South Scotland

'The loss of four brave men' in the Galloway Hills

Crash scene Image copyright PAthe News
Image caption Four men died in the crash in the Galloway Hills on 2 February, 1937

Exactly 80 years ago, on 2 February 1937, a plane carrying a leading journalist from the Daily Express, his photographer and two air crew took off from Renfrew airfield near Glasgow on a flight to Liverpool.

They were researching a feature about the proposed expansion of UK air corridors, but became the story themselves when the plane crashed in the Galloway Hills, killing all on board.

Under the headline Air Disaster in Scotland, the tragedy was reported by Pathe News. Black and white cine footage shows the mangled wreckage of a biplane, a huddle of onlookers including uniformed police, and the removal on a stretcher of a blanket-covered body.

Also obvious is the bleak nature of the hill terrain in which the plane, a luxury twin-engine de Havilland Dragonfly owned by the Daily Express, came to grief.

David Reid, the curator and chairman of Dumfries and Galloway aviation museum, has studied reports of what happened.

Image copyright PAthe News
Image caption It was two days before the wreckage of the plane was found

"It just ventured too far over high ground in pretty poor weather conditions," he said.

"Anyone who knows the Galloway Hills knows the weather can change rapidly in just a few miles.

"They wouldn't have had the navigational kit they have nowadays; it would be pretty seat-of-the-pants stuff and they were obviously just too low."

The plane crashed near the summit of Darnaw Hill, near Clatteringshaws reservoir. It is part of part of the Galloway Hydro Electric system which, in 1937, was just nearing completion and not yet mapped. Mr Reid said the pilot may well have been confused.

"He possibly thought he was over a different stretch of water, perhaps even the Solway out to sea where he would have been safe enough," he said.

Image copyright Oliver Dixon
Image caption Weather conditions can change quickly in the Galloway Hills

If the pilot didn't know where he was, neither did rescue teams mobilised when the plane failed to arrive at Liverpool.

The first searches were around Keswick in the Lake District after reports of an aircraft being heard there.

Then, an area in the Lowther Hills in southern Scotland was scoured, almost leading to a second tragedy when an Anson plane involved in the search also crashed in foggy conditions, although without loss of life.

It wasn't until two days after the crash, on 4 February 1937, that the missing Dragonfly was found.

Writing in his Aeronautical History of Cumbria and Dumfries and Galloway, author Peter Connon said: "Andrew Wilson of Craigencallie Cottage, two miles west of Clatteringshaws Loch, had heard a BBC wireless broadcast requesting farmers and shepherds to keep a look-out for a missing aircraft.

"Recalling the sound of an aeroplane passing above him in fog the previous day, Wilson decided to climb Darnaw. Approaching the 1,550-foot summit, Wilson spotted a wing among patches of snow and on approaching found his sheep grazing among the wreckage.

"After counting four bodies, he descended to his cottage and in heavy rain cycled 16 miles to Creebridge to alert the police."

'Due respect'

The reporter who perished was Maj Harold James Pemberton, 47, son of the novelist and biographer Sir Max Pemberton and great-grandson of Madame Marie Tussaud of the waxworks fame. Also killed were a 25-year-old photographer, Reginald Charles Wesley; the pilot Leslie Thomas Jackson, 32; and wireless operator Archibald Francis Philpott, 36.

"When the bodies were brought through Newton Stewart, everyone showed due respect," said Mr Reid. "Everyone knew it had happened and it was quite a thing for a small town like that at the time."

What may seem surprising from today's perspective is that, 80 years ago when flying was still fairly uncommon, a plane was owned by a newspaper.

However, Dr Eamonn O'Neill, associate professor of journalism at Napier University in Edinburgh, said that, back then, the Daily Express was no ordinary publication.

Image copyright Judy Catterall
Image caption A memorial still stands on top of Darnaw Hill to the four men who died

"The Daily Express was selling 2.25m copies a day," he said. "They were a big deal; the Facebook or Google of the day. The footprint that it took up in the media landscape of the UK and beyond was extraordinary.

"The Express had the power to act as a sort of clearing house of information from the government, from its own reporters, and the political views of both the publisher and editor.

"The fact that they had an aeroplane would have been seen as a nod to the future and air travel and they wanted to be part of that future because they wanted to control the future."

Prof O'Neill said the loss its plane and employees would have given rise to mixed reactions at the paper, given it represented a major news story.

'Worst day'

"I'm sure there was genuine grieving went on in the offices, but that would have been put to one side," he said. "The silver lining in media terms would definitely have been exploited for all its worth because that was the business that company was in and they were good at it.

"As the old saying in journalism goes, sometimes for us our best day has got to be someone else's worst day."

Ultimately, however, the Daily Express showed its human side and paid for a granite memorial to be erected at the crash site where it stands to this day, commemorating forever those who died.

In the words of the anonymous Pathe News reporter back in 1937: "Once again we are vividly reminded of how often danger is involved in the job of those who work for the press and how ready they are to take risks as part of their daily routine.

"We journalists of the screen are proud to honour four brave men."

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