"Warplanes crash at Hells Mouth"

October 11th 1938

At 7:30am on the 11th of October 1938, two aircraft left their base at Penrhos nr Pwllheli for Hells mouth on a bombing practise flight over the bay. On board the two planes were four young airmen, one Australian and three from England, conditions that morning were good and there was no mist or fog.

Acting Pilot Officer J A Cooper, from Australia, Acting Officer Pilot Thomas Campbell Dunn, Acting Pilot Officer Ronald Vincent Hart, from South Staffordshire and Acting Pilot Officer Ronald Andrew Desmond Maharey. By 9am that morning three of the young men would have lost their lives in a tragic accident when both aircraft collided above the bay, and fell in flames on to farmland below  

Both planes were flying high and at great speed over the bay when the highest of the two took a sudden turn past the tail of the lowest, when they were flying above Llangian, in an instant both aircraft were in flames. Two of the airmen managed to get out of the aircraft, but one of the parachutes failed to open properly and the young airman fell to his death on to the fields of Rhydolion Farm, the other managed to land in the midst of the brambles on the headland at Bron Gaer, about a quarter of a mile from where the plane had crashed on to Rhydolion fields, the plane was on fire and continued to burn throughout the afternoon. A few feet away from where the plane had crashed, evidence could be seen of two exploded bombs, that had been thrown out of the aircraft. The other two airmen failed to get out of their plane and their aircraft crashed about a mile away on to a field at Trefollwyn farm. Such was the impact when the plane crashed that it sank down about nine feet into the ground with both airmen still inside. It was a heartbreaking scene, only the tailfin of the aircraft could be seen, and at least half a dozen men from the base at Pen y Berth were digging around the aircraft in a bid to recover the bodies of the young airmen. Wardens from Pen y Berth kept an eye on the site, but members of the public were allowed in. One eye witness Evan Henry Evans of Glansoch told how he heard the sound of two planes flying high in the air at around 9am, and how he saw one fly below the other, “It burst into flames” he said “and the other caught fire, and both careered through the air until they crashed into the fields below”.

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"Hurricane"

"Avro Anson"

"Hawker Demon"

"Aircraft used at Penrhos"

Another eyewitness was Mr Miles the gardener at Nanhoron, he saw two airmen parachute from their aircraft, (the one that was flying at a lower altitude). One of the parachutes opened safely, but the other failed to open and the airman fell to his death, about half a mile from where the plane had landed. Mr Miles immediately ran to the scene.

An inquest was heard in Pwllheli within a few days before Coroner E E Robyns Owen and a jury.

The first to give evidence was Pilot Officer A M Crump, he testified that he knew Dunn and John Astley Cooper, who was nearly twenty one years of age and R Vincent Hart who was eighteen and a half years of age. He knew that Hart and Maharey had gone on bombing practice on Tuesday morning, as it was he who set them off.

Dr Rowntree of Abersoch was to testify that all the men had died from head injuries and had died on impact, Cooper also sustained severe burns.

Owen Thomas of Llawrdref had heard the explosion and had seen both planes together in flames, one went in the direction of Llanengan and the other towards the sea. He saw a man with a parachute being carried towards the direction of Abersoch.

William John Williams of Penybont, who was at Llawrdref at the time didn’t hear the explosion, but he did see a parachute towards the direction of Abersoch, The farmhand came and told him that something had fallen in amidst the sheep, and on the request of the farmhand he went to see and discovered the parachute spread out on the ground, by lifting it they discovered a body, it was Dunn.

The coroner asked Mr Williams if he believed the parachute had opened. “Yes but I think it got tangled”.

Mr Williams complained to the coroner that a number of flying targets had landed on his land, the coroner replied by saying he could do nothing and that Mr Williams should contact the authorities at Pen y Berth, to which Mr Williams said he had done so on many occasions. He added that the targets weighed about 5-7lbs and were a danger, not only that but people came from Pen y Berth to pick up the targets even though it was private land.

Sgt Henry Munslow was the next to give evidence, he was responsible for making sure that the aircraft were in good order for flying, and he said that every plane was inspected for half an hour before each flight. He had inspected both that morning and they were airworthy and ready for the flight. The four airmen hadn’t completed the course but were experienced pilots he added. The parachutes were inspected every month. The rule when two planes went out together was that one would take off ten minutes before the other, they bombed from an altitude of six thousand feet and it was the pilots duty to keep an eye out for other planes in the vicinity.

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"Hells Mouth"

In order to hear evidence from the only surviving airman Maharey the court had to go to his bedside at the hospital.

“ I was flying the aircraft and we left the airfield at about seven thirty that morning to begin the exercise. I arrived at Hells Mouth around 8am, and when we saw all was clear we began bombing, we flew around the target about four times, but we didn’t drop a bomb because there were clouds hovering below us. We were flying at about six thousand feet at the time, when I turned towards the target, the other plane came across close to us on our right. I knew the plane was close but my mind was on keeping right above the target, which was half a mile out to sea. Our plane was hit under her left wing and immediately went out of control.”

He said he alerted Hart to this and he (the witness) got out of the plane. He couldn’t say what happened.

“ Perhaps I was injured in the collision” he said “ We were flying at around 110 mph at the time. I fell at Bron y Gaer half a mile away” He couldn’t suggest how the accident occurred.

A verdict of accidental death was recorded on the three young airmen who died that day on the edge of Hells Mouth.

 

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