The Tragedy of Short Stirling Mk 1 – N3643 MG-G
Aldringham Aircraft Crash, 23-24 March, 1941
In 1936 the Air Ministry called for the design and development of a heavy four-engined bomber that would give RAF Bomber Command a high speed plane capable of delivering a large bomb load at long ranges. Three Companies took up the challenge - Supermarine, Armstrong Whitworth and Short Brothers. After the design by Armstrong Whitworth was rejected both the other two were asked to build prototypes.
By May 1939 with the war only a few months away the first Shorts brothers’ prototype was flown, powered by four Bristol Hercules engines. The plane crashed on landing. The fault was traced to the landing gear which was hastily modified and strengthened but these changes gave the aircraft a tendency to swing violently unless handled carefully during takeoff and landing.
The Supermarine was half-finished when the factory was bombed by the Luftwaffe early in the war, destroying everything. This left only the Short Brothers design to enter service.
No 7 Squadron took the first production aircraft in 1940 and their first operation took place on the night of 10/11 February 1941 when three bombers attacked oil storage tanks in Rotterdam, making the Stirling the first four-engined monoplane to see service in the RAF.
Flying only their third operation on the night of 23/24 March 1941 MG-G N3643 flew out under the command of Squadron Leader Stuart Robertson. Their mission was to bomb Rotterdam for a second time. The aircraft left its satellite base of RAF Newmarket because the runway at their home station RAF Oakington was under repair.
The aircraft developed a technical fault and Robertson had to abort the mission and was forced to return homeward. As they crossed the coast, observers on the ground noted one of its engines burning fiercely, streaming smoke, and the aircraft was rapidly losing altitude. Further disaster struck the crippled bomber when it clipped high tension power cables.
It struck the gable-end of a cottage called Logwood, then the home of Mr Charlie Lovett and his family, continuing falling to earth before crashing on the Aldringham/Aldeburgh road; its momentum sent it careering through thick gorse hedges breaking up as it did so. It ended up demolishing the clubhouse /pavilion of the Hazelwood golf course.
Luckily at the time of impact the club professional Mr Maggs and his wife were across the road with their friends Bob and Flossie Bull playing cards in their bomb shelter. It turned out that the golf course's days were numbered as it had been acquired by the Ministry of Farming for agricultural use.
Three Auxiliary nurses, Mrs Amy Spall, Mrs Joan Lay (wife of architect, artist and poet, Cecil Lay) and Miss Florrie Mower, all of whom lived locally were at the crash scene within minutes, and desperately tried to save the crew despite the bomber being fully laden with its full arsenal of bombs and ammunition lying scattered all around the crash site. Ignoring their own safety they managed to pull Flight Sergeant Fred White, the only survivor from the wreckage, but sadly he died of his injuries four days later.
The nurses were honoured for their gallantry by being awarded a medal for their bravery and a citation from King George V1 which bears the signature of the Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
It was reported at the time that Florrie and the ladies struggled so much with their improvised stretcher that she went out and purchased a proper one in case of further accidents.
A soldier by the name of Mooney, a Lieutenant serving with the 489th AA Battery, suffered a broken ankle and facial injuries whilst on guard duties following the crash.
Details of the crew as follows:
Squadron Leader (Pilot) Stuart Alistair Frederick Robertson was the son of Frederick and Madge Robertson who lived in the parish of St Andrew Jamaica. He is buried in All Saints Churchyard, Long Stanton, Cambs.
Besides Stuart Robertson, two other members of his crew are buried here; they are Sergeant Gilbert Maurice Short (Air Gunner) aged 22, son of Gilbert P and Emily Short of Surbiton Surrey, the third being Sergeant Philip Green (Air Gunner) aged 28.
Pilot Sergeant Antony John Roberts was the son of Mrs D M Roberts of Derby. His body was taken home and buried in Uttoxeter Road cemetery Derby.
Sergeant Eric Victor Seymour was the planes observer aged 23. He was the son of Richard and Emily Seymour of Little Wakering Essex. He was taken the short journey home and buried in Sutton Road cemetery, Southend-on-sea.
The only survivor following the crash was Sergeant Frederick Ben White (Wireless operator/Air Gunner). He was married to Phyllis White and was the son of William and Elizabeth White of Brookton, Western Australia, Fred died four days later of his injuries and is interred in Brookwood Military Cemetery in Surrey.
The seventh crew member was Sergeant John Butterworth Clarke (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner) aged 20 the son of Albert and Mary Clarke of Blackpool. John was returned home to St Pauls cemetery at Marton.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I‘ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds-and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never Lark or even Eagle flew-
And, while with silent lifting mid I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee
No 412 squadron RCAF
Killed 11th December 1941
Many thanks to Peter Drew for writing this article. Photographs relating to the accident may be seen here.
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