SEVEN lives were in lost in a World War Two tragedy shrouded in secrecy when a flying boat which had taken off from Rhu crashed into the hillside above Faslane.
The Saunders Roe S.36 Lerwick test aircraft L7248 from the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment based at Helensburgh and Rhu crashed close to the Gareloch on October 21 1941.
The death certificates give the site of death as Shandon, and the cause of death 'Due to War Operations (Flying Accident)'. However, because of wartime censorship and the secrecy under which MAEE operated, it was not reported in the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times.
The 81-foot long aircraft, powered by two 1,375 horse power Bristol Hercules engines, took off to undertake a calibration test, but during the flight the starboard engine failed and the aircraft was unable to maintain height on just one engine and crashed into the hillside.
Eyewitnesses saw the starboard wing dip before the crash. The two engines, which were recovered from the wreckage and sent to Bristol for examination, were found to be fully serviceable.
So it was assumed that flying control problems had been experienced. The Court of Inquiry into the accident concluded that Lerwicks were unstable, particularly on landing approach.
It was further noted by the Air Investigating Board, together with the MAEE commanding officer, that the handling characteristics of the Lerwick had never been satisfactory when flying with one engine feathered.
It was agreed that there was little doubt that the failure of either engine would place the pilot in a very difficult situation.
MAEE had tried to improve the handling of L7248 by fitting twin fins, but it is not known if these were in place when it crashed.
Norman Hood, who has a particular interest in wartime aircraft, says: “It appears the most likely cause of the crash was a design fault which created poor handling characteristics — one engine could not sustain the aircraft at a safe constant height.”
Wilfred Harry Such was the only civilian aboard the aircraft. On his death certificate Harry, who was buried in Rugby where his parents and his wife lived, was classified as a civilian employee of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, attached to MAEE as an instrument repairer. Before the war he had served in the RAF, and then joined Short Brothers.
The six RAF personnel included the pilot, Flight Lieutenant John Collison Alexander, and Pilot Officer Charles H.Mills.
Only two of the crew, Leading Aircraftmen William D.J.McLaughlin from Glasgow and William S.E.Gianella from Bristol, had a full death certificate with regard to cause of death — "Multiple injuries sustained in flying accident. Instantaneous".
The other five were "Registered on the information of G.R. Bruce, Wing Commander, acting for Officer Commanding Marine Aircraft Establishment, Royal Air Force, Helensburgh."
Four of the crew are commemorated in row seven of Helensburgh Cemetery, Pilot Officer Mills in Radcliffe, Manchester, and A.C.2 Peter Beattie Hunter at Runnymede, Surrey. It is likely that these bodies were not recovered or were unrecognisable.
Flight Lieutenant Alexander, the two Leading Aircraftmen, and A.C.1 Raymond T.M.Bullocke from Sanderstead, Surrey, may also just be remembered in spirit by their markers in the burgh cemetery, likewise Blackpool man Pilot Officer Mills at Radcliffe.
Robin Bird, who is an expert on the experimental establishment and wrote a book about his father Bob Bird who was a photographer there from December 1941, says that, from the first flight in 1938, the Lerwick rapidly gained a reputation for being a 'flying pig'.
It was intended to serve alongside the Short Sunderland in RAF Coastal Command. Before the prototype was tested, the Air Ministry placed an order for 21 Lerwicks in 1937 as war clouds gathered.
Robin says: “MAEE at Felixstowe was given the task of sorting out the many problems involving Lerwicks. By January 1939 the faults with the first prototype L7248 were confirmed with the flight of the second prototype L7249.
“When war was declared, MAEE moved to Helensburgh and Rhu to continue Lerwick trials, but some Lerwicks were allocated to Coastal Command to help counter the U-Boat menace. The Lerwick, it seemed, was better than nothing.
“When Squadron Leader Albert 'Uncle' Case arrived at Helensburgh in June 1940 to take up the post of senior test pilot he was astonished that there was a ban on stalling Lerwicks.
“In fact, no stalling tests had been carried out, making the Lerwick potentially lethal for unsuspecting operational pilots. L7248, the MAEE test aircraft (earlier picture right), had modified wings and rudders but was found to have wing failure following the new stalling tests.
“The saga continued. Much later in his life, in the early 1960s as Air Vice Marshal Sir Albert Case, he remembered the Lerwick as 'that bloody plane'. 209 Squadron also had problems with operational Lerwicks, and MAEE had these to sort out, too.
“Short Brothers chief designer Arthur Gouge was asked to help and he suggested fitting the Lerwick with a Sunderland hull among other modifications. Saunders Roe stopped production of the Lerwick pending the results of these tests to concentrate on production of the new Walrus.”
Of the 21 built, three were used entirely on research and development work, while most of the other 18 were operated by 209 Squadron based at Oban until replaced by the Catalina.
They had one Vickers gun in the bow turret, two Brownings in the dorsal turret, and four Brownings in the tail turret, and could carry four 500 lb bombs or four depth charges.
In all, nine crashed, killing 22 crew members, and a further five sank at moorings because of float collapses. So the Lerwicks were withdrawn from squadron operational use and declared obsolete in 1942.
Robin added: “There is no record of any Lerwicks making contact with the enemy. They were their own worst enemy. MAEE Helensburgh had done its best to fix a flawed design — and paid the price.”