July 1942: enemy action over Pwllheli
Britain might have been totally unprepared for war in 1939 but within a relatively short space of time the country's economy had been placed on a war footing. Slowly but surely things began to change.
The defeat of the German air armada in the Battle of Britain during the summer and autumn of 1940 is well known. Without that victory Britain would almost certainly have been defeated. Thereafter, Germany turned to night bomber raids in an attempt to pummel Britain to her knees. But, to some extent at least, the British had learned their lesson and now the attacking bombers found they would not get their own way.
By the end of 1941 there were 23 night fighter squadrons operating around the coast, as well as numerous anti-aircraft guns, searchlight batteries and so on. One of the best night fighter units was No 456 Squadron, operating out of Valley aerodrome on Anglesey.
Defending industrial ports
On 27 March 1942 Wing Commander EC Wolfe was appointed CO of the squadron. He was an experienced and capable pilot who was determined that his aircraft would play their part in helping to defend ports and industrial cities such as Liverpool and Birmingham.
On the night of 30 July 1942 Wolfe was flying a Bristol Beaufighter over the Irish Sea and Cardigan Bay, hunting for enemy raiders. With him in the two-seater fighter was Pilot Officer EA Ashcroft.
Two radar contacts were made, the first with an enemy Junkers 88. To Wolfe's annoyance the German plane managed to slip away in the darkness. The second contact, however, yielded much better pickings. As Wolfe later wrote in his combat report: "I obtained a visual at 2,000 feet range and identified the aircraft as a HE 111, the exhausts on each side of the engines being very apparent" (quoted in Fighter Command 1942).
The German Heinkel bomber was one of several on their way to attack Birmingham but had, obviously, become separated from the rest of the force. Wolfe immediately closed the range and opened fire. Two quick bursts were enough to make the pilot drop his bomb load which fell harmlessly into the sea.
Wing Commander Wolfe again: "No return fire resulted, the upper gunner having been shot through the head, the pilot's controls lost and the port engine put out of action during the first burst delivered." (quoted in Fighter Command 1942)
After another few bursts of machine gun fire, flames were seen to flicker from underneath the Heinkel. Wolfe later said that he thought the port engine of the bomber fell off - he saw something dark dropping away from the fuselage and, certainly, one engine was missing when the wrecked aircraft was later examined.
The Heinkel now went into a vertical dive from about 2,000 feet and crashed onto the beach at Pwllheli, very close to the fairways of the town golf club.
Opinions vary as to the casualties. It is commonly believed that three men perished in the crash but the Royal Commission of Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales claims only two.
The gunner, in his position at the top of the fuselage, was killed by Wolfe's opening burst of fire. The observer, Horst Vogl, was also killed while attempting to parachute to safety - his parachute became entangled with the tail of the doomed aircraft and he was dragged to his death.
Johann Hesketh, the radio operator, did manage to get out of the diving Heinkel and landed in the sea with two broken legs. He was rescued by a local fisherman. The pilot, Dirk Hofles, also baled out and he was quickly taken prisoner and marched off to captivity.
In many respects the combat fought by Wolfe and Ashcroft with their German opponents on the night of 30 July 1942 - 70 years ago now - was no different from many other such engagements in the skies above Britain during World War Two and Wales, certainly, saw its fair share of action during the war years.
In 1942 alone, no fewer than eight crashes took place on or above the Welsh countryside. Several of these were British aircraft, brought down by accident or bad weather. But others, like the Junkers 88 that crashed into a hill side just outside Builth Wells in April that year, were as a result of fighter involvement, proof positive - if any were needed - that Britain had at last become prepared to fight a long and bitter war.