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War comes to Beaminster

Robin Pearce tells the story of the South Buckham Farm bomber crash

Dornier 217-E4 U5+FN over Swansea on the night of 16 February 1943, as visualised by Ieuan Layton-Matthews in a painting commissioned by the author.

For most people, Tuesday 16 February 1943 was just another day in the war. But for the Swaffield family of South Buckham Farm it had great significance. This isolated farm is in a quiet corner of West Dorset, midway between Beaminster and the village of Mosterton, far away from the main war fronts. But because the Luftwaffe used prominent landmarks to aid navigation – such as Portland Bill, the harbour at West Bay and the estuary of the River Exe – the farms and cottages around Beaminster were aware almost nightly of the enemy above.

Hitler’s Führer-Weisung (Directive) No 9 had said that the most effective way to bring about the defeat of Britain was to paralyse its economy and he had therefore ordered the most important British ports to be bombed. It was in pursuance of this strategy that Luftwaffe squadron KG2 took off in the early evening of that Tuesday in February 1943 from Evreux in occupied France with the intention of bombing the docks at Swansea, which was high on Hitler’s list of crucial ports.

According to German sources, it consisted of 37 Dornier 217s. They probably gathered into a large mass somewhere west of Cherbourg and used ‘stream’ tactics to approach the south-western peninsula of Britain: by flying as a large group they made it harder for the defences. The first warning of an attack was received by the RAF station at Fairwood Common (now Swansea Airport), on the Gower peninsula to the west of Swansea just before 10 pm. At that time Bristol Beaufighter V8451, piloted by Wing Commander Rupert Clerke, was already in the air on a routine patrol from its base at Fairwood. After receiving a red alert that raiders were in the area, Clerke climbed to 14,000 feet, the altitude at which his ‘Airborne Interception’ radar worked most efficiently. At 8000 feet, though, his Radio/Navigator picked up a contact with a ‘bogey’ well below them.

The stone in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church, Beaminster, with the names of the ill-fated Dornier crew (although the German PoW who carved it made several errors). The bodies were moved to the German Military Cemetery in Cannock Chase in 1963.

It was Dornier 217E-4 U5+FN, flown by Hauptmann Hermann Euler and his young crew (they were all in their early twenties) of Unteroffizier Erich Zahn, Unteroffizier Karl-Ernst Greber and Obergefreiter Heinz Rikus. Having dropped their bombs, they had descended to 3000 feet and were making for home. The Beaufighter made visual contact, but it could not keep up even though it was flying at maximum speed. On reporting this, Clerke was given orders from the ground to ‘chance it’ and so he gave a twelve-second burst of fire from his Browning machine guns and Hispano cannons. This would have sent well over a hundred 20mm shells and just over two hundred .303 bullets at the German plane, which was about a quarter of a mile astern. The Combat Report states: ‘Many strikes were observed and fires seen allover the enemy aircraft, which dived away burning from both engines.’ Clerke did not see the plane crash, but he assumed it came down in the vicinity of Yeovil.

Euler managed to extinguish the fires in his engines but could not re-start one of them. He went into the Luftwaffe’s belly-landing procedure, but what seemed to have been a suitable field for such a landing turned out to be disastrously unsuitable. The Dornier came down on the marshy ground just west of the orchard at South Buckham Farm, slid at over 100 mph through the trees, ripping off the wings on the outside of the engines as it did so. The lurching from side to side as it hit one tree after another caused the fuselage to break in two, and the tail and twin fins hurtled to the left of the house as the front part of the fuselage and the stub of wing and engine on each side crashed through the cob wall of the calf house and then through the thick hamstone gable-end wall into the dairy. After penetrating one further hamstone wall, it came to rest with its nose in the kitchen, almost exactly in the centre of the fireplace.

Usually there was a fire burning in that fireplace but that night, for a reason he could never explain, Arthur Swaffield had put it out with water. That chance action saved their lives, as aviation fuel was leaking everywhere. The family had been upstairs getting ready for bed when at about half past ten Arthur’s wife, Philippa, commented on how low one of the aircraft seemed to be. Within seconds they heard an enormous crashing sound and the whole house shook. Their bed collapsed when the brackets securing the base to the headboard broke and they were thrown to the floor.

South Buckham Farm today. The post-war extension on the left is where the aircraft hit the farmhouse.

Not yet realising what had happened, they picked up their one-year-old son, Freddie, from his cot in their room and went downstairs into the hall. Debris had fallen everywhere and there was a loud hissing noise coming from the kitchen. They struggled through the front door, which had been jammed shut with the impact of the crash, and in their night clothes made their way along the track to Arthur’s father’s farm four hundred yards away.

While his mother, Anne, sorted out some clothes for them to wear, his father, Ernest, went down to the crash site to look at the aircraft. As he reached the farmhouse, he could see the two fins and tail of the Dornier between the garage and the house. The large swastika showed clearly in the moonlight, as did the national cross on the surface of the port wing, which had broken off at the engine and was resting on the roof of the back kitchen. He returned to his own farm to tell the others that it was German and to phone the Beaminster police.

On the Wednesday morning Sergeant Neal of the Beaminster Police arrived with Constables Lockyer and Knight and Special Constable Cecil Poole. The National Fire Service men, called the night before, were still making sure that there was no fire as the wreckage was still hot. Together with some members of the Home Guard they waited for the arrival of the RAF. When Squadron Leader C C Wheeler arrived, with two other crash investigators, he ordered the bodies removed from the cockpit. This was a difficult procedure, and Arthur Swaffield was asked to use his wagon rope to pull them clear of the wreckage. The four Germans were laid near the garden wall, their identification tags revealing their names and ranks. The RAF investigators completed their examination of the Dornier by the weekend: Squadron Leader Wheeler’s report in the Public Record Office is dated 20 February 1943.

Heinz Rikus, the navigator on the Dornier, enjoyed hiking in his free time. The photograph shows him aged 21, on a mountaineering expedition in the High Tatra in Slovakia while on leave in summer 1942.

On the Thursday morning the bodies were taken down to Beaminster and placed in an emergency mortuary (an empty garage) at the bottom of Whitcombe Road. It was guarded by a policeman. George Symes, the undertaker, was contacted and arrangements were made for the funeral in Holy Trinity churchyard. The four coffins were eventually buried in a common grave, which had been dug near to the hedge. There are no reports of a funeral service, but it was the normal custom to give Germans a burial with full military honours. A few local people felt bitter about the presence of enemy servicemen in the graveyard, but for years later others regularly took flowers to the grave. In March 1963, after agreement between the British and German governments, the bodies were exhumed and taken to the German Military Cemetery at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire.

By Friday 26 February most of the wreckage had been taken away. A mobile crane had been brought to lift it on to the transport. Norman Welsford was there to see the front part of the fuselage pulled clear of the house and he remembers vividly the ‘whoosh’ of air as it was slid out of the gaping hole in the dairy wall. The precious aluminium and steel was on its way to the scrap yard, soon to be recycled and made part of an aircraft for the RAF.

For many years, even up to the 1960s, small bits of aluminium were found around the fields and in the hedges of South Buckham Farm. Arthur Swaffield has long since retired and moved to Cornwall. The farm has been extended and altered considerably. Holidaymakers on their way to Bridport and the Dorset coast might catch a glimpse of it gleaming in the sunshine as they weave their way up the A3066 towards Horn Hill Tunnel. It looks so peaceful on the pleasant southern slope of the Axe valley. Most will never know of the drama that took place there on that cold February night.

1-4. Author’s collection
5. Francesca Radcliffe

[This article is derived, with permission, from Robin T Pearce’s book Operation Wasservogel. For further information contact the author at 1 Down Road, Mosterton, Beaminster, DT8 3JF, telephone 01308 868594.]

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