Into the Silence

“Every day I wonder + cogitate about what really happened to the Lancaster on May 10/11. It’s such a peculiar happening – into the silence” (A01-113-001)

Writing to Don Smith in August 1944, Sydney Pate put into words what so many at the time and since have wondered. Just what was it that caused the loss of Lancaster LM475 over Lille?

When Phil Smith returned to England from occupied Europe a month or so after those words were written, Mr Pate could be forgiven for expecting that the only survivor of the crew might be able to shed some light on what really happened that May evening. But it was not to be. Phil’s first letter to his parents, written just five days after returning to England, reveals very little of the mystery (A01-033-002):

“All I can say about the accident is that I was extremely lucky to get away with it”

If anything, this brief account only served to further muddy the waters for Sydney Pate. He wrote to Don Smith in October 1944 (A01-094-001):

“I am struck by [Philip’s] use of the word ‘accident’, its precise application is still not clear to me… was it from enemy attack? Was it from internal misadventure? Was it from its own bomb load?”

Mr Pate put into words what is still puzzling, even today. When we first met Phil Smith in 1996 we asked him what he remembered. His answer?

Very little. Everything, he said, went hot, dry and red – and suddenly there was no aeroplane around him anymore. So he pulled his ripcord and parachuted to the ground.

Even the only man who survived the destruction of LM475 never knew for sure what caused his aircraft to crash. So what hope have we, 65 years later, of finding a definitive answer?

I’ll happily concede that, without wreckage to examine and without any known eyewitnesses, it is highly unlikely, if not impossible, that I will ever be able to nail down a probable cause with any degree of certainty. But there is some written evidence that I can use to look at a number of theories. At this stage in my research I have not actually studied these closely. I am simply putting the theories out there so I can start thinking about them in more detail in the future.

The most obvious possible causes concern enemy action:

  • Shot down by flak
  • Attacked by a nightfighter

Other causes might be seen by today’s air crash investigators as ‘accidents’:

  • Collision with another aircraft
  • System failure eg engines
  • Structural failure through manufacturing or maintenance defect
  • Airframe icing in poor weather
  • Pilot or other crew error
  • Overstressing of airframe, causing structural failure
  • Controlled flight into terrain
  • Running out of fuel causing a crash

There could also be some other, more ‘out there’ scenarios:

  •             Hit by a bomb dropped from above
  •             Own bombs collided with each other after leaving aircraft and exploded

This is by no means intended to be a comprehensive list of all possible causes for the loss of LM475. I may even edit this post to add more if I think of any plausible ideas in the near future. Though there remains no physical evidence in existence – only a single propeller blade is left of the wreck of the actual aircraft – there is written evidence that lends support to some of these theories. I don’t think that enough evidence exists to be definitive, but I think it would be an interesting exercise to at least try and produce a plausible, probable cause.

(c) 2010 Adam Purcell

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2 Responses to “Into the Silence”


  1. 1 Therese Findlay November 29, 2010 at 10:16

    intriguing Adam

    Some things we are never meant to know I guess.
    The propellar; where is it?

    Therese

    • 2 kookabat November 29, 2010 at 14:33

      Therese,
      It’s a single prop blade, badly corroded, and it was discovered at the scene of the crash in Lille about 15 years ago. The foundations were being dug for the petrol station and hotel that now sits on the site. It’s now in the personal collection of a friend of mine named Joss le Clercq, in the village of Aubers (which is just down the road from Fromelles in fact).

      Will be the subject of a future blog post!

      Adam


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