At the height of the Battle of Britain on 4th July 1940 an RAF Hurricane fighter on a training flight made a forced landing beside the River Ouse at Southease, the pilot having been overcome by fumes from a leaking fuel tank. The writer Virginia Woolf, who lived nearby in Rodmell, was out walking when she saw the wrecked aircraft.
Displaying little, if any, sympathy she noted in her diary: “The silly fellow who crashed his plane on the marsh tipped its nose over the brook. He didn’t know about the brook. Audrie Hubbard, who was in the pea field, ran to give first aid. She made him write his name on a cigarette card.”
Quite how the hapless airman could possibly have known about the brook is unexplained. I also wonder what happened to that cigarette card?
I researched the Southease airman. He was Sgt “Jennie” Jensen from 601 Squadron at Tangmere. The 601 were nicknamed the “Millionaires Squadron” because many of its pilots came from wealthy families. It was led by Lord Beaverbrook’s son Max Aitken.
After the crash Jensen was hospitalized. He returned to active service only to suffer another forced landing in Devon in December 1940. Next day he attempted to fly his Magister P.6377 out of the field but high winds dashed his aircraft back to the ground. Lucky “Jennie” stepped out of the wreck unharmed.
That same summer on 11th September not far from Southease another Hurricane pilot displayed far more proficiency at flying. Pilot Sgt William Burley Higgins of 253 Squadron had got on the tail of a lone Messerschmitt Bf 109 over the South Coast near Newhaven.
The low level pursuit took both aircraft up the Ouse Valley and over Southease. The chase ended at Houndean Bottom near the Brighton Road on the outskirts of Lewes when the stricken German fighter plunged into a field, instantly killing pilot Hauptmann Ernst Wiggers. Before flying off, Sgt Higgins was seen to circle the cloud of billowing black smoke coming from the wreckage.
Back at RAF Kenley, 253 Squadron’s base near Croydon, Sgt Higgins wrote this report: “...I was Yellow 2, the squadron attacked a large formation of enemy bombers in sections echelon. The break-away from each individual attack (carried out over Maidstone, the E/A – enemy aircraft – proceeding towards London) was so swift, no-one was able to ascertain the extent of his own particular burst. However three or four of the bombers did definitely go up in flames. After this first attack I was separated from the remainder of the squadron, finding myself very busy in a duel with a Me Bf 109 that I finally set on fire inland near Newhaven.
“When the E/A crashed in flames I then returned towards the Thames Estuary making contact with 12 Me Bf 110s, manoeuvering myself until it was possible to get in a two second burst, the results being clouds of white smoke issued from the rear.
“It was impossible to ascertain the real extent of the damage as I was attacked by several Bf 109s from which I broke away to return to my base.”
Just three days later the RAF man was himself killed. The body of Sgt Higgins was recovered from his crashed Hurricane in an apple orchard in Kent.