1946-58

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The Lancaster Bomber Tragedy

Frank Tibbo

Gander Beacon- October 11, 2004


August 25, 1946 is a date that recalls very painful memories for some people in Newfoundland. Some of the people to whom I refer are Gander residents. A squadron of Lancaster Bombers of Royal Air force Bomber Squadron No. 35, took off for a routine operation. Shortly after takeoff one of the bombers reported an unserviceable compass and was authorized to return and land on runway 14. It succeeded in land on what is now runway 13. It was then designated runway 14 and approximately 3,000 feet shorter than it is today. There were no barriers around the airport. As a matter of fact, people regularly walked across runway 14 as a shortcut from the American side to the Canadian side. The perimeter road was so close to the ends of the runways that a system of lights and bells were erected to warn pedestrians and vehicles. The warning system was activated by the control tower a few minutes prior to the arrival of aircraft. The idea was to prevent traffic from travelling on the road until the aircraft had landed. This work well in normal situations, however, when an aircraft departed and had to return immediately, there wasn’t sufficient time for the warning system to be effective.

A group of people had gathered near the end of runway 14, watching a squadron of military aircraft depart. Some of the people were on their way home from the United Church evening service. Fifteen year old Trixie Burton (Trixie Smith of Cotton Street, Gander), was hold the hand of her friend, 21 year old, Isola Clarke. They were look toward the runway. They heard nothing behind them – no noise, no gushing of wind, no aircraft engines – nothing! Then, suddenly, Miss Clarke was struck from behind by a propeller of the large Lancaster and killed immediately. It was dark and the controllers in the tower didn’t realize what had happened. They saw the aircraft brake sharply and do, what appeared to be, a ground loop. A ground loop is an uncontrolled turn of approximately 180 degrees. The control tower call the aircraft several times but received no reply. The aircraft, TW870, - not to be confused with Trans World airlines – landed at 2359 Greenwich mean time. Three other people were also killed. They were Raymond Parsons, 20, who had just completed two years of pre-med at Memorial College, Cyril Brazil, 27, and 57 year old Stanley Rideout, all from St. John’s. William J. Mcdonald of St. Mary’s was among several others who were injured. None of the people gathered around had heard any indication of the approaching disaster.

The fact that they heard nothing can be partly explained by the fact that aircraft land into the wind, i.e. facing the wind. The people who were standing near the end of runway 14 watching aircraft departing from that runway meant that the wind was blowing toward their faces.
They would hear the noises in front of them but not behind them. Something else that added to the cause of the accident was the fact the aircraft did not use its landing lights. This may have been because the crew was too occupied to turn them on or may be as a result of the habit of the night-flying pathfinder squadron during the war. Those aircraft regularly landed and took off without the use of their landing lights.

Leo Fowler of Fraser Road, Gander, was the ambulance driver for the Sir Frederick Banting Memorial Hospital. He remembers vividly the carnage of deal and broken bodies. It was his job to carry the injured and the dead to the hospital. One of the most difficult things to accomplish was to find someone with the nerve to help him carry the stretcher carrying the body parts.

The accident was report to Sgt. Clarke, who was in charge of the Gander branch of the Newfoundland Constabulary. He ordered airport officials to close the runway pending an investigation. A magisterial inquiry, presided over by the late Beaton J. Abbott, was conducted but the results of the inquiry were never made public by the government of the day.
The Lancaster Bomber was placed in hangar 8, located on the south side of runway 14. Hangar 8 was located approximately where the international terminal is now. It is believed that the aircraft was stored because of the fact that it could have been needed in a subsequent investigation. The hanger was not secured and the aircraft was vandalized and stripped of everything that could be moved – even to the rudder cables.

In 1950, the aircraft was purchase by a Canadian company headed by Doug Siple, a Trans Canada Airlines pilot. That company also bought the thousands of aircraft parts that had been stored in the bom shelters around the airport.

Dave Lance, a mechanic with Trans Canada Airlines, was one of the people contracted to make the aircraft airworthy. Mr. Lance later took pilot training and flew with Trans Canada airlines for many years. Eric Wicks, a radio technician with the Newfoundland government , was part of the team that worked on the aircraft to get it ready to fly. Mr. Lance and Mr. Wicks had to find the smallest man in Gander to crawl back through the tail of the aircraft in order to replace the rudder cables. After it was made airworthy, it was ferried to Montreal. The Lancaster was put to work in a civilian role to transport freight to Northern Canada. Shortly after that it was converted to a fuel tanker and operated out of Seven Islands. The aircraft crashed and burned at a northern airport. There were no casualties in that crash. I wish to acknowledge, with thanks, the following people who provided information for this column: the late Clarence Bowering, William Clarke, Royal Cooper, the late Leo Fowler, Mrs. Smith, the late Mr. Wicks, the late Pat Walsh and the late Charlie Warren.

-30-

The visit of the RAF 35 Sqdn was part of a Goodwill Tour to the US. This had been organised apparently via discussions in February 1946 between General Ira Eaker who commanded the US 8th Air Force and Air Marshall Sir Norman Bottomley of the RAF Bomber Command.  Group Captain Richard Collard was given charge of the operation which would involve sixteen Lancasters of 35 Squadron, plus an Avro York (Lancaster modified for cargo).

One half of the squadron left England (RAF Graveley) on 8 July with the other half leaving on 9 July, following the route England – Azores – Gander.  When the Lancasters arrived in Gander from the Azores, and got sorted out, they went, as one crew member reportedly said, “to an enormous breakfast at 3.30am. First unrationed food since 1939, and we all made pigs of ourselves".  After a stop of several days in Gander, the squadron flew on to Mitchell Field, New York, and subsequently toured as far as California.  This part of the trip was basically without incident.

During the return trip, the Lancasters departed Mitchell Field, NY, on the 22 August for Gander.  On the 23rd, one half of the squadron, 'A' Flight, departed Gander routinely for Lagens Field in the Azores.

In the evening of 25th of August, it was the turn of 'B' Flight to take off from Gander for the trip to Lagens. Lancaster TW870, piloted by F/L Pete Stockwell, had to return to Gander after twenty minutes due to problems with his compass. He may also have had a problem with his landing lights, which might otherwise have warned of his arrival. He was cleared to land but mistook two directional green lights which marked the end of the runway for glide path indicators. As a result, the aircraft bounced on the raised road which was parallel to and twenty yards from the edge of the runway. There were some civilians standing in that area. The aircraft's starboard wheel hit some of them, killing three men and one woman and injuring a fourth man.

 

This was reported in the Toronto Star as follows:

news item

On the map below from that era, I have indicated approximately where the accident happened. As a guide, the location of the present terminal is indicated.  Another way to physically find the area of the accident is go to the corner of the road to the present terminal and the radar station. From that point, look north across the runway and that should be it.

map

The aircraft involved in the incident is generally known as serial number TW870. In RAF parlance it was aircraft TL-R.  Below is a photo of this actual airplane on 29 April 1946.

TL-R

On investigation, The pilot F/L Stockwell was exonerated of all blame. It is hard to see but here is a photo of F/L Stockwell doing an engine run-up on 6 June 1946 in the days before the start of the Goodwill Tour.

stockwell

 

Addendum:

We recently received this email from the grand daughter of F/L Pete Stockwell, the Lancaster pilot of that fatfeful accident and felt it should be posted. - GAHS Webster

Dear Sir,

I googled my grandfather and found your article.

I would just like to add a little to your story. My grandfather was incredible: there is so much I could say about him.

However, with reference to your article:

He flew 42 missions over Germany and survived. For a bomber pilot at that time that was pretty phenomenal.

He was promoted to squadron leader and received the DFC. My father has his medal and letter from King George IV.

He never got over from the incident you talk about in your article: to end his war experience with that, even if exonerated, affected him deeply. He had already experienced so much horror. To put it in perspective, when the incident you describe happened, he was twenty five years old and had lived through more than we can possibly imagine.

He died in 1996. His last words when in pain, on morphine and gas, were a correction of his daughter's comment to the nurse about him being a Lancaster pilot. She said he had flown 40 missions over Germany: He lifted his mask and said "42."

I miss him so much. He was amazing and, for me, a hero. I was blessed to have him love me as much as he did. He may not have been perfect, but he was fabulous.

Without him and those other young men being willing to do for what they did, we would not have our today.

Kind regards
Charlotte (Charlie) Stockwell

contributed by R Pelley & Frank Tibbo

 

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