55 Coy RASC (AD). 29 May 1961
Hastings WD497 of 48 Squadron RAF was on a routine training flight, dropping at Seletar, when it crashed near the 10th Milestone, Yio Chu Kang Road, south of Seletar at about 1430hrs. The pilot having sent a distress message. Rescue services from RAF Seletar were on the scene within a short time, but there was little that they could do. On board were eight Air Despatchers and five aircrew. All but one were dead. The living man was taken to Changi Hospital but died there. The crash was beside a kampong (village), and pieces of the aircraft hit a house narrowly missing a young boy playing there, some 30 yards from the crash. A sow and its litter of eleven piglets were killed by the crashing aircraft.
The wreckage was recovered, taken to Seletar and laid out in a hanger for the crash enquiry. The crash enquiry laid the blame for the crash on the pilot losing control after the loss of an engine.
The men who died in WD497 were:-
- FL. Lt. A Lyne, Pilot
- Fl. Lt. G.E. Hickman, Co-Pilot
- Fl. Lt. P.G. Tarling, Navigator
- Sgt. J.A. Wells, Flight Enginee
- Sgt J.J. McConnell, Signaller
- Cpl G. Barnard
- Cpl A. C. Howitt
- L/Cpl H.W. Smith
- Dvr A.D.G. Box
- Dvr A.C. King
- Dvr D. McG. Tennant
- Dvr F.E. Smith
- Dvr D. Wroe
Col. B.H. Bradbrook (Retd.)
The crash occurred on the day I had just handed over command of 55 Company RASC (Air Despatch) to Major R.J. (Roy) Royle (deceased). I was sitting in a spare office in the Company hangar at RAF Seletar, completing some final paperwork, when a soldier put his head round the door and said “There’s a Hastings down at the end of the runway”. Initially I thought it might have been a crash landing in the undershoot area, but it rapidly transpired that it was far more serious than that.
Subsequently I heard that the aircraft had suffered an engine failure and it was suggested that the pilot had mistakenly turned into his dead engine instead of away from it, thus resulting in a stalled wing on the inside of the turn. As the aircraft was at low level for dropping there was insufficient altitude to effect a recovery from the stall and the crash resulted. I do not know what the official inquiry concluded, but this was the conjecture at the time.
The aircraft was on a training sortie which explains why there were two Air Despatch crews on board at the time. A local practice DZ near the airfield was being used, which enabled the crash services to reach the site very quickly.
55 Company had by that time come under command of 3 AASO (Army Air Supply Organization), also based at RAF Seletar, commanded by Lt Col ‘Tony’ O’Reilly (deceased). His RSM organized the military funeral of the Air Despatchers.
I remember Cpl Howitt as an experienced crew commander, who would have been picked to train the new crew members on this ill-fated sortie.
I think the Admin Officer of 55 Company at that time was Capt ‘Freddy’ Selleck and the Ops Capt, Archie McMillan. One of the troop commanders was Lt G.J. ‘Geof’ Christopherson, RAASC, our Australian exchange officer (now Brigadier (Retd)).
On the morning of the crash, Kemar Platoon were outside the office when they picked the two crews. My name came out as one of them. Dvr Box came into the hangar, he had just come out of hospital after breaking a leg. I believe that he was going home to ‘Blighty’ at the weekend, and he needed one flight to get his brevet. It was then Lt. Christopherson, RAASC, who was our Platoon Commander, told me to stand down, so that Dvr Box could get the flight he needed.
I was put on DZ Duties. We drove round to the other side of the runway, waiting to pick up the training packs. I was sitting with John Carpenter when the Hastings took off over the Straits. On his first pass he was far to high to drop. The next time I looked up he was coming in left wing down. I said, “It looks if he is going to drop this time”. I looked back to John again when the radio on the RAF Land Rover was heard to say, “Coming in for a crash landing”. When we looked up again, there was nothing to be seen, it had gone. We were taken back to the hangar, where the roll was taken to check who was missing.
Everybody was really down when the platoon went for dinner in the Airmen’s Mess. Then all hell broke out. A Sgt Tech remarked that there would be eight less to feed. One of the lads caught hold of him and smashed his nose and mouth. Blood everywhere. The food had to be cleared away, the serveries cleaned, and fresh food brought out. I believe that the Sgt was posted out of the camp within the hour. We never saw him again.
The next day the Company had to go to the cinema, where top brass gave us a lecture about getting on with RAF personnel. There was never any more trouble after that. We just go on as normal. I can’t remember whether it was the same day, or the next, but they rolled a Beverley out, so all Despatchers could get back in the air. There was only one refusal to fly. It seemed ages before the funeral, but I had the great honour of being a Pall Bearer, when the lads were given a full Military Funeral.
At the time I was 2/IC 55 AD, and Roy Royal (deceased) the OC.
Following the crash, I drove immediately to the crash site, closely followed by the RAF rescue team. The crash site was horrendous, the pilot and air and despatch crews had no chance of survival. The area was awash in aviation fuel which luckily did not catch fire. There being nothing I could do I left the scene to the RAF team and reported back to HQ.
The Company were devastated as we had lost eight of our comrades, and some very close friends from the Hastings squadron with whom we had flown many long hours on re-supply missions. We soldered on with heavy hearts and a complete feeling of loss, it took some time for the indomitable spirit of the Air Despatchers to show through again. Re-supply continued unabated from Bristol Freighters (frighteners) flown by the Royal New Zealand Air Force, Twin Pioneers, Valettas and of course the Beverley.
Once Hastings were cleared to fly again the ‘One-eyed Reilly‘ ordered an all Officer crew, slightly enlarged as all the officers of 55 AD Company and 3 AASO were on board, to fly the next sortie. This had the desired effect on moral, and we, as all soldiers have to, put the tragedy behind us and got on with the day to day business of keeping the jungle patrols and major operations fully supplied.
For me it was a case of what might have been, one of those nine lives which some of us are blessed with whilst others do not seem to be so lucky. We shall not forget them.
Brigadier (retd) Geoff Christopherson
I was in Singapore at FARELF 1 that afternoon, and drove past the crash site on my way back to Seletar, so got involved in the recovery operations. The crews (Air Despatch and aircrew) would have died instantly as the aircraft seemed to have gone in nose first and only the tail section was intact.
The conjecture I heard was that the aircraft ‘lost’ an engine (on the port wing, I think), and the pilot feathered the wrong engine, so the aircraft rolled into the ground. It would be interesting to see what the RAF report said. The bits of the plane were reassembled in one of the aircraft maintenance hangars on the other side of the airfield.
To the best of my recollection we always used both Port and Starboard doors on the Hastings for dropping, hence the double Air Despatch crews.
About Cpl Howitt, as you know I was his Platoon Commander and he was, I think, a little older than the other NCOs of that period and went about his duties with a manner that seemed to indicate he was happy in what he was doing, and knew he could handle the situations that were likely to come up. There were several in my Platoon that were like that."
I was the sole survivor of No.7 crew. Dvr Dave Rowe flew in my place on that terrible day. I had got my self 14 days detention and had only been released that morning. I asked Cpl Cyril Howitt who was in flying kit if the crew was flying, his reply was, “We are, but Dave Rowe is in your place. If you had not gotten your self put in nick, you would be coming with us”. Those where the last words I spoke to him. The CSM. Charlie Stockdale detailed me as one of the DZ crew. The Hastings taxied to the end of the runway they spent some ten mins running up the engines they then took off. The practise DZ, was at the side of RAF Seletar runway and this was a training drop,The Hastings came in for a dummy run, passed over us and banked over the Straits of Johore. We last saw her flying up the Seletar River.