A little corner of history (3).

An Account of a Flying Accident at R.A.F. Tatenhill in November 1944.

A letter from Wal Denney – 8/1/1998.

Near the end of the war the trainees were kept at R.A.F. Tatenhill for an extended period because operational losses were, luckily, over estimated by the Air Ministry.

November 1944:  At night briefing, I informed the aircrews that it would be a clear cloudless night and fog was expected around midnight.  The Flight Commander had already informed them that there would only be one lot of cross county exercises but circuits and bumps would continue until the weather looked as if it was closing in.  Nearing midnight, as predicted, the visibility reduced to just less then 2,000 yards and it had been decided to cease flying after the six airborne trainees landed.  At that moment the control room lights went out.  Looking out to the airfield and all the lights were out.  Told the W/Ops to radio the pilots to circle until we could restore power – no radios – they worked off the power supply.  Grabbed the Tannoy mike – dead.  Telephone – dead.  By this time the W.A.A.F.s had connected the emergency batteries to the radios – guess what? – they had not been used for so many years, they were flat.  At that moment a telephone rang in the corner of the room that I had never used.  It was a field telephone connected to the beacon a few miles from the airfield and the electrician informed me the aircraft were circling his beacon.  Thank goodness I had at least a few minutes breathing space.  The normal emergency procedure would have been to divert to another airfield, but we were the highest field for miles around so all these would have been closed in, and how could I communicate with them or the aircraft anyway?  There was no way the trainee pilots could have been able to navigate for hundreds of miles without a pre-arranged route.  There was only the ground crew to do with the assistance of the fire crew.  It did not take them long and when they were clear of the runway, I had the pleasure of firing a white rocket for the first time in my life and the Airfield Controller signalled them in one by one using his Aldis Lamp.  I had told him on his field telephone the recognition letters.

All this time I watched the fog creeping up on us, but it was still reasonably safe, particularly as the paraffin flares gave a very good light.  All went well until the Airfield Controller informed me on the field telephone that the last aircraft was coming in to land before the penultimate aircraft had left the runway against his Red Aldis.  I went out to the balcony but, because of the fog and the smoke from the goose necks, I could not observe what was happening on the runway.  The penultimate aircraft might not have left the runway as he could have been confused because there were no perimeter lights.  I had no alternative but to fire a red Very.

The trainee went round again, but crashed a few hundred yards from the end of the runway[1].

Did he get caught in the notorious down draft at the end of Runway 22, but would there have been a down draft when there was no wind?  Can you “go through the gate” on an Oxford the same as on a Blenheim in an emergency? There was no enquiry so it has prayed on my mind ever since.  Was I responsible for this poor youngster’s death or would it have been possible that two aircraft would have crashed wasting two lives?  All this happened in far less time that it has taken to feed it into the W.P.  I always remember this incident with remorse when we experience a November fog, Remembrance Day or whenever an aircraft crash is reported (you can tell how clear it is in my mind 53 years later).

There was a sequel to this.  I had met the girl who was to be my wife in May  1944.  On this November night it took me all night and most of the morning writing reports and reporting verbally so had no sleep, but just had time for a bath before leaving camp to meet my fiancée in Derby where ‘Gone with the Wind’ was premiered.  I not only went to sleep in the bath, I slept through most of the film too.  Have seen this wretched film at least three times since and never have seen the middle of it.

[1] Possibly the accident of the 4 November involving the Oxford V3950 from 21 PAFU Wheaton Aston.

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