DARTMOOR – WW2 plane crash

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As I watched the above scene unfold from my small flat in the Devon village of Moretonhampstead my thoughts turned to the luckless World War II fliers who crashed and died on the bleak terrain of Dartmoor, a remote part of Devon made famous by the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (The Hound of the Baskervilles). Dartmoor is not mountainous by any means but it does have hills that average 1,400 feet above sea level and includes the highest point, High Willhays at 2,039 feet, in the south of England. Combine this rocky, boulder-strewn landscape with unpredictable weather and you have dangerous flying conditions, as many an unsuspecting pilot has discovered to their misfortune.

Dartmoor

I was thinking about war-time fliers at the time because a few days earlier, in the local tourist information shop, I had purchased the book Dartmoor Air Crashes by Robert Jones. On reading the book I learned that 75 years ago, two aircraft destined for Gibraltar had crashed on the moor. Two of the fliers, one American, Second Lieutenant Jerome Foreman, and one British, Flight Sergeant John Dixon, were killed. It’s impossible to know what the young men knew of Gibraltar at the time but there is every chance they had heard through military gossip that it was a good place to be in wartime, even if only for a few days. Unlike their compatriots in Britain and Europe, the soldiers, sailors and airmen stationed on the Rock enjoyed an abundance of food, including fresh fruit and vegetables, plenty of drink, nightlife, and top calibre entertainment provided by ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), John Gielgud, Beatrice Lilly, Vivian Leigh, Joyce Grenfell and Tony Hancock, to name just a few. But the 21-year-old American pilot of the P-38 Lightning and the 22-year-old co-pilot of the five-man RAF Vickers Wellington bomber would never find out, as they perished amidst the tors and peat of Dartmoor.

The Lockheed P-38 Lightning gave a much-needed boost to the Allied air forces when it first arrived in the war zones in late 1942. With its two V-12 engines it had a top speed of 400 miles an hour, a ceiling of 44,000 feet and a range of 1,300 miles. By comparison the Focke-Wulf 190, which had replaced the Messerschmitt 109 as Germany’s premier fighter, also had a top speed of about 400 mph, but its maximum ceiling was 37,000 feet and it had a range of just 500 miles. When the first P-38s arrived in Europe, however, it was soon discovered that their turbochargers were slow to engage in cold and damp conditions, which of course were prevalent in the UK and most of the continent. It was decided, therefore, that they were better suited for the dry conditions of North Africa where they could provide assistance to the Allied army battling its way east following the successful invasion, Operation Torch. As a result, on January 26th, 1943, sixteen P-38 Lightnings took off from Langford Lodge, Northern Ireland. They were to fly 1,400 miles (added distance to avoid flying over neutral Spain and Portugal) to Gibraltar with a short stopover at Portreath, Cornwall.

The P-38 was an unusual looking fighter with the cockpit set between the two engines, which were connected by pontoon structures to the wide stabilizer-like tail. In his book Dartmoor Air Crashes Jones writes:

“Preparing to take off from Portreath, Jerome Foreman would have settled into the roomy cockpit and scanning the instrument panel before him, gone through his pre-flight checks. The Lightning was a comfortable aircraft with good all round visibility, although the bulky engines and broad wings did reduce the view downwards. Instead of the usual fighter ‘stick’, there was a steering yoke more often seen in much heavier aircraft. This would be the pilots ‘office’ for the next five hours.”

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

At Portreath, two of the P-38s were found to need more service so only fourteen – including the one flown by Foreman – took off for Gibraltar with the flight plan taking them over the Bay of Biscay and down the Atlantic coast off of Iberia to Gibraltar. No one knows for sure, but it would seem Foreman’s Lightning must have experienced mechanical or fuel problems, and somewhere over the Atlantic he banked his plane around and headed back for Portreath. The situation couldn’t have been much worse for poor Foreman, struggling with a disabled plane while flying over unfamiliar terrain in what were probably unfavourable weather conditions. When Foreman’s P-38 didn’t arrive at Gibraltar it was assumed that that it had come down over the ocean and would never be found, but on March 1st, 1943 the wreckage and Foreman’s body were found on a remote hill not far from Princetown (home of Dartmoor Prison). An RAF medical officer performed the post mortem and found that Foreman had died of multiple injuries. One can only hope that the young man died quickly and didn’t suffer before passing. Two of the other P-38s failed to make it to Gibraltar that day, one disappeared over the sea and was never found and another crashed near Albufeira, Portugal, the pilot being killed when he bailed out and his head banged against the tail.

Foreman was Jewish and lived in Los Angeles. He had enlisted on November 20, 1941, two days after his 20th birthday and seventeen days before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour and Adolf Hitler declared war on the United States. Initially he was buried with full military honours in the American Military Cemetery at Brookwood, Surrey. His father Jack had died a few months earlier in a defence plant accident so it was his mother Elizabeth who struggled with the paperwork to have her beloved son’s body repatriated to America. Once the War was over the U.S. Military did its best to comply and finally on September 22nd, 1948 Second Lieutenant Jerome Leonard Foreman was laid to rest at Hillside Memorial Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

Vickers Wellington with ASV

The next Dartmoor death crash involving a Gibraltar bound flight came a little more than five months later. The Vickers Wellington GR11 was being ferried to join Coastal Command at Gibraltar. This RAF bomber was special because it was one of the first to be fitted with Air to Surface Radar (ASV) to be used in the ongoing battle against German submarines. Also equipped with the intensely bright Leigh Lights the Wellingtons proved to be a scourge of the U-boats. The ASV was used to locate the subs when they routinely surfaced at night to recharge their batteries. The Leigh Lights effectively blinded the enemy gunners as the Wellingtons attacked with bombs and machine gun fire.

This particular Wellington was piloted by Flying Officer George Watterson and it took off from RAF Boscombe Down, near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, on June 1st, 1943. The remaining crew consisted of co-pilot, Sgt John Dixon, navigator Sgt G. Collins, flight engineer Sgt W. Simpson, and Wireless Operator Sgt A. Mooney. All five crew were members of the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve.

Jones writes: “It is thought the intention was to make the journey to Gibraltar via an airfield in Cornwall, most likely St. Eval. There the aircraft could top up with fuel and the crew would be able to get an up to date weather briefing. But Wellington MP 597 was destined never to arrive at the Cornish airfield.”

Kitty Tor

Just half an hour into the flight the weather conditions must have turned nasty and it would seem likely that FO Watterson was probably flying-low to get a sighting through the clouds and fog when the Wellington’s belly struck ground on a grassy area of the moor near Kitty Tor. Co-pilot Dixon was killed on impact, the others suffered a variety of injuries, some serious, but all survived. Dixon, the son of Joe and Sarah Dixon had earned his teaching diploma just before enlisting. He is buried in St. John’s Churchyard at Shildon, County Durham.

Despite his wounds the gutsy Watterson struck out on his own to find help. He followed a stream for three miles and must have been close to giving up hope, when two hours after the crash, he heard voices through the dense fog and stumbled, exhausted and covered in blood, into the offices of Meldon limestone quarry. Watterson could only provide a rough description of the crash site, but quarry manager, F.G.L. Weaver, immediately organised search parties, and the determined rescuers set off into the dark laden with first aid equipment and stretchers.

It wasn’t until 11 pm, four and a half hours after the crash, that the wreckage and survivors were found. The quarrymen administered first aid and stretchered the survivors for miles through the maze of rocks and brush to waiting ambulances.

Jones writes: “There is no doubt that the initiative and fortitude of the men of Meldon Quarry helped to save lives. Dr. Routh of Okehampton, who attended the scene, testified later that the injured airmen would not have survived long on the open moor without the assistance of the quarrymen. A hundred of them had searched ten square miles of the bleakest parts of Dartmoor in appalling weather conditions.”

Southern Railway, the company that owned Meldon Quarry at the time, presented scrolls to each of the men involved in the rescue. Interestingly one of them was named Baskerville. Today Meldon Quarry is a recreational site catering to hikers, cyclists, swimmers, bungee jumpers and devotees of extreme sports, few or none will be aware of the life-changing drama that took place there 75 years ago.

As I finish writing this account I look out the same window of the Moretonhampstead flat and see the sun shining, not a cloud in the sky, but it is January 7th, there is a slight breeze, the temperature is 4 degrees and I understand that at any moment an eerie black fog could come rolling over the hilltop.

“Yes, the setting (Dartmoor) is a worthy one. If the devil did desire to have a hand in the affairs of men.” – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

BY REG REYNOLDS