Heroic struggles against overwhelming odds
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Luftwaffe ace Helmut Wick shot down over Poole Bay

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Wick jettisons the cockpit canopy on his Messerschmitt Bf109 © Gary Eason / Flight Artworks

Colchester, 8 October 2020

I know, months have passed since an update! I've been busy. So I have several new images to talk about.

In making this picture as part of a commission for a commercial client, I learnt about an extraordinary encounter between German and British fighter aircraft in 1940; and about how the cockpit canopy jettison mechanism worked on the Messerschmitt Bf 109 - which might not be what you think. 

In the foreground, Major Helmut Wick, arguably* the most famous Luftwaffe fighter 'ace' at the start of WWII, prepares to bail out high over Poole Bay off the Isle of Wight on the south coast of England, after being shot down by a Spitfire.

His downfall came during an aerial melée on 28 November 1940 as he led Jagdgeschwader 2, of which he was the Kommodore, in its second cross-Channel attack of the day and came up against defenders from 609 and 152 Squadrons.

It is late afternoon; the weather is fine but it is winter, they are high over the sea, and the sun is about to set. The chances of this ending well were never good. Sure enough, despite a huge search by German air and naval units, Wick was never seen again. 


The story as typically told is that Wick was hit by the RAF ace John Dundas of 609 Squadron, who was heard to call over the radio, "I've finished a 109 – whoopee!", before he was himself shot down by Wick's wingman and also lost without trace. 

However even Dundas's own squadron doubted that version: 609's operations record for that day says, "No. 152 Squadron was also engaged at the same time and place, and it is considered possible that either one of their pilots, Sgt. Klein (Poland) or Dundas may have been responsible for bringing down the German Ace...". 

You can see why I have fudged the issue of which Spitfire it was by opting for an angle that doesn't show its markings.

A few other people have raised doubts over the years. The most thorough investigation I have seen is by Franciszek Grabowski and is published as an electronic pamphlet by Air War Publications: The Demise of the Luftwaffe's Top Gun.

I'm persuaded by his analysis and my own sketch map of the events that the Spitfire that shot down Wick was indeed most probably that of Sgt Zygmunt Klein from 152 Squadron – and it was he who was then killed by another member of the Luftwaffe schwarm, Wick's old friend Rudolf Pflanz. Pflanz was not actually his wingman on that operation: that was Erich Leie. 


Incidentally if you are interested in Wick, I'd recommend getting a copy of the definitive work on him: Helmut Wick, An Illustrated Biography, by Herbert Ringlstetter (Schiffer 2005), which has a quite remarkable collection of photographs of Wick, his evolving aircraft markings, and fellow pilots. 

That book is based on the writings of his friend Franz Fiby, who flew 110 missions with him. Fiby was in the fateful final dogfight but did not know for certain what had happened - presuming that Wick must have had engine trouble for anyone to have caught him out.

Wick's was the only German aircraft shot down, but he was not the only one to take to his parachute or end up in the water. As well as Dundas, another 609 pilot, Paul Baillon, also "failed to return"; his body was recovered later on the French coast. 

And as well as Klein 152 Squadron also lost Arthur Watson, who bailed out over land but whose parachute failed to deploy properly. He fell near Wareham in Dorset with his aircraft, Spitfire R6597, coded UM-V.  


Which brings me to the cockpit canopy on Bf109s. In normal use, the main part of the hood hinges to the right, in a rather ungainly fashion, where it is held open by a wire. 

Attempting to do that in an emergency, in a slipstream, and have it stay there while you clamber out is all but impossible. I had always wondered about this. I couldn't find any depictions of the event – but there are written accounts, the oldest I could find being an RAF report on a captured 109, written in late 1939: 

"The cockpit hood does not slide back. It is hinged at the starboard side for entry and exit, and cannot thus be opened in flight. ... The hood jettisoning arrangements for emergency exit are interesting. The hood is spring loaded, and on pushing the jettison lever the whole of the hood and the wireless mast behind it are flung clear backwards."

RAF gun camera film screenshot by Gary Eason with permission of the IWM
RAF gun camera film screenshot by Gary Eason with permission of the IWM

So the windscreen remains in place at the front, but the hinged part of the canopy and the rear glazed part behind it are thrown off, the latter complete with the antenna. 

The bail-out procedure in the 109's operating notes urges pilots to bend forward as they do this, so their head isn't hit by the canopy as it comes off.


Having read about it, I realised that many of the photographs of crash-landed 109s from the war show the cockpit with the whole caboodle absent, presumably because it had been discarded by the pilot in case he had to make a rapid exit once he was on the ground. 

My picture is the only artwork I am aware of that shows this (do correct me if you know of any!). So I had to imagine what it would look like. But I have just this week seen some remarkable footage from the gun camera of Hawker Hurricane pilot George Smythe as he shoots down a 109 in August 1940, in which you can see this as it happens.

The spring loading of the canopy is clear from the way it is ejected rapidly several metres above the airframe before falling down behind it, in two obviously connected but separate parts - almost exactly as I've shown it. 

If you would like to view his film it is in a compilation of RAF gun camera clips on the Imperial War Museum website: spool through to about 9'07" and look for the title frame announcing Combat Film No 86. 

Much of the other footage on that reel is well worth a look as well, bringing these historical descriptions vividly to life.

* Bring it on!


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