The Lost Airmen of Cleeve Hill, Cheltenham.
HALIFAX BIII MZ311 of RAF 78 Squadron
Thank you for this opportunity to record the result of our research.
Friends of our (Australian) family recently moved to the Cheltenham area having purchased a home high on Cleeve Hill. Although in the 1970’s I had lived in the UK during Royal Navy service I did not visit this part of Gloucestershire.
I spent most of my professional life in military aviation. And like you I have family who served in the RAF during WW2. Now retired, I continue an interest in historic aviation particularly that from WW2. So when my friends told me of their new location the internet showed me around the hills and told me of the fascinating archaeology and made one brief mention of a wartime plane crash that reportedly had occurred on or close to the summit of Cleeve Hill. It was not the only crash but appears to be the most significant. Unusually there did not appear to be a comprehensive record of the event locally. Nor apparently, is there a marker on the hill which commemorates the loss of the crew and aircraft. The precise location of the crash is unknown. I decided to look closer into this event.
Research on-line in consultation with other enthusiastic amateurs revealed the following:
Halifax Mark III MZ311 (EY-M) of RAF 78 Squadron took off at 2036 on 25 August 1944 with 5 other aircraft from RAF Breighton to lay (Mark IV) mines off La Rochelle in a minefield codenamed Cinnamon. At approximately 0220 on 26 August while heading NNE returning to base, MZ311 crashed into Cleeve Hill near Cheltenham, Gloucestershire (Approximately 170 miles south of home base). At the time of the crash Cleeve Hill was covered in thick cloud. Although according to the quoted RAF source online this cloud was not part of an overcast in the local area.
One member of the local community (a member of St Mary’s Parish, Prestbury) stated that the aircraft had impacted the summit of Cleeve hill then crashed and exploded amongst gorse bushes between the Rising Sun Hotel and Cleeve Hill Golf Club. A second local stated that the crash had occurred in the old quarry area between the Rising Sun and Cleeve Hill Golf Club. A distinctive circular quarry (with many other quarries) is visible on Google Earth approximately midway between hotel and golf club and about 200 metres SE from B4631 road. There are clumps of gorse situated about 200 metres both to the NE and SW of the quarry. These are thought to be the features identified by community members who recalled (but did not witness-they appear to have been pre-teen youngsters at the time) the crash and saw the wreckage.
Photograph of Cleeve Hill above Rising Sun Hotel.
I have named the local people who saw the wreck “The Witnesses” One lady in particular from this group recalls details of the wreck including a bundle of “Window” which was a radar-defeating countermeasure made up of hundreds of strips of metallic foil. These were launched by hand from the aircraft to confuse enemy radar.
The Witnesses I believe are most interested to recall and record the crash and its victims.
No other report has confirmed that the aircraft struck the summit prior to crashing or that the aircraft exploded. The most obvious analysis was that aircraft appeared to have flown into the rising ground of the hill as it passed over the escarpment on its NNE heading to return to its home base at RAF Breighton approximately 170 miles distant. The RAF report of the post-crash inquiry does not provide an accurate position for the crash. Nor do they mention that the aircraft burnt or exploded on impact.
The recent discovery by a local aircraft modeller of a fragment confirmed to be from a Halifax outer wing rib alongside the 17th Fairway of Cleeve Hill Golf Club was fairly close to where we guessed the final resting place of the wreckage might be from that old 1945 image we found. However there may be other explanations as to why the fragment was at that location but I would risk a claim that it is close to the position of the aircraft’s arrival on Cleeve Hill. We are not certain that all the wreckage was removed from Cleeve Hill and may (I guess) have been buried on site. (Salvage may not have been so important at that late stage of the conflict.) I guess in time one of the expert Crash Archaeological groups that you have in UK will look for remnants of the crash and learn more.
Discussion of RAF Investigation
In late 2020 I was able to study both the RAF Forms 765 (Report on Flying Accident or Forced Landing Not Attributable to Enemy Action.) and 412 (which is the Court of Inquiry Report.) A gifted Cheltenham historian, found the completed forms on Ancestry.com. Both record that MZ311 approached the aircraft’s crash position from the north and not from the south on its intended track to return to RAF Breighton. This means that the aircraft must have passed at least some distance over the high terrain in the vicinity of Cleeve Hill summit and to the north before turning left or right to assume a southerly track over Cleeve hill plateau toward its impact point. Much of the terrain around the crash position of MZ 311 is higher than the elevation of the assumed crash position indicating that the aircraft may have been descending immediately before impact. This may seem contrary to the paragraph 10 of both the Form 765 and 412 which conclude the aircraft was flying level at impact. I propose that the aircraft may have almost recovered to level flight after its descent. It must have cleared the local village of Bishops Cleeve by a very small and most fortunate margin.
The report does not firmly conclude why the aircraft was heading in the southerly direction and at very low altitude. A full post-crash technical inspection of the aircraft appears not to have been completed. The assessment at Paragraph 10 of Form 765 is that at least three of the four engines appeared to be “running normally” though this conclusion apparently was not drawn from a detailed inspection of the engines and propellers.
Paragraph 8 of the Form 412 recorded flight controls “appeared normal”. Paragraph 10 of Form 412 records (on 10SEP44) the conclusions that at the time of the crash (given as 0214) the aircraft was serviceable and had sufficient fuel and from the Navigator’s log was heading for Pershore aerodrome. Though no intent to land at Pershore was recorded and it is likely to have been an intermediate point on the track to RAF Breighton. (Pershore is approximately 15 miles to the north of the crash position). The Form 412 records that because Pershore was covered in cloud “they seem to have been doing an erratic descent and crashed into high ground”.
Paragraph 10 of Form 765 recorded that according to his log the Navigator “seemed to know his position.”
On 30SEP44 Air Commodore H.V. Slatterly, Base Commander of RAF Breighton recorded his assessment in the Form 412 that it was “most unlikely” the aircraft was attempting to penetrate cloud without some reason which “may have been engine failure”. Though he concluded the absence of a distress signal made this possibility “seem unlikely”. He noted the possible significance of the Flight Engineer not having completed his log since 0058 (his log is normally completed every 30 minutes and also in the event there is a change in fuel management, power settings or anything else of engineering note).
The Commander of 4 Group, Air Vice Marshal C.R. Carr when signing off the report of the Court of Inquiry observed (21OCT44) that the aircraft fuel valve selection seen in the post-crash examination was problematic because it presented a risk of fuel starvation simultaneously in more than one engine because all engines were running from a single tank. He did not state the setting was causal and concluded the cause of the crash was “obscure.” As an aside, the post-crash position of fuel valve selectors connected by rod or cable are treated cautiously due to the possibility they may have been moved from their selected position by impact forces.
I note that the Court of Inquiry appears not to have considered the possibility of a temporary and/or partial loss of engine thrust due to fuel starvation or one of several other possible causes including battle damage perhaps unrealised by the crew. And that such an occurrence may have caused a descent and loss of altitude from which the aircraft was recovering when it impacted. The time covering onset and incipient recovery from the emergency may have been too brief and the attending accelerations too violent to provide for a written record or transmission of a distress call. The aircraft’s turn to the south may have been deliberate in order to track the aircraft away from high ground or could also have been a consequence of asymmetric engine thrust causing a turn.
The ambient wind was from the south but light and variable so not seen as a significant factor for the pilot. The aircraft’s TR1196 HF Radio was turned off thereby limiting the aircraft’s communication capability. A local witness has mentioned that the aircraft requested to land at a local airfield RAF Stoke Orchard. The origin and veracity of this recollection cannot be determined. There is no record of any landing request or of a distress call by MZ311 in RAF documentation. And I assume that the several local airfields would have been canvassed by RAF at the time to ascertain if such a transmission had been made.
Crew of MZ311 (alphabetical order)
Flying Officer Elton Eugene FREEMAN. RCAF (28223). Navigator. 29 YOA. Buried Brookwood Military Cemetery 43.E.6. Son of Eugene Ellis Freeman and Bada Christine Freeman of Fosterton, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Flying Officer John Alexander GLENN. RCAF (J/36021). Air Gunner. 19 YOA. Buried
Brookwood Military Cemetery 43.E.9. Son of Alexander and Nora Glenn, of Ferris, Ontario, Canada.
Pilot Officer Hugh Brannan HAMILTON. RCAF (J/89908). Air Gunner. 21 YOA. Buried
Brookwood Military Cemetery 43.E.8. Son of James and Janet Hamilton of North Battleford, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Sergeant Emmanuel Henry HARRIS. RAF Volunteer Reserve (1423759). Wireless Operator 20 YOA. Buried Blaenavon Cemetery Sec. B. Grave 794. Son of Samuel and Beatrice Harris of Blaenavon; Husband of Mary Selina Harris of Blaenavon.
Flight Lieutenant Charles Maurice HOWES. RCAF (J/25977). Pilot. 22 YOA. Buried
Brookwood Military Cemetery 43.G.1. Son of Charles and Bertha Howes, of Folkestone; Husband of Rosemary Howes.
Flight Sergeant John McARDLE. RAF Volunteer Reserve (1684019). Flight Engineer. 23 YOA. Buried Liverpool (Allerton) Cemetery Sec.8.Gen. Grave 709. Son of John and Adelaide McArdle of Liverpool; Husband of Jean Ella McArdle (Nee Winterbottom) of Aigburth, Liverpool.
Flying Officer George William McCARTNEY RCAF (J/28883) Air Bomber. Buried
Brookwood Military Cemetery 43.E.7. No age or NOK details found.
RAF 78 Squadron
78 Squadron RAF had members of many nationalities. Five of the crew of MZ311 were Canadian. And two were RAF. RAF Bomber Command lost 55,573 people during WW2. 10,250 of these were Canadian. The crew was flying their 25th operational sortie. At this time of WW2 although survival prospects while serving as aircrew in Bomber Command were slowly improving from the horrific attrition rates of months earlier the probability of survival was on average about 50 percent over a standard period of service usually taken to be 30 operational sorties. The required number of sorties may have been increased above 30 for that time of the war late in 1944.
78 Squadron completed 5120 sorties with Halifax and lost 158 aircraft which was a 3.1 % loss rate. The unit suffered more losses and a higher percentage of personnel/aircraft loss than any Halifax Squadron. 78 is believed to have dropped the greatest tonnage of bombs in 4 Group (approximately 16,900 tons).
I mention these fairly typical figures of achievement and attrition to remind us of the horrendous cost paid by Bomber Command as it sent out its youthful crews night after night.
The identification “Cinnamon” was the code name for the minefield laid by RN and RAF off the ports of La Rochelle and La Pallice to inhibit the passage of German U-boats to and from these important U-boat bases. Other minefields had comparable names. Submarine U-667 was sunk by a mine as it transited to La Pallice in the vicinity of the Cinnamon minefield on 26 August 1944, the same day that MZ311 was lost after laying mines in the same minefield. The submarine was lost with its entire crew of 45.
At that time of the war the RAF and RN were likely to have had good knowledge of U-667’s movements from the very capable signals intelligence (SIGINT) organisation developed during the previous 5 years. It is possible the minelaying operation which MZ311 and other aircraft of 78 Squadron took part in specifically targeted U-667 but there is no evidence for that conclusion. It is well known that U boats based in the Bay of Biscay were considered an unacceptable operational threat. The RAF therefore was devoting particular targeting attention to that area. The dangers of the Bay of Biscay had led U-boat crews to call it Totenallee or “Death Row”.
Photo of ELTON EUGENE FREEMAN – Submitted for the project, Operation Picture Me
Photo of JOHN ALEXANDER GLENN – Submitted for the project, Operation Picture Me
Photo of HUGH BRANNAN HAMILTON – Submitted for the project, Operation Picture Me
Photo of GEORGE WILLIAM MCCARTNEY – Submitted for the project, Operation Picture Me
Photo of CHARLES MAURICE HOWES – Submitted for the project, Operation Picture Me
These reproductions are a copy of the version available on the Veterans Affairs Canada website.
Photos of JOHN MCARDLE -
THE INTERNATIONAL BOMBER COMMAND CENTRE
IBCC Digital Archive
Example of a possible plaque design
for illustrative purposes only
The Manager of the Cleeve Common Trust (as is the case for others in this record I won’t mention his name for privacy reasons) has several personal theories about the location of the crash site. And his local knowledge is obviously far superior to my own. In time I hope that the Trust mounts the commemorative plaque in the correct position. And I hope that the beautiful plaque that you designed and offered to donate is used for the purpose. At least then the local community and visitors will be able to learn who the Lost Airmen of Cleeve Hill are. And their memory will not be lost like that of the “Unknown Knight” In the local St Michael and All Angels Church.
It seems appropriate to remember MZ311 and the aircraft’s gallant crew, their contribution to our freedom and their loss high at a lonely and enchanted spot of the Cotswolds.
All your operations were planned with great care and skill. They were executed in the face of desperate opposition and appalling hazards, they made a decisive contribution to Germany’s final defeat.
The conduct of the operations demonstrated the fiery gallant spirit which animated your aircrews, and the high sense of duty of all ranks under your command. I believe that the massive achievements of Bomber Command will long be remembered as an example of duty nobly done.”
-Winston S. Churchill
4 November 2021
1. Cleeve Common Trust. email@example.com
3. Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
4. The Bomber Command War Diaries by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt.
5. Local Cheltenham newspaper article: “Remembering the Wartime plane crash on Cleeve Hill” of 27 December 2017 vide www.gloucesterlive.co.uk
6. RAF Operations Record Book (ORB) for RAF 78 SQN 25/26 August 1944.
8. Blood Tears and Folly by Len Deighton. Pimlico Books.
9. RAF Form 765(C) Report on Flying Accident or Forced Landing Not Attributable to Enemy Action. Signed by Base Commander 1SEP44.
10. RAF Form 412 Proceedings of Court of Inquiry or Investigation. Signed by Group Commander 21OCT44.
11. Website: RAF Commands Forum www.rafcommand.com in particular Historian “78SqnHistory” and others who contributed to this research.
By Cris George
New South Wales