Sunderland Flying Boat World War II tragedy Blackrock Islay

Rona MacKenzie recalls Islay's worst World War II tragedy, in which nine men lost their lives when a Sunderland flying boat crashed at Blackrock on Islay

Islay Black RockThe evening of Sunday 24th January 1943 was dark, wet and wild with a strong southerly wind that was freshening all the time and soon became gale force. Sunderland flying-boat MK111 DV of 246 Squadron Coastal command, based at Bowmore, was returning, low on fuel, from a lengthy patrol over the North Atlantic. It still had depth charges on board. There was a crew of twelve, commanded by 1st pilot Captain Eric 'Soapy' Lever of the South African Air Force. Squadron 246 had been formed on 1st September 1942 but did not become operational until 12th December. It disbanded on 30th April 1943 and the aircraft were distributed amongst other units. A detachment of 442 Squadron from Oban arrived in May, but it became increasingly evident that a severe gale in the unsheltered mooring area would be disastrous, so it was moved to Northern Ireland in early November 1943. Bad weather was certainly partly responsible for the tragedy on 24th January.

Corporal Charlie MacMillan, a Bowmore man was on one of the flarepath boats that night. A career airforce man, he had been posted to Islay on compassionate grounds because of his father's serious illness. He was the wireless operator at the RAF base in Bowmore, working in one of the distillery buildings where the mobile power unit was located. All Islay distilleries were closed down in wartime. A buoy with a flashing light was permanently positioned in the centre of Lochindaal to aid landing, and when a flying-boat was expected three power boats went out. One tied to the buoy and the others took position on either side of it to form a line of illuminated boats about 200 yards apart. This was the 'flarepath', landings normally being into wind. Charlie was on the largest of the boats, a pinnace. I am told that the station had been closed that night for flying because of the weather and that the Sunderland was instructed to land at Oban instead, but for one reason or another, there was no reply from it. Wireless communication was of course not as reliable as it is today. One reason for the flying-boat not going to Oban may very well have been lack of fuel.

From eye-witness reports, it seems that on its approach to the loch, the Sunderland circled for some time - up to eight to ten times. Eventually it came in over the hill north of Blackrock, not over the low ground beyond Uisgeantsuidhe. Perhaps this was because of the wind direction and strength. The flying-boat's landing lights were on, then suddenly all its lights went out. This was witnessed by James MacColl from Shore Street in Bowmore. His sister Florrie was the girlfriend of Wally Johnson - Pilot Officer Wallace A. Johnson of the Royal Canadian Air Force (Co-pilot on the Sunderland). In the house on Shore Street, she waited anxiously for the return of the plane, along with her friend Mattie Winnard who was going out at the time with Captain Lever. The pilots were expected for a meal that evening.

A Sunderland Flying Boat moored in Loch Indaal, with the crew visible looking through the port doors. A second flying boat is moored to the rear

James MacColl, who was in the Kilarrow section of the Home Guard, had spent most of the day on the Rifle Range. So too had Donald MacLeod, who with the Rhinns Section had been up at the range at Cnoc Donn. On their way home that evening their lorry, which had been lent by MacBrayne's broke down several times, the final time at Bruichladdich. It was there that the group watched the Sunderland coming down. From where they were they didn't see the crash landing, but they did not see the aircraft come down as expected on the Loch. As a report from the Air Historical Branch (RAF) of the Ministry of Defence, sent to David Woodrow, Bowmore, states 'the aircraft undershot the landing area and struck the ground at the water's edge.' From several reports it seems that the plane's hull touched the hill above Blackrock - eye witnesses saw the marks afterwards. It also probably hit the roof of Charlie Stevenson's joiner's workshop and caught the overhead telephone wires that ran alongside the road in those days. Certainly the next day the place was festooned with fallen wires and the workshop roof was destroyed, but this may have been because of the explosion that followed.

The aircraft came to a halt on the raised beach across the road from the joiner's workshop. Eleven of the crew were able to get out, the captain and the two others with injuries sustained on landing. This group of three escaped to the southwest of the craft, going down below the steep slopes of the raised beach. Eight of the crew, however, ran in the direction of the road, but then realised that one man, the rear gunner, was trapped in the gun turret. All eight returned to the aircraft to free him. At that moment the depth charges aboard exploded, killing all nine aboard. The explosion blew the Sunderland to pieces, most of which scattered northwards towards Blackrock farm and even as far as Carrabus. The debris included one of the engines. A deep crater was blasted out on the spot where the crash had taken place, and this can still be seen. The explosion was seen and heard and its consequences felt up to 20 miles away. In Bowmore's High Street, Mary MacMillan (now Dunford) Charlie's sister, knowing that her brother was out in the RAF pinnace, was looking over towards Blackrock when she saw the explosion, while in Shore Street the MacColls watched in horror as flames leapt from the wreckage. The young wife of one of the gunners was in despair as she realised what had happened, in the event one of the three survivors was her husband. In Kilmeny Church evening service was in progress, and Donald Bell, a young lad at the time, remembers the doors being blown in by the blast. But it was some time before the congregation discovered what had happened.

At Mid Carrabus, a mile from the crash site, Mary MacEachern (now Mary Merral) was sitting with her parents at the kitchen table above which a paraffin lamp was hanging. They had heard the drone of the Sunderland's engines, a sound to which they had become accustomed, and so they paid no attention until they heard a sudden almighty blast. Mary's father shouted 'Tha na Gearmailtich 'n seo!' for he had long feared a German invasion. Glass flew everywhere as the windows blew in and flames shot up from the wildly swinging lamp. It seemed, Mary says, like the end of the world to her. Her father, extremely concerned about Mrs Kate Stevenson whom he'd known since childhood, set off immediately for the Stevenson's house.

Because of the blaze, Mrs Stevenson had been unable to get out through her front door, and had made for the back, where there was a wooden lean-to scullery which collapsed around her. Her husband Charlie was along the road paying a visit to Glenburn, and hurried back home, as did his son Iain who was on his way home from visiting friends along the Lyrabus road. In a small house made of an old ship's cabin from a wreck near Blackrock farmhouse, lived Willie Dick, a young man at the time, and his mother. All their windows were blown in by the blast, and the old stone cottage beside the cabin was demolished by it. Nancy Gillespie (now Stevenson) tells how her uncle Angus was on his way across the fields from Carrabus to the postbox at Blackrock when the explosion occurred. He lay down till things had quietened down a bit and then went to see what he could do. Meantime, the Rhinns Home Guard were on their way to the scene of the disaster, driver Neil Gillespie having commandeered a car at Bruichladdich. As they approached they found the wall blown across the road and as they drew to a halt they saw in the glow of the flames the figures of the three survivors. Donald MacLeod remembers the blood-soaked uniform of Captain Lever, whom he helped up to the car, and he also remembers how, dazed and in a state of shock, and unaware of what had happened, the man was saying 'they're all out!' the Rhinns section somehow got the three surviviors into the RAF ambulance which eventually arrived, and they were revived with a cup of tea in Mrs Dick's small cabin before going home when they had done all they could.

The Kilarrow section of the Home Guard, under Lieutenant Bobby Hodkinson, were called out as were the men of the RAF regiment based at Glenegedale Airfield. The Bowmore local Fire Brigade, which then consisted of a distillery lorry pulling a pump, arrived soon. The fireboat which was usually out when a flying-boat was expected was not out that night. The road was closed and traffic diverted over the hill via Coullabus. Ammunition was still exploding among the flames of the wreckage. When daybreak came, Bobby and his section found, lying face down at the water's edge, the body of Wally Johnson. Most of the others who died were blown to pieces and a gruesome task lay ahead for those who had to collect the shattered bodies and scattered debris during the following days. For many years bits of Perspex were found in a wide area around the crash site, and pieces of metal were embedded in the road surface and could be seen until quite recently. On a lighter note, one eye-witness recalls interest shown by some of the men in the dead hens lying around the Stevenson's ruined hen-house. In those days of austerity chicken was a rare delicacy. Donald MacFadyen remembers how he and other pupils of Bowmore Secondary School watched from the school playground as the funeral procession wound its way to the sound of the pipes along Shore Street and up Main Street to the Round Church. The graves of Wally Johnson and two other men from overseas who were killed in the accident are in the graveyard at Bowmore: they were Sergeants Ernest Palmer and Roy Jabour, both Australians. Wally's brothers Jim and Keith came over from Canada several times to visit his grave and call on the MacColl family.

In 1986 Jim Johnson wrote to the late Iain Stevenson, whom he had missed during a visit to Islay, mentioning photographs which he had given to the Museum at Port Charlotte. These include pictures of flying-boats moored in Lochindaal. Jim Johnson died five years ago but his widow was over earlier this year, keeping up the family's links with Islay. Mrs Margaret Reid of Dunblane, who was friendly with another of the victims, Sergeant Walter Heath, at the time of the disaster, has also visited Islay and found comfort in doing so. She visited the Museum and saw the photographs.

This terrible accident, the worst tragedy of World War II in Islay, an event which seemed like the end of the world to one young witness, will never be forgotten by those who saw or heard it, or gave their assistance afterwards. Perhaps this short account of the events of the night of 24th January 1943 will ensure that the memory of the nine brave young men who died will not fade.

The crew of the Sunderland
Capt. Eric John Lever SAAF, Pilot - Survived
Pilot Officer Wallace Arthur Johnston RCAF, 2nd Pilot - Killed
Walter Eric Charles Heath, Sergeant Navigator / Bomb Aimer - Killed
Sergeant George Charles Major, Sergeant Navigator / Bomb Aimer - Killed
Sergeant George Hogg, Wireless Operator Mechanic / Air Gunner - Survived
Sergeant Roy John Jabour RAAF, Wireless Operator / Air Gunner - Killed
Sergeant Ernest Geoff Palmer RAAF, Wireless Operator / Air Gunner - Killed
Sergeant Henry John Tasker, Wireless Operator / Air Gunner - Killed
Sergeant George Cyril Phillips, Air Gunner - Killed
Sergeant John Ivor Williams, Flight Mechanic (Engines) / Air Gunner - Survived
Sergeant William Simpson, Flight Mechanic (Airframe) / Air Gunner - Killed
Sergeant Douglas Howarth, Flight Engineer - Killed

This article was originally featured in the booklet 'An Islay Miscellany', published by the Museum of Islay Life.

A reprint from a letter dated March 1987 from James Johnston, Ontario, Canada to Margaret Reid now of Dunblane. This letter provides new insights into the crash of the Sunderland Flying Boat on 24th January 1943.

Dear Mrs Reid
It has been several months since I received your fine letter about Islay and the crash that killed Walter Heath and my older brother Wally some 44 years ago. I have delayed a reply, expecting any day to come across the negative of the Sunderland photo you saw which shows both of them. I wanted to make you a print. But I retired a couple of years ago and our house is stuffed with files and the negative has not turned up. When it does, I will make a print and send it along to you. Bob Hodgkinson at the corner store also drove me to the crash site when I first visited Islay in 1953. He said he was in the Home Guard and the morning after the crash went into the loch and brought Wally's body ashore. I see him each time we visit.

Also at Bowmore is James MacColl, retired distillery manager (everybody on Islay seems to be in the booze business). He and his wife Mary have become good friends over the years. His sister Flora was Wally's girlfriend on Islay. On the night of the crash, Wally and one other crew member were coming to the MacColls' for dinner. They heard the returning plane overhead. It was 8 p.m. and very dark. The plane made a pass, low over Bowmore and they realized it was in trouble. Mrs. MacColl and Flora went inside so they would not see the crash, but James stood outside and saw it hit. Their house is on Shore Road and overlooks the loch, about a block north of the pier. Black Rock, the crash site, is on the other side, probably three miles across the water. Each time I am back to Islay, James remembers something new about that fateful night. Last time, I tape-recorded his memories as we stood the backyard on the very spot he had stood over four decades earlier.

I have been to Islay several times, and took my two sons there when they were small boys. My younger brother has also been there and has taken his family of five. A couple of years ago, my brother and I and our wives went there together and it was then we took over the photographs for the museum. Bob Hodgkinson was museum chairman. James MacColl and his wife Mary have visited us in Canada. And by a strange quirk, the connection now goes into the next generation. Flora MacColl married Peter Thomson, a BBC sportscaster. Both are now dead. But their son Brian is a medical doctor in Guelph, about 60 miles west of Toronto. (Cobourg is about 70 miles from Toronto on Lake Ontario). I first saw Brian when he was a baby when I was in Bowmore, and then years later when he was visiting his Grandmother. A few years ago he came to Canada and was in Saskatchewan (about 2,000 miles west). Our younger boy was also in Saskatchewan and they talked on the phone. Last year, Brian decided to come to Ontario, and came and stayed with us as he looked at practices. His wife used to be the manager of the Bridgend Hotel which is halfway between Bowmore and the crash site.

Last year, my wife and I happened to be invited aboard the Brittania when the Queen was at Nassau. Her lady-in-waiting was Mary Morrison, whose father is Lord Margadale, the laird of Islay. My wife talked with Mary Morrison for some time, and I did briefly. But we did not make the Islay connection until the next day. I sent her a note through a friend in the British entourage and said my brother had been killed a few hundred yards from her front gate (Islay House is near Black Rock). She did not receive the note until she was back in London, but I have since received a nice note. Last summer, my cousin and her husband were in Islay and at the crash site. They had been there before. But this time, they visited with Ian Stevenson, the carpenter whose shop had been hit by the plane's pontoon. (When I first went to Islay, Stevenson showed me the gouges in the earth and scratches on -the rock behind his house where the plane had scraped its way to the shore). He gave them a wrench from the plane which he had kept all these years. The explosion had tossed it onto his yard. They brought it home and gave it to me.

In 1965, when my boys were with me, there were still ashes from the fire at the site. The tarmac on the road had not been re-surfaced since the war, and when you looked into the late afternoon sun, small pieces of polished metal reflected back like ten thousand stars in a dark sky. This was the plane's skin, blown for hundreds of yards up the road, then embedded in the tar and worn smooth by the decades of car traffic. By the mid-seventies, Islay had regional government and more money for roads, and there was new tarmac and the road was all black once more.

A few years ago, I kicked up an old jerry-can at the site, buried in a small patch of peat. The metal was solid. They used to carry these on long flights for drinking water (or more lowly purposes!). I took a photo then re-buried it in the peat where I thought it would stay for a thousand years. Last time I was there, it was gone, and so was the exact crash-site. A lane had been carved down the bank to the shore. But the big rock still stood to the south. It was behind this rock that the three survivors were when the explosion came.

The skipper's name was 'Soapy' Lever, a flight lieutenant, and he survived. My brother was co-pilot, and was only 20. My understanding is that the plane was supposed to land on Loch Erne near Enniskillen (in Fermanagh where our great-grandfather Johnston had lived before coming to Canada in 1837). A storm came up and the flare path was moved closer to shore. The plane made a pass over the loch, but the crew believed they were over water when they hit on the hill behind Stevenson's house. They almost made it. A letter to my father during the war from the commanding officer claims some were killed in the crash itself. But that is not the way the locals tell it on Islay. They say the explosion got those still in the wreckage plus those who had returned to help the others out. Often I have thought 'if only they had been a few feet higher'. But when you are on the site you will see that a 'few feet higher' probably would have taken the plane directly head-on into Black Rock. They would have had to be a half-mile further out over the water to have escaped their fate.

My father tried to get the names of next-of-kin of the crew, but they would not release them during the war. Your letter is the first actual contact with any other crew member in over four decades. If you ever find the whereabouts of any of the survivors or families I would appreciate hearing them to confirm stories. You will be interested in this story from 1953. I found a girl on the island whose mother ran the Imperial Hotel on the main street. The morning of the last flight, the boys went in for tea en route to the launch to carry them to the plane. She said as they left they were singing 'You are my sunshine' and she heard it across the water as they went towards their Sunderland. My wife and I are in Scotland every few years. Next time we are planning to go, I will write to you, and when we are close to Dunblane, we'll be in touch and take you to lunch. We have driven through Dunblane a half-dozen times, and once, years ago, stayed there one night. Thank you for your thoughtful letter. I shall not forget to send you the photo.

Sincerely yours,
James Johnston

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