The Meon Valley D-Day tragedy that cost the lives of dozens of young men

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A bomber towing a Horsa glider
A bomber towing a Horsa glider

Flying conditions on the night of Tuesday, April 4th 1944 were far from ideal. It was completely dark and low cloud cloaked the Meon Valley, as it had most of the country on that warm spring night.

With blackout regulations in force, there was no ambient light on the ground and with the low cloud level, it was a challenging scenario for even the most experienced of pilots.

But with preparations for Operation Overlord, the allied invasion to liberate Europe from German occupation, reaching their final weeks, training had to continue whatever the weather.

And so it was that Horsa glider LG999, being towed by a Stirling IV bomber LJ-842 of 196 Squadron, found itself flying over the Meon Valley, on the the return leg of a large-scale glider training mission, Exercise Dreme.

Aboard the bomber were a six-man crew and in the glider were 24 members of No. 3 Platoon, ‘A’ Company, 7th (Airborne) Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers, a medic and two pilots of the Glider Pilot Regiment.

It was a routine training flight which had set off from RAF Keevil, Trowbridge, Wiltshire. It was a cross-country night exercise of various legs set to take less than four hours and the gliders were to be released over Brize Norton in Oxfordshire.

But as the bomber flew descended through cloud over Warnford at low altitude, it clipped a tree. The result was immediate and fateful. Knowing that the best chance for the survival of the men onboard the glider, bomber pilot 28-year-old John Lees, released the glider’s towing rope.

The impact of the sudden release had immediate consequences for the glider and although the two young pilots of the aircraft, 22-year-old Staff Sergeant Henry Joel and Sergeant William Walker, 24, fought valiantly to stabilise the aircraft, the shock of the sudden cable release made it an impossible task.

As the aircraft plunged towards the ground, one can only imagine the terror they must have felt. And, for the soldiers in their care, the shock they would have faced, going from a stable flight back to base to sudden and unexpected turbulence with no warning.

Seconds later, the glider hit the ground with tremendous force, ripping the wooden fuselage apart. It came to rest to the east of Warnford Park.

For the people living in Warnford, by now well-used to the sound of aircraft flying over in the weeks and months ahead of D-Day, the noise of the crash would been sudden and incredibly loud, almost certainly waking anyone already asleep.

Then an eerie silence descended on the site. It is not known for sure if any of the 27 young men, who ranged in age from 18 to 37, aboard the aircraft survived the cataclysmic sudden impact, but all were mortally wounded. There were no survivors.

Onboard the Stirling Bomber the pilot, Australian John Lees and his five-man crew were fighting for their lives. The aircraft suffered severe damage when it hit the tree, yet was still in the air.

They flew on in a westerly direction, battling to stabilise the aircraft. But, around ten minutes after the glider had come down, about a mile southwest of Romsey and around 18 miles from Warnford, the engines of the Stirling bomber stalled and it too crashed. All six men on board were killed.

The memorial

In 2021 a local group became aware of the tragic accident and felt that there ought to be a memorial to the soldiers and airmen who lost their lives.

Planning permission was obtained in August 2021 and the landowners, Hugh and Sally Thomas, gave permission for a memorial to be placed on their land, directly beside the South Downs Way.

A service of dedication conducted by the Reverend Tony Forrest took place on April 4th 2022. It was attended by local people and service veterans. Six pupils from Droxford Junior School were given the honour of reading the names of the servicemen who lost their lives.

Reverend Tony Forrest said: “Every Remembrance Sunday, we recall the enormous sacrifices made by all those in the military and civilians in conflicts around the world. Yet sometimes it is good to focus on individual incidents and recall exactly the circumstances in which people lost their lives.

“In this case, it was part of the extraordinary preparation for the most significant operation of the Second World War. Without these exercises, that D-Day invasion may not have been successful. We owe them so much.”

The memorial was made from Sussex sandstone and has plaques detailing the event and those who lost their lives. Funds were provided by the KOSB, AAC, RAF, RAAF, Airborne Forces Charity and the RAMC to cover the cost of the stone and the event.

Roll of honour

No. 3 Platoon ‘A’ Company, 7th (Airborne) Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers

Lieutenant Leslie Albert Eastman. 284937. Age 26

Lance Sergeant Henry James V. Read. 4751147. Age 27

Lance Corporal David Provan. 14213409. Age 29

Lance Corporal John Murdoch Dirom. 3189248. Age 22

Lance Corporal Roy Murray Stewart. 3056450. Age 37

Corporal Robert Fowler Foley. 3193060. Age 24

Corporal Thomas MacGregor. 3187776. Age 28

Private Benjamin Philip Bamforth. 14351878. Age 20

Private William Henry Battye. 4613955. Age 25

Private George Frederick Jones. 14377951. Age 34

Private William Love. 3314631. Age 23

Private  Joseph Lucas. 4751048. Age 27

Private George Mole. 14620742. Age 18

Private Charles Myles. 991164. Age 28

Private William McMillan. 14210673. Age 37

Private Thomas McNamara. 14211483. Age 21

Private William McWhirter. 3190876. Age 22

Private James Ramsay MacPherson. 14211484. Age 21

Private John Park. 14202004. Age 21

Private Thomas Harper Reid. Age 26

Private Frank Stapleton. 5571917. Age 24

Private John William Steel. 3323987. Age 29

Private Robert Donald Wells. 1645311

Private Kenneth William Scott-Browne. 14645622. Age 23

Lance Corporal Horace AB Pope  RAMC  7372035. Age 25

Glider Pilot Regiment 

Pilot: Staff Sergeant Henry Thomas Joel. 2058248. The Glider Pilot Regiment. Age 22

Pilot: Sergeant William Geoffrey Walker. 2581834. The Glider Pilot Regiment. Age 24

Stirling Bomber Crew:  Royal Air Force & Royal Australian Air Force

RAAF  410069 WO John Hugh Lees, Captain (Pilot). Age 28

RAF 1697800 Sgt Shayrene Meera, (Flight Engineer). Age 19

RAF 145397 FO John Robert Teece, (Navigator). Age 32

RAF 1532527 Sgt John Thomas Wilkinson, (Air Bomber). Age 29

RAAF 408353 Flt Sgt Kenrick Payne, (Wireless Air Gunner). Age 21

RAF 1229967 Sgt Sidney Claypole, (Rear Gunner). Age 23

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