WW2  A Cornish Story: The Heinkel and Flora Day Clock

WW2 A Cornish Story: The Heinkel and Flora Day Clock
Museum of Cornish Life, Helston

Added: 05 May 2021

Its early May, and the Museum of Cornish Life is marking Flora Day. On this day, Helston normally comes ablaze with flowers and greenery adorning doorways and roadsides, along with multicoloured bunting hanging in the streets. Men, women and children dress in their finest and there is dancing in public areas. Unfortunately, this year these festivities have had to be cancelled, as happened in 2020, due to the ongoing pandemic. Incidentally, these recent cancellations of the festival are the first to occur since the Second World War. Therefore, in honour of both Flora Day and VE Day – both of which coincidentally fall on 8th May, and both of which were celebrated together for the first time in 1945 to mark Victory in Europe – I am going to tell the story of how a component part of a German bomber aircraft ended up in the museums treasured Flora Day Clock.

The story begins with a routine patrol flight made by Heinkel 111 aircraft of No. 3 Group of Kampfgeschwader 40. KG 40 was a Luftwaffe medium and heavy bomber wing operating from North-West France and served as the primary maritime patrol unit within the German Air Force during the war. Although this wing was primarily responsible for sending anti-shipping patrols into the North Atlantic, they also sent many of their flights into the English Channel, the St. George’s Channel and the Bristol Channel. This is exactly what happened on the afternoon of Monday 24th November 1941. A young 21-year-old Luftwaffe pilot, Leutnant Adolph Glier, from the Sudetenland, who had been serving with No. 3 Group for about 10 weeks, was detailed to fly a mission to reconnoitre the Bristol Channel because of reports that a British convoy had been sighted in this location. Two Heinkel III aircraft were detailed to fly a patrol to scan both the eastern and western part of the Bristol Channel for the convoy, and report its position back to No. 3 Group command. Glier, who later recalled that no flights had been scheduled for that day, was summoned by his superior officer shortly after lunch and ordered to patrol the western half of the Bristol Channel. For this mission, Glier had to fly a Heinkel III H5 aircraft. This aircraft was far less powerful than the H6 variant that Glier normally flew, but his own aircraft was sitting in a hanger undergoing maintenance work so he and his crew had to contend with this older, and possibly less reliable aircraft. His crew members were Gefreiter Karl Krum, the wireless operator, Gefreiter Richard Sobanek, the air gunner and mechanic, and Gefreiter Wilhelm Goller serving as both bombardier and assistant navigator. Goller would have sat in the cockpit, beside Leutnant Glier, giving him navigation instructions throughout the flight.

Adoph Glier and the crew members who survived the crash at Gwavas Farm, Sithney, near Lowertown. Standing left to right are Richard Sobanek, air gunner and mechanic, Glier, pilot and flight commander, Karl Krumm, wireless operator, and Wilhelm Goller, bombardier and assistant navigator.

Glier and his crew took off at 2 o’clock on the afternoon of Monday 24th November. Setting a course for Pembroke, they flew across to Cornwall hiding in a thick blanket of low-lying cloud to avoid being intercepted by patrolling RAF fighters. Once they were clear of the Cornish coast, they dropped down to sea level and began to scan their allotted sector of the Bristol Channel for any sight of the reported convoy. They spent a considerable amount of time searching this area but sighted no convoy, and they were just about to set course for home when one of the crew spotted a single ship sailing west. Glier decided to engage it; his aircraft was armed with two 250 kg bombs and one 500 kg bomb. He made two unsuccessful attacks on the ship, dropping a 250 kg bomb during each pass, but both fell short of their target. On the third pass, where he intended to drop his 500 kg bomb, Glier and his crew got a nasty shock. The ship had anti-aircraft guns, and it’s gunners opened fire on the Heinkel. Glier was met with a hail of ‘Ack – Ack’ machine gun fire, and as the tracer bullets flew up and his aircraft shuddered violently from the impact hits, he missed his mark and the 500 kg bomb fell wide of the ship. Glier’s Heinkel was hit between the fuselage and the port engine, and there was a stream of black smoke streaming from the port wing and engine of the aircraft. There was a large gaping hole in the port wing, and part of the flap was missing. Glier, himself, was hit in the right foot by a piece of anti-aircraft shell, but because the fragment penetrated the rubber heel of his boot, he relatively unharmed. The aircraft was still flying, mainly on it’s starboard engine, and Glier was helped by Gefreiter Goller as he struggled to keep the aircraft flying level, while the other two crew threw everything that they could dispose of, such as machine guns, ammunition drums and armour plating, out of the hatch to shed weight and keep their aircraft in the air. Glier set a course for Land’s End, hoping to make it to Brest or to Lannion in north-west France. As the Cornish coast came into sight, the starboard engine began to struggle and fail. Glier realised he wasn’t going to make it to France as the engine was giving up and losing power. So Glier decided to bring the aircraft down in Cornwall, opting for a belly landing somewhere between St. Ives and Penzance.

That evening at Gwavas Farm in Sithney, near Lowertown, just a few miles from Helston, two men and one woman were busy at work milking cows in the farmyard when they heard the noise of an aircraft coming in low. They could tell from the sound of the failing engine that it was a German aircraft. The two men were John Thomas and W.H. Harris, who were both members of the local Home Guard. They immediately went running to the crash site at a hilltop near Lowertown. On the way, Harris collected their Home Guard service rifles in case the surviving German airmen resisted arrest. When Thomas and Harris ran up a country lane towards the crash site, they encountered two airmen casually walking the other way. One of them was Glier, who directly approached Thomas and Harris and politely asked them in broken English if they had landed in England. Thomas, a little confused by Glier’s accent, in turn asked if they were Poles, Czech’s or Belgians. When Glier confirmed that they were, indeed, Germans, Harris then demanded that the airmen surrender their pistols at gunpoint. Glier intervened and assured Harris that there was no need to threaten force and that his airmen would surrender their weapons to the appropriate authorities, such as the police or the army, but not to civilians. Glier gave his word to both Thomas and Harris that he and his men would put up no resistance. Glier had chosen Mr Thomas’s field to land the aircraft, and this has been a good choice, but upon landing he had struck a hedge which had spun the aircraft around, ripping the fuselage apart and causing Glier to strike his head against the instrument panel, giving him a nasty cut on his forehead and a concussion. Glier’s men had then attempted to destroy the plane with grenades, but Glier ordered them not to for fear that this might cause bad feeling in the locality. Glier and his men were taken to Gwavas Farm and treated with the best of Cornish hospitality. Glier’s wounds were tended to while his crewmembers were apparently fed local Cornish apples, and given tea and buns by Mr Thomas’s mother, until the local police arrived from Helston to take them into custody. Indeed, the hospitality shown to the German airmen at Gwavas Farm that day resulted in letters of complaint in the local newspapers, mainly from people outside the county. One letter written by a correspondent in Sussex asked: “Sir, Are the Cornish going soft… I was surprised to read… that the crew were given ‘buns, tea and splits’ (did they forget the cream?)”.

However, Glier would never forget the hospitality he received at the farm in Sithney that day. He was sent to a POW camp in Northern England and then was sent to Canada where he remained for the rest of the war. He was repatriated to Germany after the war, and settled in Munich. Looking back on this event, Glier considered himself very fortunate to have crash-landed in Cornwall, and when he was interviewed at his home in Munich thirty years after the event, he spoke fondly about his strange arrival in the county. The story of how the aircraft became part of the Flora Day Clock seems to be the stuff of local lore and legend, but the true story is much more down to earth. The then owner of the Alpha Hotel in Helston, Harold Kneebone, managed to acquire a small wheel from the Heinkel aircraft, before it was gathered up by the military and taken away for scrap. Mr. Kneebone, who was an amateur clockmaker, used this wheel in the construction of the clockwork apparatus for the Flora Day Clock, a special artwork clock he made in tribute to Flora Day. The clock is now held at the Museum of Cornish Life.

You can see the Flora Day Clock at the museum when we reopen to the public on 17th May. Until then, on behalf of all of us at the museum, I wish you a very happy, joyful and peaceful Flora Day!

Joseph Quinn

Digital Intern (Second World War & Holocaust Partnership Programme)

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