'The Hardest Day' - 9th Staffel, KG76, Low Level Raid on Kenley.

Nine Dornier Do17 bombers of the 9th Staffel took off from Cormeilles-En-Vexin, North of Paris, shortly before Midday on 18th August, 1940. RAF Kenley was their target. The unit specialised in low-level attacks. 

The raiders were spotted by Naval patrol boats and Observer Post K3 at Beachy Head, though it wasn’t clear at that stage that Kenley was the target. The Observer Corps tracked the raid and Kenley was ready for the attackers as they approached.

The bombers each carried 20 x 110lb bombs fitted with a new fuse, set to detonate when released from 50ft or higher. They flew so low over Kenley that many of these bombs failed to go off.

The raid itself lasted no more than five minutes; between 1.22pm and 1.27pm on Sunday lunchtime. 

  • The 9th Staffel lost eight out of forty aircrew.
  • Five were taken Prisoner of War. Three were wounded.
  • Four of the Dornier Do17’s were destroyed. The rest were damaged.
  • Only two managed to return to their base at Cormeilles-En-Vexin.

The known crew members of the nine Dornier Do17’s of the 9th Staffel, Bomber Geshwader 76, and what happened to them after dropping their bombs on Kenley.

The positions of the 9th Staffel Dornier Do.17’s as they approached RAF Kenley on 18/8/1940.

Number 1  (F1+DT)

  • Navigator: Hauptmann Joachim Roth (Staffel Commander)
  • Pilot: Oberleutnant Rudolf Lamberty 
  • Hauptmann Gustav Peters
  • Oberfeldwebel Valentin Geier
  • Radio Operator: Feldwebel Hugo Eberhart

Joachim Roth, the Staffel’s popular commander, had briefed his men before the raid and, as usual, flew as navigator in the lead aircraft. They arrived precisely over their target, but found Kenley intact! They were expecting to find the airfield in disarray after the high-level raid, but they had been delayed by poor weather and had yet to arrive. 

They released their bombs over the hangars and pulled up to avoid the Parachute and Cable as it was deployed, but were hit in the left wing by a Bofors shell, leaving a gaping hole in their fuel tank which caused a terrible fire. Then they were attacked by Sgt. Dymond and Sgt. Brown of 111 squadron in their Hurricanes. 

 Peters and Geier baled out of the stricken bomber too low, and suffered multiple injuries. Eberhart also baled out, but pulled his ripcord as he exited the aircraft and suffered only minor injuries to his hand.

Twenty men of the Addington Home Guard were practising with their newly issued rifles under the command of Captain Clarke. He issued the order for rapid fire as the crippled Dornier passed overhead and saw the bomber stagger and lose height. 

Lamberty crash-landed the blazing aircraft at Leaves Green and escaped the burning wreck with Roth. The two burnt airmen were taken prisoner by Home Guardsmen.

The wreckage of Roth and Lamberty’s Dornier Do.17Z-2, at Leaves Green, near Biggin Hill. Copyright IWMHU3121.

Number 2 (F1+?T)

  • Pilot: Unteroffizier Mathias  Maassen
  • Feldwebel Max Schumann

The only Dornier to leave England relatively unscathed, alongside two other Dorniers piloted by Raab and Schumacher. He turned back when Schumacher ditched in the Channel and noted his position, before heading towards France. Maassen landed at an airfield near Boulogne to initiate the rescue and then flew as observer in a Feiseler Storch spotter plane tasked with finding Schumacher and his crew. Once this had been done, he flew his Dornier back to Cormeilles-En-Vexin.

Number 3. (F1+LT)

  • Pilot: Feldwebel Wilhelm Raab
  • Navigator: Leutnant Erwin Wittman
  • Radio Operator: Unteroffizier Erich Malter
  • Gefreiter Werner Seuffert

Raab was aiming to shoot up a refuelling tanker when he saw the Parachute and Cable system deploy, though he had no idea what it was. One of the cables snagged his wing, but he banked and it slid off. They stayed low as they left Kenley and Malter may have managed to hit P/O Simpson, of No.111 squadron, forcing him to crash-land at the RAC Golf Club, Woodcote Park. Anti-Aircraft fire from a military encampment wounded Wittman on the return journey, so Raab landed near Amiens so that he could receive medical attention. After an hour on the ground, they took off to return to Cormeilles-En-Vexin and were amazed to find that they were the first of the 9th Staffel aircraft to arrive back at base. Raab was de-briefed at the Geshwader headquarters, where his description of Kenley’s “secret weapon” – the Parachute and Cable system, was met with incredulity.

Number 4 (F1+HT)

  • Pilot: Feldwebel Johannes Petersen (killed)
  • Navigator: Oberleutnant Hans-Siegfried Ahrends (killed)
  • Radio Operator: Unteroffizier Karl Greulich (killed)
  • Gunner: Feldwebel Hans Dietz (killed)
  • Passenger: Oberst Otto Sommer (killed) said to be on board to gain operational experience, though his age and rank would suggest he was more likely to have been there to observe for other reasons.

This Dornier crossed the airfield higher than the others. It was hit by Kenley’s anti-aircraft guns and also possibly by Connors in his Hurricane before it ran into the Parachute and Cable trap and crashed, destroying  “Sunnycroft” a cottage in Golf Rd, just outside the Northern boundary of the airfield at 1.25pm. “Sunnycroft” was occupied by Mrs. Taylor-Smith and Mr. Shackerly who had three guests for Sunday lunch when the Dornier plummeted into their house, trapping them inside. Luckily, one of the hallway walls stood firm when another gave way onto it, leaving a small tunnel which allowed them to escape the building, shaken but unharmed.  

All five crew members of the bomber were killed. On the 22nd August, 1940, they were interred in Bandon Hill Cemetery, but were eventually moved to Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery.

You can read about AC David G. Roberts, one of the men who fired the Parachute and Cable weapon, here.

The wreckage of Dornier Do.17z-2 (F1+HT), after it was brought down by Kenley’s Parachute and Cable system, killing all on board.

Number 5 (F1+?T)

  • Pilot: Unteroffizier Guenther Unger
  • Rear Gunner: Unteroffizier Franz Bergmann
  • Unteroffizier Karl Mortiz
  • Feldwebel August Meier

Lewis gun fire from Kenley damaged the Dornier’s right engine. Unger feathered the prop and struggled to hold the Dornier steady as their bombs were released. Bergmann hit Sgt. Harry Newton’s Hurricane as he pursued them, but a last desperate burst of fire from Newton damaged the Dornier in return. Newton baled out near Tatsfield Beacon, Surrey. On the return journey, anti-aircraft fire shattered the windscreen, showering the crew with splinters. They left England with both engines damaged and ditched in the sea off Etampes. Unger was trapped in the cockpit with the control column jammed against his stomach. As the aircraft began to sink, the control column moved forward by itself and the pilot was able to grope his way to the escape hatch. He inflated his life jacket and came rapidly to the surface, where he was re-united with his crew. They were lucky to be rescued by the German Navy, despite having been unable to report their position (Newton’s attack had wrecked their radio).

Guenther Unger (left, in light jacket) with Harry Newton (right) together at Kenley in August, 1982. ©Colin Lee

Number 6 (F1+CT)

  • Pilot: Feldwebel Reichel
  • Unteroffizier Albert Haas
  • Passenger: Rolf Von Pebal (War photographer)

An engine had been damaged leaving England and the aircraft crash-landed near Abbeville. One crew member was injured. Rolf Von Pebel took the famous photographs of this raid and also left a striking written account of his experiences on board Reichel’s Dornier.

You can read Rolf Von Pebal’s account and see his photographs here.

Number 7 (F1+JT)

  • Pilot: Oberleutnant Hermann Magin (killed)
  • Navigator: Oberfeldwebel Wilhelm Friedrich Illg
  • Unteroffizier Hans Strahlendorf
  • Feldwebel Willi Henke
  • Passenger: George Hinze, (War reporter) 

Magin was hit in the chest by a Lewis gun round as they were lining up for their bombing run. The bomber would have crashed then and there, but Illg, the Navigator, took the controls and ordered the crew to, “Prepare to jump”. Eventually they were able to move the pilot’s body out of the seat with difficulty. Magin never regained consciousness and died later of his injuries. Illg managed to successfully land the aircraft on the airfield at St. Omer. On examination, there were over 100 bullet holes in the aircraft. Wilhelm Friedrich Illg received the Ritterkreuz, (the Third Reich’s equivalent of the ‘Blue Max’ of WW1) for his actions.

Number 8 (F1+?T)

  • Pilot: Unteroffizier Bernard Schumacher
  • Feldwebel Fritz Gaisert

Schumacher was fascinated by the sight of Kenley’s hangars being blown up as the first Dorniers dropped their bombs, but didn’t have long to enjoy the triumph as the debris from the explosions headed skywards. He later wrote: “It seemed as if my aircraft was grabbed by a giant. Bits of metal and stones clattered against the fuselage; something thudded into my back armour and splinters of glass flew.” His  instruments went haywire and the port engine began to belch brown smoke. By the time they left England  both engines were damaged and they had to ditch into the Channel off Etampes, when the port engine packed up altogether. One crew member drowned and three were rescued by the German Navy.

Number 9 (F1+?T)

  • Pilot: Feldwebel Otto Stephani
  • Navigator: Unteroffizier Rudolf Groemmer (Grommer)
  • Unteroffizier Nikolaus Scwab (killled)
  • Unteroffizier Peter Fretz (killed)

The bomber’s formation split as they were pursued by three Hurricanes and Stephani realised that it was, “every man for himself”. His flight engineer was dead and the radio operator was severely wounded (he died later in hospital). Moreover, his left engine had been damaged. As they limped across the Channel, the surviving crewmen jettisoned everything, including the flight engineer’s body, in an effort to lighten the aircraft and stay airborne. Eventually, they made it to Calais, where they crash-landed. Groemmer, the only un-injured crew member stopped counting the bullet holes in the downed bomber when he reached 200.


The Hardest Day by Alfred Price
RAF Kenley by Peter Flint.

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