On 7 June 1942, Sunday, at around 4 pm, an aircraft crash occurred near Welsh Bicknor, close to Rosemary Topping, a well-known local landmark on the other side of the river Wye to the crash site.
There was only one eyewitness, Onslow Kirby, an estate worker, who saw the Handley Page Halifax (the aircraft pictured in the image here) come in with a wing on fire. The wing suddenly burned through and fell off, and the plane plummeted to the ground. There were still 1,500 gallons of fuel on board, and the death of all eleven men on board was immediate.
It was a bad blow to the British war effort. Those on board were a mixture of RAF personnel and civilians, the civilians being from TRE, the Telecommunications Research Establishment, then based at Malvern College, and from EMI in London.
Amongst the dead was Alan Dower Blumlein, an outstanding electronics engineer and inventor, who had played the major part in the development of H2S which was to be the Pathfinders’ most important radar aid.
Bernard Lovell wrote in his diary that Blumlein’s death was ‘a national disaster’.
TRE was as important and as secret an establishment as Bletchley Park. It had been moved to Malvern after the Bruneval raid in February 1942, which had led to the capture of German radar equipment and personnel. The British had realised that the same thing might happen here, so TRE was moved to a far safer location at Malvern College. Its local airfield for test flights was RAF Defford which was where the Halifax aircraft had come from.
A critical element of H2S was a magnetron, which was more or less indestructible, and the one in Blumlein’s crash was discovered amongst the wreckage (as Lovell’s diary tells us, see above). At the top of the central memorial window, pictured, you can see a stylised magnetron.
The crash occurred on one of the last flights to prove that the H2S equipment working properly. Although it was a terrible tragedy, Blumlein had been a good team leader and his team were able to pick up his work when he had gone.
The crash was hushed up, locally and nationally. News of Blumlein’s death was not released until after D-Day. The Germans knew of him, partly because he was Jewish, and would have been delighted by the news.
Blumlein’s mother’s ashes would be scattered at the site of the Halifax crash on 2 June 1950.
H2S would prove invaluable, not only to the Pathfinders and Bomber Command, but also to Coastal Command which used it to spot German U-boats surfacing for essential maintenance at night. The technology was so good that it was still being used in the 1980s, in the Falklands war.