Jump to content

Galloway Air Crashes 1940 - 1979


Galloway Air Crashes 1940 - 1979

Adventure, Hills and History

By Barry Donnan



'Military aircraft crash sites are an important part of Britain's military and aviation heritage. Predominantly dating from World War II, during which there was a massive expansion in air activity over the UK, they comprise the buried, submerged or surface remains of aircraft, most of which crashed either in combat or training.'


Military Aircraft Crash Sites - Historic England (2002)

In my last article published on FlightSim.Com, I examined a double air crash that took place high on the slopes of Meikle Craigtarson, a remote and steep western spur of Galloway's second highest mountain, Corserine (2,617 ft) on 9th January 1939. You can read the full article here.


On the 27th of November 1940, Armstrong Whitley P5009, with three crew onboard departed from RAF Dumfries for a short transit flight to RAF West Freugh. The crew were tasked with picking up a small group of RAF officers at West Freugh, before returning to Dumfries. In command was Pilot Officer Leon Szamrajew of the Polish Air Force, with Flight Sergeant Jerzy Luszczewski, as the co-pilot. 19-year-old aircraftman Douglas Barnes of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) was the third crew member.


The Whitley belonged to 10 Bombing and Gunnery School, redesignated as 10 Air Observer School, a month before in September 1940. Atrocious weather meant the briefed flight route was to the south of the normal track across the Solway to West Freugh. The route was intended to avoid the mountainous terrain of the Galloway hills.


In this area the high ground is composed of twenty-eight mountains over 2,000 ft and four that are above 2,500 ft. In the depths of winter, thick low cloud hangs on the tops for weeks, driving rain and severe wind shear, make the area extremely hazardous for aviators.


Only fifteen minutes after departure P5009 was last seen by the Royal Observer Corps, a few miles to the west of St. John's Town of Dalry. This track showed the crew were well north of their advised route and dangerously close to the mountainous terrain, on the eastern side of the Galloway hills. The Armstrong Whitley was never seen again.


During the Second World War years, the rolling hills and glens of Wigtownshire were abundant in hill farms. Modern forest tracks didn't exist. The Sitka spruce plantations that are familiar to modern hill walkers, mountain bikers, and visitors came later, in 1947, with the creation of Galloway Forest Park. The nature of the terrain presented great difficulty to those who were involved in search and recovery operations. Even today, hill-walkers find the terrain challenging both physically and mentally.


An extensive search of the hills was arranged, with miles and miles of boggy upland terrain painstakingly searched on foot by volunteers' teams from RAF Wigtown. Local shepherds were also asked to maintain vigilance as they wandered the hills looking after their flock. For many days, the search teams hunted high and low, with no trace of the aircraft found.



Image 1. Loch Enoch from the nearby summit of Craignaw. The Merrick is the first peak on the left. Craignaw was also the scene
of an air accident in 1979, when a USAF F1-11E impacted just below the summit.



Loch Enoch is an extensive body of deep water. (Image 1). The remote hill loch lies to the east of The Merrick (843m), the highest mountain on the southern Scottish mainland. Only Goatfell (874m) to the west on the Isle of Arran, and Ben Lomond (974m), in the southern highlands are higher. Scottish broadcaster and author Tom Weir, writing in The Scottish Lochs, published in 1972, describes Loch Enoch as, 'a strange, ragged loch with islands at 1,617 feet ringed by naked rock slabs and strewn with boulders as if the ice had melted yesterday.'



Image 2. Whitley P5009 impacted in the promontory in the middle right of the image.



James McBain discussed the loch extensively in his excellent book The Merrick and the Neighbouring Hills published in 1929. Famously (and perhaps rather foolishly) James waited until Loch Enoch was frozen over in the depths of a harsh winter, before walking onto the ice, to plumb the depths of the loch. After chiselling a small hole, James dropped a weighted line into the chilly waters, recording a depth of 127 foot, making the loch the deepest in the south-west of Scotland. (Image 2). James noted, ' During my sojourn on the loch the wind never ceased to drive ribbons of snow, falling from the clouds, across the ice, and it was excessively cold.'


The Galloway Highlands have thirty-one major lochs dotted around the landscape. During the First World War rumours circulated locally that German seaplanes were using the remote lochs as a secret base. Henry Morton, journalist and travel writer wrote, 'There were stories of strange signal lights and of German petrol dump placed there for the use of Hydroplanes, that had a secret base on one the locals.'


Eventually a large number of soldiers from the King's Own Scottish Borderers were based in Glen Trool, scouring the hills for any signs of activity. The soldiers never found a secret base, but they stumbled across the Glen Trool Hoard. A collection of Bronze Age artifacts that had lay undisturbed for thousands of years when they were placed underneath a rocky overhang, as an offering to the gods.





Image 3. A significant amount of P5009 lies scattered beside the loch.



Two weeks after the Armstrong Whitely was last seen above St. John's Town of Dalry, a shepherd discovered the aircraft wreckage on the southern shore of Loch Enoch. All three flight crew were deceased. Sadly, the remains of Douglas Barnes were never found. The boggy area around the crash site and the waters of the loch are a designated war grave, and it was assumed Douglas entered the water along with large sections of the aircraft. (Image 3).



Image 4. Me, Craig and Scott after a blustery night camped near the loch.



In the winter of 2018, myself and two friends, Craig and Scott, camped in a nearby forest and the following morning we trekked over the rough waterlogged terrain and placed a wooden cross of remembrance beside the crash site. (Image 4). The weather was wild and unpredictable as it would have been when the Whitley crashed. Nearly seventy-eight years later and significant remains lie scattered around the peaty bog. Pilot Officer Leon Szamrajew and his co-pilot, Flight Sergeant Jerzy Luszczewski, are both buried in St. Andrews Cemetery in Dumfries. (Image 5).


Image 5. A remembrance cross we placed beside the crash site.




On the northern shore of Loch Enoch, lies a small memorial to Tommy Withers, an enthusiast hill walker from Ayrshire, who researched the history behind many of the air accidents. Tommy also kept a watchful eye on many of the aircraft wrecks in the area. He also helped construct a memorial to the F1-11 crash near the rocky summit of Craignaw in 1987. (Image 6).


Image 6. Tommy Withers memorial at Loch Enoch.



During our hill-walking excursions, my friend Scott films some of our adventures on a drone, if and when the weather allows. This footage was taken in the late summer of 2020 and after a night camped out on the lower slopes of the Merrick. It's beautifully filmed and allows you to gain an understanding of the terrain and also a glimpse of Loch Enoch.




In recent years, the prolonged search for two aircraft - both Spitfires - caught the public's imagination and attracted widespread media interest locally and nationally. The Loch Doon Spitfire P7540, was eventually recovered from the murky depths of the loch, in 1982. I'll return to that story in my next article.


Spitfire AD540 was known as the 'Blue Peter Spitfire' after funds were raised at Newmarket in 1941 to build the iconic aircraft, in commemoration of this generous gift. The Spitfire was named after the 1939 winner of the Derby Stakes. On the 23rd of May 1942 AD540 departed from RAF Heathfield on the Ayrshire coast before climbing out over the Firth of Clyde. Pilot Officer David Hunter-Blair was at the controls of the aircraft. 19 - year old David was a local man and a member of 242 Squadron. His family lived at Blairquhan Castle, fourteen miles from Ayr, surrounded by the river Girvan and the rolling Ayrshire countryside.





Strong winds and driving rain lashed AD540 as he climbed above the Ayrshire coast. David's task was to provide top cover for the RMS Queen Mary, a troopship, crammed with American servicemen and women, who had just crossed the Atlantic. After the sortie was complete David's aircraft and another Spitfire were retasked inland over the Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway county border.


At an altitude of 20,000 feet David's Spitfire started to behave erratically before dropping into a steep descent through the thick clouds. Pilot Officer Hunter Blair bailed out of the aircraft at a fairly low altitude, AD540 then struck a remote hillside, near the Cairnsmore of Carsphairn (797m). An oxygen system malfunction caused the accident. David was fatally wounded, and eventually buried with full military honours on the family estate.


A Royal Air Force recovery team dismantled AD540 in the days after the accident, the wings were reputed to have been transported down the rugged hillside by horse to a local farm. Other sections of the Spitfire were buried at the location. Fifty-one years later, Ralph Davidson, a dedicated member of Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Society, rediscovered the remains of the Blue Peter Spitfire, on the heathery hillside, after many months of searching. (Image 7)



Image 7. AD540 and members of Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Society.



On 12th July 1993 I was lucky enough to join my dad and other aviation enthusiasts at a small clearing in the forest just off the A713 Ayr to Castle Douglas road. It was a warm summers day, and the Royal Navy based at HMS Gannet in Prestwick loaned the aviation group a Sea-King helicopter to assist with the recovery of AD540. (Image 8).



Image 8. A Royal Navy Sea King from 819 Squadron based at HMS Gannet, holding in the hover while its
cargo nets are loaded with Spitfire AD540.



We cleared the landing site of any debris that could be displaced by the downwash and then we watched in silence as the expertly flown grey Sea-King, made three runs back and forward, carrying the crumpled remains of the Spitfire in cargo nets underslung below the ten-tonne helicopter. Most of the aircraft, including the wings, was recovered having been placed into the ground by the recovery team, in the days following the accident.


In September 1993, a piper played a lament as the Battle of Britain Memorial flight flew low and fast, with a wing dipped in memory of David Hunter Blair. A memorial plaque was also unveiled beside the crash site.


In October 2019, the wonderful Dominic Smith and myself were able to spend an enjoyable trek into some of Galloway's finest scenery. On a bright autumn day we wandered along the wooded shores of Loch Trool, before heading up a forest track, under the Minigaff hills and onto the slopes of Curleywee (674m). On the summit I was able to point out the location of Backhill of Bush, Meikle Craigtarson, Corserine, and other key locations in the area. The views were endless, and we even managed a wee sip (or two) of whisky at the summit to warm us up before the chilly descent back to Bruce's Stone. (Image 9)


Image 9. Me and Dom enjoying the great outdoors near Curleywee.



Fading light restricted us slightly timewise and we weren't able to visit a nearby Avro Anson crash site on Bennanbrack. Hopefully, next time Dom? The hipflask is packed away in my rucksack. (Image 10)



Image 10. Now where is the hip flask?



On the 21st of July 1944 Avro Anson MG356 departed from RAF West Freugh with five crew onboard. The navigator, 25-year-old Sergeant Darius Northmore was under training, along with Sergeant Bertram Becker, an Air Bomber, also learning his role. The Anson belonged to No4 (Observer) Advanced Flying Unit. Piloting the aircraft was 21-year-old Flight Sergeant Raymond Crotty of the Royal Australian Air Force.


The crew were briefed to conduct a night navigation exercise in the area before returning back to RAF West Freugh. Also onboard were Warrant Officer Peter Smith and Sgt Edward Cresswell, both wireless operators and air gunners. Like so many air accidents in this area, prevailing strong winds pushed MG356 off course, and into dangerous terrain. The crew probably began a descent onto the West Freugh approach beam, mistakenly believing they were over the sea.


The Anson struck the remote hillside, destroying the aircraft, with all flight crew fatally wounded in the accident. This is a site I visit regularly and what always strikes me is that perhaps another 100 foot or so, the aircraft might have cleared the high ground. The thin soil and vegetation has never grown back, and the hillside is exposed to the bedrock where it struck. Undercarriage, oxygen bottles, and other debris remain onsite, after all these years. No memorial marks the site. (Image 11).



Image 11. The remains of Avro Anson MG356, with a snowy Merrick in the background.



Craignaw (645m) is a gnarly granite mountain that lies in the heart of the Galloway range, to the south of the Merrick. Underneath the mountain lies the beautiful shimmering waters of Loch Neldricken, which is framed by its very own white sandy beaches. During our last walk into the mountain, during fine weather, Scott flew the drone, capturing the rugged beauty of the area.


Underneath the summit lies a memorial dedicated to the memory of Captain Richard Hetzner and Captain Raymond Spaulding of the USAF. On the 19th of December 1979, a General Dynamics F111E from Upper Heyford was conducting low flying training in the area, when the aircraft struck the south side of the mountain just below the summit. (Image 12). The fast jet was totally destroyed and both crew members died in the accident.



Image 12. F1-11E memorial plaque, Craignaw.



In 1987 a permanent memorial was erected on the crash site, by members of a local hill-walking group. Virtually nothing remains of the F111E. (Image 13)


Image 13. The F1-11 memorial on Craignaw. Virtually nothing of the aircraft remains. The memorial was erected by Tommy Withers and other members
of a local hill-walking club.



In my next article, I'll be looking at Cairnsmore of Fleet, beside Newton Stewart, which has its own history and witnessed a larger concentration of air accidents than any mountain in the Galloway range. (Image 14)



Image 14. Cairnsmore of Fleet. In my next article I'll be looking at a number of accidents on this mountain.



Barry Donnan
Adventure, Hills and History

User Feedback

Recommended Comments

There are no comments to display.

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now

  • Create New...