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Memories of a Collision between a Wellington and a Mosquito Night-fighter over Emsworth, 1944

by Adrian Voller

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Contributed by 
Adrian Voller
People in story: 
Adrian Voller
Location of story: 
Emsworth, Hants
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Contributed on: 
08 August 2003

I was four years old in 1944 and living with my parents at Emsworth, near Portsmouth. On one particular evening the siren activated and my mother and father hurried me (with other neighbours) to the brick shelter in our garden.

Normally my mother took good care that I stayed well inside, but on this occasion, hearing my father comment that a "buzz bomb" was passing overhead I wriggled between the legs of the adults at the entrance and watched this curious missile as it "pop popped" across the sky from the southeast.

It had just passed us when the engine stopped and some 20 seconds later the ground reverberated with the explosion.

Seven years later I was taking my dog for a walk in Sir Dymoke White’s private woods when I came upon a crater about 50 feet across. The gamekeeper, with whom I had an "understanding", told me that it was the result of one of “they there doodlebugs what came down y’er in th’war”.

The same year (1944), I was returning with my parents one night from visiting my aunt in Cosham and as we disembarked at Emsworth railway station. I could hear the drone of aircraft engines, which was not unusual as Thorney Island aerodrome was only three miles away. As we reached the pavement on the far side of the road there was a tremendous crash in the sky to the south. As we looked up a yellow streak of flame appeared which took about twenty seconds to fall to earth. The rising crescendo of engines on full power abruptly stopped as the aircraft hit the ground on the far side of the railway line with a thump that could be felt through our feet.

Next morning on my way to school I decided to investigate the events of the night before. In those days a public house called "The Locomotive" stood opposite the end of Victoria Road; the inn sign had Stephenson's Rocket on one side, and a modern steam locomotive on the reverse. This public house has now been demolished and replaced by another called "The Seagull", set further back from the road. A cinder track about two hundred yards long led from the road at the side of the "The Locomotive" down to a meadow that bordered the River Ems.

Even from the main road it was obvious that something was happening down by the stream.. As I approached the meadow I could see that a pontoon bridge had been laid in the river bed. On this was stuck a Royal Air Force "Queen Mary" transporter laden with grey pieces of aircraft wreckage. Several boys, all older and more adventurous than me, were circling the vehicle in an attempt to obtain souvenirs, closely pursued by an irate serviceman with a gold crown on each sleeve under which were three stripes. Such a rank was new to me at the time, and I remember it distinctly because the crown glinted in the morning sunshine. The boys were unknown to me but I was to meet one of them half a century later as he was Mr Baines, husband of the curator of the Emsworth Museum.

I grew up with no precise knowledge of when it happened, but was convinced that it must have been before 1947, because my diaries date from that year, and nowhere is the incident mentioned in them.

There the matter stayed, a vivid childhood memory, and would have remained no more than that but for the fact that the idea came to me that I ought to write my autobiography. I wrote to the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon in an effort to find out more about the incident. The museum took weeks to reply, but eventually informed me that if I would supply the precise date and type of aircraft involved they might be able to furnish me with more information. This was frustrating as they were asking me to supply the very information that I was trying to obtain.

I wrote to the curator of Tangmere Aeronautical Preservation Society Museum who replied that as he had no record of the incident it must have happened after the war, and was therefore of no interest to him. From this I deduced that if he was correct it must have occurred between May 1945 when the war ended, and 1946 when we moved from Westbourne Avenue to "Sunnycourt", South Leigh Road, Emsworth.

I also wrote to Emsworth Library explaining that the aircraft had fallen on Emsworth United Football Club's playing field which was behind the public house known as "The Locomotive". I received a charming letter from the Librarian. She had made enquiries of local people who were resident in Emsworth during the war, but no one knew of a crash. Furthermore, there was no such public house in Emsworth by that name, and there was no playing field at the location I had described.

As I could think of no way forward, I effectively gave up at this point, but during the years that followed I never entirely forgot the incident. The breakthrough came in a most unexpected manner.

I awoke in the dark early on the morning of February 8th 1995, and switched on my personal radio using the ear piece extension, so that my wife Mary would not be disturbed. The radio is permanently tuned to Radio 4. On this particular morning, for the first time that I can remember, the station was off tune, and in the darkness I turned the tuning wheel to try to identify Radio 4 by sound. I found myself listening to a local radio station, and my hand was reaching out to change the waveband when I heard the announcer mention a ceremony taking place to commemorate a plane crash at Emsworth during the war. It was in connection with a mid-air collision at night between a Wellington and a Mosquito night fighter. Dave Thompson, Leader of the Ist Southbourne Sea Scouts was organising the unveiling of plaques at Prinsted where the Wellington came down, and at Lumley Pond where the Mosquito fell, and he would be interviewed on Radio Solent later that morning.
I sat bolt upright in bed in the dark and said loudly and in great excitement, "This is it. This is what I have been searching for all these years."

Mary, unaware in the dark of the radio ear piece in my ear, was abruptly awakened and assumed that I was having a nightmare.

I recorded the interview later that morning, but it had been thoughtlessly edited by Radio Solent, and the date and time of the ceremonies had been deleted. Radio Solent in Southampton promised to telephone me back immediately with the missing information but we waited an hour and there was no reply.

I realised that if we delayed any longer we would not arrive in Emsworth in time for any ceremony that day. So we left our home at Ringwood, arriving in Emsworth at mid morning, and tried to find the Lumley Pond referred to in the radio interview.

Although we enquired of local residents we were unable to discover any information about the ceremony allegedly due to take place that day, and decided to drive to the other site at Prinsted, and see if there was any activity at the Sea Scout hut. Here we were more fortunate as a lady living nearby confirmed that one ceremony would take place at Emsworth at noon, and another here at 1pm. It was now 11am and under rapidly clouding skies we drove back to Emsworth as I was now determined to investigate the site behind "The Locomotive" public house.

As we arrived in the High Street the first thing I noticed was that, as the Librarian had said, the public house no longer existed. In its place, but situated thirty feet farther back from the road was a newer building called "The Seagull". The car park now occupied the space of the original building. As we parked the rain came down in torrents, and did not clear until the second ceremony was over.

Mary and I walked down the lane to the field by the River Ems, but as we approached it was evident that it had not been used for football for many years. I gazed at a scene of weeds and desolation where once had been a football pitch with neat white lines and goal posts. However a new wooden bridge had been erected over the little stream, and as we crossed it Mary noticed a plaque newly set into the wooden guard rail. It read as follows:-
"Flight Lieutenant A Woods AFC RAF and Second Lieutenant J. O. R. Bugge attached to A Flight, 85 Squadron, West Malling died near this bridge when their Mosquito Mk 13 B-YR night fighter collided with a Wellington bomber LN 185 of 18 OTU Finningley at 8pm on the 8th of February 1944, losing their lives. Not through enemy action makes their loss none the less tragic."

This was evidence that we were in the right place, albeit a little early. We sat in the car outside "The Seagull" for half an hour watching the rain streaming down the windscreen, trying to convince ourselves that the dark clouds were clearing a little.

At midday a procession of umbrellas wound its way down the High Street, at the head of which was a man wearing a gold chain on his chest. He turned out to be the Mayor of Chichester, and later, as I sheltered under his umbrella, he told me that he had commanded a frigate during the war. Behind came a damp line of flags hanging listlessly down, but among them could be seen those of the British Legion and the RAF Association. We joined the dripping party of about sixty people on the bridge, which included officers from the Norwegian and Canadian Embassies, and a film crew from Meridian television, our local station.

A Royal Air Force padre, hidden among the raincoats on the bridge, conducted a short service of dedication which was drowned out completely on my dictaphone by the sound of the steady rain drumming on the umbrellas. Mary accepted an offer to shelter under a large Meridian umbrella and engaged in conversation with a young lady who turned out to be Clare Weller, a television reporter covering the ceremony. When Mary mentioned that I had actually seen the aircraft come down all those years ago,
Clare asked her whether I would be prepared to be interviewed for her article.

We made our way back to the car, drove over to the Southbourne Sea Scouts hut at Prinsted, and because of the rain gathered inside the hut. This was far more civilised, and gave us a chance to circulate and meet people, some of whom had travelled long distances for this special day. I sought out Dave Thompson, the Leader of the Southbourne Sea Scouts, and for the first time learnt the story of that night in 1944.

The Wellington bomber had set out from Finningley in Yorkshire and had flown out into the English Channel, turned round and headed for Portsmouth to simulate a German bomber raid on the city. The seven members of the Wellington crew averaged 22 years of age and included :-
Sgt Ridell, second navigator, from Canada
Sgt Reg Gleed, air bomber, aged 21, from Hove
Sgt John Harrison, wireless operator, aged 22, from Liverpool
Sgt Stan Johnson, air gunner, aged 22, from High Wycombe
Sgt Bill Varley, rear gunner, aged 21, from Liverpool.

They were all newly qualified, and stationed at an Operational Training Unit at Finngley in Yorkshire, preparatory to commencing bombing operations over Germany. Their training mission was to fly out into the Channel, then turn and approach the coast simulating a German intruder. As they neared Portsmouth a Mosquito night fighter was scrambled from 85 Squadron based at West Malling in Kent. The pilot was 39-year-old Arthur Woods, originally from Liverpool, considered too old for combat, but being an experienced pilot was helping to train a young Norwegian navigator who was making only his second flight with the squadron.

Arthur Woods was beginning to make his name is a film director in Hollywood when the war started (along with another Britisher by the name of A Hitchcock), but decided to return to this country to “do his bit” because he had qualified as a private pilot in America during the Thirties.

The Mosquito was fitted with a top secret airborne interception radar, and the purpose of the sortie was to enable the trainee navigator to carry out a practice attack on the bomber. On this occasion it is thought that the pilot may have been blinded by the search lights of the Portsmouth defences reflecting on the under side of the clouds, because the night fighter collided with the bomber cutting it in two in front of the rear gunner's turret.
The front section, containing six of the crew, fell in flames into a field at Southbourne, and all inside died instantly. The rear turret containing Sgt Bill Varley "fluttered down into Prinsted Harbour like a sycamore leaf", according to the account of two Sea Scouts who were standing outside their hut at the time. As the tide was out the turret fell into the mud flats about one hundred yards from the shore.

The older boy aged 14 and the younger one aged 8, made their way in the pitch darkness out on to the mud where they found the rear gunner entangled in the remains of his turret. As his hand was still warm they mistakenly thought Bill Varley was merely unconscious, so the younger Scout held his hand while his friend made his way back to shore for a hacksaw. They proceeded to cut the rear gunner out of the wreckage, but found that his weight was too great for them to drag him back across the mud. However, by this time help had arrived in the shape of several adults, and by degrees the airman was dragged to shore where it was found that he must have died as the wreckage of his turret hit the mud.

The incident was recorded in the Sea Scout Log Book, and the book with its faded writing was on view at the ceremony.

The Mosquito must have been severely damaged by the impact, but did not catch fire, and Arthur Woods made a desperate attempt to get the aircraft under control. It is possible that he was trying to avoid the built-up area of Emsworth, and at the same time trying to put the aircraft down in the fields that border the River Ems.

In those days, any four-year-old living near a major town had been brought up to associate the night sky with the sound of anti-aircraft guns, but as on this occasion there was no prior barrage I suspected at the time that two aircraft were involved. I was not entirely sure because I saw the remains of only one aircraft fall to earth.

What is clear now is that I saw the Wellington fall two miles away, but heard the Mosquito crash just over three hundred yards away. I was only four years old when all this happened, but I grew up with unease that there was something about that evening which did not make sense. At the time, I could not articulate the problem, and as the years passed I told myself that my childhood memory must have been unreliable.

Among the people paying their tributes that day were representatives from the Royal Air Force (Group Captain John 'Cat’s Eyes' Cunningham), Royal Air Force Association, British Legion and Embassy officials from the two foreign countries involved.

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