Defiant N1745 + Botha L6509, Blackpool

 27th August 1941

Last updated 10.11.2010

NOTE: Due to the nature of this incident and the considerable in-depth research we have carried out over the years, this page is, by necessity, longer than we would normally place on this site and to reduce download time, some thumbnail illustrations have been used which may be clicked on to view larger copies of the images and more detailed captions. As with our Freckleton disaster page, we felt it appropriate to include much of the original source material in the text, in order that readers might better understand the tragic sequence of events on that day in the summer of 1941.

256 Sqn Defiant

Type

Serial

Unit Base Duty Crew Passengers
Defiant

N1745 (JT-P)

No. 256 Squadron

Squires Gate Practice formation flying

2

-

Blackburn Botha

Type

Serial

Unit Base Duty Crew Passengers
Botha

L6509

No.3 SGR (School of General Reconnaissance)

Squires Gate

Test flight

2

1

On numerous occasions the author has been questioned by local people, concerning the circumstances surrounding the infamous mid-air collision and subsequent crash of one of the aircraft on Blackpool's Central Railway Station in August 1941. This incident had the dubious distinction of being seen by thousands of shocked witnesses, who come forward even to this day with tales of what they saw. Perhaps most dramatically, the last moments of one of the stricken aircraft were captured forever on camera by an unknown photographer, only to be censored by the wartime censor, filed away and then forgotten. Many years later the prints were to resurface in a folder simply marked "War" in a local newspaper office library. This account covers in detail the events of that tragic day.

Probably few of the thousands of summer holidaymakers and day trippers who daily crowd on to Blackpool's Golden Mile or try their luck on the gaming machines in the "Coral Island" amusement complex, realise that they are standing on the site of what was once the town's busy Central Railway Station. Here, every summer, thousands arrived for their annual holiday, making their way to boarding houses and hotels throughout the town. It was the same even during the austere wartime years when the annual influx was mainly war workers coming to Blackpool on rest schemes with their families. August 1941 brought a typical rush of travelers, but for an unfortunate few there would be tragedy, as Central Station became the scene of Blackpool's worst wartime disaster.

Blackpool in wartime was also home to thousands of servicemen. It was the largest RAF training centre, headquarters of the Polish Air Force and home to hundreds of soldiers, sailors and airmen displaced from the occupied countries of Europe. On the southern boundary of the town, at Squires Gate, a busy airfield housed No.3 School of General Reconnaissance, which, for a time, operated the highly unpopular with its crews, twin-engined Blackburn Botha to train aircrew for Coastal Command. In 1941, 256 Squadron were also at Squires Gate with Boulton Paul Defiant night fighters, flying in defence of the cities and ports of Northwest England.

On the afternoon of Wednesday 27 August 1941 four 256 Squadron Defiants took off from Squires Gate to practice formation flying. Their flight commander (whose name is unrecorded) was recalled back to the aerodrome, and so he handed his flight over to his No. 2, a Sergeant Leonard (RAF). Just after 3.00 p.m. the three Defiants were flying over the sea, a little West of Blackpool Tower, at an altitude of about 2,000 feet and on a North Easterly heading. Some 500 feet below them, flying in a North Westerly direction, was one of 3 SGR's Bothas, L6509. Eyewitnesses on the ground saw the Defiants break formation and, one by one, dive towards the Botha as if making a mock attack and then level out afterwards. Two of the fighters completed the manoeuvre successfully, but as the third Defiant began its dive the Botha suddenly banked to the right and the pilot of the diving fighter, Defiant N1745, JT-P, struck the Botha amidships, cutting it in two and itself losing a wing.

The tragic sequence of photographs show the Botha having lost its tail, most of one wing and at least one engine, spiraling down out of control towards the town and then the cloud of black smoke and debris marking its fiery impact. (Click on each for a larger image).

The now tail-less Botha stalled and immediately went into a spiral dive, its descent being watched by hundreds-possibly thousands-of shocked civilians and servicemen on Blackpool's seafront. Seconds later it crashed through the roof of the entrance hall of the Central Station, showering aviation fuel over the platforms below, which erupted into a massive conflagration. A huge cloud of thick black smoke quickly rose to a height of several hundred feet over the centre of Blackpool.

Percy Featherstone was an eight-year old boy on holiday with his parents and they were just leaving the station ticket office, he recalls: "There was some commotion and somebody shouted there are planes fighting overhead, my dad who was a coal miner and also part time fireman in the A.F.S. said stay there and take cover, he then went outside to see what was happening. At that point there was a terrific crash and the sound of tearing metal, the aircraft hit the floor of the station about four yards behind us, and near to the booking office. We were showered with aviation fuel and everywhere around us was a mass of flames. At that point my young mind was thinking that I would not see my young friends at home anymore. My mother who had a long coat on at the time due to the chilly day, held me close to her side as we ran towards where we thought the entrance was. I saw a woman in a flimsy dress engulfed in flames running, then she fell, I don't know what became of her. Had it not been for mum's big coat I don't think we would have made it. My dad who was outside by then heard the explosion and turned around to see the station entrance a mass of flames, he was on his way in to find us just as we were emerging from the fire. He picked up a small injured baby from a pram on his way out. The blast of the explosion had blown the skin from the back of my hands and as I had short trousers on at the time, my legs were burned from the upper legs down to the ankles. My mother's handbag was blown open and everything went; ID card, money, ration books, and theatre tickets. We were taken to a nearby chemists where they applied first aid to us until the ambulances arrived."

The scene in the station was one of total devastation: several people were killed instantly as the Botha crashed through the roof, some were very badly burnt and of these a number would subsequently die of their injuries, others managed to escape into the street with their clothes on fire. Fire engines and ambulances raced to the scene. Hundreds of inquisitive holidaymakers flocked to the promenade blocking roads and hampering the rescue operation. Eventually a cordon was thrown around the station and the area cleared. The fire brigade set about tackling the blaze and casualties were evacuated to Blackpool's Victoria Hospital. A shower of wreckage from the Botha fell over a wide area of the centre of the town. An engine hurtled down in Hornby Road embedding itself at least a foot deep into the tarmac whilst elsewhere a wing came down in a street. People ran in panic looking for shelter from what they thought was an air raid.

No. 97 Reads Avenue

Blackpool Central Station, with the booking hall in the foreground

No. 97 Reads Avenue, wrecked by the falling Defiant

Scene inside the main entrance hall of the station

The tail of the Botha fell into the sea, missing the railings on the promenade by only a few feet. Two of its crew, Pilot Officers 'Pinder' Horne and Jack Sale, fell to their deaths in the sea. The third occupant of the aircraft, Frank Longson, a civilian aircraft fitter employed by Brooklands Aviation, came down with the main fuselage of the aircraft on the station. The stricken Defiant came down on a private house about a half-mile inland from the station - No. 97 Reads Avenue, which was the home of Mr & Mrs Lionel Franceys, a prominent local couple. Mrs Franceys (M.B.E., J.P),was writing a letter in the dining room whilst, across the hall, her husband was sitting in the lounge. The impact of the crashing fighter literally tore the substantial Victorian house apart but remarkably the couple emerged unscathed. Not so lucky were the two 256 Squadron aircrew aboard the Defiant who both died.

There were several reported accounts of narrow escapes:

People rushed from all directions to where the Defiant had fallen: Two soldiers, Lance Corporals Ancram and Staley, worked frantically to reach the trapped pilot, Sgt. Lincoln J. Ellmers, despite the ever present danger of the structure collapsing further. The fighter's air gunner, Sgt. Noel A. J. Clifford, had tried to bale out of the stricken aircraft, but he was too low for his parachute to open properly - it was Clifford's body that witnesses had seen lying in Regent Road.


Click above for larger image
Sgt. N.A.J. Clifford's grave Clifford, far left & Ellmers 2nd left in March 1941 with other New Zealand airmen from 256 Sqn - Sadly none of these airmen survived the war. Sgt. L.J. Ellmers grave

Meanwhile, down on the beach attempts were made throughout the afternoon to recover the body of what was later found to be P/O Horne, which had been spotted floating in the sea on the Northern side of North Pier. A small boat was used, but beaten back by the heavy surf and later the Blackpool lifeboat "Sarah Ann Austin" attempted to locate the body, but again the surf together with the danger of being driven onto anti-invasion steel stakes at the high and low water marks thwarted their attempts. Two soldiers, Sgt. T. Prunty and Lance Bombardier D. H. Edmonds, bravely swam out in the rough waters to attempt a rescue, but were overcome by exhaustion and were lucky to escape with their lives after being dashed against the sea wall by the waves. They ended up having to be hauled from the sea using lifelines and treated in hospital for exposure and minor injuries. Horne's body was finally brought ashore by lifeboatmen and NFS firemen later that evening after being spotted floating close to the sea wall.

By 9.00 pm that evening a rescue squad had managed to tunnel through the rubble to the basement of 97 Reads Avenue where they found the body of Sgt. Ellmers which was identified by a smouldering scrap of paper found in the pocket of the dead airman's uniform. Following the difficult task of extricating the body, work was carried out to make the building safe prior to a decision being made to demolish the house and clear the site.

News of the tragedy was first broadcast on the Overseas Service of the BBC at 9.45 pm that evening. During the night two more victims, Miss Alice White and youngster Jean Zeun, who had both been rescued from the booking hall of the station, died of their injuries in Victoria Hospital bringing the total death toll to 14. A 15th victim, P/O Sale, remained unaccounted for after having fallen into the sea from the Botha. The following morning, Thursday 28 August, national newspapers carried the story of the Blackpool air crash with no attempt being made to disguise the location. Clearing up operations began in Blackpool the same day. The roof of Central Railway Station had been totally destroyed, with the left luggage office and bookstall badly damaged by fire and left strewn with debris from the roof. At Reads Avenue work continued to remove the wreckage of the Defiant whilst a guard was mounted outside the house.

Botha's engine on Blackpool Promenade Servicemen keep back onlookers outside the station Scene in the main entrance hall of the station Centre section of the Botha lies in front of the Station

The Mayor of Blackpool, Alderman H. A. Thicket, along with his wife and the town's Chief Constable, Mr E. H. Holmes, visited the injured in hospital. The sight of the casualties reportedly moved the civic dignitaries to tears. That same afternoon the Mayor received a telegram from the Air Minister:

"I have heard with deep regret of the very sad accident at Blackpool yesterday in which an RAF aircraft crashed on the Central Station killing and injuring a number of people. Please convey to the relatives of those who lost their lives my deepest sympathy and to those who are injured my sincere wish for a speedy recovery. Archibald Sinclair"

The following day, Friday 29 August, the body of P/O Sale, the third member of the Botha's crew, was found left by the retreating tide close to Fleetwood Pier, a few miles up the coast from the crash scene. The grim discovery being made by 82 year old Mr John Platt, an evacuee from Manchester.

The Inquest:

On Friday afternoon the Acting Coroner, Mr A. L. Ashton, opened an inquest at Blackpool into the deaths of 11 civilian and 4 military casualties of the disaster. During a 45-minute hearing, evidence of identity was given by men and women of half a dozen counties. The local paper reported: "...each took their turn in the witness box, hardly showing their grief, faces tense, their voices a whisper, explaining as to how they had identified their relatives". At this stage of the proceedings three of the victims remained unidentified. RAF officers and NCOs of both 3 SGR and 256 Squadron were in court less than five minutes to give evidence about their four colleagues before Mr Ashton adjourned the hearing until 26 September 1941.

Name Position Status
Sgt L. J. Ellmers Pilot Defiant N1745 K.
Sgt N. A. Clifford Air gunner Defiant N1745 K.
P/O A. A. Horne Pilot? Botha L6509 K.
P/O K. J. A. Sale Pilot? Botha L6509 K.
Mr. Frank Longson Passenger Botha L6509 K.
8 Civilians Central Station

K.

5 Civilians Central Station Died of Inj.

Note: For a full listing of all the names of those who lost their lives Click Here.

The first victims to be buried were the two New Zealand airmen from Defiant N1745, Sgt. L.J. Ellmers and Sgt. N. A. Clifford, they were laid to rest in Lytham Park Cemetery on the afternoon of Monday 1 September. The coffins were borne to the graves by fellow NCOs of 256 Squadron and the airmen were accorded full military honours. Later, P/O A. A. Horne was buried at Willesden Jewish Cemetery, Middlesex, and P/O K. J. A. Sale at St Andrew's Churchyard, Impington, Cambridgeshire. It was a particularly tragic for the Sale family as Jack's brother, Bert, had been killed by flak during a raid on Osnabruck the previous month. Both Jack Sale and 'Pinder' Horne had, ironically, completed tours of operations with Coastal Command without so much as a scratch. They were old friends, having served together on the same squadron before being posted, together, on rest from operational duties as instructors with 3 SGR.

On Wednesday 3rd September Mrs Alice Zeun died in Victoria Hospital, Blackpool, bringing to 16 the number killed in the air crash. Her husband, Victor Zeun, a London ARP ambulance driver, had died instantly in the wreckage at Central Station. He had brought his family to Blackpool under a wartime rest holiday scheme. Having survived unscathed the bombing of the capital he was to meet his death in what was considered to be a comparatively safe part of the country. The Zeuns' 5 year old daughter, Jean, had died of injuries early on the day following the accident.

Before the inquest resumed on 26 September 1941 two more victims had succumbed to their injuries. 2 year old Paul Grainger had been injured when burning wreckage fell on his pram at Central Station. He suffered a relapse on Monday 22 September and died the following morning. The final fatality was Mrs Jennie Sheldon of Scholes, Cleckheaton, who died on the 25th. Her husband had been killed outright in the station and she learnt of his death from an aunt just prior to her own death. The inquest heard that all the civilian victims had been visitors to Blackpool with the exception of Miss Dorothy Andrew, the resident leader of Blackpool Girl's Club. Thirteen people had been killed outright with 39 others injured of which 27 had been hospitalised. Of the 17 detained in hospital 5 later died of their injuries. The inquest heard that the London bound train had departed just before the crash so had the incident occurred 10 minutes earlier then the casualty toll might well have been far higher.

The Bravery Awards:

The bravery of a number of people involved in rescue attempts during the accident was recognised. In October 1941 Brigadier G. T. Raikes, Commander of East Lancashire area, commended five soldiers for their courage. Lance Bombardier D. H. Edmonds and Sgt. T Prunty were commended for their attempts to recover the body of P/O Horne from the sea; Gunner A. Wood who, at great personal risk to himself, recovered several bodies from the wreckage of the station was mentioned as were Lance Corporals Ancram and Staley who worked incessantly in the wreckage of the house at Reads Avenue to reach the body of the Defiant pilot, Sgt. Ellmers. On 29 January 1942 the Air Ministry announced the award of the George Medal to Cpl. Thomas Hill for his "undaunted courage" in the incident. Members of the police force and one Blackpool man were also recognised. PC. Thomas Beeston received a commendation, a merit badge and an award of 10 guineas. Gratuities of 5 guineas each went to Police War Reserve J. E. K. Harrison, Special Constable W. Jackson and to Mr James Gallimore of Peter Street, Blackpool.

The Analysis:

As with many such tragedies the question of who was actually responsible for the accident was ultimately investigated. Unfortunately, the relevant accident record cards (Form 1180s) for Botha L6509 and Defiant N1745 are both missing from Air Historical Branch files so there is no indication as to the official verdict. A military court of inquiry was held on 31 August 1941 into the incident and while the actual report for this could not be traced it is understood that no blame was attributed to either of the pilots involved. However, the Court of Inquiry found that the accident was primarily due to the fact that Sgt. Leonard , leading the flight of Defiants, failed to observe the Botha aircraft in the vicinity of his formation when he gave the order to break away. None of the aircrew in the other two Defiants saw the collision but there were a number of witnesses on the ground and an important perspective on the incident was given by PC. John Ashfield in his evidence to the inquest. Ashfield had been standing in the police station yard in South King Street and from there had seen the first two Defiants dive past the Botha and then level out. Then he said he saw the Botha bank to the right which, if accurate, would have left the third Defiant pilot (Ellmers) little room for manoeuvre once he had committed himself to following the first two fighters. A number of solicitors representing relatives of the casualties questioned PC. Ashfield and one asked "By how far were the three diving 'planes missing the fourth (Botha) plane?" "The first two seemed to leave ample clearance" came the reply. The question is did the third pilot (Ellmers) see the other 'plane? Another policeman, PC. John Gray, witnessed the collision from Whitegate Drive and was firmly of the opinion that it was the Botha that flew into the Defiant.

P/O A. A. Horne P/O K. J. A. Sale Mr. Frank Longson
P/O A. A. Horne (Buried Willesden Jewish Cemetery, Middlesex). P/O K. J. A. Sale (Buried Impington, St Andrew, Churchyard, Cambridgeshire). Mr. Frank Longson (Buried Blackburn Corporation Cemetery, Lancashire).

It is assumed that at the time of the crash the Botha was undergoing an air test with either Horne or Sale at the controls and with Frank Longson, the fitter, simply along for the ride as passenger. Evidently it was a fairly common practice for 3 SGR's staff pilots to take Brooklands' mechanics up for flights. Horne's relatives, interviewed recently, were given to understand that it was Longson flying the aircraft with the two RAF pilots in the role of observers! Had this been the case that Longson had indeed been flying the Botha it is hardly likely that the authorities would have admitted it! The story related to P/O. Jack Sale's family was that the two aircraft involved had been separated by cloud and had thus been unaware of each other's presence. One witness on the ground supports this, but the vast majority of accounts make no mention of this factor.

The view ahead and below for a Botha pilot was excellent; to the port and to the rear it was less satisfactory whilst to the starboard it was more or less non-existent due to the high wing position and the close proximity of the radial engine. It is possible given these conditions that whoever was flying the Botha at the time didn't see the third Defiant diving towards his aircraft. However, in the final analysis, perhaps the main blame for this accident should lie with the leader of the Defiant formation who led them into what appeared to many witnesses to be an unauthorised mock fighter attack on the larger aircraft. At the time of the accident, 256 Squadron's commanding officer, Flt. Lieut. E.C. Deanesly (promoted to Squadron Leader on 1st September), was away from Squires Gate on a training course and it could be suggested that if this was the case, then such unauthorised activity over a built-up area was a case of "While the cat's away, the mice will play." However, the Court of Inquiry found that Sgt. Leonard, did not know that the Botha was below them when he gave the order to break formation and this indeed seems the most feasible explanation.

Epilogue: In November 1964 Blackpool's Central Railway Station finally closed , but it was not until December 1973 that work commenced on demolishing the old building and today the site of the ill-fated station booking hall is occupied by the "Coral Island" amusement arcade complex, though the station's toilets remain. The house in Reads Avenue, No. 97, was demolished and never rebuilt. Later, in 1963, the catering campus of Blackpool and The Fylde College was erected on the site. It was in 1986, whilst trawling the photograph library of the Blackpool daily newspaper, that the authors attention was drawn by fellow researcher Peter Moran to a folder he was examining. There, amongst a shoal of forgotten wartime photographs, were the censored prints of the last moments of the Botha, as it plunged onto the station, caught by a "Walkie Snaps" cameraman as he stood amongst the promenade crowds, plying his trade by Central Pier.

The disaster of 27 August 1941 caused more casualties than did all the enemy air raids on Blackpool and the Fylde during the entire war. Yet until recently and it seems largely as a result of the interest / awareness generated by this web page, there was no memorial or plaque to remind visitors of the tragedy, which took place, or to mark the site of the old Station. The only tangible reminders are the graves of the two New Zealand airmen, resting in separate quiet corners of Lytham St. Annes Park Cemetery.


Acknowledgements:

Russell Brown, Peter J. Moran, Mr Don Ratcliffe, Mr G.M. Ellmers, Mrs B.A.A. Jack, Mrs G. Marks, Mr R.H. Longson, Mr Percy Featherstone, Mr Arthur W. Arculus, The late Mr Les Smith,"West Lancashire Evening Gazette", Joe Bamford. The late Mr Rupert D. Cooling.

 

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This page Copyright Russell Brown & Nick Wotherspoon 2001