Firefly Z1906 - Rufford

28th May 1944

Last updated: 02.12.2010

Type Unit Base Duty Crew Passengers
Firefly I

No. 1771 Squadron 

Burscough  Camera attack exercise

2

-

 

Sub Lieut. P.G. Sunderland Grave
Sub Lieut. P.G. Sunderland Grave

Sub Lieut. M.W. Williams Grave
Sub Lieut. M.W. Williams Grave

No. 1771 Squadron was formed at Yeovilton on 1st Feb 1944, being equipped with 12 Firefly Is and moving to Burscough in March of that year, presumably for further training prior to embarking on HMS Trumpeter in June. On Sunday the 28th May 1944 one of these Fireflies serial No. Z1906 was carrying out "camera attack exercises" with other aircraft from the squadron at 3000ft. some 2 miles East of Burscough, between the villages of |Rufford and Holmeswood, Lancs. The crew on this fateful day were, Sub Lieut. Maurice Walton Williams RNZNVR from Napier, Hawks Bay, New Zealand and Sub Lieut. Peter Graham Sunderland RNVR form Harrogate, Yorks. both aged 22. During a tight turn Z1906 was observed to go into a spin from which it failed to recover and the aircraft struck the ground, bursting into flames on farmland below and killing both crewmembers instantly. Most of the inhabitants of the nearest village, Holmeswood, were attending the morning service at the local church and although used to the frequent aerial activity over their homes, they had been alerted by the unusual high pitched engine note of an aircraft out of control. Those in the local Auxiliary Fire service rushed to collect there equipment and raced to the scene, whilst to most observers the column of black smoke, also visible from the airfield at Burscough, told its own grim story. Those first on the scene found the aircraft completely in flames and were forced to take cover as the multitude of flares carried by many such Fleet Air Arm aircraft, began to explode. Through the flames the bodies of both crewmembers were discernible to some witnesses, but clearly beyond help, not that the would-be rescuers could get near the conflagration. By the time heavier fire-fighting equipment could get to the scene from the airfield the aircraft was completely burned out and all that was left to do was the grim task of recovering the bodies of the unfortunate airmen, who are both now buried at nearby Burscough.

Name Position Status
Sub Lieut. M. W. Williams Pilot

K.

Sub Lieut. P. G. Sunderland Observer

K.

Being close to the Burscough airfield, the Holmeswood area saw several aircraft mishaps during WW2 and it is perhaps hardly surprising after the passage of time that details of separate incidents had become confused in the memories of locals. Initial interviews with witness to the incident appeared promising, with recollections of a deep crater requiring a ladder to reach the wreckage, little of which was apparently removed. A metal detector sweep over the area soon began to find small fragments of aluminium and a shallow trial trench and probe-rod survey also showed promising results. However our trusty Forster bomb locator appeared to be trying to tell us a different story, with contacts limited to e very narrow area and appearing quite shallow. With the impact site now pin-pointed we had a frustrating two year wait before an excavation of the site could be arranged due to the waterlogged nature of this former marshland during the first years window between crops. We finally arrived on the site on a windswept Saturday in November 1999 to begin an exploratory hand dig on the site, with the option of bringing in an excavator later should it be required. Almost as soon as we started to unpack our gear interested locals began to visit to see how we were getting on, one of the first being a witness to the crash who described in some detail watching the aircraft come down in a flat spin impacting on its belly & exploding. He doubted that the remains would have even penetrated the plough layer, but did tell us we were spot-on with our location! To be fair the area saw two such crashes fairly close together, both geographically and chronologically, the other being Firefly MB688 on 17th August 1945, which did indeed embed itself in a substantial crater

The dig gets underway
The dig gets underway

As we cleared the topsoil, the signs of an intense fire soon became apparent, as did the fact that the aircraft had indeed only made a shallow crater and the dig soon began to resemble an archaeological excavation as spades gave way to trowels, so as not to miss anything. Strangely little of the aircraft’s actual structure came to light, the few fragments of aluminium found were at the most only a few inches across and all badly affected by heat. Most of the finds proved to be more fire/melting resistant parts & fittings, which had survived the obviously very intense fire that had destroyed the aircraft and had apparently been raked together into the crater along with a large amount of ash when the site had been cleared. At a depth of approx. two to three feet this ash gave way to an oily/sandy mess, indicating where the engine had lain and below this was the natural underlying sand, which had been baked hard by the intensity of the fire and was the reason for the resistance felt when using the probe-rod.


Signal lamp (top left), Urinal (right) etc.


Various parachute & Sutton harness fittings

Despite all this we soon began to find plenty of interesting if small artifacts, noticeably many strap adjustment buckles and fittings from the crew’s parachute harness and then a complete "Turn to unlock" main release buckle. Nearby the twisted but complete framework of a pair of RAF Mk4 flying goggles were uncovered, a sad reminder of the two young airmen who lost their lives 56 years before. A remarkable find was the intact glass cover from the signal lamp, which would have been fitted to the canopy of the rear cockpit. This was soon reunited with the complete lamp assembly, which must have fallen from the canopy as the Perspex melted – strangely no bulb appeared to have been fitted! Finally from the lowest limit of the dig, in the layer of baked sand, an intact rescue whistle from one of the crew’s mae-wests, which worked perfectly once cleaned!

Goggles & whistle

Acknowledgements:

Mr.F. Lee, Mr. W. Golding, Mr. Golding (Snr.).

 

Send Email Back to Home Page

This page & all articles on this site Copyright Nick Wotherspoon 2000