JUST CURIOUS JANE

JUST CURIOUS JANE - BOOKS AND HISTORY BY JANE GULLIFORD LOWES

Doomed Youth – The Slingley Bomber Crash

While researching  my second book, “Above Us The Stars”, and interviewing Seaham and Murton residents who were children during the Second World War, I stumbled upon the story of an aircrash which occurred only a mile or so from my home in Seaton Village. I’ve lived in Seaton almost all of my adult life, and I’d never heard about this incident before.  As we approach Remembrance Sunday, I’d like to share this with you.

On the evening of Tuesday 17th October 1944, a Whitley bomber, aircraft AD685, took off from RAF Kinloss on a training flight. At that time, Kinloss was the home of 19 Operational Training Unit (OTU), where aircrews were trained to fly twin engined bombers, before moving onto the Halifax and Lancaster bombers of the Heavy Conversion Unit. Thereafter, they would join up with operational squadrons and commence actual bombing operations over enemy targets. My great uncle, Jack Clyde, the subject of my new book, had been posted to Kinloss as a wireless operator instructor just a couple of weeks previously. He had just completed a full tour of thirty operations, against the most incredible odds. At that time, an RAF bomber crewman had around a 27 per cent chance of survival.

Jack Clyde

Sgt Jack Clyde DFM

All but one of the six crew on board  Whitley AD685 were Canadian, recently arrived at Kinloss to commence their training for bomber command, like thousands of young Canadian men had done before them. The pilot, Flying Officer Kenneth Reed, was from Alberta; the navigator, Flying Officer Walter Wall, the Mid-Upper Gunner Alexander Sunstrum, and the young Air Gunner John Dowding, were all Ontarians. The eldest member of the crew at the grand old age of twenty nine, Sergeant Leslie Olmstead, hailed from Sasketchewan. The only British member of the crew was nineteen year old Sergeant Ernest William Leivers from Derbyshire, a wireless operator like Jack, and quite possibly one of Jack’s students at the OTU.

John Dowding was only seventeen, having lied about his age to join the Royal Canadian Airforce. He hoped to follow in the illustrious footsteps of his elder brother Harry, a squadron leader and spitfire ace, who had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his heroics. His parents, complicit in the deceit and perhaps influenced by their elder son’s successes, had signed John’s enlistment papers and provided a letter in support, giving their permission for him to join the air force. He was actually just sixteen when he enlisted on 3rd August 1943.

That night the crew were undertaking a routine training operation, a cross-country exercise down the eastern coast of Scotland and northern England, following a regular route taken by the rookie crews, designed to introduce them to night flying, before they moved onto the larger bombers.

At 21.45 hours, AD685 was recorded as missing.

Half an hour or so later, in the midst of a severe thunder storm, several Seaham farmers – Bill Bulmer at Stotfold, Roy Snowdon at Seaton, and the owner of Slingley Hill Farm, between Seaton Village and Murton – were disturbed by the arrival of police officers who informed them that an aircraft was missing and was believed to have come down on their land. The three farmers and their farm hands were asked to assist in locating the crash site – no mean feat in the dark – and to search for survivors.

The search was in vain.

A subsequent investigation revealed that the aircraft had developed problems over the coast, possibly due to a combination of turbulence and icing. As the pilot had turned to come inland, perhaps in the hope of making a crash landing, the aircraft had begun to break up in mid-air. The exact reason for the disintegration was never firmly established. “Control lost in cloud” was listed on accident documents. “Fairly frequent flashes of lightning” were reported by another Whitley bomber in the area at the time, and a local observatory in Durham reported “a violent localized electrical storm moving through the area from the west” at half past nine that evening. Perhaps extreme turbulence from the storm had caused the aircraft to break up.

One cannot even begin to comprehend the horror experienced by those on board as the Whitley began to disintegrate, as it flew over Seaham Harbour and over the new Deneside Estate, roughly on a course directly above The Avenue. One wing fell to the ground by the George Inn on that very street, the other quarter of a mile or so further on, landing in a back yard in Mount Pleasant. It is a miracle that no one on the ground was killed or injured. The two engines fell in farmland beyond, while the fuselage containing those poor boys hurtled into the ground in a field just behind Slingley Hill Farm, not too far from the now-disused railway line. There had been no fire, no explosion, and the bodies of the crew were found intact, but with horrific impact injuries, in and around the upturned fuselage.

Slingley Hill

Slingley Hill Farm as viewed from the old railway line – AD685 crashed in the bottom right of this field.

The incident is well remembered by the older residents of Seaton and Murton. Alan Lowes, who has lived in Murton his entire life, still has very vivid memories of going to view the wreckage with his friend Alan Charlton the next morning. The sight of the bodies beneath a tarpaulin, lives with him still. He particularly remembers the fact that all the dead men still had on their flying boots. He was just six years old at the time.

The medical report on young John Dowding noted “multiple injuries…head completely pulped; multiple abrasions with extensive tissue loss, fracture right humerus, fractured ribs, both sides, complete fracture right tibia and fibula.” There’s a photograph of John in his uniform on a website belonging to the local history group of his home town in Sarnia, Ontario, taken shortly after his enlistment. With his bright blonde hair, blue eyes and soft cheeks, he is clearly still a child. That’s how I prefer to think of him – a brave, blonde haired boy.

The bodies of the crew were removed immediately. The Canadians were all buried together in the Harrogate Regional Cemetery, alongside so many of their compatriots, whilst Sergeant Leivers’ body was returned to his family in Derbyshire. He lies in the churchyard at Normanton.

Young John Dowding’s parents were informed of his death by telegram, three days after the crash, on 20th October.

“DEEPLY REGRET TO ADVISE THAT YOUR SON PILOT OFFICER JOHN FREDERICK DOWDING J FOUR SIX NOUGHT FOUR ONE WAS KILLED ON ACTIVE SERVICE OVERSEAS OCTOBER SEVENTEENTH STOP PLEASE ACCEPT MY PROFOUND SYMPATHY STOP LETTER FOLLOWS.”

Thirty five words for the loss of a child. How Mr and Mrs Dowding must have felt that their world had come to an end. How does a parent ever come to terms with that? A second telegram followed two days later, informing them that their son’s funeral service was to take place at Harrogate the very next day. By the time the telegram reached them, at 162 John Street, Sarnia, Ontario, their boy had already been buried. John’s commanding officer at Kinloss, Group Captain Cole, wrote to them on 27th October, relaying details of the funeral service and the circumstances of John’s death:

“As air gunner of his aircraft, he took off in the evening of Tuesday 17th October to carry out a cross country detail. Contact was maintained with the aircraft until 21.22 hours, which was the last contact made. Information was received later that the aircraft had crashed at approximately 21.30 hours, a few miles inland west of Seaham Harbour, near Durham. It may be of some consolation to you to know that death must have been instantaneous. The cause of the accident has not yet been established.”

Group Captain Cole had written the same letter, with  only the names, circumstances and dates changed, hundreds of times before. He wrote again to the Dowdings, enclosing some black and white photographs of the funeral service and burial.

 

John Dowding

John Frederick Dowding, Royal Canadian Air Force

If you walk along the old railway line (now a trackway popular with cyclists and dog walkers) from Seaton Village towards Murton, you’ll pass Slingley Hill farm on your right, silhouetted against the wind turbines beyond. You can still see the crash site, although there is no hint as to the tragic events of 17th October 1944, and no trace of anything untoward.

There is no memorial to the young men who perished; their story has been largely forgotten. Some 8,240 Canadians were killed on operations with Bomber Command, and another 1,740 died, from non-operational causes, the vast majority in training accidents.

John’ Dowding’s parents subsequently arranged for the following epitaph to be carved upon his headstone:

“He challenged those who would destroy the innocent and the way of life he loved so well.”

Grave marker

The final resting place of John Dowding

 

 

“Above Us The Stars : 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story”, the true account of a Second World War RAF Bomber Crewman and his home town of Seaham, will be published by Matador in Summer 2020. You can read more here.

 

Bibliography:

John Boileau and Dan Black, “Too Young to Die: Canada’s Boy Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen in the Second World War” (James Lorimer & Co Ltd, Toronto, 2017)

Sarnia Historical Society http://www.sarniahistoricalsociety.com/warmemorialproject/dowding-john-jack-frederick-j46041/

Les Alexander, “Seaham, A Town at War 1939-1945 (Lighthouse Publishing, Billingham, 2002)

http://www.veterans.gc.ca/eng/remembrance/memorials/canadian-virtual-war-memorial/detail/2623553?John%20Frederick%20Dowding

With thanks to Elaine at the Murton Local History Society.

MY BOOKS (NON-FICTION / HISTORY)

“Above Us The Stars : 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story” (publication date Summer 2020, now available to pre-order).

Above Us The Stars book cover

The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017) – a true story of 19th century migration from the mining villages of County Durham to the Queensland rainforests.

The Horsekeeper's Daughter book cover

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11 Comments

  1. Allison November 5, 2018

    So very sad and so young too.We will remember them.

  2. Paul Sargerson November 5, 2018

    A heart breaking story , but one that should be read by the young ones of today , I look forward to your book it does sound really interesting . Just finished a book called operation storm .📚📚📚

  3. Martin Bulmer February 22, 2019

    After seeing the fly past in Sheffield this morning for the American bomber crew that died 75 years ago, I started thinking about the crash at Slingley and whilst I’ve known about it all my life I didn’t know the exact details. My Dad (Bill Bulmer) was one of those farmers who was asked to search their land. I still live on the farm and can see the crash site from my house.
    When we were growing up, tractors were by no means as comfortable as they are now, with very little in the way of seat padding, but one of then had a red seat cushion which I understand came from that crashed Whitley. Its long gone now but I was telling my wife about it, only a few days ago.

    • Jane February 22, 2019 — Post author

      Hello Martin thanks so much for getting in touch. You must’ve read my mind – I was thinking the exact same thing this morning. Gosh that’s absolutely fascinating. I’ve often thought that maybe we should see about having a little memorial stone erected on the walkway. So many people (myself included) didn’t know about these poor Canadian boys. It would be nice to remember them in some way.

  4. Vi Carr October 17, 2019

    Hi Jane I can remember my mam telling me about the crash when I was a teenager one of my school teachers ask us to ask our parents about the crash I was only a baby when it happened but my mother and my brother remembered it well my brother was 12 when it happenened he said he went along to the crash site from where we lived in Murton and saw the bodies covered over he was a real mind of information unfortunately he passed away last year

  5. Mike October 18, 2019

    Fabulous write up. It is up to us to remember them.

  6. Doug Balmer October 17, 2021

    My 3 year old sister and I shared the back bedroom of 13 Frank Avenue in Deneside and were awakened by a enormous crash on the roof. I recall rushing out into the living, terrified and asking my Mother if the Germans had come. She bundled us under the table as we were there until daylight.

    On looking out through the back bedroom window we could see a piece of wreckage, silver in colour some four feet long and about 9 – 12 inches wide. A short length of stranded metal wire was attached to a bracket. The loose end was frayed.

    With the help of a playmate we dragged our ‘trophy’ to the local policeman’s house at the bottom of The Avenue where he put onto a pile of other wreckage.

    After working on aircraft in Royal Air Force, I’m convinced that it was a trim tab.

    • Jane October 17, 2021 — Post author

      Gosh Doug you must have been petrified! Thank you so much for sharing your story and memories of this tragedy.

  7. Paul Batey October 17, 2021

    Read your story with interest Jane, very sad and there were many such stories in the war years.It would be fitting if a permanent memorial could be placed where these brave young men perished soon.

    • Jane October 17, 2021 — Post author

      Thank you Paul, yes I agree. We’re hoping to get something sorted with the parish council

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