Wartime Air Crashes
John Quinn investigates where aircraft came to grief on Ireland's hills and mountains
It was an overcast Sunday morning during December 1990, when I along with my colleague drove along the Glenshesk road towards Armoy. Leaving the main road we proceeded into a farm owned by the McCormick family in the north Antrim townland of Stroan. As so often before on our travels we were arriving without prior notice but despite this we were welcomed at the farm with the customary cup of tea.
It was to this very farm at the bottom of Knocklayd Mountain, exactly 47 years earlier to the day, that an RAF salvage party had arrived on a wet, misty Sunday morning on December 6, 1943, to carry out the now familiar recovery of crew fatalities and aircraft equipment.
In this case the aircraft was a Sunderland flying-boat serial No W6013 of 423 Squadron, RCAF based at Castle Archdale in Co Fermanagh. The large flying-boat had crashed on the top of Knocklayd Mountain after descending too early through cloud. Nine of the 12 crewmen were killed in the crash including the aircraft’s captain, Squadron Leader Thomas RAFVR, who along with another of the crew, Flying Officer Blair, are buried in plot 2 at Irvinestown, Co Fermanagh.
With the sun breaking through the cloud, we began to trek up the steep hill on what was now a bright and crisp December morning. Having been given a descriptive guide by Mr McCormick before leaving the farm, we located the ‘tracked’ impact point left by the aircraft in the fatal crash, but surprisingly there was no sign of any items of wreckage, not even any small items of surface fragmentation. We knew the four engines had been salvaged by the recovery team and as the Sunderland is a large aircraft, we were sure that fragmentation had to remain buried within the boggy landscape.
But this trip was more for documentation purposes and we did not concentrate our time on a detailed examination of the area. We photographed the site and began descending back down the hill to move on to our next location.
BRITISH ANSON N5372 No3 School of General Recon.
Our second call again on ‘spec’ was with John McClements of Drumavoley Road in Glenshesk near Ballycastle. John was happy to pinpoint our next crash location which was a house on the Drumavoley Road bordering Mullart/Drumavoley townlands. Now owned by John Dillion [December 1990], this was the spot where on October 18, 1943, a British Anson serial No N5372 of No3 School of General Recon based at Squire’s Gate, Blackpool, in England, was caught in a downdraught which caused it to strike high ground.
The aircraft was being flown by Flying Officer Cooper and he attempted a forced-landing, but struck a tree before crashing into the house, which at the time was owned by Charles Blaney. Mr Blaney’s wife and their five children were at home as was a young girl from County Donegal, 22 year old Josephine McGroarty, who was staying there at the time.
She was standing outside the house with her boyfriend John Greer from Ballycastle. John was thrown clear as the aircraft came sliding into a fatal impact with the house. Josephine McGroarty was tragically killed as were two of those on board the aircraft. One of these was a high-ranking free-Polish officer, Wing Commander Heller, who was based at Jurby in the Isle of Man.
The pilot, Flying Officer Cooper, was thrown from the aircraft and he landed in the children’s room, none of whom miraculously were injured, nor were the Blaneys themselves. Wing Commander Heller was later buried in Movilla cemetery, Newtownards, Co Down.
BRITISH ANSON N4943 No1 Air Observers Navigation School
Another tragedy involving a British training Anson, occurred on January 31, 1940, when Anson N4943 of No1 Air Observers Navigation School, based at Prestwick in Scotland, crashed in a snow blizzard while off course.
The aircraft had left its base at 08:30 that morning and crashed in the glens some time between 09:00-10:00. The pilot, Sergeant Derek Watson-Parker, was an experienced flyer with 400 hours of flying time logged, 140 of which were on Ansons. He along with two other crewmen, Leading Aircraft’s men Herbert Williams and Dennis Whittiker and a civilian who was also on board the aircraft were all killed in the crash.
The aircraft was discovered two days later when two local shepherds, Henry McAuley of Calisnagh and James McKendrey of Dieskirt, came upon it whilst searching for sheep buried in deep snowdrifts. They contacted the local RUC, who in turn informed the RAF at Aldergrove. They in turn dispatched a recovery team to the site of the crash. Sergeant Derek Watson-Parker was buried in St Catherine’s Church of Ireland at Killead-Aldergrove, in section 24, grave No 2.
There were a total of 23 British and American airbases situated throughout the north during the Second World War. Many were built in locations deemed necessary for operational reasons, whilst others were used for training. With so much flying activity under restrictive wartime conditions and the terrain to be found in the north, flying accidents were inevitable.
The RAF’s Coastal Command role was prominent from the outbreak of the second world war in September 1939, and the weather and terrain were to prove the worst of any enemy for the British aircrews who flew from their bases in the north out into the North Atlantic on convoy escort patrols.
BRITISH HUDSON T9328 224 SQUADRON
One early casualty of the terrain was an RAF Hudson bomber, serial No T9328 of 224 Squadron based at Aldergrove. This aircraft crashed on Slieveanee Mountain on October 16, 1940 killing all on board.
Three of the crew: Flight Lieutenant Francis Scott; Pilot Officer Ronald Davies from Dorset and Flying Officer Tony Tisdall from Hendon, London, are buried in St Catherine’s Church of Ireland, Killead-Aldergrove, in section 24, grave Nos 7, 8 and 9.
We first located this site in thick mist during a second visit to the area in 1988. It was pretty accessible in comparison to the other crash sites we would have to locate over the next five years throughout the country, stretching from the Glens of Antrim to the mountains around Kerry. Despite the fact a local aviation group had already removed parts of the wreckage, the aircraft’s two undercarriage legs and parts of the exhaust system and an engine cowling still lay scattered on the site.
As was the usual procedure, we recorded a grid reference on an ordnance map and photographed the site. As the area was shrouded in mist which was not unusual, I returned to this site on another date to re-photograph the aircraft’s remains.
This aircraft was the second that 224 Squadron lost in a crash within a four week period. On September 20, Hudson T9326 had taken off from Aldergrove at 04:30 hours to engage in an anti-submarine patrol, when having just reached 200 feet, it rapidly lost height and crashed. Once again, the crew were killed.
Sergeant (Pilot) Arthur Gibbs from Ipswich and Sergeant Stanley Swann from Manchester were both buried at St Catherine’s, while Sergeant (Pilot) Kenneth Postgate was buried at Killead Presbyterian Church.
AMERICAN B17 FLYING FORTRESS (41-24451) 401st Bombing Squadron, 91st Bomb Group, USAAF
In 1990, a letter was passed on to me from fellow aviation historian Dave Smith, which had been written to him from Bill McElroy in New York. Bill, while on holiday in Scotland had read an article Dave had written in the magazine The Scotsman on wartime crashes in Scotland, and this prompted him to write to Dave to enquire if he knew anything about his best friend Bob Allen, whom he believed had been killed in a flying accident either in the north of Ireland or in Scotland. Dave, knowing it was an ‘Irish’ crash forwarded the letter on to me and in turn replied to Bill McElroy, putting to rest the ghost of his never knowing that his friend 2nd Lieutenant Bob Allen was killed when the B17 bomber he was on board crashed into Slieveanorra mountain on October 3, 1942. B17 ‘Flying Fortress’ 41-24451 had been on a ‘ferry flight’ from the United States to the transatlantic ferry terminal at Prestwick in Scotland, having been assigned to the 401st Bombing Squadron of the 91st Bomb Group of the 8th USAAF.
It was not uncommon for aircraft with new crews to veer off course. Unfortunately as in this case, sometimes bad luck would intervene and with poor weather and unfamiliarity with the local terrain, crashes occurred. This particular aircraft crashed into bogland on Slieveanorra mountain killing all on board.
The eight crew men were initially buried in Belfast City cemetery but were later exhumed and reburied in Lisnabreeny U.S. Military cemetery on the outskirts of east Belfast. They were exhumed again in 1948 when Lisnabreeny was closed and those buried there were either moved to the American military cemetery in Cambridgeshire, England, or returned to family care in the United States.
I first visited the crash site in 1988 and we found many small fragments of wreckage in the bog. The site was photographed and documented. In a second letter to Bill, I sent a small token piece of aluminium to him as a keepsake memory of his friend. This “human perspective” was a very important element in the whole documentation process. There would be many more letters similar to that received from Bill McElroy, that would come pouring in over the next eight years, mainly from family members seeking information. In nearly all the cases, I was able to respond and help those who wrote to me.
These are just a few of several hundred aircraft that have been documented having come to grief on Ireland’s hills and mountains.
By John Quinn