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The first named air battle of World War Two



On Monday 18th December 1939 a joint formation of 24 bombers took off from RAF Mildenhall, Honington and Feltwell. A chilly, bright morning during the coldest winter for 45 years. Visibility was clear at over 50 miles. The order was to attack German warships at sea off Wilhelmshaven. On reaching the target area they encountered a potent force of Luftwaffe fighters. In little more than 30 minutes the damage inflicted on the RAF resulted in the loss of 12 Wellingtons and 57 airmen, an absolute disaster so early in the war. The Luftwaffe lost two pilots. This outcome influenced Bomber Command's decision to switch from daylight raids to night-time operations. Winston Churchill had yet to take over as Prime Minister. 'The Fall of France' and 'The Battle of Britain' were some months off.

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By kind permission of the Dean & Chapter

An Act of Remembrance


Conducted by Canon Chris Barber

14.00 Tuesday 18th December 2018

Marking the beginning of the 80th Anniversary Year of The Battle of Heligoland Bight, when relatives of the airmen who participated in the 1939 action will gather for the first time.

The Ely event organised by

The Heligoland39 Project

in collaboration with

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City of Ely Mayor, Visit Ely,

East Cambridgeshire District Council

& IX Squadron Association







Project Research

in collaboration with


Mayor's Charity Collection

in support of

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The RAF Combined Formation 18th December 1939

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149 Squadron

RAF Mildenhall

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IX Squadron

RAF Honington

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37 Squadron

RAF Feltwell

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The immediate aftermath.......... Of the 24 bombers that took off from England on that morning just a week before Christmas 1939, one returned to base early with engine trouble escorted by another. Ten were shot down over the target area and two ditched in the North Sea before reaching home. A further three had to make forced lands at other airfields in East Anglia after sustaining substantial battle damage. Just seven managed to return safely to their respective airfields.

N2983 ditched within site of trawler Erillas and the four survivors were rescued within 15 minutes  

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The Cromer Lifeboat was launched at 4 pm in a vain attempt to reach N2961 which had ditched 40 miles off the Norfolk coast

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Jack Waterfall - Heligoland39 Project, 1 Castlehythe, ELY, CB7 4BU                            +44 (0) 1353 665665

Nicky Barr -        IBCC, Canwick Hill, LINCOLN, LN4 2RF                                              +44 (0) 1522 514755

Tracy Harding - Visit Ely, 29 St Mary's St., ELY, CB7 4HF                                            +44 (0) 1353 662062

Background image: 1940 German painting by Willy Müller

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