Meopham Redux

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?”

A blurry picture of G-AAZK at Meopham, July 1930 from
https://www.baaa-acro.com/crash/crash-junkers-f13ge-meopham-6-killed

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.

Pathe news footage of the aftermath of the crash
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MaMUpRpUkZA

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.  

Screenshot from the Pathe News film on YouTube, showing the tail of G-AAZK found some distance from the major portions of the wreckage and attracting the attention of the local populace. Notice how shiny the metal is, and also notice that half the port (left) tailplane is missing. This has not been removed by souvenir hunters – this was the first structural failure which triggered a number of others, notably the separation of the tail from the aircraft, causing a violent downward pitch which may have thrown the passengers through the roof of the aircraft.

The co-pilot, Charles Shearing, was pulled from the wreckage and carried inside the bungalow. Shearing died soon afterwards.

Screenshot from the Pathe News film on YouTube showing the engine of G-AAZK with what seems to be some of the nose structure attached, having fallen in the driveway of a house in Meopham on July 21st 1930

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.

I forgot I had a Pinterest Account – thanks Sam! Passengers and Crew aboard G-AAZK on July 21st 1930 L-R Mrs Sigrid Loeffler; Frederick Temple Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 3rd Marquess of Dufferin and Ava; Sir Edward Ward Bt. The smallest picture is Viscountess Ednam (formerly Lady Rosemary Sutherland-Leveson-Gower). Then Lt. Colonel George Henderson, Pilot, and on the right I assume this is Charles Shearing, Co-Pilot. Given the passage of time I can’t believe that any of the portraits are not in the Public Domain

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 Ward of 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.

  1. Accident Investigation Sub-Committee: Accident to the Aeroplane G-AAZK at Meopham, Kent, on 21st July, 1930. R. & M. No. 1360, HMSO 1931
  2. Abdrashitov, G., Tail Buffeting, NACA TM-1041, February 1943 (Translated from Russian. Report 395 from the Central Aero-Hydromechanical Institute, Moscow, 1939).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Meopham Air Disaster; Sir Edward Ward Hon. Walter Piers Legh Mrs Henrik Loeffler Hon Mrs Piers Legh Viscountess Ednam And The Marquess Of Dufferin And Ava (l-r) Pictured Minutes Before Ill Fated Flight From Le Touquet. Col Piers Legh And His Wife Did [not travel] Stock Image by Associated Newspapers for editorial use, Jul 23, 1930 (Shutterstock Social Share)

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)