CLIMB back in time into the cockpit of one of the German Heinkel 115 floatplanes which was at Rhu in 1940...

Ex-Provost Billy Petrie - then a village schoolboy - remembers the excitement when the German Heinkels arrived on Garelochside in 1940. He even managed to climb aboard one to glimpse inside.

The Heinkels were based at RAF Helensburgh, the flying boat base which was the World War Two home to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, and their Norwegian aircrew lived in guest houses in Helensburgh.

Now a first-hand account has emerged about what it was like to sit in a ‘Helensburgh Heinkel’. It was written in memory of John Iverach, the Canadian airman who wrote ‘Chronicles of a Nervous Navigator’.

Helensburgh Advertiser: John A. IverachJohn A. Iverach

Iverach flew VIPs to Russia from Helensburgh in a Catalina so they could negotiate an alliance with Stalin after Germany invaded Russia - one of the most significant missions of the war.

The account was written by George Elsey, who was based at Hythe in 1942 and remembered the Helensburgh Heinkels being there and that Iverach flew in one of them when he was on the end of friendly fire from Spitfires over the English Channel.

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Elsey’s story begins at the British Airways Flying Boat Maintenance Base at Hythe that summer. He writes:

"I joined the firm aged sixteen, but in a few months would leave to join the Royal Navy. While at the Hythe base I joined the Home Guard. The tarmac apron was used for running up Sunderland flying boats.

The sirens plaintive wail burst upon everyone’s hearing, fire engines started their motors, hangar doors were rolled to the closed position, and everyone was on the move.

I could see gunfire bursting down river. All this was happening because these German seaplanes were flying low. It seemed self-inflicted suicide.

However the planes were travelling too fast for the guns and were on target for ships in the docks.

They were Heinkel H.E.115 floatplanes and the ‘torpedoes’ were their very large floats. My Home Guard aircraft identification had stood me in good stead.

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They were rapidly climbing over Southampton with gunfire following.

I could see just three planes, and these powerful German seaplanes were now heading straight for our Hythe base.

But the seaplanes suddenly turned downriver and landed on Southampton Water. The silence was deafening. The gunfire had ceased, nothing appeared to move, the planes had cut their engines and were just drifting with the tide.

Next morning the three Heinkels were sitting on the tarmac. Once inside they looked very black and sinister with R.A.F. guards placed around the machines. But we were not told to keep our mouths shut about them.

We understood Norwegian airmen had flown the Heinkels to our Base, and our craftsmen repaired, modified, and made them operational aircraft.

Now it was my turn to board the aircraft for the very first time. Below each plane alongside the massive float was an aluminium ladder fixed to the topside of the float.

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The ladder extended up to the fuselage. The top rung allowed me to step on to the wing. At that level I dropped into the pilot’s seat.

Wow! I was now sitting in a Heinkel, similar to those that had bombed our country. Goodness knows this one was ex-Luftwaffe!

Looking round the cockpit, the control column moved backwards and forward providing similar to the Sunderland’s manoeuvring capability. All the switches, levers, knobs and handles, gave a picture of efficient positioning and were identified in German.

Helensburgh Advertiser: The Heinkel cockpitThe Heinkel cockpit

Behind me was the navigator-wireless operator seat - where John Iverach would sit - with all its navigation paraphernalia. Beyond that seat was the rear-gunner’s position, but the guns had by now been removed by R.A.F. armourers.

There was a large Perspex hood, electrically controlled, and the hood slid on runners to open and close the cockpit.

The whole of the aircraft nose was of Perspex construction, and a gallery ran through to the aircraft’s forward compartments. This allowed a crew member to crawl through to the nose.

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The gallery ran under the pilot’s seat, and when entering the nose there was torpedo release gear plus bomb aiming equipment.

It was a well-constructed seaplane. The floats on the Heinkel needed heavily built support from the main body of the plane. Their length was enormous, extending from the nose to threequarters of the length of the aircraft.

The floats could therefore carry a large amount of ancillary equipment in watertight compartments. The power units were two 24 horse-power Junkers petrol injected engines.

I do not know their brake horsepower, but I do know that the German petrol injection was an advantage over our aircraft engines. Injection allowed Nazi planes performance and air manoeuvres without power loss like Spitfires during the Battle of Britain.

Now we had Heinkels after they received a none too friendly reception, which is where my story began.”

Retired Merseyside newspaper editor Robin Bird, author of two books about the MAEE, came across George Elsey’s account, and added some more information about the Heinkels.

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He says that Heinkel BV184 was flown to Hythe after being sent to Scottish Aviation, Greenock, for a service and a paint job. From there it went to RAF Calshot on August 24, 1941, and was flown on clandestine operations.

In the Bay of Biscay it was attacked by error on April 23, 1942 by Polish Spitfires - Iverach described this attack in his autobiography.

The navigator recalled seeing his Helensburgh Heinkel for the first time at Calshot. It was a big black twin-engined aircraft, and it had navigation lights operated in a similar way as the Dambusters bombers.

Every time the Heinkel went for a spin AA guns were warned that it was a friendly aircraft.

Iverach’s pilot for operational flights was Knut, a Norwegian who tried to bring a Heinkel 115 from Norway to Helensburgh but was forced to land in Finland.

Knut and Iverach flew the Heinkel to Stranraer to test weaponry. However a fire in an engine called for a replacement Heinkel. They flew it to Woodhaven when dare devil Knut flew under the Tay Bridge while a train was going over it.

BV184 was damaged by Spitfires and repaired at Wig Bay, Stranraer, but an explosion during take-off wrote it off. On May 31, 1942 it was scrapped.

BV186 joined the Norwegian Navy Flight at Woodhaven before being scrapped in December 1942. BV187 flew from Calshot destined for clandestine missions from Malta, as did BV185.

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