On May 1, 2005, thanks to a meticulous study at the City of Westminster Archives Centre (the archive of the London City, containing documentary collections on the history of the urban center, mainly Marylebone and Paddington), the remains of an iconic World War II plane were located and recovered: a Hawker Hurricane that had been buried since 1940 after crashing during one of the battles of what is known as the Battle of Britain.

But, although everyone who participated in that desperate defense against Luftwaffe raids is considered a hero (let’s remember Churchill’s words: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few), that was not just any aircraft. Its pilot was named Raymond Towers Holmes and had performed a courageous and unprecedented feat by preventing a German bomber from releasing its deadly payload on Buckingham Palace by ramming it with his plane after running out of ammunition.

Ray Holmes, commonly known as such, was born in 1914 in the English town of Wallasey (Cheshire). He was the son of a journalist and followed in his father’s footsteps in that profession, working for the Birkenhead Advertiser newspaper, covering crime news. In the mid-1930s, the world was in a state of increasing tension, and the Spanish Civil War became a testing ground for what everyone saw as an increasingly probable continental conflict. That’s why the major powers began to prepare, and in 1936, Holmes enlisted in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, groups of volunteer reservists that, along with the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, provided valuable supplementary support to the RAF.

RAF (Royal Air Force) insignia / Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

When the Second World War finally broke out, the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth partners were the only ones capable of resisting Nazi Germany, especially at sea, where the Royal Navy remained superior to the Kriegsmarine. However, in the air, the situation was different, as the Luftwaffe had achieved that potential. During the early stages of the war, after the British retreat from Dunkirk and the surrender of France, Britain was alone and isolated, making its surrender seem imminent. Or at least, that’s what Hitler believed, and he ordered not to attack British territory, hoping to resolve it peacefully in what he expected to be a dramatic turn of events that would also spare his navy further losses like those suffered in the conquest of Norway. However, he encountered Churchill’s stubborn resistance, so he resumed the invasion plan of the islands, called Operation Sea Lion.

Given the inferiority of the German fleet, to cross the English Channel and carry out a landing, it was necessary for the Luftwaffe to keep the Royal Navy at bay. For this, it was inevitable to first achieve air superiority, defeating the RAF, something that Hermann Göring promised would happen in a few days. To his dismay, it lasted much longer: four months that, moreover, ended in failure. It was the beginning of the Battle of Britain, as Churchill himself dubbed it: I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.

It began on July 10, 1940, and by then, Ray Holmes had been a month in the 504th Squadron of the RAF, a reserve unit based in Rutland that was initially formed with light bombers but, given the circumstances, was converted into a combat squadron equipped with Hawker Hurricane aircraft in 1939. This model, one of the most popular of World War II, was a single-seat fighter (the first monoplane of the RAF) that, along with the Supermarine Spitfire, to a lesser extent, was responsible for intercepting German raids in British airspace.

German and British air bases during the Battle of Britain/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

The Hurricanes engaged in epic duels with their German counterparts, the Messerschmitt Bf 109, which were responsible for escorting the bombers (although they were not designed for that purpose, and their performance proved inconsistent, beginning to be replaced in 1942 by the Focke-Wulf Fw 190). However, Holmes’ episode did not have them as adversaries but directly targeted the bombers, which presented two different models in the Battle of Britain. The first was the Heinkel He 111, very robust but with limitations in speed and maneuverability, along with insufficient defense, making it obsolete before the end of the war.

The other was the Dornier Do 17, a type of aircraft nicknamed Fliegender Bleistift (Flying Pencil) for its slimness, which provided more than enough lightness and speed to outpace fighters. Initially designed without machine guns, later, it was decided to incorporate a dorsal MG 15 and another ventral one. In reality, the Dornier would also become outdated, and although it participated throughout the war, from the summer of 1940, it began to be replaced, first by the Junkers Ju 88 and later by the Dornier Do 217. Before that, a couple of units encountered Holmes’ Hurricane in the sky over London.

The Luftwaffe had been conducting continuous waves of bombings for two and a half months, without achieving its goal of demoralizing the British population when, on September 15, 1940, promoted to sergeant and piloting a Hurricane, Holmes was up there, fulfilling his duty. He was flying over the London area when he saw a formation of three Dornier Do 17s belonging to KG 76 (Kampfgeschwader 76), a combat wing created in 1939, consisting of three bomber groups, of which that trio constituted one.

The course they had taken led them directly to the center of the British capital, so their intentions were clear. Holmes dived on them, focusing his attack on one, but another shot him with a flamethrower, and although the Hurricane emerged unscathed – as that type of weapon is not designed for use at the nearly five thousand meters they were at, and the fire consumed before reaching the plane – the windshield was impregnated with fuel, making it difficult for the pilot to see.

Holmes could only hope that the frontal airflow would eliminate it, but when he finally saw something, he discovered that he was practically on top of the Dornier, which he had to dodge to avoid a collision, passing under its belly very narrowly. He then turned against the other enemy, releasing a burst that made something fall from the aircraft. At first, Holmes thought he had managed to break its wing, but later it turned out that the piece falling was actually an injured crew member parachuting. The problem was that the strings got entangled in the Hurricane’s wing, destabilizing it. Holmes had to tilt and turn from side to side until he managed to rid himself of that unusual burden, and then he could head for the third bomber while avoiding the shots from its rear MG 15s; probably at that moment, the British pilot would have wished that the Dornier had been built according to its original design, without weapons, relying on its top speed of 390 kilometers per hour.

But that would also have meant that the German plane would escape, and Holmes was determined to prevent it from releasing its deadly payload on central London, where Buckingham Palace loomed as its target. So, he passed it and then turned to attack it head-on, safe from the machine guns… and when he fired his own, he discovered that they did not shoot; he had run out of ammunition. He had only a few seconds to make the biggest decision of his life, perhaps inspired by the previous incident: to ram the Dornier head-on.

However, he was not a kamikaze. The idea was not to crash outright, which meant certain death, but to pass just above and break its tail, which, according to him, “looked very fragile and attractive.” Indeed, with a risky maneuver, he passed over the fuselage and tore off the port fin, thinking that the plane would be disabled from continuing forward and much less for returning. But, in fact, he had destroyed its entire rear half unintentionally. The Hurricane did not escape unscathed either, losing control and plummeting.

Unable to control it, Holmes jumped, not without first hitting the cockpit and then the fin. In the end, he managed to open his parachute, and as he descended, he watched as the Dornier crashed near Victoria Station. A camera filmed the battle and captured the dramatic moment, as seen in the image below. The German pilot, by the way, was named Robert Zehbe and initially survived because, apparently, he had abandoned the ship with his crew, leaving the autopilot on (meaning Holmes rammed an empty plane), but he was injured and died a little later.

The Britishman’s fall was not very epic: he had to swing to avoid the Metro’s electrical cables, pushing him against a block of houses. He landed violently on the slate roof of a three-story building and slid down it without being able to stop, fearing that he would absurdly kill himself. In the end, the parachute fabric caught on a pipe and stopped him just as he was about to touch the ground with his feet. The funny thing was that his feet ended up inside a trash can.

He was in the small garden of an inner courtyard, and while he removed the harnesses, two girls from the neighboring garden ran to help him; “I jumped over the fence, and we all kissed each other,” he would later recount. At that moment, he still didn’t know that his unique duel with the German bomber had many witnesses: a group of people from Hyde Park; several children playing soccer without paying attention to the alarm sirens, from Victoria Station (and provided the curious detail that when the pipe burst, the water flooded the vicinity)…

Everyone ran to hug and shake his hand while he, somewhat confused, saw them lift him onto their shoulders to take him to Chelsea Barracks. It was just the beginning of a true wave of popularity, duly fueled by the press not only for saving Buckingham Palace but also for how he did it since ramming the enemy was not part of any RAF manual (it set a precedent because in 1941, a Soviet MIG-3 rammed another Dornier 17). It’s no wonder he received a congratulatory note from the most unexpected witness to his heroic action: Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands (she was in exile in London).

Britain won the Battle of Britain the following month, in the first half of October 1940, when the Luftwaffe, unable to break the RAF, ended Operation Sea Lion to focus on Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of the USSR). But the war continued, and the Blitz (bombings) did too. Holmes continued to be a pilot, so once recovered, he joined Squadron 81 and was sent to Murmansk (USSR) as a flight instructor, to teach Soviet pilots how to handle the Hawker Hurricane, as several units had been delivered to them. It is known that he also scored another victory there, a Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter.

In April 1941, he married Elisabeth Killip, with whom he had two daughters, and in the following years, he was promoted to flight officer and lieutenant. He returned to England in 1943, continuing as an instructor for two more years at the Montrose Air Base (Scotland) but finishing the war in Squadron 541 flying a Spitfire. At the end of the conflict and after a brief period in the Corps of King’s Messengers (diplomatic mail for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), he resumed his father’s press agency work.

In 1964, he became a widower, and two years later, he remarried Anne Holmes. His fame remained considerable, to the point that in 1989, he published an autobiography titled “Sky Spy. From Six Miles High to Hitler’s Bunker.” He died of cancer in 2005, less than two months after the remains of his plane were found; they are exhibited alongside those of the Dornier in the Imperial War Museum.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 11, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en El piloto que estrelló su avión contra un bombardero alemán para salvar Buckingham Palace

Sources

True stories of the Blitz. Usborne true stories (Henry Brook)/Sky Spy. From Six Miles High to Hitler’s Bunker (Ray Holmes)/1940. The battles to stop Hitler/Hurricane. Victor of the Battle of Britain (Leo McKinstry)/Remembering local RAF pilot Ray Holmes and how his daring attack on a German bomber during a WWII air raid near Buckingham Palace became one of the most celebrated events of the Battle of Britain (Heswall Magazine)/La batalla de Inglaterra (Stephen Bungay)/Wikipedia


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