Looking Back: June 4 2015 marks 60th anniversary of plane crash off Eastbourne

SUS-150106-143806001
SUS-150106-143806001

This week saw the 60th anniversary of the crash off the Eastbourne coast of the 201 Squadron Short Sunderland RN288.

It crashed at 9.30am on Saturday June 4 1955 while landing on the sea one mile off from Eastbourne Pier.

Eastbourne Looking Back SUS-150106-143829001

Eastbourne Looking Back SUS-150106-143829001

It was making a goodwill visit to the town on the occasion of the RAFA Annual Conference and was due to welcome aboard HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.

Four of the crew were killed - including one Sussex airman - but there were ten survivors.

One of those was F/Sgt George Doherty from Donegal who wrote about his experience.

It was the custom of the Royal Air Forces Association at that time to hold their annual conference close to some big town or city, which usually had an airfield nearby.

Eastbourne was selected in 1955, but since there was no airfield there, a flying boat was the obvious choice to represent the RAF.

The highlight of our visit was to welcome Prince Philip aboard our aircraft. 

Best uniforms were worn, of course, and we all looked forward to the event, which made a change from normal flying routine. 

The Sunderland had an upstairs and downstairs, and those of the crew not on duty usually stayed downstairs. I was downstairs with two other crew members and an airman passenger that morning of June 4 1955. We came in to land in the normal way, touching down and skimming along the calm sea to the spot where we intended to stop.

But all of a sudden the plane came to a shuddering halt as the front caved in and hundreds of tons of water rushed through,  practically submerging the aircraft. One minute there was sunlight streaming through the windows, the next was complete darkness as the lower compartments filled with water.

I tried to find the galley window handle,  but couldn’t locate it, and the air in my lungs was running out. I couldn’t hold out, and so gulped in large mouthfuls of the English Channel. I thought my time had come, then spotted a greenish patch in the side of the aircraft, which turned out to be a jagged hole in the side of the plane. It was big enough for me to get to the surface and inhale large amounts of fresh air.

The Sunderland’s wings are normally seven or eight feet above water, but now they were resting on top of the sea. I caught hold of a propeller blade to haul myself onto the wing, but couldn’t manage it. I looked down and saw my right foot flopping loose in the water, held to my leg by just a piece of muscle, the shin bone sticking out like a little sword.

My left kneecap had been cracked across the middle and my left ear was hanging off. My right thumb was bent out of shape.

Various theories were put forward as to the cause our crash. One was that the plane was holed by the mast of an unmarked small wreck below the water line and thus unseen most of the time. Another explanation was that a very heavy take off and landing in Malta four months earlier might have loosened some rivets, so weakening the airframe.

If correct, this theory would exonerate the servicing staff because such loosening would not be noticed during ordinary checks and inspections. But these are just theories. I never did find out the official verdict on the cause of the crash. 

Of the four people killed, three were downstairs with me and the other casualty was the pilot, Flt Lt Tim Gush, from Haslemere. The second pilot was in a similar condition to myself, broken legs etc and eventually he had to have an amputation of one leg.   

Misfortune didn’t end with death and injury to some of the crew. As the plane was being dismantled on the beach,  an airman’s leg was shattered as an acetylene welder exploded some petrol in a supposedly empty fuel line. The leg had to be amputated. 

Just as serious in its own way was the mental shock suffered by the RAF officer in charge of the motor launch controlling the landing at Eastbourne. He couldn’t get it out of his head that he was in some way partly responsible for what happened that morning, although it was crystal clear that nothing he could have done would have prevented the crash. Be that as it may, he cracked up, was put in a mental home,  escaped, had umpteen medical boards, and was discharged from the RAF without a pension.

Although it is more than 52 years since we came to grief at Eastbourne, there are some things that I remember clearly about my stay there. The main impression is of the long months in Princess Alice Hospital: I cannot speak too highly of the dedication of all the staff, from the cleaners to the surgeons.  

Some names I remember still including George Flinders who helped me to walk around the ward when I took to crutches for the first time. He used to say, “There’s nothing to fear, the floor’s insured “. A very funny man indeed.    

We were very lucky to have a Welsh wizard surgeon in Mr Jenkins. I was there for several months, and eventually went to Headley Court near Leatherhead, now in the news because of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

I was passed fit for flying after a year or so, and was posted to the Middle East, where, three years after Eastbourne, had the unnerving experience of being in a RAF passenger aircraft when both engines stopped almost a mile up. 

They never started again, and we came to a sticky end on some sandhills in the desert. Luck was with us, because nobody was killed or even badly injured.  But that’s another story.

I’m glad my account of the Sunderland crash has helped to fill in some of the gaps in your knowledge of events on the 4th of June 1955, and I thank you for the invitation to visit your lifeboat station at Eastbourne.

All in all I consider myself very lucky in coming through the last war in one piece, having endured nightly bombing in Coventry prior to joining up in 1940 and walking for almost a week through the Burmese jungle, mostly by myself, in 1943, dodging the Japs. Many, many of  my comrades didn’t live to see the end of the war. I shall be 86 in 10 weeks’ time, so Allah must be looking after me. That and a goodly supply of Guinness and Johnny Walker.”