Irish Warpipe

George Willis














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From the Daily Mail:
















The last battle on British soil? Little-known conflict at Graveney Marsh finally remembered after 70 years

By Ian Drury

Billeted at a pub on the Kent coast, they had been ordered to capture any German aircrew shot down in the countryside. But the men of the 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles were to carve themselves a little-known place in military history: they fought the last ever battle to take place on the British mainland.

During the Battle of Britain, they had trooped out to pick up the crew of a crashed German bomber only to find the airmen waiting with machine guns. After a short battle the Germans surrendered – and their captors then took them for a pint at their local pub.

The extraordinary skirmish, which took place on September 27, 1940, has been nicknamed the Battle of Graveney Marsh.

Most history books record the crushing of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rebellion at Culloden in 1746 as the last pitched battle fought on British soil.

Veteran George Wallis returns to the Sportsman Inn to celebrate the last battle on British soil at Graveney Marsh

Heroic effort: Veteran George Willis, now 90, returns to the Sportsman Inn, in Graveney Marsh, Kent, to commemorate the last battle on British soil which ended with the German POWs being taken for a pint

Now efforts are being made to give the Battle of Graveney Marsh more official recognition.

It happened when a stricken Junkers 88 crash-landed after being attacked by two RAF Spitfire fighter planes in the skies above the English coast.

One of the bomber’s engines had already been knocked out by anti-aircraft fire when the second was put out of action by the Spitfires.

The pilot, Unteroffizer Fritz Ruhlandt, was forced to land on Graveney Marsh. The crash was seen by members of the London Irish Rifles’ A Company, who were holed up in the Sportsman Inn in Seasalter, a hamlet near Whitstable, and they were dispatched to the downed plane.

Battle in Britain: The downed Junkers Ju 88A-1 on Graveney Marsh in 1940

Battle in Britain: The downed Junkers Ju 88A-1 on Graveney Marsh in 1940

They fully expected the four-strong Luftwaffe crew, including wireless operator Unteroffizier Erwin Richter who had only married a couple of months before, to give themselves up without a fight.

But to their horror, as they approached the aircraft the Germans opened fire with the aircraft’s two machine guns. Some of the British servicemen dived to the ground and returned fire, while a smaller group crawled along a dyke to get within 50 yards of the plane before they started shooting.

The battlefield today: Although it occupies a special position in British military history, The Sportsman is best known today for its superior sticky toffee pudding

The battlefield today: Although it occupies a special position in British military history, The Sportsman is best known today for its superior sticky toffee pudding

Following a heavy exchange of fire, they mounted an assault on the Junkers and the Germans surrendered. No-one was killed in the battle, although one of the enemy was shot in the foot.

In a dramatic twist, the company’s commanding officer, Captain John Cantopher, overheard one of the captured crew mention in German that the plane would ‘go up’ at any moment.

He dashed back to the aircraft, found an explosive charge under a wing and threw it into dyke. It meant the prized aircraft was captured for British engineers to examine.

Keeping Guard: London Irish rifles guarding the downed Junkers Ju 88A-1

Keeping Guard: London Irish rifles guarding the downed Junkers Ju 88A-1

Captain Cantopher won a George Medal for his bravery. Incredibly, the British soldiers enjoyed pints of beer with the German captives back at the pub before they were picked up as prisoners of war.

Next month, the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association will mark the 70th anniversary of the battle by unveiling a commemorative plaque at the pub.

Nigel Wilkinson, vice-chairman of the association, said: ‘Although it barely gets a mention in the history books, Graveney Marsh was the last battle to take place on British soil involving a foreign enemy.

‘At the time the aircraft was a new marque and as it was only two weeks old it provided the Air Ministry with valuable intelligence.

Unteroffizier Fritz Ruhlandt was the pilot brought down in Graveney Marsh, Kent, in 1940

Unteroffizier Fritz Ruhlandt was the pilot brought down in Kent in 1940

Of course the men of the London Irish Rifles spoke about the battle. It went down in folklore within the regiment. ‘But it seems to have been forgotten about.

We thought it was about time something was done to officially recognise and remember it.’ Corporal George Willis, 90, of Greenwich, south-east London, the regiment’s piper, was in the Sportsman when the men returned with the Germans.

‘The men were in good spirits and came into the pub with the Germans,’ he said. ‘We gave the Germans pints of beer in exchange for a few souvenirs. I got a set of enamel Luftwaffe wings.’

An element of the London Irish Regiment training near the scene of the skirmish in 1940.

An element of the London Irish Regiment training near the scene of the skirmish in 1940.

It is expected that 60 members of the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association will attend the event at Seasalter, on Sunday, September 26.

There will be parade in front of the association’s president, Major General Corran Purdon, who won the Military Cross for the Second World War raid on St Nazaire and was imprisoned in Colditz.

There will then be a service before the unveiling of the plaque.

......Below is a brief bio of George Willis kindly provide by his son George Willis jnr.
The maternal side of George Willis had gone over to London from Ireland
at the time of the Famine and it was here he was born in 1919, one of
sixteen children. Reared in a musical environment, his mother was full
of melodies to which she invariable set her own words, George started to
learn the Irish Warpipes  aged ten at the Tottenham Irish Pipe Band..

George is the young boy without pipes alongside the D/M Also in the
photo are Frank & Harry Hough  and Paddy Fogarty who had been warpipers
with the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles (LIR) during WW1

As a teenager George also played with the Dagenham Town Irish Pipe Band
and The Great Western Railway Pipe Band whose P/M was Con Clancey (ex
WW1 LIR) and whose members included Johnny Franklin and Bert Thackery
who later were to be the P/M and B/M of the London Irish Rifles.

In the Summer of 1939, with the storm clouds looming over Europe, George
joined the LIR and was immediately appointed the company piper to D
company carrying the pipe banner (see below) of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers
- a regiment that had been disbanded when Ireland gained independence.

The LIR started the war defending the UK  (see the Daily Mail story on
Graveney Marshes ) but later saw action in North Africa, Sicily and
Italy. George was captured at the Anzio landings of 1944 and was a POW
in Germany until liberated by the Russian Red Army in April 1945.

After the war, George played with the LIR band for a while before
devoting himself full time to his young family.
In 1957 he helped start up the Deptford Irish Pipe Band (see
http://st.louis.irish.tripod.com/irishwarpipe/id32.html) which included
his son & daughter and at a later date his wife. The Deptford band (and
George) paraded for nearly fifty years!
The reorganisation of the British army in 1967 meant that the LIR was no
longer entitled to a regimental band. To prevent the demise of the Pipes
& Drums, the Old Comrades Association assumed responsibility and George
was enticed back the LIR band to ensure it's continuance. He piped with the LIR for another thirty years
George's talents were called upon when efforts were made to reinvigorate
The Borough Pipe Band in time for its centenary in 1992 and he used his
Deptford pipers & drummers as the nucleus for this exercise.

Another centenary he helped mark was that of the LIR Pipes & Drums in
2006. Drawing on his seventy years on the Irish piping scene in London
(he knew the Albert Starck who was the first LIR P/M in 1906) George
produced with his son,  a comprehensive 150 page book on the band (see
http://www.london-irish-rifles-pipes-and-drums.org.uk/about.htm)
George played two drone warpipes with the Deptford Irish well into his
80's  but nowadays, aged over 90,  he is limited to the
practice chanter.
 
 


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