Wartime mystery to rise from the deep

Wartime mystery to rise from the deep

Neil Mackay


WHEN Ian Foster raises the mangled wreckage of Lancaster bomber ED548 from the silt of the Firth of Forth, he will close one of the greatest mysteries of the second world war – were Nazi agents operating a sabotage ring at the heart of the British military?

Foster, a military aircraft salvage expert based in Grangemouth, has only a few months to haul the massive hull of the RAF bomber plane from its grave at the bottom of the Powburn River, on the north west of the Kincardine Bridge. His licence from the Ministry of Defence to raise ED548 expires in November. The plane exploded in mid-air, killing all seven crew, on the night of July 7, 1943, while on a routine training flight over Scotland. Its nose-cone was blown off and the burning plane tumbled out of the sky into the Firth of Forth. The bodies were recovered but, with the pressure of war, there was no time to raise the plane. At the time, RAF high command suspected sabotage. The plane was not carrying any bombs and there were no enemy fighters in the area. ED548 had no history of engine trouble and had a seasoned crew. An extract from the squadron operational record book of the time says: “A disturbing loss occurred on the night of 6/7 July when ED548 (PH/X) exploded over Scotland during night training exercises killing Squadron Leader Baxter and his crew. No explanation was forthcoming and wreckage was too fragmented to provide clues. This is one of a number of unexplained incidents involving Lancasters. Sabotage has been mooted.” Just a couple of weeks earlier, on June 25, another Lancaster, also from 12 Squadron, came down near Louth in Lincolnshire, again killing the entire crew. A few days before that incident, on the night of June 17/18, yet another 12 Squadron Lancaster crashed on a training exercise. And a year later in mid-1944, a fourth Lancaster crashed over Kingussie, killing all seven crew. HMS Dasher, an aircraft carrier, exploded off Arran on March 27, 1943, killing 379 sailors. Author and historian John Steele believes the ship was destroyed by enemy sabotage. The Admiralty is thought to have suppressed that theory to protect wartime morale. Foster, who runs 57 Rescue, an aviation salvage group, said: “The vital clues to the fate of ED548 lie in the engines. Once we raise the engines we will be able to tell if a fuel leak into the engines caused an explosion. If there was no fuel leak, the only probable cause of an explosion had to be sabotage.” At the time of the crash, ED548 was on a mock bombing raid. Now billeted at RAF Lossiemouth, 12 Squadron was then based at Wickenby, Lincolnshire. Squadron Leader Baxter and Sergeant WH Bartlett were both buried at Grangemouth. The body of Sgt Butterly was flown back to the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the victims were buried in their home towns. Joe Sharp, one of the world’s leading authorities on Lancasters, said: “If there had been a spare bomb onboard which accidentally went off, then ED548 would have been shattered in mid-ships. However, ED548 had its nose blown off. Given that there was no Luftwaffe around, that points to sabotage.” Sharp, a historian and former RAF officer, says the only alternative theory is that pathfinder flares, which were dropped over Germany to guide bombers to targets, detonated onboard. “However, the most likely cause is sabotage. The German fifth column were pretty ineffectual at the time, but they did have agents parachuted in. It could also have been a disgruntled Irish republican,” he added. The RAF Museum in London said there was no evidence of sabotage in their records. David Wragg, Britain’s leading expert on second world war bombers, said: “Lancasters were very reliable aircraft but there were cases of them blowing up for no reason. But it would be foolish to say that sabotage couldn’t have happened. I have an open mind about what happened to ED548. The only answer will be found in the wreck beneath the waters in the Firth of Forth.” Flight Lieutenant Jim Anderson, the public affairs officer of RAF Lossiemouth, said: “There is a huge question mark over what happened to ED548. Present day members of 12 Squadron are desperate to find out what occurred to the Lancaster on that fateful night.”

Copyright 1999

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