I was seven years old when I witnessed a Hanley Page Hampden bomber crashing into a field bordering St. Denys Road, Evington. This is my recollection of the incident of 73 years ago, although it may differ slightly from that of some of my contemporaries, wherever they may be. Happily, my recollection has largely been confirmed by a friend who was an even closer witness than I was to the actual event.
I didn’t see the aircraft hit the ground but seconds before it crashed it had barely cleared the rooftops of the row of terraced cottages in Main Street where I lived and was low enough for me to see one of the crew from where I watched. It appeared to line-up with St. Denys Road, a matter of 100 yards or so from my vantage point in our back garden. As it disappeared from view I heard a bang, almost like cars colliding, followed, a few moments later by an earth shattering explosion and the eruption of a huge column of black smoke and flames. Shortly afterwards several more explosions of varying intensity occurred and we thought they were bombs, but were later informed that it was fuel and light ammunition exploding, as thankfully there were no bombs aboard the aircraft.
A Handley Page bomber
The first crash I had heard was probably the wing of the aircraft hitting the roof of No. 20 St. Denys Road and then the chimney stacks of number 24 and 26. After damaging the chimney and ripping a large hole in the roof of No. 20, part of the port wing fell into the front garden and was there for several days before it was removed. The large hole in the roof was eventually covered with a tarpaulin sheet but was not fully repaired for weeks. Just before the crash, the younger daughter of the house recalls rushing in from the garden to tell her mother that she had seen a man in an aeroplane as it passed overhead. When the bomber flew around again, possibly the second or third circuit it had made, it hit their house and her mother was covered in soot from the demolished chimney as she was working near the fireplace. Her older sister, had gone to their front gate to watch the plane circling overhead and became badly entangled in telegraph wires as they were snagged by the plane and had to be freed by a neighbour. Ironically, although there was a telegraph pole outside their front gate, they did not have a telephone line in the house. A lady at No 26 was in the garden at the time and was killed by falling masonry. She was Mrs. Maud Louisa Harris, aged 29. She is buried in the graveyard at St. Denys Church.
The houses that were damaged and where the civilian death occurred.
To picture the actual crash site it should be remembered that the Cordery Road Estate between the old driveway up to Evington House and St. Denys Road was not build until 1949/50, the last property on the west side of St. Denys Road was a bungalow, No. 30, next to a vacant building plot, now occupied by No. 36, bordered onto a large field which we local kids called ‘the front field’. It was into this ridged and furrowed field, after hitting the top of a large tree, that the aircraft finally crashed.
Although tragedy was narrowly averted as minutes before the crash several boys, including myself, had been kicking a football about in ‘the front field’. My escape was not so close as the other boys, as having discovered it was past my lunchtime I ran home to avoid being too late and had seen the plane circling around. As I was leaving our outside toilet I heard the bomber approaching again as the noise from its engines was getting louder and louder. Suddenly, very low, it loomed over our rooftop and within just a few short moments was in pieces on the ground. Its point of impact was approx. 200/250 yards away but hedges and tall trees blocked my view of the actual impact.
My pals avoided disaster due to the owner of the football being summoned home for lunch by one of his parents, the others, now without a ball, also decided to go home for lunch and they had only just negotiated the roadside fence when they saw the bomber heading towards them. By this time they were well clear of the field but some of them actually witnessed the aircraft hitting the ground and exploding. As I recall, all the boys lived in St. Denys Road.
For about two days following the crash I was the proud owner of a piece of Bakelite material, approx. 12 inches long and engraved with graduations and numbers. It was either part of the instrument panel or perhaps the wireless transmitter. I must have picked it up in our garden or somewhere close to the crash site but not at the actual crash site as the area was closed off and guarded for a day or so after the accident. I was soon parted from my prize possession as police and RAF personnel were collecting any such souvenirs in the area for forensic evidence.
Within just two months of this incident a summary of a report on the crash was published in an RAF aircrew magazine. It was published on the orders of Air Chief Marshal Portal following his concern regarding the number of similar flying accidents and the huge loss of lives and aircraft over a relatively short period of time in 1941.
The report reads as follows:-
‘A Hampden, with Sergeant J. J. Campbell as pilot, took off to carry out a general test prior to an operational trip that night. The flight was to have been for about three hours’ duration. Weather conditions at the time of the accident were favourable. The cloud base was about 3,000 feet and visibility was over 5 miles.
Two hours later the aircraft was seen flying at tree-top height near St. Denys’s Road, Evington. After circling for a few minutes it dived lightly and then leveled out. Immediately afterwards the port mainplane struck the roofs of three houses, demolishing the chimney stacks. A woman standing in the back garden of No. 26 St. Denys Road, was killed by falling debris. After hitting the houses it struck high trees about 40 yards distant and the tail unit and part of the bomb compartment were torn off. It then crashed into the adjoining field and distributed itself over a distance of 120 yards, killing the pilot and the 1st W.O./A.G.*
Interviewed at the hospital next day the 2nd W.O. / A.G*., who was the sole survivor, said that a short while before the crash they had been flying round the telephone exchange at Uppingham. It was later learned that the pilot had, until two days before, been on leave, staying at St. Denys Road, Evington, with a lady friend, who was a telephonist employed at Uppingham Exchange.’
A footnote following stating the following:- ‘Eighty-one pilots and crews have lost their lives in flying accidents of this nature in the last six months’
*Wireless Operator / Air Gunner (My note)
Local gossip quickly identified the unfortunate girlfriend but at seven years old, I was not really in on the story and in later life was never sure that it was true. To us boys in the village, the crash had been exciting and was talked about and re-enacted for a few days but quite quickly forgotten as we returned to await the next event of the war …… and there was more.
Several years later, probably 1946/47, the father of one of the boys who had been playing football in the ‘front field’, bought the plot of land adjoining that field. Subsequently, he built a house on the plot (No. 36) and during the building process his son spotted a long length of wireless cable among the highest branches of an Ash tree in the plot boundary hedgerow. Conveniently, the tree had a divided trunk and to form a ladder, slats of wood were soon nailed into place across the trunks and the aerial cable retrieved. Witnesses had reported that the aircraft crashed through the top of a tall tree immediately before it hit the ground.
I have only recently learned of the telephone cable incident outside No. 20 and now believe that the recovered ‘aircraft aerial’ cable from the tree was not a wireless aerial but telephone cable still hanging under the aircraft following the earlier incident just a few seconds before.