South Shields fighters sent enemy crashing into the sea

A Spitfire.
A Spitfire.

This time, 77 years ago, the RAF was desperately trying to ward off the threat of the German Luftwaffe in a deadly struggle that became known as the Battle Of Britain.

Today local historian Dorothy Ramser continues her account of the heroics of two pilots, Pilot Officer Douglas Winter and Flying Officer Oswald St John Pigg, of 72 Squadron, who both have roots in South Shields.

“August 15, 1940 dawned cloudy,” says Dorothy, “but this was to disperse before noon, and the outlook was for a fine sunny day with perfect visibility.

“This was the day that the Luftwaffe launched a series of raids aimed mainly at RAF bases. It was intended as a knockout blow, to bring Britain to its knees and heralded the most difficult and dangerous period of the Battle of Britain.

“It was to be the first time that large-scale attacks were made on the north of England from German bases in Norway.

“German intelligence assumed that the RAF fighter defences had been moved south; little did the Luftwaffe know that a number of experienced fighter squadrons were still in the north, including Douglas Winter and Oswald St John Pigg’s 72 Squadron.

“Fighter Command scrambled 72 Squadron from Acklington to meet the enemy head on.

In his combat report of that deadly encounter Douglas wrote: “I waited until one Messerschmitt was detached and dived to attack. I waited until I was about 100yds from it and opened fire. I saw the bullets enter the pilot’s cockpit. The enemy aircraft turned on its back and dived seaward, eventually crashing in the sea.

“Climbing up again I found six Messerschmitt 110s with three Spitfires in the circle; one of the Messerschmitt flew to one side and I again dived to attack.

“I opened up at about 150yds and the port engine started to smoke. I fired two more bursts and the enemy aircraft dived vertically for the sea. I followed it through the cloud and saw it crash in the sea.”

“Heavily outnumbered, the Spitfire pilots threw themselves into the attack.

“One can only imagine the urgency of Douglas’ actions trying to prevent these planes bombing family and friends in South Shields.

“Happily those on the ground had very little idea of what was happening in the skies of the North East although the roar of planes and gun fire could be heard.”

What people in South Shields would have seen were the consequences of the German attack, with bombs having been dropped on the harbour, the cliffs and the sea. Dorothy reveals that four high explosive bombs fell at Salmon’s Hall and Frenchman’s Bay. At Marsden 10 high explosive bombs caused serious damage to the coastguard hut and telephone communications.

The Germans also dropped some 48 high explosive bombs and 20 incendiary bombs on Cleadon, injuring seven people and damaging houses.

A bull was killed and a cow injured at Moor Farm and the Underhill Road junction was blocked.

The RAF lost 34 aircraft, with 18 pilots killed or missing, on a day when the Germans sent 2,000 aircraft to smash Britain’s aerial resistance.

Thanks to the bravery of men like Douglas and Oswald, they failed.

l On Thursday: They pay the ultimate price for our freedom.