The Last Flight. Lost then Found
This great mountain along with Beinn Avon is one we climbed on a lot in summer and winter, I got to know it during 1973 when we completed a winter foray in February with the Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team. Teuch Brewer was training for an Arctic Expedition and we set of after work. He was a “man mountain” and it was a wild adventure navigating in wild weather and staying two nights out.
We carried a tent which meant huge bags and walked in at night after a long days work. We climbed 6 Munros that weekend heading back to Cairngorm for a lift home, it was a place I was to visit often. I then used this area a lot when I was posted to RAF Buchan on the North East Coast and formed a small mountaineering club. We got the offer of training with the new Sea Kings at Lossiemouth this was 1978 and we were dropped of on the summit and then did a long winter route. We got back to Invercauld just as the Kinloss Team were going to come out and look for us. It was -20 that night one of the party got frostbite and we did not realise how deep the snow was in the Glens. We were lucky it was a clear night with little wind but what a day. Over the years I rock climbed here there are Classic rock routes like Squareface and Mitre Ridge in the An Garbh Corrie of Ben a’ Bhuird. To climb on Squareface as the sun hits it is some experience after scrambling down a gully still holding snow in mid summer. These are days you never forget or the Wessex Helicopter offering you a lift home from the summit. In these days in summer we could drive onto the plateau ( not very environmentally friendly) and descend into the Corrie. Squareface was one of Tom Pateys hidden jewels first climbed in 1953 with J.m.Taylor.
We did winter lowers here what a situation and a few searches once unable to find the wagon in a white out. I was lucky to climb these these great routes often and meeting few folk but what a wonderful place to climb. In winter few venture but there are some incredible lines and climbs.
Even with a mountain Bike its a hard place to get to. On the plateau there is no shelter and the winds are fierce it can be a real battle getting home in winter. It was also the place of the longest Avalanche burial at the time where on Dec 1928 party of 4 avalanched on two fatalities and one found alive after a 22 hour burial. A Chance in a Million? Scottish Avalanches Bob Barton & Blyth Wright. Well worth a read.
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. Onboard 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.
|The hill walkers that||discovered the wreckage|
|Dr James Bain||F/L Archie Pennie|
The men who unwittingly found the aircraft were Dr James Bain, a teacher in Elgin, and Flight Lieutenant Archie Pennie who was in the RAF but who was at the time taking a few days leave at his of the wreck of the Oxford PH404, and alarmingly the bodies of five airmen.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
The cockpit and tail section were reasonably intact. The engines were relatively undamaged, perhaps because the aircraft had fallen on snow. The yellow paint work on the aircraft suggested to Archie Pennie that it had been a training aircraft. The bodies of two airmen were located in the cockpit, two others lay outside amongst the debris. The saddest discovery of all was that of the body of the fifth airman. It was found inside the remains of the fuselage and it was clear that he had initially survived the crash. He was wearing several layers of clothing that he must have removed from his dead crewmates in an effort to combat the cold. He appeared to have suffered a serious head injury and had made himself a make-shift bandage for his head wound using a towel.
It was clear to Dr Bain and Flt Lt Pennie that the crash had occurred some months previously owing to the condition of the bodies. They made a note of the aircrafts number and location and after descending the mountain went to Tomintoul and reported their discovery to the local police. They also reported the details to the local police in Elgin when they returned home.
The following day, Monday 20th August, a recovery team including Police Officers and members of the RAF Mountain Rescue Team from RAF Dyce made their way from Tomintoul towards Beinn a Bhuird to attempt a recovery of the airmen. Local assistance in locating the crash site was provided by Captain D McNiven, proprietor of the Richmond Arms in Tomintoul, and Mr William Stewart, a farmer from Clashnoir, Glenlivet.
A base for the recovery operation was set up near Inchrory. The Ambulance and transport wagons also waited at Inchrory as they were unable to travel any nearer the mountain due to the rough terrain.
By Monday night the recovery team on the mountain had removed the bodies from the wreckage and made efforts to prepare them for removal down the mountain. It was not possible to further progress with the recovery that night, and indeed some of the recovery team were in doubt as to whether it would be possible to remove the bodies down the mountain at all. They returned to the base near Inchrory to report on their difficulties and the NCO in charge of the party departed for RAF Dyce to inform them of the situation and to enquire about the possibility of burying the airmen on the mountain. However, the RAF authorities refused to permit a burial on the mountain and ordered that the bodies be brought down.
To assist in bringing the bodies down mules from an Indian regiment based at Braemar were transported by road to Inchrory. It took ten days to complete the recovery operation with the recovery team working in a very remote location on steep, uneven and boulder strewn ground.
The Mountain Rescue Team burnt the remains of the wreckage at the crash site to avoid it being mistaken for any other lost aircraft in the future. Only the engines and a few other small parts of the aircraft were not burnt. It was a gruelling operation for all the men involved.
The bodies of the five airmen recovered from Oxford PH404 were taken by road to an Aberdeen mortuary and placed in coffins. From here they were taken by train to Brookwood Military Cemetery near Woking in Surrey. They were buried there on September 3rd 1945 in the Czechoslovak section of the cemetery.
Acknowledgements: My thanks to Jim Hughes in Scotland, Pavel Vancata in the Czech Republic and Archie Pennie in Canada.