Archive Report Lancaster DV187
The crash of the British bomber at Michelau im Steigerwald 1943 - Written by Norbert Vollmann
It is the night of the 27/28 August 1943. The Second World War is in full progress. The British Air Force readies itself to a large attack on Nuremberg. 674 bombers are preparing themselves on this Friday at different bases distributed over the whole east of England to take their destructive freight into the evening sky.
In Wickenby, the Lancaster flown by Leonard Aspden of the 12 Squadron RAF is starting its journey and with the other bombers in the attack formation, there is a long way to go into enemy territory and back.
But for Aspden and his crew, there will be no return flight. Over Neuhausen near Michelau, the Royal Air Force bomber becomes to the seven crew members of that night, a flying coffin.
The Lancaster III with the serial number DV187 and the Code PH-A takes off exactly at 21.28pm at its Wickenby base on the east coast. The high explosive load of the aircraft is consisting of 4,3 tons of incendiary bombs, including a feared 1,8 tonne "cookie".
At Beachy Head in the vicinity of Eastbourne the group with 349 Lancaster-, 221 Halifax- and 104 Stirling-bombers is leaving the British Isles, crossing the Channel and flying diagonally through France, before it turns to the East towards Germany. After a last turn south in front of Nuremberg to the north the attackers take their final course on the city.
The German Air Force are already alerted to the danger and are at their highest combat readiness including the 1st Squadron of Nachtjagdgeschwader 4 (NJG, nightfighter squadron) which is stationed at this time south of Brussels in Florennes, Belgium.
Around 0.26am, the new squadron captain, Oberleutnant (Flying officer/1st Lieutenant) Ludwig Meister, starts on the air base, both engines of his Messerschmitt (Me) Bf 110 G-4 (the abbreviation Bf stands for the manufacturer Bayerische Flugzeugwerke AG, Bavarian airplane work). Also on board, Hannes Forke, the navigator and radio operator, and the flight mechanic Toni Werzinski. Hannes Forke writes into his diary, "After two days of quiet, the 'wild sow' goes stalking again." (the "wild sow" is the attack tactic of the German Air Force).
In contrast to the previous air raid on Nuremberg on the 10/11th August, the local air protection leader in Nuremberg is informed very early of the air raid through the Luftschutz-Warnkommando (anti aircraft alarm command) that the bomber group are heading for the city. The air protection and other air protection units now fully warned of the impending air raid sound the air raid warning sirens and by 0.53am, the wailing of the sirens could be heard.
The Me 110 with the mark 3C + TJ, piloted by Oberleutnant Meister is in the meantime crossing the Rhine at Ludwigshafen and passing Mannheim. Flak from the ground fire and floodlight activities are already showing the presence of the "Tommy's".
In the Schwäbisch-Hall area the moment has come. Meister and his crew shoot down the Lancaster ED627 belonging to 207 Squadron RAF. The airplane crashes at about 1.35am with a full load of bombs near Hohenberg between Geislingen and Wolpertshausen to the ground. Pilot Arthur Marcus Fitzgerald and his crew lose their lives. It is the crew’s 13th operation and the destruction of their aircraft is credited to Ludwig Meister by the Luftgau-commission.
About 1am the first enemy aircraft are sighted over Nuremberg. The nightmare will last over one and a half hours before the last of the attackers leave. The sky is cloudless, the night because of the new moon is however extremely dark. Over the town the attackers are leaving, running from the fire of the FLAK-batteries and the German anti-aircraft defence.
The Luftwaffe pilots are courageously attacking the British. The searchlights are trying again and again to “cone” the enemy bombers to make them easy victims for the FLAK-batteries and German fighters.
Oberleutnant Meister is almost at Nuremberg when he suddenly see's in the light from the fires of a blazing Nuremberg, at the same height of his fighter, the silhouette of a four-engine bomber flying directly towards the direction of his aircraft. Only due to a lightening quick reaction of the 23 year old pilot was the imminent head on collision of both aircraft avoided. This dangerous situation now being over, the next challenge awaited the crew.
Meister sees that one Lancaster, is being ”coned” by searchlights is “spiralling wildly around in the night sky” to get out of the deadly light. From a height of 5000 to 6000 meters, the German night hunter pounces on his victim from above and shoots the Lancaster until it set on fire. Ludwig Meister, “There upon the job was done for me. I had to hurry in order to get out of the cone of searchlights as all guns were still blazing up with Flak”
Hannes Forke describes the downing of this crew in his diary as follows: “Suddenly we see the second “Tommy” in the light of the searchlights. Approaching, shooting and then falling 2000 meters at the same time, and all in one action. As we look up, we see that the “Tommy” is burning very fiercely and at 1.57am our second success. . . I’ve never experienced before in my life the number of “Tommies” falling down like on that day.”
And Forke was quite right, in the areas near to Neuhausen where that bomber fell, more bombers were crashing not far away between Prölsdorf and Halbersdorf, at Füttersee, at Schwarzenau and at Iphofen-Hellmitzheim.
On board the burning Lancaster all hell breaks out at this time. But somehow, the pilot manages to bring the plane under control again, Pursued by the German fighter planes, he now fly’s away heading west. The crew onboard are unable to get the fire under control and start to throw anything inflammable out of the aircraft. So the people will later find singed covers and sleeping bags thrown out of the aircraft between the villages of Untersteinbach and Obersteinbach. In the mean time the plane is burning the length of its entire body like a flaming torch. On board, ammunition is already exploding. Heading from the village of Geusfeld over the Zabelstein (note: the name of a woody hill), the aircraft is racing towards the little villages of Neuhausen and Prüßberg. The aircraft turns again near the forest although there are different opinions about that. The fact is that already above on the Zabelstein-plateau over the "Haussteig" (name of a section in the forest), a larger explosion on board happens. The first parts of the plane falls to the ground. However the bomber is flying forward and is now threatening to fall on the village of Neuhausen. Anna Reinhart, born 1911, nee Kram, is watching at Neuhausen through the window several planes coming over the Zabelstein. With one of her two small children on the arm, she is runs down the stairway to look out of the front door….
In the mean time the bomber (DV187) which was on fire after being attacked by the German fighter during the Royal Air Force raid over Nuremberg on the 27/28 August 1943 is heading from the village of Geusfeld over the mountain directly for the villages of Neuhausen and Prüßberg in a reddish ball of fire.
Anna Reinhart, nee Kram, born in 1911 is watching through the windows of her home at Neuhausen, several planes are coming over the mountain. With one of her two small children on her arm, she runs down the stairway to look out of the front door.
Anna Reinhart: "While the other airplanes suddenly disappeared out of site, one plane circled over the village. Everything was illuminated brightly because the bomber was burning. The people could hear the explosions on board. The plane spun more and more. We thought: If the plane goes down now, it will fall directly on Neuhausen”.
In the nick of time, one crew member was able to get out on his parachute, possibly he was thrown out of the plane, and was now drifting in the direction of Prüßberg. A female resident of Neuhausen: "We already thought this man was safe but then what happened was, there was a further explosion on board and one of the metal parts of the exploding plane hit the man on the parachute in the air. At this moment he fell like a sack ."
Theo Bäuerlein (born 1933) from Geusfeld: "The airplane dived down like a comet." Oskar Lutz fromPrüßberg, at that time eleven years old: "Our mother had woke us and she told us that somewhere there is an air attack. There we saw the burning airplane flying over our house." Egon Lutz, at that time almost six years old: "The entire house wobbled, when the bomber exploded." Adolf Fuchs observed the spectacle from the point of the little pilgrimage church at Bischwind: "The bomber went into a dive and stretched a fire trail behind it. Meter-high flames shot out. The wings were obviously folded due to the heat. We saw only fire."
Richard Ditzel, born in 1928: "The airplane was pursued by a German fighter and was a blaze when it came over the mountain. Then it exploded in the air. I can still hear the explosion today”. Robert Blaurock, at that time only eight years old: "We thought the bomber was coming down directly on Neuhausen." And also Rosa Zinner from Prüßberg knew of the fears of the people of Neuhausen that the bomber may explode over the village. Yet the inhabitants had good fortune. The remains of the Lancaster fell short just before the entrance to the village on the right side along the road to Prüßberg into the soft ground in the meadow called Ebrachs Wiesen. From there you could hear for many hours the explosions caused by the ammunition and the burning gasoline. Because of the danger, no one trusted for a long time to go near the crash scene.
Ludwig Meister and his crew after the shooting down of the second Lancaster now return to base. Radio operator Hannes Forke writes in his diary: “Because of problems with the Lichtenstein-device (see note above) we found nothing more." Ludwig Meister, Hannes Forke and Toni Werzinski touch down safely early on Saturday morning around 3.20am on the airfield at Mainz-Finthen. 174 flight minutes, two aircraft destroyed and an almost a full frontal collision are behind the crew. The night is short. Already at 9.15am, the Me 110 will start the return flight to Belgium.
When the explosions of the ammunition had stopped, Anna Reinhart left the house early in the morning together with her dad: "I said I must first look for the man that was on the parachute. I thought he would have to lie directly before the first houses, but we found him dead at the stony cross in the bend on the road to Prüßberg. However I was not able to bear the view and I went home." In the wallet of the dead airman, someone found a picture showing a pretty woman with two children. Anna Reinhart: "We all thought: Now they have no father."
Only the engines could be seen protruding out of the soft earth. The other parts of the aircraft were scattered around everywhere. The meadow that was the crash scene could not be mown after the crash because of the amount of metal pieces and so a shepherd was allowed to graze his herd.
Three of the dead airmen were found on the road to Prüßberg. Other dead airmen were found in the waist of the plane, all bodies badly broken and burned. In the mean time, the first policeman arrives at the crash location to protect it. Soon the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) will arrive to remove the wreckage and collect the bodies of the dead.
The news quickly circulates around the surrounding countryside that an English bomber crashed at Neuhausen. Josef Pfrang from Michelau, at that time 15 years old, will never forget the view of the dead: "It was the first that I saw in the war. I directly went home." Adolf Hauck with other young ones from the town of Gerolzhofen cycle to Neuhausen. Not suspecting anything, he stumbles over one of the dead in the tall grain.
Teacher Oskar Kern takes his pupils out of Prüßberg to the neighbouring village in order to show them the crash location. The wreckage is still smoking and also the dead are still lying in the hollow in the meadow and the street. Children open pockets on the chests of the dead in order to take out the sweets.
Naturally the ammunition is in great demand by the youths as valuable exchange objects although handling the “booty” is dangerous. Youths and adults are taking complete cartridge belts home. Parts of the wing and a rudder will be used in a garden as borders.
A farmer finds in his field near the crash scene one of the machine guns out of the bomber. Children from Geusfeld discover at the forest edge one of the dinghy’s that the bomber carried in case it had to ditch in the sea. Attempts to inflate it with pumps were doomed to failure. Theo Bäuerlein: “A mother finally cuts the material to make rubber linings for the children’s buggies.”
The Luftwaffe begin removing the wreckage by low loader to the railway station where they are taken by rail to the airfield at Kitzingen. The remains of the dead flyers are taken to Michelau in Steigerwald. The local carpenter makes wooden boxes for the dead airmen for burial in a common grave to the left of the cross on the wall in the north eastern corner of the local cemetery.
Kuratus (priest) Ambros Schor records shortly after the war into the books of the Catholic Church office of Michelau – but not correctly, the number of the dead: "8 soldiers of the English Air Force fell on the night of the 27/28th August 1943 between Neuhausen and Prüßberg to their death. The victims were buried on August 29th in the local cemetery under church honours".
Similarly the Swiss consulate-general in Munich states in his report to England, the beginning of the telegram says: "Dobbins, Clayton and Aspden were buried on August 29th 1943 together with four unknown at Gerolzhofen." Later, obviously after having the results of more exact investigations, the correction follows: "Dobbins, Aspden, Clayton and Bevis and three unknown were buried on August 29th 1943 at Michelau in Steigerwald."
On the 1st September 1943 Hannes Forke, the navigator and radio operator on board the night fighter flown by Ludwig Meister, writes in his diaryl: "Four years war. How often will we be counting from this day? What will the fifth year of war bring us?"
After the collapse of the Third Riech and the end of World War II in 1946 one of the special units of the allies, whose task is to determine the soldiers killed and where buried in the enemies country arrives at Michelau and exhumes the dead. This matter will keep the local council of Michelau busy in its session on August 18th 1946 under the direction of mayor Josef Barth. In the council minute’s book under the consultation article, “Grave exhumation for crashed English airplane crew”. The council decides to grant the sum of 50 Reichsmarks (the German currency at the time) for the exhumation against the estimated 130 Reichsmarks. Each of the three helpers were given 10 Reichsmarks and the cemetery attendant would receive 20 Reichsmarks. The estimation was probably unambiguously too high in the eyes of the council.
After the bodies are brought to Dürnbach, the central Commonwealth War Cemetery for southern Germany and identified, Leonard Aspden and his crew were finally laid to rest on 27th September 1947.
The British lose 33 aircraft in this attack among them on its 12th operation, Lancaster DV187 of 12 Squadron RAF over the forest of Neuhausen.
Oberleutnant Ludwig Meister is seriously injured in March 1944 when he was forced to make an emergency landing after an air battle with a US-fighter. He did not return to his unit until August 1944. Meanwhile in June 1944, he receives the Knights Cross (Ritterkreuz) in recognition of his 37 air victories. On December 6th he becomes commander of the III. Group of the NJG 4. His 39th and last victory is another Lancaster on March 8th 1945.
His wife Margit lives today in southern France. Ludwig died on November 26th 2011, age 91.
Our thanks to Shaun McGuire for the use of this article.