Relatives of plane crash victims sought 79 years after tragedy
In the early hours of a Saturday morning in 1944, people living near Cleeve Hill on the outskirts of Cheltenham were awoken by the sound of a large explosion, after a Halifax bomber flying in thick low cloud struck the hill at around 200 miles per hour. Despite happening in living memory, the exact site of the incident where seven RAF personnel lost their lives has long remained a mystery.
Due to the speed at which the Halifax bomber MZ311 from 78 Squadron seemingly struck the hill, RAF investigators struggled to pinpoint exactly where the accident took place, with much of the debris scattered across Cleeve Common. Reports from the time indicate the aircraft appeared to have turned away from its flight path home and was flying at low altitude in fair weather, when it struck cloudy Cleeve Hill.
Now, 79 years on, members of the RAF Association Cheltenham are trying to track down the relatives of those who perished that night so that they can take part in a dedication ceremony on the 80th anniversary of the crash in August next year - a task made all the more difficult with five of the seven Halifax Mk III bomber crew members being Canadians buried in a British Commonwealth cemetery.
Thousands of RAF planes were destroyed and crew members lost during the course of the Second World War, with an estimated survival rate of only 50 per cent for British crews over the course of 30 sorties against the Axis. Many were shot down in dogfights with the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1941, but many more were lost while conducting operations to stimy the Nazi's progress across Europe and other territories.(Image: Charles E Brown & Cleeve Common Trust)
The Halifax MZ311 met its mysterious end while returning to its base in York from a mine laying operation off the coast of La Rochelle, August 26 1944, where RAF pilots were able to successfully take out German U-Boats through an aerial mining campaign. The crash site is believed to be somewhere high up on the escarpment of Cleeve Hill, near the trigpoint at the top of the hill.
One local at the time stated that the aircraft had impacted the summit of Cleeve hill then crashed and exploded amongst gorse bushes between the Rising Sun Hotel and Cleeve Hill Golf Club. A second local stated that the crash had occurred in the old quarry area between the Rising Sun and Cleeve Hill Golf Club.
The most conclusive evidence for the location comes from the chance discovery of a small fragment of the wreckage among gorse bushes in August 2020. The fragment bears serial numbers which positively identify it as part of a Halifax bomber, likely a section of the outer wing.
While the relatives of the two British service personnel that perished have been traced and will be attending the memorial, the five Royal Canadian Air Force members' families are yet to be found by the RAF Association. Commonwealth pilots and crew made up roughly 25 per cent of the RAF staff in World War Two.
- Flying Officer Elton Eugene FREEMAN . RCAF Navigator. 29. Buried Brookwood Military Cemetery 43.E.6. Son of Eugene Ellis Freeman and Bada Christine Freeman of Fosterton, Saskatchewan, Canada.
- Flying Officer John Alexander GLENN . RCAF Air Gunner. 19. Buried Brookwood Military Cemetery 43.E.9. Son of Alexander and Nora Glenn, of Ferris, Ontario, Canada.
- Pilot Officer Hugh Brannan HAMILTON . RCAF Air Gunner. 21. Buried Brookwood Military Cemetery 43.E.8. Son of James and Janet Hamilton of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada.
- Flying Officer George William McCARTNEY RCAF Air Bomber. Buried Brookwood Military Cemetery 43.E.7. No age or next of kin details found.
- Flight Lieutenant Charles Maurice HOWES . RCAF Pilot. 22. Buried Brookwood Military Cemetery 43.G.1. Son of Charles and Bertha Howes, of Folkestone; Husband of Rosemary Howes.
- Sergeant Emmanuel Henry HARRIS . RAF Volunteer Reserve Wireless Operator 20. Buried Blaenavon Cemetery Sec. B. Grave 794. Son of Samuel and Beatrice Harris of Blaenavon; Husband of Mary Selina Harris of Blaenavon.
- Flight Sergeant John McARDLE . RAF Volunteer Reserve RCAF Flight Engineer. 23. BuriedLiverpool (Allerton) Cemetery Sec.8.Gen. Grave 709. Son of John and Adelaide McArdle of Liverpool; Husband of Jean Ella McArdle (Nee Winterbottom) of Aigburth, Liverpool.
The Cheltenham branch of the RAF Association is still trying to trace these RCAF members' families ahead of the 80th anniversary, August 26, 2024, which will see a representative from the Canadian High Commission attending the service, taken by Air Vice Marshall Ron Hesketh. There are hopes that a Lancaster bomber will do a flypast during the ceremony, which will take place at the Cleeve Hill Golf Course.
Speaking previously at the unveiling of a memorial stone to the crew of the Halifax bomber, Air Marshal Sir Dusty Miller KBE said: "With the end of World War II almost in sight, a fact unknowable at the time, these seven young men bravely took to the air into the teeth of enemy flak.
"The courage to launch repeatedly into the night knowing full well that the odds against their survival were very high, is simply astonishing by any measure, which makes their loss in this way even more tragic. We owe our freedom today to their unflinching courage".
- ^ RAF (www.gloucestershirelive.co.uk)
- ^ Cleeve Common. (www.gloucestershirelive.co.uk)
- ^ Cheltenham (www.gloucestershirelive.co.uk)
- ^ First Cheltenham business to take over former Odeon shop units at Regency Place named (www.gloucestershirelive.co.uk)
- ^ Cheltenham branch (branch.rafa.org.uk)
- ^ Speaking previously (www.gloucestershirelive.co.uk)