Son pays last visit to war hero dad’s Oban crash site

The Oban Times - - NEWS - SANDY NEIL sneil@oban­times.co.uk

THE son of an air­man who died in a plane crash near Oban 75 years ago dur­ing the Sec­ond World War has made his ‘last’ pil­grim­age to the site, and do­nated his fam­ily’s mem­o­ries to the town’s War and Peace Mu­seum.

Just af­ter dawn on May 29, 1942, a Sun­der­land fly­ing boat laden with tor­pe­does crash-landed while ap­proach­ing the RAF Oban base off the north­ern tip of Ker­rera, then sank and ex­ploded when its depth charges det­o­nated at 30ft un­der­wa­ter.

Bob James’s fa­ther, Flight Sergeant Robert Ste­wart Sey­mour James, who en­listed at the out­break of the Sec­ond World War in 1939, was one of the four air­men killed in the tragedy. Robert’s widow, Eileen, Bob’s mother, al­ways kept the se­cret hand­writ­ten let­ter sent to her by an RAF of­fi­cer in Bo’ness ex­plain­ing ex­actly what had hap­pened to her hus­band.

Eileen, the grand­daugh­ter of Queen Vic­to­ria’s gold­smith Wil­liam Robb, of­ten vis­ited the site from Aberdeen­shire where Bob was born, un­til she died last year. Now, al­most ex­actly 75 years af­ter the ac­ci­dent, Bob has de­cided to do­nate that let­ter and fam­ily pho­tographs of his fa­ther in uni­form to the Oban War and Peace Mu­seum.

Bob, a re­tired en­ter­tain­ment agent who rep­re­sented among many others Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich, also reg­u­larly trav­elled from Waplode Drove in Lin­colnshire with his wife Wendy to pay trib­ute at the Gana­van war me­mo­rial near where the ac­ci­dent hap­pened.

The me­mo­rial, over­look­ing the Firth of Lorne and Gana­van Sands where a slip­way (which still ex­ists) was con­structed for ser­vic­ing air­craft, is ded­i­cated to the me­mory of all air and ground per­son­nel of 18 Group Coastal Com­mand who served at RAF Oban. It bears the Gaelic in­scrip­tion ‘Mus diochuimh­nich sinn’ – ‘Lest we for­get’.

Bob and Wendy vis­ited Oban on Wed­nes­day last week to pay their re­spects at the war me­mo­rial, and hand the doc­u­ments to the mu­seum, which he kindly let

The Oban Times see be­fore­hand. The RAF of­fi­cer’s let­ter to Mrs James, dated Septem­ber 1942, ex­plained he was tak­ing a per­sonal risk in writ­ing it, and asked her to keep it con­fi­den­tial. ‘I am not sup­posed to dis­close any de­tails of air­craft ac­ci­dents,’ he said. ‘It is con­sid­ered prej­u­di­cial to pub­lic scru­tiny. It would be harm­ful to me if the con­tents of this let­ter be­came known to the author­i­ties.’

As the Sun­der­land II T9089 came into land at 4.40am, he con­tin­ued, ‘weather con­di­tions were not re­ally good for a land­ing in the dark, there be­ing a thin mist or haze with a per­fectly flat calm sea which mir­rored the whole sky and made it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for the pi­lot to judge his height.

‘The air­craft came in to land in the usual way, but to those on the flare path the an­gle ap­peared to be too steep. She hit the wa­ter with a se­vere bump, bounced into the air and turned over onto her back.

‘The res­cue launches were along­side the wreck in a few sec­onds and im­me­di­ately an at­tempt was made to take off any sur­vivors. Of the to­tal crew of nine, six were res­cued, one of whom I un­der­stand has since died in hospi­tal.

‘The re­main­ing three, and re­gret­tably Mrs James your hus­band was one of them, were trapped in that part of the wreck which was to­tally sub­merged and must have been drowned im­me­di­ately.

‘The un­for­tu­nate fact that ev­ery­one was not saved was not due to the fault of the crews of the res­cue boats. In­di­vid­ual mem­bers of these crews per­formed acts of con­sid­er­able brav­ery.

‘Two fel­lows ac­tu­ally dived off the boats into the wa­ter in the dark and swam into the sink­ing ma­chine in a fruit­less at­tempt to reach those known to be trapped. Although it was ob­vi­ous that no life re­mained on board, the res­cuers did not give up hope un­til the ma­chine be­gan to sink.

‘They then with­drew to a safe dis­tance be­cause of the fear that the depth charges might go off when the wreck reached the pre­scribed depth at which they were set to ex­plode.

‘It was a bless­ing that they did be­cause within a few min­utes the air and sea were shaken by a ter­rific ex­plo­sion and a col­umn of wa­ter a hun­dred feet high was thrown into the air.

‘On oc­ca­sions like this ev­ery man works like a crea­ture pos­sessed to save the life of his fly­ing com­rade and risks his own life in do­ing so.’

The fa­tal­i­ties on T9089 were listed as Flight Sergeants Robert Stu­art Sey­mour James, John Robert Hughes and Thomas Joseph Isaacs, and Sergeant Elfed Lewis, who suc­cumbed to his in­juries in hospi­tal.

An­other let­ter, sent by the Air Min­istry in Lon­don in June 1943, added that the cause of the ac­ci­dent re­mained ob­scure.

‘A wit­ness from the ground stated that as the air­craft en­tered the wa­ter its glide was checked sud­denly, the tail lifted and the air­craft turned over. Un­hap­pily no trace of your hus­band could be found.’

Bob, now aged 74, never got to meet his fa­ther. ‘I was con­ceived for two months when he died on May 29, 1942,’ he said. ‘I was born in De­cem­ber.’

When asked why he is do­nat­ing these few fam­ily trea­sures of his late fa­ther, he replied: ‘My chil­dren never knew their grand­fa­ther, be­cause I never knew him,’ he ex­plained. ‘I have no-one to pass them on to. It is prob­a­bly my last trip.’

Ev­ery man works like a crea­ture pos­sessed to save his fly­ing com­rade” RAF of­fi­cer’s se­cret let­ter

Bob James, above, pays trib­ute at the Gana­van war me­mo­rial, over­look­ing where his fa­ther Flt Sgt Robert James, right, died. Letters writ­ten to Robert’s widow Eileen, ex­plain the cir­cum­stances of the crash. Left, Flt Sgt James front row fourth from right, with his squadron.

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