Wednesday, September 25, 2013

War Stories: Bristol Beaufighter

My interest in historic military aviation stems from my early teenage years when I became obsessed with building and flying model aircraft. For some reason the Bristol Beaufighter was always one of my favourite warbirds of the WWII era. It was short nosed, pugnacious looking in terms of aesthetic appeal, and played second fiddle to the faster, sleeker, DeHavilland Mosquito. Nevertheless it was a highly versatile heavy fighter that was particularly effective as a night interceptor (its capacious fueselage easily accommodating bulky early radar sets) as well as in ground attack and marine protection roles. Its primary armament was four forward firing 20mm cannons and six 7.7mm machine guns. In addition it could carry bombs rockets and torpedoes.  Overall it was one the most heavily armed Allied fighter-bombers and packed a formidable punch.

Nearly 6000 Beaufighters were built but sadly there are only one or two left in the world and none are in airworthy condition. Earlier in the year, just prior to a visit to my daughter in Italy, I was intrigued to read of the (re)discovery of a crashed Beaufighter in the village of Gusano, about an hour's drive from Milan. I wrote to the archeological team, Air Crash Po, and received a warm invitation to visit the site.  So on a pleasant day back in June I set off with Olivia and Giulio to the countryside.
The photos below tell the story (for those with ADD and can't cope with still pictures, scroll to the bottom of the page for some YouTube action)...

The crash site is at the village of Gusano di Gropparello; "chestnut country" according to the sign
Located in the Po Valley, about an hour's drive from Milan  -it's hard to imagine a more picturesque spot
The crash site marked (by me) on Google Maps and Street view. For you geo-anoraks the co-ordinates are: 44.837719, 9.701647
Looking directly at the crash site. 70 years ago there were more trees here and  one theory is that the Beaufighter clipped them while pulling out of a dive to strafe a vehicle in the valley below

Pierlino Bergonzi (the gentleman in the white shirt) explains what may have happened on the fateful night of September 5th, 1944.  Pierlino is a former military pilot and has a very good sense of how the crash occurred. This photo courtesy Olivia Morrow

A survey of the site begins. Olivia and Giulio join in with the search. The aircraft was  a Bristol Beaufighter Xc of the RAF's 272 squadron and operating out of Alghero, Sardinia. It was probably looking for targets of opportunity: unfortunately it's only possible to speculate as squadron records for September 1944 are missing from the National Archive
After the crash in September 1944, the aircraft was stripped of valuable salvage materials but many small parts remained and were simply buried and farm activities continued. Interest in the site was re-stimulated by the discovery of a propellor blade and various panels (see below). 
A cursory search with a metal detector unearthed several aluminium fragments that were almost certainly aircraft related...

Amazingly a villager, whose farm was adjacent to the crash site, appeared and announced that he had several pieces of the airplane is his house and had never previously shown them to anyone.  This is a heavy steel plate, approximately 1/4" thick and 2 ft tall. Any Beaufighter experts out there who know what it is? My sense is that it's too heavy to be a fuesalage former or a hatch and the wrong shape for seat armor (I don't think the Beaus had armored seats anyway). An engine mount perhaps or maybe mounting plate for the undercarriage? Let me know if you have any ideas...
This twisted piece of aluminium is clearly from one of the instrument panels
A hinged mechanism of some kind, quite possibly from the undercarriage or maybe one of the control surfaces
No idea what this is. I was tempted to speculate that the aluminium hopper in the centre of the structure  was to hold cannon shells but I don't think it's big enough
No mystery here: this is an undercarriage leg with a telescopic shock absorber  -see below
A more detailed view of telescopic shock absorber. After 70 years some of the chrome is intact
A propellor blade. This piece of the airplane is housed in the Museo della Resistenza at Sperongia, a few Km away from the crash site
Aluminium panels still with intact olive drab paint. This component looks like it was part of the engine cowling
Another panel with a small inspection hatch. This looks like a piece of the fuselage to me...
This hole (detail from panel above) looks like it was made with a bullet. There is a clear entry and exit. But it's the only one visible. Could the plane have been brought down by small arms fire?  Maybe but the shooter would have had to have been extraordinarily lucky. Shooting at enemy aircraft with rifles was very common and this hole could simply be an old and inconsequential battle scar
Another piece of aluminium skin. Where it's from is anybody's guess (my personal feeling is that given the flat form it's from the underside of the fuselage).  On my next trip to the UK I intend to visit the reading room at the RAF Museum, Hendon and see if I can identify any of these parts from workshop manuals.  Seriously, if there are any Beaufighter experts out there please who can help please comment below...
The cemetery at Gusano.  Both members of the aircrew perished in the crash and were buried here by the villagers with utmost respect
The brave aircrew were Flight Sgt. John Horsford (pilot) and Warrant Officer John C Watson (navigator/gunner). Their remains were later transferred from Gusano to the magnificent Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa 
Wild poppies grew all over the crash site and in the adjacent fields. Very poignant  -it seemed that nature was also making a respectful gesture

The pilot of the Beaufighter, John Horsford, was awarded posthumously the DFM.  This clipping is taken from the London Gazette supplement, 23rd February 1945

Me with the archaeology team at the Museum of the Resistance, Sperongia

My thanks go to Signor Pierlino Bergonzi, Professor Agostino Alberti and their colleagues of the Aircrash Po and Gruppo Ricercatori Aerei Caduti teams and the Muzeo Della Resistenza, Sperongia, for making this visit possible.  My appreciation also goes to Giulio Cavalli for acting as chaffeur and translator and Olivia Morrow for her cheerful patience and good humour on a day that can only be described as "blokeish".  Finally I wish to pay tribute to the memory of Officers Horsford and Watson as well as all the brave airmen, regardless of allegiance or nationality, who gave their lives in that terrible conflict.

Saturday, September 14, 2013


My Father, the late AW Morrow, and me as an awkward teenager, c1964,  Surrey,  England

Happy 95th Birthday, Dad! 

PS Miss you...

Thursday, September 12, 2013

When I'm 64!

It's a Beatles Thursday for no particular reason  -well maybe just one (B.B. knows)...

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

War Stories: London is Burning and I Live by the River*

View eastwards along the Thames.  Heavy smoke rises from fires in and around the London  Docks complex. Tower Bridge is clearly visible (lower centre right) and the Tower of London can also be seen (lower centre left)
My recent trip to Britain's capital and my former home, a flat near Tower Bridge, triggered all sorts of nostalgia. One of these thought threads, catalyzed by the memory that exactly 73 years ago the Battle of Britain was reaching its peak, was an intense curiosity about what life was like in the London Borough of Southwark in those dark war years. 

A Heinkel bomber flies over Surrey Docks on the Isle of Dogs, east London
The flat is in Docklands, an area of the city that suffered terribly in the Nazi bombing raids of WW2.  Back then the docks were fully functional and essential for maintaining the supply lifeline to the island nation. So they presented a logical target for German bombers in The Blitz of 1940-1941.  On 7th September 1940, having failed to destroy the RAF, Hitler directed the Luftwaffe to attack London.

View from St. Paul's cathedral  to Southwark bridge; London bridge can just be seen to the left of Southwark Bridge
Enemy bomb detonations on the first night of the Blitz. A scalable, interactive version can be found here

On the first night of the Blitz an initial wave of 348 bombers, escorted by 617 fighters, dropped their deadly payloads. A detailed and meticulous account of every bomb blast (there were 843 of them) is recorded here. The rose-coloured spectacles of hindsight tend to depict a romanticized vision of wartime London. The truth is that it was a grim and desperate place. In the following eight months more than 70 heavy raids were recorded, a million properties were destroyed or damaged and 40,000 people were killed. 1651 high explosive bombs, 20 parachute mines and an unknown number of incendiary bombs were dropped on Southwark borough alone. Bomb Sight, the WW2 bomb census organisation, records 136 bomb strikes in the Riverside sub-district of the borough. Half a dozen bombs landed around or actually on the present site of my flat in Mill Street and at least one went off in the adjacent St Saviour's dock. If my residence had existed at that time I would have certainly been rendered homeless or possibly killed.

Bomb detonation map of the Riverside district of Southwark showing bomb strikes during the course of the Blitz. Map from Bomb Sight records
Damage was extensive: one million homes were destroyed or badly damaged
Mill Street c1985. The shot is taken from Jamaica Road. My flat is in a block built on the site in the foreground on the left hand side (behind the railings). It's pretty evident that there is nothing there and I'm sure the buildings once there were razed in the Blitz. BombSight indicates several bombs fell on this spot.  The photo is by David Buckley and used with his permission
Dread Zeppelin! This plaque in Farringdon Road is a reminder that  London also suffered aerial attacks in WWI 
Of course, the bombing didn't stop with the cessation of the Blitz in May 1941. It continued at lower intensity and decreasing throughout the war however there was a sting in the tail in 1944 and 1945 when a Hitler deployed his V1 and V2 Vergeltungswaffe (Vengeance) weapons. They were both pilotless bombs and launched from sites in France. The V1, which also went by the charmingly folksy nickname of Doodlebug, was a relatively low speed projectile powered by a simple pulse jet. It could be shot down by anti-aircraft guns and fast fighter interceptors, notably the Hawker Tempest.  Nevertheless many got through the British defences and their 850 Kg warheads caused extensive casualties (approximately 23,000 killed and wounded) and property damage. V1 attacks ceased after allied forces captured their launching sites in September 1944. If you don't know what a V1 looked or sounded like you might want to watch this clip.

An even nastier weapon was the V2 rocket. These were fired approximately 100 Km into near space on a long parabolic trajectory. Because they were supersonic, the V2s were impossible to shoot down and could not be intercepted by fighters. And unlike the V1 which announced its arrival by the distinctive "parp-parp" note of its pulse jet, the V2 arrived ahead of the sound wave and was noiseless until its 1000 Kg warhead detonated.  While the V2 could be fired from fixed sites, the preferred method was to launch them from mobile sites (like the infamous SCUD missiles of the Iraq wars), usually in the Pas de Calais. The V2 has the dubious distinction of being the first ballistic missile used in combat and was a truly terrifying instrument of war.

The V2 rocket has the dubious distinction of being the first ballistic missile used in combat and was a truly terrifying instrument of war. It stood nearly 15metres tall and carried a 1000Kg high explosive warhead. The rocket here is on display at the Flying Heritage Collection, Everett, Washington.
On 2nd March 1945 a V2 rocket exploded here at Parkers Row, London,  SE1, killing three people. This site is no more than 200 metres from the front door of my flat. The building on the left is typical 1950s style post war prefab and I presume was ground zero for the rocket. Picture from Google street view.

I started out with the intention of this post being about the V2 rocket explosion near my old flat but it's morphed into something quite a bit more. As a baby boomer, I was very used to hearing "war stories" from my parents, their friends and family members when growing up.  As as fan of military history, I knew the phases of WW2 quite well. Yet in digging up the material for this article I was frankly shocked when I was reminded how bad things were...I even started to feel resentful of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" motto (ironically dreamed up in 1939 by the Ministry of Information in anticipation of air raids) currently being used to hawk endless products and services.
Wartime chic isn't!

* My apologies to the late John G. Mellor for borrowing this line from his excellent lyrics without his permission.