Bill Duncanson will never forget Boxing Day 1943 - the day he and his three
young friends witnessed a dramatic air crash while they played in fields near
Drub. (Drub Lane, Gomersal, Yorkshire, England) By some miracle the pilot escaped unscathed from the wreckage (*see editors note below), and the
last the four boys saw of the man who had put his own life at risk to steer the
craft away from towns and villages was of him shocked, and steadying his nerves
drinking a pint in a village pub.
But the boys never forgot the brave pilot and Bill vowed that one day he would find him. His search was to span six decades and came to an end recently when he read an article about the memoirs of WWII pilot Tom Scotland in a local paper in his now home town of Perth, Western Australia that mentioned a crash at Gomersal - and realised that although now on the other side of the globe, incredibly, they lived just 10 miles apart.
small boys growing up during the war there was nothing Bill
Duncanson and his mates liked better than to play
soldiers ambushing prisoners of war working in the farms,
'shooting' at overhead
aircraft and diving for cover under the bushes and behind walls.
Bill, Arthur Hobson, John Jackson and Granville Clark all grew up in the same row of houses at the bottom of Hunsworth Lane, East Bierley, and were inseparable until their late teens.
"In the 1940s it was not unusual for us to be playing anything up to a mile or more away from home, particularly in the woods, streams and old pits in the valleys either side of Copley Springs Farm," explained Bill.
"On this particular day we were up to our usual game of ambushing
the German prisoners who usually worked in the field, all taken in good spirit
"We were used to low flying aircraft and the approach of this one was initially something we didn't pay much attention to. However once we noticed it was on fire and very low it became obvious it was going to crash which it subsequently did, in Devil's Glen in the village of Drub.
"It sank down into the valley and started knocking down hedges and walls and breaking its back on a tree. In fact half of its body and the tank went one way and the aircraft slewed round and came to a halt.
"It seemed a long time but after 10-15 seconds it burst into a
huge ball of flames. We were all just astounded" then a man
stumbled out of the wreckage.
"Some people began to arrive and we thought we had better get home.
"We ran up through the fields and when we got back we found everyone had gone down to the Saville Arms so we all jumped on our bikes and rode down there. There was quite a crowd of people outside. Kids weren't allowed in pubs, even on an occasion like this, but I remember peering in through the windows to see this hero in a flying suit - a real live hero drinking a large beer."
"Then the military, or police vehicle arrived and this fellow walked past me and got in it, waved and was driven away." <div id="divHeadline" class="heading">
After the dramatic events of the day, village life returned to normal and while the subject of the crash was never brought up by the adults, it was always a favourite topic of conversation between the boys.
"The grown-ups never talked about the crash and it was just part of the war," said Bill.
"It didn't play a big part in our lives. It was just one of those things which went by."
boys grew up and went their separate ways, Bill's family moving to
Staffordshire before he completed his National Service in the Far East.
He then joined the Royal Hong Kong Police Force serving for 30
years and on
visits back to East Bierley he would meet up with his boyhood pals and
would reminisce about the crash.
After retiring from the police force he and his family moved to Perth, Western
Australia, and it was there that he found the final piece of the jigsaw which
would lead him to Tom Scotland.
"About 18 years ago I noticed a short article in the West Australian newspaper about a wartime pilot who was returning to the scene of an aircrash which he had been involved in near Gomersal," he said. Until then Bill had assumed the pilot was British.
"Strictly speaking it probably was in that area but we had always
thought of it as Hunsworth's crash. Anyway I thought it close enough to try and
contact him and check if by some miracle it was the crash and the man we had
seen running from the fire.
"I spoke to Tom's wife as he was out preparing to leave for the UK that evening. I gave her some detail of my interest in contacting him and left her with my phone number and a promise to contact each other on his return.
"Time seemed to fly, and now and again the thought came to me that I should try and make another contact. I also had strong doubts that this was the same crash I had seen, as I had been told many years before by a friend that a crash had taken place in the Popeley Fields in Gomersal, so maybe that was the reason he had never contacted me." <div id="divHeadline" class="heading">
What Bill didn't know for 18 years was that Tom had not contacted him because the phone number had been taken down wrongly. He made enquiries at both the RAAF and RAF Associations, reference libraries and through newspapers searching for reports of crashed aircraft, but all proved fruitless.
He now knows that his investigations were drawing a blank because the
boys had mistaken the stricken aircraft for a Lancaster instead of a Halifax.
"But in August last year I noticed a short story in the local paper concerning a book written by a Perth man about his experiences as a Pathfinder pilot," he said.
He noticed that the telephone number in the article was the same one he had rung 18 years earlier.
"I rang him and asked if he'd crashed a plane, if it had broken its back and burst into flames.
"He said he had and I told him we had been sitting on the hillside when the plane came over our heads," said Bill. The two men then arranged to meet; the culmination of Bill's long search.
"It was wonderful and I said to him 'you aren't going nearly as fast as the last time I saw you'," said Bill.
The two men talked about the crash and Bill finally learned what
happened that day.
"I had assumed that he had been coming back from a bombing raid and crashed trying to get back to base. I never realised it was a training accident.At that stage he had never flown an operational mission, but he went on to fly 64," he said.
"It was an absolute thrill to have found him. The newspaper article was the key piece of information I needed and everything became clear and fell into place.
"It wasn't just meeting the man who had been our hero, it was also that if life is a jigsaw and one piece is missing it doesn't spoil the overall picture, but once you find it and put it in, it all makes sense.
"None of my friends who live in the area, and knew of the crash,
know why it occurred or of the depth and range of the human involvement.
"I now am beginning to feel somehow privileged that the four of us saw something occur that belonged to the adult world, and nobody knew we were there.
"Well now the three of us who are still alive;“ Granville died at a young age;“ have caught up, and by some luck and persistence can complete the story, on its 60th anniversary.
"Tom was within a yard of me when he walked out of that pub.
"He now lives about 10 miles from me, we talk regularly and have vowed that we will share a Scotch every Boxing Day to remember what happened that day in 1943."
©Margaret Heward published 06 June 2003 Spenborough Times
*editors note - subsequent RAF doctor's report noted "Pilot was injured....with contusions and spinal damage"
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Tom's book includes information on how he crashed in Yorkshire and the people involved. "Voice from the Stars: a Pathfinder Story" is obtainable from Tom Scotland at our Orders page.