April 2021

The news headlines in Cornwall this past week have been filled with the crash of the Hawk trainer aircraft that crashed near RNAS Culdrose. The skill of the pilots, who were trying to put the plane down on the Helford River but once they ejected the plane banked and crashed into woodland disintegrating on impact, was acknowledged. Fortunately, there was no loss of life.

These days such incidents are extremely rare, but in wartime Cornwall, training accidents were sadly common and often with tragic consequences. Tuesday 24th March 1942 was another Cornish spring day. 66 Squadron based at RAF Portreath flew army co-operation flights, air to ground firing and cine gun practice was carried out during the day together with the routine convoy patrols.

Squadron Leader Cremin and Sergeant Norman practised dusk landings. They took off again at 2120 hours on a clear moonlit night for night flying practice.

At 2155 hours the two aircraft collided over St Erth. AB496 piloted by Norman was adjudged to have misjudged the distance between itself and S/Ldr Cremin in AB462 as they were formatting and it collided with the starboard side of the fuselage and main plane of Cremin’s aircraft. AB496 dived vertically into the ground at Trevassa Farm, St Erth. The aircraft was smashed and burnt out and Sgt Norman was killed. AB462 spun in minus its starboard wing and crashed into a neighbouring field which was on Frythens Farm, St Erth. The aircraft was smashed and burnt out and S/Ldr Cremin killed.

The last R/T talk and the evidence of a member of the local Home Guard who heard a crash and saw one of the planes spinning down points to the conclusion that they were formatting and hit in mid-air.

Edna Hocking who lived on the neighbouring Tregethas Farm in 1942 recalled, “We heard the collision of two planes.

Two Spitfires had crashed and fallen into the field of the next farm called Frythens. I have no idea how this crash occurred. Both pilots were killed and their bodies were put in the barn overnight. It was awful and the police were out in the dark looking for parts of the bodies.”

67 Maintenance Unit based in Truro sent out their recovery team to clear the crash site.

The remains of S/Ldr Daniel Edward Cremin, aged 25, from Sydney in Australia, were buried in the Wardour (Roman Catholic) Cemetery, Wiltshire. He left a widow Patricia and a two-year-old son Mark.

Sgt William David Norman, aged 25, from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, was buried in Illogan Churchyard.

In 2012 metal detectorist Mr S. Strick illegally searched the Norman plane crash site and found a number of small remnants of one of the aircraft. In 2017 another metal detectorist Mr Palmer, again illegally, searched the Cremin plane crash site and discovered human remains. The police were called, the coroner informed and the Cornwall Archaeological Unit instructed to carry out a proper and legal investigation of the crash site.

The conclusions of their report supports the 1942 description of Cremin’s plane spinning down for a low angle impact. It seems the engine section of the plane sheared off at the firewall on impact, the cockpit then beginning to imbed in the soil while the fuselage and tail section concertinaed causing a steepening of the angle of impact until the central and aft sections of the plane along with part of the cockpit containing the torso sheared off and disintegrated on the surface. Sections of the pelvis, femur and ulna were discovered in the impact crater which had obviously been backfilled in 1942 without the recovery team realising there was part of the cockpit and human remains present. A number of aircraft fragments were recovered.

An Inquest was held in Truro in July 2018 and the remains of S/Ldr Cremin, identified by DNA testing in conjunction with his son Mark, were then buried in his grave at the Wardour Cemetery.

The full report of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit is freely available online. Metal detectorists and other amateur investigators should note all crash sites fall under the remit of the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. Interference with the sites of crashed military aircraft without a licence issued by the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre is an offence under the Act (1986 c. 35). Military aircraft are automatically protected under this Act, and it is illegal to undertake investigative activity on them without a licence from the JCCC. It is JCCC policy not to grant licences in circumstances where human remains or unexploded ordnance are likely to be present. In applying for a licence an investigator must have thoroughly researched the aircraft and the fate of its crew and have the permission of the landowner. All recovered material remains the property of the MoD. The MoD reserves the right to witness all excavations.

This incident is just one of many told in my forthcoming eBook telling the wartime history of RAF Portreath – the base, the village, and the neighbourhood. Watch the website for details of its publication.

We wish the Culdrose pilots a full and speedy recovery from their ejection injuries. We wish you a blessed and safe Easter. Until next month, take care.

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