Mae West, "Schwimmweste"

An Historical Lifesaver

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”
These powerful and unforgettable words were said by Winston Churchill to describe the extraordinary bravery of our Airforce and our allies who defended these shores with their lives during the Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940.

The life jacket was worn by the German pilot of a Dornier Do 17 bomber that was attacking Debden airfield in Essex, an important strategic target. The Dornier was shot down by British Spitfires and Hurricanes flown by the Royal Canadian Airforce. The German crew all bailed out.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-342-0603-25 / Ketelhohn [Kettelhohn],>, via Wikimedia Commons
The German ‘schwimmweste’ or Mae West as it was known, has been handed down through the family of Harry Leach. Harry’s brother-in-law Fred had sent the life jacket to him as a gift, along with a letter in which he recounts the story of how he captured a German pilot, Lt Kreigen. The letter makes remarkable reading, as Fred was not young man, but in very matter-of-fact terms, he describes capturing the much younger, armed pilot and holding him until the arrival of police.
"The pilot landed about 30 yards from me when he hit the ground I at once got across him as he lay on the ground and took his fireworks away from his belt before he knew where he was"
Fred Nell and Harry 
Fred (left) Nell, Harry Leach and family
It was a remarkably brave thing to do.
In Fred’s letter he goes on to describe how he gave the young ‘swanky’ pilot a cigarette, and that Kreigen was ‘OK with me’. Fred, with a little first aid knowledge, also treated a bad bullet wound that the pilot had sustained.
The combination of these elements; the brave and compassionate Englishman Fred, who single handed captured the German pilot and treated him kindly, the joined forces of the heroic British and Canadian Airforce who shot down the German plane, together with the timing of these events, late August 1940, which was the very peak of the Battle of Britain and the start of the Blitz, all evoke a very strong sense of awe in us today, that our grandparents lived through and withstood such experiences with humour and dignity.
This amazingly rare and historic life jacket will be Lot 1308 in our Antiques & Interiors auction,
taking place on Thursday 18th July.


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