Hopes and Plans - the Crash of Wellington HE821

The crew of Wellington HE821, clockwise from upper left: Pilot, WO1 Willis Donald Murdie; Navigator, Pilot Officer Lowell Milton Brehaut (on the left); Bomb Aimer, Flying Officer Walter William Cooper; Bomb Aimer, Sergeant John Joseph Lee; Wireless Operator/Air Gunner, Sergeant James Robb Clarke (with little sister Margaret). Photos via respective families.

On the lovely summer's evening of August 5th, 1944, fifteen year-old Gerald Plant was walking to the home of his best friend in the English village of Creswell in Derbyshire. During the war years, it was not unusual to hear the sound of low flying aeroplanes, as the area was surrounded by RAF aerodromes, and in the distance he heard an aircraft approaching. As it came into view, Gerald realized the aircraft, a Vickers Wellington bomber, was in trouble. It was flying very low, the starboard propeller stationary and the port engine running at full power in an attempt to keep the big twin in the air.

As Gerald watched the Wellington, suddenly, to his horror, the port engine abruptly stopped. The bomber stalled and spun to earth, hitting the ground with great force near the buildings of Hennymoor Farm. Stunned by what he had witnessed, Gerald rushed to tell his friend and together they returned to the scene of the accident which had been cordoned off by the local police. The Wellington was almost completely destroyed by the impact and the only recognizable pieces were the vertical fin and rear turret perched atop the crumpled remains. It was only too obvious that there were no survivors. The images of the tragic accident remained with Gerald all his life and as the years went by he wondered about the crew. Who were those young men, where were they from and what events caused them to lose their lives in a tranquil English field?

Now fast forward 67 years to Saturday, May 21st 2011.

I stood alongside 82 year-old Gerald Plant watching as a memorial we had been working on together for the past year was unveiled near Hennymoor Farm to the memory of the five young crew members of the Wellington.

This is the story of how the memorial came to be.

All his life Gerald had wanted to find out about the crew and to create a memorial to their memory and due to a generous bequest by his brother, he was able at last to fulfill his ambition. Gerald, being a friend of my wife's family, contacted me and asked me to research the incident and later, become the Canadian organizer so I quickly set to work.

The first surprise was discovering all the crew were Canadians. Pilot Willis Don Murdie aged 26 and Air Gunner John 'Jack' Lee aged 19 were both from London, ON. Navigator Lowell Brehaut aged 21 came from PEI while Wireless Operator James Clarke aged 20 was born in Montreal, QC. Bomb Aimer Walter Cooper aged 32 called Trail, BC his home.

The challenge was to discover who these young men really were. I needed to uncover their family and RCAF service lives, to find their photographs and most importantly to contact their families and hopefully speak to people who knew them.

Obtaining their service records from Library and Archives in Ottawa enabled the task of tracing the families to begin. By a lucky stroke, the historical group in Creswell had previously traced Lowell Brehaut's relatives so we were up and running. After placing an article in the local paper for Trail BC the 'Trail Times', Walter Cooper's sister-in-law soon made contact. James Clarke was born in Montreal QC, moving to Trois Rivieres, QC and then to North Bay, ON. Having placed a piece in North Bay's newspaper the 'Nugget', James' sister Margaret responded to the enquiry. Finally, the historical group in Creswell via Facebook put me in contact with the relatives of John Lee and Willis Murdie. So now I was able to talk with relatives and get to know the men behind the names.

Several of the crew had been interested in aviation as High School students and Navigator Lowell Brehaut was no exception. His younger brother Blair, himself a WW2 RCAF veteran related many stories about Lowell who was an award winning aircraft modeller. Lowell would 'borrow' his father's car to get to the local airfield where he offered help to the pilots, hoping in return for flight time. In the end, the inevitable happened and Lowell had a minor accident and as brother Blair chuckled 'the jig was up!'  Lowell had started his RCAF training as a pilot but an accident flying a Harvard caused him to be transferred to navigation training instead, a discipline at which he excelled.

Pilot Willis Murdie worked as a gas pump attendant and machine operator before he decided to answer the call to arms and joined the RCAF in 1941.  After completing pilot training in Canada and receiving his wings at RCAF Uplands Willis sailed to England in January 1943, but just before he left he married his sweetheart Betty Lucille Thurman. On arrival in the UK, Willis was soon posted to an Air Gunner's school in Wales where he survived a year of flying novice Air Gunners around and dodging errant shots while towing gunnery drogues.

Air Gunner John 'Jack' Lee was by all accounts a live wire, getting into many scrapes as a youngster but his likable nature always seemed to pull him through. A keen and successful baseball player, he worked for the toy company Webster Manufacturing and frequently brought home die-cast zinc models for his young nephew Larry Lee. Jack volunteered for aircrew in 1941 and after training in Canada he arrived in the UK in 1944. When he learned of his overseas posting Jack asked his long time girlfriend Eva to wait for his return, but sadly that was never to be.

Wireless Operator James Clarke's sister Margaret told me many stories about her big brother Jim whom she idolized and whose happy memories are tinged with great sadness. Margaret recalled James had endless patience for her childhood games including generously acting as a horse for her to ride. Music played a big part in his life and James was a keen guitarist and drummer. He also had a great passion for aviation, a passion which as Margaret wistfully recounted eventually led to his tragic death.

Born in Montana, USA of English parents, Bomb Aimer Walter Cooper became a proud Canadian citizen. He married his sweetheart Edith Crombie in 1940 but after the sad loss of their two children they adopted a little girl, Norma and although she has no recollection of her father, Norma holds his life story dear to this day. Walter, an employee of the Consolidated Mining & Smelting Company was sworn into the RCAF in the Crown Hotel in Trail, BC in November 1942. He was a natural born dancer and after the war hoped to train to become a teacher, something which sadly was not to be. His widow Edith still recalls those bitter sweet times with Walter, the man who she told me was her 'her first love'.  

Each one of the men had their own talents and achievements. They were all great guys with hopes and plans for the future, a future that fate denied them. The families happily shared photos of their loved ones with me, photos which showed five young men proud of their service in the RCAF and determined to do their part to win the war.

The threads of the five young Canadian's lives finally came together when they were posted to No.86 Operational Training Unit based at RAF Gamston in Nottinghamshire in June 1944. At Gamston they flew as a crew for the first time while getting to grips with the Vickers Wellington bomber.  Cross country navigation exercises, bombing exercises, single engine flying etc would have been the order of the day and they had progressed to the mid point of their training when the tragic accident occurred.

The Vickers Wellington, affectionately known as the "Wimpy," was armed with twin .330 machine guns in the nose and tail turrets. It also had 2 manually-operated .303 guns in the beam positions and could carry a 4,500 lb bomb load. Slow speed, limited ceiling, and a small bomb load soon made the Wellington obsolete, although one significant design advantage was inventor Barnes-Wallace's geodetic lattice-work fuselage construction. This made the Wimpy extremely tough, and it often survived battle damage which would have destroyed other aircraft. DND

The RAF carried out a full accident investigation but the report could not establish the cause of the crash. With novice crews flying war weary aircraft with low grade fuel and in many cases in very poor weather conditions it may not come as a surprise to learn that there were many fatal accidents at wartime OTUs. We will never know just what caused the crash at Hennymoor Farm but we can be sure that Canada lost five of its finest sons that August evening in 1944.

A date was set for the memorial unveiling and the location chosen was Creswell Crags in Derbyshire, a limestone gorge in which some of the earliest evidence of mankind has been found. A local stonemason was commissioned by Gerald to create a beautiful memorial to be located close to the Crags Visitor Centre, a stone's throw from the crash site.

Next, the planning of the program began. The family members decided who would attend and participate in the unveiling of the memorial. Squadron Leader Roger Steele agreed to represent the RAF and with his assistance I was able secure a fly past by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Lancaster 'City of Lincoln'. After I had made contact with the Canadian High Commission in London, England the High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr. James Wright offered to attend and participate at the dedication ceremony.  Lieutenant Colonel Art Agnew also agreed to be present to represent Canadian Forces. And so finally all the pieces were in place for the memorial event.

After the families had arrived in the UK we first escorted them to Harrogate Stonefall Cemetery in Yorkshire, the resting place of the five crew members. Like all Commonwealth War Graves cemeteries Stonefall is beautifully kept and contains the graves of some 650 Canadian airmen. The family members each laid a wreath on their loved ones graves and spent some time lost in their own thoughts. In the tranquil setting of the cemetery it was a very moving experience for all of us.

We then moved on to the former RAF Gamston in Nottinghamshire, now enjoying a second existence as Retford Airport where the airport manager gave us an informative guided tour of the airfield. To round off the day our last stop was at Hennymoor Farm, the actual crash site of the Wellington. This was a very poignant moment for everyone - it was hard to believe that a violent accident there took the lives of five young airmen so many years ago.

And so 11am on the morning of the memorial dedication at Creswell Crags finally arrived. All the guests were comfortably seated, the Welbeck Estate Brass Band was playing suitable music and national and local media were present.  After the opening address the High Commissioner made a speech on behalf of the Canadian Government. Then the High Commissioner and Blair Brehaut removed the RCAF Ensign and unveiled the memorial stone. Squadron Leader Steele read the famous poem 'High Flight' and Lt. Col Agnew spoke very movingly of the five young men and the ties that then as now, bind Canada and Great Britain. After the one minute silence and laying of wreaths, one by one a member from each family spoke about their loved ones and their touching testimonies and stories moved many to tears.  It was a very fitting end to the dedication ceremony with relatives remarking that a wound in their families had at long last been healed.

The Wellington memorial project was a great honour to be involved with and in the words of the High Commissioner it felt as if a whole new family had been created. I feel that the most important and fulfilling aspect of the whole project was that of remembrance. Veterans invariably mention that they don't ask for medals or awards or thanks, they simply ask to be remembered. I hope that we have helped to ensure that the five young Canadians who lost their lives so long ago will always be remembered.

A hand-tinted photo of Pilot Willis Murdie and his bride Betty Lucille Thurman in 1943. Murdie shipped out for Bournemouth, England and further OTU training immediately after his wedding. Prior to joining the RCAF and becoming a bomber pilot, Murdie was a filling station attendant. Photo via family

A joyful photograph of the wedding of Walter Cooper and Edith Crombie in 1940. At 32, Walter was the oldest of the crew members and he hailed from the same small British Columbia town of Trail as did Robert Hampton Gray. Photo via family

All five Canadian crew members of Wellington HE821 are carried into Harrogate Stonefall Cemetery in Yorkshire by airmen from RAF Gamston on August 1944.
In a personal letter of condolence to John Lee's mother, his 86 OTU CO described the details ot the funeral: “Your son's funeral, at which I was present, took place on Thursday morning, August 10th in Harrogate Regional Cemetery, Yorkshire. After the burial service, conducted by S/L Monahan, R.C. Chaplain, his body was respectfully interred in the plot of ground reserved for R.C.A.F. personnel. Full service honors were accorded, the coffin, covered with a Union Jack, being carried by Canadian Airmen. A firing party at the conclusion of the religious service at the graveside, fired three volleys over the grave. The Last Post and Reveille were then sounded.  Wreaths were sent from the Commanding Officer,  Officers and N.C.O.'s of this Unit, and the photographs taken of the procession, funeral service and grave (Plot no. E: Grave no. A.4) are enclosed in this letter.”  Photo: 86 OTU, RAF

The Canadians are laid to rest at Harrogate Stonefall. An honour guard rifle party stands by to fire a salute. For more on the findings of the accident investigation after the crash, click here. Photo: 86 OTU, RAF

During the ceremony at Harrogate Stonefall cemetery, family members of each of the fallen stand behind the tombstones of their beloved airmen. Left to right: Tom Lee, Margaret Graham, Terry Murdie, Blair Brehault and Tom Idle.   Photo via Peter Allam

A family representative for each member of the lost crew spoke at the dedication. Here Tom Lee addresses the assembled guests. Photo via Peter Allam

Canadian High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr. James Wright, and Blair Brehaut, brother of navigator Lowell Brehaut, unveil the monument. Photo via Peter Allam

Wreathes were laid in honour of the crew members. Photo via Peter Allam

Canadian High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr. James Wright, address the assembled family members, invitees and Royal Air Force cadets.
 Photo via Peter Allam

Blair Brehaut speaks about his beloved brother Lowell, the navigator aboard Wellington HE821. Photo via Peter Allam

A close-up of the memorial, with carved relief of a Wellington bomber cruising for eternity through the clouds and the name of Pilot Officer Herbert Sydney Keeton at bottom. Keeton died in a separate incident but was included as a special request from memorial donor Joseph Plant.  Photo via Peter Allam

Family members of the fallen Wellington crew as well as Herbert Keeton stand with the newly unveiled monument. Left to right: Julie Sollows (for Lowell Brehault), Margaret Graham (for James Clarke), Blair Brehaut, Tom Idle (for Walter Cooper), Terry Murdie (for Willis Murdie), Tom Lee (for John Lee), and Ken Keeton (for Herbert Keeton).  Photo via Peter Allam

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