The Airman's Grave and the Crash of a Wellington Bomber on Ashdown Forest
on 31 July 1941


The Airman's Grave on Ashdown Forest
Click image to enlarge

This year marks the 80th anniversary of the crash during the Second World War of a Wellington bomber aircraft on the southern slopes of Ashdown Forest, which resulted in the tragic deaths of all six aircrew. The site of the crash, in an area of open heathland a mile east of Nutley, is now marked by the Airman's Grave. "Grave" is a misnomer, however, as it is in fact a memorial which had its origins in a small wooden cross erected by the mother of one of the airmen soon after the crash.

The crash happened at 04:56 hours GMT (6.56pm local time — double British summertime was in operation) on the morning of Thursday, 31 July 1941. The twin-engined long-range bomber had set off five hours previously with five other Wellingtons of No.142 Squadron from RAF Binbrook in north-east Lincolnshire to join a night-time attack on Cologne by a force of 116 bombers. It crashed on Ashdown Forest on return from the raid.

The crash was attributed by the squadron's commanding officer Rex Kippenberger to "Very poor weather and a faulty port engine".

What caused the engine to fail is unknown; it could have been due to enemy action such as anti-aircraft fire, but the recent history of No.142 squadron's Wellingtons suggests this was a less likely explanation than a repeat of a persistent issue they had with their Rolls Royce Merlin engines which were prone to overheating, seizure and fire. This particular aircraft had already suffered a port engine failure on its second operational flight two months previously, and this was its fifth sortie.

Whatever the cause of the engine failure, it must have been a struggle for the captain, Flight Sergeant Harry Vidler, to maintain height and to keep the aircraft flying level and straight with just one functioning engine.

The official report for the incident concludes that "The Wellington hit the ground at a slight angle and caught fire". Some eye-witnesses reported that the aircraft was found lying upside down after the crash, which seems also to be supported by the official record of the accident. There was minimal chance for the aircrew to have survived, even though the local policeman with other local people had rushed to the scene of the tragedy.

There is a mystery about how the stricken aircraft came to be flying through south-east England so far from its base. Was the pilot hoping to land on the Ashdown Forest airstrip near Wych Cross? Why had he ignored suitable airfields on the way? Had he got lost? Was bad weather a factor in the crash, as the commanding officer had indicated? Low cloud blanketed the region, visibility would have been very poor, and although sunrise was approaching it would still have been dark.

Wartime censorship meant there was a news blackout. We've searched for post-war newspaper reports containing eye-witness accounts of the incident, but without success. And after an interval of eighty years there will be few people alive today who may have been eye-witnesses to the crash, the attempts to rescue the crew, or the aftermath. Nevertheless, in 2021 we made a renewed attempt — particularly through social media, organisations such as the Friends of Ashdown Forest, and local history societies — to gather as much information as we can from people who were there at the time, or who knew people who were there.

There may be some inaccuracies, inconsistencies and possibly false memories in people's recollections, almost all of which inevitably, more than 80 years after the event, have been passed down from people who were there at the time, but the images that are left in our minds are still striking: of a stricken bomber flying in very poor visibility low over Fairwarp towards the Forest where it then crashed on open heathland, and of local people, including children, running or riding their bikes to the scene and desperately but vainly trying to rescue the airmen from the conflagration. A man who lived in Nutley at the time wrote to relate how he and his grandmother heard a revving aircraft engine, its pitch rising higher and higher until it screamed; but they saw nothing. Was it the doomed Wellington?

All six members of the aircrew - average age 24 - were killed. They were Flight Sergeant Harry Vidler, first pilot and captain, aged 27; Sergeant Vic Sutton, second pilot, 24; Sergeant Wilf Brooks, observer (navigator), 25; Flight Sergeant Ernest Cave, wireless operator/air gunner, 21; Sergeant Stan Hathaway, wireless operator/air gunner, 24; and Len Saunders, rear gunner, 21. Their names are commemorated on a plaque at the Airman's Grave, but they were cremated or interred elsewhere: at Hull, Lewisham, Ramsgate, Wallasey, Stockton-on-Tees, and Whitstable.

The Interior of the Airman's Grave
Click image to enlarge

Mrs Elsie Sutton, the mother of the second pilot, Sgt. Vic Sutton, was devastated by her son's death. A serviceman's widow who in 1931 had already lost one son aged 18 in a motorcycle accident, she later moved from south London to Nutley, close to where the Wellington had crashed. She seems to have been absolutely determined to ensure that Vic and his fellow crew members were not forgotten. It was Mrs Sutton who erected a small wooden cross at the site of the crash soon after it happened and who was instrumental in the subsequent creation of the walled enclosure surrounding a white stone cross that has become known as the Airman's Grave, later donating £150 to the Conservators to ensure its upkeep. In recent years this simple, roughly built memorial has become the focal point for a moving Remembrance Sunday service now attended by thousands of people.

Flight Sergeant Harry Vidler (from a newspaper cutting)
Click image to enlarge

We have now carried out research into the men and their backgrounds. We know for example that the captain, Flight Sergeant Harry Vidler, had learnt to fly just before the war (in a Gypsy Moth — a far cry from a Wellington bomber), and squadron records show that he was already an experienced pilot of bomber aircraft. He had flown Wellingtons many times in training and in bombing missions over France, Belgium and Germany since the squadron had been re-equipped with these aircraft in the winter of 1940/41. Before this he had also flown the Fairey Battle for the squadron, a notoriously dangerous light bomber that had incurred high losses in combat. But it was only the second time that he and his crew had flown this particular Wellington, W.5364. In fact this plane had been flown by the squadron only five times, and - as already mentioned - it had already suffered a port engine failure on its second operational flight — with another aircrew — two months previously.

By contrast, Sergeant Stan Hathaway, a wireless operator/air gunner, had been with the squadron for less than six weeks. He was a replacement for a regular crew member, one Sergeant M. Cohen; it was his first time with the crew and indeed it seems that he was killed on what must have been his first operational sortie. Unfortunately, we've been unable to find out much about Sergeant Hathaway, and even less about Sergeant Cohen.

We have now published two substantive articles in Ashdown Forest News: in 2021 an article that set out the background to the crash and the Airman's Grave; and in 2023 an article which profiled the six men who died in the crash. These articles can be found on our publications page.

Since writing these two articles we have found out significantly more about the details of the crash and likely causes from official documents. We hope to publish an article or booklet that draws on this latest information in due course.

Can you help?
We still would like to find out more about all aspects of the crash. We would welcome any further information and photos relating to the airmen (including Sergeant M. Cohen, a regular member of Vidler's crew who missed the final, fateful flight). We continue to welcome reliable eye-witness information about the crash and how the crash site was dealt with afterwards. Finally, we'd like to find out more about the early history of the Airman's Grave, particularly immediately following the crash (photos of the memorial in those early years would be particularly welcome). If you can help, please email us.


Ashdown Forest Research Group © 2023