This is the story of the Sunderland Flying Boat crash 4th June 1955
Sent to the lifeboat station by a survivor of the crash.
It was the custom of the Royal Air Forces Association at that time to hold their annual conference close to some big town or city, which usually had an airfield nearby. Eastbourne was selected in 1955, but since there was no airfield there, a flying boat was the obvious choice to represent the RAF. The highlight of our visit was to welcome Prince Philip aboard our aircraft. Best uniforms were worn, of course, and we all looked forward to the event, which made a change from normal flying routine.
The Sunderland had an upstairs and downstairs, and those of the crew not on duty usually stayed downstairs. I was downstairs with 2 other crew members and an airman passenger that morning of 4th June 1955. We came in to land in the normal way, touching down (alighting) and skimming along the calm sea to the spot where we intended to stop. But all of a sudden the plane came to a shuddering halt as the front caved in and hundreds of tons of water rushed through, practically submerging the the aircraft. One minute there was sunlight streaming through the windows, the next was complete darkness as the lower compartments filled with water.I tried to find the galley window handle, but couldn’t locate it, and the air in my lungs was running out. I couldn’t hold out, and so gulped in large mouthfuls of the English Channel. I thought my time had come, then spotted a greenish patch in the side of the aircraft, which turned out to be a jaggedf hole in the side of the plane. It was big enough for me to get to the surface and inhale large amounts of fresh air.
The Sunderland’s wings are normally 7 or eight feet above water, but now they were resting on top of the sea. I caught hold of a propeller blade to haul myself onto the wing, but couldn’t manage it. I looked down and saw my right foot flopping loose in the water, held to my leg by just a piece of muscle, the shin bone sticking out like a little sword. My left kneecap had been cracked across the middle and my left ear was hanging off. My right thumb was bent out of shape.
Various theories were put forward as to the cause our crash. One was that the plane was holed by the mast of an unmarked small wreck below the water line and thus unseen most of the time. Another explanation was that a very heavy take off and landing in Malta four months earlier might have loosened some rivets, so weakening the airframe. If correct, this theory would exonerate the servicing staff because such loosening would not be noticed during ordinary checks and inspections. But these are just theories, I never did find out the official verdict on the cause of the crash.
Of the 4 people killed, three were downstairs with me and the other casualty was the pilot, Flt.Lt Tim Gush, from Haslemere. The second pilot was in a similar condition to myself, broken legs etc, and eventually he had to have an amputation of one leg.
Misfortune didn’t end with death and injury to some of the crew. As the plane was being dismantled on the beach, an airman’s leg was shattered as an acetylene welder exploded some petrol in a supposedly empty fuel line. The leg had to be amputated.
Just as serious in its own way was the mental shock suffered by the RAF officer in charge of the motor launch controlling the landing at Eastbourne. He couldn’t get it out of his head that he was in some way partly responsible for what happened that morning, although it was crystal clear that nothing he could have done would have prevented the crash. Be that as it may, he cracked up, was put in a mental home, escaped, had umpteen medical boards, and was discharged from the RAF without a pension.
Although it is over 52 years since we came to grief at Eastbourne, there are some things that I remember clearly about my stay there. The main impression is of the long months in Princess Alice hospital : I cannot speak too highly of the dedication of all the staff, from the cleaners to the surgeons. Some names I remember still, including George Flinders who helped me to walk around the ward when I took to crutches for the first time. He used to say “There’s nothing to fear, the floor’s insured “. A very funny man indeed.
We were very lucky to have a Welsh wizard surgeon in Mr Jenkins. I was there for several months, and eventually went to Headley Court near Leatherhead, now in the news because of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
I was passed fit for flying after a year or so, and was posted to the Middle East, where, 3 years after Eastbourne, had the unnerving experience of being in a RAF passenger aircraft when both engines stopped almost a mile up. They never started again, and we came to a sticky end on some sandhills in the desert. Luck was with us, because nobody was killed or even badly injured. But that’s another story.
I’m glad my account of the Sunderland crash has helped to fill in some of the gaps in your knowledge of events on the 4th of June 1955, and I thank you for the invitation to visit your lifeboat station at Eastbourne.
All in all I consider myself very lucky in coming through the last war in one piece, having endured nightly bombing in Coventry prior to joining up in 1940 (bombed out of 3 different houses), and walking for almost a week through the Burmese jungle, mostly by myself, in 1943, dodging the Japs. Many, many of my comrades didn’t live to see the end of the war.
I shall be 86 in 10 weeks’ time, so Allah must be looking after me. That and a goodly supply of Guinness and Johnny Walker !
Adios and all the best in your good work manning the lifeboats,
Such is life, but life must go on. Once again, adios, and good fortune to all your lifeboat colleagues.
George D .
This the letter from George D’s Daughter who originaly contacted the lifeboat station about the incident.
I have just found your website. I thought I would thank you for saving my dad\’s life. He was rescued from the Sunderland Flying-boat crash (pictured on your site) on 4th June 1955. He is still going strong at 86, even though he broke his legs in that crash and was in hospital for a year afterwards.
I have no objection to you putting my message on your website. I think people need to know that the ‘rescued’ don’t just disappear!
I have been having difficulty finding out about the plane crash, especially as I live in Manchester and most of the reports would have been in your local papers. Dad nearly died and was in hospital for a year, so he didn’t know what was going on.
When the Pathe news website opened (a few years ago) I did see a short film about the crash, and a man (dad, I think) was stretchered into the ambulance – very clean of course as he had been in the water for a while. I have a scratchy photocopy of a microfilm Guardian newspaper picture, which doesn’t really report on the crash. I know that four men died, and dad had to get out of the porthole with his broken legs. We lived at RAF Pembroke Dock at the time and mum had to take my sister and I and the big pram to go and live in lodgings so that she could be nearer to dad. I don’t remember anything of it as I was too young. I would therefore be interested in anything that you come up with in your research. I’m sure that dad would too. He has got to grips with technology and uses e-mail, so if you needed to get in touch with him I’m sure he would be pleased to ‘put you right’ on a few things.(He likes to be right!)
Picture of flying boat on the beach.
Photo donated by J. Flude of Willingdon.