Flight Lieutenant Dennis Thomas Collins
On 18th April 1939, Flight Lieutenant Dennis Collins and Acting Pilot Officer Frank Stiven of No.3 squadron, R.A.F. Kenley, lost their lives when Stiven (flying Gloster Gladiator K7962) collided with Collins (flying Gloster Gladiator K8023) while trying to get into formation during a night flying exercise.
Dennis Thomas Collins was born in Aston, Birmingham in April, 1916. His Father, Charles Frederick Collins, was a branch manager for shop fitters, Parnall and Sons, at Summer Row, Birmingham, and his mother, Cecilia Charlotte Collins (nee Griffiths), was from Sutton Coldfield. Dennis had a younger brother, Frederick William Arthur Collins. In 1921, the family were living in King’s Norton, Worcestershire.
At some point, the Collins family moved to Leigh-On-Sea and Dennis studied at Southend Art College, before winning a scholarship for the Royal Academy of Arts. However, his ambition to fly saw him enter the Royal Air Force in 1938. He was the sports officer at Kenley and was an enthusiastic runner.
Dennis Collins was buried with full military honours at St. Luke’s, Whyteleafe, but a second tragedy shook the Collins family less than two years later, when his brother, Frederick, known as ‘Pat’, was also killed in a flying accident at No.5 Flying Training School, RAF Shotwick. His Miles Master (N7895) crashed at Bunbury, Cheshire. Sgt. Charles Austin Round Smith, aged 19, was also killed in the crash.
The two brothers lie together together with their mother Cecilia, at St. Luke’s churchyard, Whyteleafe.
Here is a report on the collision which killed F/Lt. Dennis Collins and P/O Frank Stiven, from Croydon Advertiser, Friday 21st April, 1939:
PLANES COLLIDE IN MID-AIR.
R.A.F. PILOTS KILLED IN CATERHAM CRASHES.
BLAZING WRECKAGE IN HOSPITAL GROUNDS.
Two R.A.F. pilots, one of them a young Beckenham man, were killed on Tuesday night when their machines collided in mid-air above Kenley Aerodrome and fell to the ground at Caterham some miles away. One of the airplanes burst into flames on striking the ground and the other buried itself in the garden of a house several hundred yards away. Both planes narrowly missed striking houses.
The dead men are Acting Pilot Officer Frank Bryan Stiven, whose home is at 11, Beckenham-road, Beckenham, and Acting Flight-Lieutenant Dennis Thomas Collins, whose home is in Essex. Stiven was the son of a well-known Beckenham dentist. He gained distinction as an expert swimmer and diver, and was a prominent athlete. Since joining the R.A.F. he had become known as a boxer.
The crash occurred shortly after 9.30 at night, when the two men, flying Gladiator machines attached to No. 3 (Fighter) Squadron, Kenley, were engaged in night flying exercises. The planes collided at an altitude of about 3,000 feet and dived to earth. One plane came down in a spiral dive, hitting a tree in the grounds of Caterham Mental Hospital near the house of Dr. T. B. Jones the medical officer. It immediately burst into flames, the light of which quickly attracted a crowd. So fierce was the blaze, however, that it was impossible for anyone to go near the wreckage for some time. Men from neighbouring houses endeavoured to reach the pilot, who was seen lying by the side of the plane, but heat forced them back, and it was some time before he could be extricated.
In the meantime Caterham Fire Brigade arrived on the scene and extinguished the blaze.
An eye witness told an “Advertiser” reporter, who arrived while the wreckage was still burning, “I saw the plane spiral down; then there was a blinding flash and I rushed to the hospital grounds. Two or three others arrived at the same time, but we could not get near the pilot. In the end we were able to drag his body away.”
The plane crashed about three hundred yards from the main hospital building, but an official stated that the patients were not alarmed.
One of the first to arrive on the scene was Mr. M. J, Kemp, a schoolmaster, who lives in Francis-road. When he returned to the house he found that the other machine involved had crashed in his back garden. Until then he was unaware that a plane had crashed fifteen feet from his own back door. Hundreds of other people who congregated in Coulsdon-road were also unaware of the whereabouts of the second plane.
After the blaze had been extinguished only the frame of the plane remained, though the tail could be seen lying against the fence of Dr. Jones’s house. Windows in that house were broken by the concussion of the machine’s fall. The pilot’s parachute could be distinguished by the side of the wreckage and it is thought that he must have endeavoured to jump, but could not do so before the plane struck the ground.
MYSTERY OF SECOND AIRPLANE
Some astonishing facts about the discovery of the second plane were revealed by residents in Livingstone-road. This plane crashed in the gardens of houses in Livingstone and Francis roads, but though it came down only a few feet from the houses themselves it was some time before it was discovered.
Mr. Charles Davies, of Livingstone-road, said that he was about to go to bed when he was startled by the sound of an impact and a quantity of earth was thrown over the house. So great was this that the force of it turned on an electric light switch, this serving as a clue to the whereabouts of the plane.
Other residents dashed out of their homes to find out what had happened, but it was some time before they were able to locate the wreckage, as the plane had buried itself several feet deep in the ground and it was difficult to distinguish any part of it in the darkness. Mr Charles Davies added that he walked up his garden path and passed within a few feet of the plane without noticing it. Mr. C. R. Davies was among those who dragged the pilot’s body from the tangled mass of wreckage.
THOUGHT OF BOMBS
Another resident in Livingstone-road, Mr. Davies’s daughter, said: “I heard the crash and immediately thought of bombs. Windows were broken, and though we knew the plane was somewhere near we could not find it.”
Other opinions expressed by people in the crowd which watched R.A.F. clearing the debris on Wednesday morning were “We are profoundly grateful to the pilot, whose presence of mind in switching off the engine may have saved our homes from being burned”; “If the plane had fallen a few yards on either side it would have gone through the roof of a house. We have had a miraculous escape.”
Rest in peace Flight Lieutenant Collins and thank you for your service.