Remembrance Week – The Oxford aircraft on Ben A Bhuird Cairngorms missing for 7 months and the tale of its find and how a watch found at the site in 1973 returned to the family.

Ben Avon (1171m, Munro 17)
Beinn a’Bhuird (1197m, Munro 11)

Ben a’ Bhuird is amongst the remotes of the Munros in Scotland and amongst the granite tors of Stob an t-Sluichd there is the remains of an aircraft crash. Beinn a’Bhuird has huge cliffs with a summit on a vast plateau, with a tiny cairn resting there requiring navigation skills in mist. This is a tricky mountain in bad weather. Some large parts of the aircraft remain at the site, including the two engines. This is part of the story.

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. Doctor James Bain and F/Lt Archie Pennie.

The Oxford Memorial.
   
   

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.

In 2005 memorial plaque to the aircrew who were killed in the crash was affixed to a boulder near the site by the local Air Training Core a lovely tribute.

https://heavywhalley.files.wordpress.com/2019/09/memorial-ben-a-bhuird.jpg?w=358
The Oxford

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.

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 mother’s 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 located the wreck of the Oxford PH404, and alarmingly the bodies of five airmen.

https://heavywhalley.files.wordpress.com/2019/09/enignes-oxford-2014-babuird.jpg?w=1000
Cheetah Engines

Oxford Ben a’ Bhuird engines.

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.

Many years later in 1973  Flying Officer s Jan’s Vellas  watch, which was so lovingly presented to him by the civilian workers in Silloth, had begun a new chapter in the Jan Vella story.

In 1973, 28 years after Jan and his colleagues were killed on the Scottish mountains, a young hillwalker named Philip Kammer, came across the crash site while climbing Beinn a’Bhuird. Philip caught sight of the debris and stopped to rest.  While shifting the gravel about with his foot, he suddenly uncovered the remains of the gold watch that had been presented to Jan by the civilian workers at Silloth 22MU.O. After being buried on the mountain for almost three decades, the inscription was still clear

“Presented to F/Sgt Pilot J. Vella by the workers of 22 MU RAF Station Silloth Cumbd, 24th December 1942.”

Philip tried to trace the owner of the watch through the Royal Air Force, but they were unable to help at the time and he placed it in a drawer, where it lay for several more decades, almost forgotten.

Linzee Druce, on her webpage, explains that in 2002, Czech researcher, Pavel Vancata,  asked if someone from the area around Tain could visit the crash site of Oxford PH404 to take some photographs of the crash site.  Linzee, who had been writing about her grandfather, Archie, who was killed in 1942 while flying in the RAF, offered to climb Beinn a’Bhuird and take some photographs.  The climb is described on her webpage, where there are a number of photographs.

This watch was returned to the family what a lovely thought all those years later.

There is a second wreck site on this mountain it was just off the plateau, about 1km south of the South Top of Beinn a’Bhuird on a ridge called Bruach Mhor, where a Vickers Wellington crashed in October 1940. This site is particularly impressive as the aircraft made a crater when it crashed which is still visible as a scar on the side of the mountain although most of the aircraft wreckage has now been removed.

Every crash site has its story and these are incredible and must never be lost. “Lest we forget.”

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Jim Hughes in Scotland, Pavel Vancata in the Czech Republic and Archie Pennie in Canada. http://www.edwardboyle.com/blog/?p=45

About heavywhalley.MBE

After dinner speaker Lecturer and Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer and loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Aircraft incidents, Mountain rescue, mountain safety, Mountaineering, Munros, Weather, Well being. Bookmark the permalink.

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