Like so many British servicemen who were in the Second World War, my father, then Wing Commander Herbert John Pringle, AFC, was reluctant to talk about what he did for his country except for one story. It concerned his role in the bizarre, and still not fully explained, flight of Hitler’s deputy, Rudolf Hess, to Scotland in 1941.
On 10th May that year, my father was the commanding officer of RAF Acklington, a night-fighter station near Newcastle in Northumberland. Shortly after 10pm, the phone from group headquarters rang in the ops room. A voice crackled orders to scramble two Spitfires. Radar had picked up a single enemy aircraft heading in from the North Sea.
Luftwaffe raids on the north-east coast were minor compared with the blitz on London that month, but my father’s diary, which I found in the attic after he died, revealed that he had scrambled Spitfires a number of times in early May to meet enemy raids of several bombers.
He was not so worried about the single intruder, as he told the story. The Luftwaffe sometimes sent a decoy ahead of a raid. And that Saturday night he had a problem. His duty pilots were Polish, only recently arrived and relatively inexperienced. The Spitfires were not fitted with airborne interception radar and depended on visual sightings and ground-control radio to find the enemy. ‘It was dusk with low clouds, and I decided that I was not going to risk their lives for a single enemy plane,’ my father said. ‘Had it been a mass raid, of course I would have sent them up.’
As the intruder roared towards the Northumberland coast it disappeared from the radar beam. The Royal Observer Corps spotted the plane a few miles inland, and correctly identified it as a twin-engine Messerschmitt 110, heading towards Glasgow. At that point the intruder became the problem of other fighter stations.
The next morning, Sunday, my father received a call from a superior officer at Newcastle headquarters advising him that he had disobeyed an order and could be called before a court martial.
On Tuesday, the newspapers reported that the pilot of the Me-110 had been Rudolf Hess. He had baled out near his target, the Duke of Hamilton’s estate, south of Glasgow. The plane had crashed and burst into flames. Hess, unarmed and struggling with an injured ankle, had given himself up to the Home Guard.
My father wrote in red pencil in his diary: ‘News of Rudolf Hess – landed by parachute in Scotland (on Saturday) from Me-110 – by himself.’ And then he added three large question marks. Talk of charges against him for disobeying orders never came up again.
The official British story was that Hess was on a desperate lone mission to broker a peace deal between Germany and Britain; a fool’s errand as it turned out. On Churchill’s orders, he was imprisoned for the rest of the war, tried at Nuremberg and given a life sentence. In 1987, again according to the official version of events, Hess, at the age of 93, hanged himself in Spandau prison.
Over the years, an array of conspiracy theories has been explored in several books on the Hess affair, suggesting that he did not act alone. Among the theories are that he flew to Scotland with Hitler’s approval; that he was in league with members of the Royal Family, especially George VI’s brother the Duke of Kent; that his flight was organised by British intelligence; that the Spandau prisoner Hess was a double; and that Hess did not commit suicide but was murdered by British agents to prevent him from telling the true story.
These theories are given credibility by a trail of missing or sanitised UK government files, plus continued official reluctance to declassify the entire Hess file.
When I first heard my father’s story in the 1970s, I worked for the Insight Team of Harry Evans’s Sunday Times. The books about Hess said that RAF Acklington had, in fact, scrambled one Spitfire, but too late to catch Hess’s Me-110. When I told my father I would like to look further into the matter, he would have nothing to do with it. ‘Don’t you go doing one of your investigations,’ he said. Not wanting to upset him, I didn’t.
My father died in 2001 aged 93. As far as I know, he was never interviewed for any of the Hess books. Which is odd because most of the experts seem to agree that of all the fighter stations involved – and three others reportedly scrambled aircraft to chase Hess – the Spitfires from Acklington’s 72 squadron had the best, and perhaps the only, chance of a successful interception. The timing of the flight in from the North Sea is key. The first radar sighting was at eight minutes past ten (22.08hrs in military time) on the evening of 10th May. The order to scramble two Spitfires was relayed immediately. According to the radar, the plane was at 12,000ft, 70 miles from the coast, zipping along at 300mph.
If my father had scrambled the Spitfires, they could have been airborne and ready to meet Hess’s plane when it crossed the coast 15 minutes later at 22.23hrs. But Hess hedgehopped unhindered towards Glasgow, according to the Observer Corps. It’s important to add that Britain was on ‘double summer time’ – the clocks had been put back two hours instead of one, in an effort to cut the increase in road deaths due to wartime blackouts. Sunset on 10th May was at 22.00hrs in Glasgow. Hess was flying in the twilight. He could still see, just, where he was going, and the Spitfires could most likely have seen him.
As Hess came closer to the coast, he dropped under the radar beam, causing some confusion in the plotting room, and my father apparently did scramble a Spitfire to patrol his sector – but too late to catch Hess. The records of 72 Squadron show that a Spitfire, piloted by a Battle of Britain veteran, Sgt Maurice Pocock, took off at 20.20hrs, or 12 minutes after the first radar plot, and patrolled the local skies at 15,000ft. Hess was gone by the time Pocock reached his designated altitude. Another Hess author wrote that the 12 minutes it took Pocock to get airborne represented ‘rather a slow response’ for a veteran fighter pilot. My father’s hesitancy over his orders provides a credible explanation.
If my father’s story is true, it undermines, with a simple and endearing human explanation, the conspiracy theory that the RAF controllers at these fighter stations were somehow in league with British intelligence to provide what one author of the books described as the ‘puny’ and ineffective RAF response. Of course, it leaves outstanding the many other theories of Hess’s flight.
It’s also possible that my father made up the excuse of inexperienced Polish pilots to comply with orders from British intelligence not to shoot down Hess. But then the other controllers on Hess’s flight path would also have been roped into the plot. One of those controllers, Wing Commander Hector MacLean, observed in 1991, 50 years after the event, that he had received no such orders and, ‘Such a thing could not have been kept secret.’