Blenheim Tragedy Witnessed by 615 Squadron Ground Crews at Prestwick
After a period of intense action at Kenley during the summer of 1940, 615 (County of Surrey) Squadron were posted north to Prestwick to rest and re-group. While their memories of their time in Scotland were mostly happy, some of them witnessed a horrific accident which left an indelible mark on them.
On 8th October, 1940, the Squadron received a signal that they were to move to RAF Northolt the following day. Consequently, the bulk of the squadron’s personnel and equipment was moved south by train on the 9th, leaving a maintenance party at Prestwick under the command of the Engineering Officer. Their job was to render all of 615’s aircraft serviceable so they could be flown to Northolt. However, poor weather kept them on the ground.
Conditions improved on 10th, and 615’s Hurricanes arrived at Northolt just before lunchtime. The 34 airmen of the maintenance party who had got them airborne were due to follow them south in two Bristol Bombay transport aircraft. While they were waiting to take-off, they saw Bristol Blenheim IV (R2789) coming in to land at 10.15am. The starboard engine failed to pick up when the pilot opened the throttles to go round again. As a result the aircraft stalled, started to spin and crashed.
Corporal Vic Bashford remembered how a small fire developed in the engine intake and no action was taken because a fire appliance was fast approaching. However, when it arrived it couldn’t pump and the fire engulfed the fuselage killing the wireless operator and seriously injuring the pilot and navigator.
The Blenheim was from No.1 Coastal Command Operational Training Unit based at RAF Silloth in Cumbria. Their purpose was to train aircrews on Coastal Command aircraft types, such as the Bristol Blenheim and Lockheed Hudson. Consequently, Sgt. Harold Haslam, (969951), the 21-year-old wireless operator who lost his life, isn’t remembered as one of “The Few” despite the fact that he was killed during the period officially recognised as the Battle of Britain, because he was with a training unit and probably never flew operationally at all. Harold was the son of James and Mary Haslam of Bolton. At the time of her son’s death Mary was a widow living at 98 Chorley Old Road. Harold was laid to rest in Tonge Cemetery, Bolton, (Div. 2. Sec. U.1. Grave 45).
The two survivors of the crash were Pilot Officer Phillip Herbert Foster (pilot – 11 64516 / 87408) and Sgt. Douglas Ronald Pole (navigator – 749595).
Philip Herbert Foster was born in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1911, one of five children born to a Jewish couple, Kadish Fenster from Warsaw, Poland, and Rose Bloom, who was Russian. He studied at the University of Manitoba and worked as an apprentice plumber, changing his name to Phil Foster and growing a moustache, so he looked older and could join a trade union and be paid at union rates. From 1932, lived in the city of Flin Flon, and became a prominent citizen as president of the Rotary Club and Board of Trade. Phil learned to fly and put that skill to good use in his business, ‘Hudson’s Bay Plumbing Company.’ He flew plumbing supplies to the Northern mining districts of the prairies and became known as ‘the flying plumber.’ When war broke out, he persuaded his older brother, Harry, to take over the business and became the first Manitoban man to be accepted for training in the RCAF under the Empire Air Training Plan. However, he found the RCAF’s procedures too slow and made attempts to join the Finnish and Norwegian Air Forces before finally enlisting in the RAF early in 1940.
Foster had flown 413 hours solo, 13 on Blenheims when the accident occurred at Prestwick on 10th October, 1940. He was admitted to Drymen Military Hospital, Stirlingshire, with a compression fracture of the spine and subsequently re-admitted to the same hospital in plaster at the end of January, 1941.
Foster recovered from his injuries and served with 404 Squadron RCAF, again flying the Blenheim Mk.IV, engaged in patrols and long-range reconnaissance for Coastal Command. The Squadron were based at Dyce in Scotland when, on 26th May, 1942, Foster’s Blenheim, Z6245, christened, “Flin Flon Floozie 3rd,” failed to return from a patrol over Norway. The bodies of Foster and his Wireless Operator/Gunner, F/Sgt. John Murray Jamieson, RCAF, were later discovered and laid to rest in Egersund churchyard, Norway. The Observer, P/O Alfred Neil Briggs was taken Prisoner of War.
Foster Park in Flin Flon, was funded by a bequest from the sale of Foster’s plumbing company to the Rotary Club. Foster Rapids in the Dafoe Rapids were also named in his honour in 1996.
Douglas Ronald Pole was born in London on 1st September, 1920, the son of John Stanley Pole a catering clerk and May Pole. He had a younger sister named Edna. Douglas was promoted to Temporary Flight Sergeant on 11th November, 1942, and married Beatrice Mary Wedderburn (Widderborn?) on 16th December, 1943, in South Africa. In 1944, Beatrice came to the U.K. giving an address in LLandudno. Douglas rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant with Coastal Command before leaving the Service. Post-war the couple returned to South Africa, where their first child, Michael, was born in 1947. Douglas initially seems to have worked as a salesman but eventually went into business. He returned to England in 1960 and passed away in 1995, in Hampshire.