ON 20 OCTOBER 1941 a new variant of Messerschmitt bf 109 fighter crashed near RAF Fowlmere, not far from what is now IWM Duxford.
The 31 year-old Polish pilot was Porucznik (Flying Officer) Marian Janusz Skalski an experienced airman.
And the aircraft he was flying was in RAF colours.
THREE MONTHS earlier Hauptmann Rolf Pingel on 10 July 1941 had taken off in the same Messerschmitt bf 109F-2 (Werke Nummer 12764) from his base at Clairmarais, near Saint Omer in northern France. (1)
His mission was to intercept CIRCUS 42 – a small force of RAF bombers and their fighter escort returning from an attack Chocques power station, around 20 kilometres from Saint Omer.
On the outward journey one of the Short Stirling bombers was lost to anti-aircraft fire over Boulogne and, having been spotted, German fighters were waiting on the return journey. With cloud and haze over the Channel, the German pilot attacked and a running battle ensued. (2)
Pursuing a Stirling of No.7 Squadron RAF, Rolf Pingel was fired on by the bomber and also set upon by Supermarine Spitfire fighters of No.306 (City of Torun) Polish Fighter Squadron RAF, the same squadron Marian Skalski had been posted to in December 1940. Sergeant Jan Smigielski (3) was credited with forcing the aircraft to force land in a field at St. Margaret’s Bay near Dover on the south coast of England.
Hauptmann Pingel was an experienced Luftwaffe pilot (having gained a total of six victories from serving with the Legion Condor during the Spanish Civil War and a further 22 with the Luftwaffe since September 1939) (4)(5) and was serving on the staff (Stab) of JG 26 as commander of 1 Gruppe when he landed heavily near Dover.
He immediately attempted to destroy the lightly damaged aircraft but was arrested by an army detachment – which fired a warning burst of machine gun fire over his head – before he could do so. (6)(7)
Although Pingel believed he had been hit by either return fire from the Stirling or a British fighter (or both) no bullet holes were found on the aircraft when it was examined by RAF experts and it appears the aircraft was brought down through some mechanical failure – an omen of what was to come.
When interrogated by RAF Intelligence 10 days later, he would describe the Stirling as ‘a formidable opponent… well able to look after itself’ and ‘pouring cannon fire from every orifice’. (8)
In a very detailed and wide-ranging interrogation report dated 20 July 1941, his career is described and he states that the aircraft he was flying had only been flown for two days.
The report also contains an interesting comment by the interviewing RAF officer on his career to date: ‘This man was a very good type of Officer (sic), whose influence for the good of every Unit (sic) he has commanded, has been considerably greater than might be suggested by the number of victories he claims, for 22 is by German standards comparatively commonplace’. (9)
He praises the skill of RAF fighter pilots saying that they ‘were highly and sincerely praised’ and ‘Even the new pilots seemed to have learned a lot very quickly’. (10)
He also ‘grudgingly’ admitted that Polish airmen ‘fought with equal valour’. (11)
Elsewhere the same report notes that the 72 victories claimed by JG 26 Geschwader commander Oberleutnant Adolf Galland ‘is sincerely believed but his habit of chain-smoking cigars is deplored’. (12)
Faced with the ‘gift’ of a new variant of Messerschmitt 109 the British got to work quickly and sent the aircraft to RAF Farnborough in Hampshire in the south of England for initial repair.
This took longer than anticipated as the aircraft’s engine in particular was more damaged than first thought and the original planned completion date for the aircraft to be collected from the Royal Aircraft Experimental Establishment (RAE) Farnborough on 3 October passed. The engine was assessed by the RAE staff as ‘in rather a poor state’ and ‘would not go above 22,500 ft’. (13)
Such was the importance of the test programme that in the same document the value of test flying the aircraft ‘as it is’ is debated with the views of Air Marshal William Sholto Douglas, head of Fighter Command being sought on the matter. (14)
The Air Marshall replied that he wished Air Fighting Development Unit at RAF Duxford to have the aircraft ‘as soon as possible’ and ‘[f]ollowing these very short trials we could return it to RAE or possibly hand It over to Rolls [Royce – aero engine manufactures] to have its engine fixed up for higher altitudes’. (15)
Meanwhile, calls for suitably experienced pilots were put out to RAF Headquarters Sector Stations at RAF Biggin Hill, RAF Hornchurch and RAF Tangmere.
Wing Commander Douglas Bader RAF, the famous pilot (who had lost both legs in a pre-war flying accident and was stationed at RAF Duxford commanding No.242 (Canadian) Squadron, RAF in 1940) pressed hard for the trails and for the aircraft to be released as soon as possible, writing to Headquarters No.11 Group RAF at RAF Uxbridge (where the Fighter Command operations for the defence of London and the south east of England were administered from) in his new post as Wing Commander (Flying) at RAF Tangmere, near Chichester in southern England. (16)
Bader’s letter asks for the repairs to be expedited as ‘from personal experience and from discussions with other experienced pilots the tactics if the ME 109F (sic) do not appear to be consistent, probably because the pilots flying this type of aeroplane vary considerably in ability.’
He goes on to state ‘It is not necessary for pilots at Farnborough to do hundreds of hours on the ME 109F (sic) before issuing data. The information… can be acquired by an experienced pilot in one or two ours flying on the first fine day, with sufficient accuracy for out requirements’. (17)
He concludes his letter with perhaps the real reason for writing: ‘It is also suggested that opportunity may be given to the Wing Commanders, Flying, to fly this aircraft.’ Bader had lead No. 610 (County of Chester) Squadron as part of CIRCUS 42 on the day when Pingel was shot down. (18)(19)
The repaired Messerschmitt took to the air from Farnborough on 19 September 1941.(20)
Still more work was needed and again Sholto Douglas was asked if he would intervene. He did, securing a promised date of completion by 30 September 1941.(21)
At 16:45 on Monday 11 October the aircraft – now wearing RAF camouflage and bearing the serial ES906 – arrived at the AFDU at to begin its programme of tests.(22)
These tests would evaluate the performance of enemy aircraft by test-flying them, often against current RAF types and suggested tactics for operational RAF pilots to use in combat. These would be circulated in RAF intelligence summaries and other publications
Despite the repairs at Farnborough there were still a few things that needed fixing and so the first flight which had been scheduled for the next morning was postponed until the next afternoon.
By that time a Supermarine Spitfire VB (serial AD315) had been procured from RAF Debden in order for the two to be compared and the two aircraft took off to do speed comparison tests and a number of pilots selected as per Sholto Douglas’ edict that ‘operational pilots from various squadrons in No. 11 Group to go there and be allowed to test their Spitfire VBs at Duxford against it, the Me. 109F flown by an A.F.D.U.’ and that he did not ‘want a series of leisurely tests by A.F.D.U pilots. I want the most experienced operational pilots in No. 11 Group to be able to make a comparison of performance and manoeuvrability with the Me. 109F at various altitudes including very high altitude.’(23)
The need to test the aircraft quickly and produce results that could be rapidly understood by front-line pilots was paramount.
But the Messerschmitt didn’t agree.
In the afternoon of the 12 October the Debden Spitfire and the Messerschmitt took off together to do comparative speed trials but the persistent engine oil pressure problem reoccurred again as the German aircraft climbed to 15,000 feet.(24)
The aircraft did not fly again until Friday 15 October when again problems were experienced during diving trials. The next day the aircraft’s engine had all its oil filters examined when a number of issues were found and rectified.(25)
Sunday saw the reassembled engine ground tested ready for more air tests the next day. But poor weather ensured this did not happen.
Finally on 19 October a proper series of tests took place and the aircraft were in the air for almost five and a half hours.
The next day more flying took place with the Spitfire and Messerschmitt again airborne over RAF Fowlmere, again comparing their respective speeds at 15,000 feet. Tests completed at that level they climbed to 22,000 feet.
It was then that the Messerschmitt’s oil pressure failed once again and although it seems to have been partially regained at lower altitude and the aircraft carried out a series of slow rolls, it was then seen to lose height and dive almost vertically into the ground near Fowlmere village.(26)
Although the oil failure contributed to his death, it has been stated that Skalski died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by engine exhaust fumes leaking into the cockpit through the holes left when the 20mm canon – which projected into the cockpit and was of interest to RAF intelligence at this time – had been removed.(27)
This would account for the pilot not pulling out of the fatal dive.
On 24 October a Polish padre conducted the burial service and Italian born Marian Janusz Skalski was laid to rest a few miles from where he was killed in the churchyard of the picturesque tiny church of Saints Mary and Andrew at Whittlesford (28)(29)
The Supermarine Spitfire Vb AD315 that it was pitted against would be lost on 17 December 1943. Now with No. 287 Squadron RAF – a unit that worked with anti-aircraft gunnery units – it was being flown by Flight Sergeant Peter Yorke Morris RAF when it crashed near Princess Risborough in Buckinghamshire about 40 miles northwest of London.(30)
Pingel’s Messerschmitt had finally had its revenge.
(1) http://www.anciens-aerodromes.com/?p=2157 (in French) – retrieved 10 May 2018
(2) Arrival of Eagles: Luftwaffe Landings in Britain 1939-1945 by Andy Saunders (Grub Street Publishing, 2014) Pages 83 to 85.
(3) http://www.ingridpitt.net/battle-of-britain/polish-fighter-pilots.html – retrieved 16 May 2018 (Smig link)
(4) http://www.luftwaffe.cz/pingel.html – retrieved 16 May 2018
(5) http://www.aircrewremembered.com/KrackerDatabase/?q=Pingel – retrieved 15 May 2018
(6) http://www.aircrewremembrancesociety.co.uk/styled-15/styled-18/styled-116/index.html – retrieved 17 May 2018
(7) AIR 16/350 Messerschmitt 109F Fighter aircraft: trials enclosure 31a: A.I.1.K Report No. 398/1941 – Report of the Me. 109F of Sta. 1/J.G. 26, brought down on the South Coast on 10.7.41 (paragraph 7) File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(8) Ibid. Paragraph 51 – File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(9) Ibid. Paragraph 6 – File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(10) Ibid. Paragraph 52 – File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(11) Ibid. Paragraph 68 – File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(12) Ibid. Paragraph 61 – File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(13) AIR 16/350 Messerschmitt 109F Fighter aircraft: trials enclosure. Enclosure No. 51A, dated 4 October 1941. File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(15) AIR 16/350 Messerschmitt 109F Fighter aircraft: trials. Enclosure No. 52A dated 5 October 1941. File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(16) http://www.tangmere-museum.org.uk/articles/douglas-bader-2 – retrieved 23 May 2018
(17) AIR 16/350 Messerschmitt 109F Fighter aircraft: trials enclosure. Enclosure No. 32B dated 23 July 1941. File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(18) https://suitcasesvulturesandspies.com/raf-westhampnett-memorial-page.php – retrieved 23 May 2018
(19) http://610squadron.com/wwii_pilots/ – retrieved 23 May 2018
(20) AIR 16/350 Messerschmitt 109F Fighter aircraft: trials enclosure. File minute sheet – Minute 44 undated. File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(21) Ibid. File minute sheet – Minute 46 dated 23 September 1941. File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(22) AIR 16/350 Messerschmitt 109F Fighter aircraft: trials. Enclosure No. 52A dated 5 October 1941. File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(23) AIR 16/350 Messerschmitt 109F Fighter aircraft: trials enclosure. File minute sheet – Minute 48 dated 29 September 1941. File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(24) AIR 16/350 Messerschmitt 109F Fighter aircraft: trials. Me. 108F Diary (1) Entry for 12.10.41.
Enclosure No. 56A. File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(25) AIR 16/350 Messerschmitt 109F Fighter aircraft: trials. Me. 108F Diary (2) Entry for 20.10.41.
Enclosure No. 59A. File held at UK National Archives, Kew, England.
(26) Arrival of Eagles: Luftwaffe Landings in Britain 1939-1945 by Andy Saunders (Grub Street Publishing, 2014) Pages 90 and 91.
(27) https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/7504274/skalski,-marian-janusz/ – retrieved 10 May 2018
(28) https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1128014 – retrieved 16 May 2018
(29) http://aircrewremembrancesociety.co.uk/styled-5/styled-10/styled-162/index.html – retrieved 18 May 2018
(30) http://www.aircrewremembered.com/morris-peter-yorke.html – retrieved 18 May 2018
RAF Fowlmere: https://aviationtrails.wordpress.com/2015/11/15/raf-fowlmere-a-remarkable-number-of-aviation-firsts-and-combat-records/ – retrieved 10 May 2018
Duxford airfield: https://www.scambs.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/Duxford%20Airfield%20-%20without%20maps.pdf – retrieved 10 May 2018