Unteroffizier Fritz Ruhlandt was a rock star. In September of 1940 Uffz Ruhlandt was a command pilot flying the cutting edge Junkers Ju 88A-1 Schnellbomber. A veteran of the campaigns in both Poland and France, he now flew against the English during the Battle of Britain. His squadron, Kampfgeschwader 77, was the very tip of the spear. Amidst a veritable sea of committed, capable, competitive pilots, Uffz Ruhlandt was as good as it got.
The Schnellbomber was so named because it was fast. The Ju 88 with its twin Junkers Jumo 211J-1 1,340 hp engines could cruise at 230 mph, holding its own with the fighters of its day. In a dive, it could outpace even the vaunted Spitfire. To be commanding this plane at this time at the vanguard of the most powerful air army in history Uffz Ruhlandt was part of an undeniably elite fraternity.
The effectiveness of a multi-engine combat aircraft like the Ju 88 was much more than a simple reflection of the rarefied skills of its pilot. Ruhlandt’s crew formed an integrated team. Feldwebel Gotthard Richter was the bomb aimer, Uffz Erwin Richter (apparently no relation) was the radio operator, and Flieger Jakob Reiner was the gunner. The mission to bomb strategic targets in London on September 27th was their first combat operation together.
Their sleek, deadly plane was but two weeks out of the factory and reflected the state of the art. In addition to being exceptionally fast, the Ju 88 was also versatile. The Schnellbomber served as a bomber, night fighter, dive bomber, reconnaissance platform, heavy fighter, and torpedo bomber before the war finally ground to a bloody halt. The Germans ultimately produced more than 15,000 copies. Ruhlandt and his crew had christened their brand new bird of prey the “Eule” or “Owl.”
What really made the Owl special was its classified BZA (Bomben Ziel Anlage or “Bomb Target System”). The BZA was an analog computer designed to assist in performing the delicate but critical maneuvers necessary for a successful dive bombing mission. British Intelligence desperately wanted a BZA of their own.
Nine days prior over London III Gruppe that included KG77, lost nine of its Ju 88’s in a single mission. On the 27th Uffz Ruhlandt’s Owl was part of a 300-plane assault again destined for London. Fully twenty RAF squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires rose in opposition. The combat that followed stretched across a full two hours, an absolute eternity in an all-out air war.
Ruhlandt’s plane lost an engine to flak over the South Bank of the Thames. This dropped the plane’s maximum speed to a lumbering 155 mph, making it easy meat for the Spits. The Eule fell out of formation, and the pursing RAF fighters proceeded to chew it to pieces.
Having descended to a dangerously low level the Spitfires raked the canopy with .303 machinegun fire and shot out the remaining engine. Now a glider, the Ju 88 touched down in Graveney Marsh, took a sickening bounce, and then slid some 300 yards. The dying plane shed its props before coming to an inglorious stop about a quarter-mile from the Sportsman Inn, a local landmark built in 1642.
The British justifiably feared a pending seaborne invasion, so the thin defensive units available were spread throughout a series of strongpoints scattered across the area. The 1st Bn London Irish Rifles had responsibility for the Graveney Marsh sector. Under the immediate command of War Substantive Lieutenant (Temporary Captain) John Cantopher, 10 men from the LIR along with a LT Yeardley and SGT Allworth made their way to the crash site, albeit by different routes.
Ruhlandt now had but a single mission. Britain being an island, successful escape and evasion back to friendly German forces was impossible. Using the tools at hand the young German pilot now had to destroy his state-of-the-art combat plane lest it fall into the hands of the British and divulge its many secrets. To assist him in this mission, Uffz Ruhlandt had a Sprengbuchse 24.
The Sprengbuchse 24 was a 1kg TNT charge affixed to the end of a six-foot time fuse. Once detonated within the cockpit of the Owl the Sprengbuchse 24 would obliterate anything useful. The Luftwaffe fliers just had to hold off the thirteen approaching British Tommies for 3.5 minutes until the charge detonated.
Radio Operator SGT Erwin Richter had taken glass splinters in his eyes from the Spitfire attacks earlier, but everyone else among the crew remained prickly. The Germans harvested a pair of defensive machineguns from the wreck as well as an MP40 submachine gun. The MP40 along with a brace of 32-round magazines was part of the plane’s survival kit. When the British Infantry got within range of the crash site somebody started firing.
The German Guns
I have found reference to this particular Ju 88’s defensive weapons being either MG15 or MG 81 7.92x57mm machineguns. The MG81 is a belt-fed design, while the MG15 fed from a detachable 75-round saddle drum magazine. The basic load for a typical MG15 position was eleven magazines. The MG 81 replaced the MG15 in operational service at the end of 1940. As a result, the balance of probability the guns on the Owl that day were MG15’s.
The MG15 was a strikingly simple design. Though I have never had the pleasure of firing a specimen, I have detail stripped a copy to study its mechanism. The open-bolt, recoil-operated weapon looks and behaves like a giant open-bolt rifle-caliber submachine gun. The MG15 featured a 24-inch barrel and weighed 27 lbs fully loaded.
The Maschinenpistole 40 was a direct evolutionary offshoot of the previous MP38. Designed in 1938 by the esteemed small arms designer Heinrich Vollmer, the MP40 was the first mass-produced SMG that featured pressed steel construction and synthetic furniture. While the previous MP38 was built around a machined tubular steel receiver, that of the MP40 was formed from sheet steel on industrial presses.
The MP40 changed the way the world made weapons. With synthetic Bakelite furniture and predominantly pressed-steel components, the MP40 set the foundation for countless military weapons to come. Just over 1 million copies of the MP40 rolled off the lines before it was supplanted by the MP44.
Bakelite is a thermosetting phenol formaldehyde resin called polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride. Developed by a Belgian-American chemist named Leo Baekeland in Yonkers, NY, in 1907, Bakelite was first used on such stuff as electrical insulators, toys, pipestems, and kitchenware. Bakelite pioneered the use of advanced synthetic materials in myriad guns produced around the world today.
The evacuation three months earlier miraculously preserved the bulk of the British Army from obliteration on the desolate French beaches at Dunkirk. However, most of the surviving Tommies made it across the channel without their weapons. As a result, the thirteen British troops from the 1st Bn LIR were armed with WW1-era arms. This meant the Short Magazine Lee Enfield rifle and the Webley Mk VI revolver.
British troops affectionately referred to the SMLE as the “Smelly.” Derived from the previous black powder Lee-Metford rifle, the SMLE was arguably the most advanced Infantry rifle of the First World War. The SMLE fired the standard British rimmed .303-inch cartridge. More than 17 million copies were produced.
The short bolt throw of the SMLE combined with the fact that the action cocked on closing made the SMLE exceptionally fast. In 1914 a British musketry instructor named Oxnall set the world record for rapid fire from a bolt-action rifle by landing 38 rounds inside a 12-inch circle at 300 yards in 60 seconds. This record still stands today. Wow.
The Webley MK VI was a heavy .455-caliber top-break revolver produced from 1915 through 1923. A SA/DA design, the MK VI featured a six-inch barrel and weighed some 2.4 pounds empty. The top-break design yielded an impressive rate of fire for its day.
The Rest of the Story
The Battle of Graveney Marsh didn’t actually last very long. Uffz Ruhlandt promptly caught a round in the foot. The Germans waved a white flag and explained that their machinegun fire had been directed into the cockpit of their aircraft in an attempt to destroy it. They later claimed not to have even seen the approaching British unit until they had been fired upon. British LT Cantopher retrieved what he believed to be the Sprengbuchse 24 and rendered it safe by tossing the thing into a nearby drainage ditch.
The Brits marched the captured Germans back to the Sportsman and treated them to pints of British beer in return for the insignia off of their uniforms. Uffz Ruhlandt and his crew spent the rest of the war in a POW camp, LT Cantopher was awarded the George Medal for bravery in the last armed ground conflict of WW2 fought on British soil, and British Intelligence quietly retired to study their intact and operational top-secret BZA bomb aiming computer.
Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the cool replica helmets used in our photos.