The captured Messerschmitt Bf 110, pictured above on display outside Finsbury Town Hall, Garnault Place in August 1940, became the most photographed Luftwaffe plane of WW2.
The aircraft was a twin-engined heavy fighter or ‘Zerstörer’ (‘Destroyer’ in English) flown by the Luftwaffe and some other nations during WW2. It was championed by Hermann Göring who nicknamed it ‘Eisenseiten’ (‘Ironsides’). The Bf 110 was a successful aircraft in the early stages of WW2 in the Polish, Norwegian and French theatres of war; However, its lack of agility in the air was its primary weakness and this was exposed during the Battle of Britain. Some Bf 110 equipped units were withdrawn from the battle after heavy losses and redeployed very successfully as night-fighters. It enjoyed a successful period following the Battle of Britain as an air superiority fighter and strike aircraft in other theatres of war. During the Balkans Campaign, North African Campaign and on the Eastern Front it provided valuable ground support to the German Army as a fighter-bomber (Jagdbomber/Jabo). Later in the war it was developed into a formidable night-fighter, becoming the main night-fighting aircraft of the Luftwaffe.
The aircraft seen on display at Garnault Place, Bf 110 S9 + CK, was originally part of a large German attack during the Battle of Britain that took place on 15th August 1940. The Luftwaffe had put together a force of 1120 aircraft to attack the airfields and airfield installations of Fighter Command, from Newcastle in the north to the Solent in the south. German aircraft came from airfields in Norway, Denmark and France.
The Bf 110 S9 + CK was one of 16 fighter-bombers from 2 Staffel Erprobungsgruppe 210 (2./Erp.Gr.210) that took off from Calais-Marck airfield in Northern France. It was piloted by Oberleutnant Alfred Habisch and crewed by Radio Operator Unteroffizier Ernst Elfner. They targeted the airfield at Martlesham Heath in Suffolk and destroyed some workshops and the officers mess. Two hangers were seriously damaged and the attack also ruptured the watermains and disrupted telecommunications.
The aircraft of 2./Erp.Gr.210 then went on towards London, escorted by 8 Messerschmitt Bf 109s. Their target was Kenley but, flying into the low setting sun, they mistook the South London airfield of Croydon which was a civil airport being used by the RAF as the target. As they commenced their bombing run, Hurricanes from 32 Squadron Biggin Hill and 111 Squadron Croydon arrived on the scene. While the Bf 109 escort departed and escaped largely ignored by the Hurricanes, the German fighter-bombers, led by Hauptmann Walter Rubensdorffer released their payload of bombs on the buildings below.
The suburb of Croydon shook as explosions shattered the airfield. Surrounding houses were damaged as blast waves tore holes in walls and one house had its roof lifted. The blasts were felt as far away as Woolwich and the Houses of Parliament in Central London. It’s not known if Rubensdorffer was aware that Croydon was a suburb of London. At this time, Hitler’s explicit orders were that London, including its dockland area and suburbs, were not to be attacked or bombed. Anyone violating this order would be court-martialled if they survived such an attack. Rubensdorffer would never find out if he would be court-martialled for what became the first ever bombing raid on London in WW2. His crippled aircraft crashed as he tried to guide it back to base after the attack, killing both himself and his crewman.
While being chased by the Hurricanes of 32 and 111 Squadrons as they tried to escape, the Bf 110s actually flew over the airfield at Kenley that had been their intended target. One by one they were hit and had no time to go into their defensive circle pattern, their only means of defence against the British fighters. Some tried to keep altitude and head for home, others became victims of the chasing fighters and crashed into the heavily populated suburbs around Croydon and Purley. The Bourjois Perfume Factory in Croydon sustained a direct hit. Sixty people died and over 180 were injured. A number of the German aircraft also came down in the fields of Kent and Sussex, of which S9 + CK was one, coming down at Hawkhurst in Kent. Others struggled to make it back to their base in France with many crashing into the Channel.
Habisch and Elfner both survived the crash and were captured by the local Home Guard. Elfner suffered a bullet wound to his right hand. Both crewmen were eventually shipped off as POWs to Canada. Their aircraft, still mostly intact, was later displayed outside various locations, including Finsbury Town Hall, as part of a ‘Victory Tour’ during the Battle of Britain. It was then shipped to the USA on the SS Montanan in April 1941 and passed to the Vultee Aircraft Corporation for evaluation.
Article produced for the exhibition We’ll Meet Again: Islington on the Home Front in Photographs (1935-45) by Islington Museum volunteer, Johnny Baird.