Hudson bomber crash site confirmed on Annapolis Valley farm

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News Article / November 18, 2016

By Major (retired) Chris Larsen

During the Second World War, Royal Air Force (RAF) Station Greenwood was the home to 36 Operational Training Unit (OTU), a school that trained pilots, observers (later called navigators) and wireless operators/air gunners (WAGs) to operate as a fully-formed crew. This was the last stop in a long training process before crews were shipped overseas to join the war.

RAF Station Greenwood opened for business in early 1942 – 2017 marks the 75th anniversary the station, now 14 Wing Greenwood – with the Lockheed Hudson serving as the workhorse aircraft for the school.

The small twin-engine bomber was a common sight in the skies of Nova Scotia and many older residents remember the plane making frequent landings and take-offs – colloquially known as circuits and bumps – at the airfield.

Norma Stoddart now owns a farm in the Harmony area in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley where this story takes place. On an early summer’s day in 1942 – only four months after 36 OTU had opened, Norma’s future husband Glen was shearing sheep. He was used to the incessant drone of the Hudsons as they flew low over the farm in preparation for landing. All seemed normal, when yet another aircraft approached and flew over his head. He was about to witness a horrific scene.

On June 25, two pilots on this particular Hudson were well into a training session, practicing their flying approaches on a single engine. One of the engines was on idle, a maneuver that trained the pilots to handle the bomber when it was more sluggish (since only one of the engines was producing thrust). It is not known what actually occurred, but the crew lost control while the plane was flying low and slow. Unable to pick up speed, the aircraft was doomed.

Glen watched as the Hudson bomber crashed to the ground and then burst into flames only a few hundred yards from his home. Pilot Officer Claude Wynter Arthur Blick of the Royal Australian Air Force and Sergeant Jack Nettleton Hopkinson of the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) presumably died instantly.

Barry Stoddart says that his father arrived at the crash site to find the plane lying on its belly, with one wing torn off the fuselage. Glen ran to the cockpit and jumped up and down, trying to see inside. Unbeknownst to him, the co-pilot, Sergeant Hopkinson, had been thrown from the wreck, and his body was lying under the severed wing. The pilot was still in the seat, but his body was slumped forward and out of Glen’s view. Glen was unaware that both aviators had been killed by the impact.

Glen remembered he could hear crackling sounds from within the crushed aircraft. He moved away when the debris caught fire with a great fury, rendering any further assistance efforts impossible. He ran back to the farm gates to take any arriving rescuers to the crash site.

The bodies of the dead aircrew were later interred with full military honours at the Old Trinity Church Cemetery, near Middleton, Nova Scotia.

In early October 2016, I knocked on the door at the Stoddart farm. After I gave my name and explained my mission, I received an immediate offer to come in and sit down.

Though cautious at first, Barry was happy to assist in our search for BW770, saying he had been waiting for a long time for someone to ask to visit the site. He recalled that as the years passed, his father may have forgotten exactly where the site was, but Barry would regularly pick up molten metal and Perspex. All of the large pieces of the aircraft were picked up (likely by repair and disposal personnel from Scoudouc, New Brunswick) about five days after the crash.

On October 13, Barry loaded Mr. Russ Keddy (a aviation local historian), Major Al Baillie (14 Wing Greenwood’s heritage officer) and me onto a trailer hitched to his tractor and took us to where he remembered the crash occurring. It took about 10 minutes to get to the field closest to the site, where we jumped off and started up our metal detectors. It has been about 15 years since Barry was last at the site. The woods have grown in, and the area was thick with mature softwood and scrub brush. I had always thought this crash site was located in an open field, but I was incorrect; war era crash reports are notoriously inaccurate.

Initially, we searched to an old fence line and then backtracked. I worked up along a ridge, with Major Baillie and Mr. Keddy working a little further downslope. About an hour into the search, Major Baillie discovered the impact site: a six-metre radius of levelled earth on a slight slope with a concentrated area of buried, burned metal.

It was obvious the fire was intense, but the debris field is surprisingly small, with fragmented items thrown only another 10 to 20 metres from the main impact area. It’s apparent the aircraft was moving forward at great velocity, likely coming down nearly vertical as the plane stalled. Just a metre and a half north of the burn field, below the levelled earth, there was no evidence of charring, but twisted and torn metal, still showing paint colour, were discovered about 15 centimetres below the surface. There were small bits of shattered equipment, mostly unrecognizable, in this area, including screws and other small debris.

Just to the west of the main site, Major Baillie found one or two small debris pits (consisting of very small metal items) that seem to have been created when the site was tidied up. Initial site investigators in 1942 carted the wreckage of the shattered bomber into a field. During our search, we found one piece of metal at the edge of the field, about 10 centimetres down. It was most likely dropped by the cleanup team.

On the way back to the house, Barry stopped by a fence line where a rotted post, with a horseshoe nailed on it, was lying. Barry remembered that, when he was a boy, his father pointed out lumber here that was used as stretchers to move the aviators’ bodies to the waiting crash trucks that weren’t able to make it to the actual crash site.

After we finished the search for the day, we had the honour of meeting Norma, Glen’s wife, as well as Barry’s sister, Marylyn. This tragedy had a lasting impact on the Stoddart family, and the children grew up with the spectre of what occurred to the aircrew – and their father. It later occurred to me the family was as friendly and helpful in this search endeavour as their father was 75 years ago, when crash crews arrived to recover their fallen comrades.

It is important to remember it wasn’t only the families of the dead aviators who were affected by these tragedies. The first people on the scene of an accident were frequently local residents, ill-equipped to witness the chaos that was the result of an aircraft accident. Often, these scenes stayed with the would-be rescuers (and their families) for the rest of their lives. Their brave efforts to approach a dangerous situation and attempt a rescue were rarely recognized by the military.

Major Larsen is a former member of the RCAF and a historical researcher and writer.

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