The day a bomber crash landed in Craiglockhart

IT was just before noon, on a fairly normal Monday in an otherwise ordinary yet smart part of town, where the street of neat bungalows and their equally neat little gardens must have seemed - until then - relatively unscathed by the horrors of war.

• The Wellington's pilot, Thomas Lennox-French is buried on Corstorphine Hill, just a few miles away from the crash

Women were going about their daily household chores, a few men had wandered down to Craiglockhart's "Happy Valley" allotments to tend to their ground. All were quite probably counting the days until Christmas and then the dawn of a new year. It would soon be 1943, maybe war would end soon.

They heard it before they saw it. The loud drone of a plane's engine - too loud, not quite right, it made them stop what they were doing and raise their heads up to scan the sky.

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    And what they witnessed must have made a terrifying sight.

    Skimming the trees, a few dozen feet from the ground and heading straight towards the recently built bungalows and neat gardens of Craiglockhart View was the fearsome sight of Bomber Command's most trusted workhorse, the twin-engined Vickers-built Wellington, more than 60ft long with a wingspan of nearly 90ft, designed to be armed with up to four machines guns and capable of carrying a 4000lb bomb.

    On board, her five frantic crew were embroiled in a desperate battle. Just over an hour into their secret test flight from RAF Defford in Worcester, the Wellington had experienced a critical and ultimately fatal equipment failure.

    They surely knew they were in the final, terrifying moments of their lives. But as the neat rows of Craiglockhart View bungalows loomed before their eyes, they would also know that it wasn't only their lives at stake.

    Next year will mark the 70th anniversary of one of Edinburgh's worst plane disasters, when five brave fliers on board the Wellington bomber perished just feet away from the bungalows of Craiglockhart View.

    Incredibly - in a feat of flying skill under enormous pressure that almost defies belief - the 24-year-old pilot drew on all his abilities to bring the plane down in the heart of a tightly packed community without a single further loss of life.

    All on board perished: five young men, one of them married, one an American seconded to join the RAF test flight and one whose remains now lie just a few miles away in a grave on Corstorphine Hill beneath a stone that, in a poignant indication of the sacrifice made by some families, also pays tribute to his pilot brother lost just a few months before him.

    Hard to believe now, but the demise of the Wellington bomber on that fateful day in December, 1942, barely made headline news at the time. Details of the drama were sandwiched between stories about a New Year rugby match, a fire at a Hermand Street garage and the ongoing work to compile a Scottish National Dictionary, on page four of the Evening News. That's in sharp contrast to today, when the RAF is consistently making headlines for completely different reasons as cutbacks throw doubts over the future of Scottish air bases and trainee pilots face being made redundant.

    Now, as the 70th anniversary of the accident looms, one local councillor believes the time is right to honour the immense courage of those unfortunate souls on board.

    Fountainbridge/Craiglockhart Councillor Gordon Buchan began pushing for a memorial to the doomed airmen after he heard of how some locals in the area had dug up bits of the aircraft in their gardens.

    "People spoke of finding little bits of aluminium, and when I asked around some people said they saw it as children.

    "It seems that the pilot was trying to avoid the houses and land on the fields at Meggetland.

    "If this had happened these days, there would certainly be a memorial of some description."

    Because this was a secret test flight - and the middle of a war - the background to the accident remains sketchy. What is known is that the crew of five was flying from RAF Defford, the recently opened base for the Telecommunications Flying Unit, later known as the Radar Research Flying Unit. It operated flight trials, testing new equipment devised by civilian scientists designed to give Britain and her allies the edge in the skies over Europe. This was where radar systems which would revolutionise the capability of Allied aircraft were put to the test and where Air to Surface Vessel radar developed to spot German U-boats was devised - a crucial element in the Battle of the Atlantic.

    Radar enabled accurate navigation and target identification - perhaps it was this that the Wellington Mk III crew were secretly testing?

    The bomber was around an hour into its journey when it suffered some kind of equipment failure and was instructed to return to base. But as the crew wrestled with that problem, the port engine failed.

    The flight stuttered over Turnhouse, went into a stall and began its plunge to the ground in the skies above Craiglockhart. The brief reports of the accident paint a vivid and distressing picture of the plane crew's final moments.

    One unnamed resident said at the time: "I head the aeroplane and from the noise I judged it must have been very low. Then I saw it just skimming some trees. It seemed to be in trouble and I was horrified because it seemed utterly impossible to avoid crashing into the houses in its path.

    "It went very low and I heard a crash. I ran down a side road towards the canal then there was a burst of flame and when I got in view of the allotments, the plane seemed to be awfully close to one of the houses.

    "Ammunition was banging and popping and it was hopeless to attempt to get near the crash"

    In fact, the plane had come down in the back garden of one of Craiglockhart View's bungalows, just feet from the back door and the startled middle-aged woman inside.

    One man tending his allotment nearby had an equally narrow escape - rooted to the spot just 30 yards from the scene, he was showered by debris which fell all around him yet somehow avoided hitting him.

    The crackle of exploding bullets, the flames and the noise sent residents scurrying to air raid shelters, many thinking the streets were under attack from a machine-gunning raider.

    But those who had witnessed the drama were in little doubt that the pilot, Thomas Lennox-French, had skilfully manoeuvred his stricken plane in its dying moments and against all odds intentionally brought it down just short of Craiglockhart View's homes. The only damage was some broken windows and a small fire on the roof of the bungalow which, reported newspapers at the time, charred some wallpaper in the back room. The female occupant of the house was said to be slightly shocked but uninjured.

    The outcome for the young crewmen on board was a dreadful death. Even if anyone had survived the impact of the crash, the intensity of the flames and the exploding ammunition meant there was no hope of rescue. The crewmen's deaths were registered, one after the other, with the Morningside registrar on Hogmanay, 1942: Flying Officer Lennox-French, 24, Warrant Officer Andrew McFadyen, 26, Flight Sergeant Charles McGregor, 28 and the only married man among them, John Harper, 29, a Flight Sergeant.

    Missing from the roll is 1st Lieutenant S Kaulis, of the US Army Signal Corps, also on board the flight.

    It's not too late to mark their sacrifice, insists Cllr Buchan. "We should remember what people did during the war," he stresses.

    "We are trying to get a grant from the Neighbourhood Partnership and looking for somewhere appropriate to locate a fitting memorial."

    "It's important the people are aware of what other generations have sacrificed. It's important to show respect."

    POIGNANT STORY

    PRECIOUS little is known of the crew who perished when their Mk III Wellington bomber dive-bombed into gardens in Craiglockhart View.

    But a small section of Corstorphine Hill cemetery holds a poignant memorial to one.

    The Commonwealth War Graves Commission plot in the south-east corner contains 35 Second World War graves and it's here, in section B, grave 558, that the remains of Wellington bomber pilot Thomas Lennox-French lie. His grey stone tells its own remarkably poignant story, for as well as marking the details of his untimely demise, it also commemorates that of his older brother, Robert.

    Sidney and Euphemia French's two sons were both doomed to perish while serving in the RAF.

    Robert, Thomas' older brother by four years, was named in the London Gazette of April 9, 1940, one of several dozen RAF volunteer reserve personnel to become "pilot officers on probation".

    But just weeks later, at the end of May, his name appears in The Scotsman as one of many reported missing. By February 1941, he was officially named as missing, presumed killed in action.