Saturday 18 November 2017
 

Spitfire crash, 4th March 1954

The two in the background are Tom Wagstaff and Clifford Robinson
photo courtesy Tom Thorne

Below is a column from the "Chronicle" of 5th March 1954.

Forty five children in the west Shropshire hill village of Church Pulverbatch heard the screaming noise of a diving Spitfire as they sat at their lessons yesterday. The plane missed their school by 50 yards, then crashed in a farmyard and burst into flames.

THE PILOT WAS KILLED INSTANTLY.... AND LAST NIGHT THE ViLLAGERS WERE CONVINCED THAT HE HAD FOUGHT AND SACRIFICED HIMSELF TO AVOID CRASHING INTO THE SCHOOL AND THE CLUSTER OF COTTAGES AND FARM BUILDINGS NEARBY.

The aircraft was owned by Short and Harland Ltd., Formby, Liverpool, and was flying from Woodville. The pilot was ex-F/Lt. G. T. Heyes, D.F.C., of Ruabon. He was a married man and was engaged on meteorological duties. Before the crash he sent out an S.O.S. that he was in difficulties and was about to bale out. The message was picked up by R.A.F. Shawbury, who flashed it to the police and fire brigade authorities. Soon afterwards the machine crashed with the pilot in it and burst into flames. Pieces of wreckage were strewn over a wide area.

Within a few minutes of the crash the vicar of Church Pulverbatch, the Rev. E. Marshall Taylor was on the scene to say prayers. One man who saw the machine crash was Mr. Kenneth Birmingham, a gardener. He told a “Chronicle” reporter: “The plane came in from the south-east and I heard it pass overhead. It then started to bank and I thought the pilot was doing a bit of stunting, but then it seemed to go into a sloping dive with the engine flat out. It was one mad roar. I have never heard anything like it.”

The children sat in the little school being taught arithmetic, not realizing the narrow escape they had had. Said the schoolmistress, Mrs. Catherine Todd : “It was all over so quickly. The little ones didn’t seem to grasp what had happened, but some of the oIder children were afraid for the pilot and asked questions about the crash.

“We heard a noise overhead and as it came nearer we realized there was something wrong. Then the ‘plane screamed and crashed. It seemed as if the pilot must have tried to avoid the village.”

In an adjoining classroom, where Mrs Todd’s assistant, Miss Dilys Edwards, was teaching, youngsters could see the flames of the burning aircraft only 50 yards away.

Michael Birmingham and Peter Gee

Nearest to the crash and first on the scene was 16-year-old farm worker Tom Wagstaffe, who was in the cattle shed at the farm of Mr. J. Trevor Bebb, on whose land the machine crashed. Tom told the “Chronicle”: “I was only about 40 yards from the crash. Bits of earth and pieces of the ‘plane came down on the roof of the cowshed.” Tom ran to the scene with 26-year-old Dennis Dudley, but just before they got there the petrol tanks exploded and there was nothing they could do. They found the machine had buried itself in the ground. There were 37 cows in the shed. “They were frightened a bit but it was not too bad,” said Tom.

Mr. Bebb said: “It seemed to me like a jet breaking the sound barrier. I ran to the crash, saw I could do nothing, and then ran and ‘phoned for the ambulance and the fire brigade. When the ‘plane began its dive I saw the propeller disintegrate in mid-air, and I later found it yards down the field.”

Farm worker Clifford Robinson (18) was in the village shop when the crash occurred. “I heard a screaming noise and thought it was going to hit the shop, so I went out through the door of the shop as fast as I could.”

Miss Ivy Bailey, 22-year-old domestic worker, told our reporter: “I was doing the washing-up at Lower Farm at the time. I did not hear anything, until the doors and windows started rattling.”

Several fire appliances from Shrewsbury extinguished the flames, and late last night airmen from RAF Shawbury were busy digging out the engine of the ‘plane, which had embedded itself several feet into the ground.