Tragedy on the Home Front

This year has seen the 60th Anniversary of the end of the Second World War and there has been much celebration. But there have been some whose joy at the end of the war would have been tinged with sadness. Such has undoubtedly been the case for the families of two ladies who died in Ruxley Lane, West Ewell, and were the victims of an incident, which these days might have been called 'friendly fire'.

In June 2004, Epsom & Ewell Local & Family History Centre held one of their WWII events in connection with the D-Day celebrations, and among various items on display was a list of all known or suspected aircraft crash sites in the borough and nearby, together with pictures of the types of aircraft and any known details. One site which came from an ARP map was at the north end of Ruxley Lane, West Ewell (off the A240 near Tolworth), but no details were available. Nothing was known about this site other than a suggestion that it was the crash site of an experimental aircraft.

Vickers Warwick Aircraft
Vickers Warwick
Image Source Wikipedia (opens in a new window)

During the course of what was a very successful afternoon, one of the visitors to the exhibition stated that he thought that the aircraft might have been a Vickers aircraft, but he was not sure of the date of the crash or the make of the aircraft. He thought that it happened more towards the end of the war. In the course of conversation with the Centre's volunteers it transpired that the aircraft was likely to have been a Warwick - a descendant of the famous Wellington bomber designed by Barnes Wallis of Dambuster fame.

Being intrigued by the circumstances, and as one of the History Centre Volunteers, and having been in the RAF myself, I followed up the slender leads at the National Archives at Kew. This, together with assistance and photographs from the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon, enabled the story slowly to unfold.

In one sense there was some truth in the experimental aircraft theory insofar as the aircraft was a Vickers Warwick Mark V which had taken off on its very first flight from Weybridge for the express purpose of further investigation of rudder overbalance, a fault which had plagued other Warwick's and which had resulted in at least two other crashes of this type.

At midday on 1 Feb 1945, Warwick number PN777 took off from Weybridge with Wing Commander Maurice Summers at the controls - an experienced test pilot from before the start of the war with more than 100 hours of flying time on Warwick's alone. He was the brother of the even more famous test pilot with Vickers, Joseph 'Mutt' Summers, who tested one of the most famous aircraft of WWII - the Spitfire. Just one other person was on board; a civilian technical observer from Vickers, Mr George Hemsley.

After take-off they climbed to 13,000 ft in good weather. Visibility was 20-30 miles, cloud six-tenths cover at 3000 ft., wind 20-25 mph from the southwest. At 13,000 ft the experiment to test the rudder controls was scheduled to commence but almost immediately they were in trouble. The rudder started to overbalance to starboard and try as he might, Wing Cdr. Summers was unable to get the aircraft back under control, so that at 12.20 pm he instructed Hemsley to bale out of the doomed aircraft, and followed him shortly afterwards.

The aircraft was observed to descend in a wide but tightening spiral to port. Hemsley was to land on farmland between the Drift Bridge and Epsom College, Reigate Road, damaging his ankle, and being taken to Horton Hospital. Summers came down in Highfield Drive opposite the old Rembrandt cinema, suffering from a head injury either sustained on leaving the aircraft or when he was dragged along the ground on landing. He was taken to Epsom County Hospital where he was said to be well on the way to recovery from his injury at the time of the inquest in March.

But what of the aircraft? Some thought that it might come down on the Gibraltar Recreation Ground. Regrettably it continued on its spiral path until it crashed into numbers 14 and 16 Ruxley Lane, no. 14 being completely demolished with the bulk of the aircraft ending up in the back garden. While there was no fire, two women about to have lunch were killed: Mrs Annie Elizabeth Swan (43) of 14 Ruxley Lane and her friend Mrs Edith May Connor (42) of 20 Ravensfield Gardens.

Mrs Edith May Connor (42) Mrs Annie Elizabeth Swan (43)
Mrs Connor (left) and Mrs Swan (right)
Image Source Epsom and Ewell Advertiser 08 February 1945

While it was reported that hundreds of people in the area witnessed the aircraft and parachutes descending, there were four main witnesses at the inquest in March, apart from Mr Hemsley who was walking with the aid of a stick, Wing Cdr. Summers being still in hospital. The witnesses were: PC 745V Stoneham whose house was in River Way; Miss Sheila Stoneham, his daughter; PC 647W Howard, supervising a school crossing; Pilot Officer J. Hobson, an off duty RAF officer of Newbolt Avenue, Cheam; all confirmed much the same progress of events.

Understandably for the time, the technical evidence given at the inquest was held in camera and all that was stated in Court was that the Warwick 'was taken up for acceptance trials before being handed over to the Air Ministry'. This does not sit too comfortably with the detailed report now available at National Archives which talks of the 'first test flight of a new production aircraft used for further investigation of rudder overbalance'. Even more interesting is a hand-written note at the end of the report which says, 'No nasty remarks about why aircraft was there .... '. But, as used to be said in those days: 'Don't you know there's a war on!' These two ladies deaths are recorded in the Borough's Book of Remembrance as having been killed by 'enemy action'.

Both the Swan and Connor families had been close friends for many years before the tragedy, and on the day the two mothers had arranged to have lunch together in Mrs Swan's house. It was here that fate took another hand in the story. Mrs Swan nipped out to buy some fish for lunch from the local shops, and for some reason did not queue but was served immediately by mutual consent. Had Mrs Swan joined the queue in the normal way the chances are that she could well have escaped, as the aircraft struck her house almost immediately after she returned home. Such are the vagaries of war.

The son of Mrs. Ann Swan, one of the ladies tells of just how he felt when he came home from Kingston Grammar School to find his Mother gone and his home gone, with his sister evacuated to Scotland and his father in the Army and that all he had was what he stood up in - and this at 14 years of age! Mrs. Swan's daughter tells of her anger when she heard the news and especially at the way her family was treated by the authorities. She was even more angry later, when she realized the circumstances of the crash and the fact that the family silver disappeared did not make her feel any better.

One of those who witnessed the pilot descent by parachute apparently towards her front garden. Her mother's only concern, she says, was that she "could only offer the poor chap spam for lunch". Even in time of war, one tried to maintain social standards if possible. The daughter of a family living over the off-licence at the end of Ruxley Lane, virtually next door to the crash site, found her mother viewing the wreckage from the bottom of the garden, completely distraught.

Like most stories, there are still loose ends and strange coincidences. For instance, are any members of the families still in the area? Does anybody remember anything now that memories have been jogged? What of the witnesses? If anybody does recall anything and wishes to do so, please contact Bert Barnhurst at the History Centre.

One unusual story that came to light when researching this incident is that of the parrot who lived in one of the local shops and was allowed to march up and down outside shouting obcenities at the Germans during air raids. Does anyone recalls the parrot or the things it said?

Strangely, it seems that some things are much the same as sixty years ago. According to the Ewell Directory for 1940, (the only one available for the war years) the shop next to 14 Ruxley Lane was Frederick Smith, tobacconist. The name of the shop today is still Smiths and it is still a newsagents. The only fish shop listed at that time was that of Herbert Thompson at 417 Kingston Road. And at that address today - Hung Fung Chinese take-away and fish and chips!! Life is full of coincidences. Nearly all the other shops in that parade have changed usage or ownership.

I have written this story for a variety of reasons; curiosity, interest, the thought that people such as these two unfortunate ladies deserved to be remembered in recognition of all those on the home front and should not be lost to time and history. Also for the younger generation, like my grandson Ben aged 8 who lives just off Ruxley Lane and thinks that war only happens on television. Life was not like that 60 years ago.

Text Source: Copyright Bert Barnhurst 2005,
Chairman Epsom & Ewell Local & Family History Centre (Opens in a new window)

A Doll like Alice

By Bert Barnhurst

The doll handover ceremony on 28 June 2008
The doll handover ceremony on 28 June 2008
(L to R) Edith Barrett, Margaret Dyson (nee Swan)and Cllr Alan Winkworth, Mayor of Epsom & Ewell

The Ruxley Lane air crash has been an ongoing story for some four years, and is still going on even now.

At first Epsom & Ewell Local & Family History Centre volunteers only knew that there had been a crash in Ruxley Lane late in the war. Research during the next year established many facts including the aircraft involved, a Warwick, and the circumstances of the crash. It was without a crew, who had baled out and crashed on 14 Ruxley Lane, Ewell, demolishing the house and killing the owner, Anne Swan, and her neighbour Edith Connor. Fortunately, none of the rest of Anne's family was at home - her husband was serving in the forces, her son Alan was at school and her daughter Margaret was an evacuee.

Shortly after the crash Douglas and Edith Barrett, who were visiting Ewell, walked past the ruins of the house as it was being cleared away and spied a bedraggled doll on top of the rubbish. The poignant image so touched Edith Barrett that she took the doll home with her, but without any real idea what she would do with it.

Since then Edith hung onto the doll through thick and thin. But having seen the article on this website, Peter Barrett, son of Edith, remembered the doll and contacted the History Centre who had found Alice the doll's original owner, Margaret Dyson (nee Swan), Anne's evacuated daughter, at the time of the earlier investigations.

Margaret Swan and her doll on 18th August 1948
Margaret Swan and her doll on 18th August 1948
Image courtesy of the Dyson Family © 2008

So 63 years later, on the 28th June 2008, Peter's mother, Edith Barrett handed the doll, called 'Alice', to its original owner Margaret Dyson at an event in the History Centre in the presence of Cllr. Alan Winkworth the Mayor of Epsom and Ewell.

Personal Memories 1

My mother sent me up to the fish and chip shop with a note and money in my glove. I guess would have taken me around 15 minutes to get there. I cannot remember if it was both on the way there or only on the way back, but I clearly remember seeing a plane high up in the sky going round and round in circles for what appeared to be ages. I remember watching all the time as I walked home. When I got back to Willow Way I pointed it out to my mother and we watched it with another lady who was staying with us. I remember seeing what appeared to be an orange glow around it and then we saw small dots of people parachuting down and then the plane went into a dive. My mother said something like some poor devil will get it.

A few days later we were walking along Ruxley Lane and saw the remains of a demolished house and a large trailer removing the remains of the aircraft. I have no idea what type it was but it did have a lot of windows in the front. At the museum the Heinkel 111 reminded me of it, but it is a long time ago and I was only 5 at the time so I could not identify it now.

Years later my mother told me the people who were killed were eating fish and chips, they had asked for skate but rather than wait for it to be cooked they had taken the cod or haddock that was ready. If they had waited they would have been saved. At least this confirms the article.

Laurie Joyce, Reading. November 2008

Personal Memories 2

I was a boy of eight years old on the first of February 1945, and returning home from school that day I was told that there had been a terrible aircrash in Ruxley Lane, and that my mother had gone to the scene because my 'Auntie Ann' had been killed. I immediately raced down there from my home about a mile away in Cuddington, and found a scene of appalling devastation.

The house was completely demolished and shattered masonry was everywhere. I was particularly struck by the dramatic sight of the aircraft's two huge wheels and its engines lying at the end of the garden. The site was roped off and guarded by the police, but my mother was allowed to enter as she had been the close friend of Ann Swan and family for many years, and in the absence of Mr.Swan who was in the army, was probably needed to identify her friend. There was also a question of security since this was a prototype military aircraft and it was still wartime.

The plane must have only just cleared the roof of Houghtons Garage opposite, but bent the streetlight in front, before ploughing into No.14, its port wing slicing through the first floor of No.16, and its starboard wing scoring a deep scar in the roughcast side wall of Smiths the newsagents. The occupants, Ann Swan and Edith Connor were both killed. Fortunately George and Ethel Collins at No.16 were not injured but their house was extensively damaged.

I understood later that the crew had baled out and one of them had landed on a Post Office roof somewhere and had injured his back, but it would seem now that this was not the case. The plane had come from Vickers at Weybridge and in later years was said to be a prototype of the Viking which was a small post war airliner. This was clearly also incorrect as it was certainly a Warwick, but perhaps the Viking was indeed later developed from this plane.

The real tragedy of this incident of course, was that the two women were killed by the remotest chance, and only 3 months before the war ended. More tragic still though is the fact that after going for fish and chips but deciding not to wait, they returned to the house only minutes before the crash. The fish shop in Ruxley Parade was later called The Cormorant and owned by a very pleasant couple called Cork, but I cannot now recall the name of the shop in 1945. Did any photos ever appear in the press? Perhaps not, as they were probably prohibited for security reasons, but they must exist in some official file of the time. It would be interesting to pursue this question and perhaps add some photos to the records.

The Swan family were our neighbours in Merton Park before the war, and we spent a lot of time together. My mother was a very close friend of Ann Swan, known to me as 'Auntie Ann', and she later found the house in Ruxley Lane for them. My grandparents lived at No.20 and it was my grandfather Matthew Tong, a builder, who built the top end of Ruxley Lane and several other roads thereabouts.

An interesting epilogue: No.14 was eventually rebuilt and later bought by the singer Matt Munro who lived there in the late 1950's when he was becoming very successful. However, he soon became a very big star indeed and I think he moved on when he found that his enormous pink american Ford Galaxie car would not fit in the drive.

Esmond Clements, France, November 2008

Spotlight on the Vickers Warwick Aircraft

A rigged Airborne Lifeboat in front of the Vickers Warwick B.1, BV351, sometime after June 6th, 1944
A rigged Airborne Lifeboat in front of the Vickers Warwick B.1, BV351, sometime after June 6th, 1944
Image Source Wikipedia (opens in a new window)

The Vickers Warwick was a transport, anti-submarine patrol and air-sea rescue aircraft of the RAF during World War II.

The Warwick was designed to Air Ministry specification B.1/35 for a two-engined heavy (by the standards of the day) bomber to replace the Wellington. The prototype orders were cancelled in 1936 when it was decided to standardise on four engined bombers. Vickers-Armstrong completed two prototypes, one with Rolls-Royce Vulture water-cooled engines, not persisted with because of production difficulties and one with the air-cooled Pratt & Whitney.

The Warwick used geodetic construction pioneered in the Wellesley and Wellington. Structural members of duralumin were covered by wired-on fabric. 219 Warwick Is were built, the last 95 with 2,000 hp (1,500 kW) R-2800-47 engines.

The Warwick was ordered by Coastal Command for anti-submarine reconnaissance. From 1943 Warwicks were loaded with the 1,700 lb (770 kg) Mk. IA lifeboat and used for air-sea rescue. The lifeboat, designed by yachtsman Uffa Fox, laden with supplies and powered by two 4 hp (3 kW) motors, was aimed with a bomb-sight near to ditched air-crew and dropped into the sea from about 700 ft (320 m). Warwicks were credited with rescuing crews form Halifaxes, Lancasters, Wellingtons and Fortresses and during the Arnhem landings from Hamilcar gliders

Specifications (Warwick I)
General characteristics
Crew: six
Length: 72 ft 3 in (22.00 m)
Wingspan: 96 ft 8 in (29.50 m)
Height: 18 ft 6 in (5.6 m)
Wing area: 1,006 ft² (93.5 m²)
Empty weight: 35,400 lb (16,057 kg)
Loaded weight: 38,000 lb (17,230 kg)
Max takeoff weight: 46,000 lb (20,860 kg)
Powerplant: 2× Pratt & Whitney R-2800/S.1A4-G Double Wasp radials, 1,850 hp (1,380 kW each) each

Maximum speed: 244 mph (393 km/h)
Range: 1,988 miles (3,200 km)
Service ceiling: 19,000 ft (5,800 m)
Rate of climb: ft/min (m/s)
Wing loading: 38 lb/ft² (184 kg/m²)
Power/mass: 0.10 hp/lb (160 W/kg)
Armament 8 x .303 (7.7 mm) Browning machine guns
Text Source Wikipedia (opens in a new window), the free encyclopedia

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