
Though in Steinhilper’s case, as his narrative rolls on, it becomes clear that he was beginning to question his former allegiance to the Nazis.
One significant factor in his father joining the Nazi Party was his lower middle-class position and status as an outsider in the village in which he worked. Germany had only been completely unified following the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, and even in pre-World War 2 Germany different dialects of the German language were spoken. The one spoken by Steinhilper’s family was different to that used by their fellow villagers, something that set them apart and marked them out for discrimination.
Nazi Party involvement then became a way for his father to get on in life, since Nazism was populist in its political orientation. (Fascism, it could be argued, is a form of extreme right-wing populism. See the explanation on fascism in here for more on fascism versus communism).
Yet, Steinhilper also notes that it was clear in retrospect the justifications that were given to the German people about the 1938 annexation of Czechoslovakia were not entirely truthful. And when members of his unit actually met Hitler, he says he began to distrust the Fuhrer because of his willingness to make a pact with the Soviet Union before the invasion of Poland. Communism, after all, was meant to be the supreme enemy. Additionally, he speaks of a highly contentious disagreement he and fellow Luftwaffe cadets had at one point with very aggressive Waffen-SS cadets in a bar, an incident that almost came to blows.
Steinhilper then was clearly on a path to seeing just how monstrous Nazism really was.
As for von Werra, it is impossible to know if he ever would have come to regret or question his allegiance to the Nazis.
Following his recapture in December 1940, von Werra was sent into captivity in Canada instead. He escaped again, this time through a train window while on route to a POW camp. He crossed the St Lawrence River, the border to the neutral US.
From there, he took a circuitous route back to Germany, and is now thought to be the only German POW to have made it back during the war.
He went into military service again and, in October 1941, set off for a practice flight in his Bf109F-4.
The aircraft experienced engine failure and went down in the North Sea.
Franz von Werra was never seen again.
For more on the German airmen mentioned and quoted here, read ‘The One That Got Away’ by James Leasor and Kendal Burt, ‘Spitfire on My Tail’ by Ulrich Steinhilper and ‘Forgotten Voices of the Blitz and the Battle of Britain’ by Joshua Levine.
For illustrated looks at the key fighter aircraft involved in the Battle of Britain, read ‘Spitfire vs Bf 109: Battle of Britain’ by Tony Holmes, ‘Battle of Britain 1940’ by Douglas C Dildy and look at ‘Messerschmitt Bf 109 A – D series’ by Robert Jackson for more on the development of the Bf109 before the Battle of Britain. Visit Osprey Publishing for more illustrated military history.
Some illustrations from Airfix. Airfix is a registered trademark of Hornby Hobbies Ltd, and use of the illustrations has been kindly permitted by Hornby Hobbies Ltd © 2018.
Thanks to the Kent Battle of Britain Museum for help with factchecking this article. As noted, the Museum holds Ulrich Steinhilper’s Bf109 as well as many of Franz von Werra’s personal effects.