The Best of Enemies..!

Staying at the home of the enemy that tried to kill you in the war-time skies over Europe would seem to many people to be a fanciful story that could never happen; but that is exactly what did happen to a former Lancaster flight engineer from Hampshire, who survived his encounter with  Luftwaffe night-fighter ace, Knight’s Cross holder Heinz Rokker, over the French town of Neufchateau in July 1944.

One of only two air-crew to escape from their blazing bomber that fateful night, Thomas Harvell from Southampton parachuted to safety and was rescued by a local Frenchman, to later join forces with Resistance fighters, the Maquis, whom he fought alongside  in the Autumn of 1944 as they harassed German supply lines.

Known today by former members of the Maquis as ‘notre Anglais’, Mr Harvell, was on his way from a 5-day stay at Mr Rokker’s home in Oldenburg in Germany to France’s national monument to their war-time Resistance fighters at Sicon in the Franche-Comte region, when I caught up with him in Neufchateau whist I was travelling with Combat Veterans of America’s 79th Infantry Division on their pilrimage back to the D-Day Beaches of Normandy and thence onto Alsace-Lorraine.

Mr Harvell was to be presented with a medal of appreciation by the Federation Nationale Andre Maginot, and a certificate bearing the name of his war-time alias ‘Charles Hautier’ in recognition of his daring war-time exploits alongside his French comrades; however such acts of derring-do would not have happened, but for Heinz Rokkers’ dramatic & deadly intervention that July night.

An officer in the CID branch of British Transport Police at Southampton Docks, back in 1944 Mr Harvell was flying to Stuttgart on the night of July 28/29th with 514 Squadron’s Lancasters from Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire, when he first came face-to-face with Hauptmann Rokker…literally!

Born on October 20th 1920 in Oldenburg, Heinz Rokker volunteered for the Luftwaffe in 1939, having just sat his German ‘A’ Levels, (Kriegsabitur), early because of the outbreak of war. Upon acceptance in to the Third Reich’s air arm, he immediately undertook officer and initial pilot training at the Luftkriegschule (Air Warfare School) at Berlin-Gatow before being posted to Magdeburg to complete his training. Following night-fighter conversion at the Nachtjagdschule (Night-fighter School), at Neubiberg-Ingolstadt, he was posted to 1/NJG 2  in Sicily, scoring his first 4 night kills over North Africa.

In August 1941 the Squadron was sent to Brussels-Melsbroek for a rest, during which he undertook two long night flights over England, before transferring back to Sicily in January 1943 where he added a further kill to his mounting tally. July 1943 saw Rokker’s night-fighter squadron posted back to Germany as part of the Reich’s air defence umbrella around Kassel-Rothwesten and after the June 6th Allied Invasion of Normandy was posted to Chateaudun. In early 1944 Rokker was promoted to Hauptmann and made a Staffelkapitan, (Squadron Leader), and was now flying from the Rotenburg/Twente/Kassel-Rothwesten sector once again when scrambled against Thomas Harvell’s second incoming Lancaster raid on Stuttgart of the week.

Flying his radar-equipped Junkers Ju88 with its twin cannons mounted on top of the fuselage, known as Schrage-musik (slanting music) Rokker, who was to amass 64 kills before war’s end, lay in wait for the RAF ‘blind bomber’ formations and having already shot down one Lancaster that night, finally pounced as Mr Harvell’s aircraft flew wide of the bomber stream, his navigator having locked onto the British aircraft’s H2S radar waves.

Rokker flew under Harvell’s lone aircraft and using a ‘pull-down’ visor which magnified the target, let loose his Schrage-musik cannons, firing up at the underside of the Lancaster into the bomber’s port inner engine. For reasons that Thomas Harvell still cannot not fathom, pilot Flt Lt Jones continued to fly straight & level, taking no evasive action whatsoever.

One 39 Allied aircraft shot down in that single, the German ace could not believe his luck and having circled around to watch the bomber continuing in its level flight, swung back in on the starboard side and raked the Lancaster with heavy nose-canon fire… this time the doomed heavy four-engined aircraft blew up in the night-sky over Neufchateau.

Thrown clear of the exploding Lancaster as cannon fire hit its fuel tanks and rescued by a local Frenchman after a hair-raising parachute landing, Mr Harvell found his way into the hands of the Resistance. After several aborted attempts to reach Allied lines, he opted to stay and help the French underground in their clandestine war against the Germans. During a 6 week period he fought alongside the Maquis, helping to liberate the town of Pierrefontaine in 1944, before being ‘liberated’ himself by advancing American Forces.

Eventually making his way back to Britain, via Italy, in November 1944, Mr Harvell rejoined his squadron, but was told that downed air-crew fighting with the Resistance was deemed to be against the terms of the Geneva Convention. He would therefore no longer be able to fly on ‘Ops’ and was assigned to aircrew  training until the end of the war, returning to ‘civvy street’ in 1947.

Back in Germany, Hauptmann Rokker as a night-fighter pilot, amassing a further 59 kills with the ’Wilde Sau-Zahme Sau’ Geschwader, (Savage Hog-Tame Hog Squadron), from his final air-base in Schleswig. His war-time medals included a Black Wound badge on July 14th 1942, the Iron Cross 1st Class on August 14th 1942, the Knight’s Cross from the hands of Adolf Hitler on July 27th 1944 and the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross on March 12th 1945 from Head of the Luftwaffe, Herman Goering.

At war’s end Heinz Rokker was briefly interned by the Allies and on his release in late 1945 qualified as a teacher, retiring from his post as a deputy head-teacher of a primary school in his native Germany in 1982.

Meanwhile the ‘Aviateur Anglais’ Thomas Harvell is a regular guest of his war-time Resistance comrades in the beautiful French town of Neufchateau…

But how did they feel coming face-to-face after their deadly duel in the night skies of Europe so many years before? Mr Harvell explained: “Heinz was very proud to be an ace and before meeting me, he’d been a guest at the RAF’s Air Gunners Association where he met a Halifax rear gunner and a Mosquito pilot he’d shot down and both were very surprised to meet the German pilot who’d been their Nemesis.

But when I met him, it was as if we’d known each other all of our lives, though it had been so personal back then as he was actually trying to kill me..!  As an ace he had obviously been a ruthless man and though he later became a quiet primary school teacher, whenever he talks about his wartime exploits you can see that old streak of ruthlessness emerge once again..! 

As for meeting Heinz in person, it was very emotional and as we are both tall men his first words to me were that we were ‘both a matching pair’’… furthermore he could certainly well remember that night, telling me that he had to give us two bursts to despatch us as we continued to fly straight and level”

Today the two adversaries are friends, their deadly duel but a distant memory and whilst Heinz Rokker lives in peaceful retirement in Germany, still with his Knights Cross with Oakleaves on display at his home, Thomas Harvell is home in Hampshire, a hero of the French Resistance… with both medal and citation to prove it..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013