SOMETIMES A TRAGEDY AWAITS...
The most beautiful countryside often hides the darkest of secrets; and, having no memory of its own, is oblivious to them and utterly indifferent. Such were my thoughts on my visit to Edale in the heart of Derbyshire’s Peak District. Here, decades before, my Uncle, along with five other RAF crew members, met his death as their Handley Page Heyford K6875, an all-metal biplane- bomber, hit the hillside above the village.
My visit was an exploration – looking for the site of the crash; a homage to lives cut tragically short; and an attempt to restore a faded piece of my family’s history.
A picture of my uncle – Sergeant Jim Barker, aged 26, in his pilot’s uniform, sits on my bookshelf: a good-looking man with a bright career ahead of him; and next to it is a photo of his newly-married wife, Muriel. She was my aunt, my mother’s sister, and the effect on her of Jim’s death in a vicious summer storm amid the dark peaks was to be devastating. In her grief she lost the baby she was carrying.
Though she never re-married, she made a life for herself and was a precious friend to me till her death in 1997 – when at last I felt free to satisfy my curiosity about the exact spot where the Heyford met its end.
She had spoken little of Jim; and indeed most of what I learnt about the Edale crash was gleaned from a slim but invaluable volume Dark Peak Aircraft Wrecks 1 (UK: Wharncliffe Publishing, 1990; numerous editions) by Ron Collier and Roni Wilkinson.
On a bright, clear October day I descended into the valley from Rushup Edge, itself unnervingly steep. Edale is benign but running above it to the north is Broadlee Bank Tor; beyond that, Edale Moor at 1981 feet and looming menacingly beyond that, Kinder Scout, well over 2000 feet.
On the 22 July 1937 the Heyford, of 166 Squadron, was making a navigational night flight from Leconfield. It was piloted by Sergeant Newton W. Baker from Thetford in Norfolk. The co-pilot was Sergeant Charles Macmillan from London; the wireless operator was Aircraftman Harry Grey from Aberdare. Also on board were Aircraftmen Eric McDonald and Ernest Musker – both from Liverpool. – and my Uncle, James W. Barker of Horwich in Lancashire.
The twin-engined Handley Page Heyford was a potential death-box. Collier and Wilkinson describe it as ‘ungainly’ and ‘ obsolete’. In December 1936 all but one of a flight of seven Heyfords in 102 Squadron, on a flight to Finningley from Northern Ireland, crossing the Pennines in bad weather, crashed or force-landed. Three crew members died.
Collier and Wilkinson write: ‘The biplane bomber’s unconventional fixing of the fuselage to the upper wing, leaving a gap between it and the lower wing, gave the Heyford an ungainly appearance. The resulting distance from the ground of the cockpit did little to aid the pilot’s view when landing’.
What was arguably worse was the fact that the Heyford had an open cockpit, so that in bad weather the pilot was as reliant on the navigational skills of the co-pilot as on his own capacity to see though mist and darkness. Here then was a tragedy in the making and it is amazing, in retrospect, that the RAF, having lost six out of seven Heyfords in December 1936, did not ground the rest.
Searching for the spot
At the Edale Visitor Centre I asked if there was any record of the crash on 22 July 1937. At least staff were aware of this crash and many others in the dark peaks. ‘I want to find the exact spot where the plane hit the hillside,’ I said. There was a shaking of heads; after all, nature takes all things to itself and the crash had occurred decades before. I was pointed in the direction of Broadlee Bank Tor; and warned, ‘It’s a steep climb’.
Too impatient to find a path that would take me to the crest of the Tor, I made a direct ascent, attempting to guess the flight path of the Heyford. In the Collier-Wilkinson book there are pictures of the site of the crash. A dry-stone wall had been destroyed; and beyond, in the photo, very faintly, was the outline of distant hills. These, I guessed, were situated to the west of Rushup Edge.
On the night of 22 July the charms of Edale were obscured by darkness and storm. The Heyford was some 13 miles off course, either flying along the valley from the direction of the Ladybower Reservoire or more likely passing close to the top of Mam Tor to the south; certainly dipping in to Edale and heading towards the village.
‘I looked out through the window and saw…’
Collier and Wilkinson quote a Mr. W. Dearnaly who lived near to the pub in Edale, the Old Nag’s Head. He was on his way to bed around 11pm when he heard the sound of an aero engine, low-flying: ‘It was so unusual that I looked through the window and saw a huge machine just skimming over the top of Rushup Edge, heading for Kinder Scout.’
These were the days before radar, and it can only be guessed whether the crew of the Heyford were aware, until the very last minute, that they were flying off course. According to Collier and Wilkinson, and to press reports after the accident, the crew were letting off flares; later, official reports asserted that this was not the case . Accident investigator Squadron Leader Hugh Wake found, ‘having interviewed the most reliable witnesses... the engines were running normally at the time of the accident’. The plane ‘did not circle round or fire any lights…’
Bearing in mind the difficulty the pilot had of gauging the ground, Sergeant Baker deserved high marks: with a little bit of luck, he might well have dragged the plane clear of the ridge which awaited him. My own ascent was more of a climb than a hike. The side of Broadlee Bank Tor is frighteningly steep and in places the slopes cave in as if there had once been excavations here. At the same time, it tempts with false summits. The Heyford was very probably only a matter of 50 feet from open sky. Alas, the Dark Peak was to show no mercy. One wing of the Heyford struck ground, precipitating the aircraft into the hillside.
Hands held up to their faces
Instantly the valley of Edale was lit by a fireball of such intensity there was no chance of the crew surviving. The bodies of the six airmen, disfigured beyond recognition, nevertheless retained the defensive shape of their last living moments: some of the crew were found to be crouched, with their hands held up to protect their faces.
I scoured the high ground attempting to guess the exact spot of the crash. At one of the ‘false crests’ I found a wall, demolished as much by wind and weather as by any possible collision with a crashing aircraft, but it did resemble the photograph in Dark Peak Aircraft Wrecks 1 in which Rushup Edge across the valley was framed by the rough curve of tumbled stone.
At that time in Edale there was a temporary camp for the unemployed. Edward Beeley, committee member of the Hyde League of Social Services, witnessing the crash and the flames that engulfed the Heyford, called for volunteers. Collier and Wilkinson quote him as saying, ‘Five men went with me and we took with us a stretcher and an ambulance box. We did not follow the ordinary path but made a beeline up the mountainside and it was hard going’.
It took them almost an hour before they reached the wreck, and they soon saw ‘that the occupants were past our aid’. What Edward Beeley and his team of would-be rescuers saw ‘was a terrible sight… and I hope I never see anything like it again’. Collier and Wilkinson write, ‘With the first light of dawn the appalling nature of the crash could be fully appreciated. The Heyford had struck the slope some 50 feet below the summit of the hill, ripping through the undergrowth, gouging a pit in the black earth, before smashing through a dry stone wall’.
In his book, Peakland Air Crashes: The North (UK: Landmark Publishing, 2006), Pat Cunningham describes the Heyford as capable of ‘a speedy 143 mph (124 knots)’. It had earned the nickname ‘Express’ and been ‘good value as a crew trainer’. It was ‘stable and pleasant to fly. But like all aircraft it needed airspace, and when this was denied it, the results could be catastrophic; as they were for the occupants of No 166 Squadron’s K6875 on 22 July 1937’.
Lucky for one
While all on board the Heyford died instantly, it could be said that there was one lucky survivor. He was Pilot Officer D.M. Strong. When K6875 had been allocated to 166 Squadron it was Officer Strong whose duty it was to fly it, and to keep an inventory of all equipment on the plane.
Collier and Wilkinson explain, ‘Although an officer, he [Strong] normally flew as second pilot to Sergeant Baker, however having crossed swords with the flight commander, he had been given other duties’.
His place on K6875 was taken by Sergeant McMillan. Pilot Officer Strong survived the war, becoming an air commodore: who knows what advancement the others may have won for themselves in the war ahead if the Heyford had managed, in the swirling storm, to skim instead of strike Broadlee Bank Tor.
‘…a slight error’.
After my Aunt’s death I found among her possessions a green canvas wallet in which she had preserved newspaper cuttings reporting the crash and letters of commiseration. In a letter to Muriel Barker dated 29th July 1937, Squadron-Leader Wake, the accident assessor, was at pains to correct what he seemed to see as press misreporting: ‘I blame no one for the accident which was due solely to the aircraft being slightly off its course and over high ground. Had it been on its course it would have been clear of the hills. This slight error could easily occur in conditions of low cloud, and, as we know well, happens frequently to all of us.’
Pat Cunningham explains how easy it was in those days for an aircraft to shift off course: ‘And if it is hard to credit that trained, or even trainee, aircrew could stray so far off track, it has to be remembered that they had few of the modern aids which now more nearly make air navigation a precise science…should an aircraft stray just one degree from its compass course, then having travelled sixty miles it will be a full mile from its planned track’.
Bureaucracy: a callous edge
Whether Squadron-Leader Wake’s assurances set my Aunt’s mind at rest must be left to conjecture; but other, more official letters from the RAF, necessary as I’m sure they were, must have been particularly distressing. One letter, dated 12 August 1937, dealt with such mundanity as ‘preferential charges’, that is ‘Mess bill, charges for lost RAF equipment etc.’.
I can only guess at my Aunt’s reaction to the sentence, ‘If you would let us have back your husband’s great-coat as soon as possible, these charges will be very small’. On 15 January 1938, a Mr. A.W. Donald, for the Director of Accounts, wrote: ‘514997. Sgt. Barker, J.W. (Deceased). Madam, I am directed to inform you that a sum of £26.17.9 is held by this Department in respect of the estate of your husband…I am, Madam, Your obedient Servant.’
Of more comfort to her was a letter of sympathy from the mayor of Beverley, C.H. Burden. ‘We remember,’ he wrote on the day after the Heyford crash, ‘that your late husband died on duty, and we are grateful to those who bravely face dangers to fit themselves for our defence’.
Many of us, in travelling through France or Belgium, have paused at the war cemeteries, so lovingly preserved over the years. Generations have been able to walk the ranks of white headstones, simply inscribed, and muse on the sacrifice of so many, so young; and upon the lives that they might have led.
Yet as I searched the high ground above Edale, cooled after my climb by the October wind whistling across the valley, finding nothing, I felt an acute sense of vicarious grief and loss – that nothing remained, not even a white headstone buried in the heather. I felt the victims of the K6875 crash deserved better; indeed deserved something to commemorate them. Could it be, though, that to pay material tribute would be to saddle the Dark Peak with a daunting reputation, of an aircraft graveyard, while at the same time casting a quizzical historical spotlight on the lesser glories of the RAF?
After all, within the area of a few short miles disaster stood in wait for the Swordfish P4223 at Heydon Head, January 1940 and four days before Christmas, the Hampden X 3154 at Chapel-en-le-Frith. 1941 proved a particularly bad year for Dark Peak crashes – in January the Blenheim Z 5746 at Ox Stones, in February the Wellington Z 8491 at White Edge Moor, in July at Crowden Tower – Edale once more – the Blenheim 1V Z5870, in August the Defiant N3378 at Bleaklow Stones and in December the Botha W5103 at Round Hill.
‘Is there anywhere in the High Peak,’ I asked at the Edale Visitor Centre, ‘where the deaths and injuries, and the colossal number of crashes that took place, are officially recorded? Is there a plaque to acknowledge the secrets hoarded in this lovely landscape?’ Apparently there is not; and in my view there should be; in addition, that is, to the books written by Ron Collier with Roni Wilkinson and Pat Cunningham which serve as impressive monuments to the dead as well as providing invaluable documentary evidence.
At the very least, one might expect a permanent tribute in good Derbyshire limestone registering all the aircraft that crashed on the Dark Peak and the names of those who died in the cause of King and Country.
What is beyond commemoration and strains even at the powers of record is the effect such tragically early deaths had on those left behind. My Aunt was far from alone in her grief. She had kept a very special letter, written only five days after the crash of the Heyford. This was from someone she did not know – a Mrs.Grace Ramsden of Huddersfield. Her daughter had been married only eleven weeks to Sergeant Pilot Wilkinson when he had met his death in an RAF plane crash in the Lake District.
In reaching out to comfort Jim Barker’s widow, Mrs. Ramsden perhaps said it all; for despite the loving comfort and support Dad and Mum could offer their grieving daughter, ‘only time and her own brave spirit can soften the blow’. A PS is added: ‘My daughter has been going to write to you, but didn’t know how she could comfort you, being so much in need of comfort herself’.
How such words resonate down the years, stirring thoughts of what might have been. Eventually on Broadlee Bank Tor I gave up my search. I sat on the broken wall that might or might not have been victim of the Heyford’s last moments so many decades ago. In the valley below a group of hikers was setting out on the Pennine Way. The Old Nag’s Head Inn, proud of its location in the ‘Switzerland of the Peak District’, promised another century of the finest ales; and the breeze up from Edale seemed to whisper ‘Who remembers? – not I!’
Postscript: the story continues
In 2002 Derbyshire Life magazine published a version of this article. Suddenly my search for the site of the crash of the Heyford was about to meet with success. Mr. Douglas Rowland of Chapel-en-le-Frith, having read my piece, wrote informing me that as a teenager, he, with his brothers, had visited the site of the crash the day after it had happened.
He had rescued from the wreckage the plane’s brass data plate, the Engine Particulars of the Rolls Royce Kestrel Series V1. It was in perfect condition, dutifully cared for over the years by Douglas, though the lower edge of the plate had been burnt into holes as a result of the intensity of the fire that destroyed the Heyford. Douglas kindly offered to take me to the site of the crash the next time I was in Derbyshire. On a bright June day the two of us set off from above the Information Centre in Edale to pay our respects.
Doug was turned 83 (and has now reached 90), and the route up to Broadlee Bank Tor was steep enough to tax a fit and energetic 20 year old, but with many stops for breath on the ascent, we reached the still-broken wall and the site where K6875 met its end.
There was indeed a kind of memorial – a circle of roughly assembled stones, by unknown hands. There was a mesh of metal parts and lodged among these were two crucifixes, one white, with the word ‘Memories’ inscribed on it. As to what happened here, who was killed on that fateful stormy night, or who had left these sad traces of anguish and respect, there was no explanation.
It turned out that on my first visit to Broadlee Bank Tor I was only a couple of hundred yards away from the scene of the crash. Across from us, as Doug and I savoured the splendour of Edale, we could see Rushup Edge over which the Heyford probably flew, 13 miles off course, its crew either desperately attempting to establish the plane’s location or blissfully unaware of the fate that awaited them.
A coming home
After descending from Broadlee Bank, Douglas and I rested our weary feet in the Old Nag’s Head. We surmised on how many people’s lives had been altered for ever as a result of a ‘sight error’. On my return home to Kent I found a small parcel awaiting me, mailed from Chapel-en-le-Frith. Douglas had made me a gift of the precious data plate of the Heyford 6875.
Ron Collier followed up Dark Peak Aircraft Wrecks 1 with a supplementary volume, Wrecks 2. Pat Cunningham’s Peakland Air Crashes: the North is impressively comprehensive and includes a section on German aircraft crashes in the region, plus a couple of pages dedicated to answering the question, Do Ghostly Aviators Haunt Peakland’s Moors?, which he answers with deepest scepticism, rejecting ‘this lurid sentimentalism that conjures up spectral aviators’.
A retired aviator himself, Cunningham concludes by quoting Peter Jackson, 36-years a part-time Peakland ranger and for 27 years a mountain rescue team volunteer: ‘the Peakland moors encompass many a truly beautiful mystique; but not a single mystery.’ Walkers interested in visiting the scenes of Peakland crashes will find a trusty guide in John Merrill’s Dark Peak Aircraft Walks (Walk & Write Publications, 2002).