The Last of the Few
RAF Serial: P3966
Pilot: P/O John ‘Paddy’ Hemingway
Date: 26 August 1940
Place: Fobbing Marshes, Essex, UK
The crash site of ‘Paddy’ Hemingway’s Hurricane was originally located in 1987 and attempts made to recover it in 1988 by the Essex Historical Aircraft Society. Undercarriage legs and two Brownings were unearthed together with various small pieces, but the main wreck was buried too deeply in the mud to be recovered.
The site remained undisturbed until 30th March 2019 when a major excavation was organised by Gareth Jones and team. Funding was provided by Warrior Film Promotions, headed by Jeff Clarke, who were to finance to recovery as part their documentary film about the restoration of Hurricane V7497 G-HRLI to airworthy condition.
The dig was carefully orchestrated so that the main wreck could be lifted to coincide with the tide, Hurricane flypast and TV news schedule! Worryingly, however, there was no sign of any aircraft wreckage as the digger’s bucket scooped out the soft mud, just drinks cans and plastic bags left behind from the 1988 excavation. Then at a depth of 8 feet some wooden planks emerged – and a Browning machine gun – but nothing else.
As the TV news reporters readied themselves the Sky News helicopter arrived overhead to film the Hurricane flypast from the air. On the allotted hour of 2 pm Hurricane G-HURRI, currently painted as P3700 RF-E, announced its arrival, scattering flocks of birds from the marshes.
When the excavation re-commenced the fabric covered tail section was found 20 feet down, then half of the shattered Merlin engine and the tailwheel. ‘Paddy’ – 99 years old at the time watched it all on TV in his home in Ireland.
The final item recovered was the propeller hub from some 36 feet.
The Combat – 15.00 to 15.45 hours, 26th August 1940:
By 14.45 hours the next raid had appeared on the plotting tables approaching from Dunkirk. Three formations were plotted of 60+, 20+ and 12+ making their way along the north Kent coast towards the Thames Estuary.
Four squadrons were scrambled:
65 Squadron – 11 Spitfires up from Rochford to intercept raid north of Manston.
615 Squadron – 12 Hurricanes up from Kenley to intercept raid north of Manston.
1 (RCAF) Squadron – 11 Hurricanes up from North Weald to patrol base.
85 Squadron – 12 Hurricanes up from Croydon to patrol base, then Maidstone.
The situation worsened quickly and just 15 minutes later, at 15.00 hrs, the plotting table showed two formations over Thanet, two more over the sea north of Thanet and a fifth over Hythe. Groups of Me109s from I/JG52 and I(J)/LG2 had swept across Kent before the main raids that were holding a steady course north-west, which would take them to Essex and, presumably, the airfields there. The bombers were from KG2 and had indeed been ordered to attack 11 Group airfields in Essex. Twelve Do17s of I/KG2 were to attack Hornchurch escorted by Me109s from II and III/JG3 with II and III/JG54. 21 Do17s of II/KG2 were heading for Debden with their Me110 escort from II and III/ZG26.
The 11 Group Controller requested assistance from 12 Group and six more squadrons were scrambled:
111 Squadron – 9 Hurricanes up from Martlesham Heath to patrol Chelmsford.
56 Squadron – 11 Hurricanes up from North Weald to patrol Colchester.
19 Squadron – 10 Spitfires up from Duxford to patrol Debden.
310 Squadron – 12 Hurricanes up from Duxford to patrol North Weald.
54 Squadron – 12 Spitfires up from Hornchurch to patrol Manston.
501 Squadron – 10 Hurricanes up from Gravesend to patrol Hawkinge.
As these squadrons scrambled, 615 Squadron engaged the enemy over Whitstable when its pilots took on the Me109s of I/JG52 and I(J)/LG2 sweep ahead of the bombers. 85 Squadron then attacked the formation of 15 Do17 and 30+ Me109s that had approached over Hythe as it passed north of the Isle of Sheppey over the Thames Estuary. Some bombers got through to Hornchurch. 65 Squadron went for the main, centre group, of 30+ Do17s and 30+ Me110s as it approached the Blackwater Estuary and succeeded in separating the Me110s from the bombers. 1 (RCAF) and 56 Squadrons tried to defend North Weald and lastly 111 Squadron tried to prevent the northern most formation bombing Debden. 19 Squadron, who had been scrambled to patrol Debden, arrived too late and did not see combat. 310 Squadron was also sent to Debden and again arrived too late, but its pilots chased the raid as it retired.
Debden bombed 15.19 hrs. About 100 bombs fell on the airfield, the NAAFI and a variety of buildings were damaged, one hangar got a direct hit and another was damaged, but the operations were not affected. One Hurricane from 257 Squadron was burnt out. No bombs fell on Hornchurch airfield, but the town was hit.
P/O John ‘Paddy’ Hemingway’s Report:
At 14.50 Squadron 85 was sent to patrol base Angels 15. From there it was vectored to the Maidstone area. Several minutes later 15 Do215 15,000 ft and 109s 20,000 approx. We turned to attack and three Do215s were separated from the main formation. After several attacks on these three Dorniers P/O Hemingway (Blue 2) broke away and climbed up to engage Me109s. While climbing P/O Hemingway was hit behind the cockpit and in the engine on the starboard side. The engine became red hot and thinking that the aircraft was on fire P/O Hemingway baled out, delaying his drop until he was in clouds before pulling rip cord. He landed in Pitsea Marshes at 15.30 and went to Pitsea Police Station, reporting to Intelligence Officers at Croydon and Hornchurch. He reported back to unit at 10.30 the same night.
85 Squadron’s Intelligence Report:
Twelve Hurricanes took off Croydon 14.49 hours to patrol base, and were then vectored to the Maidstone area.
At 15.20 hours near Eastchurch, 15 Do215s were sighted flying in stepped up vic formation at 15,000 feet and escorted by approximately 30 Me109s which were flying at 5 – 10,000 feet higher.
The Squadron executed a head-on attack on the Dorniers. The engagement became general and three Do215s were definitely destroyed by the squadron as a whole, and are not claimed as victories by individual pilots, who nearly all contributed. These e/a were seen to crash in the following circumstances:
Do215 pancaked at Rochford –
Do215 crashed 1 mile approximately east of Eastchurch –
Do215 crashed in sea 10 – 15 miles east of Foulness –
Flying Officer Woods-Scawen attacked one Do215 giving it a burst of 2 seconds which hit e/a but without noticeable effect. He then attacked a Me109 while climbing, firing a 3 second burst into its belly. He saw bits fly off in all directions and e/a appeared to whipstall, but he was unable to see if it crashed as he had to dive away. In the circumstance this Bf 109 was probably destroyed.
Pilot Officer Hemingway took part in the general engagement with the Dorniers, and was then climbing to engage some Me109s when he was hit behind the cockpit and in the engine by cannon shell. As the engine became red hot and it was impossible to remain in a/c, P/O Hemingway baled out, and landed safely in Pitsea Marshes. He did not see where the Hurricane crashed.
10 Hurricanes landed Croydon between 15.50 and 16.33 hours.
Enemy casualties: 3 Do215s destroyed – 1 Me109 probable.
Our losses: 1 Hurricane destroyed
1 Hurricane unserviceable
All pilots fit.
The assistance of the following organisations is gratefully acknowledged:
Andrew and George Young – Land Owners.
Ministry of Defence.
Essex Wildlife Trust.
Port of London Authority.
The Environment Agency.
WM Plant Hire.
The University of Winchester Archaeology Department.
The Historic Aircraft Collection Ltd.