Those Valiant Men: Eye witness accounts throw light on Southwick plane crash that was shrouded in mystery for many years

A man whose life has been haunted by an RAF Valiant jet bomber crash in Southwick, at the height of the Cold War, has written a book about his narrow escape.

The plane was built to carry nuclear weapons and John Young was close to the crash site 66 years ago, so his book throws further light on a tragedy which remained shrouded in mystery and rumour for many years.

On May 11, 1956, the bomber landed on the railway in the path of an oncoming train, narrowly missing the nearby Manor Hall Road Junior Boys School and the houses in Croft Avenue and Whiterock Place. Three of the crew were killed but miraculously, no local people were seriously injured.

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The crash left a lasting impression on John, who spent years researching it and has now written the book Those Valiant Men, telling the story of that day 66 years ago.

An RAF Valiant jet bomber crashed landed on the railway in Southwick, in the path of an oncoming train, at the height of the Cold War

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The book is largely based on eye witness accounts, personal recollections, newspaper reports, RAF documents and correspondence with the surviving co-pilot.

John said: "For years, this crash has haunted me and when I retired, I set to work researching the event and ended up with lots of helpful eye witness memories and press reports. This was generally before the internet and I can claim that I was there.

"Many Southwick folk are blissfully unaware of the crash and many were born after 1956. Sadly, many are no longer with us and others have moved away. This book describes the crash as it happened and hopefully will contribute to documenting a further chapter of Southwick's history. I hope that we can arrange some form of memorial near the crash site in order to keep the memory alive."

A damaged house in Croft Avenue

The Southwick Society has published Those Valiant Men by John Young, following on from the publication of Southwick’s Miraculous Escape by Mary Candy last year.

Nigel Divers, Southwick Society secretary, said: "The Cold War was at is height and the newly-developed Valiant was a vital part of the UK's nuclear deterrent, built to deliver atom bombs deep into the Soviet Union in the event of war.

"It was lunchtime and people were settling down to their midday meal. Ten-year-old John Young had just walked home to Croft Avenue from his nearby school, Manor Hall Road Junior Boys School. Unknown to the people of Southwick, a Valiant bomber in trouble was flying towards them.

"Earlier that morning, it had taken off from Farnborough on a test flight with experimental equipment on board when problems developed. While flying along the coast to burn off fuel before returning to base, an electrical fault caused the pilot to lose control of the aircraft.

Accident investigators examining the burnt wiring on Southwick Recreation Ground

"Miraculously, the stricken plane narrowly missed an oncoming train, the school, the nearby houses and the power station, to come down on the railway south of the recreation ground. Nevertheless, burning wreckage was spread over a wide area, especially in Croft Avenue, where John Young was having lunch.

"Many houses were damaged, many people had narrow escapes and some were made homeless. Soon, the area was thronged with police, Civil Defence rescue personnel, local people helping their neighbours, RAF and government investigators and press reporters. There was an inquiry but its report was kept secret for decades. Cold War security ensured that the tragedy remained shrouded in mystery and speculation for many years."

Both books are available to purchase at Manor Cottage Heritage Centre in Southwick, where there is an accompanying exhibition, or via [email protected] Manor Cottage opens between May and September on Saturday mornings from 10.30am to 12.30pm with free entry.