1938: Dorset R.A.F. Crash

Disaster in Coastal Fog – Three Men Killed near Corfe Castle – Aircraft in Flames

The three occupants of an R.A.F. aeroplane, a Fairy Swordfish, bound from Gosport to Roborough, near Plymouth, on Friday afternoon, were killed when the machine, after hitting some trees, crashed in a coastal fog, near Encombe House, the Dorsetshire residence of the Hon. Sir Ernest S. Scott, K.C.M.G., M.V.O. Hearing the noise of the crash, Sir Ernest went to the scene with some of his employees, but was unable to render assistance owing to the flames which burst from the wreckage.

The dead men were Pilot-Officer Frederick Edgar Williams, Corporal Cyril John Coles, and Leading-Aircraftsman David Samuel Hurrell.

Eye-Witness’s Story

Mr. E. Hixon [Hixson], of the Encombe Estate Office, who, with others, heard the crash and rushed to the spot in a motor-car, told a representative of this paper that the ‘plane was flying in the fog over the coast line at 2.45 p.m. and must have hit some tree on the road to Swyre Head, just outside the village of Kingston, near Corfe Castle. When he arrived the aeroplane was in flames. “There were three men in it, but we could not get near them owing to the great heat. I think the men must have been killed when the plane crashed.” The aeroplane had rolled down through the trees and then down the hill-side in the vale. An overcoat of R.A.F. blue, was thrown out of the aeroplane, and in the pocket was a handkerchief bearing the name ‘Williams, Gosport.’”

The bodies were subsequently removed to the mortuary at the Poor-law Institution, at Wareham, pending the inquest on Tuesday by the Coroner for East Dorset (Mr. R. N. Neville-Jones).

“Flying Too Low”

Coroner and Cause of Accident.

Graphic stories of the disaster were told the Coroner by witnesses and the jury, of whom Mr. S. W. Roshier was foreman, returned a verdict of “Accidental Death.”

The Coroner, reviewing the evidence, observed for some reason or other the aeroplane was flying very much too low round the Purbeck Hills, and one of the probable reasons for that was that there was a good deal of low cloud about, and the pilot, having lost sight of the ground, came down to see if he could see it again, and in doing so, unfortunately, came down too low and had the very great misfortune to strike some trees. Had he been a very few feet further up he would have missed them altogether and got out to sea quite safely.

How Men were Identified

Leading Aircraftsman Gwyn Lewis, of the R.A.F., stationed at Gosport, identified Pilot-Officer Williams (aged 21 and single) by his flying overalls, and Corporal Coles (married, aged 32) by his name on a piece of his trousers, which was not burned. Hurrell was aged 21 and single.

Squadron-Leader John Goodenough Elton, commanding the R.A.F.  training squadron at Gosport, stated Mr. Williams was a pupil on torpedo training course, and was on a cross-country training flight to Roborough, which witness had authorised. Williams had had just over 200 hours flying as a pilot, and he was considered one of the best pilots, being qualified in all respects. The two passengers were both members of the training squadron and on a pilot course.

Flying Low Regulations

Coroner: What are the regulations about flying low?

Witness: In the normal course of events a pilot is not supposed to fly lower than 1,000 feet, but he is occasionally forced lower by the weather.

The Coroner: The visibility in places was very good apparently that afternoon, but over the Purbeck Hills and the particular spot where he crashed there was fog.

Witness observed it was supposition, but he thought probably the aeroplane was flying under a cloud and keeping sight of the ground, which a pilot would often do. “They should actually keep up high and wait until they came out of it,” added witness.

The Coroner pointed out that this was the second fatality which had occurred in his district within the last few months due to almost exactly the same cause – fog and low flying, and there was an instruction the pilot should keep up.

Witness: Pilots are definitely instructed not to fly low when they get in bad weather, but remain at a safe height and turn round and trace their way back into the fair weather again. The machine was completely equipped with instruments which showed its height.

The Coroner: What it really amounts to was inexperience and he was doing what he ought not to do – a dangerous procedure? – Yes.

Witness: Oh, yes. In this particular case I instructed the pilot to return if the weather deteriorated after leaving Gosport, where it was quite fine. There were special orders about low flying.

The Coroner: Which are honoured in the breach apparently.

Eye-Witnesses’ Stories

Stories of the disaster were told by witnesses – Misses Bessie Beatrice Marsh, of Orchard Hill Farm, Kingston, Mr Ernest Albert Hixon [Hixson] of Rabling-road, Swanage, a clerk employed at the Encombe Estate Office, Kingston, and Mrs. Alice Pamela Sampson [Sansom], of Encombe.

Mrs. Marsh said her husband remarked, “He is going to hit the house,” it was flying so low – within another foot it would have touched the chimney. There was a very thick mist and she was only just able to make out the outline of the ‘plane as it passed straight over the house. A few seconds later she heard a loud crash in the direction the ‘plane had gone, followed by a loud bang or explosion. She went in a lorry with her husband and found the machine in flames. It had torn right through Polar Wood and was burning fiercely on the hill-side – the sea side of the wood – just below.

Mr. Hixon [Hixson] stated there was a very thick fog. He heard the roar of a ‘plane which seemed directly over-head and apparently travelling at a very fast speed. Next he heard a crash of splintering wood.

From her upstairs window, Mrs. Sampson [Sansom] said she saw the ‘plane fall in flames half-way down the hillside, and she observed an object – what it was she did not know – roll down the hill.

Replying to Mr. R. C. Hockey, Air Ministry Inspector of Accidents, witness said she could not quite remember but she was under the impression the aeroplane hit the hillside before bursting into flames.

P.C. Cutler produced the overcoat of an R.A.F. officer, singed but not badly burnt., which he said he found near where the ‘plane crashed. Parts of the aeroplane were scattered all over the hillside, and trees in polar Wood had had their tops cut off by the plane. Later, with the assistance of other policemen, he recovered the bodies from the wreckage.

The Coroner, on behalf of himself and the jury, expressed to the relatives of deceased, the sympathy which they all felt for them in this “most unfortunate tragedy.” – Inspector G. E. Burt, on behalf on the police, associated himself with these remarks.

Western Gazette, 25 March 1938

Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.