Missing Oxford aircraft PH404 from 311 Squadron – Beinn A’ Bhuird
On January 10th 1945 at 1045 hrs, Oxford PH404 took off from RAF Tain on the North East coast of Scotland bound for RAF Hornchurch near London. The weather in Tain at that time was reported to have been good with blue sky, no clouds and no wind. However, the met forecast was apparently for adverse weather. On-board the aircraft were five airmen from 311 (Czech) Squadron which was based at Tain, four Pilots and a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner.
Squadron Leader Karel Kvapil – Pilot
Flying Officer Leo Linhart – Pilot
Flying Officer Jan Vella – Pilot
Flying Officer Valter Kauders – Wireless Operator/Air Gunner
Warrant Officer Rudolph Jelen – Pilot
The flight was not an operational one. It is believed that F/O Jan Vella was travelling to London to receive his DFC award, F/O Linhart, S/Ldr Kvapil and F/O Kauders are believed to have been taking some leave, and W/O Jelen was detailed to return the aircraft from RAF Hornchurch to RAF Tain.
The aircraft failed to arrive at RAF Hornchurch, and no record could be found of it having landed at any other airbase. It was believed that Oxford PH404 must have crashed in the sea since no trace of any wreckage had been reported.
It was not until August 19th 1945, that the fate of Oxford PH404 and her crew was finally known when the wreckage was discovered by two hill walkers.
I was helping the late Sqn Eric Hughes wife Wendy the other day Eric was my old Boss in the RAF Mountain Rescue and was a man who looked after me and many others of the wild bunch on many occasions. Wendy had found an old article written by Archie Pennie who had found the aircraft this is his account.
A Gruesome Discovery
A Gruesome Discovery – An Article by Archie Pennie
(This was taken from an old photocopy)
The Grampians are the highest Mountains in Britain and cover a large area of Central and North Scotland. The Cairngorms are the most northerly of the hills of the main range. As a youth I spent many happy and carefree weeks camping and climbing in the Cairngorms, which were within some 40 miles of my home town Elgin.
I was home on leave for a few days from the RAF and on the 25 August a long-time companion and fellow climber and I set out to climb two of our favourite peaks, namely Ben Avon and Ben a Bhuird. We were approaching the summit of Ben Avon when we noticed an increasing amount of aircraft debris. It was parts of a fuselage, plywood, metal and fabric painted yellow and obviously from a training aircraft. At first I did not think much about it for the Cairngorms during the war had seen a considerable number of crashes from the many airfields in the North of Scotland. Frankly I was surprised that the wreckage which increased in volume as we climbed higher had not been cleaned up and removed.
About 100 feet from the summit we came across the site of the crash. Split wide open were the remains of an Oxford in many, many pieces. I quickened my step hoping there would be some dashboard treasures that could be salvaged as souvenirs. However, what I found stopped me in my tracks for there were several bodies in and around the debris. My first thoughts were that I might know some of the victims. This worry was put to rest , for right away I noticed that they were all members of the Czech Air Force. Their bodies on first inspection appeared to be in a reasonable physical shape. Their faces were grey, wrinkled and ashen but their hair was blown gently in the wind, always strong at these altitudes. Ben Avon is 3843 feet above sea level.
The cockpit was reasonably intact and there were bodies in the two seats, both with serious head injuries. There was one body inside the remains of the fuselage and two outside. The one inside obviously had survived the crash, for he had taken some of the clothing off the others, like a couple of greatcoat and memorial Ben A Bhuird to keep himself warm. He had sustained severe injuries, for a blood stained towel was wrapped round his head. I remember I was very surprised to see a unopened bottle of Gordon’s gin lying outside the wreck. I made a note of the number of the plane, it was PH404. The number always stuck in my mind because of the well – known chemical “Ph” phrase from ny student days.
We left everything as we found it and pressed on to the summit of the sister peak of the range, namely Ben a Bhuird where we ate our picnic lunch. Mind you, I did not have much of an appetite after that discovery. Tomintoul, the highest village in Scotland was on our route home. We found the local Police Sergeant in the Hotel bars and to my surprise and dismay he pooh – poohed our story saying the Police knew of every crash in the Cairngorms and that were obviously mistaken.
We drove home to Elgin and reported our discovery to the local Police, who took down all the details and immediately passed them on to the nearest RAF Station. What I learned later was that the Oxford PH404 had set out from 21 PAFU Dalcross on the 10 th of January 1945. I presumed that the crew were on leave and that they were heading for the bright lights of the South, hence the bottle of gin. The aircraft had officially been listed as missing in bad weather and presumed ditched in the Moray Firth. Its real fate was not known until we found it on the summit of Ben Avon some seven months later.
In that part of the Cairngorms the winter snows can be very deep and can last on the top reaches of the hills well into the summer. Heavy snow storms probably lead to the crash but no doubt also covered the wreckage with a white and cold blanket for several months. This would in some way account for the relative good shape of the bodies when we found them.
I have never returned to the site, but strange to say I caught up with the crash at RAF Dyce when I was posted their prior to my demob. In the course of conversation with the Station CO on my arrival, my interest in mountaineering arose and I told him about finding PH404. He said the Mountain Rescue Team from Dyce had the task of cleaning up the site and right there and then he appointed me Mountain Rescue Officer.
My days with the unit were carefree and enjoyable. We had carte blanche to go wherever we decided for exercise and I had little or no Station Responsibilities. As we pursued our outdoor exercises in the remote area of Aberdeenshire we could always be sure of picking up a few dozen eggs – real eggs not the powdered variety served in the mess. They were greatly appreciated and enjoyed at breakfast time. To ensure my precious eggs did not go astray, I wrote my name clearly on each one!
Note – This is a powerful story of a tragic event and it is wonderful to have Archie’s words on this day on the hills and its “Gruesome Discovery” I know a little how Archie must have felt being to many real aircraft crashes in my time with RAF Mountain Rescue.
If anyone knows of Archie and he is still around I love to meet him or speak to his relatives.
This is from Dave Earl – Interesting article Dave. I`ve never been to the Oxford site but am familiar with the circumstances of the crash. Years later Jan Vella`s watch was found at the crash site and returned to the family.
I looked for Archie Pennie for you on the internet, but sad news I`m afraid. Looks like he passed away in 2013 in Canada. Here is his obituary:http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/ottawacitizen/obituary.aspx?pid=167134932
A bit more – The men who unwittingly found the aircraft were Dr James Bain, a Headteacher in Science in Elgin, and Flight Lieutenant Archie Pennie a local from Elgin who was in the RAF but who was at the time taking a few days leave at his mothers in Elgin. Long-time friends and both keen hill walkers, they had decided to spend their Sunday climbing two mountains in the Cairngorms, namely Beinn a Bhuird (3924 ft / 1196 m) and neighbouring Ben Avon (3843 ft / 1171 m).
They set out at mid-morning from Inchrory, and on approaching the summit of Beinn a Bhuird they found some aircraft debris and soon afterwards part of a wing. Finally, they discovered the remains of the wreck of the Oxford PH404, and alarmingly the bodies of five airmen.
One can only imagine the horror of that awful find high in the Cairngorms at the end of the war but at least the families would have the knowledge that their loved ones had been located and were no longer missing! There is still plenty of wreckage on the mountain and I wonder how many know the tragic story! Cairngorm Memorial Project
Memorial plaque placed at PH404 crashsite
On Sunday 18th September 2005, a granite memorial plaque was unveiled, and a service of dedication was held, at the location on Beinn a’ Bhuird where Oxford PH404 crashed in January 1945 killing all onboard.
The instigator behind this memorial was Squadron Leader Sandy Reid, RAFVR Rtd, who is Chairman of Aberdeen and North East Scotland Wing of the Air Training Corps.