80 years ago today.
This is the summary of my research today into the crash that claimed the life of my Uncle Robert McKie Stapley and the rest of the crew:
Wellington bomber Z1107
Monday 2nd August 1943 was a cloudy day with wind from the South West. In the afternoon, a ‘Holidays at Home’ fete was taking place at the Berry Field in the village of Breedon-on-the-Hill, Leicestershire, a few miles from Castle Donington airfield. Children were taking part in various activities including cycle races.
At three minutes past four that afternoon, a Wellington Bomber Mk. 1c, Z1107 of the 28th Operational Training Unit took off on a routine test flight, scheduled to fly several circuits. With the wind from the South West, it almost certainly took off from the North East to South West runway, heading towards Breedon. On board were a crew of five: Pilot Sgt. John Hinds Borland, Age 23; Navigator Sgt. George Henry Clarkson, Age 30; Bomb Aimer Sgt. John Desmond Hayes, Age 20; Wireless Operator/Air Gunner Sgt. Stelios Petron Pithara, Age 25; and Rear Gunner Sgt. Robert McKie Stapley, Age 22.
Very shortly after takeoff, a fire started in the starboard engine, due to a cracked no.2 cylinder barrel. The crew tried to fight the fire and return to Castle Donington. Being just a twin-engined plane, this was an impossible task. The plane was seen flying over Berry Avenue just to the east of the village with the engine on fire and returning towards Castle Donington. Very shortly after this it crashed in the Langley Priory estate, 1½ miles short of the runway. Several people cycled from the fete, including some of the children, to see if there was anything they could do. Nothing could be done and all five of the crew perished. It has been suggested that the plane may have been carrying flares for photo reconnaissance. If that was the case, they would have led to a much more intense fire. The accident report said that none of the crew was to blame for the accident.
The plane itself had been flown by various squadrons since October 1941 and had flown over 604 hours. This was a very high number of hours for a Wellington. The last squadron to use it for training were 311 Squadron, Czechoslovakian Airforce from 28th January to 18th July 1943. This suggests that the crew may have had the plane for only two weeks. During July and August 1943, four Wellington Mk1s were lost due to engine failures resulting in 10 fatalities.