Village's day of horror as mighty bomber came down

A day of horror – the afternoon a mighty Halifax bomber crashed at the village of Bobbington, near Bridgnorth.

A rare wartime shot, showing the ablutions and static water tank.
A rare wartime shot, showing the ablutions and static water tank.

It had been taking off from the nearby Halfpenny Green airfield when tragedy struck on November 12, 1943.

Of the crew of eight, there was only one survivor.

The plane was an unscheduled visitor which was trying to return home. The incident is briefly mentioned in the official records of the airfield's resident unit.

"12.11.43. A Halifax aircraft of No 1659 Conversion Unit, Topcliffe, Yorkshire, crashed at Bobbington village and was completely burnt out," it records.

In fact it seems that the bomber did not come down on the village itself, otherwise the incident would surely be more firmly seared in local memory, but in a copse next to a farm about a mile north west of the airfield, and just outside the village.

As for the casualties, we return to the documentation held at the National Archives: "J. 27606 P/O Murdoch, T M, rear gunner, sustained shock, an injury to rt shoulder and left lower ribs and minor abrasions of the scalp. He was removed to RAF Hospital Cosford.

"The other members of the crew were killed, having sustained multiple injuries and sixth degree burns."

They are listed as the pilot, Warrant Officer G K Patman; navigator, Sergeant F N Fearneley; mid upper gunner, Sergeant D Ross; engineer, Sergeant D Sharp; wireless operator, Sergeant G P Fuller; engineer, Sergeant R T Gibson; and bomb aimer, Pilot Officer D C Blair.

The standard crew for an RAF wartime "heavy" was of seven, but on this occasion the bomber was carrying an extra crewman.

Murdoch, the survivor, seems to have been thrown out of the plane on impact. He made a full recovery. Like several of the crew, he was Canadian, and he returned to Canada in March 1945.

The bomber had encountered engine problems on a cross country training flight from its Yorkshire base, so the pilot landed at the airfield on the Shropshire-Staffordshire border and the crew stayed overnight as the plane was looked over.

The next day the crew obviously decided to press on. This was a fatal mistake as it turned out, as the problems with one of the engines were not solved, as Shropshire air crash researcher Tom Thorne recounts in his book Pancakes and Prangs.

"Immediately after leaving the ground, the engine belched black smoke and the aircraft lost height, struck some trees with its starboard wing tip and crashed."

It was not by any means the only crash at Halfpenny Green, or involving aircraft flying from the airfield.

In the BBC's "The People's War" collection Sergeant Steve Yates tells of a night flying exercise in a Wellington bomber when the crew, flying from RAF Wellesbourne Mountford in Warwickshire, became lost, but thought salvation was at hand when they spotted Halfpenny Green below.

"Unfortunately on approach to the runway the aircraft struck a house or tree and we crashed to the ground at the beginning of the runway.

"With a terrific bang all went black and when I came to I found my head was sticking out of the fuselage – below was the port engine hissing as the rain hit it."

The station fire and rescue services were quickly on the scene, but sadly the pilot died of his injuries. Yates spent five months convalescing in RAF Bridgnorth hospital.

This accident can be pinpointed through the station's records to January 11, 1943, which say the pilot had died two days later of cerebral oedema.

RAF Bobbington dated back to 1941 and was home to No 3 Air Observers' Navigation School, a training unit for navigators which first operated the Blackburn Botha, but later switched to the Avro Anson.

It was a Botha, which was an unpopular and notoriously ground-loving aircraft, which was in an accident on June 29, 1941, which claimed a civilian victim. Force-landing near the airfield, it seems to have hit a passing car, and the car's occupant, a Miss E Williams of Stourbridge, died of her injuries in hospital. One of the plane crew also died.

During the war there were one or two name changes for the airfield's training unit, with the Bobbington school ultimately being called 3 (Observer) Advanced Flying Unit.

There was also a lasting name change for the airfield itself. It was switched from RAF Bobbington to RAF Halfpenny Green in September 1943, supposedly to avoid confusion with RAF Bovingdon in Hertfordshire.

It does of course continue to operate as a civilian field today.

One myth associated with it is that the classic 1945 movie "The Way to the Stars" starring John Mills was filmed at Halfpenny Green, no doubt because the fictional airfield in the film was called Halfpenny Field. In fact, as Mills' autobiography makes clear, the movie was actually shot at RAF Catterick.

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