by ehistoryadmin on April 21, 2017

Blessington war time air crash

Liam Kenny

This column seems to have spent many weeks writing about young men and death. The events of the 1916 Easter Rising, so expansively commemorated, are recalled in the stories – at once heroic and tragic – of men who met their deaths fighting each other in the streets of Dublin. Some were motivated by a passion to achieve an independent republic; others were doing their duty as soldiers and policemen. This localised death and destruction was in turn set against the background of a world conflict (1914-1918) where millions of people were being devoured by the merciless machinery of war in some of the bloodiest years to stain the record of humankind. And this week the column is, once again, about young men, and death, and war too. One wishes it were more cheerful – about art and music and the sublime things of life. But we don’t get to choose our history and while the good days can be remembered with fond nostalgia it is the tragic stories which cut through the sentimentality of the past.

What is perhaps different about this story is the sheer poignancy of it all – how four young men who had no connection with Ireland became part of Irish soil in the most permanent way possible. Their story centres on the crash of a Royal Air Force bomber aircraft on the hills beyond Blessington in April 1941. The four young men who perished on the west Wicklow hills probably had little in common until thrown together in an aircraft into the maw of war. Kenneth Hill, the pilot, from Croydon, at just 23 was the oldest member of the crew. He had been determined to become a pilot overcoming a polio disability to be accepted for flying training. The navigator Jack Lamb was a talented young scientist who had worked in the Carlisle Technical College. There were two air gunners, both from Old Trafford. Stanley Wright was the son of a wheelwright. His fellow Mancunian Fred Erdwin had a sad childhood. He was orphaned with his sister and brought up in a children’s home.

On the night of 17 April 1941 their squadron was assigned to a bombing mission on Berlin. At an early stage in the war this was a risky long range routing deep into Germany in an aircraft with minimal navigation equipment. They took off from their base in Yorkshire at 2030 hours. The weather was poor with almost complete cloud cover across the North Sea. It is not known whether Kenneth Hill and his crew reached their target. The next that was heard from them was when they were picked up by a signal station in Norfolk at 0217 requesting a position fix. They had clearly returned across the North Sea but for some reason they did not respond but continued flying west across the breadth of England.

They continued over the Welsh mountains and across the Irish Sea. They had overflown their home airfield in Yorkshire by more than one hundred miles and still their aircraft droned to the west. It is perhaps hard to imagine, even in the fog of war, an aircrew flying that far astray. But who knows what was going in the final phase of the doomed flight? Was the pilot incapacitated – the rear crew struggling to get to the controls in the tiny cockpit? Had hypothermia or fatigue compromised their navigational abilities? Or maybe it was a combination of fear, poor training and deficient equipment that set them off course? Their case was not unique – other British aircraft had been known to stray across the Irish Sea including one lucky crew which managed to land at the Curragh, was refuelled by the Irish army, and flew back safely to England.

However there was no such rescue for Kenneth Hill and his crew as their bomber droned west across the Irish Sea. Vigilant Irish coast-watchers recorded them crossing the shoreline near Dalkey just after 0400. Their flight path took them across north Kildare in a westerly direction. A Garda in Carbury station logged the aircraft overhead at 0418. It appears that by then the seriousness of their situation was realised and the plane made a U-turn on to a course which took it back east over mid Kildare.

The Garda station at Hollywood south of Blessington logged it overhead at 0432. And then nothing more was heard or seen of the plane until two days later when turf cutters on Blackhill above Ballyknockan came on bodies and wreckage. The crew had no chance of survival when the plane — probably drained to its last drop of fuel after over eight hours in the air — plunged into the slopes which faced west over the filling Blessington lake.

The Irish Government approved a funeral with military honours. The crew’s coffins were borne down the street in Blessington by Irish soldiers while an Army band played the Funeral March. Their committal service took place in the Church of St Mary the Virgin in the centre of the town where the Rector, Rev. J.R. Crooks, gave a solemn address.

They were then interred in the adjoining graveyard where their graves are marked by Commonwealth War Graves Commission headstones. They have not been forgotten in Blessington. Fifty years after the crash the then Rector, Rev J.S.Stokes organised a memorial service and a weekend of commemorative events. Family members of the men have visited the graves in subsequent years.

And in the month when Ireland commemorates its independence and proudly regards its own symbols of nationalism it is notable that the men’s coffins were draped in the Union Jack as they were carried through Blessington where shops closed and blinds were drawn on windows. Even old enmities are transcended by respect for young men who meet death when doing their duty. Leinster Leader 12 April 2016, Looking Back Series no: 480.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: