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WW2 Beaufighter Crash in Edenbridge 13th Nov 1940..........
This is the story of aircraft code number R2071 a Bristol Beaufighter which was based at Redhill Aerodrome during World War II and belonging to 219 Squadron of the RAF. This Beaufighter was a Mk 1F, a prototype which lead to four different fighter models.
The fighter entered service in July 1940. It's main role was destined to be as night-fighter, but it was also used as a long-range escort fighter. It carried an early form of RADAR DETECTION in it's nose cone. The Beaufighter was powered by 2 x 1400 HP Hercules X 1 engines, which gave the aircraft a top speed of 323 MPH at 15,000ft and an operational ceiling of 29,000ft.
The aircraft's performance was exceptional in combating the Luftwaffe night bombers which were plaguing Britain during it's darkest hours. The armament of the fighter was incredible, with 4 x 20mm nose cannons and 6 x 303 wing machine-guns.

With a wing span of 57.83ft and a fuselage length of 41.33ft the Mk 1F was capable of a range of 1,500 miles, it's ample internal fuel tanks enabled it to escort and protect heavy duty RAF bombers on missions into Germany.

The aircraft, although secret at this time, proved it's self to be the most powerful night fighter at the RAF's disposal, and was ready to take it's place as an invaluable weapon in the fight against the Luftwaffe.
This brings us to the story of the fateful day of the 13th November 1940, when aircraft code number R2071 left Redhill Aerodrome on a mission, the pilot P/O T. Birkett was at the controls and Sgt. Colin E.P Castle was acting as observer. They rose into the skies above England, not knowing what lay before them, this is the story of that day.......
I have spoken to a few local residents, who were eyewitnesses, and I have been to the local museum to listen to a tape recording from Mr Dennis Leigh, who at the time of the crash was a schoolboy in the Primary School in Church Street. His account is as follows-.

"I was in school when the air-raid siren went off, the siren was on the tannery building, just a short walk away, the teacher hearing the whine of the siren, and fearing a German attack, ushered us all into the air raid shelter which was in the playground, there was no electricity, only candles and a paraffin lamp. The shelter could hold about 50 of us, and during the Battle of Britain we spent many an hour in the cold, damp shelter, listening to the battle above raging away, with the sounds of cannon fire and planes screaming across the summer skies. When the" all clear" sounded we left the safety of the shelter, and couldn't wait to run down to the river and see the crashed aircraft. When we got there, many people were rushing about, the local policeman Mr Wiffen was keeping people away from the crash site, and Mr M. Budden was shouting to all who were there, to keep clear. The plane was smoking and the local fire brigade was in attendance putting out the fire. Later, some of the boys took pieces of the plane home as souvenirs".

I have unfortunately not been able to access the archives of the local paper. According to the local people, there were no photos in the paper, only the written account of the crash.

As you appreciate during that time in 1940, there were so many crashes around this area and all over Kent, that it was, sad to say, quite commonplace to hear of, and see many aircraft shot down, In Edenbridge alone I have been told of at least four plane crashes during the Battle of Britain.

Bristol Beaufighter Mk 1F as used by 219 Squadron.

This account is from Mr Don Wiffen -

"It was an overcast day and I was just leaving home at Four Elms to go to afternoon school, it was about 2 p.m. Suddenly this aircraft came out of the low clouds in a steep dive, there was no sound, I assumed that the engines had stopped, the aircraft disappeared below the treeline and shortly afterwards a column of smoke arose from the direction of Edenbridge……. Later, I had found that the aircraft had come down in (Town Field), next to the bridge in Edenbridge the aircraft was shattered into small pieces. My mother, who was in the local St Johns Ambulance Brigade, was on duty at the first aid post (now the W.I. Hall). She had to go to the crash scene to cover the bodies that were found. (One book states that, it is believed that another night fighter shot down this aircraft by mistake,) I do not think this is true, as it was daytime and I did not hear any cannon fire. It was not until some months later that this aircraft was declared to be a Beaufighter, as it was previously on the secret list. The rear wheel is on display at the Eden Valley Museum. The pilot P/O T. Birkett had previously survived three forced landings in Blenheim bombers, during his service in the R.A.F. in 219 squadron.-
Catterick July 30th 1940
Catterick August 5th 1940
Sywell August 29th 1940


A death's head hawk moth - symbolising
the squadron's operational role.

According to other eyewitnesses, the plane developed engine problems and was seen coming from the village of Four Elms towards Edenbridge in a north-easterly direction. The aircraft was in low cloud, and the engines were making a high-pitched whistling sound. As the plane neared Skinners farm, on the outskirts of Edenbridge it was heard to make spluttering noises, indicating that the plane was now having serious engine failure. As it came across the open fields towards Church Street, it was evident due to the severe loss of height, that a crash seemed imminent. Many residents of Church Street came out of their houses fearing a German Luftwaffe attack, only to see the sight of an English bomber hit the roof of a house in Church Street, and nose dive into the field by the river. The impact of the plane hitting the ground, caused the aircraft to break up.


Many people were quickly on the scene, Mr Wiffen the local policeman, along with Mr M. Budden were trying to keep the onlookers away, and shouting to them, to get some help, Mrs Wiffen the local St Johns Ambulance nurse, arrived very quickly, as did the Edenbridge Fire Brigade who doused the aircraft with water until it was safe to approach it, and then they could search for the crew. No witnesses saw anyone bail out, as the crash happened so quickly, so it was certain that the crew were still inside the wreckage.

Unfortunately, due to the severe impact of the crash, the pilot P/O T. Birkett and the observer, Sgt Colin E.P. Castle were found to be dead. The nurse Mrs Wiffen had the sad task of covering the bodies until the ambulance arrived to take the bodies away.

Some time later the R.A.F. rescue squad came to remove most of the remains of the aircraft, and to tidy up the area around the crash site.


This eye-witness account is from Mr Albert Jeffrey,
who at the time of the crash was a schoolboy.
This is his story
We were in the school playground of what we called the Council School in those days, which was the one up Croft Lane where pupils spent their last three years , from the age of 12 to 14 before leaving school and going to work. The day was Wednesday November 13th 1940, and we had been home to lunch and were waiting to go back into the classroom at 1p.m. These were exciting days, the Battle of Britain had not long been fought overhead, and I for one had a great interest in the events taking place in the skies. When a new type of aircraft put in an appearance, we somehow found out what it was, usually with assistance from members of the local Royal Observer Corps post, situated at that time up Hever Road.

A Jeffrey, T Hunt and W Bishop. Members of
the Royal Observer Corps in action.
This is a post-war photograph.
On this day in question we had observed a Bristol Beaufighter, flying to and fro as if on patrol, and were quite excited as it was a new type of aircraft, still on the secret list.
This particular Beaufighter belonged to 219 squadron then based at Redhill aerodrome, it was crewed by a pilot namely Pilot officer Thomas Birkett, and an observer who was Sergeant Colin Castle who came from Clarkston, Renfrewshire in Scotland, its serial number was R2071.

We were still in the playground watching this Beaufighter, when we heard its engines spluttering as it came overhead, it's wing dropped and it commenced a vertical dive twisting once as it did so.
The Beaufighter bore a close resemblance to the German Junkers Ju 88, and I thought, "My God it is'nt a Beaufighter after all, it's a German plane, and it's going to dive-bomb Edenbridge" Well it's dive continued and I could see that there would never be enough time for it to pull out , disappearing from our view behind the houses in Church Street. The aircraft had dived vertically into the ground very near to the North Bank of the River Eden, between Church Street and Hever Road, fortunately causing no damage or casualties, apart from the ill- fated crew of two. .

At this time I lived in Hever Road, which from our viewing place lay behind the Church Street houses, and I had a terrible feeling that it had crashed there. There followed a loud explosion and a fireball, then a large pall of black smoke and live ammunition exploding. With no thoughts of school, there was a mass exodus from the playground to see where it had crashed, the river bridge soon becoming packed with spectators.
The Tanyard foreman Mr. Budden being one of the first on the scene. Looking towards Church Street from the bridge, the fields were seen to be full of tiny bits of wreckage, many of which were burning, and it was obvious that there had been no time for the crew to get out, and nothing of any size remaining on the ground, so all that could be done was to collect the debris in sacks.

The Beaufighter crashed at 12.50 hours, and at 13.16 hours we had an air raid warning, and at 13.41 a Junkers Ju 88 was seen twice.

The cause of the crash will never be known for sure, but in an article published many years later in the Royal Observer Corps aircraft recognition journal, it said it had been a case of mistaken identity, and it had been shot down by friendly gunfire, the fact is no gunfire was heard by me, and I am sure it would have been noticed if there had been any, although it could have happened away from here.
The official version of the loss, from the R.A.F. records states that it was probably shot down by another night-fighter. The large crater where the nose and the two engines buried themselves, was full of water the next day, as the river was well up.
It has been excavated more than once over the years I believe, and some wreckage recovered.
For anybody that saw it go down, I am sure it lives in their memory………!

An account from Mr George Carey of Church Street, tells of him at the age of fourteen going to school one day, and seeing in the field by the river a large lorry and a J.C.B.digger, there were people around in the field near the site of the Beaufighter crash of 1940.

On his way home at lunchtime he saw the lorry, and loaded on the back was the propeller from the Beaufighter, which he described as being about 10-12 feet in diameter, despite the fact that the three blades were bent.

Then the lorry drove off, taking its cargo to an unknown destination !

 

Many years later a local boy David Leigh was told of the incident by his father Mr Dennis Leigh, (he was the schoolboy at the time of the crash, who collected some pieces of the wreckage). David interested by the story, took a metal detector to the site called "town field" when he was about 13 years old, and found a few parts of the plane, including an oxygen mask which can be seen in the local Eden Valley Museum.

In Memory of

Pilot Officer
THOMAS BIRKETT

87634, 219 Sqdn., Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve
who died age 26 on Wednesday
13 November 1940.
Pilot Officer BIRKETT,

Son of James and Doris Lilian Birkett, of Chew Magna. S.W. of church.

Sergeant
COLIN EWART
PATRICK CASTLE

966825, 219 Sqdn., Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve
who died on Wednesday
13 November 1940.
Sergeant CASTLE,

Compt. K. Main Cty.


It is a sad reminder for us today, of these two brave men, who at that time were only "boys" doing their duty for the freedom of this country.

Never...... may we forget all of those who served in the R.A.F. during Britain's most desperate hours, and those who so young, so brave, so courageous, sacrificed their own lives and futures for our freedom today.

They, though few in number bravely faced the overwhelming might of the Luftwaffe enemy aircraft, that were pitched against them, they were determined to wipe the R.A.F. from the skies, and eventually overrun this land of ours.

Remember!!! All of us who live today in peace and freedom, on this small island, that were it not for the courage displayed by the heroes of the R.A.F. Such as pilot P/O. T.BIRKETT and SGT COLIN E.P. CASTLE, and the many thousands of the "FEW" who were killed during and after the BATTLE OF BRITAIN that this" Green and Pleasant land" that we now dwell in, would most certainly have been lost for all time, were it not for the courage and sacrifice of those who we humbly and respectfully call "THE FEW"

Since I began researching this event I have been informed that Sgt Colin E.P. Castle's Brother was also shot down and killed two months after his brothers death, and his body has never been recovered.

My gratitude goes to all those who kindly gave me their time and effort in the compilation of these war time memories and accounts of the tragic deaths of P/O. T.BIRKETT and SGT COLIN E.P. CASTLE.

Elizabeth Wright (Curator of Eden Valley Museum) Mr Don Wiffen - Mr Alan Wiffen - Mrs N. Wiffen - Mr Dennis Leigh - Mr David Leigh - Mr Cyril Mills - Mr Henry Long-Mr Albert Jeffery.


THANKYOU !

Written by
Mr. Ian R. Bridle
ianbridle@edenbridgetown.com

Commonwealth War Graves Commission
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