During the war many pilots were lost to enemy action, but in the days before ground proximity radar, gps and electronic instruments, flying accidents were a real risk. The Forest of Bowland, an upland area consisting mainly of moorland in Lancashire gained a reputation as an area that caused pilots particular difficulties, mainly due to its high ground, changeable weather, and a lack of navigational features.
In 1943 Lockheed P38 Lightning fighters of the 82nd Fighter group (USAAF) were to be transferred to North Africa, a move which would require modifications to be made to the aircraft in order to operate in the dusty conditions found in the North African desert. The aircraft would need to be flown from their base at Goxhill in North East Lincolnshire to a depot at Langford Lodge on the shores of Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland; a journey of some 251 miles taking them across Yorkshire and Lancashire before crossing the Irish Sea.
The 82nd fighter squadron had come into being in the US in February 1942, and was moved to Northern Ireland in October of the same year. It was part of the 78th fighter group based near the village of Goxhill in Lincolnshire, but later moved to Duxford in Cambridgeshire.
The P38 Lightning was a piston engined aircraft developed by the Lockheed Corporation in the late 1930’s for the US Army Air Corps. It was brought into service in 1941 and was used in a number of roles including fighter; night fighter; fighter bomber, and aerial reconnaissance. The aircraft weighed in and just under 8 tonnes; it was just under 38ft long, with a wingspan of 52ft. The power came from 2 V12 liquid cooled engines producing 1,600 horsepower each, taking the aircraft to a maximum speed of 414 mph, and a cruising speed of 275 mph.
Early on the morning of the 26th there were 45 aircraft making the journey from Lincolnshire to Northern Ireland for the required modifications. En route the aircraft encountered heavy cloud over Northern England. With the visibility deteriorating, two of the aircraft collided over the Trough of Bowland, an area of moorland fells in Lancashire. One aircraft flown by 2nd Lieutenant Stephen L. White crashed on Braxton Fell, Due North of the Village of Dunsop Bridge, while the second aircraft came down to the south on Dunsop Fell. Neither pilot survived.
Just one month before the crash, flight officer Wladyslaw Pucek of 317 squadron Polish Air Force crashed his Spitfire on nearby White Moss Fell. Remarkably, one month prior in November 1941 a Mustang A6208 on a photographic sortie being flown by Flying Officer S. P. Marlatt of No. 4 squadron Royal Canadian Airforce crashed into the ground at cruising speed on Holdron Moss, around 2 miles from the village of Dunsop Bridge.
A memorial stands near to the site of the Holdron Moss crash, at the top of which is Pilot Officer Norman J. Sharpe of 256 squadron Royal Airforce. On the night of the 18th of August 1941, PO Sharpe was on a night training flight from RAF Squires Gate (now Blackpool Airport), in a Boulton Paul Defiant Mk.1 when he crashed on Hawthornthwaite Fell near Abbeystead. Reports say the aircraft was flying straight and level when it hit ground at around 1,300 feet. PO Sharpe was found alive the next day having crawled around a mile from his wrecked aircraft, but sadly died in hospital from his injuries.
Anyone who has ever visited the area, particularly during the winter months will know just how remote and desolate it can seem, especially when the cloud comes in. It is also a place of great beauty, and well worth a visit in the summer months. If you decide to go and explore the area, take a moment to remember those brave pilots who died in the most unfortunate of circumstances upon those Lancashire moors.