On the night of 31 August 1944, a young and inexperienced Royal Australian Air Force crew climbed aboard an Avro Lancaster at RAF Waddington.
Their mission that night was not to bomb Germany, but to carry out a night navigation exercise that would take them up into Scotland, across the Cairngorms and back to Waddington. They never made it home.
Lancaster PD259 JO-G crashed in the highlands of Scotland that night, on the Balavil Estate close to Kingussie. The circumstances of the crash are uncertain and although the wreckage was discovered quickly and the crews’ bodies returned for a proper burial, it wasn’t until 2008 that the members of a team from RAF Waddington undertook to recover some of the wreckage. Further recovery efforts were made in 2009 and 2010 and, after extensive restoration efforts, large sections of Lancaster JO-G can be seen in Ops Wing and the Stn Heritage Centre at Waddington.
On the 7th of November this year, a team of Waddington Executives, led by the Station Commander, Group Captain Jones, climbed aboard a minibus at the gymnasium and set off on the nine and a half hour journey to Balavil. On the morning of the 8th, supported by a small team from Waddington and Grantown-on-Spey, the 8 Execs headed into the Balavil Estate for a trek up to the crash site. A well-worn tracked lulled them into a false sense of security for the first few kilometres, before it ran out, leaving them on the deeply rutted and boggy peat marshes that covered the climb to the crash site at 700m above sea level. The weather was kind, and the wreckage of J-OG was spotted from a few kilometres distant. Sat on the side of a shallow incline, the twisted remains of the Lancaster drew a sombre response from the team. With much of the aircraft already catalogued and returned to Waddington, few recognisable parts remained. The site compelled the team to think back to the dark night 67 years ago during which the young and inexperienced 463 Squadron crew, who had planned to fly their navigation route at 22,000ft, came to grief on the side of the Scottish mountain.
With respects duly paid, the Execs walked back down the mountain, not to the comfort of a local hotel, but to a bothy by a stream in the middle of the estate. The bothy comprised 3 rooms, each with a working fireplace. Officer Commanding 8 Squadron revealed slightly worrying pyromaniac tendencies as he set about raising a roaring fire in each grate. Operational ration packs were opened and compared; a fight broke out over who should have the Tuna Pasta Bake and, like young and enthusiastic airmen, the Execs swapped their boiled sweets for chocolate or other goodies. Once the water was heated, many things were boiled in a bag and steaming mugs of hot chocolate were made. After the immediate frenzy of dinner had died down, some of the Execs, by now in a state of panic because they had not been able to check their e-mails for 24 hours, wondered if it was time for bed. Sadly, it was only half past five in the evening, but the Wing Commanders, tired from their exertions, believed it to be much later. It soon transpired that the trip was well planned and alcohol had somehow found its way into rucksacks; a splendid night ensued, lit by a roaring fire and fuelled by biscuits (brown). Much later, with all the Squadron Leader Officers Joint Appraisal Reports completed, the Execs fell exhausted into their camp beds (all, that is, except the Station Commander, who preferred the floor). Officer Commanding Engineer and Logistics then proceeded to keep everyone awake for the whole night by impersonating a pneumatic drill, making him so popular that in the morning he was forced to take a dip in the icy stream near the bothy by the remaining irate and bleary-eyed Execs.
The team made their way back to the Balavil Estate house and were met by owners Allan and Majorie MacPherson-Fletcher, who took them to the estate cemetery, were a single blade of one of JO-G’s propellers stands as a fitting memorial to Flying Officer Beddoes and his crew.
The combination of scenery, pleasant weather, an arduous climb, an austere night in the bothy and two 9-hour minibus rides gave the Station Executives an opportunity to get to know each other better and to discuss the many issues facing Waddington as we look to the future. The story of PD259 is fascinating; Waddington’s efforts to recover the wreckage and give it a proper home in the Heritage Centre is a great example of how Force Development activities can allow people to operate as a team, sometimes outside of their comfort zone and to learn more about the extraordinary history of our Station and our Service.
By Wing Commander Garry Crosby