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The lone wolf hunted down at the height of the Birmingham Blitz; Mike Lockley tells the story of one of the most famous 'kills' for the second city's gun batteries in the Second World War y yg.

Byline: Mike Lockley

LIT ghostly silver by the full, bloated moon, the Heinkel bomber circled low and giddy over the Warwickshire countryside.

With its pilot, 27-year-old Oblt Johann Speck von Sternberg dead - his skull split by a bullet fired from a rifle - the plane plunged to the ground near Earlswood Lakes, on the southern edge of Birmingham.

Three of the crew had perished.

Only Rudolf Budde, who activated his blazing parachute after being blown from the doomed crate, survived the carnage.

The incident, a boost for morale during our darkest hour, remains one of the best-known chapters of the Brum blitz - and it happened 75 years ago this month.

The dramatic story resurfaced three years ago when parachute silk from the wreckage turned up on the BBC's Antiques Roadshow.

The bomber - a Luftwaffe lone wolf - was searching for the aluminium rolling mills at Birmetals, Woodgate, on the night of May 10, 1941.

And it was the crew's stubborn refusal to off-load their deadly cargo until they had located the target that led to their demise.

The build-up to the crash has been painstakingly pieced together by Shirley historian Steve Richards.

He has painted a vivid picture of the night that saw Hitler unleash a firestorm from the ink-black skies. That night, the Germans launched a massive attack against London, with some crews flying two, even three, missions against the capital.

One solitary bomber had a very different mission, however. It kept clear of the endless waves of aircraft and peeled off to cause mayhem in Birmingham.

The experienced crew were well versed in such rogue, cloak-and-dagger exercises.

Johann Speck von Sternberg was a specialist in "pirat" operations and, moments before take-off, told his men the intended target was Birmetals.

They reached Poole, Dorset, at 11.25pm, then left the main attack, passed over the Cotswolds and rumbled through a known, and feared, graveyard of the Luftwaffe in the Broadway area, in the Cotswolds. It was such a duck-shoot for the battery of guns below that the Royal Observer Corps had dubbed the zone "Heinkel Alley".

The four-man crew had been told of a key marker to their industrial target. They had to locate two reservoirs next to a canal, with a railway line to the west. By following the tracks to the north, the Heinkel HE-111 would reach the factory.

The waterways were the Bittell Reservoirs; the canal was the ribbon of water between Worcester and Birmingham. The bright moon made for perfect visibility and by the time the reached Wythall it was only 500 feeabove ground. It was then the meticulous plans went badly awry.

The Heinkel stumbled across three lakes next to the Stratford-uponAvon canal. To its west could be seen a railway.

This, the Germans believed, was the all-important landmark.

They were wrong. The large pools below were Earlswood Lakes, and soon the crew were frantically attempting to find their bearings.

Confused, they scoured the land below, even arcing the bomber as far afield as Acocks Green.

Hopelessly lost, they should have jettisoned their payload of bombs and scarpered.

Instead, determined to cause damage, they groped in the dark for 30 minutes and in that time became sitting ducks. The civilian population and defensive batteries below were only too aware of the low flying threat that scoured the ground.

A "searchlight battery" at Fulford Heath, its men armed with only rifles and a Lewis machine gun, opened fire and got lucky. A bullet found the pilot.

Lance Bombardier A.A Hanson, in charge of the battery's Lewis gun, later recalled: "The Heinkel flew back and circled over the site like a giant bat.

"I didn't have time to think. All I remember saying to myself is 'Well, you've been wanting action, lad, you're going to have a basinful now'. I blazed away and every rifle on the site was being fired in support.

"After two or three minutes the Heinkel flew away again, but five minutes later it was back for the third time.

"By the fourth time we were getting a bit irritated. The Jerry plane was like a mosquito at a picnic. You couldn't brush the darned thing away.

"But this time it was a KO. The plane crashed in a nearby field and burst into flames as it hit the ground."

Rudolf Budde, just 21, miraculously survived. He was blown clear of the doomed bomber by an explosion and sailed to the ground with flames leaping from below the waist of his flying suit.

It sounds an escape from certain death that is far-fetched, yet it would explain the parachute silk acquired by local women. Months later, Budde, a wireless operator, would tell his captors: "We left in the evening and arrived undetected up to the target. No defence, hardly any searchlights. At the target it got a bit tricky. We started to search, each time along the railway track.

"On the fourth and last approach a searchlight caught us from the front.

At the same moment we were shot. Oberleutnant Speck von Sternberg was hit immediately. What happened next was over in seconds. We hit the ground. Feldwebel Ruhle, who stood in the belly gun position, was ripped apart. Just a cry escaped from him.

"Then I could only see fire and ammunition going off. I am stuck and try to wriggle out.

"How I managed I cannot remember. In a badly burned condition I was captured by the Tommies, and then taken to hospital in Solihull, where "I was operated on immediately. This was the course of events of my last enemy flight. I don't like to think about it. All my comrades are dead."

The aircraft came down 40 minutes after midnight on May 11 in a field belonging to Kidpile Farm, near Fulford Hall.

The dead airmen were buried three days later at Robin Hood Cemetery in Hall Green, their remains being moved to the German War Cemetery at Cannock Chase in 1962.

Rudolf Budde was sent back to Germany after the war and died in 2003.

| The full story of the dramatic incident appears in Steve Richards' book, The Luftwaffe Over Brum, priced PS19.95. See www.birminghamair-raids.co.uk

The bomber flew over us like a giant bat. I said to myself... 'You wanted action, lad, you are going to have a basinful now...'Lance Bombardier A.A Hanson

CAPTION(S):

<BHistorian Steve Richards

<B Left, the Heinkel crew, most of whom were killed, and right, the searchlight crew which caught the plane in their beams Pictures: Earlswood Village Museum

<BThe wrecked Heinkel guarded by two members of the Home Guard on May 11, 1941
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jun 2, 2016
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