The day a bomber landed in Clapham

The day a bomber landed in Clapham

The Yorkshire Dales are not suited for landing aircraft but Guy Jefferson recalls the day a Clapham meadow saved five men and a valuable plane

Originally published: October 2004

On the night of the 8 June 1941 a Whitley bomber, similar to the one pictured above, took off from its base at RAF Middleton St George at around 11pm to bomb an industrial target at Dortmund in Germany. Its pilot was Christopher Cheshire, the younger brother of Leonard Cheshire, who later became a Group Captain and was awarded the Victoria Cross. After the war he became even more famous for establishing the Cheshire Homes.

By the time the aircraft was returning to its base in the early hours the weather over England had deteriorated alarmingly. Solid cloud hanging over northern England resulted in the crew becoming hopelessly lost. Navigational aids in those days were practically non-existent so the pilot relied heavily on his navigator who plotted their position by the stars or radio direction finding fixes obtained by the wireless operator. To compound their problem the stars were no longer visible and the wireless equipment was faulty. This meant they had no outside help once over Yorkshire.

In desperation the pilot decided he would fly on until the fuel was exhausted in the hope that the visibility would improve. If all else failed he would then give the order to bale out and and take to the parachutes. When this seemed imminent the navigator calculated by the dead reckoning method that they were somewhere over Yorkshire but just where, he did not have a clue.

When the light began to improve, as dawn was breaking at 6am, the fuel situation was getting critical. Thankfully, a hole appeared in the cloud in front of them, so Christopher decided to take a chance and began a spiral let down, hoping that there were no hills below as they descended below 600ft.

By a chance in a million he discovered he had let down in a narrow valley with high ground on either side. There was no chance of going back as the fuel gauges were hovering on the empty mark. He quickly scanned around for somewhere to make a forced landing. Once again luck was with them because he saw a reasonable-sized field that was clear of sheep, but surrounded by stone walls which were not a very attractive proposition.

After doing a circuit and lowering the wheels and flaps he made a slow approach to land in the field, which looked awfully short the nearer it became, even though it later proved to be 400 yards long. Just skimming the wall by inches, the aircraft touched down. However, it was a very rough ride as the field was covered in mole hills, which proved a blessing in disguise as they had the effect of slowing the Whitley in time for it to come to within feet of the far wall.

The five crew had no idea where in Yorkshire they were until the local police constable turned up, escorted by a few villagers with shotguns! They had been watching the aircraft manoeuvring for some time and thought it might be a German. Cheshire was informed they were at Clapham, near Settle, so having established his whereabouts he asked to be taken to a telephone, which as fortune would have it was in the village pub.

He rang his squadron commander at RAF Middleton St George, who was most surprised to hear his voice, as he had feared the worst when they bad not heard anything from them for quite some time. After Christopher told him he had managed to land the Whitley in a small field at Clapham without damage, and that all his crew were safe, he was told to ring back in two hours to find out the plan of action.

During that period all the crew were given a wholesome Yorkshire breakfast at the inn. On establishing communications again, the CO declared that he had decided to attempt to fly the aircraft out of the field, but not before a party of airmen had removed all the heavy components, such as the guns. Only sufficient petrol would be put in the tanks to get the aircraft back to the nearest airfield, which was Speke near Liverpool.

A further four hours elapsed before the road convoy arrived, but to their surprise the vehicles could not get through the narrow gate into the field until a section of the stone wall was removed. By this time most of the villagers had found their way to this exciting scene, including all the school children, brought along by the teachers who were equally interested in what was going on near their normally tranquil village. Many of the spectators were only too glad to take part in widening the gate and levelling the molehills!

After becoming much lighter, and with only limited fuel on board, the Whitley was taken to the far end of the field, where its tail was pushed hard up against the wall. Much to Christopher’s disappointment, as he was sure he could have piloted the aircraft, the CO climbed aboard alone and started the engines, then opened the throttles fully while standing on the brakes. This surely must have been a strange noise echoing in the valley, never heard before and not likely to be heard ever again.

When the brakes were released the Whitley began to accelerate across the field, and for a few brief moments it seemed as if was not going to make it. Bearing in mind it had only just managed to land in such a short distance, coupled with the fact that an aircraft needs a much longer distance to take off, all breathed a sigh of relief when it cleared the far wall by a matter of inches. So ended the never-to-be-forgotten few hours when a meadow near Clapham bad served as a temporary airfield, which enabled the saving of a valuable aircraft and its crew.


This article is based on account which appeared in the book The Pendulum and the Scythe by Ken Marshall (Air Research Publications).


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