Researched and presented by Nigel Henderson.
On the morning of 19th July 1941, a Mark 4 Bristol Blenheim aircraft (Number T2120) from 254 Squadron was returning to RAF Aldergrove in formation with two other aircraft. On approaching the airfield, the aircraft broke formation, with two of the aircraft making perfect landings. The aircraft piloted by Walter Hargreaves King crashed into the canteen run by the Navy, Army, and Air Force Institute (NAAFI). Three of the crew died in the crash, with the pilot’s body being found fifty yards from the impact site. One crewman, (see footnote) Aircraftman D R Comer, survived with extensive injuries. Ten aircraftmen who had been on the ground near the scene of the crash were seriously injured and one died of his injuries. However, the greatest impact occurred inside the NAAFI canteen where six female volunteers were killed and a further four were injured. RAF men being drilled nearby hurried to the impact site to help clear the debris and to provide assistance to the injured. The incident and the subsequent Coroner’s Enquiry received extensive coverage in Northern Ireland newspapers, although there was conflicting information. On 23rd July, the Northern Whig reported that the aircraft collided with a telegraph pole while flying at a low level and included an eye-witness statement that the wings were ripped off in the collision and the fuselage hurtled onto the canteen. However, this report referred to a Hudson bomber and to six Women’s Auxiliary Air Force fatalities.
On 23rd July, a Coroner’s Enquiry was held into the ten deaths and the following day the Northern Whig reported that the aircraft had struck a wooden building before crashing into the canteen. Evidence was given that the aeroplane was in perfect mechanical order when it took off. In response to a question from a relative of one of the victims as to whether the pilot was experienced, a flying officer responded that, “the pilot was fully qualified to fly the machine”. The Coroner returned a verdict of “Accidental death” and expressed his profound sympathy with the relatives of those who had lost their lives in the tragic accident. He also warmly commended those who had hurried to the scene to help in the rescue work. However, the Operations Record Book reveals a very different account of the incident which might have warranted a different verdict:“ … were killed when pilot failed to pull out of a dive on aerodrome in time to avoid obstruction. Port wing struck a telegraph pole and aircraft crashed into buildings and caught fire. This accident was the result of an error of judgement on the part of a comparatively inexperienced pilot. The flight was authorised for formation flying training and the dive was a breach of flying discipline. This pilot was a very quiet type and had never given cause to be suspected of dangerous flying.” [Author’s italics]
The bodies of the Royal Air Force fatalities were repatriated to England for burial:
Aircraftman (1st Class) Clifford Henry Hore in Birmingham (Handsworth) Cemetery
Pilot Officer Walter Hargreaves King in Sanderstead (All Saints) Churchyard Extension
Sergeant Philip Evans Neale in Boldmere (St. Michael) Churchyard
Sergeant Richard Edward Lea in Ormskirk (St Peter and St Paul) Churchyard
The NAAFI Fatalities
Unusually for civilian fatalities, the death notices for Miss Castles, Miss Crozier, and Miss Watson were placed in the “Died on Active Service” column.
Annie Watson was born on 25th March 1900 at Sydney Street West to James Watson, a smith’s helper, and Sarah Watson and the family was living at Pernau Street in the 1940s. Annie is buried in Belfast City Cemetery, in the same grave as her mother who had died just three months earlier. Whilst Annie’s age at death is officially recorded as 36, there is compelling evidence from census and civil registration records that she was 41 years old when she died.
Margaret Castles was born on 26th August 1916 Crumlin Road to Thomas Castles, a loom tenter, and Jane Castles (nee Welsh) who later lived at Blaris Road in Lisburn. Maggie Castles was living with Eliza Castles, her grandmother, at 25 Kitchener Street when she died and is buried in Belfast City Cemetery.
Annie Violet Shaw Crozier was born on 9th September 1915 at Blythe Street to William Crozier and Sarah Crozier (nee Austin) and the family home was at 80 Farnham Street in the Ormeau district in the 1940s. Annie Violet Shaw Crozier is buried in Knockbreda Cemetery but there is no memorial at her grave.
Brigid Isabella McGarry was born on 28th April 1919 at Killead, to James McGarry and Catherine McGarry (nee McStravick) who later lived at Largy Road, Crumlin. Brigid is buried in St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Graveyard in Glenavy. A shield at the McGarry plot declares it to be The family burying place of James McGarry 1882 and there are no details of the people interred in the plot.
Mary Agnes Mulholland was born around 1923 to Francis Arthur Mulholland, a builder, and Sarah Mary Mulholland (nee McAlea) of Aldergrove and is buried in St James’ Roman Catholic Church Graveyard, Aldergrove.
Elizabeth Osborne was born on 15th June 1907 at Excise Street in Belfast to Thomas Osborne and Elizabeth Osborne (nee Hopps) and the family later lived at Ballymacateer, Lurgan. Elizabeth Osborne is buried in the graveyard at First Lurgan Presbyterian Church.
Additional information from the RAF Commands website and 254 Squadron Operations Record Book (National Archives Reference AIR/27/1514/37)
Researched and presented by Nigel Henderson.
Footnote: Nick Comer, son of D R Comer advises that his father was ‘on the ground’ marching’. Also see this website referencing the National Archives AIR81.