On the night of 16th March 1941 the German Luftwaffe dispatched 184 aircraft to raid the harbour installations of Bristol and Avonmouth, using a variety of radio navigation beams, although since 1940 these had been jammed by an RAF unit.
One of the bomber groups involved was KG 51 ( Kampfgeschwader 51) flying from Melun-Villaroche, near Paris and it is likely that they were using the beam station ( Knickebein K08) at Mont Pinçon in Normandy.
Six aircraft were lost that night, although none to British defences, and one (a Junkers 88A-5) crashed into Fovant Wood, due to a double engine failure, thought by the crew to be caused by the French Resistance. The crew of four all survived after taking to their parachutes, but the aircraft exploded on impact.
The crash was reported both in official documents and the local paper, where the story of one of the survivors was hinted at.
Not until 33 years later was more of the story revealed and yet another 13 years elapsed before the site of the crash was fully excavated. This page of the website attempts to record the story as it unfolded.
Extract from R.A.F. Chilmark’s Operations Diary
16.3.41 During the night a JUNKERS 88 enemy aircraft crashed at DINTON, adjacent to explosives building D.5. The aircraft exploded on impact and the wreckage burned fiercely for some time. It set fire to the trees and undergrowth. The fire was quickly controlled, and later extinguished without serious damage being caused.
17. 3.41. Three of the crew of the JUNKERS 88 were captured around the Unit. All were outside the perimeter wire. They had baled out and were unhurt.
19.3.41. After two days of intensive search for the fourth member of the crew of the JUNKERS 88, he was arrested at night at BARFORD ST. MARTIN by Sergeant Warder WHYTE who although unarmed, closed with the German and disarmed him of his pistol, and took him prisoner.
The Air Ministry Crash Report
Report Serial No. 56. Date: 19/3/41.
Report No. 4/185. Crashed on 16/3/41 at 2340 hours at Chilmark, map reference U. 4450.
Markings: first two letters were undecipherable, followed by +AK 2 (A in black outlined white).
One plate recovered showed Allgemeine Transport Anlage, Leipzig. Manufactured in August 1940.
Engines: Juno 211 but no type ascertainable.
The cause of this crash is doubtful. The crew baled out and the aircraft dived into the ground and was completely disintegrated There appears to have been no explosion of bombs. Three prisoners have been recovered as crew.
Owing to condition of the crash no further details are possible.
The Salisbury and Winchester Journal.
Friday 21st March 1941.
Junkers 87 down
Blown to pieces by own bombs
A German Ju 87 bomber crashed in open country in the South-West on Sunday night after the crew, of four who are now our prisoners, had baled out. Just before midnight the aircraft was heard on the outskirts of a South-West town. Its engine appeared to be faulty. It had apparently been damaged by A.A. fire or by our fighters. A few minutes later it was heard over a valley. With terrific noise it flashed only a few hundred feet above an isolated farmhouse on its last descent, and four hundred yards away crashed with a loud explosion into a hillside. The explosion blew the machine to bits which were scattered over two acres of land. Three German airmen were later taken into custody without trouble.
At large for three days
The authorities knew that a fourth airman had baled out, and a sharp lookout was kept in the area. He was captured on Wednesday night, five miles from the spot where the bomber crashed, and still farther away from the point at which he had baled out.
A widespread search during Wednesday must have driven the German from cover. About an hour after dusk he was walking along a main road when, on seeing an aircraftman of the R.A.F. approaching with a girl, he jumped through a hedge and disappeared. The couple raised an alarm, and soon the police were assisted in a thorough search by a number of the Home Guard and the R.A.F.
About an hour later, the German, when walking along the main road, near a town, was met and apprehended by another member of the R.A.F., and taken to the nearest police station.
Clearly the press at that time were subject to censorship and the details in this report were rather inaccurate. The reporter even misidentified the type of aircraft. The full story emerged much later.
The crew and captors
Twenty years after the crash, one of the pioneers of aviation archaeology, the late Peter Foote, found the report from the Salisbury & Winchester Journal, but another twenty years passed before he was able to discover the site of the crash, after contacting a Mr Frank Wheatcroft of Ringwood, who had been an Army guard at RAF Chilmark in 1941.
When interviewed by Mr Foote, Frank only mentioned two of the crew and was not sure about the type of aircraft that crashed within the SW corner of the compound. He said that one airman landed in the compound and gave himself up to a hut full of sleeping (!) soldiers who gave him tea. This hut was in Catherine Ford Lane, near to the River Nadder. Frank found a Luger pistol buried under a bank together with a parachute, which the guards tore up and shared.
A village story recounts that another airman, apparently still with parachute, greeted a prominent local farmer from a seat under a large elm tree which then stood in Church Lane in Fovant. The farmer was on his way to work, but the airman was taken into custody by the Home Guard and interrogated in the British Legion Hut that was a centre for many village activities until it was removed in 1963.
The late Laurence Coombes farmed for many years at East Farm, Fovant. He was also known as Bob Coombes and appears in the front row at the third from the right in this photograph of the Fovant Home Guard. He obtained the German side of the story in 1974 after being contacted by Mr. Cliff Vincent of Bristol, whose brother-in-law, Ken Wakefield has written several books on the air offensive over the West of England.
Mr Vincent knew of the involvement of the Home Guard in the search for the missing crew member and after further correspondence, Bob Combes wrote up both sides of the story for the magazine “First Word in Wessex” of which the following is a précis. The full article can be downloaded by clicking here.
“The one that did not get away”
by Laurence Coombes.
On the evening of 17th [sic] March 1941, a German bomber crash-landed in a field between the parishes of Fovant and Dinton. All four occupants of the plane baled out successfully, and three of them were taken into custody within an hour of their coming to earth. The fourth, whose name was Otto Hoferrichter, the flight mechanic, managed to evade capture on landing, and was in fact free for about a week before being eventually apprehended.
I was the senior officer of the Home Guard in the immediate area and was directly implicated in the events that led up to his capture. But it was not until 1974 that I was fortunate enough to read his own description of his baling out, and lying up in the neighbourhood for some days.
“The Flight Mechanic’s Story”
I was flight mechanic of one of three aircraft which crash-landed in March 1941 over England. Due to engine trouble, we were ordered to bale out over the south of England, exactly where I do not know. It was a new experience for me to jump out and I pulled the ripcord at once. We had been instructed that we should remove our throat microphones before baling out, but I had forgotten to do this and nearly strangled myself.
It was a clear night with light ground mist and as I came through the clouds, I saw beneath me a small stream and made a soft landing. I dragged the parachute towards a river and pushed it into the mud. I then sought a hiding-place in a small wood and waited for the morning.
During the day there was quite a lot of flying activity overhead. In a prison I would not get the opportunity to escape, so I planned to go to an airfield and try to make a flight with a plane. It was a splendid spring day and I tried to sleep without much success. I would like to have shot one of the rabbits running about, but that would certainly have attracted attention.
When it became dark I thought I would try and get on my way. Finding in a field a drain ditch with clear water, I quenched my severe thirst and then continued over fields, but did not venture on to roads. In one field I thought that perhaps I could milk a cow, but as soon as I approached it, it ran off. Another field was covered with hen-houses, but I could find no eggs. I then decided to walk along the road and if I came across people, I would dive into the ditch.
In a village, I met some people and was too late to run, so I remained bold and continued towards them. They greeted me and I mumbled something in return. From a house there came the smell of bacon frying. I was near the house, and because of the smell I was inclined I to break in, but there were obviously occupants up and about, so I left it.
That morning, I saw a farmer who was ploughing his field. I thought that perhaps I could take a piece of bread from his dinner bag unnoticed, but I was not able to.
When I saw some soldiers coming through the wood. I dropped to the ground, and remained completely motionless. One of the Englishmen passed scarcely twenty yards from me, without seeing me and from that moment, my appetite disappeared. I just remained lying there until it became dark.
This is the end of Otto’s story, which must have referred to the fourth day of his freedom. His description is a very garbled one, due probably to the fact that was written twelve years or more after the day he baled out from his plane He refers constantly about hiding in a small wood, but the one where he saw soldiers passing twenty yards from him was in fact a very large one of 140 acres.There is also the discrepancy about where he concealed his parachute. He says he pushed it into the mud of a river whereas it was found in the pasture called Summerground in Fovant Wood, some distance from river of any size.
“The Home Guard Officer’s Story”
The Nadder Valley Company of the 7th Bn. Wiltshire Home Guard at that time consisted of the Barford St. Martin, Burcombe, Fovant and Dinton Platoons. Within the Company area was a large unit of the R.A.F. Maintenance Unit, with H.Q. at Dinton. A large proportion of the land within the perimeter was in the parish of Fovant. The unit was guarded by a small army contingent.
After the German bomber had crash-landed near the southern perimeter of the R.A.F. unit, the regular army units and police were searching for the fourth member of the crew, whom we now know as Otto, but the local Home Guard units were not asked to assist in the search until the following day. There is no doubt in my mind that this operation would have stood more chance of success had they been called in to help, especially bearing in mind the local knowledge of the members.
Towards the end of the week the Fovant Platoon attended a lecture in the Green Dragon Hotel in Barford St Martin, when a civilian customer came into the bar and said he had just seen a German airman walking along the main road towards Wilton. I immediately organised road blocks on all roads out of the village towards Wilton, but, was then told that the German had given himself up to an R.A.F. police warden who was cycling to his night duty at the Dinton R.A.F. unit.
As far as the Home Guard was concerned, that was the end of the incident. I was very disappointed that we had been unable to make the actual arrest of the man. But I was confident that we had taken all necessary steps to prevent his further escape towards his admitted objective – to find an airfield where he could hi-jack a plane to fly home to Germany.
In 1987, a colleague of Peter Foote, John Congram, organised a dig during which the team unearthed several large pieces of the aircraft, one of which is now in Dinton Village Hall. Peter left his notes to Mrs Philippa Wheeler (née Hodgkiss) who was a member of the excavation team, and who is an expert on Luftwaffe wrecks in the West Country. She has made them available to FHIG and we are grateful to her for providing so much material and patiently anwering the many questions that we have posed.
PLEASE NOTE that the site in which the excavation took place is now on private property to which the public have no access.
Sunday 7th June 1987
Peter Foote had made a sketch map after talking to Frank Wheatcroft (shown on the right – click on it to enlarge). The notes on the map, which are difficult to read, say
“Hut in which his Army mates asleep where airman gave himself up. They gave him tea. Interrogated later in front of Army, he was treated haughtily, he was arrogant.”
[Did they mean the interrogator, or the captive?]
After the excavation, Peter probably made a number of notes, but the only ones that we have, describe the moment of discovery. Other members of the team that he mentions in the following notes (in his own words) are Phillipa Hodgkiss and John Congram, fellow archaeologists, and John Dicker, the M.O.D. civilian manager :
… filled in with empty steel drums “behind 217 Bld”. He was leading us to that spot, when, because I was heading down to the spot below the “Whistle” stop, he thought I knew better and let us proceed. It wasn’t until about 4:30 pm, when I set off, following the trail of scattered wreckage up the slope to the submerged Bld 217 that I came across “big echoes” that I called the others. Then Mr. Dicker said these are buried drums that F-OS (?) had partly pulled out on John Congram’s advice. Then he disclosed that that was where he understood the crater was. At first John Congram had searched and dug up “buzz” around the top edge. Then, thanks to the partly pulled out drums I was able to dig in a clear water-filled spot, and struck in clay what was obviously the end of an aircraft spar. John Congram and Phil took some convincing but just before we had to “pack in” at 6:00 pm, the smell of oil and petrol started to come up and more wreckage. No sign of fire and all well preserved. I gave Phil a length of throttle linkage, which she took, along with a shopping bag of bits picked up.
We could see the railway just above where we were. Mr. Dicker and I were for staying another hour, but John Congram wasn’t keen and, as Mr. Dicker said, we could come back again; we had accomplished the task we had set out to do. More wreckage was below the drums. I got out one large and three small drums. We were on the S.E. end of the long oval(?)- shaped crater.
John Congram and I were surprised that fragments of wreckage extends for upwards of 60 yds along and down the sloping hillside almost to the perimeter wire. Mr. Dicker had heard from staff who remembered it (and another aircraft in woods to the east of the compound) that it had “blown up”. Mr. Dicker said that he had read the 540 (Form 540) and very early on expressed his opinion that ‘g’ (A.D.I. 2g) reports are not to be relied on.
On reading the “Salisbury and Winchester Journal” report again of 21st March 1941, it explains why we had found so much wreckage scattered over so big an area and the force required to break some of it into very small pieces. It is not so much that it was blown outwards by the effect of the crash impact, because the trees would have arrested some of it, as that it was blown upwards by the bomb load exploding and “rained” back down again into the woods.
The photographs of the excavation were taken by Peter Foote and John Congram. Those that were captioned are shown here in their own words. Each can be clicked on to be enlarged:
“The pit is a lot deeper than I remember, and wetter, I remember a nice warm day, the penalty of old memories they are always tinted a nice colour. When we started looking, I confess I didn’t think we would find it, found loads of oil drums and things, which, I suppose were left by the party that took the bulk away.
We found, I seem to recall, all sorts of small bits and pieces of plane which kept us going, including rounds of ammo about 7mm I think, All we found including engine(s) and oleo leg, was put on the little train and taken down to the “Station” at Dinton Site from there I know not where, somewhere in Dorset I think.
I have enclosed a photo it shows just how deep we went and how muddy it was getting. This was mixed with a bit of oil from the engine, certain bits of which were perfect condition.
Finally on the back of the photo the following; JU88, 23:40 16/03/41 GK+AK, KG51, No8124”
This research, which is only the first that FHIG have undertaken on the impact of World War II on the village, has only been possible with the cooperation of many people. We would like to thank Bryan Lee of Fovant, Michael Glover of Dinton, Kate Bryant of the Wiltshire Library Service, Simon Parry of the aviation archaeology community, the RAF Museum (London), John Dicker, John Congram, Tracy Combes and particularly Mrs Philippa Wheeler for making so much of the material available.
5 November 2008
Content last updated
6 July 2009