The First and Only High-Altitude Fight in History

A painting by British artist Jim Mitchell depicting Emmanuel Galitzine’s Spitfire BF273 attacking Götz’s Ju 86R.

12 September 1942

In the summer of 1942, after already having lost the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe adopted a more technological stealth-like approach; they would use groups of bombers flying at very low altitudes, making them difficult to detect, or instead at a more medium altitude using cloud cover. As losses became increasingly heavier, the German strategists chose to use another form of attack, without any fighter escorts; high altitude reconnaissance bombers flying with pressurised cabins and ultra- powerful turbocharged engines. With a wingspan superior to that of a Lancaster, these aeroplanes were capable of flying at very high altitude of up to 45,000ft. Although these attacks were not widespread, they did have very targeted objectives. The British called them ‘hit and run raiders’, ‘sneak raiders’ or just simply ‘raiders’.

Surprised by these attacks, the RAF decided to thwart the Luftwaffe by modifying its planes and entrust the Special Flight Squadron with specifically intercepting these missions at high altitude. One particular pilot called upon was Emmanuel Galitzine, a veteran flying ace of the Battle of Britain, a direct descendant of Catherine the Great and who would later provide vital support to the Resistance Movement .

For these new kind of missions, Galitzine would undergo special high altitude training in an airtight de-pressurized box simulator at Farnborough, where he learnt that any movements he made he had to do slowly due to the pressure, and he was even provided with a heated flying suit for the operation.

In August 1942, having already taken part in the Norwegian and French campaigns, the Luftwaffe moved Horst Götz and Erich Sommer to Beauvais and they were then soon posted to Casablanca. With their reconnaissance Ju 86R ‘T5+PM’ of Höhenkampfkommando der Versuchsstelle für Höhenflüge (Staffel 14/KG 6), armed with a single 250kg bomb, the two airmen carried out a series of precision bombardments. Their targets were Aldershot on 24 August, Luton on the 25th and Bristol on the 28th, with this last mission causing the deaths of a number of civilians following an error in navigation.

On 12 September 1942, Götz and Sommer prepared for a bombing raid on Cardiff. They took off from Beauvais at 08:25hr and as they gained altitude, turned towards Normandy, flying directly over Rouen. At 08:53hr they were picked up by British radar at 26,000ft above Rouen, then at 42,000ft over Fecamp before crossing the Channel. At 09:47hr the Ju 86R sent a message to Caen, signalling the presence of two British ships ten miles south of Portland Bill. The message – and consequently the aeroplane – were immediately detected by RAF listening post Y, who immediately sent two Spitfire Vs from 421 Squadron. They spotted the Junkers, but could not intercept as the altitude it was flying at was too high.

At the same time, after the German plane had crossed the French coast at 09:27hr, a specially modified Spitfire IX BF273 of the Special Flight Squadron, piloted by Emanuel Galitzine took off from RAF Northolt. When the Junkers arrived on the outskirts of Salisbury, an astonished Erich Sommer saw the Spitfire and quickly informed Horst Götz that they had been intercepted by an aircraft flying at a greater altitude to them and continuing to climb.

Gatlitzine’s gun is jammed

Immediately, Götz and Sommer put on their oxygen masks and partially depressurised the cabin. They dropped their singular bomb in the Salisbury area and tried to escape towards the sea. It was now 10:00hr. Götz injected the fuel with nitrogen peroxide in order to give more power to the engines and give his pursuer the smallest target to aim at. Galitzine, who was less than 200m behind, opened fire. After the first salvo, his port side gun jammed, but the starboard gun continued to fire. It’s failure caused the Spitfire to spin, and in righting itself it crossed through the vapour trails of the German plane, which still contained the residue of the combustion fuel, causing Galitzine’s windscreen to steam up and the pilot to lose sight of his target.

Götz escaped. Galitzine climbed again and, his windscreen having cleared, plunged towards the bomber firing with his starboard gun. He manoeuvred his aircraft with great care, remembering the instructions given to him in training. However the same problem remained; as he passed through the vapour trails of the German aircraft, the windscreen fogged up a second time, forcing Galitzine to disengage once more. This would happen twice more.

Götz dived, thinking that he had been hit and Galitzine, unable to return to his base due to being short on fuel, had to land at Tangmere. It was 10:45hr. In the middle of the dive, one of the Junker’s engines had stopped working, but it started again at 12,000ft.

At 12:06hr, the Junkers landed at Caen-Carpiquet and the crew discovered one of the wings had been split from one side to the other by a shell, but luckily no vital parts had been damaged. On their return to Beauvais, the Luftwaffe experts would immediately take on board the lessons learned from this interception and the sorties by these raiders would cease from that day onwards.

This was the first and last interception at such high altitude by any air force in the Second World War and the two German pilots were rewarded with prestigious medals.

Exceptional machines for exceptional pilots

Originally designed as a commercial aeroplane, then transformed into a bomber, the Junkers 86 flew for the first time in 1934. The Luftwaffe received the planes in February 1936 and the first commercial planes equipped with ten seats were delivered to Swissair in April of the same year. Afterwards they were sold to Sweden, South Africa, Chile and Portugal.

With its twin 600 horsepower Jumo 205 diesel engines , its cruising speed was around 300km/h. Five Ju 86Ds flew with the Condor Legion in Spain, but proved to be disappointing. In 1939 an improved version was made, with an increased wingspan of 32m, 1000 horsepower Jumo 207 engines and a pressurized cabin, it was capable of flying at 45,000ft with a speed approaching 400km/h.

If the power of the engines had been practically doubled in these five years, their design remained the same: six face-to-face vertical cylinders with two pistons, coupled by two crankshafts, one above, the other below, coupled by gear sets. The upper pistons revealed the inlet, the lower the exhaust valve and were powered by a two stage turbocharger. The initial 105mm bore had been increased to 110mm, then 160mm, increasing the volume from 16.6 to 18.3 litres. These Jumo 207B engines weighed 650kg and had the lowest consumption of equal-powered piston engines at the time.

For the missions in August and September 1942, the ‘T5+PM’ carried a single 250kg bomb and dropped it using a precision bombsight gyro, ‘Lotfe 7E’, which replaced the ‘X-Geräte’.

The legendary aeroplanes of the Spitfire family are more well known. To thwart the attacks from the ‘raiders’, Supermarine first developed a Mk VI with elongated wings: 40ft 2in. Then a Mk VII with a bi-turbocharged Merlin 61 engine and pressurised cabin and finally, in 1942, a Mk IX, which represented a synthesis of the proceeding developments, but curiously, without pressurisation or elongated wings. It was, however, equipped with a tracking radar. In order to be lighter, and therefore faster, this Spitfire was only armed with two 20mm Hispano guns, the machine guns and armour having been removed and the metal helix being replaced by a lighter wooden one. These modifications led to a weight loss of 450lbs.

Emmanuel Galitzine received his BF273 Mk IX on 10 September 1942 at Northolt, where the RAF had created the Special Fight Squadron. On the same day, he carried out a second flight in order to test the guns. He reported that the plane was particularly agreeable to fly and just after these test flights, he took it into action.