Highclere has so many stories to find and, as ever, it is a question of looking in the right place.
During my research into the Second World War at Highclere, I discovered that quite a few planes had come down over the Estate. The pilots, navigators and airmen who died in the crashes were all somebody’s son: part of someone’s family with friends and a life not lived; most of them young Americans aged in their early twenties. My goal is to create a sculpture and memorial to them here in the gardens. But first I have to find who they were and where exactly they came down.
In order to help understand what happened in each case, I have a wonderful team who are caring and committed to helping. Steve, an ex BA /Concorde pilot, which means he can interpret the parts of a plane; Paul McTaggart, with his metal detectors and computer expertise; Robert, part of our security, ex-army and good interpreter of engine parts; Terry and Eddie the keepers, who have passed down knowledge of where to look, Sid and Bob with the digger, and me.
I am writing this now because it was in May just about 50 years ago when two planes went down, and this is a story about finding one of them, the P-38 Lightning.
Highclere’s system of rumour and partial fact indicated that in 1944 a Lightning plane had plummeted down from a great height into some woods high above the Castle. The team met in the Castle courtyard one morning to investigate. I had a rough idea of where to start searching and I drove Steve and Paul up there in a tough 4×4 car – it is off the beaten track. We stopped at the edge of a wood, trying to remember what we had been told. Paul was so excited he rushed into the edge of the wood, tripped over some old wire and fell flat on his face to gales of laughter from Steve and myself. He was not hugely impressed with our sympathy.
With the help of our keeper, Paul’s metal detector and observing the trees, some of which are still burnt inside, we began to find the area. It was clear that a lot of metal was still scattered over the floor of the peaceful leaf strewn wood. The twisted heated metal and the depth it was buried in the ground testified to the plane’s headlong descent.
Steve and Paul’s research in the evenings was both fascinating and sobering. They managed to ascertain that this was where a young American pilot from Nevada, Lt Thomas Dee Stewart, died just two weeks before D-Day. He was flying a P38, a powerful plane with two engines, from a base just south west of Highclere at Andover. Andover was used by fighter squadrons from the USA Ninth Air Force (Lt Stewart was from the 402nd squadron of the 370th Fighter Group) flying the Lockheed P-38 aircraft. Their job was to escort the bombers that went out to attack the bridges and logistical infrastructure in France as the Allies prepared for D-Day 1944.
His body was retrieved at the time and flown back to be buried in Alamo, Lincoln County, Nevada, USA. He was just 25 years old. The air force also removed the biggest parts of the plane and the story slipped into the past. Now we have, I think, found the rest and it is cleaned and stored safely for the moment.
Perhaps we may find his relatives who may not know what happened. We were all very moved by what we found, the small details, and could silently imagine the horror. It is all about the pity of war.
Thus we have one name and one story for our memorial.