Spitfires BL487 & AB873 - Ashley, Nr. Altrincham
 14th September 1942
Last updated: 09.12.2017

Spitfire Vb
RAF Spitfire LF.Mk.Vb
Type Serial Unit Base Duty Crew Fate
Spitfire Vb  BL487 No. 880 Squadron HMS Blackcap (RNAS Stretton) Formation Flying Practice S/L H.H. Popham
I.
Spitfire Vb AB873No. 880 SquadronHMS Blackcap (RNAS Stretton)Formation Flying PracticeLt. J.G.S. ForrestK.

Hugh Popham
S/L H.H. Popham

Both pilots involved in this incident were certainly experienced, having just returned from almost 12 months onboard the Fleet Aircraft Carrier HMS Indomitable. Towards the end of this period, in August 1942, No. 880 Squadron had been equipped with 12 Sea Hurricane IBs flying from HMS Indomitable, which was one of five carriers tasked with providing air cover for Operation Pedestal  - the extremely heavily protected convoy WS21S, that it was hoped would be able to re-supply the besieged island of Malta.  The convoy first came under attack on the 11th when one of the carriers, HMS Eagle was sunk by an Italian submarine and heavy air attacks began. However, it was on the 12th that the axis forces began to throw everything they had against the convoy, with numerous air attacks from Italian torpedo bombers and German  Ju87 Stuka dive bombers, as well as high level bombing from Ju88s and even attempted attacks with experimental Italian radio guided Savoia-Marchetti SM79 "flying bombs"! Towards the end of the day HMS Indomitable received three direct bomb hits (all believed to be SC250Kg) to its flight deck and three near misses that had caused further damage to the hull below the waterline. Below decks there was considerable damage and numerous casualties, with  direct several serious fires breaking out and significant flooding.  Damage control quickly dealt with the fires and corrected a 10 degree list that had developed, but the ship was severely damaged with both aircraft lifts out of action and a huge hole torn  in the starboard side. Indomitable's airborne aircraft had to land on HMS Victorious  and Indomitable, though underway again within a couple of hours, was forced to make for the safety of Gibraltar. During the operation No. 880 Squadron destroyed eight enemy aircraft and damaged three, but lost three of their own aircraft.


Crash site of BL487 1Crash site of BL487 2
Site was identified from eyewitness account and soon confirmed by
small metal detector finds
Foerster Magnetometer confirmed no significant buried wreckage
remains at the crash site


HMS Indomitable returned to Liverpool for initial repairs at the end of August, before being sent to the USA for full repairs and a refit in September. Her remaining aircraft were flown off and  No. 880 Squadron was transferred to HMS Blackcap (RNAS Stretton), south of Warrington, in Cheshire. After a week's leave the Squadron's  pilots reassembled and in preparation for re-equipping with Seafire IICs, they began to train on "a handful of old RAF Spitfires, delayed briefly on their way to the knackers yard" in the words of Hugh Popham in his later memoires (Sea Flight - first published by William Kimber  & Co. Ltd. 1954). Popham describes "cramming in the flying" over the first week, often in far from ideal conditions due to industrial smog reducing visibility. On Monday 14th September, six pilots from the Squadron were detailed for a one hour formation flying practice, but one aircraft flown by Lt. John (Johnny) Gordon Scott Forrest proved to have a minor mechanical problem and took off slightly later than the rest. As Lt. Forrest was to take lead position, Popham took this role until he was able to catch up and they were at around 5000 feet, at the upper limit of the smog,  when another pilot signalled to Popham that Forrest was on his way up - the aircraft having no radio equipment. Suddenly the other pilot's hand signals became more urgent and Popham realised there was something wrong and a need for him to take evasive action, so began to pull back on his control column to gain height. Suddenly there was "a crash and a shudder" and his aircraft went into a spin and the engine cut out. He managed to control the spin, but on attempting to restart the engine, it began to race out of control and shake violently, so he cut the throttle realising he had lost the propeller. As he got lower he contemplated a possible forced  wheels up landing, but could see no suitable fields below, so at 1,500 feet he elected to bail out and jettisoned the canopy. After a bit of a struggle, he managed to roll his aircraft over and fall clear, at 1,050 feet, with his parachute opening immediately and he sees his aircraft dive into the ground and explode. He landed hard, but apart from a touch of backache appeared unharmed, but on his return to Stretton, the station medical officer sent him for a precautionary X-ray and he proved to have compound fracture of the spine and was hospitalised for several months. Sadly Johnny Forrest was less fortunate and with the tail of his Spitfire severed in the collision, he had apparently been rendered unconscious, as his aircraft fell in a flat spin. When found, at Over Tabley, near Knutsford, his Spitfire appeared to have sustained little further damage, but Lt. Forrest was dead in the cockpit, having been thrown against the gun-sight, due to his seat harness being undone. It was thought he had regained consciousness, shortly before impact and probably disoriented and unaware of his proximity to the ground, had undone the harness in preparation to bail out.

Search 1 Finds from BL487
Tell-tale "Daz" was evident just below the surface, across much of the area Finds from the search that can be confidently attributed to BL487

Finding the crash site of BL487 proved quite straightforward as apart from having the pilot's own memoirs to study, unusually the landowner also recalled the crash - he had been quite young and in the milking shed at the time and thought a bomb had gone off!  However, it also transpired that although the buried wreckage had been left in situ by the authorities at the time of the crash, it had been thoroughly cleared by the farmer for its scrap metal value several years later.


IFF clip BL487
Clip identified as being from the case for the clockwork Master Contacter timer unit for the Spitfire's "Pip-Squeak" IFF system


Hugh Henry Home Popham, was born in Beer, Devon in 1920 and was studying law at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge when war broke out and he joined the Fleet Air Arm in 1940. After his recovery from the back injury sustained in this incident, he returned to flying Seafires with No. 894 Squadron, but felt uncomfortable when flying with other aircraft and was selected for training as a Deck landing Control Officer ("Batsman") in which role he served the remainder of the war on various carriers. Post war, his first wife died in labour and  he moved to Barbados for a time, as a teacher, before returning to Britain a few years later and taking up writing. He wrote several books and resumed writing poetry, which had started during the war, to pass the quieter times whilst at sea. He was five times married (with one son, one daughter, and one son and one daughter deceased) and died June 1996.

John Gordon Scott Forrest was born 1917 in Rhodesia and read medicine  at St Catharine's College, Cambridge, where he also excelled at most sports, especially Rugby, being appointed Captain of the Cambridge University RFC  Team in 1938. He went on to play for the Scotland National Rugby Union Team and was capped three times. He also played in the Scotland, Triple Crown winning team, in the 1938 Home Nations Championship against Wales, Ireland and England. He is commemorated at the Paisley (Woodside) Crematorium, Renfrewshire, on Panel 2 on the outer wall of the crematorium chapel.

      

Acknowledgements:

Mark Sheldon, Alan Clark, Sturtivant, Ray; Burrow, Mick - Fleet Air Arm Aircraft 1939 to 1945. Air-Britain Historians Limited. 1995 ISBN 0851302327. Popham, Hugh - Sea Flight, Seaforth Publishing. 1954. ISBN 9781848320550

 
 
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