Wartime aircraft crashes near Stanhoe
With airfields at nearby Docking and Bircham Newton, Stanhoe saw its share of aircraft crashes during the Second World War. Below are some notes on local incidents, drawing heavily on the memories of , who was a boy in Stanhoe at the time.
We are also grateful to of the former Norfolk War Graves website, to crew member Ivor Prothero of Wellington MS496, and to various enthusiastic aviation web forums (see below).
Our map page shows some of the crash sites.
“I was walking home from school with my school pal Nobby Steward one bright spring day in 1944/5 when we suddenly heard the tortured snarl of an aeroplane engine. We looked up just in time to identify two P–51 Mustang fighters when one plane crashed into the other. There was a big bang and the planes seemed to break up, with one large piece diving to earth leaving a smoke trail. There was also a wing spinning down on fire.”
“We estimated that the trail of smoke ended somewhere on the Barwick Hall Farm fields. We rushed home, grabbed our bikes and set off to find the downed aircraft.”
“We found it in the field known then as Big Jigs. Bill Steward (Nobby’s uncle) was working on the field, preparing the soil before spring sowing. He had parked his tractor near the pit in the corner of the field and was having a cup of cold tea before working overtime.”
“Bill had covered the dead pilot, who had fallen right in the corner of the field. The plane itself was further out in the field. It was deeply buried in the ground, sticking up at a roughly 30-degree angle with only part of the engine showing. There were no wings or tailplane to be seen.”
“From January 1946 I worked on the farm as a tractor and combine driver. In the following 20 years I ploughed and worked on that field many times, but apart from finding a part of the fuel tank in the hedge that divides Barwick Hall Farm from Barmer, I never found anything from that plane.”
“This is unusual, because other plane crashes in the area – and there were several of them – usually left small shards of plane and live cannon or machine gun bullets lying around. I believe the two Mustangs were on a training flight and consequently not carrying armaments. There were never any photographs that I can remember.”
“The other Mustang crashed on Syderstone Common, also killing the pilot.”
The Mustang crash: names and dates
According to RAF records, the crash took place at 15:45 on 23 March 1945. Two P-51 Mustangs of RAF 126 Sqn collided during combat practice. Both pilots were killed and both aircraft destroyed.
Mustang III KH546 (5J-Y) (126 Sqn)
131531 F/L (Pilot) Derek John Thurgood RAFVR +
Crashed at Everitt’s Farm, Barmer
Location MR wG284531 = 52.87739°N 0.71024°E = TF 824 345
The grid reference above that is quoted on the crash report card for KH546 fits well with Arthur Walker’s recollection.
wG288534 (TF 829 348) has also been reported, but it is not clear where that reference came from. According to Arthur, it is the wrong side of Jack’s Lane for the location of the fuselage. However, the aerial photo below shows that other wreckage may have landed to the east of the fuselage.
Mustang III FZ122 (5J*B) (65/19/64/126 Sqn)
AUS436158 F/O (Pilot) Maxwell James Neville RAAF +
Crashed at Wicken Farm, Tattersett
Possible location MR wG298502 = 52.85101°N 0.72987°E = TF 839 317
From the 126 Sqn Operational Records Book:
“Later in the day two new pilots F/Lt Thurgood and F/Off Neville were both killed when they crashed during practice flying they collided and the aircraft crashed at West Raynham. They had only been with the Squadron a very short time and were not operational on Mustangs.”
(Neville had been posted to 126 Sqn on 17 March 1945.)
“The plane crash that stands out in my memory is one that missed my father by about 100 yards.”
“I was at school on the day it happened. We heard a bang and as always, the teachers were informed by someone as to what caused it. We learned that a plane had crashed and caught fire near Station Road but just out of the village.”
“After school, Nobby and I took a walk down Station Road and on the upslope of the hill before the station we found what was left of a Beaufighter. It was virtually just over the hedge and the hedge was also burnt away.”
“In the next field on the right side of the road we could see my father and his mate Dudley thatching a cornstack. We walked on to have a word with him and when we went through the gate, to our surprise we saw an engine from the plane in the field, about 100 yards from the cornstacks and quite near the hedge on the right side of the road.”
“According to my father, the plane suddenly appeared diving and spinning rapidly. As it came down, one engine was torn out of the wing and landed about 100 yards to one side of the them and the plane roughly the same distance on the other side. Dad and Dudley tried to get to the burning wreck but there were lots of bullets flying around from the burning plane and they said that they couldn’t have helped anyway.
The plane was carrying lots of the silver paper rolls used in those days to frustrate radar. It was called “Window” I believe. They were scattered everywhere. There was also several bits and pieces left at the site after what was left of the plane was carted away, including live shells.”
“I can’t remember if my mother washed my Dad’s underclothes the next day but I am sure she did!”
RIP Stan Birtles and Bill Bourne
In July 2017 of Lowestoft, Suffolk, emailed us with key details of the Beaufighter crash. Many thanks to him for putting another piece of the jigsaw into place.
Beaufighter IC T3351 WR-U of 248 Squadron Bircham Newton (RAF Coastal Command) crashed at Stanhoe at 11.26 am on 17 September 1941.
The aircraft was on a test flight. According to the Air Ministry crash report, the tail unit and port wing broke off at an altitude of 1,500 ft. The aircraft spun to the ground and caught fire, killing both crew.
The pilot was Pilot Officer Stanley Birtles, aged 23 and married, of the RAF Volunteer Reserve. P/O Birtles is buried in his home town of Bradford.
His ground-crew passenger was Aircraftman 1st Class William Bourne, aged 21, of the regular RAF. AC1 Bourne came from Nottingham, where he is buried.
The crash site is given as ¼ mile south of Stanhoe Station.
248 Squadron adopted the Beaufighter when it moved to Bircham Newton in June 1941, having previously flown Blenheims from Sumburgh (Shetland) and Wick in Scotland. The Stanhoe crash happened just a month after the squadron flew its first Beaufighter missions on 14 August.
The “Window” puzzle
The idea of using strips of aluminium foil to confuse enemy radar, now known as “chaff”, was developed independently by the British and the Germans around 1942. The British called their invention “Window”, while the Germans referred to “Düppel”. For at least a year, however, neither side used it for fear of giving away the secret. The RAF probably first used Window in the terrible Hamburg raids of July 1943.
The Beaufighter that crashed in September 1941 therefore cannot have been carrying Window. It seems that Arthur Walker must have had another incident in mind.
German aircraft crashed in Station Road?
At Gillian Beckett’s village history talk in October 2012, Olga Ransom said she believed a German aircraft had crashed behind the council houses in Station Road.
Ivy Scales, who was born in Stanhoe in 1937, witnessed the aftermath of what could well have been the same crash. Ivy’s account is below. In conversation, she confirmed that the crash site was to the left of the road – on the same side as the council houses – as she and her gang ran back towards the village from the station.
“During the war the village kids went around in little gangs of friends, only coming home for meals. One day I was with a mob way down Station Road when the unmistakeable sound of a German plane was heard approaching (we could tell by the sound of the engines if it was Jerry or RAF).”
“The noise got louder and before we had decided whether to dive for cover in the hedge, black smoke appeared and it spiralled down to crash in a field on the left towards the village. We all took off as one to get to it as quick as we could and were busy dragging out the anti-radar foil ribbons when the village Bobby arrived on the scene and sent us packing.”
Ivy says she and her companions identified the aircraft as German from the sound of its engines. In practice, that may have meant that it had radial engines, as used by many German bombers, rather than the inline engines used in many Allied aircraft.
The idea of radial engines, plus Ivy’s mention of silver foil ribbons, initially made us think this might have been the Beaufighter crash referred to above. The Beaufighter had radial engines, and at the time of the crash in September 1941 would have been a fairly new sight in the skies over Stanhoe. However, Ivy added:
“The crash I saw in Station Road was much nearer the village, possibly getting on for a mile from the station. In September 1941 I would only have been four years old and was too young to have been out in a gang of kids! I believe the crash we saw must have been a few years later. In my memory it was a German plane. I have have a vague picture of the dead pilot, whom we ignored, so keen were we to get the ‘silver’ foil. I think he was flying solo.”
See also this discussion for a Dornier 217 that crashed at Fring.
“A Wellington bomber came down in the dead of night in a small copse situated to the left and behind Stanhoe Hall as you look at it from the road.”
“I was living at No.5 Station Road at the time. I woke up one night and saw a fire, quite a short distance away as the crow flies. There was also quite a bit of shouting. My dad went out to investigate but there was a big “NO” when I asked if I could go and look. When he came back, he said that it was a plane crash but it was being dealt with.”
“It was hot gossip round the village that Charlie Seaman had pulled an airman out of the burning wreckage, but Charlie was a big, strong, quiet man and he would never tell anyone about that night. I asked him several times over the years I knew him and he would just smile and start talking about something else.”
“Runway lights went out”
The former Norfolk War Graves website confirmed that a Vickers Wellington Mk X of 196 Squadron, serial MS486 (ZO-R), crashed in Stanhoe at 02:29 on 12 June 1943 (but see the logbook extract below: the number should be MS496).
The crash site is given as “230 yards north-west of Stanhoe church”; this may be a mistake for “230 yards north-west of Stanhoe Hall”, since the Hall itself is about 200m NW of the church, and the location given by Arthur Walker is about 200m NW of the Hall.
Earlier that night the brand-new aircraft had taken off from RAF Leconfield in Yorkshire on its first operation, a bombing raid to Düsseldorf. With one engine disabled by anti-aircraft fire and the other overheating, the aircraft was forced to jettison its single 4,000-lb bomb and turn for home. The pilot was preparing to make an emergency landing at RAF Docking when the runway lights went out. He tried to go round again, but the plane crashed in Stanhoe and caught fire.
Two of the crew were killed and three others survived. The pilot, F/O FW Jackson, is buried at New Hunstanton Cemetery. The navigator, F/O Ronald Lea, is buried at Great Bircham.
The rear gunner, Sgt Ivor Prothero, survived severe burns and later wrote a detailed account of the events of that night, including how ARP warden Charlie Seaman was the first civilian on the scene and received a commendation for bravery. Visit our sound recordings pages to hear Ronnie Newell’s account of Charlie Seaman’s role.
According to Ivor Prothero, the aircraft crashed in a field of barley. In combination with Arthur Walker's memory, this suggests that the aircraft clipped the trees in the park and came to rest somewhere on the north side of the park boundary. The position on our crash map was plotted by Sgt Prothero on a 6-inch Ordnance Survey map provided by Brian Hillman.
The NHER record for Stanhoe Hall mentions the crash.
Brian Hillman tells us that on 16 July 1944 a Lockheed Ventura V, number FP566 of 521 Squadron based at Bircham Newton, was making an approach to Docking when it lost power, belly landing at map reference TF 794 375, around 800 metres north-west of Stanhoe Hall. There are no reports of crew deaths.
The Norfolk Historic Environment Record confirms the aircraft type and grid reference but gives no other details.
Stanhoe Archive has a brief report – source unknown – that confirms the date and aircraft type. This report says that the aircraft was on a meteorological flight, suffered engine failure and crashed in the park at Stanhoe Hall. There were no casualties, but the aircraft was destroyed by fire. The location given is probably a mistake caused by confusion with the Wellington crash (above).
521 Squadron carried out meteorological reconnaissance for RAF Coastal Command. At the time of this incident the squadron seems to have been based at RAF Docking, not Bircham Newton.
Incidents along Station Road
Arthur Walker remembers three incidents in which as far as we know no lives were lost.
“One Sunday a few ATC boys were thrilled to be given a ride in a Lockheed Hudson. What they didn’t know was that the plane would develop a fault as it made for home. The plane crash-landed on its belly, ending up in a field on the left of Station Road known as Schoolfield. It is a three-acre field that used to be farmed by Charlie Seaman. He paid a tithe annually and the proceeds used to go the school children each Christmas for the best attendance.”
“The boys all got out of the plane and there was nobody hurt but they were all white-faced and terrified. The plane was a bit damaged with a small fire in one engine when we were shooed away.”
[Metal detecting with the kind permission of the trustees of Wright’s Charity has produced some small pieces of aircraft wreckage from this field. These are now in the care of Stanhoe Archive.]
“The second incident happened on the opposite side of the road where a Wellington landed for no apparent reason in a convenient 50-acre field that was sown with grass. The crew came into the village dressed in their big flying jackets. We asked them what they were doing but got no reply. I don’t know if they were able to take off again.”
“My mates and I were cruising round the village on our bikes looking for mischief one Saturday morning when a man came down Station Road and told us that a plane had crashed right on the crossroads near Sunderland airfield and completely blocked the road. We all rushed down there and found that a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber had crash landed on the airfield and skidded through the hedge and stopped right in the middle of the road. There was no-one guarding the plane so we had a good look round it. The guns and ammunition had been removed so it was quite safe. Looking across the airfield we could see three more that had all suffered the same fate. I think that they must have come down late on Friday night in daylight.”
A search at the AAIC website lists four incidents coded “LAC” (“landing accident”) at RAF Docking:
03 October 1943: B-17
30 October 1943: B-17
30 October 1943: B-17
02 September 1944: B-24
The incident dated 3 October could be a mistake for 30 October. If so, there were indeed three B-17 accidents on the same day – perhaps due to fog or a failure of the airfield lighting.
30 October 1943 was a Saturday, which would imply that Arthur saw the aircraft on the day of the crashes, and not the day after as he guessed.
The Bagthorpe Blenheim
Another RAF Coastal Command aircraft, this time a Bristol Blenheim, crashed somewhere near Bagthorpe. The Battle of Britain London Monument website reports the crash of Blenheim IV L9262 at “Barwick Farm” after taking off from RAF Bircham Newton; pilot P/O J S Priestley and gunner Sgt. EA Graves were both killed. This book about Blenheims reports the site as “Barwick Farm, Bagthorpe”.
The following is based on information from Bob Collis:
Coastal Command Losses by Ross McNeill states the aircraft was a Blenheim Mk IVF. This was a long-range fighter variant carrying four extra machine guns in a “gun pack” under the fuselage. RAF Coastal Command used the Mk IVF to protect convoys from German long-range bombers.
The same source reports that the aircraft was flying practice circuits when it spun into the ground. The crash position is given as “Bagthorpe, edge of Bircham”, with the approximate grid coordinate wG2850. This is a 1-km grid square extending from roughly TF 822 315 to TF 832 325 in modern coordinates – around Coxford Wood and Syderstone Common. The reference to Bagthorpe suggests that it was on Bagthorpe land south of the B1454, though possibly closer to Syderstone than to Bagthorpe Hall.
Bombs around Stanhoe
With thanks to Bob Collis for most of the information:
Docking was bombed on 22 separate occasions between 26 August 1940 and 27 July 1942.
On 20 October 1940 a parachute mine landed somewhere in the area but failed to explode. These modified naval mines were feared for the huge amount of blast damage they caused.
Two incendiary bombs fell in Stanhoe on 25 October 1940. These were probably 250 kg Flammenbombe oil-filled bombs, and not the smaller magnesium incendiary bombs dropped in large numbers. No casualties were reported.