On Tuesday 29th August 1939, a R.A.F. bomber had taken off from R.A.F. Mildenhall and crashed on Forestry Commission land, at Botany Bay, just over the Norfolk border from Brandon.  A R.A.F. sergeant suffered serious injuries from the impact and subsequently died in hospital on that same evening.  On 2nd September, the day before war was declared, an inquest, led by Bury St Edmunds Coroner (Mr Thomas Wilson), and with Sergeant Reeve representing the Police, heard about the events leading up to the crash.  The dead airman was named as Acting-Sergeant Anthony Frederick Adrian Freeman, of 43 Exeter Road, Croydon.  He was a rear turret gunner in the aircraft and had been in the R.A.F. since February 1939.

Also in the aircraft were:

  • Pilot Officer Thomas Watson, who was severely injured.
  • Flying Officer Francis William Scott Turner, who was the pilot and captain of the aircraft and was not injured.
  • Flight-Sergeant Horace James Weller, co-pilot.
  • Aircraftsman 2nd Class John Gerard Hoey, wireless operator.
  • Aircraftsman 2nd Class Cecil George Barker.

The pilot, Francis Scott-Turner, told the Coroner that just before 5pm on Tuesday 29th August, the bomber took off to take part in a search for a missing aircraft.  Everything was going well and then about an hour into the flight the port side engine caught fire and the pilot carried out the procedure for ‘Fire In The Air’.  He prepared the crew for a crash landing, which was probably about two or three miles north-east of Brandon.  Flight-Sergeant Weller was instructed to bring Pilot Officer Watson out of the nose of the aircraft as soon as possible and bring him to amidships.  The rest of the crew were told to sit down and hang on.  Then the plane came down among some trees.

“I picked up Pilot Officer Watson and told him to get out as quickly as possible. I looked out and then was told that Freeman was still in the machine. Walking across the wing and getting back into the machine again through a hatch. I found Freeman on his knees against a step formed by a bomb micelle. We did not think it was advisable to move him until medical assistance arrived. The fire had gone out by this time.”

Answering the coroner, he said that Freeman should have stayed where he was because it was the safest place in the machine and he must have moved away from it because of the location of his body.  The deceased’s father asked the pilot if the deceased had been thrown from his seat, but the pilot said that had not been the case, it looked like he had lowered the rear of his seat in order to evacuate from his position.  A member of the jury then asked if the deceased was attempting to bail out.  The pilot said the aircraft was too low.

The co-pilot, Flight-Sergeant Weller, told the inquest of how the port engine had developed oil failure near North Walsham.  They maintained a height of 600 or 700 feet on the starboard engine alone.  When he saw they were low enough to see trees he sat down and hung on to the nearest spar.  Weller had seen Freeman in the tail when he was talking to Aircraftsman Hoey and he presumed he was still sat there at the time.  After the crash Weller said he left the aircraft and went straight away to the aircraft’s tail to assist Freeman but when he looked through the rear window he could not see him.  He then walked along the aircraft and caught sight of Freeman’s head resting on top of the step.  Weller then answered the Coroner, and said that it was possible that as soon as Freeman got out of his seat he could have been thrown forward to the front.  In the tail there was a celluloid hatch that could be cut away and through the hole he could have escaped.  In Weller’s opinion the tail was the safest place to be in a crash.

Aircraftsman Cecil Barker told the inquest that he had changed places with Freeman during the flight but had returned to be amidships to prepare for impact.  He had caught a glimpse of Freeman who had turned to face them and assumed he was trying to get out.  The Coroner replied,

“There must be a tendency, particularly in the case of a young fellow like this, for him to get with someone for whom he feels will give him moral support in the time of emergency. I can understand that and I am sure the jury does.”

Aircraftsman John Hoey told the Coroner that he had sent out a radio message just before the crash.

Police Constable Churchyard, based in Weeting and serving in the Norfolk Constabulary, told the inquest that the aircraft had landed on top of some pine trees, at a height of about 10 feet and about 350 yards from the Brandon-Weeting road.  It had cut a swathe through the trees of 30 yards by 60 yards. He helped the crew remove the tail of the aircraft and assisted in the removal of the deceased’s body from the machine and it was taken to Mildenhall by ambulance.

An eyewitness, Mrs Mary Jane Leonard, of Weeting, said she had looked out of her bungalow window and saw the bomber flying too low.  There was smoke coming from the back of it and a crackling noise coming from the engine.  It then disappeared from view, followed by the sound of a crash.  She stopped a passing car and sent them to fetch the Police.

Dr Jenkins, a R.A.F. Medical Officer, said the deceased had suffered broken ribs and a perforated lung.

The Coroner expressed his sympathy to the dead man’s family,

“I have said it before, unfortunately, that we who are not in any arm of the Service owe a great debt of gratitude to these men who take risks that we may live in peace.”

The jury returned a verdict of ‘Misadventure’ and the foreman said the jury felt the crew had done their very best under the circumstances. The Coroner thanked the foreman for his kind words.  The deceased’s father thanked his son’s colleagues and the R.A.F. Medical Officer.

Following the inquest, the surviving men would have gone onto active duty, duly entering into the war with the RAF.  Not much is known of their fate although Pilot Francis William Scott Turner did become Squadron Leader in the course of the war and earned himself a Distinguished Flying Cross.  In 1940 his Wellington bomber was crippled by French Anti-Aircraft shells, so he and his crew baled out near the French-Belgium border.  However, they did manage to find their way back to England.  Four years later, on 22nd September 1943, while flying with the 76th Squadron, Turner was  killed.  His Halifax bomber crashed near Verden.  The Commonwealth War Graves Commission also lists a Pilot Officer Thomas Watson (97 squadron) being killed on 26th November 1943, although I am unsure at this time whether this is the same man involved in the crash at Brandon.

Anthony Freeman’s body was taken to Newmarket and buried in a war grave.

Anthony Freeman (image courtesy of Helen Rider)