After more than 40 years hidden away following recovery during the late 1970s, the surviving substantial remains of a Short Stirling have been placed on public display for the first time this century…
After more than 40 years hidden away following recovery during the late 1970s, the surviving substantial remains of Short Stirling Mk.III LK488/QQ-E have been placed on public display for the first time this century at the Royal Air Force Museum London at Hendon. Comprising part of the giant bomber’s rear fuselage, rudder and fin, the wreckage – which had most recently been stored with the RAF Museum Reserve Collection at Stafford – will form part of a new Bomber Command exhibition expected to open in May this year.
Previously, the tail section of LK488 was displayed at Hendon during the early 1980s as part of a temporary exhibition about downed RAF aircrew being helped by the Resistance.
One of the 2,371 examples of the four-engined bomber built, LK488 was lost on October 19, 1944, when it hit Mickle Fell, the highest peak in what was then Yorkshire, in fog – killing six of the seven crew on board. They were 22-year-old pilot Flt Sgt Peter Dawbarn Young (RNZAF), 21-year-old navigator Flt Sgt Neil Conway Burgess (RNZAF), 36-year-old flight engineer Sgt Bertram George Davis, 27-year-old bomb aimer Flt Sgt John Matthew Stack (RNZAF), 21-year-old wireless operator Flt Sgt Rex Patrick Furey (RNZAF) and 31-year-old air gunner Flt Sgt George Child (RNZAF). The rear gunner, WO Alan G Small (RNZAF), although injured, survived when his turret was thrown clear of the aircraft in the crash.
On strength with No. 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit out of RAF Wratting Common near Newmarket in Cambridgeshire, the crew – tasked with a round robin low-level night-time cross country navigation to Hexham in Northumberland via Goole in East Yorkshire and Gainsborough in Lincolnshire – were undertaking their final training flight before being posted to an operational squadron.
Departing Wratting Common just after 2300hrs on October 18, the crew turned to the northwest and soon encountered fog. Although LK488 climbed to 4,500ft to find clearer skies, it later turned to the west away from its planned route and descended to around 2,500ft for reasons unknown. Continuing on this westerly heading, at around 0100hrs – by then some 30 miles off course – the aircraft hit the southside of Mickle Fell’s summit. While it will never be known what exactly happened that fateful night, it is thought LK448’s wing caught the peak, causing the aircraft to cartwheel over the ridgeline, before coming to a stop inverted on the northside of the peak. With personnel from nearby RAF Croft quickly dispatched to recover the lost crew in trying conditions, the unfortunate airmen were later buried together at Harrogate’s Stonefall Cemetery.
However, given the difficulty in getting to and from the location (described as boggy ground with a sheer slippery incline) those tasked with recovering the wreck had to abandon their efforts and instead cut LK448 into moveable sections. These were pushed into sink holes close to the crash site where they remained relatively untouched for more than three decades.
With no Stirlings surviving, the RAF later elected to recover LK448. Its initial plan was to build an example of the overlooked heavy bomber using the Mickle Fell wreck as the backbone. As such, on September 1, 1977, Puma helicopters were used to recover some five tonnes of material. Ultimately, the project never came to fruition and the recovered wreck was placed in storage. Some of it has since been scrapped or passed on. That said, some parts have been acquired by The Stirling Aircraft Project based in Cambridgeshire. It is aiming to recreate the forward fuselage of a Stirling Mk.III.
After more than 40 years hidden away, the re-emergence of LK488’s remains will surely serve as an apt and overdue tribute to Bomber Command’s forgotten four-engined ‘heavy’ and its crews.