Acting Pilot Officer Donald James Catt
On 17th January 1939, Acting Pilot Officer Donald James Catt and F/O Lionel Gaunce of No.3 squadron, took off from Kenley at 10.15 am and headed towards the south coast for some live firing practice, in their Gloster Gladiator MkI’s.
Catt, flying K6151, lost touch with Gaunce in a low mist, and crashed through the roof of ‘Cranford’, a house on high ground at Chapel Green, Crowborough, killing Miss Ella Coomber, the housemaid, instantly. The lady of the house, Mrs. Halte Smyley was injured, but escaped with her life.
Blue skies P/O Catt, and a peaceful rest to you and Miss Ella Coomber…
Here are two newspaper articles from the ‘Kent and Sussex Courier,’ from January 1939, which include some very vivid eye-witness accounts of the tragedy….
Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 20 January 1939
TWO KILLED IN CROWBOROUGH AIR TRAGEDY.
R.A.F. plane strikes house. Pilot Dead : Maid Killed Instantaneously.
Two people lost their lives when a single-seater R.A.F. biplane crashed through the roof of a house on Chapel Green, Crowborough, on Tuesday morning. The house and ‘plane were at once enveloped in flames, and within a remarkably short time all that could be seen was a mass of smouldering ruins. The names of the killed were Acting Pilot Officer Donald James Catt, stated to be a Sussex man, and Miss Ella Coomber, aged 58, maid-companion to Mrs. Smyly, occupier of the house. Mrs. Smyly, an elderly lady, was early rescued from the building, and was conveyed to the local hospital suffering from shock and minor injuries. The dwelling involved, “Cranford,” was a two-storied building and was the property of the Rev. Basil E. Eldridge, former Vicar of Crowborough.
Accounts by those who were in the neighbourhood at the time indicate that a dense fog settled over Crowborough – the most elevated spot in the district – at about 10.30 a.m. The engines of one or more ‘planes were then heard over the town. “The noise came very near,” said one eye-witness, “and it seemed as if the machines had lost their bearings and were flying low to find out where they were.” A man working on a hayrick in Eridge-road states that he actually saw a machine come out of the mist and it just managed clear the stack before rising again. In High-street several people were brought out into the road by the noise. One machine went low over the roofs of houses. It then disappeared into the fog in a southerly direction. Almost immediately afterwards, it would appear that explosions were heard.
“I heard an explosion and then saw a flash,” said Mr. P. Kimber, of the Chapel Green Sub-Post Office. “Then there were further – but smaller – explosions, and then I heard a crash.” This evidence was confirmed by scholars at the Sir Henry Fermor Schools nearby. A newsboy, then on his rounds on a push-cycle, takes up the story at this point. He says-. “I was in the road when I saw an aeroplane come out the fog. It looked as if it was coming straight for me. I felt a bit frightened, I can tell you, but it went over and struck the corner house, and then landed on the house next door. Then I heard a roar and saw the house in flames.” The lad said he thought the aeroplane might have been trying to land on Chapel Green.
Miss Ida Spurway, a maid, who was in an upper window of “Little Wortham,” the house which was first struck, stated: “I heard the aeroplane coming over terribly low. I looked up, then heard a terrific noise and everything then seemed to be in flames.” Miss Spurway ran down-stairs, saw what had happened and went back into the house to telephone the police, ambulance and fire brigade. Actually, only a corner of the roof of “Little Wortham,” a large house occupied by Mrs. M. A Lescher, was struck by the ‘plane. This may have been by a tip of the wing, which would, however, have been sufficient to deflect the machine into “Cranford.”
It was Mr. F. A. Peerless, gardener at The Priest’s Cottage, who distinctly saw two ‘planes on emerging from the Roman Catholic Church, where he had been working in the stokehole. He said: “I was brought out by the great noise. I looked up and saw two aeroplanes. One of them was making for the road at an angle of 45 degrees, and I knew it was hopeless for it to try to get clear. It seemed to come into the road and then I heard a crash. I ran over the green to the house, and saw what looked like the tail of an aeroplane sticking up, in flames. I heard groans coming from the house and went to the back to render assistance.”
A chauffeur related how he saw an aeroplane — evidently the second one – just clear the trees in the grounds of The Croft, the residence of Lieut.-Colonel and Mrs. Sefton D. Brancker. It then appeared to be making for Croydon.
Kent & Sussex Courier – Friday 20 January 1939.
PILOT AN EAST GRINSTEAD MAN.
Acting Pilot Officer Donald James Catt, the dead pilot, was an East Grinstead man. The tragic news of his death was conveyed to his widowed mother, who lives in Moat-road, by the Vicar of East Grinstead, the Rev. Dr. Golding-Bird, who was asked by Royal Air Force officials to break the terrible news to the relations. Mr. Catt was about 23 years of age and was well known and had many friends the district. He had visited the town shortly before his death. At one time he was an enthusiastic member of the Boy Scout movement and was a very good boxer, swimmer and allround athlete.
Educated at the East Grinstead County School, he worked for a number of years at Messrs. Broadley’s, outfitters, before he joined the R.A.F. That he should have met his death so near his own home adds to the poignancy of the tragedy.
Many thanks to Andy Long and family members of Donald James Catt for the photograph.