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Campaign for memorial for the airmen who died during World War Two on our coast

PUBLISHED: 12:19 22 February 2013

Peter Tennant has researched the history of a Wellington bomber that crashed onto the beach at California in 1941 on its way home from a bombing mission in Cologne.

Picture: James Bass

Peter Tennant has researched the history of a Wellington bomber that crashed onto the beach at California in 1941 on its way home from a bombing mission in Cologne. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2013

Liz Coates reports on a campaign to recognise the deaths of six men on our coast during the second world war.

Returning home from an aborted mission in the skies above Cologne, they must have thought the worst was over... at least for that day.

Intent on staying alive and at the sharp end of Britain’s bid to unseat the Germans, the six fighter pilots had the shores of Britain within their sights.

Even then, in 1941 with the fate of the nation dependent on keeping an invasion at bay, the peaceful sands at California must have seemed a world away from the chaos of war.

But what made them crash at the foot of some of Norfolk’s highest cliffs remains unclear, the most likely scenario being that they probably misjudged the ascent and were flying too low.

It was a scene of terrible carnage and the lot of Peter Tennant’s father, Edgar, to drag the bodies from the wreckage and safeguard them until they were collected by the RAF.

Their deaths, somehow even more poignant so close to home, are barely known about locally, with nothing to commemorate or mark the tragic events on October 11, 1941.

Now, however, momentum is building for a plaque or memorial to remember the six young men who after the brutality of a bombing raid died on home turf.

For Mr Tennant, of Yarmouth Road, Ormesby St Margaret, what had been a dim memory was brought into sharp focus by an inquiry from a distant relative of one of the dead airman.

It led to him turning detective to find out more about what happened on that fateful night, a tricky task given a news blackout on allied losses.

The one mention he did find, a small paragraph in a 224-page volume detailing bomber command losses for that year, was incorrect – saying the plane crashed on a mine.

Mr Tennant is adamant this was not likely and has written to the author restating the case for the Wellington which took off from RAF Binbrook, Lincolnshire, at 11.52pm alongside 68 others.

Their mission was to bomb Cologne, Germany’s third largest city and the target for the controversial 1,000- bomber attack a year later.

But that night, due to bad weather, only minor damage was caused and five Wellington bombers from 12 Squadron failed to return.

Records reveal that the doomed plane which came to grief on the sands was prevented from bombing by engine trouble and made an early return. It was in the air for 1hr 30mins and it’s not known if the crew jettisoned the bombs as was usual.

At 1.30am Mr Tennant’s father, an air raid warden and parish clerk to Ormesby, was called by police to recover the bodies – a task which would not have been possible had it struck a mine, and not the only grim service he had to perform, with occasional bodies washed up.

The corpses were laid out in the garage of a holiday cottage for identification.

Mr Tennant said: “It would be good to commemorate these unfortunate airmen who lost their lives, given that no-one knows anything about it. It is sad they got so close to home. Had they cleared the cliff, they could have landed anywhere.”

The six were among 55,000 airmen from Bomber Command killed during the second world war. After the war there was some unease about the loss of German civilian lives – around 600,000 – and their efforts went unacknowledged, although Britain too had taken a pounding.

Last year, however, the Queen unveiled a memorial recognising their contribution and bravery.

Mr Tennant, a retired collector of tolls on the Broads, piqued the interest of the local Probus club when he delivered a talk at the California Tavern, a stone’s throw from the accident site.

Club member John Leadbeater raised the issue at Ormesby with Scratby Parish Council, asking for something to mark the forgotten tragedy.

Mr Tennant had looked into getting a plaque at the church but was not successful, and hopes this time the efforts will succeed.

Great Yarmouth Archaeological and Historical Society, is being asked to consider putting up one of its blue plaques in tribute to the airmen.

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