From the Thorley Archives
Memories of the Crashed Heinkel
November is the month when Remembrance Sunday brings back memories of past conflicts. The incident recounted here occurred in September 1940. At 11.40pm on Thursday 19th a Heinkel He 111 P-2 crashed in Thorley Wash beside the River Stort. This dramatic event in our village's past is recalled and described by eyewitnesses and an experienced present day crash investigator. The people with the most lasting memories must be the families of the three German aircrew who were killed in the crash. Their graves are located in Saffron Walden Cemetery.
The Graves of the German Aircrew
Sid Oxborrow was an 11 year old boy watching the illuminations of the air raids over London to the south of his house in Thorley Street that night. The family were standing outside their air raid shelter when there was 'a flash, a whooshing noise and a terrific bang' behind their neighbour's house. Sid thought it was another bomb so they quickly went back into their shelter. Next day he went to investigate and saw soldiers clearing and then guarding the crash site. Later he salvaged pieces of aluminium that his father made into a spade for him. Even later he and other boys poked about in the wreckage that was gradually sinking into the marshy ground and pulled out incendiary bombs!
Charles Mason was an instrument fitter with 2 (AC) Squadron at Sawbridgeworth Airfield and detailed for crash duties that night. To reach the crash site the crew had to travel up the main A11 road and then make their way across the railway line and the water meadows. The fuselage was lying in a crater of water near the river. The bodies of the three dead aircrew were removed and the crash party stood guard throughout the night. There was a full moon and a low cloud base and they were kept alert by strong winds and ammunition exploding amongst the still smouldering wreckage.
Colin Sampford lived in a cottage midway between the river and Latchmore Bank. His father was in the Home Guard and told Colin that they found the tail section in the field behind their house. Apparently it had hit the electricity wires on the way down. Colin has since confirmed his boyhood memories of the crash site as being beside the footbridge to the north of Spellbrook Lock. Evidence of oil seeping from a sunken engine block in the marsh was apparent for many years.
Bryan South remembers playing with Len Wood on an engine block and bouncing on the inflated tyres. He recalls that bits of the plane were spread over a wide area. They were also responsible for salvaging Perspex from the cockpit, making it into key rings that they then sold at school!
Memories of 66 years ago understandably fade with time and conflicting accounts tell variations of events that night. Two Herts & Essex Observer articles give eye-witness accounts. In 1990 Reg Parnell relates seeing the tail fin being entangled with wire used by rockets fired to defend local airfields. He recalls seeing the wings and tanks beside the road, the fuselage beside the river and tail fin in Latchmore bank field. A fourth member of the crew, W. Gertz, had parachuted out and was found in the field next morning with a broken ankle.
A second article dated 1992 confirms the capture of the fourth member of the crew. Eric Clark's father was a stoker at the town Gas Works and heard the plane crash whilst on fire watching duty. Next day Mr Clark took his dog for a walk to locate the crash. He came across an injured German crew member in a stubble field. The airman pulled out a gun and handed it to Mr Clark who promptly threw it out of reach. He then phoned the police who came and took Unteroffiizier W. Gertz to Haymeads Hospital. (An older Little Hallingbury resident recalls that a farm gate was used as a stretcher!) Meanwhile his parachute had been 'rescued' by local people as such material could be recycled into clothing. (Although Mrs Monk said the material was difficult to use as the many seams took a lot of unpicking.) Eric Clark goes on to say that the tail fin, with its swastika, was also rescued and remained on display outside a garage in Beldams Lane. No local neighbours have been able to confirm this. Mr Clark's story had a happy ending. Towards the end of the war German prisoners were allowed out to work locally and some were sent to the Gas Works. One of those detailed to assist Mr Clark was Herr Gertz!
Heinkel He 111
Julian Evan-Hart is a modern day crash investigator. He has painstakingly dug other crash sites as an archaeologist in an attempt to arrive at the circumstantial truth. He has also gathered evidence regarding our Heinkel crash. He quotes a local man Arthur (whom I haven't being able to trace) who, whilst using a long rake, pulled out instrument panels, cockpit instruments and pumps. On a second visit, whilst digging deeper, he traced the contours of a very large bomb. He promptly left the site. Julian has visited the site, which has now become densely overgrown with willows etc, and, after a cursory inspection, only found pieces of alloy and a large chunk of casing - but no sign of the bomb.
In the near future Julian Evan-Hart is publishing a book about his researches into crash sites in Hertfordshire including the Thorley Wash events of September 19th 1940.
From the Archives