On the afternoon of Friday, March 18, 1938, a student on the torpedo course at the Torpedo Training Unit at RAF Gosport took off at 2.15pm in a Mk1 Swordfish K5985 on a training cross-country flight to Roborough, near Plymouth.
The pilot was Plt Off Frederick Edgar Williams, 21; his two passengers “along for the ride” were Cpl Cyril John Coles, 32, and LAC David Samuel Hurrel, 21. Plt Off Williams had just over 200 hours in his log book, of which 25 were on the Swordfish. He was briefed to return to Gosport if the weather deteriorated, but seems to have encountered low cloud approaching the Purbecks and tried to duck under it.
He appears to have passed low over Orchard Hill Farm at 2.45pm, clipped the top of the trees in Polar Wood – leaving sections of the aircraft in the tree tops – and nose-dived into the steep hillside some 300 yards away. The Bristol Pegasus engine detached and rolled further down the valley.
All three on board were probably killed instantly, despite the brave efforts of a local man, Mr Bob Dorey, who climbed up from Encombe House to the blazing wreckage with two fire extinguishers and attempted to get close enough to pull them from the inferno. Other local folk also tried to get near to the wreckage but were beaten back by the heat.
Personnel from the Sick Bay Unit at RAF Warmwell attended the scene and had the difficult task of retrieving the three bodies and carrying them to the top of the ridge before taking them back to base in their ambulance.
The Coroner’s inquest recorded a verdict of accidental death.