Was German flak-hit Wellington bomber strafed by friendly fire?

Navy veteran Alec Robertson.Picture: James Bass

Navy veteran Alec Robertson.Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2015

The placing of a plaque to honour six airmen who died when their Wellington bomber crashed into California Sands cliffs over 70 years ago, has brought back vivid memories for a Bradwell man.

Navy veteran Alec Robertson.Picture: James Bass

Navy veteran Alec Robertson.Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2015

And he believes he witnessed that same plane veering off his course and northwards to meet its fate.

Scottish-born Alec Robertson was one of two seamen manning an anti-aircraft gun on a gunboat on the River Yare at the time.

Now 92 years old, he remembers that night as if it was yesterday but is unsure why the plane suddenly diverted from its course over Yarmouth.

He said: “That night the sirens went and the first thing we had to do was run to the deck and man the guns.”

He explained there were bofors (check spelling) guns erected on scaffolding along the seafront including one at the top of the former Aquarium, now the Hollywood Cinema.

He said: “She was approaching Yarmouth and the bofors guns on the front started firing. The pilot diverted and whether he was hit or not I don’t know.”

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He explained following the incident there was an inquiry and “we had a lecture about firing at the planes.”

But Yarmouth was used by the German Luftwaffe to follow the river to Norwich to drop their bombs.

“There were anti-aircraft guns from the harbour to past Haven Bridge,” Mr Roberston added.

“You see, they started to fire at the plane coming in. It was just a plane. There was no contact with the shore. The pilot had no contact. We were told the gun on the top of the Aquarium was the first one to fire.

“We were then told not to fire at the planes coming in, and afterwards gunnery officers were brought in and they made the decision to fire after that.”

Alec, who came to Yarmouth in 1941 met his late wife Muriel in the port – and stayed. He had volunteered at the age of 17 for the Navy and arrived on Boxing Night that year.

“We came to join our ships and got off the train at Southtown Station. The place was covered in snow and there was no-one about, and no lights. Then a man with a lantern came and he called the police station and they sent a lorry for us. We spent the first night in the old naval hospital.

The plaque erected at California Sands was the result of five years work by Peter Tennant to erect a tribute where the six airmen died on October 11, 1941. His father had been an ARP warden during the war and helped secure the scene, taking the bodies to a nearby bungalow.

But because of the news blackout during the Second World War, the crash remained a secret for many years.

Some believe the airmen simply misjudged the cliffs and flew into them - but with a virtual news blackout and the tragedy not even making the local papers at the time, there was little to go on.

What is known is the crew were on their way back from a bombing raid in Cologne..

The Wellington bomber took off from RAF Binbrook at 11.52pm alongside 68 others on a bombing mission to Cologne. But due to bad weather only minor damage was caused and five bombers from 12 Squadron failed to return.

The doomed plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire after it had dropped its bombs, and turned back, coming to grief on the sands at California.

Research has found that the plane’s gunner noticed they had been hit shortly after dropping the bombs. But whether they were hit by friendly fire may never be known.