The winter of 1942 had brought a carpet of snow to the R.A.F.Station at High Ercall in Shropshire. By the 3rd of February the snow had melted to slush and the weather was suitable for flying. Shortly after lunch Sgt Pilot `Ray` Donaldson of 131 Squadron took off in his Spitfire and followed a north easterly course. It was a flight that was to end in tragedy shortly afterwards at Weston Coyney.
Ray was born in 1918, the son of Margaret and Ray Donaldson of Dunedin, New Zealand. He applied for war service training with the Royal New Zealand Air Force in 1941 and after initial training in New Zealand he was sent to Canada under the `Empire Air Training Scheme`. On the 16th of May he joined the No 32 Service Flying Training School, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.
Wing Commander N.E. Morrison endorsed his training record – `An above the average pupil who is very sound. He should develop into a very good single engine fighter pilot`. In August he gained his flying badge and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant. He was then sent to England to complete his training at No 61 Operational Training Unit, Heston, Middlesex.
At Heston he flew the Harvard trainer before moving on to fly the Spitfire. Sgt Pilot Donaldson was posted to No 131 Squadron at Atcham, Shropshire in November 1941. In the following January he was attached to No 3 Delivery Flight which was engaged in the delivery of Spitfire aircraft to various locations in England and Northern Ireland.
The task on the 3rd of February 1942 was to deliver Spitfire No BL391 to No 610 Squadron. At that time the Squadron was based at Hutton Cranswick in Yorkshire and in the process of converting to the cannon-armed Spitfire Mk Vb. The intention was to deliver the Spitfire from High Ercall to Leconfield, an aerodrome near to Hutton Cranswick. This would have been a flight of approximately 100 nautical miles and the course would bring the Spitfire over the southern part of Stoke on Trent.
As Sgt Pilot Donaldson approached Stoke on Trent he would have taken account of the fact that he was flying towards rising ground. In bad weather it might not be possible to cross the higher ground at a safe height and at the same time avoid flying into the cloud. Ken Slinn who was working at Mossfield Colliery remembered the fatefull day. “It was a cold misty day and the clouds seemed to be very low, I heard the sound of a single engined aircraft flying overhead. It seemed to be circling and I thought the pilot was probably trying to find the aerodrome at Meir. When I reported for duty with the Home Guard later that evening I discovered that the aircraft had crashed at the rear of Weston Coyney Hall.
A couple of us went to visit the scene but by that time the wreckage had been taken away.” Another witness at nearby Cookshill recalled that she was clearing away the dishes after lunch and she could hear the sound of an aircraft engine. Then shortly afterwards she heard a bang, her husband came in from outside and told her that a plane had crashed in a field between the River Blythe and Weston Coyney Hall. The exact cause of the accident will never be known but Sgt Pilot Donaldson`s Spitfire crashed into a field to the south of Weston Coyney Hall shortly after 2.30pm. His Commanding Officer, Group Captain J. More took the view that rather than turning back to High Ercall he had tried to get through the bad weather and probably crashed whilst attempting to turn at a low height.
One of the first people to arrive at the site of the crash was Tom Cumpston the Police Constable from Caverswall. Tom recalls that aircraft had come to rest after scraping out a 30 yard gash across the surface of the field and the pilot had been killed instantly. Within a couple of hours soldiers arrived and placed a guard around the site until the wreckage was removed. Tom Cumpston attended an inquest a few days later at the nearby Meir Aerodrome. Sgt Pilot Donaldson was laid to rest with service honours on the 7th of February 1942 in the churchyard at Atcham in Shropshire.
Due to the veil of wartime secrecy the incident was not reported in the local press. The approximate position is marked today by the eastern end of Fitzgerald Close.
Extract from the Operational Record Book for 131 Squadron :
`03/02/42 Sgt Pilot Donaldson killed in a flying accident whilst attached to No 3 delivery flight. He flew into high ground in attempting to continue a cross country flight in bad weather. A very great pity as he showed promise and was liked by all`.
The spirit of the time is perhaps captured by this further extract :
`04/02/42 The C.O. goes to Group to ask that the Squadron may be posted down south as everyone is keen to have a crack at the hun. He is told that we are going to Llanbedr on 08/02/42. It is at last a beginning`.
Spitfire Mk Vb No BL391 was built at the Castle Bromwich aircraft factory near to Birmingham. It was handed over to the R.A.F. on the 22nd of December 1941. The aircraft was taken on charge of 610 Squadron at the end of January 1942.
(Acknowledgements : The Air Historical Branch of the Ministry of Defence; The Public Record Office; The Imperial War Museum; Documents provided by kind permission of the family; Mr K. J. Slinn, Correspondence from Mr G. Kennell; Staffordshire County Council Registration Service; Aircraft Photograph, Steve Birks.)
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