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Vivid memories of tragic Wednesfield plane crash

By Mark Andrews | Wednesfield | News | Published:

The pillar of smoke that greeted Trevor Matthews as he got off the bus was unlike anything he had seen before.

A Lancaster bomber

"Instead of being dense and narrow at its base, and thinning and broadening as it rose into the air, it was thin and consistent in diameter all the way up," he recalls.

"The day was absolutely still, so there was no drifting of the smoke and several Tiger Moth aircraft were circling about and could be clearly seen through it. I concluded that, because of this, an aircraft must have crashed."

Indeed it had. A mile from where 13-year-old Trevor had got off the bus on his way home from school, a Lancaster bomber had crashed in a field, killing all seven occupants.

In May this year, a memorial was due unveiled to commemorate the 75th anniversary since the plane crashed in a field near Lichfield Road, Wednesfield. Sadly, the ceremony has had to be postponed due to the coronavirus crisis, although Ray Fellows of Wednesfield History Society says it will be postponed until a later date

Pilot Bernard Hall, flight engineer Ronald James O'Donnell, navigator Reginald Henry Smith, air bomber Victor Francis Dobell Meade, wireless operator Gordon Leonard Rabbetts and air gunners Vincent Reginald Woodburn Southworth and John Alfred Sills all died in the crash, which took place just nine days after VE Day.

The precise details of how the crash happened have been the subject of some debate ever since, but Trevor, now 88, has clear memories of what he saw. The disaster was doubly tragic because the plane was on a routine flight, and not engaged in combat activity.

The youngster, on his way home from school, had just got off the Walsall Corporation No. 41 bus at Lane Head Bridge, in Short Heath, Willenhall.

Gordon Rabbetts, Vincent Southworth, John Sills, Reginald Smith, Bernard Hall and Victor Meade, were all killed when their Lancaster bomber crashed in Wednesfield in 1945

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"I hurried home to fetch my bicycle and set off in the direction of the smoke," he says.

"When I arrived at Waddam's Brook Lane at about 5.35pm, I could see the whole scene because the postwar housing development had yet to take place.

"The reason for the shape and low density of the smoke cloud became readily apparent because a wide area was covered with small debris involving numerous minor fires and smouldering remains of combustible matter."

He says the scene was unlike any of the plane crashes he has seen in photographs or on television, where large sections of the fuselage are visible, often having been separated from the wings.

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The lack of any visible fuselage wreckage was even more surprising given that military planes tend to be of stronger construction than civilian aircraft, he adds.

"The result of the crash should have been an almost intact fuselage, with the wings probably detached and lying on the ground a short distance from the final resting place," he says.

"At least one explosion must have taken place before the plane passed over the high-voltage wires, because a piece of cable was draped over them at one point, otherwise there was no evidence of damage to either them or the pylons."

As a youngster knowledgeable about aircraft, Trevor expected to be able to identify the type of aircraft involved, but by the time he arrived at the scene there was nothing recognisable.

"It had been blown to smithereens," he recalls. The one positive thing, he says, is that the crew would not have suffered as death would have been instantaneous. He remembers feelings of distress after finding traces of human remains a the site, and says it took him three weeks to get over the ordeal.

Ronald O'Donnell was killed when the Lancaster bomber crashed in Wednesfield 75 years ago

He remembers a thick fog of smoke as he made his way towards the deep crater created by the crash.

"This was obviously no ordinary crash," he recalls.

"A devastating explosion must have occurred because one of the largest military aircraft of the Second World War had disappeared without trace.

"At this time we were still at war with Japan, and development of more powerful conventional bombs was still taking place.

"The engines were never found, so the velocity of detonation must have been so high that their inertia held them in place long enough for them also to be shattered into fragments."

Mr Matthews has written a letter outlining his memories, to Barry Meade, son of Flying Officer Meade, who had been due to unveil the memorial.

Mr Matthews believes there are still many questions to be answered about the cause of the crash, and believes fresh research should be carried out to get to the bottom of the story.

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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