Dartmoor has proved to be an unforgiving landscape for many wartime aircraft

PUBLISHED: 14:27 09 April 2015 | UPDATED: 14:27 09 April 2015

Michael Hayes has amassed an extraordinary amount of archival evidence about wartime activity on and around the former Harrowbeer aerodrome

Michael Hayes has amassed an extraordinary amount of archival evidence about wartime activity on and around the former Harrowbeer aerodrome

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Dartmoor's high contours proved to be an unforgiving landscape for many a wartime aircraft, as Emma Inglis discovers when she investigates the moor's tragic history

A poppy wreath commemorating those who served at RAF HarrowbearA poppy wreath commemorating those who served at RAF Harrowbear

The view from Woodcock Hill on Dartmoor inspires. From here, you can see for miles across the endless aching emptiness of the moor. A winding track carves back over Tiger’s Marsh, over humps and hummocks, to Sourton Tors, and the walkers and picnickers at Prewley Moor.

But at Woodcock Hill you feel removed from everyone, and everything. Rarely will you see a soul. Yet the other day I did. A Second World War enthusiast in search of a plaque to commemorate five lives lost when an American bomber crashed into Tiger’s Marsh on Christmas Day, 1943. “There’s aircraft wreckage there too,” he told me sombrely, gazing down to the marshy rugged expanse.

Wrecks fascinate me whether on sea or land. Often innocuously situated, given over to a different time and a strange place, they are still poignant reminders of our history, and past events. I was familiar with the tale of the B-17 bomber, a Flying Fortress, which crashed in poor visibility at Tiger’s Marsh. But my chance meeting on Woodcock Hill made me to want to learn more and led me to wonder what other aircraft wrecks lie on Dartmoor.

In my quest to find out I head to the Knightstone tearooms in Crapstone, formerly the site of the RAF base Harrowbeer, where owner Michael Hayes has amassed an extraordinary amount of archival evidence.

A line of gravestones  in the cemetery at the Church of St Andrews, Buckland Monachorum commemorating airmen killed on DartmoorA line of gravestones in the cemetery at the Church of St Andrews, Buckland Monachorum commemorating airmen killed on Dartmoor

If anyone can tell me about aircraft wrecks on Dartmoor, it is Michael. He greets me with a pot of tea, and an armful of files. They are stuffed full of archival material: official records, memoirs, letters, eye witness testimony and faded sepia photographs. Flicking through their pages, I am overwhelmed by the amount of crashes on the moor during the war.

Michael thinks there might have been “200 odd”. It seems an extraordinarily high number. But then Devon had its fair share of airfields during the war: Harrowbeer, Chivenor, Exeter, Winkleigh, Dunkeswell, and more. Many aircraft overflew Dartmoor.

When you consider the amount of planes in the vicinity, Michael’s guesstimate doesn’t seem so improbable. Not that there’s much wreckage to see now apparently. “Post-crash a maintenance unit would salvage as much of the aircraft as was physically possible,” explains Michael. “Remaining wreckage was recovered by DARRT, the Devon Aircraft Research and Recovery Team, for museums, or has been pillaged by souvenir hunters.”

Quickly, Michael finds the records alluding to the Flying Fortress crash at Tiger Marsh. I read how Bill Ayres was at the home of his family, getting ready for Christmas dinner, when there was a knock on the door. Outside stood the dazed pilot and co-pilot of the crash who had staggered down from the moor to raise the alarm. Ayres raced up to the crash site – “a pretty gruesome sight that I shall never forget” - and recalls helping airman, Basil Browne, who was bloodied, walking in circles, soaking wet and shivering. The other airmen were already dead. “Clothing, maps and ammunition were everywhere,” remembers Ayres, “the ammunition going off all around us.”

The 6ft standing stone on a hilltop near Hameldown commemorating the airmen who lost their lives in a Hampden BomberThe 6ft standing stone on a hilltop near Hameldown commemorating the airmen who lost their lives in a Hampden Bomber

It is just one of many harrowing tales. Paddy Pringle had only recently written in a letter to his mother that “God sometimes has funny ways of doing things. But I am sure he has good reason,” when his aircraft clipped the tower of Yelverton church sending him spinning to his death.

Alfred Kilpatrick, a ladies man, with twinkly eyes and a DSO, baled out of his Typhoon as it plummeted towards Meavy after tail failure; Donald Robertson was killed on a training exercise at night when he became dazzled by the blinding beam of searchlights and lost control of his Hurricane aircraft north of Yelverton; Victor Crowther, William Fraser and William Martin were returning from ops in the Bay of Biscay when they became engulfed by low cloud and crashed near Horrabridge.

The stories continue. I learn of a Hampden bomber that crashed into Hameldown Tor killing four, a US Liberator that ploughed into Slipper Stones killing ten, and a German Junkers, returning from a bombing raid on Plymouth, that crashed at Sheepstor. There are mysteries too. Allegedly sunk somewhere in the Dartmoor bog, near Bridstowe, are two missing Westland Whirlwind aircraft, that crashed on a foggy December day in 1940.

Poor weather, errors of navigation, flak damage, or lack of fuel sent most of these planes spiralling into the moor. Few, it appears, were shot down in any kind of fighting. I am struck by the tragic loss of life; young men not my much older than my own child. “As a pilot you would have been considered over the hill past 25,” Michael says. I ask whether he thinks pilot age and inexperience played into some of the crashes. Michael isn’t convinced. “They learnt pretty fast.”

At St Paul’s Church in Yelverton I find ‘Paddy’s plaque,’ and from Michael’s files, I recall the words of a poem written by his mother, Margaret Pringle. “But I have a lived a lifetime, And often wonder why, That the young should be taken, The very young to die”.

On a smooth heathery hilltop near Hameldown Tor I find a 6ft standing stone, on which are engraved the initials of the airmen who lost their lives in the Hampden Bomber. The inscription commemorates their “selfless courage and that of fellow airmen who perished on Dartmoor 1939-1945” and reminds us “Their sacrifice helped us to maintain freedom.” Finally, I revisit the site of the Tiger Marsh crash hopeful of finding the plaque, but the huge area of moorland defeats me.

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