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WW2 glider crash in Warnford Park

Day that 33 perished as bomber towing a glider clipped trees over Meon Valley

Written by Bob Hind. Courtesy of the Portsmouth Evening News, published on Saturday 20 September 2014

You may remember that at the end of last month I wrote about a fatal glider crash in the Meon Valley at Warnford. A Stirling bomber towing a Horsa glider on a training mission hit the tops of trees.

The glider pilot released the Horsa but it crashed on the Warnford Park estate killing the crew and soldiers on board – 27 men. The Stirling flew on but crash-landed at Romsey killing the six-strong crew.

I asked if anyone knew more of this incident and I received a letter from James Webb of Fareham.

At the time James and his sister had recently become orphans after their mother died and their father disappeared. The pair were taken to the home of a Mr and Mrs Curtis who lived in Hayden Lane, in a cottage named Hill View. They lived there with their son Bob who now lives in Waterlooville.  As James and Bob were roughly the same age, 15, they became great pals and went to West Meon School.  On the evening of April 4, 1944, they were returning from a cadet meeting in the village hall. They were messenger boys in the Home Guard.  They heard something had happened in the field opposite Hill View, but it was not until the morning the awful truth was revealed.  James says: ‘In those days the hedgerow was not as high as it is now and I could look across into the field. There was debris everywhere and the site was being guarded by sailors who I believe were from HMS Mercury a few miles away. The only large piece of wreckage I could see was a wheel. By the evening everything had been taken away.’  The gliders were made with wooden frames and plywood (some put together by men from the furniture trade) to make them as light as possible. The fuselage comprised three parts bolted together. It was torn to pieces in the crash. The men inside did not stand a chance.

I then received a letter from Rex Chester whose father owned the estate at the time. He bought it in 1935 and moved from Southsea.  Rex told me he was eight at the time and was not told of the incident as his parents thought it might affect someone so young. In 1968 his father died and he inherited Warnford Park and some years ago he was contacted by someone from the services about the incident.

A memorial service was conducted in Warnford at the church which I wrote about on August 16.

Because of the site’s location, in the middle of a field surrounded by other fields with no road or public access, not many people know of the incident which, as Rex told me, was hushed up.  Thanks to Rex, who put me in touch with his former estate manager Peter Short, I was able, along with James and Bob, to visit the site last week and very sobering it was.  How the authorities of the time managed to clear the wreckage and remains within 24 hours is quite amazing.  Peter, who was only a boy at the time, thinks the Stirling hit trees on Old Winchester Hill/Beacon Hill to the east of the crash site. Looking at the area, this seems feasible.  As everyone died in the crash the full facts will never be known. For all those soldiers to perish in a tragic accident must have seemed very harsh to their nearest and dearest.

And what about James and Bob? In later years they went separate ways with James serving 22 years in the army and Bob, 25 years in the Royal Navy.  A couple of years ago there was a school reunion at West Meon. James attended and asked if anyone knew of Bob Curtis.  ‘He’s over there,’ someone told him. Indeed he was, but wearing a full naval beard, which is why James never recognised him. James was overjoyed. They had a chat about times past and now meet regularly.

Peter Short, former estate manager on Warnford Park (left) and James Webb. On the distant horizon, the outline of Winchester Hill can be seen to the left of Mr Short. The Horsa came down in the field behind them. Peter Short, former estate manager on Warnford Park (left) and James Webb. On the distant horizon, the outline of Winchester Hill can be seen to the left of Mr Short. The Horsa came down in the field behind them.

The 7th (Airborne) Battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers had moved from Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands to Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire in November 1943 in preparation for airborne conversion using gliders as a means of rapid transport. In early 1944, numerous training exercises were being undertaken in preparation for the Allied invasion of north-western Europe that year.

On the 4th April 1944, 1 HGSU, Horsa 1 glider, LG999 towed by Stirling IV LJ-842 of 196 Squadron took part in a large-scale glider exercise (code named 'Exercise Dreme'.) Airborne from RAF Keevil, Trowbridge, Wiltshire, the cross-country night exercise of various legs was to take 3.5 hours and the gliders were to be released over Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. The glider occupants were two glider pilots and members of No. 3 Platoon, 'A' Company, 7th (Airborne) Division, King's Own Scottish Borderers.

Low cloud was reported in the Lewis area and on the leg from Lewis to Winchester, this being wartime it would have been extremely dark below the cloud and unfortunately, as the towing aircraft descended through cloud, it hit a tree. The glider released immediately and crashed in Warnford. All 27 men onboard Horsa LG999 were killed. The Stirling flew on for another 15 minutes when it stalled, possibly due to a failure of the port outer engine and crashed at 21:00 hours one-mile south-west from Romsey, some 18 miles from the site of the glider crash and all six crew members were killed.

Pilot: Staff Sergeant Henry Thomas Joel. 2058248. The Glider Pilot Regiment. Age 22

Pilot: Sergeant William Geoffrey Walker. 2581834. The Glider Pilot Regiment. Age 24

Passengers: All served with No. 3 Platoon 'A' Company, 7th (Airborne) Battalion, King's Own Scottish Borderers,

Lieutenant Leslie Albert Eastman. 284937. Age 26

Lance Sergeant Henry James V. Read. 4751147. Age 27

Lance Corporal David Provan. 14213409. Age 29

Lance Corporal John Murdoch Dirom. 3189248. Age 22

Lance Corporal Roy Murray Stewart. 3056450. Age 37

Corporal Robert Fowler Foley. 3193060. Age 24

Corporal Thomas MacGregor. 3187776. Age 28

Private Benjamin Philip Bamforth. 14351878. Age 20

Private William Henry Battye. 4613955. Age 25

Private George Frederick Jones. 14377951. Age 34

Private William Love. 3314631. Age 23

Private Joseph Lucas. 4751048. Age 27

Private George Mole. 14620742. Age 18

Private Charles Myles. 991164. Age 28

Private William McMillan. 14210673. Age 37

Private Thomas McNamara. 14211483. Age 21

Private William McWhirter. 3190876. Age 22

Private James Ramsay MacPherson. 14211484. Age 21

Private John Park. 14202004. Age 21

Private Thomas Harper Reid. Age 26

Private Frank Stapleton. 5571917. Age 24

Private John William Steel. 3323987. Age 29

Private Robert Donald Wells. 1645311

Private Kenneth William Scott-Browne. 14645622. Age 23