My wife Susan is a highly engaged Twitter user and finds all kinds of interesting articles being tweeted, some of which she forwards to me in email. I am not a highly engaged Twitter user, so email is always a good way to find me. We spent a couple of very pleasant vacations in Dorset before I moved to the USA. We did the Hardy sites and tours, visited the Dorchester Museum and Maiden Castle, all those things. When Susan found a picture of a Hurricane being exhibited at the Borough Gardens in Dorchester in 1943 I took a quick glance and more or less filed it away, thinking “Second line Hurricane, 1943, armament removed, I wonder what the serial number is, I’ll have a look sometime.”
That time came fairly quickly. I discovered the photo is a little more puzzling than at first sight. I can’t make out the rest of the serial number from the scanned photo the museum tweeted, so looked for features to give some clue as to what production mark it was. And that’s where the fun started.
Keen eyed readers and viewers may assume like me, that given the C and C1 style roundels that this is a Hurricane IIc with the wing cannons removed and faired over. That’s what I thought. But there is precious little evidence of that removal. It’s a bit too neat. Then I looked at the nose. What struck me was that there is no oil-deflector ring on the cowling behind the propeller spinner. I have just read a huge article on the Web about the various propellers and spinners fitted to Hurricanes. Thus bewildered I can say I have no idea which kind of propeller and spinner is fitted (although my personal guess is Rotol), but there is no oil deflector ring.
This detail alone suggests that this may be an older Hurricane which has been out to grass for a longer time than previously imagined. The real kicker for me is the wireless antenna post behind the cockpit canopy. It’s not one of the angular blade type antennae you see on most of the later Hurricanes and Spitfires. It’s stocky and squared off. That rang a bell somewhere in the subconscious, so I went and looked at Francis K. Mason’s authoritative book on the Hurricane and lo, he said in a comment on another picture, that the stubby squared-off wireless antenna post was a common feature of the first production “L” serialled Mark I Hurricanes. Really? Could it be this is a very early Hurricane taking part in a Wings for Victory exhibition in 1943? This was exciting, so I set to work on trying to match the visible digits of the serial number with the list in his book and one of my highly arcane and beloved reference works, Bruce Robertson’s British Military Aircraft Serials 1911-1971. And that’s where my research came unstuck.
The only visible portion of the serial number are two digits, and their position within the serial number is open to question. If this is an early Hurricane, its 5-character Air Ministry serial number will be formatted “A0000” rather than the later format “AA000”
As in all the best puzzles, someone is standing in front of the tail of the aircraft concealing another digit, perhaps two. All we therefore see are the digits “25” and what may be the front edge of a 7 or a 3. The first production batch of 600 Hurricanes were in the serial range L1547-2146, so even allowing that the missing digit is a 7 there is no possibility that the combination “257” appears anywhere in that production batch. The Dorchester example can’t be one of those.
Not to lose heart, the next production batch of 300 Hurricanes were in the serial range N2318-2729 so it’s possible that the serial is N257x.
The next production batch of 500 Mark 1 Hurricanes were built by Gloster Aircraft used serials in the range P2535-3264. Robertson notes that aircraft up to P2681 had a wooden, fixed pitch, two-bladed Watts propeller – after 2681 they were fitted with Rotol propellers. If the Dorchester Hurricane was P257x it may have been originally endowed with a Watts propeller and converted later in life.
There are no contenders in the rest of the P, R, T (Canadian), V and W serial combinations so the remaining possibility for the single letter / four digit combination is Z2308-4018 – a massive order for 1000 Hurricanes Mark IIA . IIB and IIC from Hawker. Z257x is therefore a feasible identity, occurring as it does in the range Z2560-2594. I need to cross check what marks these 30 aircraft were, simply because the oil deflector ring was seen as early as the summer of 1940 on operational Hurricanes and clearly this aircraft doesn’t have one. It’s quite possible that this could be a later Hurricane with a serial in the BN, BP or later ranges, but by this time I’m certain none of them would have omitted the oil deflector ring and certainly none would have had that short stumpy wireless antenna post.
This little exercise in delving around reference books and pictures on the Web always amuses me. I am quite aware I could be barking up the wrong tree completely. I think what I must do is email someone at the Dorset Museum and ask them nicely if they can have a look at the original print and see if any more of the serial number is visible. Especially whatever lies aft of the Sky band on the tail.
In 2015, and again in 2020, I wrote about an air crash which influenced the investigation of civilian air crashes in the United Kingdom. July 21, 2020 was the 90th anniversary of the Meopham Air Crash / Meopham Air Disaster.
March 31st 2021 sees the 90th anniversary of another famous air crash. The death of a notable personality in this crash, along with seven other souls, may have caused a shift in the culture of air crash investigation and reporting in the United States in much the same way that the Meopham Air Disaster did in the UK. The crash had a subtle but distinct influence on aircraft design and development, and represented a watershed in civil aviation. The story was so fascinating that I started to write a blog article, and then shelved it. As today is the 90th Anniversary of this crash, I can’t let the event pass without a mention.
The individual who died on March 31, 1931 was Knute Rockne, the Norwegian-American Coach of the University of Notre Dame football team. The aircraft involved was a Fokker F.10A belonging to Transcontinental and Western Air, and the crash location was close to the township of Bazaar, in Chase County, Kansas, not a huge distance from where I live.
Knute Rockne was born in Voss, Norway in March 1888. He emigrated to Chicago with his parents when he was five years old. He graduated from Notre Dame in 1914 with a degree in Pharmacy, but soon passed on a career in science when he was asked to help coach the football team. After a short career in professional football, he returned to coach Notre Dame in 1918, and the rest is history. Rockne is held up as one of the greatest coaches in college football history and brought the “Fighting Irish” to preeminence.
Rockne was a hero of the early depression, embodying the All American spirit, despite (or because of) his Norwegian roots. Always an astute publicist and an early advocate of commercial air travel, he was on his way to Los Angeles to take part on the production of a movie The Spirit of Notre Dame.
He was flying on a Fokker F.10A, registration NC999E belonging to Transcontinental and Western Air (TWA), which was making the line’s Flight 5 from Kansas City, Missouri to Los Angeles with intermediate stops at Wichita, Amarillo, Albuquerque, and Winslow.
NC999E departed Kansas City at approximately 0915 on the first leg to Wichita. Weather conditions were poor with snow falls, clouds, mist, drizzle and icing. At 1022, the copilot reported they were south of Emporia, Kansas and were turning back to Kansas City. However on hearing that Wichita’s weather was clearer they may have attempted to turn round again in order to complete their first leg. Their position near Bazaar, slightly west their usual course, indicates the crew were following the aviator’s friend the “iron compass” – in this case the tracks of Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.
It’s entirely possible that the crew needed to open the throttles and gain altitude to execute another 180 degree turn. A couple of witnesses saw NC999E emerge from cloud diving almost vertically, its engines backfiring – perhaps as the pilots throttled back and fought to lessen the impact they knew was inevitable.
Five of the eight occupants were thrown clear of the wreckage. The aircraft’s port wing was found half a mile away. Small pieces of ice were to be found around the wreck, indicating that key instruments may have iced. Subsequent investigations found clear signs of wood adhesive failure in the main spars and plywood covering following prolonged exposure to moisture. An article in the British journal Aeroplane theorized that if the pilots became disoriented in cloud, and with key instruments inoperable through icing, it is highly possible the aircraft entered a spiral dive, during which the weakened wing separated.
President Herbert Hoover called the crash a ‘national disaster’. The King of Norway sent a delegation to the funeral and knighted Rockne posthumously. United States Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur sent condolences, as did several state legislatures.
The public outcry and the demand for answers which followed the crash had a profound effect. The Aeronautics Branch of the US Department of Commerce followed its accustomed policy and made no public announcement about the crash. This would not satisfy the press, and so a number of implausible theories about pilot error, stress and propeller fracture were advanced, none of which stood up to investigation. Wood-framed aircraft were suspect. Every Fokker Trimotor in U.S. airline service was temporarily grounded. The expense of new more rigorous safety checks, and the bad publicity associated with Rockne’s death caused the reputations of TWA and Fokker to sink considerably. Fokker’s would never recover.
For TWA, the only way out of the morass, occurring at the outset of the worst depression in American history, was to look for new aircraft. The Ford Trimotor was an early beneficiary but it looked too much like the “Plane that killed Knute Rockne” even if its metal construction was entirely different. Boeing produced the semi-legendary Model 247 which was widely regarded as the forerunner of modern commercial aircraft, featuring de-icing, a metal construction, and supercharged engines. TWA wanted Model 247s, but Boeing were fully committed to manufacturing 60 for its United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (UAT) subsidiary company United Airlines – TWA’s arch rival. Boeing couldn’t supply TWA for some time, if at all.
In the summer of 1932, a TWA Vice-President contacted Donald Douglas and four other manufacturers to bid for construction of an all-metal three-engined, 12-seat aircraft capable of landing and taking off with one engine out from any of its operating airports. TWA asked who would be interested in a manufacturing job and how long would it be before a prototype could be evaluated.
Donald Douglas was at first hesitant, but after hammering out a few details with TWA such as persuading them to drop their trimotor specification, Douglas’ corporate response was the Douglas Commercial 1 (aka DC-1), which flew a year after the initial letter of interest from TWA.
TWA accepted the aircraft and subsequently ordered 20 examples of the production model, the DC-2.
You can see where this is going. From the DC-2, Douglas produced the improved DC-3, and a legend was born. The Boeing 247 was outperformed by the DC-2 and relegated to a sideline in commercial aviation history, albeit a sideline that arguably gave birth (via the four-engined, pressurized Model 307) to the B-17.
Air crash investigation was brought into the public arena. The aviation industry in the United States took a leap forward with the development of the DC-2/3 series and made the USA the predominant force in airliner construction for four decades. Even Boeing would re-enter the lists with considerable effect.
Would things have been different had Knute Rockne landed safely in Los Angeles in 1931? I think it’s true to say, as the Aeroplane article suggests, that without the market created by the Rockne crash, airline development might have progressed at a slightly different pace. The Junkers 52 and the venerable Ford Trimotor demonstrated the safe developmental route. Without the timely impetus to develop the DC series, the DC-2 and later DC-3 / C-47, the speculation starts to go off the scale. Had the DC-3 emerged a couple of years later, what would the legions of paratroopers have jumped from in the Second World War?
And we haven’t even begun to think about college football. 🙂
Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawk – This particular aircraft, serial number 41-35918, was built in 1941 and sent to the UK as a Lend-Lease item; it was passed along to the Russians in April, 1942, and lost in action while protecting Murmansk. It stayed on the tundra where it had landed for almost 50 years, and was recovered in 1992; acquired by the Museum’s founder in 1996, it finally flew again in 2003
Those of you who know me, know what a sucker I am for registration and serial numbers. It is a talent I have acquired over the last fifty-something years. Bear with me when I say I suddenly got interested, because I knew there had been another ET-serialled Kittyhawk in the news recently.
Oh yes dear reader, it is ET574, the 260 squadron P-40E (Kittyhawk 1A) which was discovered in the Egyptian desert in 2012 by a group of Polish oil company workers. As a Wikipedia author quite succinctly puts it: “As of 2018, displayed at a museum in El Alamein in a faux paint scheme.” See another blog entry.
It’s a romantic or sentimental thought that two neighbors on the Curtiss production line could be survivors, in very different forms. Emboldened, I went to consult Joe Baugher’s database, and found the following:
41-35927 (MSN 18448) to RAF as ET573 but delivered to USSR. Lost in action near Arctic Circle where it lay on frozen tundra for 50 years. Recovered from crash site near Murmansk c.1992. Brought to USA at Griffin, GA and underwent restoration. There is an RAF record card which has this plane as going to the RAF as ET573 and later becoming an instructional airframe Oct 1943 as 4181M.
41-35928 (MSN 18449) to RAF as Kittyhawk IA ET574. Missing during ferry flight Jun 28, 1942 from LG.85 (Amriya South, Egypt) to an RSU near Wadi Naturun which was used as a maintenance group facility (53RFU). The aircraft flew with its undercarriage locked down due to damage. An incorrect course was set and the aircraft was thought to have crashed in the Egyptian desert due to fuel exhaustion. Pilot listed as missing. The aircraft wreckage that was located in March 2012 by oil company workers in nearly intact form may be this plane. Pilot still missing,
Something is wrong here. This is very much a geek point, but the former USAAF identity for ET573 is unlikely to be 41-35927 (Joe Baugher) and 41-35918 (MAM / Wikipedia). I think the first (and easiest) theory is that someone at Wikipedia has got their wires crossed. It would not be the first time that erroneous or misleading information had been posted on Wikipedia, after all. Alternatively the confusion may lie somewhere else.
So what about 41-35918? Back to Joe Baugher, who clarifies the question of RAF identity.
41-35887/35925 (MSN 18408/18446, ET533/ET571) were to have gone to RAF as Kittyhawk IA but diverted to USSR Apr 1942
41-35918 (MSN 19751, production no. 1025 on data plate) to RAF as ET564. To USSR Apr 4, 1942. Shot down Jun 1, 1942 in area of Pyal-Yavr Lake. Recovered in 1992 and brought to USA and restored by the Fighter Factory. Now on display at the Military Aviation Museum, Virginia Beach, VA
Whoa – hold on. So Joe Baugher seemed to be saying the MAM example is actually ET564 whereas someone else in Wikipedia thinks it’s ET573. Joe Baugher’s record says ET573 did return to the States and was being restored in Georgia.
Military Aviation Museum – Ex USAAF 41-35927, RAF ET573. Gerald Yagen acquired two P-40E Warhawks, both recovered from Russia in 1992. Both aircraft had gone to the Soviets in 1942 on lend-lease. They were c/n 18439 (ex USAAF 41-35918, RAF ET564 and Soviet AF 1025) and this one [c/n 18448 ex-USAAF 41-35927]. [Yagen’s flyer was assumed to be 41-35918, but] research, confirmed by the company in New Zealand that did the actual restoration in 2001-2003, showed that it is in fact the other one, 41-35927.
So it’s not a matter of one recovered P-40, It’s two. No doubt this is where the confusion arises. The question which remains in my mind is this. If the flyer really is the former ET573, (as the restorer in New Zealand seems to confirm) are there any substantial remains of ET564 or were they consumed in the restoration of the other one? How did the identities get swapped? In the words of an old TV series: “Confused? – You will be!”
If you look up Jerry Yagen’s P-40E on the Web you’ll see histories of both of his machines with photographs of the same aircraft. They’ve both been to the USA, and possibly both to a restoration facility in Griffin, GA. They’ve both been to New Zealand (or have they?) but seemingly only one has emerged from restoration to flying condition. I suppose I could always email someone out there and ask them. No doubt some of you are saying “why didn’t you do that in the first place?”
In conclusion. I first had a romantic thought about the survival of two neighbors on the Curtiss production line in Buffalo sent to very different destinations. Then my little internet paper trail made me wonder if the identity of the Soviet P-40 was correct, but now it seems possible that, after all, the P-40s in Virginia Beach, USA and El Alamein, Egypt really are construction numbers 18848 and 18849, 41-35927 and 41-35928, ET 573 and ET 574. One is considerably better preserved than the other – neither look very much the way they did when flying in the Second World war, but each have a story to tell.
A footnote about Lend-lease P-40s in the air forces of the USSR
I was curious as to how the two Soviet P-40s probably went to the USSR. Romanenko says that the southern lend-lease route began (through Abadan, Iran and/or Basra, Iraq) began to operate in June 1942, but Kittyhawks were received from this source starting in November. This means Yagen’s P-40s probably arrived in the USSR on one of the (in)famous Arctic Convoys to Murmansk, possibly either PQ13 (arrived Murmansk 3/31/1942) or PQ14 (arrived Murmansk 4/19/42). See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arctic_convoys_of_World_War_II
On a related literary meander, if you haven’t read Alistair MacLean’s 1955 debut novel HMS Ulysses or Paul Lund and Harry Ludlum’s PQ17 – Convoy to Hell you might consider a visit to your local library or bookstore.
Mark Sheppard’s article on P-40 recoveries from Russia on the same site https://lend-lease.net/articles-en/p-40-recovery-in-russia/ Mentions that 47 Tomahawk IIBs arrived in the USSR in September 1941. They probably arrived in the test Convoy “Dervish” which arrived at Archangel on 8/31/1941. The P-40s were assembled by an RAF detachment at Yagodnik and flight- tested by a couple of American USAAC officers by the names of Lts. Allison and Zemke – the latter better known later as as Colonel ‘Hub’ Zemke, 56th Fighter Group. The timing is a little interesting since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still three months away. It’s interesting to know that ‘Hub’ Zemke was getting involved even before the USA was officially at war.
I am grateful to the social media presence of the National Museum of the United States Air Force for a reminder. I would never have realized that November 9th is the anniversary of the day in 1958 when some British oil prospectors, flying over the Calanscio Sand Sea in Libya, spotted the wreck of an aircraft lying on the surface of the desert below. It would take another four months to confirm that what they had seen, as they suspected, was the wreck of a B-24 Liberator, but what galvanized the US Air Force was the fact that the Liberator on the desert floor had been reported missing in April 1943 from a raid on Naples, Italy.
Lady Be Good was a Consolidated B-24D-25-CO Liberator with AAF serial 41-24301, allocated to the 541st Bomb Squadron / 376th Bomb Group based at Soluch Airfield, Libya (also known as Benina, after the adjacent town) 12 miles east of Benghazi. Having been ferried across the Atlantic by a brand-new crew, the B-24 arrived at Soluch on March 25th 1943. The crew which would fly it on the raid to Naples, commanded by 1st Lt. William J. Hatton, had arrived a week earlier, on March 18th. The Naples raid would be the Hatton crew’s first combat mission.
The attack was intended to be carried out by two formations of twelve aircraft. A sandstorm caused eight aircraft from the second wave to turn back to Soluch, leaving four aircraft, including Lady Be Good to complete the attack. Visibility over Naples was poor. Two aircraft bombed a secondary target and the other two jettisoned their bombs while heading back to North Africa.
Hatton apparently radioed his base around midnight asking for directions and reporting his Direction Finder was inoperative. People on the ground at Soluch reported hearing an aircraft flying overhead which continued South. It was assumed that Hatton’s B-24 had crashed in the Mediterranean on its way back from Naples. A brief search launched over the sea from Soluch the following day failed to find any wreckage or other indications. Strangely, no connection was made between the aircraft flying overhead and Lady Be Good.
The discovery of the wreck in 1959 upset this narrative. In March 1959 a British oil exploration crew examined the wreckage and the surrounding area, and started taking souvenirs from the aircraft. The B-24 was in a remarkable state of preservation, and there was enough evidence in the form of maintenance records and logs to name the crew members, but no trace of the crew themselves. One of the oilmen was on friendly terms with the USAF officer commanding Wheelus Air Base near Tripoli, and wrote a long letter detailing the discovery. This information was passed to USAF Europe in Frankfurt. The wheels of officialdom ground into motion.
In February 1960, the U.S. Army conducted a formal search of the area for the remains of the crew. The search discovered piles of discarded equipment and trail markers cut from parachutes, weighed down with small rocks, indicating the presence of a group of people, specifically the crew of the Lady Be Good.
Five bodies – those of Hatton, Toner, Hays, LaMotte, and Adams – were found on February 11, 1960 at a location 81 miles from the crew’s post bail-out assembly site. The searchers found evidence, specifically diaries, which recorded the crew’s suffering on the walk northward. None of the men were aware they had been flying over land when they bailed out, or how far inland they had flown. As they walked, the group left behind footwear, parachute scraps, Mae Wests and other items as markers to show searchers their path.
The diaries also recounted that the group survived for eight days with only a single canteen of water, a few energy sweets, and no other survival equipment. Three of the strongest surviving crew members – Ripslinger, Shelley, and Moore – continued walking. The ninth crew member, Lt. Woravka had never joined up with the other eight. Significantly they had also never found the wreckage of the B-24 which had continued south after they bailed out.
In the summer of the 1960 the U.S. Army and Air Force commenced a joint operation – Climax – to search for the remaining bodies, although ironically it was another British oil crew who discovered the body of Sgt. Guy Shelley on May 11. Shelley’s body was found 37.5 miles beyond the group of five. Sgt. Ripslinger’s body was discovered 26 miles from the main group on May 17th by the US search teams.
Operation Climax never found the body of Sgt. Moore. However, it is possible that a body which was discovered by a British Army patrol on a desert exercise in 1953 may have been his. Since the patrol had no inkling that allied aircrew were missing in the area, the remains were recorded, photographed and buried. The photographs came to light in 2001 but no conclusive evidence could be drawn from them.
The body of Lt. Woravka, the Bombardier, was discovered in August 1960, 16 miles North East of the crash site of the B-24 by yet another British oil crew and recovered from its resting place by officers from Wheelus Air Base. Woravka’s parachute had failed to open and the body was covered in shroud lines and the partially deployed parachute when found. While in the area, the recovery team almost literally stumbled upon a pile of discarded parachute harnesses, flight boots and signal cartridges. This was the crew’s assembly point after the bale-out, whose location was previously unknown. It was less than half a mile from the point where Woravka’s body had been lying. By a cruel twist of fate one of the items on Woravka’s body was a canteen of water which was still more than half-full after 17 years in the desert.
In the years that followed, the wreck of the Lady Be Good became a navigational point and target for military and civilian explorers. The wreck was systematically stripped by numerous visitors over the intervening years and no doubt hundreds of individual pieces are in the hands of private individuals around the world. Several pieces were removed by the US Air Force during its examination of the wreck, which are now mostly to be found in the NMUSAF and the Army Quartermaster’s museum in Fort Lee, VA. One of the propellers was taken to Wheelus Air Base. Another was said to be at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. The propeller which had been at Wheelus was sent back to the USA and is now outside the village hall in Lake Linden, MI which was the home town of Robert LaMotte
In 1968 an RAF team removed one of the engines from the wreck. Following examination my McDonnell Douglas it was passed to the NMUSAF where I photographed it in 2002. It has since been joined by another propeller although I’m not sure which one this is.
The B-24’s broken tail section was moved and re-aligned with the rest of the fuselage by visitors to the wreck, and in some of the last photographs I saw, the entire port vertical stabilizer had been hacked off and removed. Its location is a mystery. Finally, in 1994 the wreck was sectioned and removed from the crash site by a team of Libyan archaeologists. It sat for a while in a compound in Tobruk, although it may have been moved again to another location in Libya, which I believe to be Gamal Abdel Nasser Airbase (aka RAF El Adem in a previous life). I don’t suppose anyone is going over there to take a look in the foreseeable future.
In Memoriam: 1st Lieutenant William J. Hatton, Pilot – Whitestone, NY 2nd Lieutenant Robert F. Toner, Copilot – North Attleboro, MA 2nd Lieutenant Dp Hays, Navigator – Lee’s Summit, MO 2nd Lieutenant John S. Woravka, Bombardier – Cleveland, OH Technical Sergeant Harold J. Ripslinger, Flight Engineer – Saginaw, MI Technical Sergeant Robert E. LaMotte, Radio Operator – Lake Linden, MI Staff Sergeant Guy E. Shelley, Gunner/Asst Flight Engineer – New Cumberland, PA Staff Sergeant Vernon L. Moore, Gunner/Asst Radio Operator – New Boston, OH Staff Sergeant Samuel E. Adams, Gunner – Eureka, IL
At least two people realized that Tuesday July 21st 2020 will mark the 90th Anniversary of the Meopham Air Disaster / Meopham Air Crash. One of those is me. I thought about it a few weeks ago and completely forgot.
The other is Samuel (Sam) Supple from BBC South-East who emailed me this week and said “It’s the 90th Anniversary of the Meopham Air crash next week and I just read your blog article – I’m going to do a piece for BBC News and can I interview you?”
I am stunned to find I wrote that blog article in February 2015. I am also stunned to find how little I actually put in the article. I’ve been collating information on and about the crash ever since my parents told me about it when I was quite young. You may or may not know but my great-grandfather Lewis Powell (1884 – 1956) was one of two village policemen in Meopham (apparently reporting to Sergeant Charles Eve, based in Cobham) at the time of the crash.
As we know, the aircraft involved was Junkers F.13ge G-AAZK, Werk Nr 2052 named Bartgeier. Built in 1929, the aircraft had only flown about 100 hours since new. It had been registered in the UK on 26 May, 1930 and received its Certificate of Airworthiness on June 4th.
Despite the appearance of being the property of an airline, G-AAZK seemingly was owned by its pilot, Lieutenant-Colonel George Lockhart Piercy Henderson. Henderson loaned the aircraft to the Walcot Air Line to operate a charter flight between Le Touquet and Croydon, picking up a society party who had spent the weekend at Berck. The flight was the third round trip that day. First Henderson had flown his wife from Le Touquet to Croydon. He returned to France for four more passengers, and after they had disembarked in England had gone back again for the remaining four. It was on the final leg, at 2:35 pm, flying at at an altitude of about 1000 feet, above Meopham, when witnesses reported a rumbling noise and that the aircraft emerged from a cloud and then broke apart in mid-air.
All but one of the occupants were thrown from the aircraft and fell into an orchard. The fuselage and one wing of the aircraft fell close to a bungalow, (see the picture at the top of the page) while the other wing was found a mile away. The tail was found 300 yards from the crash site in a field. The engine fell into the drive of an unoccupied house, just missing a gardener working nearby.
The co-pilot, Charles Shearing, was pulled from the wreckage and carried inside the bungalow. Shearing died soon afterwards.
Family history holds it that my great grandfather was told to gather up the personal effects which had been scattered widely at the time of the crash and keep them at his cottage in Meopham. It is alleged that some items of jewellery were never recovered. Similarly the Air Ministry investigative team reported that some pieces of the wreckage had been taken by souvenir hunters.
The passengers who died were certainly an aristocratic group.
Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood (Lord Dufferin) was born on 26 February 1875 in Ottawa, during his father’s term as Governor General of Canada. He joined the 9th Lancers as a second lieutenant on 11 August 1897 and served with his regiment during the Second Boer War from 1899 to 1901. He retired from the Army in 1913 with the rank of Captain, but rejoined his old regiment following the outbreak of the First World War. He was seriously wounded when serving on the Western Front in October 1914. He subsequently transferred to the Grenadier Guards and was again seriously wounded in the autumn of 1915 having returned to duty for only three days. He served as a staff captain in the Guards Division in 1916 and was seconded to the Machine Gun Corps as an instructor in 1918. After the war he was president of the Ulster Ex-Servicemen’s Association. Lord Dufferin’s eldest brother Archibald, Earl of Ava, had been killed in action at Waggon Hill in the Boer War in January 1900, while his other brother, Lord Basil Blackwood, was killed attacking German trenches in July 1917. Lord Dufferin was elected to the Senate of the Parliament of Northern Ireland in 1921, where he served as Speaker from 1921 to 1930. He was sworn of the Privy Council of Ireland on 16 September 1921 and of the Privy Council of Northern Ireland on 12 December 1922. He was an RNVR (Royal Naval Reserve) aide-de-camp to King George V and was appointed Vice-Admiral of Ulster by the King in 1923.
Captain Sir Edward Simons Ward, 2nd Baronet Wardof Wilbraham Place was born on 1 July 1882. He was the son of Colonel Sir Edward Willis Duncan Ward GBE KCB KCVO (1853 – 1928), 1st Baronet. and Florence Caroline Simons. Colonel Ward (1st Baronet) was a career British Army officer and de facto founder of the (Royal) Army Service Corps. He also served as Permanent Secretary of the War Office. Edward was educated at Eton College and married Lois Jefferson on 29 April 1908 at the Royal Military Chapel, St James Park (Guards’ Chapel) in London. They were divorced in 1916. Having apparently lived in British Columbia for some time, the Wards returned to England and Edward fought in the First World War, as a Captain in the Grenadier Guards and was wounded in action. After his death at Meopham, Captain Ward was succeeded in the baronetcy by his younger brother, Melvill Willis Ward (1885–1973), as the 3rd Baronet. The title became extinct on Melvil Ward’s death.
The story of Lady Rosemary Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower (1893-1930) is one of the great “what if?” stories in recent British history. Lady Rosemary was the daughter of Millicent Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, The Duchess of Sutherland (1867 – 1955) who was a British society hostess, social reformer, author, editor, journalist, and playwright, often using the pen name Erskine Gower. The Curious Life of Rosemary Leveson-Gower describes how, when working as a volunteer nurse on the Western Front, presumably in one of the field hospitals organized by her mother. Lady Rosemary was particularly concerned about a shell-shocked young officer, who, when he regained his speech (“he pointed at Rosemary and said darling“) turned out to be none other than Edward, Prince of Wales, heir to the British throne. Edward and Rosemary fell very much in love and were romantically attached for some time, but apparently George V put a stop to any thoughts of the marriage simply because there were too many skeletons in Sutherland-Leveson-Gower family closet. There were suggestions of alcoholism, gambling, and perhaps worst of all (in George V’s view) Lady Millicent’s unfortunate cycle of marriage and divorce. One can only speculate how British History might have changed if Rosemary Sutherland-Leveson-Gower had married Edward and become Queen Rosemary to Edward VIII?
Lieutenant-Colonel George Lockhart Piercy Henderson (1888-1930) while not aristocratic is an interesting and possibly neglected character in British aviation history. More about him in another blog article
It is suggested that the loss of so many members of the aristocracy in one accident prompted the British Government to launch an extensive investigation into the cause of the crash. The report of the inquiry into the accident was made public, the first time in the United Kingdom that an accident report was published. Whether this was the result of Establishment or political pressure is a matter for conjecture.
The final report (issued in January 1931) concluded the cause of the crash to be the “failure of the tailplane under severe buffeting from air eddies produced by the centre section of certain low-wing monoplanes when the aircraft approaches the stalling attitude”. This was the first time that the term “buffeting” had been used in such an investigation. The report further stated that the aircraft, flying in clouds, may have been thrown into an unusual attitude. This resulted in buffeting of the tailplane, causing the port tailplane to fail, and that the aircraft then entered a dive.
It is said the four German experts from Junkers disagreed and blamed pilot error.
The crash and its aftermath generated a small number of technical reports, all of which are probably still in the collections of the Linda Hall Library in Kansas City, Missouri. I looked at them some years ago when I worked there. Both the Russian and American research papers mention the accident to G-AAZK at Meopham in July 1930.
Accident Investigation Sub-Committee: Accident to the Aeroplane G-AAZK at Meopham, Kent, on 21st July, 1930. R. & M. No. 1360, HMSO 1931
Abdrashitov, G., Tail Buffeting, NACA TM-1041, February 1943 (Translated from Russian. Report 395 from the Central Aero-Hydromechanical Institute, Moscow, 1939).
White, J. A. and Hood, M. J.: Wing-Fuselage Interference, Tail buffeting and Flow about the Tail of a Low Wing Monoplane, NACA Report 482, 1933.
Hood, M. J. and White, J. A.: Full Scale Wind Tunnel Research on Tail Buffeting and Wing-Fuselage Interference of a Low Wing Monoplane, NACA TN-460, 1933.
And then, as we love these things, I found the image below, only today. In the front row are the four passengers of G-AAZK standing in front of the ill-fated aircraft. Col Piers Legh is hidden behind Mrs. Loeffler – Mrs Legh is the lady not wearing fur in the middle of the picture, partly hidden behind the two other ladies.
Grant, O Lord, to all who are bereaved the spirit of faith and courage, that they may have strength to meet the days to come with steadfastness and patience; not sorrowing as those without hope, but in thankful remembrance of your great goodness, and in the joyful expectation of eternal life with those they love. (Book of Common Prayer)
Starting the Sixth year of this blog – somewhat late – I found some inspiration to start writing here again, courtesy of to my sister who posted a note on Facebook about apparitions and hauntings at Manchester Airport in the UK. It’s fascinating stuff, and I have an article about a couple of famous aviation events and their connection with spiritualism on the back burner. I thought to myself “I wonder what other airfields have a ghostly connection?” Since I’ve seen various “ghost hunter” documentaries some of which mentioned hantings and visitations at historic airfields and bases. Some of the stories including the two or three related here have been repeated across websites and bulletin boards so many times that any factual basis has been seriously mangled. However, one or two hauntings can be cross-referenced with well documented accidents at British airports.
Croydon – 1936 Despire a perception of being a fairly prosaic place, “Haunted Croydon” is quite a popular Google search. If you’re an aviation history buff you’ll be thinking of something very specific. Wikipedia saysCroydon Airport was the UK’s only international airport during the interwar period. It opened in 1920 and (unsurprisingly since it was the only international airport) handled more cargo, mail, and passengers than any other UK airport at the time. Innovations at the site included the world’s first air traffic control and the first airport terminal. In 1943 RAF Transport Command was founded there. The airport closed in 1959. In 1978, the terminal building and Gate Lodge were granted protection as Grade II listed buildings In May 2017 the Gate Lodge was classified as “Heritage at Risk” by Historic England.
On 9 December 1936, a KLM Douglas DC-2 registered PH-AKL and named Lijster crashed shortly after taking off from Croydon in foggy conditions on a scheduled flight to Amsterdam. According to common practice in bad weather, the DC-2 started its takeoff run following a white line painted on Croydon’s grass landing area, but veered to the left and headed south towards rising ground instead of the normal westerly direction. The aircraft hit the chimney of a house in Purley and crashed into an empty house on the opposite side of the street. Two (mercifully empty) houses and the DC-2 were destroyed by the crash and ensuing fire. 14 passengers and crew were killed. Notable passengers who perished were Arvid Lindman, a former Prime Minister of Sweden, and someone familiar to aviation buffs, Juan de la Cierva, the Spanish inventor of the autogiro. A flight attendant and radio operator survived. The official investigation into the accident was ended on 16 December 1936 without reaching a verdict.
Until its closure, Croydon airport was said to be haunted by the ghost of the unfortunate Dutch pilot who walked around the surrounding area, warning people of the fog. A 2008 article in a local newspaper said that a fortnight after the crash another pilot was plotting his course when a voice behind him said: “You can’t take off, the weather is just the same as when I did.” The pilot turned to see a figure of the dead pilot standing behind him.
There are several variations of this story – another tale recounts a female aviator in the 1950s seeing a pilot in old flying gear illuminated by a lightning flash.
Croydon – 1947 11 years after the crash of PH-AKL, an accident with several twists and a supernatural postscript occurred on 25 January 1947. A C-47A Skytrain, (aka Dakota) belonging to Spencer Airways (owned and flown by Edward Spencer) failed to get airborne from Croydon on a flight to Salisbury, Rhodesia via Rome. 11 passengers and one crew member – Edward Spencer himself – were killed. 11 people survived, seven of whom were taken to Croydon General Hospital although only two were detained.
The Spencer Airways aircraft was an ex-USAAF C-47A-85-DL construction number 19979 originally with the AAF Serial 43-15513. Evidence from the American Air Museum in Britain suggests that 43-15513 may have served with the 44th Troop Carrier Squadron, 316th Troop Carrier Group, 9th Air Force USAAF based at RAF Cottesmore, UK. Subsequent civil registrations for this aircraft were NC32975 and VP-YFD. On a side note I don’t see this aircraft listed in Joe Baugher’s website so I ought to email him.
It was cloudy and snowing when the aircraft took off shortly before noon. The starboard wing was seen to drop, then the aircraft turned to the left and the port wing dropped. The pilot apparently applied full starboard aileron but the bank angle increased to 40 degrees with the port wing tip only a few feet from the ground. As it reached the perimeter track, the aircraft levelled out and swung to the right. It then stalled, impacted the ground and crashed head-on into a parked C-47 OK-WDB belonging to Czech airline CSA. Both aircraft caught fire, and were subsequently destroyed. Two or three mechanics carrying out an inspection on the Czech C-47 escaped with minor injuries.
The British Ministry of Civil Aviation investigated, and found that Spencer’s aircraft did not have a British Certificate of Airworthiness, nor a valid Certificate of Safety. None of the crew held a Navigators license nor a license to sign a Certificate of Safety
The Chief Inspector of Accidents opened a Public Inquiry on 24 February 1947. The co-pilot gave evidence that the aircraft had just been delivered from the United States following purchase by Spencer. It had been ferried to Croydon the day before the accident. The long-range fuel tanks used for the ferry flight had been removed and the passenger seats fitted. Preparing the aircraft had taken all day and night and Spencer was said to have had only two hours’ sleep.
A witness gave evidence that the wings of the C-47 were covered in snow, and that he had not seen any attempt to defrost the aircraft before takeoff. Another witness stated that Spencer did not smoke or drink and had many hours flying experience since the early 1930s. Counsel representing the next-of-kin of Captain Spencer made a formal protest that they had not been able to question the statement about Spencer’s lack of sleep. The inquiry was closed on 28 February following technical evidence. An aircraft engineer stated that the starboard engine had been in “a bad state” and was “popping and spluttering” before the aircraft had taken off. The accident was determined to be the result of loss of control by the pilot while attempting to take-off in a heavily loaded aircraft in poor visibility, and “an error of flying technique by a pilot who lacked Dakota experience” Other factors may have been snow and frost on the wings and pilot fatigue.
Among the dead were Mother superior Eugene Jousselot and sisters Helen Lester and Eugene Martin of the Congregation des Filles de la Sagasse (Daughters of Wisdom – a Catholic religious institute of women founded in 1707) who were travelling to Nyasaland (today part of Malawi). A contemporary newspaper report suggested that the nuns held South African passports.
The ghosts of the three nuns were reported walking around the Roundshaw estate in the mid-1970’s. Roundshaw was built on the site of the first Croydon Aerodrome (originally named ‘Plough Lane’) which was demolished in 1928. It is alleged that on one occasion a nun was seen in the bedroom of a new house and was said to have told a little boy a bedtime story. In 1976 a woman on the estate was so distressed at the sight of a nun in her living room that she asked the council to transfer her to another house.
Hounslow Heathrow Airport I can imagine that somewhere as busy as Heathrow might cause a certain degree of paranormal activity simply because of the number of individuals passing through it in normal operation. One of Heathrow’s ghosts, however, is from another era and seems to have adapted to new surroundings.
The Ghost of Dick Turpin (1705 – 1739) Dick Turpin? Heathrow Airport? Apparently so. Ghost hunting sights have reported people seeing, hearing, feeling, and in one case, being attacked by the ghost of Dick Turpin at Heathrow. What is now the A4 from London to Bath ran through a locality known at the time as Heath Row. During his career as a highwayman, it is said that Turpin would lurk in the area around Heath Row before holding up coaches on the lucrative London-Bath route. More than 200 years after his execution in York, unfortunate people are supposed to feel warm breath on their neck, and hear strange sounds (barking and yelping of human origin) close by. A ghostly man in a tricorn hat wanders around Heathrow. The trouble is that when I think of people in tricorn hats in Heathrow saying “Stand and Deliver” I’m more inclined to think of 80s icon Adam Ant, or the exorbitant prices charged in the restaurants. As for people standing behind you and breathing down your neck – at Heathrow that wasn’t exactly unusual when I was there.
The Man with the Briefcase Heathrow’s first major accident happened at 9.14pm on March 2, 1948, when a Douglas DC-3C registration OO-AWH of the Belgian airline Sabena crashed just short of Runway 28R in low visibility while carrying out a Ground Controlled Approach. Of the 22 people on board, 20 were killed.
DC-3C was the catch-all designation for ex-military C-47, C-53, and R4D aircraft rebuilt by Douglas Aircraft at its Santa Monica plant in 1946. These aircraft were given new manufacturer erial numbers, (MSN) and sold on the civil market. 28 new aircraft, completed by Douglas in 1946 with unused components from the cancelled USAAF C-117 production line were given the designation DC-3D. Some commentators mention aircraft that were “built but never delivered to the US Air Force” [sic]
OO-AWH was DC-3C with MSN 43154, and reportedly the last DC-3C refurbished at Santa Monica. Its prior history is a little interesting. It seems to have been built as a C-47A-5-DK (MSN 12276) by Douglas at Oklahoma City and given the AAF serial 42-92472. Joe Baugher’s notes say it went to the RAF as FZ679. Joe further notes: “Engine cut on takeoff, aircraft swung off runway and DBR (damaged beyond repair) when it struck an unidentified B-26 at Lyon-Bron Feb 15, 1945. May have been rebuilt and returned to service. There is a report that it rebuilt by Douglas at Santa Monica as DC-3C MSN 43154 and delivered Apr 9, 1947 to Sabena as OO-AWH”.
“May have been rebuilt” is the key here. It seems more likely to me that a structurally intact C-47 saw the light of day again as a DC-3C rather than a basket case of spare parts that had been written off in France two years earlier. However many websites and reports give a garbled history of the aircraft, mixing the type histories of the DC-3C and -3D together.
The official narrative of the crash says that the DC-3C’s approach to London-Heathrow Airport was started in reduced visibility. On final, the aircraft hit the ground, exploded and came to rest in flames short of the runway threshold. The pilot had continued the approach below the minimum safe altitude and was unable to see the ground in night and fog. At the time of the accident, [horizontal] visibility was 200 yards.
Workers in a hangar nearby saw the aircraft crash on (or short of) the runway and went to assist. When they reached the aircraft there was utter devastation, only the tail section of the aircraft was left intact. Some badly burned survivors were pulled from the aircraft and sadly died later, but many perished in the wreckage.
Following the crash, the Ministry of Civil Aviation stipulated that ground-controlled approaches would no longer be available to aircraft landing in conditions of less than 150 feet vertical visibility and 800 yards horizontal visibility except in an emergency.
The most common versions of the story say that, as the rescuers worked, a man wearing a dark suit and hat approached them, asking if the team had found his briefcase. As the rescuers were staring at him, he disappeared into the fog – never to be seen again. It is further alleged that the emergency workers later reported finding the same man’s body in the wreckage. The legend of the Man with a Briefcase was born. Other ghost sites allege that he has been seen at different times around the runways at Heathrow and even inside its terminal buildings. Whether or not he’s the man in the suit who’s occasionally seen in the VIP lounge (but only from the waist down) is a matter of conjecture.
One incident which has been conveniently connected with the “Man with a Briefcase” occurred in 1970, when the airport radar office reported a person trespassing on a runway. Officers of the airport police and fire service searched for the intruder, but the police reported that they were unable to see anyone, and the runway was clear. The radar office apparently expressed their disbelief, telling the police officers that as they were arriving at the scene, they had driven right past the person in question. This apparition has been assumed to be another visitation by the Man with (or without) his Briefcase. I’ve watched several TV documentaries in which a police helicopter with a heat-seeking camera attempts to direct police officers to the location of a criminal in hiding, only to see them walk straight past. Driving straight past an individual hiding out on a dark airfield with the only guidance being “you’re right next to him” and missing that individual is not entirely unbelievable. However it always makes a good story better.
There are a number of aviation related hauntings which related to highly publicized crashes in the United States, and probably many more related to military sites around the world. I hope to cover some of those in another article.
Having tootled around a largish chunk of southern and eastern Nebraska three years ago in search of jet aircraft up poles and elsewhere, it occurred to me that there are a couple of much more local aviation memorials which I haven’t looked at in any detail. I hope to rectify this during the summer break.
A few weeks ago (heavens, It was April 3!) I thought I’d take a trip to the aviation memorial nearest my home, and went to see the UH-1 “Huey” helicopter that’s been in the town square in Girard, Kansas since 1995.
Most of the preserved historic aircraft you see these days were kept back as trainers or had been stuck in maintenance units until they outlived their usefulness and were crated for a museum. Surviving combat veterans are rare but not impossible to find. If you read my earlier posts you may have read my thoughts on a certain F-105 in Nebraska. It is a genuine Vietnam Veteran with a confirmed air-to-air kill but it’s still stuck high on a pole beside Interstate 80 marking the way to the Strategic Air and Space Museum, or whatever it may be called now. After all the recent flooding up around there I wonder if it still is there (the Museum and the F-105), but that’s another story.
I was ready to believe that this helicopter would have led a dull existence before being put out to grass, but the story turned out to be a little different. Having noted its serial number, consulted Joe Baugher’s website and a couple of other sites, it transpires that this very helicopter (UH-1H serial number 64-13632) is a genuine combat veteran from Vietnam.
Wikipedia says that the UH-1H was the result of upgrading the UH-1D to the Lycoming T53-L-13 engine, and relocating the pitot tube from the nose to the roof. The UH-1H was the most numerous variant of the Huey family. 64-13632 was built as UH-1D-BF and upgraded in this manner.
64-13632 seems to have been accepted by the US Army at the end of 1965. The aircraft served in Vietnam from October 1966 until November 1968, firstly with the 498th Medical Company, then the 176th Aviation Company, followed by the 116th Assault Helicopter Company. While serving with the 498th Medical Company in May 1967 it was involved in a couple of incidents, striking a ship’s mast while evacuating personnel in gusty conditions on May 14th (the ship moved), and coming under small arms fire while evacuating personnel on May 31st. The helicopter was hit five times by 7.62mm rounds and some crew members were wounded during this incident, but the aircraft’s mission was completed.
During 1969 and early 1970 64-13632 was transferred to the US Navy and carried the BuNo 413632. much to Joe Baugher’s interest. This seems to have happened a lot to Army UH-1s moving to the US Navy in a temporary capacity.
After a couple of months with the First Army at Fort Knox, 64-13632 was transferred to the Kansas Army National Guard where it served the remainder of its military life, apparently retiring in 1975.
Where it was for the next few years is not all that clear to me, but by early 1995 the aircraft had moved to Girard, where it was dedicated as part of the memorial to Vietnam Veterans, and Veterans of other wars, and where it stands to this day. Long may it continue to do so.
Happy Thanksgiving to any and all readers inside or outside the USA. I’m thankful for the opportunity to hold forth like this from time to time, and thank you for listening.
One thing that sitting in on John Daley’s course on military aviation history has done is revive my interest in model aircraft. You’d never have guessed. I’ve been doing it since I was a boy, with occasional gaps for College, differing employment, emigration, all the run of the mill reasons.
John wants his students to make a model as part of the course, and give a presentation about the aircraft’s significance. I wanted to make a new model but I didn’t particularly want to do anything that would take up a lot of space. As a result I’m planning on using a 1/144 scale model of a BAC TSR.2 because I know very well no-one in the class will have heard of it, and it gives me a chance to wax as lyrical as any aviation enthusiast of British origin normally does about the TSR.2, usually after a couple of pints, but I’ll settle for my classroom mug of coffee.
Incidentally, if you ever fancy trying it, the Chinese “Great Wall” model of the TSR.2 in 1:144 scale is a little marvel. Someone on Amazon slagged it off as an “itty bitty toy” which I feel is pretty unfair. It is seriously lovely, delicate and captures the appearance and feeling of the real aircraft, which is no small achievement (pun!) given its size. It’s eight inches long from stem to stern. I wanted to make another model for scale size comparison. The B-24 is useful for that purpose.
I fancied hauling out one or two of my older 1:48 models with a view to seeing them to a state of completion and perhaps showing them too.
I knew a few years back that my Focke-Wulf 190D-9 was in trouble. The JV44 markings and paint scheme so beautifully supplied by Dragon back in the 1990s for one of the aircraft of the Platzschutzschwarm (airfield protection flight) turned out to be inaccurate, to say the least. Just plain wrong. I have amassed enough photographic and published reference in the 20 odd years since the kit came out to know where they erred, and what to do about it.
Never mind. I have a nice old Fujimi model of a Bf109 which I wanted to make as a late G model. It had a lovely Reichsverteidigung (Defence of the Reich) scheme for “Yellow 9,” an aircraft of 9/JG54 in March 1945, so it said. Those coloured bands have fascinated me since I was a teenager.
So I went ahead and used that. I recently applied some matt varnish to the glossy blue band which troubled me for many a year. I was liking the way it looked.
So I wondered, what can I do to finish this thing off? I thought I’d look up some pictorial reference for the aircraft. Here came that sinking feeling. There isn’t any pictorial reference. I can’t find a pic of any Bf109G-14s serving with 9/JG54, much less this one. Darn. The publication date on the painting instructions is 1987. Shoot. I was really starting to like this.
If anyone out there has any helpful reference suggestions I’d be interested to hear them. I have seen a similar looking Bf109 G-6/R-6 with additional cannon “gondolas” under the wings, the older style fin and rudder, and RLM 74/75/76 camouflage. As you may see if you’re that kind of geek, mine has what I think is, or intended to be RLM 81/82/76. I’ve lost any underwing armaments that may have come with the model although that’s not a serious problem. There are quite a lot of aftermarket parts around. I certainly don’t want to repaint the while thing. I probably do need to wield my trusty 35-year old Paasche VL airbrush on the Fw190, since JV 44 seemed to spray a lot of green around on their Me262s as well as the four Focke Wulfs. That red underside is not going anywhere, I’ve become much too attached to it.
With the start of the new Academic Year I’ve been a little remiss in posting. Part of my distraction has been because I’ve been researching the story of Lt. Col. Montagu Reaney Chidson, the pilot of the Vickers FB.5 involved in the very first air combat over the United Kingdom in December 1914. It’s quite a story, and getting it into any kind of order may take a while.
In the meantime one of my colleagues at Pittsburg State University, Dr. John Daley, is teaching a course on the History of Military Aviation, which I just had to join, so I’m in there auditing it. The textbook we’re using is James L. Stokesbury’s A Short History of Air Power. (London: Hale, 1986). It’s an entertaining book, and contains a few things with which I have had the luxury of disagreeing. John Daley calls these texts a “beer and popcorn” read. So I wanted to show I was ready. I don’t like popcorn too much but this seems to be less of a problem.
Here we go then.
Accompanied by a few cans of the Tallgrass Brewery’s product, (I hope they can re-commence operations soon), is my copy of Stokesbury, James L. A Short History of Air Power. London: Hale, 1986.
“To use this waterlogged field for testing every now and then was reasonable and to take advantage of it as an emergency landing ground for Home Defence forces was credible, but to employ it as a flying training station was folly and as a Camel training station was lunacy.”
(Arthur S. Gould Lee, Open Cockpit: A Pilot of the Royal Flying Corps. London: Jerrolds, 1969).
Aerial view of RAF Joyce Green Aerodrome (6th Wing) taken on 31 Aug 1917. IWM Catalogue number Q 111411 By NASH A T (FLYING OFFICER) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
I’m always known as a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, and especially when researching the snippets that make up this blog. While researching another forthcoming article I saw a reference to RFC Joyce Green, near Dartford, Kent
When I was writing the piece about the Barnwell brothers (https://airbornerambler.wordpress.com/2015/05/20/connections/) I noted that that Harold Barnwell was killed at Joyce Green flying the prototype Vickers Vampire night fighter in August 1917. Vickers’ association with Joyce Green goes back to 1910 when they unsuccessfully attempted a test flight of a machine built in Crayford in association with Hiram Maxim. Maxim left the enterprise, but Vickers established an Aviation Department at Joyce Green in 1911, testing aircraft built in their Bexleyheath, Crayford, Erith, and Dartford factories.
Vickers FB.5 Gunbus flying replica G-ATVP, painted as 2345 of the Royal Flying Corps, at Yeovilton in 1966 RuthAS (Own work) CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
After the outbreak of war in 1914, Joyce Green assumed a role in the air defense of London from bombing raids by Zeppelins. The airfield’s first occupants under No. 6 Wing were No. 10 (Reserve) Squadron, using a mixed bag of aircraft including Farmans, Vickers FB5s and FB9s, DH2s and FE8s. The role of this unit was to receive pupils from preliminary training schools for final training for their wings. Each course consisted of about 20 pupils and lasted two or three weeks. This included time spent at Lydd where aerial gunnery was practiced at the Hythe range. On gaining their wings the young pilots would get a 48-hour pass before being posted to the Front.
On Christmas Day 1914, 2nd Lt M. R. Chidson, Royal Garrison Artillery, (Pilot) and Corporal Martin (Gunner) in an FB.5 flying from Joyce Green pursued a German Friedrichshafen FF.29 seaplane of the Imperial German Navy based at Zeebrugge in Belgium. Unfortunately the FB.5s gun jammed over Purfleet, leaving the German free to drop two bombs on Cliffe railway station in Kent. Other ‘Gunbus’ sorties were mounted from Joyce Green following the Zeppelin roads of January 1915.
In October 1915 the station put up five aircraft against Zeppelins L13, L14, L15, and L16; two would land safely after the action. 2nd Lt Claude Ridley took off from Joyce Green in a BE2c and spotted the airship for a brief moment in searchlights. He fired off 20 rounds at extreme range but then lost sight of the airship.
One noteworthy arrival at Joyce Green was James Thomas Byford McCudden VC DSO (and Bar), MC (and Bar), Croix de Guerre, who came in March 1917 to take up the appointment of Wing Fighting Instructor, to instruct advanced students (including a certain M. Mannock) on combat techniques. McCudden’s view of Joyce Green was that it was:
“a quiet spot near Dartford, and the aerodrome is considered a good one, although it is below the level of the Thames which flows past the aerodrome, and the ground is a little spongy”
(Flying Fury, Five Years in the Royal Flying Corps, 1930)
Although the field was used operationally, it had many factors weighing against it. Arthur S Gould Lee went on to say:
“A pupil taking off with a choked or failing engine had to choose, according to wind direction, between drowning in the Thames (half a mile wide at this point), or crashing into the Vickers TNT works, or hitting one of their several high chimney stacks, or sinking into a vast sewage farm, or killing himself and numerous patients in a large isolation hospital, or being electrocuted in an electrical substation with acres of pylons and cables; or trying to turn and get back to the aerodrome. Unfortunately, many pupils confronted with disaster tried the last course and span to their deaths” (Open Cockpit: A Pilot of the Royal Flying Corps)
McCudden’s mild opinion notwithstanding, the reputation of the field as a dangerous place for flying caused the RFC to search for other airfields south of London. Their search led them to a farmer’s field close to the village of Biggin Hill, and all flying was moved to the new Biggin Hill station by 1917.
RFC wireless testing was carried out at Joyce Green from 1915, following a lingering demarcation dispute between the Royal Engineers and the RFC caused by the latter’s takeover of the Marconi facilities at Brooklands (Surrey) in 1914. Wireless testing for the RFC had previously been under the authority of the Royal Engineers. It was deemed necessary to separate the staff of the two organizations, the Engineers being sent to Woolwich while the RFC relocated to Joyce Green.
Interestingly the airfield hosted some of the earliest elements of the US Army Air Service to arrive in Europe. Three flights of the 8th Aero Squadron arrived at the end of 1917 and were dispersed. It seems that pilots were attached to British units for further training. Ground crews were attached to British training units to learn maintenance procedures. Ground crews from the 149th Aero Squadron were apparently at Joyce Green in May 1918.
Vickers continued test flying from Joyce Green. The prototype FB.27 “Vimy” was built at Crayford , taken by road and re-assembled at Joyce Green for test flying.
A dismantled Vickers FB.27 “Vimy” on its way to Joyce Green for reassembly and test flying, photographed outside “The Bear and Ragged Staff” Public House, London Road, Crayford. Date unknown, circa 1917. Readers may be interested to know that the pub still exists as of July 2018. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The map below gives some idea of the general topography and salient features of the area around Joyce Green. The location of the airfield is (I assume) at the top of the dark green stripe in this Google image. the former Joyce Green Hospital (demolished in 2000) is at the right-hand edge of the dark green strip on the banks of the Thames, (sadly) close to the sewage treatment works mentioned by Arthur Gould Lee.
Area Surrounding Site of RFC Joyce Green, screen grab from Google Map
I never was much of a local historian until now, and since I’m 4500 miles away there’s only so much I can do, but the locality is full of history and the story of the airfield is given in a little more detail at its Wikipedia page. As with most little things which piques my interest there is a lot more to the story once you start digging. At this point it seems the sensible thing to do is to show my enthusiasm and let yours (my handful of readers) take it from there. It is interesting to think that without Joyce Green, there may have been no Biggin Hill, which may have caused a small change in British military aviation history as we know it.