Newsletter No. 467
KwaZulu-Natal January 2015
As is customary at the last meeting of the year, we had only one speaker at the December meeting, namely long-standing fellow member Ian Sutherland, whose topic was entitled: “An RAF crash in the Scottish Highlands”. Many of those attending the meeting had an idea that this would be about another more famous crash, in which the Duke of Kent was killed, but Ian had researched a lesser known incident.
On the 13th April, 1941, an R.A.F. Avro Anson twin engine aeroplane, with a crew of 6, crashed on the lower slopes of the mountain Ben More Assynt, in the most North-westerly area of Scotland, the County of Sutherland, while attempting to return to its base at Kinloss, near Inverness, in severe Arctic-type weather conditions. All the crew died as a result of the crash. Because of the extreme weather conditions and the inhospitable nature of the area, the bodies of the crew were only found 6 weeks later by a local shepherd rounding up his sheep. The crash site was about 7 km from the nearest habitation, Assynt, with no paths or tracks to facilitate recovery of the bodies. They were buried in a communal grave at the crash site, at 2 300 feet (700 metres) the highest burial site in Great Britain.
The A.V.Roe Company was formed in 1909, and became a limited company in 1913. One of their earlier successes was the 504 biplane trainer which was used during World War 1, and by many other countries. During 1933, British Imperial Airways issued a requirement for a twin-engine aeroplane for commercial purposes. In response to this, Avro produced the type 652, which first flew during January 1935. But Imperial only required two of these aircraft, so Roy Chadwick, their gifted designer, modified the design to comply with an Air Ministry specification for maritime patrol operations and this became the type 652A, the Avro Anson, with nearly 11 000 aircraft produced. Of these nearly 3_000 were built under licence in Canada. It was powered by two Armstrong Siddley Cheetah 7-cylinder radial engines, which gave it a range of 800 miles, a maximum speed of 1 900 mph, and a ceiling of 19 000 feet (5 790 metres). It had an armament of two 7.7.mm machine guns, one fixed on the port side of the forward fuselage, and the second in a rotating Bolton Paul turret in the fuselage behind the cabin. It had a maximum bomb capacity of 360 lbs. – two 100lb. and eight 20 lb. bombs, and was the first British aeroplane with a retractable undercarriage. It was the RAF’s most widely used training aircraft, for training multi-engined aeroplane pilots, radar operators, bomb-aimers and gunners. It possessed good turning and banking abilities, being able to turn tighter than Me.109s, and were actually credited with shooting down 6 German fighters in combat. During WW 2 they were used extensively for reconnaissance duties over the English Channel, the North Sea and the Western approaches, then during 1941, for air-sea rescue duties. They served with 20 other Air Forces until production finally ceased during 1952. They were eventually retired from the RAF in 1968, having served for 32 years, their longest serving aircraft – quite an aeroplane!
Ian then described the Assynt area. It is mountainous area of hills, one large loch (Loch Assynt), many small lochs, called lochans, peat bogs (a wonderful fuel when dried out), gorse bushes, heather, rocks and shattered stones, no paths or tracks, and heavy going on foot. The highest mountain in the area is Ben More Assynt, at 1000 metres. The area’s main attraction is trout and salmon fishing. Geologically it is claimed to be the most weathered part of the Earth’s surface, and is popular with geologists from all over the World. More recently it has become one of the best pot-holing areas in Great Britain. The other attraction is hill walking, hiking and mountaineering. The only habitation is called Inchnadamph, a small hamlet comprising a fishing hotel, a lodge, a ‘wee’ church, schoolhouse and post office, and a few ‘crofts’ (small single private residences). The weather however is extremely unpredictable. At any time of the year, conditions could vary from lovely sunny days (with the midges), to conditions as severe as in the Artic.
Interestingly, Ian has a personal interest in this incident. During WW 2 there were many aircraft crashes throughout the country His mother’s maiden name was Morrison, of an Edinburgh family. Her father, Tom, was involved in the early motoring trade and was credited with driving the first bus into Edinburgh. Through the business he met another Morrison, no relationship whatsoever, and a friendship blossomed. The other Morrison owned the Inchnadamph Hotel in Assynt, and the Edinburgh Morrisons visited the Assynt Morrisons between the two World Wars. In the early days of World War 2, Ian, his sister and their Mother were evacuated to Inchnadamph Hotel. Ian continued: “I do not know how long we were there, and all I can remember, was being ‘introduced’ to two Land Army ‘girls’ – I was too young to take any further notice ! We still correspond with Helen Morrison, the widow of the last Morrison owner of the Hotel – Willie Morrison, and who is very active in the Historic Assynt organization. She told me about the crash and showed us the memorial plaque at the Assynt church during our last visit to Scotland”
This, however, is what happened on that fateful day. On Sunday, 13th April, 1941, the crew of RAF Anson N.9857 from 19 Operational Training Unit at RAF Kinloss, near Inverness, were briefed for a cross-country navigational training exercise. The pilot was Flying Officer James Henry Steyn, D.F.C. a South African, from Johannesburg. The route was Kinloss – Oban – Stornaway, in the Outer Hebrides, - Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point of Scotland – Achnashellach Station, on the Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh railway line – then the final leg back to Kinloss. At 13h02 a message was received confirming their turning point over Cape Wrath, and that they were attempting to climb over bad weather. 10 minutes later the wireless operator at RAF Stornaway, picked up a very faint message – “...icing up, power lost in poet engine, losing height, descending through 3 000ft”, then silence. It failed to return to Kinloss, was recorded as being overdue, then later, missing. In spite of an intensive search under better weather conditions, no trace could be found of the plane, and was presumed to have crashed into the sea. A ferocious blizzard had swept the North West Highlands, it being the most severe snow-storm to have been recorded over 100 years. Three local shepherds in the Assynt area perished on the same day while attempting to round up their sheep on the hills. On the 25th May 1941, nearly 6 weeks after the plane went missing, another local shepherd came across the wreck of an aeroplane on the slopes of a hill called Beinn An Fhurain, in the Ben More Assynt area. It was the missing Anson. Apparently on crashing, the starboard wing hit a rocky knoll and shattered, which sent the aircraft cart-wheeling. The fuel in the wing ignited and burnt out most of the wing and part of the forward fuselage. Five bodies were found in the remains of the fuselage, wrapped in their parachutes, indicating that they had survived the crash, but had died from exposure to the Arctic conditions. The body of the sixth crew member was found 800 metres away under a large boulder, indicating that he had tried to seek help, but had headed off in the wrong direction, into more mountainous country, and away from the nearest habitation at Assynt. Due to the remoteness of the area, and the difficulties of accessing the crash site, local police and estate workers buried the bodies side-by-side in a communal grave and erected a cairn of rocks and peat cuttings over the grave.
This cairn remained untouched, gradually eroding away due to adverse weather conditions, until 1985, when Air Cadets from the Bridge of Don squadron set out to refurbish the grave site. They spent a week on the mountainside rebuilding the cairn and erecting a 9 foot metal cross. Upkeep of this memorial and general maintenance of the site was then carried out by Air Cadets from Ullapool, a small and popular nearby coastal town, and members of no.202 Squadron. After the war had ended the Commonwealth War Graves Commission placed a memorial to the crew beside the gateway to the local Assynt church. The inscription reads – “Here are commemorated the crew of an aircraft crash on Ben More Assynt on the 13th. April, 1941, whose bodies rest where they fell”. The second memorial at the crash site also suffered from the adverse weather conditions and required repair. Assistance was sought from the War Graves Commission to replace it with one that could withstand and survive these conditions. This resulted in a 2-ton granite memorial being airlifted and lowered into position by an RAF Chinook helicopter during 2013. A dedication and memorial service was held at the site during June this year, with some relatives of the deceased in attendance.
Weather and body permitting, Ian’s intention is to visit the crash site and the Memorial. In closing he read this epitaph that he had recently received:
Future Meetings. The venue – as usual – is the Murray Lecture Theatre, Department of Civil Engineering, University of KwaZulu-Natal Howard College Campus, Durban:
Thursday 15th January 2015 (NB – THIRD THURSDAY. WE REVERT TO THE SECOND THURSDAY IN FEBRUARY 2015)
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “A Tribute to Winston Churchill – the 50th Anniversary”, by Past Chairman Bill Brady;
Main Talk: “Al Qaeda - the Eye of the Tiger” by Major Peter Williams.
Thursday 12th February 2015 (NB – BACK TO THE SECOND THURSDAY):
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “The Battle of Santa Cruz, 25th October 1942” by Roy Bowman
Main Talk: “Shaka; his military career” by Dr Alex Coutts.
Thursday 12th March 2015:
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture: “The Colesberg Campaign, December 1899 to March 1900” by Steve Watt.
Main Talk: “The Myths of the Anglo-Boer War” by Chris Ash.
Thursday 9th April 2015 (NB – This will be the Society’s AGM. All Branches will hold their AGM simultaneously):
Darrell Hall Memorial Lecture:
Another in the WW1 100 Commemorative lecture programme: “WW1 Comes to the Northern Cape”, by Ken Gillings
Main Talk: “Normandy Massacres”, by Charles Whiteing
The 2015 Lecture Programme is included with the January 2015 Newsletter for future reference.
POSSIBLE CENTENARY PILGRIMAGE TO DELVILLE WOOD. Colonel Mike Bradley (who was the Specialist Guide during the SAMHS tour to the Battlefields of Egypt and Libya in May 2009) has offered to put together a Centenary Pilgrimage of about 10 days to Delville Wood (and other battlefields of the Somme) in July 2016. Members will be kept informed of developments, but in order for us to determine the viability of such a tour, please advise Ken Gillings (031 703 4828 / 083 654 5880 / email@example.com ) if you are interested in participating. A day’s visit to Normandy will also be included in the itinerary.