The Hoveringham Lancasters

Avro Lancaster B Mk II - Expired Crown Copyright Image by Royal Air Force via www.raf.mod.uk

In the winter of 1945, two Avro Lancaster III heavy bombers crashed in Nottinghamshire. The two events occurred a little over two weeks apart, on the same stretch of open land at Hoveringham, just north of the River Trent. Both aircraft were from the No.5 Lancaster Finishing School based at nearby RAF Syerston, where they had just completed night training missions. Both crews — fourteen airmen with an average age of 23 — were lost.

The first plane to come down was JB125, with pilot officer Guy Dunlop of the Royal New Zealand Air Force at the controls. At around 9:50pm on Friday 12 January, having flown a three-hour training flight with his British and New Zealand crew, Dunlop made his final approach to the Syerston airfield in conditions of poor visibility, surrounded by persistent drizzle beneath a cloud base no higher than 6,000 feet. Flying beyond the runway, the Lancaster banked over a field and flew into the ground.

Sixteen days later, at 2:16am on Sunday 28 January, the British and Canadian crew of LM308 were on their final approach having received landing instructions from the Syerston control tower. The pilot was warrant officer class 2 Richard Rathbone of the Royal Canadian Air Force. For reasons unknown, the Lancaster crashed at high speed and exploded. Eyewitness reports suggest that both port engines may have caught fire while the plane was still in the air.

The Hoveringham crashes were documented in W.R.Chorley’s exhaustive series of books, Royal Air Force Bomber Command Losses, Volumes 1-9, while oral history preserved fragmentary memories of those long-ago winter nights. Yet, evidence of the double disaster was quickly swallowed by the passage of years, and little wonder: during World War II, 3,932 Lancaster bombers were lost in action. JB125 and LM308 might have crashed on home turf, but the odds were stacked against their being remembered decades on.

Then, in the spring of 2009, local artist Lady Helen Nall ventured into the fields surrounding her home at Hoveringham Hall, wielding a newly-acquired metal detector. Less than a mile from the hall, she unearthed a scrap of metal which she described as “about the size of a 50p piece.” Lady Nall’s brother, former RAF pilot Douglas Fergusson, identified the find as a piece of burned aircraft alloy. Further searching uncovered fragments of wreckage and ordnance spread far and wide over the surrounding fields.

Having determined that the crash site contained the remains not just of one aircraft, but of two, Lady Nall embarked on a quest to piece together the story of the Hoveringham Lancasters. She also tracked down relatives of both aircrews. A year later, on Sunday 30 May, 2010, she organised a dedication service at a newly-installed pair of memorial stones, close to the site of the crash. The only notable absence from the ceremony — attended by RAF representatives and aircrew families from the UK, Canada, and New Zealand — was Britain’s last flying Lancaster, which was unable to perform the planned flypast due to strong winds.

River Trent at Hoveringham, looking south-east. RAF Syerston lies beyond the scarp.

River Trent at Hoveringham, looking south-east. RAF Syerston lies beyond the scarp.

Of the local riverside spots I walk with my wife, Hoveringham is one of my favourites. Rarely plagued by crowds, the path meanders through open pasture beneath a perpetually big sky. To your right, the River Trent flows north-east towards Newark-upon-Trent and Cromwell Lock, where it first submits to the tug of the North Sea’s distant tide. To your left lies a boating lake, home to the Nottinghamshire County Sailing Club, whose waters partially covers the original crash site. Not far from the lake’s south-west end, the twin memorial stones stand tall. Each carries a plaque bearing the names of the aircrews who perished there in 1945. It’s a beautiful place to be, green and quintessentially English, and the stones look very fine.

Across the river, a high wooded scarp conceals the runways of RAF Syerston, and perhaps provides a clue as to why landing there proved treacherous when conditions were bad. The surrounding Trent valley is largely broad and flat, but this wrinkle in the landscape must surely have caught out more than one pilot in its time.
Beside the stones sits a wooden bench, on the back of which a low-relief Lancaster flies. It’s a sensitive carving of an iconic aircraft that remains as much a symbol of wartime national pride as the Supermarine Spitfire. Operational from March 1942 onwards, Lancasters flew some 156,000 missions throughout the war. Among the most famous was Operation Chastise — famously known as the Dam Busters — during which Wing Commander Guy Gibson led the nineteen bombers of 617 Squadron to assail Germany’s Möhne, Edersee and Sorpe dams with Sir Barnes Wallis’s innovative bouncing mines.

Gibson must have been familiar with the area around Hoveringham. Through late 1942 and early 1943 — immediately before Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris tasked him with assembling his Dam Busters team — Gibson flew numerous missions with 106 Squadron, operating out of RAF Syerston. Gibson first flew a Lancaster while with 106 Squadron, and the aircraft he subsequently led over the German dams were Lancaster B Mark III Specials, modified to carry the surface-skimming mines but otherwise identical to the two aircraft that would later crash at Hoveringham, in the winter of 1945.

The Lancaster memorial stones, Hoveringham, Nottinghamshire

The Lancaster memorial stones, Hoveringham, Nottinghamshire

I have never flown in a Lancaster, nor am I likely to. Of the 7,377 aircraft manufactured by A.V. Roe and Company, only two remain airworthy. The first flies out of RAF Coningsby — less than 50 miles from Hoveringham. Originally codenamed PA474, this veteran aircraft currently masquerades as 617 Squadron’s DV385, “Thumper Mk III,” and regularly appears as part of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, with a Spitfire on one wing and a Hawker Hurricane on the other. Anyone wishing to see her counterpart take to the air will have to cross the Atlantic — the second airworthy Lancaster, KB726 (formerly FM213), “Vera,” resides in Canada.

Grounded I may be, but whenever I stand beside the Hoveringham memorial stones, the Lancasters never feel far away. It does not take much to conjure the throaty roar of those four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, nor to anticipate the sudden momentary darkness as a winged shadow swoops above my head. That roar is a sound I have only ever heard at air shows, when the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight has performed one of its ground-shaking flypasts. It is a sound you hear in your chest rather than your ears, an unforgettable thunder that sinks deep into your bones, and reminds you of the men who flew.

There is no sound quite like it.


References and further reading

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