Bruno Petrenko's Brief Encounter With Spitfires
When the bullets flew, there was some disbelief among pilots without combat training.
Bruno Petrenko is now a retired Canadian businessman who in 1940 was a 22 year old Me109 pilot. He had volunteered to fly in 1939 when there was an opportunity to become a fighter pilot and had less than a year's training when he reported to his unit in the Calais area. He made his first flight on 31st August:
'I was not supposed to be in on the flight since I was a beginner and they didn't want to take me since the flight was to be over England. But another pilot who was supposed to be on the flight had suddenly some stomach pains and had to rush to the toilet.
Everybody was waiting for him to come out but he didn't come back so they said, 'Well, you had better take his place.' So I was on the mission by chance.'
Shortly after crossing the Channel he found himself under attack and the protective shield behind his back was hit. The small caliber British bullets were hitting, but his aircraft’s armour saved him.
'It was a kind of ticky, ticky, tick,' recalled ex Me-109 pilot Bruno Petrenko.
'Anyway, what I did was evade whoever was firing at me by nose-diving. Now, I thought, I’ve got rid of it, so I climbed up again trying to catch up with the unit. I remember thinking, Well, this isn’t so bad. The protection had held, but I was still climbing and suddenly there was a second attack from behind. It was so fast that I couldn’t evade before it came; at least, I as a beginner couldn’t. Suddenly he was there and immediately I went down again. While I was diving I thought, Well, what do I do now? Some pilots said that in such a case you just go down to tree-top level and go home. But I thought, Well, that sounds too easy, so I decided to climb up again which was a big mistake that an experienced man would not have made.'
Then as I was climbing again suddenly I was attacked from below to the right-hand side. Someone who was more at home playing these games had come from below from the right-hand side. In this area there was no protective armour so it was a real problem.
The glass from the cockpit was splintering, the instrument panel splattered and now I was really hit. . . or many hits. Somehow at that point I blacked out.
When I came to I found myself in a vertical dive and what I noticed was lots of noise, a kind of fluid coming from the side of the plane and what struck me was that the ground was approaching very fast. I realized that I had to catch the plane immediately and get it out of the dive. I did and in doing so my blood rushed from my head and I blacked out again. When I came to I found I was at tree-top level with little power left in the machine. It could still fly but with no power. I was now very, very low and had to look for somewhere to land.
At this stage I looked around and found that there were two Spitfires behind me and they were shooting occasionally, but I guess it was difficult to shoot at me because I was going so slow and was not flying in a straight line. I don’t know whether they didn’t shoot me because they saw I was in a difficult situation….anyway, I just saw an English park-like landscape, some bushes and trees. There was a group of trees ahead of me and I said to myself, Well, gee, what I have to do is to try to get enough speed by flying directly at the trees and then hope that I have enough speed to jump over them and then go down. I did this and then blacked out once more.'
Bruno escaped with his life
Petrenko was found by British sergeant John Clancy who was also with a searchlight unit.
'I was stationed between Brentwood and Epping in Essex and was driving around when I heard that there had been a German aircraft shot down in the area.
I jumped into my van with a couple of men and took off. We soon located the aircraft about half a kilometre from the Brook farm house. It was on its back....nose well into the ground (actually the nose had broken away and was 90 yards away still burning). The tail was cocked up in the air with the plane lying at a 45 degree angle. The airscrew had bounced 2-300 yards away. The wings had broken off from the plane at the sides. On approaching it could be seen that the pilot was hanging upside down in his cockpit, bleeding and unconscious. The hood of the cockpit was shattered badly.
I set out in the first place with my rifle breathing fire and slaughter, but when I saw this poor gory head hanging there the rifle went down on the ground and I started to wriggle my way under the plane to get the victim out. I have no clear memory of the actual extraction, but after a rather hairy time underneath the plane on the flat of my back, I finally got the pilot out and with the aid of some water from the van, I tried to bring him out and clear up his face.
He seemed to have head injuries. The first words he spoke were, 'Spitfire?' I said 'Yes!' The next thing he said was, 'Why are you being so kind to me?'
This stumped me and I came back with a rather fatuous reply, 'I don't know. You might have been one of our boys mightn't you?' Then he looked up at me and said, 'How far to the sea?' To which I could only reply, 'Too far!'
Petrenko was then taken to St. Margaret's Hospital in Epping:
'I was there for 10 days. There was always a British soldier with me, making sure I didn't escape. The nurses and everyone were very kind. After the 10 days I was ready to go and my head was dressed with an impressive bandage, like a turban. I put on my uniform and a young British soldier took me by train to London. On that trip I found out the names of the stations that we passed through were 'Bovril'. I didn't know they removed the signs and left the advertisements.
We then left the station in London and we got into a car and the idea was to go to a PoW-collecting camp near Hyde Park...On the railway trip I had managed to talk to the British officer. My English wasn't very good but we discussed history and things. Anyway, in the limousine, he suddenly said, 'By the way, have you seen Buckingham Palace?' and I said 'No!'.
He said 'Would you like to see it?' and I said 'That would be terrific.' Then he leaned forward to the driver and said, 'All right, now go by Buckingham Palace.' We then drove up to the gates and it was around the time of the changing of the guard...it was wonderful, nice and warm gesture.
Extract from Waiting For The All Clear Bloomsbury Publishing 1990 Ben Wicks
More information on the plane he flew, and with which unit: Gruppe I/JG77.
Petrenko, Bruno, 1/JG-77 (Channel).
Bf 109E-1 Werk # 4448? “White 4” (lost 8/31/40)
Fighter Operational Clasp,
POW 31 August, 1940 after aerial combat, crashing at Brook House Farm, Navestock.
Many German PoWs were sent to special camps in Canada
It begins October 10, 1942. PoW Camp in Canada
Ottawa orders Camp 30 to shackle 100 PoWs. It is tit for tat. The Krauts shackled our guys at Dieppe. Camp 30’s colonel tells PoW commanders:
“To hell with you, they say”
And the Germans take over the place. They sing Deutschland, Deutschland uber Alles in the mess hall, and bar the doors. Others barricade themselves in barracks. Loenig is in Haus 4, Petrenko in Haus 1. Toll call comes. Not one German answers.
They arm themselves with whatever. Hockey sticks, bags full of stones. They tie pillows and cardboard to their bodies. Our side calls for reinforcements for the Veteran Guards. In roll 100 troops from the Royal Canadian Ordnance corps near Kingston.
Among them Jack Kingston, he will spend the Battle of Bowmanville in reserve outside the barbed wire. He is really ticked. He is supposed to be in Port Hope on weekend leave before heading overseas. He will not see Port Hope for three years.
Our battle plan is pure Canadian. Try not to hurt anyone. So camp brass tell the RCOC boys, except the reserves to lay down their rifles. They give them baseball bats.
The RCOC boys attack the mess. For two hours, the Germans fight ferociously. They hurl marmalade and jam jars, food tins, bags of pepper. The Canadians fall back. Night falls on Camp 30. The RCOC chages again, bats swinging the Germans take two prisoners. A Red Cross truck runs between the fight and the camp hospital. Broken bones, bruises and cracked skulls.
At last, mess falls. So does Haus V. Its inmates flushed out with a hose. But Haus IV holds. Two Luftwaffe majors and two Navy men capture a Canadian captain and his guard. Koenig ties up the captain and steps outside. From a watchtower, 15 meters away, a guard opens up with his .303. Three shots. The only three fired in the Battle of Bowmanville. One splinters the doorframe. One goes through Koenig’s leg. (The scars are just visible). One hits his hip. (He still carries a fragment).
'We need a doctor.' another PoW screams. And the Battle of Bowmanville is pretty much over. The next day, other attacks, bayonets but no bullets, oust the holdouts. A Luftwaffe lieutenant loses an eye.
Jack Garnett watches the Germans parade out. 'They were laughing at us,' he tells me 'Like in PoW movies, I guess you have to laugh about everything, I”ll never forget it.'
But all is forgiven.
By Mike Strobel (the Toronto Sun)