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Author in search of a lost story…

LAST FLIGHT OF THE HEYFORD K6875
The most beautiful countryside often hides the darkest of secrets; and, having
no memory of its own, is oblivious to them and utterly indifferent. Such were
my thoughts on my visit to Edale in the heart of Derbyshire’s Peak District.
Here, decades before, my Uncle, along with five other RAF crew members,
met his death as their Handley Page Heyford K6875, an all-metal biplane-
bomber, hit the hillside above the village.
My visit was an exploration – looking for the site of the crash; a homage to
lives cut tragically short; and an attempt to restore a faded piece of my
family’s history.

Newly-married
A picture of my uncle – Sergeant Jim Barker, aged 26, in his pilot’s uniform,
sits on my bookshelf: a good-looking man with a bright career ahead of him;
and next to it is a photo of his newly-married wife, Muriel. She was my aunt,
my mother’s sister, and the effect on her of Jim’s death in a vicious summer
storm amid the dark peaks was to be devastating. In her grief she lost the
baby she was carrying.
Though she never re-married, she made a life for herself and was a precious
friend to me till her death in 1997 – when at last I felt free to satisfy my
curiosity about the exact spot where the Heyford met its end.
She had spoken little of Jim; and indeed most of what I learnt about the
Edale crash was gleaned from a slim but invaluable volume Dark Peak
Aircraft Wrecks 1 (UK: Wharncliffe Publishing, 1990; numerous editions) by
Ron Collier and Roni Wilkinson.
On a bright, clear October day I descended into the valley from Rushup
Edge, itself unnervingly steep. Edale is benign but running above it to the
north is Broadlee Bank Tor; beyond that, Edale Moor at 1981 feet and
looming menacingly beyond that, Kinder Scout, well over 2000 feet.
On the 22 July 1937 the Heyford, of 166 Squadron, was making a
navigational night flight from Leconfield. It was piloted by Sergeant Newton
W. Baker from Thetford in Norfolk. The co-pilot was Sergeant Charles
Macmillan from London; the wireless operator was Aircraftman Harry Grey
from Aberdare. Also on board were Aircraftmen Eric McDonald and Ernest
Musker – both from Liverpool. – and my Uncle, James W. Barker of
Horwich in Lancashire.

Doubtful design
The twin-engined Handley Page Heyford was a potential death-box. Collier
and Wilkinson describe it as ‘ungainly’ and ‘ obsolete’. In December 1936 all
but one of a flight of seven Heyfords in 102 Squadron, on a flight to
Finningley from Northern Ireland, crossing the Pennines in bad weather,
crashed or force-landed. Three crew members died.
Collier and Wilkinson write: ‘The biplane bomber’s unconventional fixing
of the fuselage to the upper wing, leaving a gap between it and the lower
wing, gave the Heyford an ungainly appearance. The resulting distance from
the ground of the cockpit did little to aid the pilot’s view when landing’.
What was arguably worse was the fact that the Heyford had an open
cockpit, so that in bad weather the pilot was as reliant on the navigational
skills of the co-pilot as on his own capacity to see though mist and darkness.
Here then was a tragedy in the making and it is amazing, in retrospect, that
the RAF, having lost six out of seven Heyfords in December 1936, did not
ground the rest.

Searching for the spot
At the Edale Visitor Centre I asked if there was any record of the crash on 22
July 1937. At least staff were aware of this crash and many others in the dark
peaks. ‘I want to find the exact spot where the plane hit the hillside,’ I said.
There was a shaking of heads; after all, nature takes all things to itself and
the crash had occurred decades before. I was pointed in the direction of
Broadlee Bank Tor; and warned, ‘It’s a steep climb’.
Too impatient to find a path that would take me to the crest of the Tor, I
made a direct ascent, attempting to guess the flight path of the Heyford. In the
Collier-Wilkinson book there are pictures of the site of the crash. A dry-stone
wall had been destroyed; and beyond, in the photo, very faintly, was the
outline of distant hills. These, I guessed, were situated to the west of Rushup
Edge.
On the night of 22 July the charms of Edale were obscured by darkness and
storm. The Heyford was some 13 miles off course, either flying along the
valley from the direction of the Ladybower Reservoire or more likely passing
close to the top of Mam Tor to the south; certainly dipping in to Edale and
heading towards the village.

‘I looked out through the window and saw…’
Collier and Wilkinson quote a Mr. W. Dearnaly who lived near to the pub in
Edale, the Old Nag’s Head. He was on his way to bed around 11pm when he
heard the sound of an aero engine, low-flying: ‘It was so unusual that I
looked through the window and saw a huge machine just skimming over the
top of Rushup Edge, heading for Kinder Scout.’
These were the days before radar, and it can only be guessed whether the
crew of the Heyford were aware, until the very last minute, that they were
flying off course. According to Collier and Wilkinson, and to press reports
after the accident, the crew were letting off flares; later, official reports
asserted that this was not the case
Accident investigator Squadron Leader Hugh Wake found, ‘having
interviewed the most reliable witnesses... the engines were running normally
at the time of the accident’. The plane ‘did not circle round or fire any
lights…’
Bearing in mind the difficulty the pilot had of gauging the ground, Sergeant
Baker deserved high marks: with a little bit of luck, he might well have
dragged the plane clear of the ridge which awaited him.
My own ascent was more of a climb than a hike. The side of Broadlee Bank
Tor is frighteningly steep and in places the slopes cave in as if there had once
been excavations here. At the same time, it tempts with false summits. The
Heyford was very probably only a matter of 50 feet from open sky. Alas, the
Dark Peak was to show no mercy. One wing of the Heyford struck ground,
precipitating the aircraft into the hillside.

Hands held up to their faces
Instantly the valley of Edale was lit by a fireball of such intensity there was
no chance of the crew surviving. The bodies of the six airmen, disfigured
beyond recognition, nevertheless retained the defensive shape of their last
living moments: some of the crew were found to be crouched, with their
hands held up to protect their faces.
I scoured the high ground attempting to guess the exact spot of the crash. At
one of the ‘false crests’ I found a wall, demolished as much by wind and
weather as by any possible collision with a crashing aircraft, but it did
resemble the photograph in Dark Peak Aircraft Wrecks 1 in which Rushup
Edge across the valley was framed by the rough curve of tumbled stone.
At that time in Edale there was a temporary camp for the unemployed.
Edward Beeley, committee member of the Hyde League of Social Services,
witnessing the crash and the flames that engulfed the Heyford, called for
volunteers. Collier and Wilkinson quote him as saying, ‘Five men went with
me and we took with us a stretcher and an ambulance box. We did not follow
the ordinary path but made a beeline up the mountainside and it was hard
going’.
It took them almost an hour before they reached the wreck, and they soon
saw ‘that the occupants were past our aid’. What Edward Beeley and his team
of would-be rescuers saw ‘was a terrible sight… and I hope I never see
anything like it again’.
Collier and Wilkinson write, ‘With the first light of dawn the appalling
nature of the crash could be fully appreciated. The Heyford had struck the
slope some 50 feet below the summit of the hill, ripping through the
undergrowth, gouging a pit in the black earth, before smashing through a dry
stone wall’.
In his book, Peakland Air Crashes: The North (UK: Landmark Publishing,
2006), Pat Cunningham describes the Heyford as capable of ‘a speedy 143
mph (124 knots)’. It had earned the nickname ‘Express’ and been ‘good value
as a crew trainer’. It was ‘stable and pleasant to fly. But like all aircraft it
needed airspace, and when this was denied it, the results could be
catastrophic; as they were for the occupants of No 166 Squadron’s K6875 on
22 July 1937’.
Lucky for one
While all on board the Heyford died instantly, it could be said that there was
one lucky survivor. He was Pilot Officer D.M. Strong. When K6875 had been
allocated to 166 Squadron it was Officer Strong whose duty it was to fly it,
and to keep an inventory of all equipment on the plane.
Collier and Wilkinson explain, ‘Although an officer, he [Strong] normally
flew as second pilot to Sergeant Baker, however having crossed swords with
the flight commander, he had been given other duties’.
His place on K6875 was taken by Sergeant McMillan. Pilot Officer Strong
survived the war, becoming an air commodore: who knows what
advancement the others may have won for themselves in the war ahead if the
Heyford had managed, in the swirling storm, to skim instead of strike
Broadlee Bank Tor.

‘…a slight error’.
After my Aunt’s death I found among her possessions a green canvas wallet
in which she had preserved newspaper cuttings reporting the crash and letters
of commiseration. In a letter to Muriel Barker dated 29th July 1937,
Squadron-Leader Wake, the accident assessor, was at pains to correct what he
seemed to see as press misreporting: ‘I blame no one for the accident which
was due solely to the aircraft being slightly off its course and over high
ground. Had it been on its course it would have been clear of the hills. This
slight error could easily occur in conditions of low cloud, and, as we know
well, happens frequently to all of us.’
Pat Cunningham explains how easy it was in those days for an aircraft to
shift off course: ‘And if it is hard to credit that trained, or even trainee,
aircrew could stray so far off track, it has to be remembered that they had few
of the modern aids which now more nearly make air navigation a precise
science…should an aircraft stray just one degree from its compass course,
then having travelled sixty miles it will be a full mile from its planned track’.

Bureaucracy: a callous edge
Whether Squadron-Leader Wake’s assurances set my Aunt’s mind at rest
must be left to conjecture; but other, more official letters from the RAF,
necessary as I’m sure they were, must have been particularly distressing. One
letter, dated 12 August 1937, dealt with such mundanity as ‘preferential
charges’, that is ‘Mess bill, charges for lost RAF equipment etc.’.
I can only guess at my Aunt’s reaction to the sentence, ‘If you would let
us have back your husband’s great-coat as soon as possible, these charges
will be very small’. On 15 January 1938, a Mr. A.W. Donald, for the Director
of Accounts, wrote: ‘514997. Sgt. Barker, J.W. (Deceased). Madam, I am
directed to inform you that a sum of £26.17.9 is held by this Department in
respect of the estate of your husband…I am, Madam, Your obedient Servant.’
Of more comfort to her was a letter of sympathy from the mayor of
Beverley, C.H. Burden. ‘We remember,’ he wrote on the day after the
Heyford crash, ‘that your late husband died on duty, and we are grateful to
those who bravely face dangers to fit themselves for our defence’.

No commemoration
Many of us, in travelling through France or Belgium, have paused at the war
cemeteries, so lovingly preserved over the years. Generations have been able
to walk the ranks of white headstones, simply inscribed, and muse on the
sacrifice of so many, so young; and upon the lives that they might have led.
Yet as I searched the high ground above Edale, cooled after my climb by
the October wind whistling across the valley, finding nothing, I felt an acute
sense of vicarious grief and loss – that nothing remained, not even a white
headstone buried in the heather.
I felt the victims of the K6875 crash deserved better; indeed deserved
something to commemorate them. Could it be, though, that to pay material
tribute would be to saddle the Dark Peak with a daunting reputation, of an
aircraft graveyard, while at the same time casting a quizzical historical
spotlight on the lesser glories of the RAF?
After all, within the area of a few short miles disaster stood in wait for the
Swordfish P4223 at Heydon Head, January 1940 and four days before
Christmas, the Hampden X 3154 at Chapel-en-le-Frith. 1941 proved a
particularly bad year for Dark Peak crashes – in January the Blenheim Z
5746 at Ox Stones, in February the Wellington Z 8491 at White Edge Moor,
in July at Crowden Tower – Edale once more – the Blenheim 1V Z5870, in
August the Defiant N3378 at Bleaklow Stones and in December the Botha
W5103 at Round Hill.
‘Is there anywhere in the High Peak,’ I asked at the Edale Visitor Centre,
‘where the deaths and injuries, and the colossal number of crashes that took
place, are officially recorded? Is there a plaque to acknowledge the secrets
hoarded in this lovely landscape?’
Apparently there is not; and in my view there should be; in addition, that
is, to the books written by Ron Collier with Roni Wilkinson and Pat
Cunningham which serve as impressive monuments to the dead as well as
providing invaluable documentary evidence.
At the very least, one might expect a permanent tribute in good
Derbyshire limestone registering all the aircraft that crashed on the Dark Peak
and the names of those who died in the cause of King and Country.

Shared grief
What is beyond commemoration and strains even at the powers of record is
the effect such tragically early deaths had on those left behind. My Aunt was
far from alone in her grief. She had kept a very special letter, written only
five days after the crash of the Heyford.
This was from someone she did not know – a Mrs.Grace Ramsden of
Huddersfield. Her daughter had been married only eleven weeks to Sergeant
Pilot Wilkinson when he had met his death in an RAF plane crash in the Lake
District.
In reaching out to comfort Jim Barker’s widow, Mrs. Ramsden perhaps
said it all; for despite the loving comfort and support Dad and Mum could
offer their grieving daughter, ‘only time and her own brave spirit can soften
the blow’. A PS is added: ‘My daughter has been going to write to you, but
didn’t know how she could comfort you, being so much in need of comfort
herself’.
How such words resonate down the years, stirring thoughts of what might
have been. Eventually on Broadlee Bank Tor I gave up my search. I sat on the
broken wall that might or might not have been victim of the Heyford’s last
moments so many decades ago.
In the valley below a group of hikers was setting out on the Pennine Way.
The Old Nag’s Head Inn, proud of its location in the ‘Switzerland of the Peak
District’, promised another century of the finest ales; and the breeze up from
Edale seemed to whisper ‘Who remembers? – not I!’

Postscript: the story continues
In 2002 Derbyshire Life magazine published a version of this article.
Suddenly my search for the site of the crash of the Heyford was about to
meet with success. Mr. Douglas Rowland of Chapel-en-le-Frith, having read
my piece, wrote informing me that as a teenager, he, with his brothers, had
visited the site of the crash the day after it had happened.
He had rescued from the wreckage the plane’s brass data plate, the Engine
Particulars of the Rolls Royce Kestrel Series V1. It was in perfect condition,
dutifully cared for over the years by Douglas, though the lower edge of the
plate had been burnt into holes as a result of the intensity of the fire that
destroyed the Heyford.
Douglas kindly offered to take me to the site of the crash the next time I was
in Derbyshire. On a bright June day the two of us set off from above the
Information Centre in Edale to pay our respects.
Doug was turned 83, and the route up to Broadlee Bank Tor was steep
enough to tax a fit and energetic 20 year old, but with many stops for breath
on the ascent, we reached the still-broken wall and the site where K6875 met
its end.

‘Memories’
There was indeed a kind of memorial – a circle of roughly assembled stones,
by unknown hands. There was a mesh of metal parts and lodged among these
were two crucifixes, one white, with the word ‘Memories’ inscribed on it. As
to what happened here, who was killed on that fateful stormy night, or who
had left these sad traces of anguish and respect, there was no explanation.
It turned out that on my first visit to Broadlee Bank Tor I was only a couple
of hundred yards away from the scene of the crash. Across from us, as Doug
and I savoured the splendour of Edale, we could see Rushup Edge over which
the Heyford probably flew, 13 miles off course, its crew either desperately
attempting to establish the plane’s location or blissfully unaware of the fate
that awaited them.

A coming home
After descending from Broadlee Bank, Douglas and I rested our weary feet in
the Old Nag’s Head. We surmised on how many people’s lives had been
altered for ever as a result of a ‘sight error’.
On my return home to Kent I found a small parcel awaiting me, mailed from
Chapel-en-le-Frith. Douglas had made me a gift of the precious data plate of
the Heyford 6875. Framed, it now hangs in pride of place, as polished as if it
has only just been fitted – except for the evidence of the flames that
demolished the plane and its crew. Beside it is the photograph of my Uncle
Jim Barker, as real to me as though he had penned this narrative himself.

Recommended reading
Ron Collier followed up Dark Peak Aircraft Wrecks 1 with a supplementary
volume, Wrecks 2. Pat Cunningham’s Peakland Air Crashes: the North is
impressively comprehensive and includes a section on German aircraft
crashes in the region, plus a couple of pages dedicated to answering the
question, Do Ghostly Aviators Haunt Peakland’s Moors?, which he answers
with deepest scepticism, rejecting ‘this lurid sentimentalism that conjures up
spectral aviators’.

A retired aviator himself, Cunningham concludes by quoting Peter Jackson,
36-years a part-time Peakland ranger and for 27 years a mountain rescue team
volunteer: ‘the Peakland moors encompass many a truly beautiful mystique;
but not a single mystery.’
Walkers interested in visiting the scenes of Peakland crashes will find a
trusty guide in John Merrill’s Dark Peak Aircraft Walks (Walk & Write
Publications, 2002).

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