The quiet of the picturesque village of Ruscombe was shattered by the sound of a Wellington bomber crashing into the side of the valley 80 years ago this week. All five of the airmen aboard perished in the crash.
On January 29th, 1943, five Wellington bombers had taken off from Moreton-in-Marsh airfield on Operation Nickel, dropping leaflets on the heavily defended city of Nantes, the site of Atlantic submarine bases.
The crews were coming to the end of their bomber training and the exercise was intended to be a low-risk graduation flight. The crash happened at 11.04pm and the cause has never been established, but the crew may have been disorientated by the darkness, misjudged the height of the aircraft, had low fuel, or the aircraft may have previously sustained damage.
According to aviation historian Guy Ellis, who lives in Ruscombe, the plane was on a flight path heading toward Moreton Valence airfield near Gloucester which suggested they needed an emergency landing site. The Wellington had flown over Rodborough Fort and an eyewitness saw it fly past Whiteshill Church into the Ruscombe Valley.
The plane’s pilot was 23- year-old former bank teller and Canadian national, Sgt James Waldo McCausland. He joined the Canadian army in April 1941. Five months later he was discharged to join the Royal Canadian Airforce.
The other crew members were British airmen Sgt Percy Eric Farren, Navigator; Sgt George William Ayres, Wireless Operator/Air Gunner; Sgt Francis Charles William Palmer, Air Bomber, and Sgt Frank Arthur Morgan, Air Gunner.
Guy Ellis recorded statements from witnesses at the scene: “Ernie Watkins had not been in bed long in his Stone Cottage on Primrose Hill when he heard a commotion and shouting. He went to the window, he never slept with the black-out curtains closed. In the valley near the mill pond he saw flames and people running.
“He threw on his Home Guard trousers and coat and ran down to see what was happening. There were a number of villagers watching the fire burning in the centre of the aircraft, but no one ventured close to the scene.
“Howard Watkins, home on leave from the RAF, and Ernie saw that the tail had broken off the aircraft and they went down to see if they could rescue the gunner. They pulled the tail back from the rest of the wreckage but were driven away by a series of explosion and ‘stuff flying everywhere’. Before they moved away they realised that there was no one in the turret.”
Stroud Home Guard and Royal Air Force officers attended the scene. The next day US troops set up camp in the valley and over the next two weeks all air crew bodies were recovered the remains of the aircraft removed. Attempts to use farm horses to recover the wreckage proved unsuccessful, so tractors were brought in to pull the heavy parts of the wreckage out of the soft ground. This was no easy task and at times when dragging the front fuselage and engines out of the mud the heavy tractors were in danger of being dragged down with the wreckage.
Local reports have said that the plane crashed into the pond in the valley but in truth it hit the nearby slope. No traces of the aircraft remain, and the land has since been ploughed and reshaped.
The body of Sgt McCausland was only recovered on February 2nd, carried up to the farm on a sheep hurdle and then taken to the Aston Down Airfield mortuary. His funeral was held at 3pm on February 6th at Cirencester Cemetery, a long way from Tyne Valley Prince Edward Island, where he was born on September 9th, 1919.
Rebecca Charley, who lives at Ruscombe Farm, said: “There’s really very little, if anything of the aircraft left on site now, so it is just the memory that we have.
“The fact that we live here, and we are aware of a crash that’s happened in the Second World War, I think is very important. This makes it very poignant for us, but it also makes it very important for us to remember, but for other people to remember that as well and for that knowledge to be passed on.”
Historian Guy Ellis added: “Even the quiet Ruscombe Valley was touched by the brutality of war when these five courageous men lost their lives that night 80 years ago. It is important that they are remembered.”
In 1993 on the 50th anniversary of the incident the Gloucestershire Branch of the RAF Regiment Comrades Association placed a plaque in Ruscombe Chapel in memory of the crew. When the chapel was put up for sale the memorial was moved down to the mill pond near the public footpath where it stands today.
Stroud Aviation Historian Guy Ellis www.historyjournal.co.uk has written a detailed account of the incident: www.historyjournal.co.uk/home/wellington-down