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RAF Millom Museum and the Whitehaven Plane Crash of 1943

by ritsonvaljos

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Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
ritsonvaljos
People in story: 
Flying Officer Henry Joseph O'Gara, Sergeant Cyril Johnson, Sergeant Thomas Inman, Sergeant Vincent James Dunnigan, Sergeant Rene Harold Murphy, Flight Lieutenant David Moore Crook DFC, Gilbert J. Rothery, John McCrickett, Joan Toner, Frances McAlone, Tom Coyne, Frank Lewthwaite, John Roger Williams, Jeff Wilson, Ross McNeil, Dennis Gleaves, Maureen Gleaves, Glynn Griffith.
Location of story: 
Millom, Whitehaven (Cumberland / Cumbria).
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
A4638819
Contributed on: 
31 July 2005

RAF Millom Museum (July 2005). It was from RAF Millom (Haverigg) on 14 October 1943 that an Avro Anson training plane took off and later crashed at Arrowthwaite, Kells, Whitehaven about 30 miles to the north. [Photograph used with permission of RAF Millom Museum].

Introduction

While researching an article about a plane crash at Whitehaven, Cumbria during World War Two, I obtained assistance from a local author and historian by the name of Mr Jeff Wilson, from Distington, Cumbria (see Article Reference ID A4411388). Mr Wilson told me that another gentleman by the name of Mr Gilbert J. Rothery had carried out comprehensive research about RAF activities, personnel, plane crashes and casualties during World War Two. Unfortunately, Gilbert Rothery has passed away, but Jeff Wilson believed that Gilbert had comprehensive notes about the plane crash at Arrowthwaite, Kells, Whitehaven on 14 October 1943.

According to Jeff Wilson, Gilbert Rothery's research papers had been donated to RAF Millom Museum at Haverigg near Millom, Cumbria. Hence, I then contacted the Curator of the Museum, Mr Glynn Griffith, and asked if there was any information available about the Whitehaven plane crash available in the Gilbert Rothery Archive. In 2005 the Gilbert Rothery Archive is currently unavailable for general public viewing. In the near future, however, a book based on Gilbert's research will be published by RAF Millom Museum.

Nevertheless, Mr Griffith kindly agreed to assist with trying to find information about the particular plane crash I was seeking information about. Hence, I visited the Museum on Saturday 30 July 2005 and this short article is based on that visit. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance of two other volunteers at the Museum, Dennis Gleaves and Maureen Gleaves, who helped me find the information I was seeking. The article and photograph that goes with it are included with the permission of RAF Millom Museum.

Information about the Whitehaven plane crash in the Museum

As mentioned in my previous article about this plane crash on 'The Brows' Kells I had obtained some of the details from the eyewitness testimony of four people: John McCrickett, Joan Toner, Frances McAlone and Tom Coyne. Included in the RAF Museum exhibition is another eyewitness account of the crash by a gentleman called Frank Lewthwaite, who lived at 51 Bransty Road, Whitehaven during the war. According to Mr Lewthwaite's testimony, he was walking back home from school to the Bransty district of the town when he saw the crash.

Although, Bransty is to the north of the main crash site at Kells, according to Mr J.R. Williams of ‘The Whitehaven News’ the aeroplane approached the town from the north it would have passed overhead, or close at least close by, the Bransty district of town. According to Frank Lewthwaite’s account in the RAF Millom Museum, he was walking uphill along Bransty Road at the time of the crash, which would have given him a full view of the plane falling to earth on ‘The Brows’ at Kells.

The main Museum exhibition at RAF Millom includes some of the findings of Gilbert Rothery about this particular plane crash. It turns out that Gilbert Rothery personally witnessed the crash. At the time, he was waiting to go return home from school in Whitehaven to the nearby village of St Bees. Additionally, Gilbert had subsequently managed to find out other details about the crash, some of which are exhibited.

I had found the names of the aircrew for my previous article from a different source. These were Flying Officer H.J. O’Gara, Sergeant C. Johnson, Sergeant T. Inman, Sergeant V.J. Dunnigan and Sergeant R.H. Murphy. The Gilbert Rothery information at the Museum confirms that these five were, indeed, the aircrew. Three of the airmen were British, one was Canadian and one was an American serving with the RCAF.

Interestingly, I found out from talking to Dennis and Maureen Gleaves at the Museum that Gilbert Rothery had been in touch with relatives of some of these airmen and that he had thus been able to find out some personal details about them. As previously stated, the Gilbert Rothery Archives were not available for general viewing at the time of my visit.

However, I learnt that the one airman among the crew with American nationality was one of those who had went to Canada before the United States joined in the war to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. The American airman was Sergeant Vincent J. Dunnigan from Buffalo, New York State, U.S.A. Gilbert Rothery had also found out that before joining the RCAF, Sergeant Dunnigan “… had been an American Baseball player of note.”

There were additional facts I learnt about the air crash while visiting RAF Millom Museum. Firstly, the Avro Anson R9780 Aircraft had actually taken off from the RAF Millom (Haverigg) airfield. Much of the information about the crash was restricted during the war years and nothing else I had read or heard about it mentioned where the aeroplane had been based. Some people had believed it might have flown from Silloth Airfield in North West Cumbria, and as referred to above, the local newspaperman, Mr J.R. Williams, recorded that the aircraft approached the town from the north. When I mentioned this to Dennis Gleaves at the Museum, he suggested this might indicate the aircraft was on its way back to Haverigg / Millom, which is further south.

At the time of the crash, Mr J.R. Williams was with Flight Lieutenant David M. Crook DFC who happened to be visiting the town on a goodwill visit. They visited the crash site and Mr Williams saw the Flight Lieutenant retrieve what he described as a “… vital and secret part of what was left of the machine”. I had speculated what this might have been, and thought it might have been something to do with RADAR. However, according to what it says at RAF Millom Museum, based on the Gilbert Rothery research, this was an “…AM Mk II Astro Compass still in its box”.

One of the newspaper articles from 1993 at the Museum was an interview with Gilbert Rothery about 'The Brows' plane crash. In that article it states Gilbert had tried to get a Memorial erected in Whitehaven to commemorate the airmen who died in 1943. So far as I am aware, this never seems to have happened. Certainly, there is no Memorial at the crash site because I have visited the site and found nothing. Neither can I find anything to commemorate the airmen anywhere else in the town. Of course, they are commemorated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which is where I looked for information about them.

Flight Lieutenant D.M. Crook DFC

As mentioned in the previous section, Flight Lieutenant David M. Crook DFC happened to be visiting Whitehaven on 14 October 1943 when the Avro Anson training plane broke up over the town and crashed. Within minutes of the crash, the Flight Lieutenant was driven to the crash site by the Manager / Secretary of the local newspaper, Mr J.R. Williams. The RAF Millom Museum does have brief references to Flight Lieutenant Crook visiting the crash site. This looks like it may come from the 1952 memoir by Mr J.R. Williams that can be found in the Cumbria County Archives Office. It would be interesting to see if the Museum has additional information about the Flight Lieutenant in the Gilbert Rothery documents.

Nevertheless, I made a request via the BBC "People's War" website (Article Reference ID A4493207) about Flight Lieutenant Crook. I received some biographical information from a researcher by the name of Ross McNeil, who specialises in Allied Aircraft losses 1939 - 1945. This information is summarised below.

David Moore Crook was commissioned into the Auxiliary Air Force as an Acting Pilot Officer 22 September 1938, became a Pilot Officer on 4 May 1940, a Flight Officer on 9 December 1940 and a Flight Lieutenant on 9 December 1941. His Service Number was 90478 and he was one of 'The Few' who fought in the Battle of Britain, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC). The DFC citation appeared in the Gazette on 1 November 1940:
"This officer has led his section with coolness and judgment against the enemy on may occasions. He has destroyed six of their aircraft besides damaging several more".

David M. Crook was with 609 Squadron at that time. There is a short biography and photograph of David Crook in a book by Kenneth G. Wynn entitled 'Men of the Battle of Britain'. I found another reference to the then Pilot Officer Crook in a book accompanying an IWM exhibition in 2000 by Malcolm Brown called 'Spitfire Summer' (page 129). It quotes from his log book, places David Crook at Middle Wallop on 15 August 1940 and mentions that they shot down four Me 110s, plus a Blenheim by mistake (fortunately the British crew were OK).

Flight Lieutenant Crook went on to write his own book called 'Spitfire Pilot', which can be purchased at second-hand bookstores. The visit to Whitehaven in October 1943 in what was then Cumberland (now Cumbria) indicates the Flight Lieutenant also undertook goodwill visits on behalf of the RAF. Unfortunately, Flight Lieutenant Crook's own plane crashed into the sea on 18 December 1944 and he sadly lost his own life.

According to Ross, the Flight Lieutenant was flying a Spitfire XI EN662 out of No 8 Operational Training Unit (RAF Dyce). This OTU was used to convert pilots on to the photo reconnaissance spitfires before they passed to the PRU as operational aircrew. On 18 December, Flight Lieutenant Crook failed to return to base: his Spitfire was reported to have dived into the sea from Aberdeen from 20,000 feet. Flight Lieutenant D.M. Crook is commemorated on the Runnymede Memorial for those airmen with no known grave.

RAF Millom Museum exhibits

The RAF Millom Museum has an excellent and very comprehensive stock of photographs, personal testimonies, memorabilia and archives of the many overseas Air Force personnel who lost their lives in accidents during World War Two. The Museum has many interesting exhibits and wartime accounts of life at the Airfield, far more than can be listed in this article. According to staff at the Museum, there are many more photographs and testimonies of life during World War Two in their Archives.

In addition to a section highlighting life about RAF Millom (Haverigg) other sections include life on the Home Front, the Army, Airfields in Cumbria and the immediate post-war history of the Airfield. RAF Millom has its own website containing pictures of some exhibits and other educational information about World War Two. Many school groups visit the Museum so that children can learn about World War Two.

At the time of my visit to the Museum, staff and volunteers were busy finalising preparations for 'Operation Bombard' to be held on 6 and 7 August 2005. 'Operation Bombard' was a special weekend of re-enactment events commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the end of World War Two. It is one way of passing on information to the post-war generations what happened during the war.

Conclusion

I would like to thank all those who have helped in providing information enabling me to write this article. In particular, I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Jeff Wilson, Ross McNeil, Glynn Griffith, Dennis Gleaves and Maureen Gleaves. Above all it is information obtained from the research by the late Gilbert Rothery that has helped fill in many of the missing details I was seeking about the Whitehaven plane crash that took place on 14 October 1943.

It was interesting to see the many photographs and names of RAF personnel who had served at the Millom Airfield during World War Two. Many of these names and faces would otherwise be forgotten. It was a pleasure to see them in the Museum exhibits. There must be many unpublished accounts of the war years in the Archives. No doubt this situation will be rectified, at least in part, when the book based on the Gilbert Rothery research is published.

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