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Defecting Junkers a fascinating wartime story

Defecting Junkers a fascinating wartime story

Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK.

After what seems like an eternity, we are pleased to be able to report some extremely positive news for Britain’s aviation enthusiasts – the RAF Museum sites at both Hendon and Cosford will be re-opening to the public on Monday 6th July. Having applied social distancing measures and introduced changes to ensure any visit is as save as possible for staff and public alike, there may be some exhibit access issues in the short term, so please check their website for full details before making your journey to either site. To limit visitor numbers to safe levels, you must book your date and time of intended arrival to assist museum staff, although entry to the museum itself is still free of charge. This is an important first step and whilst these early post lockdown visits will obviously be quite different to what we will have been used to, this magnificent collection of historic aircraft is available for inspection once more.

In order to celebrate this great news, the latest edition of Aerodrome is the first in a new series of slightly shorter blogs which will focus on the fascinating histories of some of Britain’s most important historic aircraft. Even though the sight of beautifully presented museum exhibits is enough to delight anyone, as we stare in admiration at these magnificent machines, we are sometimes guilty of overlooking the stories behind their arrival at the site and in some cases, their significant service histories. Aerodrome will attempt to tell some of these stories, providing new information for some and reacquainting others with the reasons why we continue to flock to museums up and down the country in our numbers. We begin by looking at a real jewel in the RAF Museum’s aviation crown, one which possesses both wartime service history and a story behind its arrival in the UK which is simply incredible.

The Luftwaffe’s impressive ‘Schnellbomber’

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 Schnellbomber model review on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

Although it can trace its origins back to the mid 1930s, Germany’s Junkers Ju 88 Schnellbomber would be one of the Luftwaffe’s most effective aircraft types and serve throughout the Second World War

With Germany already seemingly on course for war during the mid 1930s, the Ministry of Aviation issued a requirement for a radically new type of aeroplane to be built, a bomber which carried no defensive armament, but was fast enough to outpace any of the world’s fighter aircraft in service at that time. Their new Schnellbomber was a highly advanced aeroplane and one which was to become one of the Luftwaffe’s most important aircraft during the Second World War. Unfortunately, as was often the case with aircraft developed in the immediate post war years, the advanced technology which was incorporated in its design posed significant challenges throughout what proved to be a protracted development. As a direct consequence, many of the performance advantages possessed by the prototype aircraft had been overtaken by the latest French and British fighters by the time the Ju 88 actually entered squadron service.

In addition to this introduction drawback, if it were possible for an aircraft to offer too much operational potential during its development, that must surely be another feature attributed to this magnificent aircraft – the German’s new Schnellbomber was just too good. From the outset, the aircraft showed great potential for design flexibility, qualities which would see the aircraft adapted to perform a multitude of different operational tasks during its operational career. The Junkers Ju 88 would go on to be regarded as a true multi-role aircraft. Whilst also fulfilling the original medium bomber role for which it was designed, the Ju 88 would also be deployed as a dive bomber, fighter bomber, attack bomber, torpedo anti-shipping strike aircraft, reconnaissance platform, heavy fighter, night fighter, flying bomb and special duties aircraft, underlining the strength of the original design. An exceptionally versatile aircraft the Ju 88 was in constant production throughout the war and over 15,000 machines were eventually constructed.

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 Schnellbomber model review on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

A fast and relatively agile aircraft, the Ju 88 would be used on all fronts contested by the Luftwaffe during WWII and in a wide variety of offensive roles

Despite being the fastest and most effective Luftwaffe bomber of the Second World War, the Ju 88 did have its design flaws, not least of which was the fact that the aircraft possessed a relatively modest 3,100lb bomb load, in addition to its defensive armament being flawed. Germany’s lack of an effective heavy bomber during WWII would become a significant contributory factor in their eventual defeat, with the Luftwaffe unable to turn early war advantages into strategic victories. Although only 12 of these new bombers would take part in the attack against Poland, more aircraft would soon become available and the type would still be in service during the final months of the war, even though they had changed little in the preceding five years.

Perhaps the most telling design deficiency concerned the aircraft’s defensive armament. Despite being equipped with five defensive machine-gun positions, the Flight Engineer was responsible for operating four of these weapons, jumping from position to position in order to defend the aircraft from attack during the melee of an aerial dogfight. Clearly, this was a less than ideal situation and one which was not addressed throughout the service life of the aircraft.

It was in its role as a Heavy Fighter where the Ju 88 truly excelled, as the aircraft possessed great speed and impressive agility, and when this was combined with a devastating array of forward firing armament, it made the Junkers Ju 88 a fearsome adversary. The size of the aircraft also made it ideal as a platform to mount airborne detection radar equipment, as the Luftwaffe battled to combat the ever increasing numbers of British bombers which were pounding targets across Europe on a nightly basis. Indeed, bomber losses were proving to be so severe during this period of the war that Bomber Command were desperate to secure an example of the latest German radar technology, so they could develop better protection for their brave crews. Thanks to a Luftwaffe Ju 88 pilot who happened to be anti-Nazi and may have even been a British Secret Service operative into the bargain, they wouldn’t have to wait too long.

An important gift of war

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 nightfighter defection story on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

An aircraft with an incredible wartime history, this famous Luftwaffe nightfighter is now on public display at the RAF Museum’s Cosford site

On the afternoon of 9th May 1943, the crew of Junkers Ju88C6/R-1 coded D5+EV had taken off from their base at Aalborg in Denmark on a mission to locate and shoot down an unarmed British BOAC Mosquito which was possibly engaged in a covert courier or ball bearing collection flight from Sweden. Just one hour later, the Luftwaffe nightfighter landed at Kristiansand airfield in Norway to take on more fuel for the mission which would be conducted over open ocean, but by 16:50 was in the air once more, apparently heading for the Skagerrak Strait in search of the reported Mosquito. What happened over the next few hours is shrouded in mystery and intrigue and has been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories over the years.

What we do know is that the Mosquito which attracted such attention was never intercepted and the Junkers nightfighter, which was equipped with the latest German airborne interception radar landed at the RAF airfield at Dyce near Aberdeen later that same evening. Had the order to shoot down a civilian aircraft been one order too many for the Ju 88 crew, or had they simply made a monumental navigational error of judgement?

Amongst some of the air and ground crews serving at the Luftwaffe Nachtjagdgeschwader 3 airfield at Aalborg, rumours had started to circulate which questioned the fighting resolve of the crew of Junkers Ju88C-6/R-1 D5+EV. Despite being an extremely proficient crew with many combat sorties to their names, Pilot Heinrich Schmitt, Flight Engineer Erich Kantwill and Wireless Operator/Gunner Paul Rosenberger had failed to intercept any enemy aircraft in the entire war and had no victories to their names. Although well liked by ground crews at the airfield, the crew of D5+EV spent little time in the company of their fellow flying officers, yet were still regarded as highly competent airmen.

In the years since this incident took place, it has come to light that both Schmitt and Rosenberger were strongly opposed to the Nazi regime and the years of death and destruction they had brought about left them with a real hatred for its leaders. Indeed, some sources go so far as to suggest both had been working for the British Secret Service since very early in the war and that Schmitt had actually landed Luftwaffe aircraft at British bases on previous occasions whilst engaged in clandestine operations. Whatever their motives were, it was clear that the men were no supporters of the military leaders whose orders they were forced to carry out and were moved to hasten the end of the war if they possibly could. Having previously formulated and meticulously planned their defection to British authorities, the afternoon of Sunday 9th May 1943 would see this perilous plan swing into action.

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 nightfighter defection story on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

The reason why the defection of Junkers Ju 88C-6/R-1 D5+EV was so significant was that it presented the RAF with a pristine example of an aircraft equipped with the latest FuG 202 Lichtenstein airborne radar detection technology

As their Ju 88 nightfighter took off from Kristiansand airfield and headed out over the Skagerrak Strait, they were certainly not planning to go hunting down a British Mosquito, but executing a pre-orchestrated plan of deception, one which would hopefully result in them handing the latest example of a Ju 88 nightfighter with its FuG 202 Lichtenstein airborne radar detection equipment to the Royal Air Force. Although both Schmitt and Rosenberger were fully committed to the plan, it appears that Flight Engineer Erich Kantwill was not of a similar mind, but was ‘encouraged’ to go along with them at gunpoint.

Not long into their flight, the crew radioed back to nightfighter headquarters that their aircraft had developed a serious engine malfunction and that they were loosing height. At the same time, they descended to a dangerously low altitude over the sea to ensure their aircraft disappeared from German radar screens, all part of their elaborate deception. Once at almost wave-top height, they jettisoned dingeys and survival equipment, hoping that anyone sent to look for them would find these items at their last known radio contact point and assume the aircraft had crashed with the loss of all hands. As they had hoped, this is exactly what happened when a search was later mounted.

With the deception now complete, the crew set a course for the east coast of Scotland and the most dangerous part of their plan – an unidentified enemy aircraft approaching British airspace in the fading light of evening – what could possibly go wrong?

Off the Scottish coast near Peterhead, Schmitt gained height knowing radar detection was now essential and quite possibly the only way they would escape the next few minutes with their lives intact. Sure enough, British radar picked up their presence and two Spitfires from No.165 (Ceylon) Squadron at RAF Peterhead were immediately scrambled to intercept and investigate. With the Ju 88 holding in the same airspace as if lost (or potentially waiting for a pre-arranged escort), it didn’t take long before the Spitfires found the aircraft, which was by now making it clear it was aware of their presence. Flying slowly, the Luftwaffe nightfighter had lowered its undercarriage and flaps and was waggling its wings, in a distinctly submissive manner. At the same time, the Spitfire pilots saw the German fighter fire off several very flares, suggesting it was not trying to conceal its presence.

A case of good fortune, or a pre-arranged delivery flight?

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 nightfighter defection story on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

A prized asset. This picture is thought to show Ju 88 nightfighter D5+EV in the hands of RAF ground crew at Dyce following its defection flight on 9th May 1943

Although we may never know exactly what took place on that fateful evening, the two Spitfire pilots did not take the opportunity to score an easy victory and instead escorted the aircraft to nearby RAF Dyce, which in itself raises a couple of questions. Why did they not direct the Junkers to their home station at Peterhead and from eyewitness reports, why did they hold on the wing and behind the aircraft, instead of leading it to where they wanted it to go – did the Ju 88 crew already know where they were supposed to be landing? Whatever the case may have been, the German nightfighter landed safely at Dyce, but not before a trigger happy anti-aircraft battery had taken a couple of pot-shots at it. Quickly instructed to cease fire, the Ju 88 came to a halt on the hardstanding at Dyce and the RAF had their prize.

With the latest German night interception radar now in their possession, British scientists had the chance to evaluate this advanced technology which had been responsible for causing such terrible losses amongst Bomber Command crews and to develop countermeasures which would better protect their crews. Knowing the importance of this acquisition and fearing its discovery on the airfield by a German reconnaissance aircraft would result in an immediate raid being launched to bring about its destruction, the RAF’s new Junkers Ju 88 nightfighter was hurriedly shepherded into a nearby hangar and the importance of total secrecy was impressed on base personnel. Everyone on duty at RAF Dyce that evening was instructed not to discuss what they had seen and that it was a matter of the strictest national security.

As for the defecting German crew, Pilot Heinrich Schmitt apparently made contact with the Spitfire pilots who intercepted them and presented his life jacket to one of them, as a thank you for not shooting them down. The gift was put to good use, as the RAF pilot used this for the remainder of the war, exchanging it for the bulkier ‘Mae West’ they were usually equipped with (apparently, Luftwaffe life jackets were much sought after by Allied airmen). The Germen airmen would spend the next week at Dyce as guests of the Royal Air Force and Schmitt and Rosenberger would go on to broadcast to German forces, attempting to encourage more of them to defect to Allied airfields, where they would be well received. Their crewmate Erich Kantwill was much less keen to bring about an end to the fighting and would spend the rest of the war in a POW camp.

As for Junkers Ju 88C6/R-1 (D5+EV), this was flown from RAF Dyce to RAE Farnborough for evaluation on 14th May 1943, in formation with several Bristol Beaufighters to prevent it from being shot down by home defence fighters. Once there, the aircraft was given the RAF serial number PJ876 and new markings to clearly identify it as being under new ownership and to allow its safe operation in British skies. The all important FuG 202 Lichtenstein radar unit was tested extensively by British scientists and it is also thought that the defecting German pilots also brought with them official technical documentation, which would prove invaluable during the testing process. Flight trials with the radar equipped Ju 88 and a Wellington bomber would later help scientists develop the ‘Window’ radar countermeasure, which would confuse German radar units during raids and help to save the lives of many Bomber Command crews during the latter stages of WWII. The defected Ju 88 would actually make over eighty evaluation flights whilst in British hands.

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 nightfighter defection story on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

Wearing its new RAF scheme and PJ876 serial, our defection Junkers Ju 88 is seen here on an RAF airfield somewhere in the UK and is missing her FuG 202 Lichtenstein radar nose antenna array

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 nightfighter defection story on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

Back in her Luftwaffe markings, the aircraft can now be seen on display in the ‘War In The Air hangar’ at RAF Museum Cosford. She is looking rather splendid, don’t you think?

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 nightfighter defection story on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

Transported from Hendon to Cosford in early 2017, the Ju 88 went back on public display towards the end of March that year, initially without her huge propellers attached

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 nightfighter defection story on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

Now fully reassembled and mounted on semi-permanent display plinths, Cosford visitors are hopeful that this historic aircraft will be on display here for many years to come. It could be said that this individual aircraft was more important to Bomber Command during WWII than any other

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 nightfighter defection story on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

A meeting of former night fighting adversaries in the Midlands. Cosford is the only place in the world where a complete Boulton Paul Defiant can be seen displayed next to a FuG 202 Lichtenstein radar equipped Junkers Ju 88

Following the completion of its evaluation trials programme with the Royal Aircraft Establishment, the Junkers nightfighter joined No.1426 (Enemy Aircraft) Flight at RAF Collyweston, a unit which carried the nickname ‘RAFwaffe’, due to the number of airworthy captured German aircraft it operated. During this time, the aircraft wore a scheme of dark green/dark earth upper surfaces, with yellow undersides and a large yellow ‘P’ for prototype on its fuselage sides, in addition to the usual roundels and fin flashes. It would also be flown on many occasions without the distinctive FuG 202 radar aerial array attached to the nose of the aircraft, even though this is the main reason why its acquisition proved so fortuitous.

Having spent most of the immediate post war years stored at various RAF sites around the country and appearing regularly on public display, this famous Ju 88 underwent restoration to static museum standard in 1974 and was earmarked to be one of the highlight exhibits in the new Battle of Britain Hall at RAF Museum Hendon, where it would spend the next 38 years. Her current home is in the ‘War In The Air’ display hangar at RAF Museum Cosford, where this imposing aeroplane takes its place at the head of a world class collection of WWII Axis air power, one of the finest collections of its kind anywhere in the world.

Although undoubtedly looking absolutely magnificent to anyone fortunate enough to gaze upon her, it is unlikely that many visitors to Cosford will be aware of just how historic this aircraft is and the amazing story behind its arrival in the UK back in 1943, let alone how this German nightfighter helped to save the lives of countless Bomber Command aircrews during the last 18 months of the night air war. For those of us who are in the know, she is just one of the reasons why seasoned enthusiasts keep going back to this fantastic museum, so we can reacquaint ourselves with Britain’s historic aviation heritage and admire these magnificent machines. When you stand beneath this beautiful and rather imposing aeroplane, you can almost imagine how spectacular a sight she must have made to base personnel on that historic night at RAF Dyce on 9th May 1943, when Britain received a significant aviation gift, courtesy of their Luftwaffe friends.

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 nightfighter defection story on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

Cosford’s RAFwaffe. The museum is now home to one of the world’s most impressive collections of WWII Axis air power and attracts visitors from all over the globe to marvel at these magnificent warplanes

The German Luftwaffe's Junkers Ju88 nightfighter defection story on the Airfix and Corgi Aerodrome blog

The jewel in Cosford’s aviation crown, is the museum’s Junkers Ju 88 nightfighter one of the most historic preserved aircraft in Britain today?

The Aerodrome team and indeed everyone here at Hornby Hobbies would like to wish the RAF Museum every success with their reopening and we hope that by posting this latest edition of our blog, their priceless Junkers Ju 88 nightfighter can look forward to attracting even larger groups of admirers congregating beneath her FuG radar antenna equipped nose, discussing the fascinating history of intrigue and deception this beautiful aeroplane possesses.

I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. If you would like to send us a selection of your own pictures, or suggest an aviation related subject you would like to see covered in a future edition, please use our aerodrome@airfix.com address, where we will be delighted to hear from you.

In between new editions of our blog, the aviation related conversation continues over on the Airfix Aerodrome Forum and we can also be contacted on either the Airfix or Corgi Facebook pages, in addition to Twitter for both Airfix and Corgi - please do get involved in the discussions and let us know what you think about Aerodrome.

The next edition of Aerodrome is due to be published on Friday 17th July, where we look forward to bringing you even more interesting aviation related features.

Thank you so much for continuing to support our Aerodrome blog.


Michael

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