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