Son’s last visit to war hero crash site

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The son of an airman who died in a plane crash near Oban 75 years ago during the Second World War has made his ‘last’ pilgrimage to the site, and donated his family’s memories to the town’s War and Peace Museum.

Just after dawn on May 29, 1942, a Sunderland flying boat laden with torpedoes crash-landed while approaching the RAF Oban base off the northern tip of Kerrera, then sank and exploded when its depth charges detonated at 30ft underwater.

Flt Sgt Robert James
Flt Sgt Robert James

Bob James’s father, Flight Sergeant Robert Stewart Seymour James, who enlisted at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, was one of the four airmen killed in the tragedy. Robert’s widow, Eileen, Bob’s mother, always kept the secret handwritten letter sent to her by an RAF officer in Bo’ness explaining exactly what had happened to her husband.

Eileen, the granddaughter of Queen Victoria’s goldsmith William Robb, often visited the site from Aberdeenshire where Bob was born, until she died last year. Now, almost exactly 75 years after the accident, Bob has decided to donate that letter and family photographs of his father in uniform to the Oban War and Peace Museum.

Bob, a retired entertainment agent who represented among many others Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, also regularly travelled from Waplode Drove in Lincolnshire with his wife Wendy to pay tribute at the Ganavan war memorial near where the accident happened.

The memorial, overlooking the Firth of Lorne and Ganavan Sands where a slipway (which still exists) was constructed for servicing aircraft, is dedicated to the memory of all air and ground personnel of 18 Group Coastal Command who served at RAF Oban. It bears the Gaelic inscription ‘Mus diochuimhnich sinn’ – ‘Lest we forget’.

T20_Son's last visit to war hero crash site_01_no_Flt Sgt Robert James, middle row, standing behind his squadron's commander, seated in the centre.
Flt Sgt Robert James, middle row, standing behind his squadron’s commander, seated in the centre.

Bob and Wendy visited Oban on Wednesday last week to pay their respects at the war memorial, and hand the documents to the museum, which he kindly let The Oban Times see beforehand.

The RAF officer’s letter to Mrs James, dated September 1942, explained he was taking a personal risk in writing it, and asked her to keep it confidential. ‘I am not supposed to disclose any details of aircraft accidents,’ he said. ‘It is considered prejudicial to public scrutiny. It would be harmful to me if the contents of this letter became known to the authorities.’

As the Sunderland II T9089 came into land at 4.40am, he continued, ‘weather conditions were not really good for a landing in the dark, there being a thin mist or haze with a perfectly flat calm sea which mirrored the whole sky and made it extremely difficult for the pilot to judge his height.

Letters written to Robert's widow Eileen, explaining the circumstances of the seaplane crash off Kerrera on May 29 1942
Letters written to Robert’s widow Eileen, explaining the circumstances of the seaplane crash off Kerrera on May 29 1942

‘The aircraft came in to land in the usual way, but to those on the flare path the angle appeared to be too steep. She hit the water with a severe bump, bounced into the air and turned over onto her back.

‘The rescue launches were alongside the wreck in a few seconds and immediately an attempt was made to take off any survivors. Of the total crew of nine, six were rescued, one of whom I understand has since died in hospital.

‘The remaining three, and regrettably Mrs James your husband was one of them, were trapped in that part of the wreck which was totally submerged and must have been drowned immediately.

‘The unfortunate fact that everyone was not saved was not due to the fault of the crews of the rescue boats. Individual members of these crews performed acts of considerable bravery.

‘Two fellows actually dived off the boats into the water in the dark and swam into the sinking machine in a fruitless attempt to reach those known to be trapped. Although it was obvious that no life remained on board, the rescuers did not give up hope until the machine began to sink.

‘They then withdrew to a safe distance because of the fear that the depth charges might go off when the wreck reached the prescribed depth at which they were set to explode.

‘It was a blessing that they did because within a few minutes the air and sea were shaken by a terrific explosion and a column of water a hundred feet high was thrown into the air.

‘On occasions like this every man works like a creature possessed to save the life of his flying comrade and risks his own life in doing so.’

The fatalities on T9089 were listed as Flight Sergeants Robert Stuart Seymour James, John Robert Hughes and Thomas Joseph Isaacs, and Sergeant Elfed Lewis, who succumbed to his injuries in hospital.

Flt Sgt Robert James, seated front row fourth from right, photographed with his squadron.
Flt Sgt Robert James, seated front row fourth from right, photographed with his squadron.

Another letter, sent by the Air Ministry in London in June 1943, added that the cause of the accident remained obscure.

‘A witness from the ground stated that as the aircraft entered the water its glide was checked suddenly, the tail lifted and the aircraft turned over. Unhappily no trace of your husband could be found.’

Bob, now aged 74, never got to meet his father. ‘I was conceived for two months when he died on May 29, 1942,’ he said. ‘I was born in December.’

When asked why he is donating these few family treasures of his father, he replied: ‘My children never knew their grandfather, because I never knew him,’ he explained. ‘I have no-one to pass them on to. It is probably my last trip.’