An investigation into a 1944 DH Mosquito crash at RAF Gravesend, described by Ben Parish.
Ben Parish remembers:
Mr Parish recalled that in early 1944, when the ‘Aerodrome was home to DH Mosquito’s, one of the aircraft failed to takeoff and ploughed across a field killing two ladies who were planting potatoes, into a straw stack and finally stopping on the A2, covered in straw, the site of the stack yard, where the Service Station on the Rochester bound side of the A2 was eventually built’.
140 Wing at Gravesend
A the time of the crash (estimated to be between 17 April to 18 June 1944) Gravesend Aerodrome was home to 140 wing RAF. The Wing consisted of the following squadrons: 21 RAF, 464 RAAF and 487 RNZAF. All three squadrons were flying Mosquito FB-VIs.
No. 21 Squadron RAF (squadron code YH)
In 1942 the squadron was based on Malta where it’s mission was to attack the vital Axis supply convoys attempting to get supplies to Rommel in North Africa. Having successfully completed this mission 21 squadron was disbanded on 14 March 1942 and immediately reformed at Bodney, this time as a day bomber squadron. The new squadron inherited No.82 Squadron’s Blenheims, which were soon replaced by the Lockheed Ventura, but it was not until the arrival of the Mosquito FB-VI in September 1943 that the squadron gained a truly effective bomber. Its first operation as a day bomber squadron was an attack on the Philips works at Eindhoven on 6 December 1942.
The Mosquitoes were used for a mix of pinpoint daylight raids and night raids until February 1945, when the squadron moved to France (from Gravesend). From then until the end of the war the squadron flew night intruder missions over Germany, helping add to the “mosquito panic”. After the war the squadron spent two years as part of the occupation forces in Germany, before being disbanded in November 1947.
15 March-30 October 1942: Bodney
30 October 1942-21 March 1943: Exeter
21-24 March 1943: Methwold
24 March-1 April 1943: Oulton
27 September-31 December 1943: Sculthorpe
31 December 1943-17 April 1944: Hunsdon
17 April-18 June 1944: Gravesend
18 June 1944-6 February 1945: Thorney Island
6 February-17 April 1945: B.87 Rosières-en-Santerre
17 April-3 November 1945: B.58 Melsbroek
Squadron Codes: (21 Squadron) UP, YH
1939-June 1940: Light Bomber squadron
June 1940-March 1942: Coastal Command anti-shipping
March 1942-1945: Light Bomber squadron, ending with 140 Wing, 2 Group, 2nd TAF
No. 464 Squadron RAAF (squadron code SB)
On 1 June (1943), No. 464 Squadron was transferred from RAF Bomber Command to the Second Tactical Air Force. Concerns about the vulnerability of the Ventura, however, led to their withdrawal and in July, the squadron was re-equipped with the more suitable de Havilland Mosquito FB-VI. Based out of RAF Sculthorpe, the squadron became operational with these aircraft on 3 October, successfully attacking a power station in France for the loss of no aircraft.
Following this, the squadron carried out attack operations during the day and “intruder” operations during the night, destroying several German aircraft in the air. In December 1943, the squadron moved to RAF Hunsdon, where they formed part of No. 140 Wing along with No. 21 Squadron RAF and No. 487 Squadron RNZAF. In early 1944, still based out of Hunsdon, No. 464 Squadron concentrated on attacking V-1 flying bomb launch sites and gained a reputation for highly accurate bombing. This reputation lead it to be selected for Operation Jericho, which was the first of a number of precision attacks that the squadron made on Gestapo targets in occupied Europe. In this mission (Operation Jericho), aircraft from the squadron formed part of the force which breached the walls of a Gestapo prison at Amiens, France, on 18 February 1944 allowing members of the French Resistance to escape. The squadron’s activities were intensified from April as part of the preparations for the Allied invasion of Europe. It struck railway infrastructure, bridges, road transport and convoys. In contrast with its previous operations, these sorties were often conducted during daylight.
No.487 Squadron RNZAF (squadron code EG)
The squadron was formed at Feltwell, Norfolk, 15th August 1942, equipped with Lockheed Ventura aircraft, commencing operations on 6th December. 487 contributed 16 aircraft to the famous low-level raid on the Phillips radio and valve factory at Eindhoven, and continued in the daylight role with Venturas until June 1943. On one operation during this period, the squadron suffered heavy losses. On May 3rd during a raid on Amsterdam, ten out of 11 aircraft were shot down.
After the war when the full account of the raid became known, the B Flight Commander Sqd Ldr L.H. Trent, a New Zealander in the RAF, who had been a prisoner of war since being shot down on the raid was awarded the Victoria Cross for his outstanding leadership during the Amsterdam raid.
On 1st June 1943, 487 was transferred from Bomber Command to the newly formed 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF). During September 1943, 487 re-equipped with the De Havilland Mosquito FB-VI and was mainly used on night bombing, although the squadron took part in several daylight precision operations. These included the Amiens prison raid 18th February 1944, Gestapo Headquarters (Operation Jericho), Aarhus in Denmark on 31st October 1944 and Gestapo Headquarters in Copenhagen on 21st March 1945.
The squadron operated from the continent from February until September 1945 where at Cambrai/Epinoy, France, it was renumbered 16 Squadron RAF (later amended to 268 Squadron). In addition to Sqd Ldr Trent’s Victoria Cross, the New Zealand personnel of 487 squadron were awarded 1 DSO, 7 DFC’s, one bar to DFC and 1 DFM.
With regard to the accident recalled by Ben Parish, there are records of four incidents involving Mosquitoes at Gravesend Aerodrome in early 1944. These being:
- ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 144190. 21-MAY-1944. LR371: Spun into ground out of cloud during formation practice, crashed at Tollgate, south of Gravesend, Kent 21.5.1944. Crew: F/Sgt (1516977) Thomas SPENSLEY (pilot) RAFVR – killed. F/Sgt (1581241) John BAKER (nav.) RAFVR – killed.
- ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 143850. 27-APR-1944. LR293: Swerved on landing at night and u/c collapsed Gravesend 27.4.1944. Crew: Not known but both survived the crash.
- ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 138682. 25-APR-1944. Four aircraft from the Squadron took off from RAF Gravesend, Kent on the night of 24/25th April 1944 detailed to carry out night intruder missions. From a bombing point of view the mission was not successful as airfields were not identified and bombs were brought back. The aircraft crossed the coast at 3000 feet in a dive and stayed at 2/3000 feet, bombing from 2000 to 1500 feet. NS896 flown by F/O Dunkley was shot up during the mission and crash landed on return to base at 0100 hours on 25/4. Unfortunately the aircraft overshot the perimeter track and ran into tents pitched in the vicinity. One airman was killed and F/O Monoghan and F/O Dean injured. Two aircraft parked there were also damaged. The crew of NS896 were uninjured. Crew: F/O (Aus413358) Ernest Henry DUNKLEY (pilot) RAAF – Ok. F/O (52719) Horace Percival WOODWARD (nav) RAF – Ok.
- ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 143764. 18-APR-1944. HX982: Bounced on take-off and crash landed in field Gravesend 18.4.1944. Crew: Details not given.
Although in the short, official narrative of the fourth incident there is no mention of the two women that were killed, the crash description most closely matches that given by Ben Parish. Furthermore the Local papers (Kent Messenger & The Reporter) printed four days after the crash, contained details of a plane crash that killed two women whilst planting potatoes in a field close to RAF Gravesend.
The local newspaper dated April 22nd 1944 contains the following:
TRAGEDY AT COBHAM: Two Women Killed
Two Women working in a field near Cobham were killed by a plane on Tuesday. They were:
Mrs. C. Vousden (43), Belvue Cottages, Round Street, Cobham and Miss. Ruth Smith (45), of Malling Cross.
Mrs. Fry, Dabb’s Place Cottages, Cobham was conveyed to Hospital with injuries but these were not serious. They were all working for Mr. F. C. Lawrence, J.P. of Dabb’s Place Farm. The plane struck a farm cart, but the driver, Mr. C. Richards and the horse escaped injury.
More details came to light during the inquest (held on April 29th 1944). The local paper report of the inquest was as follows:
TWO WOMEN KILLED BY CRASHING PLANE: They Were Planting Potatoes In A Field
Two women members of a party of 20 planting potatoes in a field near Cobham were killed when a plane cut through a fence and crashed into a straw stack.
The plane also ripped the top off a farm cart, but neither the man in charge, Mr. C, Richards, nor the horse, were injured. Two bicycles were smashed and a farm lorry and tractor damaged.
The victims were:
Mrs, Caroline Priscilla Vousden, 43 of Belvue Cottages, Round Street, Cobham and Miss, Ruth Smith, 46, of 1, Longview, Henhurst Road, Cobham.
Mrs. Fry, of Debbs Place, Cobham, was taken to hospital suffering from shock and has since made a good recovery. At the inquest on Thursday last week, a verdict of “Accidental death” was recorded.
The oncoming plane
The news paper article went on to detail various eye witness accounts.
Herbert John Bower, Longcroft Cottages, Cobham, a lorry driver, said he was unloading potatoes in Sandybanks field, when he saw a plane heading towards him. The pilot revved the engine and only just missed a barrier. The plane flew along for about 200 yards just above the ground. It “hopped” twice, came down on its wheels and went right through a fence towards a straw stack.
Some men and women were planting potatoes about 100 yards short of the stack and right in line with the oncoming plane.
“I then saw parts of a cart in the air,” he continued, “and the plane crashed into the straw stack. I ran towards the stack and saw the two women lying on the ground bleeding freely from head injuries.”
Run to help
Sidney Robert Burns, “Micawber,” Dabbs Place, Cobham, farm foreman, said he saw the plane coming through the fence. He shouted “get down” and threw himself on the ground. The plane crashed into the stack and he ran to render assistance to the pilot.
Evidence of how the plane got out of control was given by the pilot (details not contained in the newspaper artical), Sergt-Pilot Robert William Knape RAF.
Squadron-Leader Walter Richard May, medical officer, said he examined the women and found both were dead, the cause being fractured skull and shock in both cases.
The funerals of Miss Smith and Mrs Fry were reported in the local paper as follows:
PLANE CRASH VICTIMS: The Funerals
The funerals of the two victims of the plan crash at Cobham took place on Saturday. Miss Ruth Smith was buried in the churchyard at Ifield, and Mrs Vousden in the new burial ground at Cobham. The Rev. C.H. Coe officiated at Ifield, and the Rev. J. Butler officiated at Cobham.
Representatives of the R.A.F. and fellow employees were present at both funerals.
Included in the floral tributes at both ceremonies were wreaths from R.A.F. Station; fellow employees at Dabbs Place Farm, and Mr J. W. Pye and employees of Jeskyn’s Farm.
a) Aircraft HX982 was flow by PO Maxwell N Sparks with Navigator PO Arthur C Dunlop for Operation Jericho, a low level precision bombing raid on Gestapo Headquarters at Amiens Northern France. The operation was conceived to release a number of high-ranking resistance members.
b) 7With D-Day a success, all the signs were that Gravesend would be downgraded. Its commanding officer had been a Group Captain but after D-Day, it was a Squadron Leader. Ironically, it was a German weapon that signalled the end of Gravesend as a RAF base. V1 rockets, targeting London, frequently fell short of the capital. It soon became clear that Gravesend air base was near enough on the V1’s flight path and any that fell short could fall on the base. Balloons were used to protect the air base but it was soon put under Care and Maintenance.
- KCC-Libraries Registration & Archives-Gravesend Library/Local newspaper archives
Don Blackburn (21st Dec 2015)