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When cries of joy turned to screams of horror

Plaque for crashed Lancaster, Cloot Drove Farm, Crowland All families involved ANL-140623-165342001

Plaque for crashed Lancaster, Cloot Drove Farm, Crowland All families involved ANL-140623-165342001

Seventy years ago, on June 23 1944, cries of joy at a village fete in Crowland turned to screams of horror when two Lancasters flying overhead clipped wings and spun out of control, crashing into a nearby field.

Only one member of the 14-strong crews miraculously survived, but the tragedy left a void in the lives of all of their families – until now.

On Monday, the anniversary of the crash, relatives from as far away as Australia travelled to Cloot House Farm in Cloot Drove, where just yards away from where the aircrafts plunged to the ground a plaque was unveiled as a permanent memorial to the 13 who died.

Taking place at 3.30pm, about the time the planes crashed, it was an emotional moment for the relatives, but especially so for Christopher Coman, whose father Sgt Joseph Conman was the only survivor.

He told the Spalding Guardian: “I feel very lucky to be here a few hundred yards from where the plane came down and dad saved his life using a parachute. It’s quite a powerful moment.”

His father jumped just 1,000 yards above ground, but it is believed he was forced upwards by the crash explosion and was, therefore, able to open his parachute and come down safely. Six Lancasters from 97 Squadron RAF Bomber Command based at RAF Coningsby were practising flying in formation, but aircraft ND981 accidentally caught the tail of ME625.

Relatives believe they were brought together by chance for the memorial.

Mr Coman said he never knew much about what happened to his father until three years ago, when he went to a dinner in Bournmouth and sat at a table next to a stranger.

He said: “I had never met him before but he started talking about when he was a little boy and saw these aircraft crash – and the man who parachuted out was my father.

“Since then we kept in touch and I tried to go to the Aviation Heritage Centre on the anniversary of his death to visit the memorial.”

Two relatives of the Royal Australia Air Force (RAAF) crew were also brought together by chance.

Stewart VanRaalt, who travelled from Australia for the memorial, said it all started a year ago when a friend attended the Bomber Command memorial in London and visited the grave of his father, F/L Henry Stewart VanRaalt, in Cambridge.

He said: “He signed the visitors’ book and another relative, Maree Pollard, saw it. Maree, being a bit of a sniffer dog, wrote to us in Australia at that man’s address and we’ve been in touch ever since planning the memorial.”

Maree, who now lives in Dorset, never met her father because she lived in Australia and was just 11-months-old, said: “It has always been a black hole in my life.

“I can’t thank the organisation enough for getting this up and running. It’s very humbling.”

Percy Cannings (90) was on board number four plane of the six and witnessed the crash. He said: “We were told to execute a turn and something went wrong and the first plane got into the slipstream of the plane ahead of it, which sent it straight up in the air and back down again, narrowly missing us.

“We had to go out on ops the same night. It’s something you had to be prepared for.”

His daughter, Sharon, helped organise the memorial day, which began with a service at RAF Wyton in Cambridgeshire.

She said: “My father was a mid upper gunner in 97 Squadron and last year we did a documentary to find out what happened to the crew and find out about the crash.

“When we realised there was no lasting memorial I contacted my researchers and they found relatives from all parts of the globe.

“We decided on a plaque and found a site and the farmer agreed for it to be placed on one of the farm buildings as a permanent reminder.

“It means a lot to people 70 years on – the stories of these people need to be recorded.”

David Branton, who owns the farm, said he was delighted to have the plaque on one of his barns. He said: “It is important for the families to have a permanent tribute here.”

Parts of the wreckage are on show at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre in East Kirkby.

 

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