Remembrance Week – The Beinn Eighe Lancaster. March 1951.

IN THE MEMORY OF THE CREW OF LANCASTER TX264

A painting of the Corrie in Beinn Eighe by Pat Donovan

Its 70 years since the crash of the Lancaster on Beinn Eighe. I was told of the story often and visited the site on many occasions. It is a situated in the most incredibly wild corrie on Beinn Eighe in the North West of Scotland. It was a huge learning curb for the RAF Mountain Rescue Teams, that involved many changes that influenced most of Mountain Rescue in the UK. For many years I have visited the site spoke to a few of the RAF Kinloss team who were involved. I have taken relatives and family annually, filmed up on the mountain this place means a lot to me. Due to Covid I could not visit but will did after and for as long as my battered body allows.

This particular crash had a considerable influence in changes to RAF Mountain Rescue.

The crash aroused and held the attention, even curious with that desire to know the true facts, rumours do circulate by ‘word of mouth’ at happenings like this one and for some considerable time.  The lines of communication in the early fifties were still a newspaper, local or national, or the ‘Wireless’, very few people had a telephone and Television was in its infancy.  ‘News of this kind was news’, where to listen or read would create an ‘image’ in the mind.  Headlines in the ‘Press and Journal’, Aberdeen, were – “Search of hills for missing Lancaster, Missing plane sought in Sutherland, Aberdeen.  Pilot on missing plane, where the missing bomber crashed, Plane wreck not yet reached.”

It is a sad story as anything of this nature is, particularly for the members of the Rescue Teams but does indicate without doubt ‘special significance’ or ‘emphasis’ on Mountain Rescue, with the extreme difficulties, along with mistakes, these teams faced in that day and age.  A detailed description of particular places and local features from Maps had to be the main concern and fully understood.

Beinn Eighe is a name, aggregated, for Peaks similar to each other or bearing a definite relation to the one preceding it. This mountain in winter is one of Scotland’s great peaks and accessible only by mountaineers. The gully where the main wreckage is a loose tricky ascent in summer and should only be attempted by mountaineers.

The following narrative relates the events of the Beinn Eighe crash on the 14th March 1951 until the 27th August, a very harrowing rescue mission undertaken by the RAF MRS, and civil MRS, despite being called out in all weathers of extreme severity and inhospitable terrain, are all volunteers.

Kinloss MRT at the site of the accident in 1951 photo Joss Gosling.

On the 13th March 1951 at 1804hrs, Lancaster TX264 call sign ‘D’ Dog of 120 Squadron, converted for reconnaissance purposes, took off from RAF Kinloss, a ‘fog free’ climate of the Moray Coast between Lossiemouth and Nairn.  The pilot was Flt Lt Harry Reid DFC, 24 years of age, a total crew of eight with a Second Pilot, Navigator, Flight Engineer and four signallers.  It was a ‘Navigational Exercise’ via Cape Wrath, the very name a ‘mingled feeling of anger and disdain’ this being the extreme north-west point of the Scottish mainland and named after the Viking word ’hvraf’ meaning a turning point where the Vikings turned south to the Hebrides in the ninth century.  The cape is isolated and its heathland untamed.  Around midnight the aircrew flew over the Lighthouse.

The last position, sent by radio was at 0127hrs 60 miles north of Cape, Wrath this was the very last message from the aircraft.

At 0200hrs a boy living in Torridon, on the east end of Upper Loch Torridon, looking through his bedroom window saw a red flash in the distance, but didn’t think any more about it until he saw the headlines in a Newspaper, ‘Missing Plane Sought’ and this was two days after the aircraft went missing.  He mentioned it to the local Postmaster who immediately contacted RAF Kinloss.  Similar reports had been received.  An Airspeed Oxford was sent to search which concentrated on Beinn Eighe.  The wreck of the Lancaster was sighted on the 16th March.

On the 17th March the Kinloss RAF Rescue Team arrived in the area and on the 18th approached Beinn Eighe from the North and into Coire Mhic Fhearchair from Loch Maree. Wreckage from the Lancaster was found after arriving at the foot of the Triple Buttresses and lying in the ‘corrie’. A ‘corrie’ is a semi-circular hollow or a circular space in a mountain side. This particular wreckage had fallen, the bulk of the aircraft being much higher with the crew inside. At the foot of the Western Buttress were the port wing, undercarriage, two engines and various cowlings. On the following day the starboard wing and some other parts had been blown down by the strong winds, but still no fuselage.

1951 simple gear photo Joss Gosling

The next day another party managed to climb higher and spotted the fuselage, burnt out, but couldn’t reach it.  Further attempts were abandoned for the time being.

The weather over the whole period of the search was ‘exceptionally’ severe for the time of the year. It was intensely cold with constant snow showers and high winds and temperatures well below freezing at night.

The North of Scotland is much closer, in fact ‘considerably’ closer to the Arctic Circle than North Wales. Conditions in winter can be more ‘Alpine’, they may be ‘Artic’. Between Beinn Eighe and Sail Mhor the weather was absolutely ‘atrocious’, with the wind coming over the ridge with such force it was virtually impossible to move, and the snow anything from one to four feet. The gully from the corrie was a solid sheet of ice.

It was certain that no one was alive in the wreckage, and in the opinion of the Officer in Charge of the team the wreckage was so situated it couldn’t be reached by any members of the public unless they were ‘highly experienced climbers’.

The CO at RAF Kinloss, in the meantime, had offers from the Moray Mountaineering Club, a Doctor John Brewster with this Club having considerable climbing experience in winter.  This offer and another suggestion for help from the Scottish Mountaineering Club, holding their Easter meeting at Achnashellach to the South of Beinn Eighe were both declined.

On the 24th March Dr Brewster informed the CO that men from the Moray Club were going to Beinn Eighe on their own initiative, the RAF team were ordered to return to base.  Five men from the Club arrived at Torridon and attempted to reach the aircraft but of no avail and didn’t make a further attempt.

Another attempt was made by a Royal Marine Commando, Captain Mike Banks and Angus Eskine. After a really difficult time with the weather, particularly gusts of wind that brought the human body on all fours, these two reached the main bulk of the aircraft.

Eventually all unauthorised visits were stopped and the RAF Team once again returned to Beinn Eighe and this time reached the wreckage.  It was most difficult and dangerous work recovering the bodies; three were actually in the fuselage.  The last body was not recovered until 27th August.

Rumours, idle gossip as always, flourished that the crew had survived the impact but rescue being too late.  It was obvious to the rescuers, and verified by the medical authorities that death was ‘instantaneous’ in all cases.

After the last body was recovered the team sent the large pieces of the fuselage and wing hurtling down the gulley and later came to be known as ‘Fuselage Gulley’, much of it remains to this day.

Five of the crew of Lancaster TX264 are buried in Kinloss Cemetery, set in the peaceful grounds of the ruined Abbey, they are Sgt W D Beck, Sgt J W Bell, Sgt R Clucas, Flt Sgt J Naismith and Flt Lt P Tennison, in a section reserved for many aircrew who have died flying from RAF Kinloss over the years.

EPILOGUE

On the 28th August 1985, a group of Officer Cadets led by Sergeant Jim Morning and Sgt Tom Jones were airlifted on to the summit of Beinn Eighe by a Sea King Helicopter from 202 Squadron.

One of ‘D’ Dog’s propellers was recovered and put into a lifting net and taken by the helicopter to the road, and then to RAF Kinloss.  The twisted three-blade propeller now stands outside the wooden Mountain Rescue Section building as a permanent memorial to ‘D’ Dog’s crew. This memorial has been replaced and is at RAF Lossiemouth now where the current RAF Rescue Team is operational.

The gully where the aircraft crashed is called by mountaineers Fuselage Gully and one of the propellers has to be climbed over and is used by climbers as a belay in winter.

THE CREW:- PILOT Flt Lt H S ReidSECOND PILOTSgt R ClucasNAVIGATORFg Off R StrongSIGNALLERFlt Lt P TennisonFLIGHT ENGINEERFlt Sgt G FarquharSIGNALLERSFlt Sgt J Naismith Sgt W D Beck Sgt J W Bell

The standard of a Mountain Rescue Team, of even the rescue service as a whole fluctuates considerably and, sometimes, alarmingly.  Several factors contribute to this.

For many years there was ‘National Service’ eighteen months to two years. A Man would be trained as a good mountaineer and when competent he would be lost to civilian life. Sometimes several members would be demobilised at the same time. Not only would it be imperative to find new volunteers but also men to train these novices, also the teams had to be commanded.

To say that they were sometimes led by incompetent men is unfair and misleading, but because there might be no experienced men available at one time, they were often led by Officers and NCO’s who would be incompetent to deal with emergencies, even those which might appear simple problems to the experienced mountaineer.Commando Climber by Mike Banks gives his view on the accident and the recovery.

Sometimes, and by chance, the fault might be corrected in time, for with tact a good team could teach an Officer his job (although no team will tolerate an inefficient NCO.  Either the NCO will go, or the good men and therefore, the standard of the team).  Tact was required on both sides and when life is in the balance, as it always is on rescues; feelings ran too close to the surface.  The fewer experienced mountaineers in a team, the more tolerant prevailed.  As the Service took shape and experienced men were in the majority the teams worked more smoothly, and with, as it were, less emotional involvement.

Teams at the start of 1951 were inadequately equipped and poorly trained, but where – in Wales – this knowledge was confined to the RAF, in Scotland the repercussions of the Beinn Eighe disaster were widely publicised.

About this time two Medical Officers Berkeley and Mason who had put forward suggestions for improved efficiency came to the notice of the Air Ministry. It was largely due to the efforts of these two Medical Officers that the organisation and training of the teams underwent a drastic change in the following year.

One of the team members who was on the crash and has a unique account of what happened Joss Gosling who lived in Fort William. He was only a young lad at the time and the crash affected him greatly. He took some great photos of the incident which show the simple gear that was available in 1951.

Joss was a competent mountaineer as he had climbed previously before his National Service. He had some unique photos and a diary of events of what happened. He explains how awesome it was to see the corrie for the first time and how he felt during the long days of searching and recovery. His description of the great Corrie being like a Cathedral always sticks in my mind and when the mist swirls in these great cliffs you can feel his words of that eventful time. He explained that the “ugly step” on the ridge caused problems as the kit they had was very poor but they did their best, he is a wonderful man and a great example to us all. Joss was at the crash site on the 50thanniversary in 2001 and speaks with great authority on this tragedy. The RAF Kinloss team put a small memorial on the propeller below the gully in 2001 in memory of those who died in this crash, “lest we forget”

I was very privileged to have my last weekend before I retired from the RAF in this area as a member of the RAF Kinloss mrt. This area due to its history is unique and I have spent many days enjoying these peaks. The “Torridon Trilogy” Beinn Eighe, Liathach and Beinn Alligin became test pieces for team training first in summer then in winter conditions. Many of the classic climbs in summer and winter were climbed by team members and a few epic callouts over the years. These hills have huge corries and alpine ridges where rescues have occurred mostly not reported by the National Press.

The local Torridon Team and the RAF MR have assisted climbers and walkers over the years. I have climbed Fuselage gully on many occasions with team members during my 37 years with the Mountain Rescue Service. In early Dec 2007 with two of the young, Kinloss Team members we had a special day. This was my last day with the RAF before I retired. It is a fairly simple climb by modern standards but I broke a crampon at the beginning and it made the day very interesting as we were being chased by a big storm as we descended. One crampon on the steep descent was thought provoking and I can only think of how the team in 1951 with their simple kit coped. I was brought up to respect the history of this majestic area and its people; there was no finer place to spend my last weekend than in this special place. On my retirement I spend a two great years with the Torridon MRT as a team member. Finally retired from Mountain Rescue it is a great privilege to return to and enjoy the beauty of this mountain, its ridges, corries and wild life.

Recently in 2009 two well known climbers were avalanched whilst descending from Fuselage gully and the wreckage stopped them being seriously injured as one of the climbers hit the propeller on his way down the gully. It made big news in the Press!

The abseil from the gully – Andrew Nisbet collection

In 2011 on the 60 th Anniversary of the Crash at the exact date a group of serving RAF MRT & Torridon MRT went up to crash site. The actual weather according to Joss Gosling who was on the actual search for the aircraft was very similar. We had thigh deep snow and the journey into the corrie took over 3 hours. BBC Radio Scotland accompanied us on the day and did a programme on the incident. We had a moving ceremony at the crash site, where we left a small wreath. The Stornoway Coastguard helicopter flew over the site as the weather came in making it a very moving day.    Joss now in his 80’s was interviewed by the BBC Scotland at the Hotel where the team had camped 60 years before.

What a story to tell and it still lives on and must never be forgotten.

Beinn Eighe

Unseen from the road, the majestic cliffs are hidden.

The long walk, views expanding as we climb.

Liathach brooding in the mist, is watching?

As usual we meet a family of deer

They have been there for many years

What have they seen?

Great cliffs sculptured by time and nature.

Wreckage, glinting in the sun.

Memories!

This is a wonderful poignant place.

Only too those who look and see.

How mighty is this corrie? 

This Torridon giant Beinn Eighe.

Recently in 2013/2014 and 2016/17/18/19  a relative of the incident Geoff Strong a nephew of Fg Off Robert Strong who was killed in the crash asked to visit the crash site. He lives down South and has now three times made the pilgrimage with myself and friends to the great Corrie. This place even after all these years after the 1951 crash mean so much to many.

People ask why do I visit these places?

“Just speak to Geoff and then look in Joss eyes who was there when he tells his story of a young lad in 1951.” He never forgot what happend here, yet despite the horror they saw this place brought him back again and again to remember the crew who died.

RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue have now been disbanded and there place taken by RAF Lossiemouth MRT. The memorial has been moved from Kinloss to Lossiemouth and is looking great well done all concerned,

 I headed up again this May 2109 with Geoff and this time Heather Joss’s daughter to visit the site and may be go over the tops with Heather. Joss is now in his late 80’s and sadly gone. I took  his daughter is going up to see a place that means so much to him. It was great to see that the RAF MR were up the gully this week March 2017 and the tradition lives on as do the teams.

In May 2018 I was up again at the crash site with Geoff and Heather, Ian and Andy Joss’s family. We had a new plaque to put on the propeller below the Triple Buttress. Unfortunately the old plaque was put on in 2001 to last and it will take a bit more time to replace it with the new slate one. Joss though not well came up and stayed in a local Hotel and had a meal with us after our wet day on the hill. Though Joss was not well he enjoyed the day and at the end his eyes were sparkling and we had a lovely day thanks to all those who organised it.

Some of the story is on this classic.

Sadly in November 2018 Joss passed away in Fort William surrounded by his loving family his memory will live on every time we visit Torridon and Beinn Eighe.

We did complete the replacement of the plaque on Sat May 11 th 2019 and the family were with us and Geoff Strong. It was a special day. The plaque is now in place many thanks for all the help of Lossiemouth MRT and Geoff Strong and Joss’s family for providing the new plaque.

Joss old boots make a final journey.

I visited the site after COVID it was long over due and still moving. I think of the trauma involved in 1951 and the difficulty removing the casualties from that area. There was no counselling then and it had a big effect on there lives.

A past visit

Take care of up in this area it’s good to see this tragedy is still not forgotten.

Dedicated to the crew and The late Joss Gossling.

The Marines from 45 commando make a visit to the crash site.

About heavywhalley.MBE

Mountain Rescue Specialist. Environmentalist. Spent 37 years with RAF Mountain Rescue and 3 years with a civilian Team . Still an active Mountaineer when body slows, loves the wild places.
This entry was posted in Aircraft incidents, Articles, Books, Friends, Gear, Mountain rescue, Mountaineering, People, Recomended books and Guides, Scottish winter climbing., SMC/SMT, Views Mountaineering, Weather, Well being, Wildlife. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Remembrance Week – The Beinn Eighe Lancaster. March 1951.

  1. Adrian says:

    It’s a long climb to the wreckage and, even on a sunny summer’s day it can be cold. To the north, from the hidden lochan, is one of the greatest views I’ve ever had the privilege to have seen, yet yards away catastrophe struck. It’s a sobreing thought.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Tony B says:

    Hi Heavy
    The first time I went to the crash site , 1967 , with John Hind , and he told me it was one of the first instances, in the Scottish Hills, that the term Hypothermia was used, where the pathology was able to suggest that some of the crew died as result of Hypothermia and not injuries received … if the crew could have been reached within 12 to 24 hours some of them may have survived….. cheers Tony

    Liked by 2 people

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