Beaufighter engine narrowly misses Arthur’s dad

“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 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.

Forbidden aerobatics?

A contemporary report by the Accidents Investigation Branch (AIB) suggests that Beaufighter T3351 may have crashed after the pilot carried out a roll, which was forbidden in this type of aircraft.

A note by AIB Chief Investigator Vernon Brown dated two months after the accident reads:

In Encl. 7A I definitely stated that there was no direct evidence that the pilot intended on that occasion to roll this aircraft. We do know, however, that he had given instructions for his air gunner to be strapped tightly into his seat.

That he actually did carry out such a manoeuvre cannot be dismissed because the tail had failed by being twisted off in a way that might have been the result of a roll – perhaps carried out a few minutes before the aircraft was first noticed by those on the ground.

In my d.o. reply to 9A I emphasized this and pointed out that what we did know was that a pilot from another Squadron had been over about 10 days before this and given a demonstration of rolling. It was in respect of that contravention of regulations that it seemed desirable to draw attention in para. 3.

Brown stressed the need to make independent enquiries and protect whistle-blowers:

A Court of Inquiry investigated this accident to this particular Beaufighter and it would not normally record evidence of a kind I have mentioned. I do not think, therefore, it is fair to suggest that there may have been “a widespread conspiracy to conceal the true facts of the case.” So long as an inquiry is carried out by officers of the Station to which an aircraft belonged there is always a likelihood that all the contributory factors will not be disclosed. That is a matter which I have stressed on many occasions.

In this Branch we are always as careful as we can be that if we give information obtained in confidence no one will be let down. That is why in my minute I was careful to avoid mentioning any names.

The last part of the note suggests why the stresses induced by aerobatics might have caused the tail and engine to break off:

It may be of interest generally to know that the frame formers 330 and 332 have been suspect because in a great number of cases the rivets of the rear spar attachment fittings of the tail plane have sheared and/or cracks have been found in the formers themselves adjacent to this fitting. At one Squadron alone 17 out of the 18 aircraft there were so affected. Modification action is being taken immediately. There is a possibility that the trouble has been caused by tail wheel shimmy.

Another trouble with the Beaufighter has been the failure of engine mountings. That matter, again, is receiving immediate attention.

Meanwhile, Beaufighters shouldn’t be rolled.

Click here to see a copy of the original report from the National Archives. There was clearly a lot of other paperwork associated with this incident, but so far we have not been able to find copies.

Bob Collis comments: “The Beaufighter was a very large and tough aeroplane, but it was also a decidedly unaerobatic machine.”

“From the AIB document it is clear that they walked a very fine line between reporting on what they knew to be the facts and suggesting the aircrews were mishandling the aircraft.”

The ‘air gunner’ referred to here would have been the person occupying the second seat in the Beaufighter; we know that William Bourne, Aircraftman 1st Class, would not normally have ventured into the air.

Bob Collis notes: “As it was a local air-test it was not at all unusual for groundcrew to have the opportunity for an ‘air experience flight’ in an aircraft. Bomber Command did exactly the same and a few groundcrew including WAAFs were lost whilst ‘up on a jolly’.”

Accident investigators

The AIB was set up in 1915 as part of the Royal Flying Corps (RFC). After the First World War it became part of the Air Ministry, and in 1946 transferred to the new Ministry of Civil Aviation. Now known as the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), the organisation is part of the Department for Transport.

Sir Vernon Brown was a veteran of the RFC who became AIB Chief Inspector of Accidents in 1937. From then until his retirement in 1952 “he laid the foundations of an effective organisation using techniques which would eventually be more concerned with preventing future accidents as opposed to simply determining the causes.”

The above document on the Beaufighter crash is a single page of typescript from the National Archives. So far we have not been able to trace any other documents from the AIB or the Court of Enquiry that Vernon Brown refers to.

More notes from Arthur

“The plane crashed right near the hedge, so close that the hedge caught fire. For years after that part of the hedge only just managed to stay alive so it was possible to see the exact spot where the plane hit the ground. Daughter Jo walked down the field looking into the bottom of the hedge for traces of burnt thorn roots. Clutching at straws after seventy-odd years I think.”

Arthur Walker near the Beaufighter crash site in 2017

Arthur Walker near the Beaufighter crash site in 2017

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.