Friday, 27 April 2012

Blenheim Palace

We’ve recently put a bit in the press as part of the Hempholme Project, so for the full story see on. Whilst we were finishing off the tree felling works our contractors discovered this innocuous looking lump of aluminium:

We’re used to odd bits of debris at Tophill – usually concrete in the bottom of every post hole we dig. Many moons ago a saxon spear head was found in the Hempholme area which had likely been dredged out of the river and luckily we’ve yet to hear a metallic thud of one of the Luftwaffe incendiaries reportedly dropped after a raid on Driffield river head was intercepted, and are now in the bottom of South Marsh East somewhere according to period observers.

In this case the aluminium seemed a very high quality being crumpled, but still not broken, yet corroded up. It gave the impression of being aircraft spec alloy. The Halifax which crashed at Decoy farm ½ a mile away is well known (see here).

However a quick search on the net revealed details of Bristol Blenheim Mk1 night trainer K7091, piloted by 25 year old Flight Sergeant Angus McBean. The aircraft was with 2 Operational Training Unit (Coastal) based a few miles from Tophill at Catfoss aerodrome. Apparently the aircraft is said to have lost sight of the aerodrome lighting and hit the ground next to the river Hull at Hempholme, not far from Standingholme Farm at 1.15am on the 6th of May 1942. For those in the know this is either in our field at Tophill or the JSR’s field next door (property of the short-eared owls this winter) and in this 1946 aerial photo:

Flt Sgt McBean is now buried in St Cuthbert’s churchyard in his native Durham and his grave can be seen on the war graves site here, and a photograph of K7091 (taken some years earlier in 1937) is viewable on this aviation forum here.

To try and learn more we queried the RAF, RAF museum and local press and records offices which turned up no further information except confirmation. The Ministry of Defence Air Historical Branch replied;

  "Our records confirm that Sgt A McBean was the pilot of Blenheim K7091 when it crashed at about 0115 hours on the 6 May 1942. Sgt McBean was based at No.2 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit at RAF Catfoss and was carrying out training in night time local circuits and landings when the accident occurred...The crash site is recorded as Standingholme Farm, Watton Farm (Undoubtedly a confusion with Watton Carrs - the term for all the lowland from Tophill back to the A164 at Watton Village), E Yorks. Map reference 505693. World War 2 maps differ from modern Ordnance Survey map references; the Imperial War Museum holds World War 2 era military maps. There are no further details on the crash site in our records or any photographs of the crash site...Finally, it is possible that some mention of the accident is made in the Operational Records Books (ORBs) of No.2 (Coastal) Operational Training Unit...The ORBs of RAF units from this period are no longer held by the Ministry of Defence but have been deposited, in accordance with the Public Records Act, at The National Archives at Kew in London."

Unfortunately we at the reserve can find no reference in the catalogue to ORB's for this date range. We then invited East Yorkshire Metal Detectorist Society to make a visit and see if we could find any further debris. The aircraft was reportedly recovered but we may expect some more shrapnel. The team undertook a good search but found nothing definitive - thanks to Chris Hannard for these pictures:

Meanwhile we contacted the Blenheim Society – a charity currently restoring a Mk1 Blenheim similar to that which crashed. Many thanks to Tony Lowe and Engineer ‘Smudge’ Smith who had a look at the original alloy. As they say it is impossible to say whether it is a Blenheim without a serial number, but certainly looks like aircraft wreckage. They have suggested it has the potential of a hydraulic cylinder based behind the engine firewall as below (thanks to Tony for these pictures):

So is it a Blenheim? We can’t definitively say. However the nice aspect is we had all learnt about an airman who had been but a name on memorial for the last 70 years. Given that we have just completed the Hempholme project at Tophill it seemed very fitting to name the new bird hide in honour of Flt Sgt Angus McBean – especially as it will be exactly 70 years to the day next Sunday the 6th.

As such we’ll be having a small naming ceremony that day at 3pm to which all are invited. Through the afternoon we will be offering drinks and refreshments at the hide, with chance to go on a series of guided walks with myself and botanist Alan Marshall looking at the developing plant communities.

Entry will be free for the day and on this occasion only there will be vehicle access to the top of the reservoir. Of interest too will be a live search and display by East Yorkshire Metal Detectorist Society by kind permission of JSR Farms to see if we can find any more information.

Finally we’ve made some enquiries on surviving relatives of Flt Sgt McBean. Unfortunately the RAF keep no records of next of kin as far back as this. We’ve made some enquiries in the North East press so it would be really nice to find some more out about the man himself. A plaque is to be mounted on the hide and a small display cabinet inside will retell the tale for future generations. If you have any information on the pilot or the aircraft please feel free to contact me on the usual Tophill e-mail or phone on our contacts page above.

It seems quite fitting that where one airman met his end we have hopefully created a habitat that will support avian aviators for many years to come.