This Sunday is a special day for those of us who find history plays a large part in their lives, and those who like to take a moment to honour those who came before us, and helped make what our country is today. It also happens to involve my ward Seasalter, for this Sunday 27 September is the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Graveney Marsh.
My family and I went to the service five years ago outside the Sportsman, where a plaque now commemorates the battle. It’s a story of adventure, British grit, and chivalry, before a tactical retreat back to the pub for tea and medals.
So to mark the anniversary, as a proud Councillor of Seasalter, here’s the story of what was the last fire fight on British soil.
Some 75 years ago the Battle of Britain was still taking place in the skies above Kent, and the German Luftwaffe had taken to pounding London. It was on one such raid that a brand new Junkers 88, captained by Unteroffizer Fritz Ruhlandt, had taken damage over Faversham.
Knowing this aircraft could provide valuable intelligence, fighters from 66 (Gravesend) and 92 (Biggin Hill) squadrons set about destroying its last remaining engine, forcing the crew to make a crash landing on Graveney Marsh.
Meanwhile at the Sportsman pub, a company of the London Irish Regiment set out to locate the aircraft. The story goes that their commanding officer, Captain John Cantopher, arrived at the pub to carry out an inspection, only to be told that a detachment had gone out to recover the aircraft and its crew.
“They took arms I hope,” said Cantopher.
“No sir…” came the reply.
At which point the sound of machine guns could be heard.
“It looks as if they should have done,” said Cantopher. “Forget the inspection. I am going over there. Bring some of your men with rifles and ammo.”
The rest is something from an adventure comic I used to read as an 8-year-old kid. The German aircrew had taken machine guns from the crashed Junkers and opened fire on the advancing troops.
The London Irish, in attack formation, returned fire, injuring one of the aircrew in the foot. Sensing the odds were very much against them, the crew surrendered.
But the story didn’t end there. As the crew were escorted away from the aircraft Captain Cantopher overheard one of the crew say that it would explode at any moment.
Acting quickly, Cantopher, performing the kind of act that these days would require a lengthy risk assessment, dashed into the aircraft to locate explosives that would at any moment destroy anything of use on the Junkers. It must also have crossed his mind that those same explosives could easily destroy anything of use on his own anatomy as well. But Cantopher found them, disabled them, and lobbed them into a ditch. It was an act of heroism that earned him the George Medal.
But there was still time for decency and chivalry. The German aircrew were taken back to the Sportsman, and while there was no taster menu in those days, they were given glasses of beer in exchange for a few souvenirs.
At the memorial service five years ago 60 or so former members of the regiment turned out to honour the 70th anniversary, led by their association president Major General Corran Purdon. Also present was Cpl George Willis, then aged 90, who had been stationed at the Sportsman when his pals returned with the captured German aircrew.
It used to be men like Purdon who inspired wide-eyed awe in me as a boy – he was among those who took part in the almost suicidal commando raid on St Nazaire in 1942, later spending the rest of the war in Colditz. But as I get older it’s anyone who served in uniform, then or now.
Because it’s not about capturing aircraft, commanding troops under fire, or winning medals. It was the duty that compelled them to join up in the first place – that there was something right about defending their country and taking pride in that. That still applies to anyone who joins the armed forces, and leaves some of us with regret.
So this Sunday I will be raising a glass of beer (and possibly a second) to the memory of the London Irish, the bomber crew, and to a small part of Seasalter history.
With thanks to my own 8 year old for help with the “reconstruction”.