On December 15, 1942, a Handley Page Halifax Mk. II (DT624) of No. 405 Squadron RCAF, took off from RAF Beaulieu in the New Forest. A few hours later she attempted to return to base due to engine problems, but instead would crash just over a mile from the airfield, with all seven crew members killed.
The operational records for No. 405 Squadron RCAF record the details of the accident.
“While on patrol a/c experienced engine trouble in port outer, and Captain decided to return to base. On arrival at Beaulieu, he received permission from flying control to make a right hand circuit and land. He began normal landing procedure when his port wing was seen to drop when a/c was just beyond the south side of the drome at 7 to 800 feet altitude. A/c seemed to drop off into spin and suddenly crash into ground. Huge billows of smoke being visible from the operations block. On arrival of fire equipment and ambulance, the a/c was practically burned out, all members of the crew perishing in the flames.”
Those men killed in Halifax crash were:
- W/O Robert William Stewart (pilot)
- F/S Robert James Abadore Shaw (air gunner)
- Sgt Albert George Henry Gapes (wireless operator, air gunner)
- F/S Louis Gilbert Watson (bomb aimer)
- Sgt Harold William Gunn (air gunner)
- F/S Richard Alan Rollins (flight engineer)
- Sgt James Ryan (observer)
Background to the Halifax DT624 crash
RAF Beaulieu opened in August 1942 as a Coastal Command base. Liberators of No. 224 Squadron RAF started at the airfield, operating anti-submarine patrols over the Atlantic. In October of that year, fifteen Halifaxes of No. 405 (Vancouver) Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force arrived at Beaulieu Airfield from RAF Topcliffe in North Yorkshire to join them in a similar role. 405 Squadron was on loan from Bomber Command to Coastal Command and flew Vickers Wellington bombers until the conversion to Handley Page Halifaxes in April 1942.
The Halifaxes of No. 405 Squadron RCAF began flying to the Bay of Biscay off the west coast of France armed with depth charges to hunt down German U-boats. A typical operation would involve a Halifax and seven man crew leaving RAF Beaulieu between the hours of 0630 and 0830 and not returning to the airfield until 1600 to 1800 the same day. These were long shifts which could last up to twelve hours.
On the day of the accident, Tuesday December 15, 1942, four Halifaxes took off from Beaulieu in the space of fifteen minutes of each other with codes V, B, U, and F. Halifax DT624 was code F, and along with the other three aircraft was loaded with nine 250 pound Torpex depth charges. They were tasked with an anti-submarine patrol to the Bay of Biscay, a journey of around three hundred miles away.
The seven crew of Halifax DT624 was made up of four Canadians and three Englishmen. The previous night they would have gone to sleep in Nissen huts on what we now call Roundhill Campsite, which in wartime was the living area for RAF Beaulieu. On the morning of their operation, they would have been woken up early, had a breakfast in the mess, given a final briefing, before boarding Halifax DT624 parked up in a dispersal pan on the airfield.
At 0713 the seven men would have watched through the windows of DT624 as they saw the first of their squadron comrades leave Beaulieu in heavy rain. The next two Halifaxes of the four followed at 0720 and 0724 respectively. At 0728 it was DT624’s turn to leave, and with thirty minutes left before sunrise, the Halifax rumbled down the concrete runway and took off into the dark. She rose above the Isle of Wight, over the Solent, and started the journey that would take her over enemy territory in France enroute to the Bay of Biscay.
However, it was to be no ordinary Coastal Command patrol for the crew of Halifax DT624. At some point during the operation, pilot W/O Robert Stewart reported engine trouble on the outer engine fixed to the left side wing. He told his crew they were returning to England. By midday they were over the New Forest and started their descent into Beaulieu Airfield. Stewart requested permission to make a right hand circuit as it was likely easier to fly from this angle due to an engine being out. The control tower gave him the the go-ahead over the radio to make this right hand circuit before coming into land.
W/O Stewart started a normal approach and landing procedure when witnesses saw the left hand side wing (the one with engine trouble) drop when the Halifax was just south of the airfield at a height of approximately 750 feet. The aircraft went into an unrecoverable spin and crashed into heathland southeast of the airfield in the village of East Boldre, about a mile away from the runways.
Huge smoke was seen rising in the distance. Fire and ambulance crews were despatched from the airfield, but despite the proximity, it likely took 10 minutes for vehicles to get to the scene due to the roundabout route the roads would have taken them.
When the emergency teams reached the crash, they were met with a scene of devastation. Halifax DT624 had been consumed with fire and was almost destroyed. All seven crew had perished in the flames.
The time of the crash was logged as being six minutes past twelve in the afternoon. The three other Halifaxes involved in the operation returned to England having completed routine trips with nothing unusual to report.
Five of the crew were buried at St. John’s Church in Boldre, four days later on December 19, 1942.
The crash investigation recorded the following as the possible cause of the accident:
“Aircraft returned to base with port outer engine feathered, during circuit the port inner was seen running slowly. It is considered this failed causing aircraft to brake violently on port side as prop would be in fully fine. Immediate and violent use of rudder to counteract swing may have resulted in rudder stall with insufficient altitude for recovery … suspect case of rudder overbalance.”
These early Halifaxes did suffer from a rudder overbalance, which is why later models had more powerful engines and redesigned, rectangular tails added.
Remembering the airmen
Four of the crew of Halifax DT624 were Canadian. The aircraft belonged to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). There were also three English crew who had enlisted with the RAF Volunteer Reserve.
The families of these men were quickly told of the accident, and reports appeared in the Canadian press on the 21st of December. It was a truly dreadful message to receive, particularly so close to Christmas.
W/O Robert William Stewart (Canadian)
Warrant Officer Stewart was 24 years old, and the pilot of Halifax DT624. He was the son of John Sproul Stewart and Mary Sharp Stewart, of Dysart in Saskatchewan. Growing up in Canada he’d played an active role in the local scouts and baseball and hockey teams.
He had completed 28 and a half days training, before being formally submitted into the RCAF in October 1940. After his death, his father received a package from the RCAF Records Officer containing a letter with the following extract:
“It is a privilege to have the opportunity of sending you the Operational Wings and Certificate in recognition of the gallant services rendered by your son Warrant Officer Class II R.M. Stewart. I realize there is little which may be said or done to lessen your sorrow, but it my hope that these “Wings”, indicative of operations against the enemy, will be a treasured memento of a young life offered on the altar of freedom in defence of his Home and Country.”
Robert William Stewart is buried four thousand miles away from his home, in the graveyard of St. John’s Church in Boldre, New Forest. He is in row 1, grave 7. The inscription on his grave reads:
“He has just gone a step or two ahead to a larger, fuller life. He is not dead.”
F/S Robert James Abadore Shaw (Canadian)
Flight sergeant Robert Shaw was an air gunner on Halifax DT624. He was 22 years old, and the son of Abadore Shaw and of Jenny Shaw, of Orillia in Ontario. He had only been with No. 405 Long Range Patrol Squadron (RCAF) for ten days before the crash.
A relation of his wrote this description of him and his time in the Royal Canadian Air Force and published it to the Wartime Memories Project website.
“Robert Shaw was my first cousin, once removed. According to RCAF records, Robert was not too bright but was very willing and, although he would never be a pilot, he aspired to join the Air Force. He joined the Special Reserve in November 1940 and then took the oath on 16th July 1941. After training in various places, he was given 17 days of embarkation leave and then disembarked in the UK on 9th March 1942. He was posted to No. 405 Squadron on 23rd November 1942 and re-mustered on 5th December 1942 as an Air Gunner. Unfortunately, he was killed in action just 10 days later, on 15th December. He had a fiancée at home in Canada, Nina Morley, and a father and large family of siblings waiting on his return. His mum, my great-aunt, had died in 1939. He was posthumously awarded the following medals: 39-45 Star: European Star: Defence Medal: War Medal: CVSM. award & clasp: Memorial Bar.”
He is also buried at St. John’s Church in Boldre in row 1, grave 5, thousands of miles from home. The inscription on his grave reads:
“In memory of my dear son until the daybreak and the shadows flee away.”
Sgt Albert George Henry Gapes (English)
Sergeant Albert Gapes was the wireless operator and air gunner on Halifax DT624. He was also the oldest of the men at 31 years old. He had enlisted as RAF Volunteer Reserve. He was from Carshalton in Surrey and was the son of Sydney Albert Gapes and Patricia Gertrude Gapes. In the 1939 register, his occupation was listed as a Local Government Officer Buying Clerk County Engineer for Surrey County Council. He was unmarried at the time of his death.
He is buried at St. John’s Church in Boldre alongside five of the other crew in row 1, grave 3. The inscription on his grave reads:
“Into the mosaic of victory, I lay this priceless piece, my son.”
F/S Louis Gilbert Watson (English)
Flight Sergeant Louis Watson was the bomb aimer on Halifax DT624. At the time of his death he was 26 years old. He was the son of Winifred Mary Watson, and stepson of Frederick Gardner, of Wythall in the Bromsgrove district of Worcestershire.
He is buried at St. Mary’s Churchyard, Wythall. The inscription on his grave reads:
“Still in memory he liveth, liveth, yea for evermore.”
Sgt Harold William Gunn (Canadian)
Sergeant Harold Gunn was an air gunner on Halifax DT624. He was 26 years old and the son of William Wemyss Gunn and Florence Edna Gunn, of Toronto, Ontario. He attended the Western Technical School, Toronto.
He is buried at St. John’s Church in Boldre in row 1, grave 6, three and a half thousand miles from his home. The inscription on his grave reads:
“To live in the hearts of those who love us, is not to die.”
F/S Richard Alan Rollins (Canadian)
Flight Sergeant Richard Rollins was a flight engineer on Halifax DT624. He was 22 years old when he died, and the son of William Alan and Fanny Josephine Rollins, of Vancouver, British Columbia. Prior to enlisting in the RCAF, he was a student at Lord Byng High School, and also studied at the Ground School for Aircraftmen in August 1939, being enrolled in the first class of students at that school. He went overseas in April 1941, and transferred from ground crew to air crew in August that year.
He is buried at St. John’s Church in Boldre in row 1, grave 8, and like his compatriots, far from home and family. The inscription on his grave reads:
“Let him be numbered with thy saints in glory everlasting.”
Sgt James Ryan (English)
Sergeant James Ryan was the observer on Halifax DT624. He was aged 30 years old at the time of the crash and was born in Gateshead, Tyne & Wear. He was the son of James and Sarah Ryan, of Amble, a town on the North Sea coast of Northumberland.
He is buried at Amble West Cemetery. The inscription on his grave reads:
“In loving memory of our dearly beloved son Sgt / Obs James Ryan RAF VD, who lost his life December 15th, 1942. Aged 30 years. He died that others may live.”
No. 405 Squadron (RCAF) left Beaulieu and moved back to RAF Topcliffe in North Yorkshire at the end of March 1943. The squadron motto was “ducimus” meaning “we lead”.
Credits & notes
- Thanks to Richard Reeves for providing the accident report and validating some details
- The photo of a Halifax in the header is not DT624, but a representation of what it looked like.