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Mission: Fighter-bomber sortie to North Weald airfield

Date: 29
th October 1940

Time: 4.45 p.m.

Unit: 4 (Schlacht) Staffel / Lehrgeschwader 2

Type: Messerschmitt Bf 109E-4/B

Werke Nr: 5562

Coded: Black triangle + white ‘B’

Location: B1026, near Goldhanger, Essex, England.

Pilot: Feldwebel* Hans-Joachim Rank – DOW

*The pilot’s rank has been cited as ‘Feldwebel’ by several authors (including Ramsey 1987 and Goss & Cornwell 2000) and his burial records are registered under this rank (both at Cannock Chase and in the Volksbund database). However, his rank was recorded as ‘Unteroffizier’ in Parker (2015) following the content of report AI(k) 830/1940.

The account below has been compiled by Dr James Wearn, aided by Nigel Parker:


Shot down in combat with RAF Hurricane fighters following a bombing raid on North Weald airfield. Aircraft dived into the ground. Pilot bailed out but died of wounds.


On Tuesday 29
th October 1940, Bf109 fighter-bombers of II.(S)/LG2 approached the Essex coast under low cloud cover at 16:30 hours and delivered what Goss & Cornwell (2000, p.51) have called “a textbook Jabo attack” on North Weald airfield. Among them was 25-year old pilot Feldwebel Hans-Joachim Rank, who was born in Halle an der Saale (Saxony-Anhalt) in Germany on 20 January 1915, during the early stage of the First World War.

II./LG2 was supporting 3./Erprobungsgruppe 210 in a joint raid (Vasco 2002, p.126). These two units had flown together since 15
th October (the other two staffeln of Erpr.Gr. 210 were equipped with less manoeuvrable Bf 110 aircraft and had suffered heavy losses in the Battle).

About 20 Bf109
Jabos carried out the low-level bombing attack on North Weald by flying across the airfield at c.500ft, dropping bombs on the runway and causing severe damage to at least two Hurricanes in the process. Hurricanes from 17 and 24 squadrons had been sent up from Martlesham Heath and were on their way at the time of the Jabo attack, but the Hurricanes of 249 and 257 squadrons were still taking off from North Weald and so were still in line of the falling bombs.

After the attack, the 109s climbed quickly and headed east towards the coast, being chased by the Hurricanes. 249 Squadron caught up with the 109s over the Blackwater Estuary. Intense aerial combat ensued, during which three of the 109s fell victim to the Hurricanes’ guns. Fw Hans-Joachim Rank’s Bf109E-4/B of 4. Staffel was shot down first (recorded in AIR 22/266 report as 16:45) and claimed by Flt Lt Robert ‘Butch’ Barton of 249 Squadron, who had hit the petrol tank and cockpit. Fw Rank parachuted out but was badly burned and had received bullet wounds to his right thigh, so was losing a lot of blood. Essex County Records show that the aircraft crashed and burnt out at Charity Farm near Vaulty Manor on the B1026, and that by 17:25 Fw Rank had been brought by the military to St Peter’s Hospital in Maldon, where he died of haemorrhaging and shock.

Feldwebel Rank’s two downed compatriots were Oberfeldwebel Josef Harmeling, also of 4. Staffel, and Oberleutnant Hans-Benno von Schenk,
Staffelkapitän of 5. Staffel. Harmeling was fortunate and force-landed, his aircraft being examined by the RAF and later becoming quite famous through its touring display across England and Scotland (see Parker 2015, pp.654-655); von Schenk was less so, being shot down into the sea.

Of note, at the time of the crash Fw Rank was wearing epaulettes bearing an ‘L’ cipher, denoting the
Lehrgeschwader (Parker 2015, p.652).

Burial details: Plot 1, Row 4, Grave 113, Cannock Chase German Military Cemetery, Staffordshire, England (burial record as ‘Hans Wilhelm Rank’). During the war, Fw Rank was buried in Sutton Road Cemetery, Southend, Essex, and reburied post-war at Cannock Chase.

Eyewitness accounts

Thanks to Nigel Parker and Philippa Wheeler (née Hodgkiss), I have been able to consult unpublished notes, including eyewitness statements, written during the 1960s by the late Peter Foote. Peter consulted the Air Intelligence reports AIR 22/266 and AI(1)g Report No.8 dated 31.10.1940 and Essex County Records, as well as noting relevant statements from three local residents – Dennis Charles Fenn (a 17-year old Maldon Grammar School boy), Mr A.C. Edwards (wartime schoolmaster at Maldon Grammar and in 1964, County Archivist) and Mr Harold Freeman (of the wartime Maldon Auxiliary Fire Service, AFS).

Dennis Fenn had just returned to school after the half-term holiday and recalled in his diary (transcribed by Peter Foote):
“In the afternoon just as I had got home from school at 4.30 pm, the sound of flames could be heard. Going outside I heard bursts of machine-gun fire and saw a bunch of Me109s fleeing from three Hurricanes. One of the Hurricanes got on the tail of the last Me109 which did not climb or dive to throw off its pursuer, but merely turned right and left. After four or five bursts of gunfire the enemy aircraft burst into lurid orange-red flames and black smoke, and went spiralling down. The pilot baled out and I hopped on my cycle and followed him. I went up Scraly [Scraley] Road to Maldon Corner, then ran across ploughed fields to Shipcott’s [Sheepcoates] Farm. The German pilot, dressed in all black leather tunic, boots and helmet was bleeding profusely into his parachute and was burned on his face and hands…and was taken away in an Army truck struggling.”

Dennis’ observation of a lack of strong evasive manoeuvring by the 109 is likely to have been due to two factors, neither of which was pilot inexperience. It is probable that either one (or a combination of both) of the following were true: (a) Fw Rank was hoping to out-run the slower Hurricane whilst attempting to stay in un-deviated pursuit of the rest of his comrades as they flew homeward or/and (b) that Fw Rank had noted he had sufficient fuel to make it back to his airfield in France only if he limited his aerobatics. German fighter pilots over England were keenly aware that dogfight manoeuvring used up a lot of precious fuel. Additionally, the conversion of Bf109s to
Jabos put more pressure on this fine balance – the extra weight and drag exerted by carrying an SC250 bomb to a target increased fuel consumption just on the outward journey without considering meeting enemy fighters in the air.

Dennis added: “Then coming back I found some pieces of unbreakable glass from his cockpit hood in a field, although the Messerschmitt had crashed 2 miles further away in the direction of Goldhanger [to the south-east].” He described the German pilot as “a short, dark haired fellow with swarthy complexion” who reminded him more of an Italian.

The time noted by Dennis Fenn is close to the recorded crash time for Fw Rank’s aircraft and the locality matches. Fuelled by investigative zest, the 17-year old immediately got on his bicycle to find out more, with typical boyhood enthusiasm which frequently greeted the exploits of the Battle of Britain. My [JW’s] cousin Leonard Knight did the very same thing when, as a 15-year old, he saw a Messerschmitt Bf 110 coming down at Shoebury, Essex, on 3 September 1940 (3U+KR of 7./ZG26) and cycled as hard as he could to get to the site before anyone else. Len was duly able to see the surviving pilot, who had belly-landed the aircraft, and to obtain a souvenir.

Mr Freeman attended the crash in his role with the Maldon AFS. He was interviewed in August 1964 by Peter Foote, recalling that he thought the crash was at Gardeners Farm [Charity Farm and Gardeners Farm are in close proximity on either side of the same part of the Maldon Road – so this is not actually a large error in Mr Freeman’s recollection]. Mr Freeman’s account stated six British fighters pursuing the Germans, in contrast to the three mentioned by Mr Fenn, which is characteristic of minor discrepancies among eyewitness accounts. Mr Freeman added that one of Fw Rank’s flying boots was exhibited a week or so later to aid war fund collections. Mr Freeman voiced his disapproval of this to Peter Foote, because “the airman had only done his duty”.

Local resident, Cyril Southgate (1928-2007), who was a 12-year old boy in 1940, recalled his vivid memory of the crash for a local history project (Goldhanger Digital Archive, 2002
Another incident which is still clear in my mind [on the 29th October 1940] is the crash of an ME109 fighter one hundred yards west of Charity Farm cottages, on the Maldon Road just out of the village... The pilot of this particular aircraft parachuted out and landed at Sheepcotes Farm, Little Totham. He was badly burned and died in St Peter’s Hospital that night. He was initially buried in Maldon cemetery and later re-buried in the German war graves cemetery at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire.”

The last resting place of Hans Joachim Rank, pictured August 2016 (Brownless)

The wreckage

The aircraft crashed adjacent to the B1026 Maldon to Goldhanger road and was completely wrecked. At the time of the crash, traces were found of the two MG17 and 20 mm cannon as well as fuselage bulkhead and the pilot’s armour protection. Several 0.303 in bullet holes were found in the aircraft wreckage according to the Air Intelligence report (cited in Parker 2015, p.652), demonstrating the damage inflicted by Flt Lt Barton.

The surface wreckage was cleared contemporarily but some of the airframe and heavier components were buried in the soil by the force of the impact, and these remained until the site was investigated in 1974 by the Essex Aviation Research and Recovery Group (EARRG, also known as the Essex Aviation Group). The Group unearthed various parts including pieces of the shattered Daimler-Benz DB601 engine and propeller boss which went to the London Air Museum (Ramsey 1989, p. 704). Other parts ended up in the EARRG collection and various private hands. However, with the closure and dispersal of museums and private collections, the fates of a number of these, in common with other Battle of Britain aircraft artefacts, have become unknown.

A few surviving fragments of Fw Rank’s aircraft bear original grey-green camouflage paint as well as the usual black paint on engine components. Translation of
Jagdwaffe losses tabulated in Ritger (2005, p.64) show no specific reference to the colour of Fw Rank’s aircraft but that Harmeling’s machine, also of 4/LG2, had a white and blue banded spinner, yellow upper cowl and rudder. The camouflage colour was “grey with fairly light overall overspray”. References to “greens and greys” (light and dark) appear in other records of this geschwader during the autumn 1940 period, so there was certainly variation in the camouflage colours employed within LG2 at this time.

Markings: the aircraft bore the LG2 black triangle, Mickey Mouse staffel badge and aircraft code white ‘B’.

Researched by Dr James Wearn with thanks to Nigel Parker, Philippa Hodgkiss and Winston Ramsey.

Further reading:

    Images with file titles in bold:

    1. 1940 Rank crash site (Courtesy   Winston Ramsey)
    1. 1940 photo of crash site: This photograph was taken at the time of Fw Rank’s crash and shows much of the light airframe on the surface (reproduced with permission from Winston Ramsey).

    2. 1940 examining wreckage   (courtesy Nigel Parker)
    2. 1940 examining the wreckage: A soldier looks intently at the wreckage (reproduced with permission from Nigel Parker).
    3. 1980 Rank crash site (courtesy   Winston Ramsey)
    3. 1980 photo of crash site: 40 years on from the crash, all is serene along this rural Essex road (reproduced with permission from Winston Ramsey).
    4. Grey_green paint on fragment   (James Wearn)
    4. Grey-green paint on fragment: A few fragments of Fw Rank’s Bf109 still bear grey-green paint, probably RLM02 (credit: James Wearn).
    5. Hoses & pipes (James    Wearn)1
    5. Hoses & pipes: An Argus hose and other fragments of electrics and pipework (credit: James Wearn).

    The British Library is preserving this site for the future in the UK Web Archive at All Aircrew Remembered on our Remembrance pages, are therefor not just remembered here, but also subsequently remembered and recorded as part of our nation’s history
    and heritage at The British Library.