MILITARY ECHOES
Angus Martin


SECOND WORLD WAR AIRCRAFT CRASHES


     Kintyre, and in particular the Mull area, is notorious for the number of aircraft - and airmen - that have met their fates on its hillsides. The most recent such disaster was the Chinook helicopter which struck the coast above the Mull Lighthouse in thick mist on the evening of 2 June 1994 with the loss of 29 lives. I am not an aviation historian in any real sense, but it seems to me that in these aircraft wrecks we have a tragic legacy which is not widely appreciated locally, though wreck historians come here from all over Britain to visit wreck-sites. Many of these Kintyre sites have already been violated by afforestation. In order to protect those which remain, it is necessary in the first place to know precisely where they are. The extant records are often sketchy, and I feel that local tradition might help fill out these records. I am therefore keen to hear from anyone who knows anything connected with aircraft crashes in Kintyre, particularly wartime crashes.

     I have chosen to look at five Second World War aircraft crashes close to home, but hope to receive information on others. The written sources used were David J Smith's High Ground Wrecks, which was last published in 1989 and is now out of print, and a typewritten account of Known Aircraft Wreck Sites in Kintyre, compiled by Mr Malcolm Spaven of Brighton in 1985 and made available to me by Mr Alistair McKinlay. I have to thank Mr McKinlay in particular for assistance with the preparation of these accounts. For specific information I thank Mr Dugald McKendrick and the late Mr Alec Colville, Campbeltown, the Misses Mary and Margaret Sinclair, Machrihanish, Mrs Jessie Sinclair Mathieson, Drumlemble, Mr Iain McConnachie, High Dalrioch, Messrs Bobby Duncan, Bobby Houston, Donald Brown, Jock Smith, Jim McGeachy and George McSporran, Campbeltown.

     KILLYPOLE [631 188, according to Malcolm Spaven's list] Possibly a Sea Fire. Date uncertain, but possibly May 1942, on evidence provided by the Sinclair sisters, Mary and Margaret, at Machrihanish: see below. Weather conditions: strong wind and flying mist. The pilot escaped the wreckage with facial injuries and headed north-west. He reached the coast before seeing and turning towards Ballygroggan steading. The door was answered by one of the young Sinclair girls, Jessie, who turned back into the house calling to her mother that there was a man at the door with dirt on his face; this was blood. Her father, Duncan Sinclair, head shepherd there, went out to find a telephone to summon assistance, while his wife made a cup of tea for the pilot and otherwise attended to him. Military personnel soon afterwards arrived and took the airman away for medical treatment. A watch was placed on the wreckage until it was removed, bit by bit, to High Lossit and carried off in lorries. The date is based on Margaret's information that when the pilot arrived at Ballygroggan, he was crowded by the pet lambs penned at the steading - hence lambing must have been going on - and on Mary's calculation of her age at the time: she had not yet gone to the Grammar School, but was attending Drumlemble Infants' School.

     BLACK LOCH Fairey Fulmar. The wide area - from around the Black Loch to the north-facing slope of Ben Gullion - in which bits of aircraft wreckage have been found, and continue to be found, has generated a theory that there may have been two wartime aircraft crashes close to the Black Loch; but folk tradition acknowledges only one, and the question remains unresolved.

     Eyewitness accounts indicate an impact point close to the westem peak of Ben Gullion, with dispersal of wreckage out towards the Black Loch. Malcolm Spaven's list gives the grid reference 716 178, '50 yards N of Black Loch' and the date, c. March 1944. He has the plane as a Fulmar of 72 Squadron Machrihanish. In fact, the two locations - traditional and Mr Spaven's - correspond closely.

     The date 7 July 1941 is given in another account. On that day, HMS Pegasus was covering two convoys, SL78 and 0467, in the Atlantic west of Ireland. One convoy was bound for Sierra Leone and the other for Gibraltar. At 0758 hours a Focke Wulf Condor was sighted, and Pegasus launched by catapult a Fulmar, piloted by Lt TRV Parke and crewed by Leading Airman Miller. The Condor proved elusive, however, and the Fulmar headed for land. Three hours later, at 1100 hours, she crashed into 'high ground south of Campbeltown'. Both airmen were killed and are buried in Kilkerran.

     Mr Dugald McKendrick, then farming Tomaig No 3 with his father, remembers seeing the engine lying some 200 yards beyond the main wreckage, and he was particularly intrigued by the sight of an empty airman's boot with the lace unbroken.

     Jock Hamilton, tenant in No 4 Killeonan, was employed with his horse to drag the larger pieces of wreckage to Tomaig No 4, the holding occupied by his uncle, William Hamilton, for removal by lorry. The aircraft's after wheel - ' no bigger than a barrow wheel' - was in the possession of Mr McKendrick, and may yet be in a shed on the holding.

     The aircraft's gun and ammunition belts were removed by a group of local boys, but later recovered by the authorities. A friend of the author's who, as a young man, bought a splendid set of motorcycling goggles from an acquaintance of his, was displeased to learn later that the goggles had been looted from the dead pilot by the man who sold them on, and who claimed to have been first on the scene.

     Wreckage was located early in 1995 by George McSporran at 722 178, north-east of the Black Loch in a swampy clearing amid afforestation. I accompanied him there on 10.12.1995 and photographed the remains: eight smallish pieces of twisted metal, chiefly aluminium. There was a spade with a broken shaft beside the wreckage, which suggests either than the bits were dug up or that an attempt was made to dig up further bits.

     Spaven lists a Swordfish or Albacore which 'crashed in clump of rushes near a small burn just below the west summit of Beinn Ghuilean ...', which casualty - for which no date or any other detail is available - may be the source of some twisted bits of aluminium which George McSporran found in 1992 at 718 186, when the Forestry Commission was creating its circular walk and a digger was on the hill. Mr Jim McGeachy remembers seeing, as a boy, c 1942, from Glenside, on the opposite side of town, the wing of a wrecked aircraft moving mysteriously across the face of Ben Gullion below the Goat and then suddenly disappearing into the ravine, a piece of devilment attributed to 'the Park Square boys'. That testimony, however, suggests that the plane in question crashed below the eastern peak. Alternatively, and more likely, the wing sighted from Glenside may have belonged to the Fulmar discussed above, for Alistair McKinlay recollects that a squad of Royal Navy tugboat men from HMS Minona was detailed to manhandle the wings and perhaps other large pieces of wreckage down the face of the hill.

     GLEN LUSSA [74- 27-] Vickers Wellington VIII HX420. 7 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit, Limavady. On 17.2.1943, she crashed near the summit of Sgreadan, above Drumgarve, at 1200 hours. Two of the crew were killed and three injured. One of the survivors reached Drumgarve and alerted the daughter of the tenant there, Sandy Wilson. Alec Colville, a member of the Campbeltown Fire Brigade during the war, was called out to the crash, and helped carry one of the corpses downhill to Gartgreillan. The body was taken to the mortuary, an underground warehouse at Albyn Distillery, on the site of the present Clothing Factory. The fatalities were Sergeant J Pool, pilot, who died of his injuries, and Sergeant H Hoyle, navigator, who was killed instantly. Most of the wreckage was removed shortly afterwards by tractors.

     ARINARACH HILL [733 157]. Liberator I AM915, ATFERO (Atlantic Ferry Organisation). In issue number 34, 'By Hill and Shore', I described a Coastguard exercise, in January 1993, to locate the marker plaque commemorating the above crash. At that time, I had little information on the circumstances of the tragedy, all of it hearsay. From Malcolm Spaven's notes, however, it can be said that the aircraft was inward bound from the USA and circling to await weather clearance for a landing at Prestwick, 1130 on 1.9.1941. Instead, she crashed into Arinarach Hill, at the head of Balnabraid Glen.

     All 10 persons on board were killed, and a 'phial of radium', which had been aboard, was never recovered. A geiger counter, which was also supposed to have been on the plane, likewise could not be recovered, and the rumour was that a local special constable made off with it without realising what it was. Alistair McKinlay tells me that, from conversations with the late Calum Bannatyne, then shepherd at Auchenhoan, the disappearance of the aircraft was not at first accountable. Calum himself was led to the scene by an airborne trail of charred papers, which he noticed while working at the Auchenhoan fanks. He had in his possession a hairbrush which bore a Belgian coat of arms. Mr McKinlay remembers having seen, in Calum Bannatyne's possession, a newspaper cutting from The Bulletin, in which the crash was reported. I wrote to The Mitchell Library and asked for a search to be made in the files of that paper. A search was duly made, not only through the files of The Bulletin, but also of The Glasgow Herald and The Sunday Mail, but without success.

     I later received, however, from Mr Dave Smith, a copy of a report of the Liberator crash which appeared in The Sheffield Star of 3 September 1941 under the heading, 'Atlantic Plane Hits Hillside in Britain'. That report lists the dead: four crewmen and six passengers. Crew: Captain KD Garden (Australian); First Officer G L Panes (British), both of British Airways, but seconded to the Ministry of Aircraft Production for Atlantic ferrying duties; Radio Officer SW Sydenham (Canadian), and Flight Engineer C A Spence (American). Civilians: RB Mowat, Professor of History at Bristol University, who had been lecturing in the US for the Carnegie Trust; Count Baillet-Latour, economic counsellor in London to the Belgian Ministry of Colonies; Dr M Benjamin of the Central Scientific Office in Washington (British); Captain S Picking, US Navy (American); Mr BY Taylor of Farnborough (British), and Lieut Col LH Wrangham, Royal Marines (British). The report added that this was the second ferry plane lost on a flight from America to Britain, and that in the previous month two others had crashed, within five days of each other, after taking off for Canada, each with the loss of 22 passengers and crew.

     The Liberator was, with the Flying Fortress, the main American heavy bomber of the Second World War, and had a length of 67.1 ft and a wing span of 110 ft. With an aircraft of such size, it would have been remarkable had no wreckage been overlooked in the clearing operation, and, with this theory in mind, a search was organized for 17 December 1995. I was accompanied by George, John and Sandy McSporran, Kenny McLellan and Robert Houston. It was a cloudy but dry day, with a cold easterly wind. We set off from the roadside just before Auchenhoan steading at 759 170, taking the well-surfaced track to Balnabraid ruins, where we halted and had our first 'piece' of the day. We then headed up the north side of the glen, on a well-defined track, which disappeared into riugh ground farther up. At about 738 159, we crossed on to the south side of the bum, and at about 737 158 John came upon a substantial piece of wreckage, consisting of piping. A little beyond that, he picked up a weathered fragment of aluminium. We were soon in the forest and had located the marker cross, the plate of which has become loose and wants fixing. After a rest and further refreshment in the shelter of the trees, we headed north for the top of Glenramskill, and finished the walk by going around the back of Ben Gullion and down Tomaig Glen.

     CALLIBURN [711 257] Avenger or Barracuda. Crashed 40 yds west of Killypole ruin, at Calliburn Farm road-end, in late 1944 or early 1945, with the loss of its Canadian crew, perhaps three men. One of the Campbeltown schoolboys who hastened to the scene of the crash lifted a chunk of metal and was horrified to find a severed arm beneath it.Much of the time these youths were looking for nothing more valuable than fragments of the cockpit perspex which invariably littered crash sites. Suitable pieces would be cut to shape for turning into jewelry' - rings, badges, brooches and suchlike - and then filed and sanded to perfection. Rings were formed by burning a hole with a heated poker. Plastic was then, of course, a novelty.
No 42 Autumn 1997


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