The crash of Wellington W5653

The tranquillity of the Urris Hill, a stunningly beautiful and rugged outline that nudges the townlands of Desertegney and Leenan apart, was suddenly shattered in a most dramatic and horrific fashion on Good Friday, 11th April 1941. A Vickers Wellington bomber, returning from Convoy escort patrol duty, lost its way in heavy mist and crashed into the hills, killing all six crew members instantly. On the same day that a famous fortress named Torbuck was making world headlines at the start of an eight month siege, Alfred Cattley and his crew of five perished at 3pm on the slopes between Dunree Fort and the Gap of Mamore.

1940 was a particularly perilous time for Merchant shipping as u-boats ravaged the British fleet, causing massive tonnage loss and an unacceptable casualty rate. The Battle of the Atlantic was decisively moving in Germany’s favour and the Admiralty in London were more than a little concerned.

Squadrons of Hudson and Wellington bombers merged and embarked on intensive training to rapidly expand RAF Coastal command. Their brief was to engage in anti-submarine patrols and provide air cover to the western approaches. One particular squadron, 221, was formed at Bircham Newton on England and on the 21st November, 1940, began a period of training under Wing Commander Tim Vickers and Pilot Officer Par as Squadron Adjutant.

The mongrel crew came from various units, some navagitors from Blenheim Squadrons and they formed the backbone of the outfit with most flying experience. None, however, had any long-range overseas navigation in their CVs. A small airfield at Langham was selected for night flying training for 221 Squadron and some Wellingtons were wrenched from the tight grasp of ex-bomber training units.

Most of these were in appaling condition but 221 had to work with what was available. Things changed somewhat for the better in 1941 and in March of that year, Wellington bombers, equipped with the new Air to Surface Vessel (ASV) radar arrived at Bircham Newton. On 1st March, 1941, 221 Squadron ‘B’ Flight were ordered to transfer to Limavady in Co. Derry. ‘B’ Flight had the most experienced personnel and the latest aircraft with the ASV equipment. The first ‘B’ Squadron was commanded by Squadron Leader, Ian Brolly, a former flying boat pilot. Within a short time the Atlantic patrols undertaken by the squadron marked a significant setback to the success of the u-boat campaign. U-boat Command lost three submarines n March and all were captained by high profile, distinguished German leaders including Gunter Prien, the hero of Scapa Flow.

Limavady airfield was still under construction when 221 Squadron arrived to team up with 502 Squadron. Only the runway and perimeter track had been completed and work had not even started in the technical buildings. The runway was only 1,200 yards long, leaving little room for error and temporary wooden huts were used for flying control and the operating room. A farm outhouse was the flight officers and crew rooms.

Wellington W5653 took off from Limavady on Friday, 11th April 1941 (Good Friday) at 05-55 hours on what was scheduled as a convoy escort patrol. She would have been on course for the Island of Innistrahul and then turned west near Malin Head and out into the Atlantic. Flying over Irish airspace was never seriously worrying for British crews. They knew that there were some rules but it never taxed their conscience all that much. Most of them had heard of the ‘Donegal Corridor’ airspace that facilitated planes from Lough Erne to access the Atlantic by the most convenient route. It was a dank day; low cloud predominated as the ‘Wimpey’ set off on her protective mission. Everything went according to plan but on the home journey, the crew encountered some very heavy mist. The Wellington over-flew Limavady air base at 2.35pm above cloud base and was directed back using Q.D.M., the airfield reading a signal from the aircraft and noting the direction from which it came. The airfield then advised the plane accordingly. It was a primitive system that only gave the crew a bearing not a navigational fix. Limavady had no efficient ‘let down through cloud’ procedure, and as most navigators were poorly trained, many Wellington crews became hopelessly lost over the Atlantic. The crew tried to get a glimpse of the sea to determine their position, some breaks in the clouds allowed them to get a marker but they hopelessly miscalculated. They reversed course and guided again by Q.D.M., flew towards Limavady, more in hope than accurate navigational skills.

In all probability, the aircraft dropped in altitude to attempt to approach Limavady visually. Lost and south-west of the airfield,the Wellington flew over Lough Swilly and towards terrible disaster. The unsuspecting crew, not at all familiar with the local terrain, flew directly into the Urris Hill at a height of 1200 feet, above Dunree Head, killing all six crew members instantly. With the Urris Hills rising at 1300 feet above the Swilly, the plane was a mere 100 feet from safety. Two detachments of Irish army soldiers, one from Dunree Fort and the other from Leenan Fort began an immediate search of the area. The men linked hands as they made their way up the steep terrain because the mist was so thick. A simple rifle shot was to be the signal that the stricken aircraft had been located.

It was the Leenan contingent that came upon the awful carnage first. Matt Kenny and Hugh Quirke were the first men at the scene and both were shaken at what they saw. The wreckage lay in two areas but very close to each other. Kenny saw one man sitting against a rock and made immediately for him. Seeing the incredible scattering of debris and parts of the plane he thought that this was a miraculous survival. On coming closer, he realised that the man was quite dead and given that the Wellington impacted on the hill at 160m.p.h this was hardly surprising. John Ferguson, a soldier at the nearby Dunree Fort was one of those involved in the search for the wreckage that day. The scene of the carnage affected him greatly and for a long time afterwards the persisting smell of smouldering heather only served to perpetuate the memory of that shocking day. Some time later, two small, through poignant items were discovered at the crash site. Part of a wristwatch frame and a black R.A.F. uniform button were found and given to the British for identification purposes.

It was not until the following evening that the bodies were removed from the crash site and taken to the village of Lenankeel were they were laid out in the local forge. A short time later they were moved to Blockhouse at Dunree Fort prior to transfer to England for burial at various cemeteries. The six crew members who perished on the Urris Hills were: Flying Pilot Officer Alfred Patrick Cattley, R.A.F., aged 25 who was of Russian birth; Pilot Officer James Montague, R.A.F.V.R, aged 24 from Buckinghamshire; Sergeant (Observer) John Bateman, R.A.F.V.R.; Sergeant Wireless Operator Air Gunner F.K. Whalley, R.A.F.V.R., aged 19 from Leamington; Sergeant Wireless Operator Frederick Neill, R.A.F.v.R., aged 22 from WEst Hartlepool and Sergeant Wireless Operator Air Gunner Brinley Badman, R.A.F.V.R from Pontypool, Monmouthshire.

In the aftermath of the disaster, many theories and opinions were discussed, many theories and opinions were discussed as to why the Wellington went so badly off course.
Tony Spooner, a senior 221 Squadron pilot with considerable experience had this to say.

“As to what caused the fatal accident: it was difficult to navigate with poorly trained navigators. Many Wellington crews became hopelessly lost over the Atlantic without landmarks and there were no Met stations for accurate forecasts of winds. The Air Surface Vessel (ASV) for navigation was crude and difficult to interpret accurately. It required almost a sixth sense and some never attained this.

Limavady had no efficient “let down through the cloud’ procedure, which is why others and I had to invent one using A.S.V. ground trainer. We were, in effect, a hastily assembled crew, flying an aircraft no designed for our work and using an early form of experimental aid about which we had been told almost nothing. The miracle is that so few others came to grief in that difficult terrain.”

Today, a cross with a simple but moving inscription part constructed by Sean Ferguson, son of the late John, took part in the recovery mission, marks the spot where the Vickers Wellington W5653 came to grief on the clouded Urris Hills. It almost seems an obscenity that in such a peaceful and beautiful place, six young airmen disorientated by thick fog and struggling to recognised a familiar landmark in unfamiliar terrain, should die in such tragic circumstances.

Courtesy of the Derry Journal
August 2004