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.


Liv said...

love you daddy, this was such a fun day! you always had me doing boy things from fantasizing about bungee jumping, to racing cars. I think it's time for you to come have a mani pedi with me.

Mad Dog said...

Thanks again for being such a good sport. Don't know about a pedi but I'm up for a facial, some hot towels and a bit of waxing..

Ewan McArthur said...

Tried to put this post up last night but Google was making me do all sort of account logins :(

Anyway, hope you are well! Great blog on my fave aircraft. A couple of positive ID's for you :

The big armour plate is indeed armour plate, and is fitted at the very front behind the nose cone. The large rectangular hole was the inspection panel, and the whole lot was attached to the aircraft via dzus fasteners.

Pic 10 showing a couple of levers appears to be the upper assembly of the undercarriage, above the main legs, one of which you have in another pic.

Pic 11, not entirely sure but would suggest from my limited knowledge that you are indeed correct and the chute is a feeder of some sort for one of the wing guns (makes sense looking at the frame its attached too, but cannot see a proper pic in the manual)

Panels are always interesting ! Did any of them have numbers or data plates attached to them? Sometimes that often helps, though of course dataplate type things are the first thing to go to souvenir hunters :(

Anyway hope that helps, I'm still gathering parts along the way in the hope that I can do at the very least a cockpit or more in a few years. Cheers, Ewan

Mad Dog said...

Ewan, thank you so much for your comments and the IDs -you really do know the Beau. The undercarriage mechanism has some numbers on it and I have more photos of the other parts. If you are interested I'll email them to you. Best regards, John

Anthony said...

Excellent work (Anthony from ArchaeoBlog here). Also checked out the other post as well. Both are invaluable from a historical perspective for maintaining knowledge about the locations, sites, and the parts that were recovered.

Mad Dog said...

Thanks for dropping by, Anthony. Also for the kind comment. I'm finding my limited ventures into military archaeology both fascinating and addictive.