The write-off of Beaufighter JM343 - 15 August 1943

As a Beaufighter pilot serving in "A" Flight of No 248 Squadron in 1943, I was tasked on 16 August to fly aircraft 'J' serial No. JM 343 from our base at RAF Predannack in south Cornwall, to RAF Talbenny in Wales, where the squadron's "B" Flight was on detachment undertaking pilot gunnery training.

By arrangement between the NCOs i/c of "A" and "B" Flights, the aircraft was loaded with a quantity of spares required at Talbenny, including an undercarriage wheel, clean laundry and a sack of mail which had accumulated at Predannack for the detached personnel. All of this filled the fuselage between the front cockpit and the navigator's cupola towards the rear. To my surprise the NCO i/c "A" Flight, who had never flown before, obtained permission to join me and my navigator for the flight to Talbenny and, once we were aboard, he climbed in and stood unharnessed on the bottom entry hatch immediately behind my seat.

The aircraft was fully armed with ammunition for its 4 x 0.5" cannon and 6 x .303" machine guns and all fuel tanks had been filled, totalling some 600 gallons, this being mandatory in wartime in case of a chance in-flight enemy encounter. As a Mark 10 variant it had been built with air brakes for its normal torpedo-carrying rôle, but on our squadron these had been rendered inoperative and, for some reason connected with the design modifications for this particular variant, no facility for jettisoning any fuel in flight was incorporated - as was the case on earlier and lighter types.

Despite the aircraft's full combat weight, plus the loaded spares and their guardian passenger, I experienced no difficulty in climbing away from Predannack's long north/south runway, though the take-off run might have been a bit longer than usual.

It was a glorious hot Summer's afternoon and, as soon as we had crossed the north coast of Cornwall I swooped down to some 20 feet above the calm waters of the outer Bristol Channel en route northwards past Lundy Isle. I wished to show my passenger how the squadron normally operated in its Bay of Biscay anti-shipping rôle and how we customarily flew low, to avoid detection by the cliff-top radar installations ranged along the French west coast; this was, on reflection, a little unfair considering it was his maiden flight but, twisting round in my seat I could see that he was not alarmed and, whilst unable to communicate with each other by intercom because he had no headset, we exchanged thumbs-up signals from time to time.

Suddenly however, after about 20 minutes flight, the aircraft's port engine shuddered to a halt and the blades of its propeller stopped in a "coarse" cruising flight condition, instead of continuing to rotate or "windmill" as was normally the case with engine failure. An attempt to restart the engine proved to be unsuccessful and, to my horror, the propeller also refused to "feather'. This meant that the propeller's paddle blades, as they were nicknamed, were face on to the direction of flight, instead of edge on, causing considerable drag. In no time the aircraft slowed down from its cruising speed of 180 knots to about 100 knots. I soon discovered, whilst immediately trying to gain height, that this speed was only a matter of a few knots above the heavily laden aircraft's stalling speed.

Meantime, my passenger amazed me by tapping me on the shoulder and giving me yet another thumbs-up signal, it transpiring later that he thought I was demonstrating the art of single engine flying!

I explained the situation to my navigator and, because the mildest of turns was causing the aircraft to shudder on the point of stalling, we agreed to continue to fly ahead towards the airfield at RAF Carew Cheriton, near Tenby in south Wales, rather than try to return to Predannack.

During the next 20 minutes or so I was able to climb the aircraft very carefully to about l000ft, with the starboard engine roaring flat out and becoming somewhat overheated by dint of our slow forward speed. Fearing that this engine might fail, I decided to attempt a straight in approach to the north/south runway at Carew Cheriton as it slowly came into view. I selected "undercarriage down", but needed to lose height rapidly in order to maintain speed above the stall. Increased drag from the lowering undercarriage, also began rapidly to "consume" all remaining height and, to avoid crashing short of the runway, I selected "undercarriage up" and attempted to "go round again".

We must have passed along the entire runway about 100ft up but, as the undercarriage was slow to retract - driven only by the starboard engine's hydraulic pump - the aircraft suddenly became inexorably committed landwards. I aimed towards a field straight ahead and the aircraft landed on its belly and slithered along the ground. Unfortunately, a rural electricity distribution line was in its path and a collision of the port wing with one of the line's wooden poles, caused the aircraft to swing sharply left and go sideways through a hedge, over a minor road and through its far hedge into another field, where it came to rest - on fire.

My unfortunate passenger was quickly out of the top hatch, going on to extricate the navigator who had been rendered temporarily dazed in the crash. I found that my headset leads had become trapped in cockpit wreckage and, in all the dense smoke which quickly surrounded me, I failed to think of freeing myself by slipping my helmet off! A third attempt to snap the leads succeeded - fear lent me brute force - and I leaped from the aircraft urging the other two to run clear as quickly as possible. When we had got about 100 yards away, there was a tremendous explosion as the fuel tanks exploded and the aircraft was subsequently almost completely destroyed.

I had meanwhile suffered a slight laceration of my right eyebrow in the crash and, unable to see out of the eye through a mass of dirt and congealed blood, I feared having lost it - a fact which my passenger quickly confirmed, fortunately wrongly as it subsequently turned out.

Almost immediately, however, we were met by three beautiful young Welsh maidens - blue-eyed blondes - the eldest of whom was probably only in her early twenties. Surprisingly barefooted, they escorted us to their nearby farmhouse and, after bathing my eye and thereby restoring its sight, they poured us each a tot of whisky, having debated whether or not they should do so, in the absence of their parents who were away at the local market.

We had hardly consumed our reviving drink when an ambulance from RAF Carew Cheriton roared into the farmyard. A Flight Sergeant medical attendant leaped from it, boasting that he had homed in on the pall of blackened smoke from the burning aircraft. He then roundly berated the young ladies for proffering alcohol to us, before conveying us back to the RAF base sick quarters. There I remained overnight, unscathed beyond severely bruised arms and shoulders, caused by my harness restraint and my naturally frightened passengers boots, he having kicked and levered himself free of the aircraft when it had finally come to rest.

We were flown back to Predannack the following day, I to subsequently face a Board of Inquiry. This decreed in part that "the accident had been caused by the pilot lowering the aircraft undercarriage in an attempt to land on one engine at Carew Cheriton airfield when, due to the high incidence of drag and the aircraft's consequent very low speed, it had rapidly become very unairworthy. This situation left the pilot no alternative but to crash-land in the first field that presented itself, whereupon it caught fire and was almost completely destroyed".

An accident investigation of the aircraft wreckage later discovered the remains of a German cannon shell inside the propeller reduction gear housing of the port engine. How this shell had got into this conical metal covering at the propeller centre, without being subsequently detected, has always been a mystery to me. It had obviously done so during a previous flight in combat off the French Biscay coast when the windscreen was also smashed by a cannon shell. The pilot on that occasion flew the aircraft home safely and my subsequent foreshortened flight was in the nature of a test flight after the fitting of a replacement windscreen.

Presumably the offending cannon shell became molten after some 20 minutes of the final flight, then it eventually jammed the intermeshing gears for the propeller blades in such a way as to prevent them from continuing to rotate or from being feathered to reduce drag. In other words the propeller suddenly "seized" solid.

An unhappy state of affairs which led to my being duly censured by a senior officer who also placed a "red endorsement" in my flying logbook, denoting that the accident was caused by "pilot error". The loss of personal laundry and mail by those at Talbenny was also not very popularly received!

Frederick Lacy, December 2000

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