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Memorial shows five young men will never be forgotten

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: July 30, 2014

  • The crew of the RAF Whitley bomber who died when it crashed into the field at Mugginton. From left, air gunner Sgt M Lyons, navigator Sgt H Cowan, pilot Flt Sgt W F Cooper, bomb aimer Sgt W B Smith and wireless operator Sgt W C Norcross.

  • A service was held at the Mugginton site on the 70th anniversary of the crash which claimed the lives of the five young RAF airmen on the night of July 24, 1944. It was attended by members of the Brailsford branch of the Royal British Legion, local residents and members of the Metcalf farming family who own the land and tend the memorial. Right, a Whitley bomber.

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Seventy years ago, the peace of the Derbyshire countryside was shattered when a bomber from Ashbourne crashed into a farmer's field at Mugginton just outside of Derby. Ian Scaife reports.

THE aircraft, an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley MkV BD230 bomber, was from Operational Training Unit 42 at Ashbourne.

It had a history of problems and had required major repairs at Armstrong's works at Baggington, Coventry.

Its ill-fated five-man crew had taken it out on a cross-country training flight and in the early hours of July 24, 1944, having aborted a landing at Ashbourne due to an obstruction on the runway, were climbing to prepare for another approach when the starboard engine – of the two 1280 hp Rolls Royce Merlin X engines – caught fire.

Minutes earlier the crew had been over the Welsh borders and blacked-out heavy industries of the North Midlands following the north east runway heading.

The extinguishing system failed and within seconds the aircraft went into a vertical dive, crashing into the field belonging to Leasow Farm at Mugginton.

The young pilot fought to gain height and retain control but six miles and only a few minutes later the fight was over. Robbed of critical airspeed, BD 230 stalled, heralding a brief terminal dive into the field.

The oldest person on board the aircraft was the pilot, Flight Sgt J W F Cooper, aged 24.

The rest of the crew were wireless operator Sgt W C Norcross, 21; navigator Sgt H Cowan, 21; air gunner Sgt M M Lyons, 18 and bomb aimer Sgt W B Smith, 21.

Only two bodies were recovered. Sgt Smith is buried at Ashbourne and Sgt Lyons' grave is in his native St Helen's in Lancashire. The remainder were entombed in the forward section of the fuselage, buried some 18 to 19ft in the ground.

A year after the crash, the crew's bereaved families decided to erect a memorial on the crash site to mark the last resting place of their loved ones.

The crash had left a huge crater, which had to be infilled with ballast from a nearby quarry and all the surface wreckage removed.

The families then contracted Parsons & Sons of Derby to design and erect a five-foot high stone cross directly over the crash site. A dedication service was conducted and attended by farmers and others from the local villages, supporting the bereaved families.

The Metcalf family, who farm these fields, have generously undertaken maintenance of this exposed memorial as honorary custodians.

Some 30 years ago, the Allied Air Crews and Historians' Association took custody of the site, providing new guard rails for the memorial.

It still organises a memorial service which is incorporated into the Remembrance Day Sunday service in the afternoon at Mugginton Church.

To visit the memorial, start from the road junction at the Cock Inn, Mugginton. About 150 yards north is Highfield Lane.

Walk 200 yards down the lane and you will find a drive on the right, leading to Leasows Farm, where you may be able to park with permission. Half a mile east south-east, across two fields is the memorial.

Ian Scaife is a local military aviation journalist and photographer. He is a member of the American Commemorative Air Force, the world's largest private air force.

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