This evening around 2205, Rfa 501 sent off four of its giant Zeppelin-Staaken machines (R.VI 26/16, R.VI 29/16, R.VI 32/16 and R.VI 39/16) to attack Dover.
However poor weather soon resulted in the mission being cancelled and they were ordered to attack the alternative targets of Calais and Dunkirk. The prevailing north-west wind was considered favourable because the aircraft, flying into the wind, would be able to anticipate oncoming bad weather. The aircraft were ordered to return immediately if a fog warning was received by wireless.
R 32 and R 39 dropped their bombs on Dunkirk when they received a message warning that fog over the airfield was increasing. They headed back at once, but the two other aircraft carried on as they were just a short distance from their target, Calais.
R32 and R39 arrived over their airfield just before 0100. The airfield signalled by wireless: ‘Cloud height 100 metres, Brussels clear visibility.’
Both aircraft decided to risk the landing rather than divert to Brussels. However, fog soon covered the airfield. The landing beacons could be seen from above, but it was not possible to see them from within the fog bank.
R32 was flying towards these when it hit a row of trees 700 metres short of the field and crashed. The explosion of an unreleased bomb and remaining fuel completely destroyed the R32 and killed nearly all its crew. The R39, as it emerged from the fog, flew directly between the two beacons at the edge of the airfield and barely rolled to a safe stop at the end of the runway, within inches of a ditch. The first Rfa 501 learned of the crash was when a badly-injured crew member stumbled across the airfield.
At 0130 hours, R 26 and R 29 arrived over the airfield. They received a wireless message saying “Landing impossible, clouds 100 metres high, Ghistelles clear for landing.” A further message, at 0150 hours said ‘Land at Ghistelles, otherwise use parachute.’
In spite of these orders, the R26 and R29 decided to land. The R 26 flew into the ground and burned killing the crew, except one mechanic.
R29 made an approach along the edge of the fog bank, using its landing lights to avoid flying into the ground. As it was impossible to locate the airfield under the fog layer, the R 29 climbed over it using its gyro-compass. Having picked up the beacons and under the impression that the cloud bank was still at 100 metres, R 29 attempted a glide approach. In the clouds the aircraft turned 60-80° to starboard in spite of the pilots’ efforts to the contrary and lost its course. Suddenly, at the bottom of the cloud layer, the pilots saw tree tops. They immediately opened up the engines to pull the aircraft into a climb, but it was too late. The landing gear caught the tree tops, pulling the fuselage down into the trees. Although the fuel tanks burst, the R29 did not catch fire, thanks to the pilot who shut-off the ignition of the engines and motor-dynamo. Four were killed and a mechanic was seriously injured.
It’s not known exactly who was on each aircraft, but the following were killed:
- Ernst Rungwer
- Uffz Heinrich Wäsche
- Walter Grüneberg,
- Alois Langner
- Richard Oberländer
- Fritz Pfeifer
- Wilhelm Pier
- Lothar Friedrich
- Uffz. Josef Belz
- Gefr. Paul Schnigge
- Flg. Julius Winand
- Fritz Wieter
- Wilhelm Landwehrmann
- Karl Freund
- Alfred Bröske