Down at Olives Farm

In 1940


Stuart Moye

On Friday 30th August 1940 a future RAF Air Commodore carried out a forced landing in his Hurricane at Olives Farm after an exchange of fire with a Heinkel bomber. The then 20 year old Pilot Officer P/O John Ellacombe was in the skies over Stanstead Abbotts flying at about 15,000 feet in his Hawker Hurricane numbered P3119. He had joined 151 squadron some two months earlier and up to that point had never flown a Hurricane. Like so many of the young pilots in the Battle of Britain he had been thrown in at the deep end, particularly after Germany launched its all-out attack on August 12th, sometimes referred to as “Eagle Day”This was the first day that P/O Ellacombe had faced the enemy in his Hurricane and he was subsequently engaged in combat throughout the second half of August.

A Mark I Hawker Hurricane from the Battle of Britain

Between 4.30 and 5.00pm on the 30th the weather was fine and sunny over east Hertfordshire and the adjacent Essex countryside. The Hurricanes of 151 squadron based at Stapleton Tawney in Essex attacked agroup of 10 Heinkel 111 bombers that were on their way to bomb the Vauxhall Motor Works at Luton. 151 squadron carried out a head on attack on the bombers. During this combat it has been said that stray bullets and empty cartridge cases were clattering down on the roofs of the houses in Stanstead Abbotts. Villagers who had gone outside to watch the spectacle overhead were soon retreating back indoors to avoid the falling debris.

P/O Ellacombe began to fire his guns at a distance of 2,000 yards as he closed with the enemy and continued to fire until he dived his plane at the last minute beneath the lead German aircraft. As he did so the boss of his propeller was hit by an enemy round causing damage to the gear train just behind the propeller spinner. It became very quickly evident that a forced landing was inevitable and the pilot looked out for the largest field he could glide the plane towards. His choice turned out to be the 60 acre field at Olives Farm on the Hunsdon Road in the Parish of Stanstead Abbotts. P/O Ellacombe managed with some difficulty and notable skill to land his aircraft safely and bumpily roll across the field to a standstill. So well was this landing carried out that no further damage to the aircraft occurred.

As the pilot lifted himself out of the cockpit he spied a rather angry farm labourer rapidly approaching. Thisman was a Mr Mayes and he was waving a pitchfork and shouting “I am going to kill you, you bloody German” Mr Mayes was one of several farmworkers who along with members of the Palmer family of Olives Farm had watched the Hurricane land whilst hiding under the hedgerow as the aerial combat took place above their heads. Fortunately P/O Ellacombe had his feet on the ground when the irate farm worker reached the aircraft as it was clear that he wished to attack the pilot. Despite the large RAF roundels on the Hurricane Mr Mayes proceeded to chase the pilot round and round the plane, intent on harpooning him with the pitchfork.This chase only stopped when the other farm workers reached the plane and physically stopped Mr Mayes and no doubt pointed out to him his lack of aircraft recognition skills. John Ellacombe, after a few apologise about Mr Mayes, was taken across the fields to the farmhouse at Olives Farm. The Palmer family made him welcome and no doubt plied him with tea whilst he waited for an RAF car to take him back to his base at Stapleton Tawney.

Olives farm revisited

7th July 1990

From left to right Mrs Miller, Mrs Ellacombe, unknown, John Ellacombe & Leslie R. Miller

 P/O Ellacombe had many further wartime adventures and after the war he gained a permanent commission in the RAF. He did not retire until 1973 with the rank of Air Commodore. However this was not John Ellacombe’s last visit to the 60 acre field at Olives Farm. It was on the 7th July 1990 that the now retired RAF veteran returned to the 60 acre field and the farmhouse in Stanstead Abbotts. Leslie R. Miller as a young boy in 1940 Stanstead Abbotts had witnessed the combat in the skies on the 30th August 1940. An interest in aircraft led him to research the clash in the sky he had witnessed and eventually manage to contact John Ellacombe. He later organised the visit to Olives Farmfor John Ellacombe and his wife in the 50th year after the wartime event. In 1993 Mr Millersent to the author’s mother the photograph of the visit to Olives Farm and some of the information, on which this article is based.

The scene of John Ellacombe’s adventures of 50 years previously had it appeared changed little over the intervening years. Interestingly Miss Palmer the daughter of the wartime farmer was able to recall the events of the day so long ago in some detail. In 1940 she had been one of those sheltering in the hedge from falling bullets and cartridge cases.

The combat in the sky on the 30th August 1940 led to fatalities for both the German bomber crews and the RAF fighter pilots. During the exchange of fire Hurricane R4213 of 151 squadron was shot down in flames impacting the ground at Jacks Hatch, Epping Green not far across the Essex border. The Polish pilot Sergeant Feliks Gmur was killed and he was buried in Epping Cemetery. The Germans lost one Heinkel 111 coded A1 + CR, which badly damaged semi crash landed on what was later to become the perimeter track of Hunsdon airfield. The crew of four managed to escape the aircraft and set it alight to deny their enemy any intelligence advantage. The crew were Leutnant Fischbach, Feldwebels Kusserow and Distler as well as the fourth member Gerfrieter Stilp who was seriously injured. Stilp given his lowly rank was probably an air gunner, died later and was buried in a field opposite Hunsdon church. It appears the church authoritiesin 1940 were unwilling to sanction the burial of an enemy combatant in consecrated ground. His grave is remembered by older locals in Hunsdon as being visible for many years after the war, until his remains were removed to the German War graves Cemetery at Cannock Chase.

It is worth mentioning that the Heinkel 111 aircraft had a heavily glazed nose with no real protection against the bullets from the British fighter’s eight Browning machine guns. The RAF pilots made the most of this advantage and often attacked these aircraft head on. One can imagine the fears the German crews had during such frontal attacks. It must have felt to them that there was nowhere to hide for protection inside what must have seemed to be a flying greenhouse. Despite the head on encounter with 151 squadron the German bombers carried on to their target in Luton. They very accurately placed their bombs on the Vauxhall Motor Works causing extensive damage.

Air Commodore John Ellacombe reflected in later life on how few of those he trained with in his early days with the RAF had survived the war. He was 60 years old when he revisited Olives Farm in 1980 and he was to live on to the age of 94 years.

Stuart Moye          November 2016