The Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum’s Bf 109E-3 Wk. Nr. 1342 , piloted by Ross Granley, flies in its original wartime markings as an aircraft of JG 51 during the Battle of Britain in 1940, except for having no individual code number as there is some uncertainty over exactly which number it wore. (Photo by John Dibbs/ Facebook.com/theplanepicturecompany)
One of only two Bf 109Es currently airworthy in the world, this German fighter participated in the Battle of Britain
until it was shot down on July 29, 1940. Clive Rowley reveals the dramatic story of the 109’s last combat and of the pilots on both sides involved in its demise.
In 1988, a Frenchman walking on the beach near Cap Blanc-Nez near Calais, France, discovered a piece of metal sticking out of the sand. There had been a storm and, as sometimes happens, the sand on the beach had shifted, revealing something that had been buried for almost 50 years. It was the wingtip of a crashed World War II fighter aircraft. As the tides ebbed and flowed, most of the wreck of a relatively intact German Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter was revealed, with both wings, the landing gear, and parts of the fuselage.
The airframe was recovered from the beach and briefly displayed in France. Then later that year, having been acquired by New Zealand warbird operator and pilot Sir Tim Wallis, it was transported to the United Kingdom for restoration by Craig Charleston of Charleston Aviation Services, based in Essex. It was during this restoration that the aircraft’s identity was discovered when the Bayerische FlugzeugWerk (Bf) Werk Nummer 1342 was found stamped on part of the undercarriage assembly.
During the painstaking restoration to authentic and airworthy condition, the 109’s airframe was mated with a restored original Daimler-Benz DB 601 Aa engine overhauled by Mike Nixon of Vintage V-12s Inc. of Tehachapi, California. The aircraft burst into life again in 2005 when it underwent engine and taxi trials at Wattisham, Suffolk, England. The Bf 109 had by now been acquired by Paul G. Allen, the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft. It was shipped to the U.S. to become part of the Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum (now owned by the Wartime History Museum) at Paine Field, Everett, Washington.
In March 2008, in the safe hands of renowned warbird pilot Steve Hinton, Bf 109E-3 1342 flew again for the first time since July 29, 1940, when it had been damaged in combat and crashed on its way home. The details of that last deadly combat can now be revealed in a story that highlights the ferocity, scale, and lethality of the fighting during the Battle of Britain.
Messerschmitt Bf 109
The Messerschmitt Bf 109, generally known by both sides at the time as the “Me 109,” was a Luftwaffe single-seat fighter designed by Willy Messerschmitt and manufactured by Bayerische FlugzeugWerk (literally “Bavarian Aircraft Works”), hence its official Bf 109 designation.
The Bf 109 was the first truly modern fighter aircraft, with an all-metal stressed-skin construction, mono-wing design, enclosed cockpit, and retractable landing gear, and its in-line Daimler-Benz V-12 engine endowed it with impressive performance. By September 1939, when Britain declared war on Germany, the Bf 109 had become the principal Luftwaffe fighter. At least a dozen major and improved variants subsequently appeared, allowing the 109 to retain its potency throughout the war. It was flown by the majority of Luftwaffe air aces and was credited with more kills than any other fighter, before or since.
The Bf 109 is the most produced fighter aircraft in history, with a total of just under 34,000 airframes produced from 1936 to April 1945 (only the Russian Ilyushin IL2 Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft was produced in greater numbers).
The Bf 109E variant, known to their pilots as “Emils,” were the first to be powered by the 1,175hp Daimler-Benz inverted V-12 DB 601A fuel-injected liquid-cooled engine, replacing the earlier Jumo engine. Bf 109E-1s entered production in late 1938 and first saw combat in 1938-39 during the Spanish Civil War. By the start of the Battle of Britain in July 1940, most Bf 109s were the E-3 or the slightly improved E-4 variants. The E-3 was armed with the two 7.92mm (0.312 inch) caliber MG 17 machine guns mounted above the engine, with a rate of fire of 1,200 rpm, and two MG FF 20mm cannon, one in each wing, with a relatively low rate of fire of 520 to 540 rpm. Although the DB 601 engine was intended to have a further MG FF cannon mounted in the inverted “vee,” firing through the propeller spinner, this was largely unsuccessful and was not generally fitted to the Bf 109 E-3s in service. A total of 1,276 Bf 109 E-3s were built.
Bf 109 E-3 Wk. Nr. 1342
Bf 109 E-3 Werk Nummer 1342 was built at the Erla Maschinenwerke factory at Leipzig in October 1939, as part of a batch of 484 of the fighters built between August 1939 and May 1940.
The Luftwaffe accepted Bf 109 1342 around the end of October 1939. It was issued to Jagdgeschwader (fighter wing) 51 (JG 51). The unit emblem of a shield with a “verschnupfte rabe” (literally a “runny-nosed raven”) wore glasses and held an umbrella in a caricature of the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, with the phrase “Gott Strafe England” (“May God Punish England”) painted under the cockpit. (Chamberlain was succeeded as PM by Winston Churchill in May 1940.) In April 1940, the JG 51 emblem was relocated to the aft fuselage. The aircraft is thought to have been allocated the code number “8” in yellow, although some sources believe it may also have worn “Yellow 10.”
The Bf 109 was assigned to Feldwebel (Fw.) Eduard Hemmerling of the unit’s 6th Staffel. (Feldwebel was equivalent to a Technical Sergeant in the USAAF or a Flight Sergeant in the RAF.)
At 27 years old, Fw. Eduard “Edi” Hemmerling was older than most other pilots in his unit. He had joined JG 51 from Ergänzungs-JagdgruppeMerseburg, a Luftwaffe fighter pilot training unit, in October 1939. By the start of the Battle of Britain in July 1940, he was an experienced flier and fighter pilot, having flown throughout the campaign in France.
His first air-to-air victory came on July 7, 1940, when, while escorting Dornier Do 17 bombers near Dover, he shot down a Spitfire over the sea north west of Folkestone on the Kent coast. This is believed to have been 65 Squadron Spitfire N3129 flown by Pilot Officer Norman Brisbane, who was posted missing in action. His body was never found.
Two days later, Hemmerling attacked a Bristol Blenheim light bomber near Cap Gris-Nez on the northern coast of France and was credited with its destruction.
Pilots of 41 Squadron RAF
Among the Royal Air Force Fighter Command defenders of Britain facing Eduard Hemmerling and his Luftwaffe colleagues across the English Channel in late July 1940 were the pilots of 41 Squadron with their Spitfire 1s.
Normally based at RAF Catterick in the north of England, away from the main area of the fighting, the squadron had received orders to fly 14 of its Spitfires south to RAF Hornchurch, in Essex, on July 26, for a 13-day detachment into the area where most combat was occurring. The squadron had already been involved in the fierce air fighting in support of the Dunkirk evacuation in May 1940 and this was the first of two deployments south during the Battle of Britain.
Led by their 32-year-old squadron commander, Squadron Leader Richard Hood, inevitably nicknamed “Robin” Hood, two of the 41 Squadron pilots were Flight Lieutenant John Terence “Terry” Webster, the Officer Commanding B Flight, and Pilot Officer George “Ben” Bennions—both experienced Spitfire pilots who had seen combat.
Webster was 24 years old and had already been credited with four confirmed kills in addition to several enemy aircraft probably destroyed and others damaged. On July 28, he wounded the Luftwaffe Bf 109 ace Major Werner Molders in combat. Molders had just become the commander of JG 51 and his injuries kept him out of the battle for almost a month.
Bennions was a 27-year-old ex-Halton apprentice who had been selected for RAF pilot training in 1935 and was commissioned in April 1940. He had been flying Spitfires with 41 Squadron since before the war. His first aerial victory came on July 28, when he shot down a Bf 109 of JG 51. He was destined to become a high-scoring ace during the Battle of Britain.
Both of these RAF fighter pilots were about to come head-to-head with Eduard Hemmerling and his Staffel of JG 51 Bf 109s.
July 29, 1940
Monday July 29, 1940, dawned fine and clear, with flying conditions about as perfect as you could get. During the early phase of the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe focused on attacking British convoys in the English Channel and bombing ports on the south coast of England. The RAF expected more of the same this day.
At its narrowest, the English Channel is just 20 miles between Dover and Cap Gris-Nez, which was then in German-occupied France, giving little early warning of air attacks. To counter this, 11 Spitfires of 41 Squadron were ordered to take off from Hornchurch at 0445 hours, to deploy to the forward airfield at Manston, on the Kent coast, in order to be closer to the ports of Dover and Folkestone.
The first German formations were detected on radar at 0700, heading across the Channel towards Dover. Forty-eight Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers, in two waves, were tasked with attacking the harbor at Dover. Eighty Bf 109s of JG 51 and JG 26, the largest formation of 109s yet seen by the RAF, provided fighter cover. Fw. Eduard Hemmerling in Bf 109 1342, “Yellow 8,” was one of them.
At 0725 the 11 Spitfires of 41 Squadron, led by the squadron commander, Squadron Leader “Robin” Hood, were scrambled from Manston to patrol Dover. They were supported by Hurricanes of 56 and 501 Squadrons and Spitfires of 64 Squadron. The 41 Squadron Spitfires were the first to arrive over Dover, just as the Ju 87s were making their first dive-bombing attacks. Then the massed formations of the other RAF fighters arrived on the scene. The 41 Squadron Spitfires dived in to attack the Stukas, but the Bf 109s of Hemmerling’s Staffel bore down on them, forcing the Spitfires to split and to become embroiled in dogfights with the 109s. With the other RAF fighters arriving into the fight, the sky over Dover became a swirling mass of weaving aircraft, with the staccato sound of machine-gun fire, as an estimated 200 aircraft engaged in combat and bombs fell into the harbor.
In the chaos of this mass dogfight, the Spitfire pilots of 41 Squadron claimed four Bf 109s and one Ju 87 shot down, but one of their own Spitfires, N3038, flown by Flying Officer Doug Gamblen, was lost when it was shot down into the sea by a Bf 109. Gamblen was killed and his body was never recovered.
Luftwaffe colleagues and fellow fighter pilots witnessed Hemmerling shoot down a Spitfire during the engagement, so it is possible that this was Gamblen. This was Hemmerling’s third and final kill of the war.
Both “Terry” Webster and “Ben” Bennions of 41 Squadron each claimed a Bf 109 during the combat. It is most likely that it was one of these two RAF pilots who engaged and hit Hemmerling’s Bf 109.
The combat report subsequently submitted by Bennions gives a stark and dramatic impression of the chaos and confusion of being in air combat on this scale. He reported:
“Yellow Section commenced an attack on six Ju 87s diving towards Dover at about 15,000 feet. On opening fire at a Ju 87 I noticed tracer passing over my port wing and felt a hit on the port side. I broke off the attack immediately, turned about to port and saw a Me 109 diving past. I followed him down and he commenced circling at about 8,000 feet, climbing at low speed. I closed to 200 yards and opened fire. Only my starboard guns were firing. The first two bursts had no effect, but the third appeared to strike the engine from which smoke began to pour. The enemy aircraft then began to climb almost vertically and the propeller stopped turning.
“At that moment I was again attacked from the rear, I felt bullets penetrating and half rolled in an almost stalled condition. On pulling out I found that oil was streaming over my port wing, the oil pressure had fallen to zero and the temperature had risen to 85 degrees, so I decided to return to base.
“Arriving at the forward base [Manston] I found that only the port flap would come down so I landed without flaps, but found that the port tire had been punctured. The aircraft arrived without further damage occurring, but on inspection appeared to be completely unserviceable.”
Apart from the drama which is apparent in his report, Bennions’ words also demonstrate his calmness during the combat and his courage and determination to continue to engage enemy aircraft even after being hit in the port wing and with his port machine guns out of action.
Was it Bennions who fired at and hit Hemmerling’s Bf 109 that day? Was that Hemmerling in Bf 109 1342 that climbed “almost vertically” before its propeller stopped turning? Possibly, but if not, it could have been Webster who also claimed a Bf 109 in the fight, and who some sources believe was Hemmerling’s nemesis that day.
Dover had escaped serious damage, although some buildings including a naval unit were damaged by splinters and blast. The Stuka’s attack sank the steamer Gronland, which had been damaged on July 25, and it started a fire aboard a submarine depot ship, HMS Sandhurst, at the quayside with oil gushing from a broken pipeline and blazing on the water. HM Yacht Gulzar, a patrol yacht, was sunk in the submarine basin.
As the Germans withdrew, aircraft from both sides were limping away from the air battle with various degrees of damage.
Two RAF fighters were lost, one of them 41 Squadron’s Doug Gamblen, while several others were damaged, including five of 41 Squadron’s Spitfires. The damage to Bennions’ and Webster’s Spitfires resulted in them both crashing on landing, although they escaped unscathed.
On the German side, three Ju 87s had been shot down into the water of Dover harbor and two more received damage but got home. In addition, four Bf 109s were damaged although none were shot down over Dover as claimed.
One of the damaged 109s was being flown by Hauptmann Erwin Aichele. He attempted to force-land on the French coast near Audembert Wissant airfield, but his aircraft crashed, was burnt out and he was killed. At 39 years old he was one of the oldest Luftwaffe fighter pilots at the time.
The final Bf 109 limping home was 1342 “Yellow 8” with Hemmerling as its pilot. He didn’t make it. We will never know exactly what happened; perhaps he was injured, perhaps he was trying to glide to the shore without power, got too low to bail out and was then forced into a ditching that he did not survive. What is certain is that he and his aircraft were lost without a trace until the Bf 109 emerged from the sand in 1988. There is no record of Hemmerling’s body being recovered, and he has no known grave.
Webster and Bennions
The war was not kind to Hemmerling’s probable assailants, Webster and Bennions, either.
Terry Webster was killed in action on September 5, 1940, just over five weeks later. During a mass dogfight over the Thames Estuary, near London, involving around 150 aircraft, he was climbing almost vertically into the fight when a Hurricane of 73 Squadron, flown by Flight Lieutenant Reg Lovett DFC, maneuvered violently to avoid return fire from a Ju 88 and collided with Webster’s Spitfire. Both aircraft were mortally damaged. Lovett managed to bail out (sadly, he was killed in action in another Hurricane two days later), but Webster was killed. There is some evidence that Webster’s parachute may have become entangled with his aircraft, but whatever happened, his body fell to earth beside the main Southend Road and his Spitfire (R6635 “EB-M”) came down in scrubland close by. His body was identified by the contents of his wallet and his named parachute. Terry Webster had to his credit eight enemy aircraft destroyed, plus five probably destroyed and five damaged when he was killed at age 24. He had learned that he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) on August 30, only a few days earlier. The Officer Commanding 41 Squadron, Squadron Leader “Robin” Hood, went missing in this same combat; no one saw what happened to him, and his body has never been found.
By the end of September 1940, “Ben” Bennions had been credited with 11 confirmed kills against enemy aircraft—notably all but one them against fighters—he had also probably destroyed five more enemy aircraft and damaged a further five. On October 1, 1940, the day it was announced that he had been awarded the DFC, he was scrambled to intercept Bf 109s north of Brighton at 20,000 feet. In the ensuing dogfight he shot down a Bf 109—bringing his total score to 12 confirmed victories—but his Spitfire was then hit by a cannon shell that exploded in the cockpit, causing a severe head injury and blinding him in the left eye, damaging his right eye and severely wounding him in his right arm and leg. Bleeding profusely, badly burned and with the median nerve to his right hand severed, he struggled to get out of his Spitfire, but he eventually succeeded and opened his parachute before losing consciousness. He was found in a field and quickly taken to Horsham hospital for emergency treatment. The rapid intervention of an eye surgeon saved his right eye, but it was too late to save the left.
A few days later, Bennions was transferred to Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, where he became one of the first pilots to come under the care of Sir Archibald McIndoe, the plastic surgeon who pioneered the treatment for skin grafts especially for severe burns. Bennions became one of “Archie’s Guinea Pigs,” the name that the severely burned or otherwise disfigured casualties gave themselves. Later, McIndoe’s patients formed the Guinea Pig Club; Bennions was a founder member. After recovering from his injuries, but now blind in one eye and his flying days over, he became a fighter controller for the remainder of the war. He retired from the RAF in 1946 as a Squadron Leader and became a teacher specialising in technical drawing, metalwork and woodwork. He died in January 2004, aged 90.
Bf 109 1342’s last combat
This dramatic story of Bf 109 1342’s last combat fills in many of the details of what may have happened during that fateful dogfight on July 29, 1940. Some of the specifics will never be known; it is not certain which of the two 41 Squadron pilots, Webster or Bennions, attacked and hit the Bf 109, nor will we ever know exactly how the German pilot, Eduard Hemmerling, died. However, the facts that we are able to ascertain starkly demonstrate the realities of the mass combats and dogfights during the Battle of Britain, on a scale not seen before or since, and the intense risks to survival for pilots on both sides of the Battle.
FLYING THE Bf 109E – Wartime Pilot Reports
“In personally facing the RAF in the air over the Dunkirk encirclement, I found that the Bf 109E was faster, possessed a higher rate of climb, but was somewhat less maneuverable than the RAF fighters. Nevertheless, during the campaign, no Spitfire or Hurricane ever turned inside my plane.”
—Leutnant Herbert Kaiser, German fighter ace (68 victories)
“During what was later called the Battle of Britain, we flew the Messerschmitt Bf 109E. The essential difference from the Spitfire Mark I flown at that time by the RAF was that the Spitfire was less maneuverable in the rolling plane. With its shorter wingspan and its square-tipped wings, the Bf 109 rolled faster and also flew slightly faster. The Bf 109 had leading-edge slats. When the 109 was flown, advertently or inadvertently, at slow speed, the slats shot forward out of the wing, sometimes with a loud bang which could be heard above the noise of the engine. Many times, the slats coming out frightened young pilots when they flew the Bf 109 for the first time in combat. For us, the more experienced pilots, real maneuvering only started when the wing slats were out. I myself had many dogfights with Spitfires and I could always out-turn them. This is how I shot down six of them. However, this advantage for the Bf 109 soon changed when improved Spitfires were delivered.”
—Oberleutnant Erwin Leykauf, German fighter ace (33 victories)
“Stalling speeds in the glide for the Me 109E-3 are 75mph flaps up, and 61mph flaps down. Lowering the flaps makes the ailerons feel heavier and slightly less effective, and causes a marked nose-down pitching moment, readily corrected owing to the juxtaposition of trim and flap operating wheels. If the engine is opened up to simulate a baulked landing with flaps and undercarriage down, the airplane becomes tail-heavy but can easily be held with one hand while trim is adjusted. Normal approach speed is 90mph. At speeds above 100mph, the pilot has the impression of diving, and below 80mph one of sinking. At 90mph, the glide path is reasonably steep and the view fairly good. Longitudinally the airplane is markedly stable, and the elevator heavier and more responsive than is usual in single-seater fighters. These features add considerably to the ease of approach. Aileron effectiveness is adequate; the rudder is sluggish for small movements. Landing is more difficult than on the Hurricane I or Spitfire I. Owing to the high nose-up ground attitude, the airplane must be rotated through a large angle before touchdown, and this requires a fair amount of skill. If a wheel landing is done the left wing tends to drop just before touchdown, and if the ailerons are used to lift it, they snatch, causing over-correction. The brakes can be applied immediately after touchdown without fear of lifting the tail. The ground run is short, with no tendency to swing. View during hold-off and ground run is very poor, and landing at night would not be easy.”
—RAF Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) Farnborough handling trials with captured Bf 109E Wk. Nr. 1304
“Apart from performance, it was also very important for the airplane to possess a sort of “goodwill.” The Bf 109, except for takeoffs, was an easy airplane to fly, and in addition it brought back the pilot even with serious damage. My plane received hits multiple times. In one case the skin on the left wing was ripped off on half a square meter, the main spar was damaged, and the undercarriage tire was blown to pieces, yet the plane landed just like it was a training session. To summarize, we loved the Bf 109.”
—2nd Lt. Gyula Pinter, German pilot
Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum
Messerschmitt Bf 109E-3 Wk. Nr. 1342 is owned and operated by the Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum (FHCAM) at Paine Field, Everett, Washington State.
The FHCAM was founded by the late philanthropist Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, and continued to operate following Allen’s death in late 2018. In common with many other institutions, the museum was closed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and, although artifact care and restoration continued, the museum remained closed afterwards.
The museum’s artifacts and assets have now been sold in line with Allen’s wishes and have been acquired by the Wartime History Museum (WHM), a new non-profit organisation established in early 2022 by entrepreneur and philanthropist Steuart Walton, an experienced pilot and investor in the preservation and restoration of historic aircraft. The WHM mission is to preserve and restore wartime historical artifacts and pioneer ways to make them available through live exhibitions, museum properties and public spaces, including in the skies above.
The FHCAM is set to re-open to the public at its current location in the near future, and it is hoped that Bf 109E-3 Wk. Nr. 1342, a remarkable survivor, will once again be on view to the public and be seen and heard in the air.
BY CLIVE ROWLEY, MBE RAF (RET.)