I was a passenger in one of the Tiger Moths in the above photograph. We flew over Highclere on a beautiful day, it was really a practice flight, a reconnaissance journey for flight lines and future plans.
Over 70 years ago, during World War II, many planes crashed in the Estate around Highclere Castle. One of the reasons that planes crashed around the hills here was because of sudden adverse weather. The “lost planes”, the “lost men” did not enjoy our lovely, sunny day. They may well have trained in the clear, dry skies in the USA, however, the UK is rather better known for rain and fog.
On May 5th 1945, just three days before the end of World War II, seven young men climbed into a B-17 from 326th Squadron and took off from RAF Podington. 1st Lt Reginald Hammond, 1st Lt Robert Sprout, 2nd Lt William J Dutton, T/Sgt Jacob Buikema, S/Sgt Daniel Minkon, 2nd Lt John Duffy and the radio controller Lt Len Nitti. The synopsis of their story was that, lost in poor weather and limited visibility (just as today), the B-17 circled twice over the Castle and then headed south. They hit the trees on Sidown Hill, tumbling into flames and wreckage. All on the Estate rushed up the hill to help, but only one man survived -Lt Len Nitti. Both Patti and Mary Nitti have been in touch with us and I hope may join us in September. We would welcome any of the other airmen’s descendants too. Paul McTaggart from Highclere also found a photograph of the plane – it is in a diner in Fort Worth, Texas.
On the 15th May 1944 Lt Thomas Dee Stewart, a young American pilot from Nevada, flying a P38, from the 402nd squadron of the 370th Fighter Group, crashed through clouds into another plane and plunged straight down into a bluebell wood. His relative Jessica, found his name on this blog and contacted us and we have since held a service where he died. The vivid green grass, cerulean carpets of scented bluebells leads you through the dappled light under the beech trees to this glade, now a place of memories and peace.
A Lysander crashed into a bank whilst practicing shooting out search lights with Lt Tom Consitt and AF Albert Clarke …. It was a compact plane and used by the UK, Indian and Canadian Air Forces. A Proctor, flown by S/LT Thomas Finlayson RN crashed by Maple Farm. Two Mosquitos crashed with a UK crew (F/Lt David Campbell and F/Lt Kevin Dodrill) F/O Geoffrey Rolph and Sgt John Newton) and a Canadian crew member on board. The mosquitos were made of wood and very fast.
Like the Tiger Moth, this plane was also designed by Geoffrey de Havilland who in fact made his first flight from Highclere in 1910. He designed a series of planes the Gipsy Moth, Moth Major, Hornet etc
An Armstrong Whitworth Whitley crashed along the edge of the beech trees flown by a New Zealand pilot from Rotarua called F/O Robert Ewert NZAF, his crew was F/O Geoffrey O’Connell RAF, Sgt Egbert Waterman RAF and FS John Westfield and we think a P47 Thunderbolt has yet to be found.
Early aviation led to many injuries if not death and of course in World War I airmen were sent to Highclere as patients. Remarkably, Almina saved both lives and limbs. Whilst the airmen who died here are from a later war, it is again putting names and stories together so they shall not be forgotten.
One project for me for this June, is to create an exhibition around the stories and the aeroplanes to share in September. I have a feeling as ever that I will start off with enthusiasm but find it is a far larger project than I ever imagined, but I hope it will prove to be a fitting legacy to Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.