Attacks on people from WW2 low-flying German aircraft: strafing
'Strafe' means 'attack with fire power from a low-flying aircraft'. Mostly the term is applied to attacks on military installations, but as German bomber planes often flew low during World War Two air raids, it was not uncommon for people outside in the open to find themselves being strafed. Civilians were not immune. This page comments on one of the worst examples of being strafed, then gives some personal recollections of being strafed, highlighting the emotions involved.
Firsthand contributions from personal experience, edited with further research by the webmaster
Strafing at the evacuation of Dunkirk
One of the most infamous examples of strafing, which is widely reported, occurred during the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. German aircraft conducted relentless strafing runs over the beaches where hundreds of thousands of Allied soldiers were trapped. Can you imagine the fear of these men a as the bombers flew at them, over and over again, guns blazing? If they escaped one run, they must have been very frightened indeed that they would not escape the next. To their credit, the evacuation appers to have been orderly with little or no panic. However, there were significant casualties, and it was a wonder so many got back to Britain safely.
Personal experiences of civilians being strafed
The following are firsthand reports from individuals who were children at the time when they were strafed. It was clearly very frightening for them, but none of them appear to have been hit. I like to think that this was intentional compassion on the part of the German pilots who just needed to empty their ammunition before returning to home. Perhaps, whereas firing on the military was acceptable to them in war, hitting civilian children was not.
In 1943 I was with my grandfather on one of his sorties for hatching eggs. On this occasion, a lone German fighter plane came in very low and strafed a main road between Erith and Crayford - then a semi-rural area with corn fields on both sides of the road. I can still vividly remember seeing the young pilot's profile. He seemed not much older than I was - just like one of the boys we used to refer to at school as being 'one of the big boys'.
Granddad and I threw ourselves into a ditch and the fertile eggs in his raincoat pocket were, needless to say, smashed to a messy pulp!
We then cowered for what seemed an eternity under the counter of the local corner shop until Granddad deemed it safe to run for safer cover. Just as well we did, as the plane turned and strafed the same road again. Granddad threatened me, "Say one word about this boy, and it will be the last time I'll take you with me"! I said nothing - not for many years afterwards!
One day I was outside with my eldest sister, who was looking after our younger brother and our youngest sister who was in a pram. Suddenly a German plane flew low overhead and started firing directly at us. As the bullets hit the ground, they sounded like a heavy horse galloping past. The ground shook and soil flew into the air.
My eldest sister snatched my youngest sister from out of the pram, and dragged my younger brother with her into a ditch under a hedge, with me running to catch her up. We huddled together there as the bullets ripped through the hedge tops sending bits of wood and twigs flying everywhere. Some of the bullets made holes in my clothes, and something very hot burnt me under my chin. I still have the scar.
Suddenly two Spitfires or Hurricanes appeared, flying extremely low, and started chasing the German plane. I was told later that they had shot it down.
One day while I was cycling to school a German fighter plane appeared suddenly out of the clouds and loosed off a few rounds of machine-gun fire in my direction. It was all over in a few seconds, fortunately without me being hit.
Strafing goes wrong for a German plane
My mother related to me and my two older brothers that she was riding in a bus west of London past a park, which naturally had been taken over as Dig for Victory vegetable garden allotments, when a German fighter plane flew low and crashed. The bus stopped and everyone, including my mother, got off to have a look. They saw the pilot being taken into custody by a man wielding a garden fork. The man gave the badly shaken pilot a cigarette in exchange for the souvenir of a button off the Luftwaffe pilot's uniform. Another example of compassion to a fellow human being.