I got this information in an email from an aviator friend of mine, I
have no idea of its source. I like unusual items
Shortly before the outbreak of war the German Junkers company had begun work on the Junkers 86P, a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft developed from the obsolescent Ju86 bomber. In fact, the new reconnaissance variant bore little resemblance to the earlier bomber: the open gun positions were faired over; there was a pressure cabin for the two-man crew; extra panels fitted to the outer wings increased the span by just under ten feet to 84 feet and turbochargers fitted to the two Jumo compression-ignition diesel engines improved the aircraft’s high-altitude performance. With these changes the Junkers 86P was able to cruise at altitudes around 40,000ft, beyond the reach of fighters during the early part of the war.
The first Junkers 86P was delivered to the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940 and during the latter half of the year the type operated at irregular intervals over the British Isles on high-altitude reconnaissance missions. At that time the British radar chain was unable to track such high-flying aircraft once they had crossed the coast and the flights went almost unnoticed by the defences. In the winter of 1940-41 the Ju86P was used in clandestine missions high over the Soviet Union as part of the reconnaissance effort in preparation for the German invasion in June 1941; these flights continued after the campaign began.
In May 1942 a few Junkers 86s were delivered to the 2 Staffel of Long Range Reconnaissance Gruppe 123, based at Kastelli on Crete, from where they flew high-altitude missions over the Cairo and Alexandria areas. These flights continued unhindered until August 24th when Fg Off G Reynolds flying a stripped-down Spitfire Mk V armed with two .50 cal machine guns succeeded in intercepting one of the Ju86s. He scored hits on the starboard engine and set it on fire; the Junkers dived away and he lost it. There is some evidence that this was the action in which the commander of 2 Staffel, Hauptmann Bayer, was shot down into the sea, he and his observer ditched in their Ju86 and were later rescued by seaplane.
Some accounts state that Reynolds had taken his Spitfire Mk V up to 42,000ft to engage the Junkers; others have spoken of later interceptions of Ju86s by Spitfire Vs in the same area at 45,000ft and even 50,000ft. After a careful examination of the available evidence the author is inclined to disregard reports of Spitfire Vs intercepting enemy aircraft at altitudes much above 40,000ft, no matter how many pieces had been taken off the aircraft to lighten it, a Merlin engine with single-stage supercharging would not have developed enough power to enable a Spitfire to manoeuvre at such an altitude, moreover, above 45,000ft a pilot in an unpressurised cabin even breathing pure oxygen would have suffered such severe physiological problems that he could have achieved little. The interceptions of the Junkers did take place but it is probable that the German aircraft were flying at or below 40,000ft. An explanation for the excessive altitudes stated, if they did indeed come from the pilots, could be altimeter errors or mis-readings by pilots suffering from a measure of oxygen starvation.
In the spring of 1942, the R version of the Ju86 appeared (above image). This was a P version modified at the factory to have its wing span further extended, this time by more than 20ft to almost 105ft and with slightly more powerful diesels with nitrous oxide injection to increase the high-altitude performance still further. As a result, these improvements gave the Ju86R altitude performance of over 45,000ft.
During the early months of 1942, the RAF bombing attacks on Germany had begun to bite and there were persistent demands from the Nazi leadership for retaliatory attacks on Britain. With the main part of the German bomber force tied down in support of the Wehrmacht in the Soviet Union, there was little to spare for a renewed blitz on Britain. The few bomber units remaining in the west did their best, but in the face of the continually strengthening British defences their attacks were costly and achieved little. So, to strengthen the force attacking England, a few Ju86Rs were converted into high-altitude bombers. In this role, the aircraft could carry only a single 550lb bomb but it was judged that such attack would serve a useful propaganda purpose if they demonstrated that German bombers could operate over Britain by day with impunity.
During the third week in August 1942, two Junkers arrived at Beauvais in northern France. The Hohenkampfkommando began final preparations for a series of stratospheric bombing attacks on Britain. By the morning of August 24th all was ready and Oberfeldwebel Horst Goetz took off for the first of these operations. Flying in the aircraft as an observer was Leutnant Erich Sommer, the commander of the unit. For the first hour of the flight the Junkers remained over France, climbing steadily. Only when the bomber had reached 39,000ft did Goetz turn north and, still climbing, headed towards his target. The Ju86R crossed the coast near Selsey Bill, dropped its single bomb on Camberley (the intended target was Aldershot) and left via Brighton having spent thirty-five minutes over Britain without interference from the defences. Shortly afterwards, the other Ju86R attacked Southampton. Fighter Command sent up 15 Spitfire Mk Vs to intercept the raiders but with no success. A pair of Spitfires of the Polish 309 Sqn were directed onto Goetz’s Junkers, the pilots reported that the intruder was flying at 38,000ft and ‘identified’ the type as a Dornier 217, a more frequent visitor to Britain and which also had two engines and twin fins. Because the wing of the Junkers was nearly twice as long as that of the Dornier, the fighter pilots had mis-judged the range and thought themselves closer to the bomber than was in fact the case.
That evening the German Propaganda Ministry jubilantly announced that the Hohenkampfkommando had carried out the first of its daylight revenge attacks on Britain, all aircraft had returned safely. There was no hint that the grandiosely-titled unit operated but two aircraft.
On the following day, August 25th, Goetz and Sommer were again over Britain. This time, more confident of their immunity from interception, they flew a meandering course which took them over Southampton, Swindon, round the north of London to Stanstead where they released their bomb, down the eastern side of the capital and crossed the coast near Shoreham. The bomber spent more than an hour over Britain, the intention being to sound as many sirens as possible and cause the maximum disruption. The British authorities refused to play this game however, single intruders were treated as reconnaissance aircraft without bombs. The sirens remained silent. 9 Spitfire Mk Vs were scrambled to engage but none was able to get close to the bomber, which was again ‘identified’ as a Dornier 217. From their vantage point Goetz and Sommer watched as interested spectators while the fighters zig-zagged, attempting to gain altitude without overshooting the bomber, one by one the Spitfires broke off the chase.
On the morning of the 28th one of the Ju86Rs attacked Bristol. The policy of not sounding the sirens for single intruders had been a calculated risk, justifiable in wartime but on this occasion the citizens of Bristol had to pay the penalty. The bomb landed on Broad Weir, almost in the centre of the city, during the morning rush hour. It exploded close to 3 buses, wrecking all of them and killing most of the people on board. It was the worst single bomb incident suffered by Bristol during the war and resulted in 48 people killed, 26 seriously injured and 30 slightly injured. During the following ten days, the Junkers carried out 8 further attacks.
At this time the Spitfire HF VI equipped 124 and 616 Sqns. This version was fitted with extended wingtips which increased the span by 3ft 7ins and for the pilot there was a partial pressure cabin; with these additions the Mk VI weighed 180lbs more than the standard Mk V. Like the earlier version however, the HF VI was fitted with a single-stage Merlin and so could not intercept anything flying above 40,000ft. On August 29th, a pair of HF VIs of 124 Sqn climbed to 37,000ft but were unable to get within 3 miles of the Ju86R cruising above them.
The Mk IX version of the Spitfire, which had just entered service, was fitted with the new Merlin 61 and that possessed two-stage supercharging. With this refinement, the Merlin delivered 600hp at 40,000ft, substantially more than was possible at such an altitude from its predecessor. To combat the high-altitude Junkers, a special unit was formed with modified Mk IXs. One of the pilots selected was Pilot Officer Prince Emanuel Galitzine who had been born in Russia in 1918, brought to England the following year and who had lived here since. He now gives us his recollections of the operations to combat the high-flying German bombers.
“At the end of August 1942 I was flying Spitfire IXs with 611 Sqn at Redhill when, following a medical examination, I was pronounced fit for very high altitude operations and sent to join the Special Service Flight which was then forming at Northolt. On arrival there, I learnt the purpose of the new unit. During the previous couple of weeks the Germans had been sending in single Junkers bombers at altitudes above 40,000ft to attack targets in southern England. Conventional fighter units had found these high-flying raiders impossible to catch, with medically selected and specially trained pilots flying modified Spitfire IXs, we hoped to do better. There were 6 of us in the Special Service Flight which was under the command of Flt Lt Jimmy Nelson, an American ex-Eagle Squadron pilot.
Training for the new role began immediately. First of all we were put on a special diet which included plenty of sweets, chocolate, eggs and bacon, fresh orange juice and other things which at that time were either strictly rationed or else unobtainable. There is now some doubt regarding the effectiveness of this diet in improving our performance at high altitude but it certainly did a lot for our morale and increased our standing with the girls.
As part of our training we were sent to Farnborough where we underwent tests in the decompression chamber and had a short course of lectures from the doctors there. To conserve our strength and delay the onset of oxygen shortage at high altitude, we were enjoined to make all our movements slowly and deliberately. Everything had to be done in an icy calm manner.
At the end of the first week in September the Flight received the first of our Spitfire IXs which had been modified for very high altitude operations. The aircraft, serial BF273, (above) had been lightened in almost every way possible. A lighter wooden propeller had been substituted for the normal metal one, all of the armour had been removed as had the four machine guns, leaving an armament of only 2 Hispano 20mm cannons. The aircraft was finished in a special lightweight finish, which gave it a colour rather like Cambridge blue and all equipment not strictly necessary for high altitude fighting was removed. It had the normal wingtips. A pressure cabin would have been very nice but the HF VII, essentially a Mk IX with a pressure cabin, was not yet read for operations.
On September 10th I made my first flight in the modified Spitfire IX and found it absolutely delightful to handle. During the war I flew 11 versions of the Spitfire and this was far and away the best. The 450lb reduction in weight was immediately noticeable once airborne and with the Merlin 61 she had plenty of power and was very lively. I made a second flight that day to test the cannons, during which I took her up to 43,000ft. I stayed above 40,000ft for some time and found it quite exhilarating, it was a beautiful day and I could see along the coast of England from Dover to Plymouth and almost the whole of the northern coast of France as far as Belgium and Holland.
During this flight I wore an electrically heated flying suit which kept me warm and comfortable.
On September 12th I made my second high altitude flight and this time it was in earnest. That morning, it had been my turn to wait at readiness and at 09.27hrs I was scrambled to meet an aircraft being watched on radar climbing to height over France; it looked suspiciously like another one of the high-flying raiders.
Climbing away at full throttle, the Spitfire went up like a lift but there was a long way to go – 40,000ft is about 7.5 miles up. I climbed in a wide spiral over Northolt to 15,000ft then the ground controller informed me that the incoming aircraft was over mid-Channel and heading towards the Portsmouth area, I was ordered onto a south-westerly heading to cut him off. After several course corrections I finally caught sight of the enemy aircraft as it was flying up the Solent, I was at about 40,000ft and he was slightly higher and out to starboard. I continued my climb and headed after him, closing in until I could make out the outline of a Junkers 86, By then, I was about half a mile from him and we were both at 42,000ft to the north of Southampton.
The German crew had obviously seen me, because I saw the bomb jettison, the aircraft nose go up to gain altitude and turn for home. My Spitfire had plenty of performance in hand, however. I jettisoned my 30-gal slipper tank and had little difficulty in following him in the climb and getting about 200ft above the bomber. At this stage I kept reminding myself “Take it easy, conserve your strength, keep icy calm”. The grey-blue Junkers seemed enormous and it trailed a long, curling condensation trail. It reminded me of a film I had once seen of an aerial view of an ocean liner ploughing through a calm sea and leaving a wake.
I positioned myself for an attack and dived to about 200yds astern of him, where I opened up with a 3-second burst. At the end of the burst my port cannon jammed and the Spitfire slewed round to starboard, then, as I passed through his slipstream, my canopy misted over. It took about a minute to clear completely, during which time I climbed back into position for the next attack. When I next saw the Junkers he was heading southwards, trying to escape out to sea. I knew I had to get right in close behind him if I was to stand any chance of scoring hits, because it would be difficult to hold the Spitfire straight when the starboard cannon fired and she went into a yaw. Again, I dived to attack but when I was about a hundred yards away the bomber made a surprisingly tight turn to starboard. I opened fire but the Spitfire went into a yaw and fell out of the sky, I broke off the attack, turned outside him and climbed back to 44,000ft.
I carried out two further attacks on the Junkers. On each of them my Spitfire yawed and fell out of the sky whenever I opened fire with my remaining cannon, and my canopy misted over whenever I passed through his slipstream. By the end of the fourth attack the action had lasted about 45 minutes. My engine had been running at full throttle for an hour and a quarter and my fuel was beginning to run low. So when the bomber descended into a patch of mist I did not attempt to follow. Instead I broke away and turned north east for home. How I cursed that jammed cannon, had it not failed, I would certainly have shot down the Ju86. As I neared the coast it became clear that I did not have sufficient fuel to reach Northolt, so I landed at Tangmere to refuel.”
The pilot of the Ju86 had been Horst Goetz, on another attack with Erich Sommer as his observer. Soon after the bomber crossed the coast near Southampton, Goetz later recalled
“Suddenly Erich, sitting on my right, said that there was a fighter closing in from his side. I thought there was nothing remarkable about that – almost every time we had been over England in the Ju86, fighters had tried to intercept us. Then he said that the fighter was climbing very fast and was nearly at our altitude. The next thing, it was above us. I thought Erich’s eyes must have been playing tricks on him, so I leaned over to his side of the cabin to see for myself. To my horror I saw the Spitfire, a little above us and still climbing.”
Goetz acted fast. He jettisoned the bomb, switched in full nitrous oxide injection to increase engine power and partially depressurised the cabin so that there wouldn’t be an explosion if it was pierced. He then pushed open the throttles and tried to outclimb his assailant but, as we have seen, the Spitfire succeeded in getting above him.
Goetz managed to avoid the four attacks, then
escaped into a thin patch of mist. The Junkers landed at Caen so that
the crew could check the damage. There was only one hole, through the
port wing and as nothing appeared damaged the bomber continued on to its
base at Beauvais. Now it was clear that the period of immunity enjoyed
by the Junkers 86R over England was at an end; there would be no more
stratospheric bombing attacks by these aircraft.
The combat between Goetz and Galitzine was almost certainly the highest to take place during WWII. Significantly, the movements of both aircraft were tracked by radar sets on the ground, these provided an independent check on the general accuracy of the altitudes stated.
The action had a sequel nearly 33 years later, when the author met Goetz at a Luftwaffe reunion and was able to put him in touch with Galitzine. The two men became firm friends and together stayed at the author’s home to recount their unique battle; later they spoke by telephone with Erich Sommer, who now lives in Australia. Galitzine no longer curses the jammed Hispano cannon, which robbed him of an almost certain victory but which gained him two good friends. Tongue in cheek, Horst Goetz commented
“Emanuel and I have talked about our battle in great detail and now we understand each other’s problems. The next time we fly against each other, we shall be able to do things better”