Three war crimes, two Sunderlands and one Ashley Wilkes (3)

Last time I was explaining the connection between the Short Sunderland flying boat and “Das Fliegende Schtachelschwein” aka “The Flying Porcupine”.

This thorny porcine epithet comes from an aircraft which was based at Invergordon in north east Scotland in 1940. My story will be based primarily on the work of John Robertson in 2010. I had never heard any explanation of the nickname and it is a tale of heroism well worth telling and re-telling, believe me.

The particular Sunderland was N9046. It belonged to 204 Squadron and its squadron letters were KG-F. Here it is, although it seems to lack the KG-F:

The crew left their northern Scottish base on April 3rd 1940, tasked with carrying out a ten hours protection patrol, looking after a convoy bound for Norway. There was absolutely no sign of the enemy, until two Junkers Ju88s, probably from II./Kampfgeschwader 30, appeared at low altitude over the water, seemingly having arrived from a base in southern Norway, or perhaps in Denmark. Here is a nice Junkers Ju88 in full-ish colour:

And here’s the Airfix kit box:

Seeing the Sunderland, one of the two Ju 88s made a head on attack but the Sunderland’s front turret opened up and the two Junkers aircraft seemed to take flight into the leaden clouds. Here’s that front turret again, with its rather light .303 guns.:

Four more Junkers then attempted to attack the ships but they were driven off by the convoy’s various defences. Less than a quarter of an hour later, six Junker Ju88s came in, four of them almost certainly Ju88A-4s. Two of them came for the Sunderland which went right down to the water to make itself a more difficult target. That didn’t stop the Germans who both attacked fiercely, but the flying boat’s gunners drove them off and they eventually fled.

The situation had now become dramatic enough for it to form the basis of a modern computer game:

The other four Ju88s, having already released their bombs, then made a line astern attack on the Sunderland but the rear gunner, Corporal William Gray Lillie, with his slightly heavier 0.5 machine guns sent the first one spiralling in flames into the cold, cold waters of the North Sea. Ignore the trees. It’s actually seaweed:

Corporal Lillie blasted the second German in his port engine which was soon pothering black oily smoke and flames. The German pilot left for his land base in Norway, uncertain if he would reach it with only one engine performing properly. In actual fact, he was forced to crash land in the as yet unoccupied northern section of Norway where the crew were forced to set their aircraft on fire before being arrested and interned.

Rather imaginatively, the final two Ju88s then attempted to drop their bombs onto the Sunderland. They missed and finally cleared off home.

N9046 reached Scotland safely and had no problems until Wednesday,  December 11th 1940 when, riding at anchor in Sullom Voe in the Shetlands, it suddenly caught fire and was completely destroyed.

Here is brave Corporal Lillie:

Did he survive the war? Well, sadly, no. He was killed in combat on July 21st 1940, shot down by a Messerschmitt Bf109 of 8./JG77:

Corporal Lillie was the rear gunner in Sunderland N9028. They had been sent to Trondheim in Norway on a clandestine reconnaissance mission to check the submarine base and to see if the Gneisenau had left the port. Here it is:

Next time, I will show you how a suave English actor is connected to the Short Sunderland and, indeed, the Junkers Ju88.



Filed under Aviation, Cornwall, Criminology, Film & TV, History, Personal, Politics

24 responses to “Three war crimes, two Sunderlands and one Ashley Wilkes (3)

  1. It is a nice touch that this action is the subject of a modern computer game.

    • Yes, Derrick I was very surprised, although it is at least a game with a lot of action involved. Years ago I saw one which consisted of piloting a Lancaster bomber all the way to Berlin and back. It seemed to me to take place in real time, so there must have been many hours of flying along in inky blackness, with just perhaps, a few minutes over the target and then the possibility of a night fighter attack, which would also have been a very brief interlude in hours of relative inactivity.

    • No I hadn’t Pierre, but thank you very much for sending me the link. It is marvellous in the way it provides all the details of Corporal Lillie’s character and helps create a full portrait of the real man.
      I knew that he had not survived the war, but it is wonderful that he will be remembered by having a street named after him. I do so wish that here in England we used the names of our war dead for new streets and buildings rather than local councillors who nobody has the faintest memory of!

  2. Pierre Lagacé

    Can’t get enough of those Airfix box arts.

    • Yes, the oldest ones are absolutely superb. There is at least one book which features them but at £30 for 128 pages, it doesn’t represent exactly tremendous value for money. It’s such a pity that there is nothing more competitively priced.

  3. Pierre Lagacé

    For your nostalic readers John…

  4. Very interesting, John. I saw a “Drain the Oceans” episode on TV that showed that unique German submarine port in Norway. I had no idea.
    I just read this morning that that the German flagship, SMS Scharnhorst, sunk off the Falkland Islands in December 1914 has been found. Technology can be useful sometimes, eh?

    • It is absolutely amazing that so many of these long lost ships have now been found and, in some cases, the mystery of exactly what blew up to sink them all those years ago has been solved. The ship’s bell has been retrieved from HMS Hood, for example. It was originally sunk by the Bismarck, which itself has also been found.
      I would have said that once they have been discovered and filmed, they should be left as war graves but I cannot really believe that many remains can still be down there, especially on ships from the First World War such as the SMS Scharnhorst,

      • I agree there is very much left, but I still feel they should be left alone. Sentimental idea I suppose.

      • I think what will happen is that the wrecks which are extremely deep will be protected anyway by the difficulties of reaching them. Only major expeditions could go that deep and they will be monitored because of the interest they inevitably attract. I also think that at the first sign of any remains, all exploration should stop and the proper authorities should be informed so they can make the decision about what to do.

  5. Chris Waller

    A fascinating story. It is remarkable that the Sunderland saw off the Ju88s, given that it presents a large target and is not the most agile of aircraft. What a tragedy that N9046, and Corporal Lillie, came to such sad ends.

    • I think that the Sunderland was able to survive because it went down to wave top level, when it is apparently possible for the attacker to be concentrating so much on his target that he flies into the water. At the very least, it would have inhibited the Ju88 pilots somewhat.
      Equally, the rear guns of the Sunderland were 0.50 calibre, unlike the standard peashooter 0.303s carried by the rest of the Sunderland’s turrets and indeed, all the other aircraft of the RAF of that period. The 0.50 would have done a lot more damage and might well have gone through the Ju88s’ armour, unlike the 0.303s.
      As for sadness when you read about the eventual fate of, say. Corporal Lillie, I found that extremely difficult to deal with when I was writing my book. That’s why I have introduced a few other topics such as the posts with a dilly of a pickle, or in the near future, some RAF poetry of WW2.

  6. A very interesting account John. There don’t seem to be many of these relating to the Sunderland, yet they performed many long flights and skirmishes over the sea. They sadly seem lost in the shadow of bomber and fighter command.

    • Thank you for those kind words. I think that Coastal Command was very much the Cinderella service of the RAF and hence the use of Avro Ansons as maritime patrol bombers, along with even the Westland Lysander, if my memory serves me well.
      Something else that has not helped is the lack of an equivalent to the “RAF Bomber Command Losses” books of WR Chorley. All I have been able to buy is “Royal Air Force Coastal Command Losses: Aircraft and Crew Losses 1939-1941 Volume. 1” There appears never to have been a Volume 2.
      Lastly, there are quite a lot of DVDs about Coastal Command which are often quoted at silly prices such as £72, but if you wait your time, they often appear at £1 (used). Just search Amazon for “Coastal Command ” or “Short Sunderland”.

  7. Jan

    Lou Grade hit the nail on the head when it comes to the cost of recovering wrecks from the depths. Describing his box office fiasco he said: “Raise the Titanic: it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic”.

    • Yes, I think it will prove quite a difficult job to retrieve any of those many famous wrecks which haunt the satellite channels in the early hours. I do remember watching the live broadcast of the raising of the Mary Rose, but I suppose that the Solent in late spring was a different proposition to the Denmark Strait in late winter. Perhaps aircraft, such as the Wellington from Loch Ness, are a better bet.

  8. What a story! I was riveted, John, yet once more I felt tears stinging my eyes. As you well know, these war stories, even deservedly needing to be heard, are so hard for me to read.

    • I fully sympathise. Indeed, I found out the hard way that it can be very wearing, to say the least, to spend four to five hours a day, six days a week, trying to trace how young men, many not yet twenty, lost their lives. The double tragedy is to discover that so many young lives were lost in accidents or as the result of wrong decisions by high ranking officers in warm offices. Still, unless publicity is given to this wasteful aspect of our wars, we will just go on having more and more.

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