Remembering the crew of a Wellington bomber that crashed in Ashdown Forest

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Eighty years ago, a World War Two Wellington Bomber crashed in Ashdown Forest killing all of her six-man crew.

This year, as they have done for decades, local people will make the journey to the Airmen’s Grave monument and pay their respects to the crew.

The memorial, which, is not actually their final resting place, started out as a simple wooden white cross placed by the mother of second pilot Sgt Vic Sutton.

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As the years passed a stone cross, plaque and enclosure ensured the sacrifice of the six young men would never be forgotten.

Airman's memorial atb Ashdown Forest SUS-210911-095245001Airman's memorial atb Ashdown Forest SUS-210911-095245001
Airman's memorial atb Ashdown Forest SUS-210911-095245001

James Adler, CEO of Ashdown Forest said: “Our new Vision for Ashdown Forest includes the preservation of the cultural and historical significance of the Forest. The loss of the Wellington bomber and its crew of six is an important part of that. The average age of the crew was just 23 – the price they paid was honoured back then and will be by future generations of local people and visitors to the Forest”.

The Wellington Bomber came down on the last day of July 1941 as it was returning from a raid on Cologne. Mystery surrounds the plane’s final hours as there is uncertainty about whether its mission was successful or not. The crash was attributed by the squadron wing commander to “Very poor weather and a faulty port engine”. The official report for the incident concludes that “The Wellington hit the ground at a slight angle and caught fire”. What is certain is that the crew were a long way from their base at Binbrook in Lincolnshire.

Martin Berry from the Ashdown Forest Research Group said: “As we mark 80 years since the loss of the Wellington on Ashdown Forest, we are keen to try to piece together the memories of local people who have information about that fateful day. There may be some inaccuracies and inconsistencies in people’s recollections but the images that are left in our minds are still striking: of a stricken aircraft already on fire flying over Fairwarp towards the Forest where it then crashed, and of local people, including children, running or riding their bikes to the scene and desperately but vainly trying to save the airmen.”

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The loss of the aircrew touched the lives of the local people then and continues to do so today. It started with the grief of a mother – Elsie Sutton who was determined that her son and his comrades would never be forgotten. She moved from South London to Nutley and it was her who instigated the building of the enclosure, donating money to the Forest Conservators for its future upkeep.”

Martin added: “It is important that we learn as much as we can about the events surrounding the crash so that we can pass them onto future generations. A local man who was just four years old and living in Nutley at the time of the crash, related how he and his grandmother heard a revving aircraft engine, its pitch rising higher and higher until it screamed; but they saw nothing. Was it the doomed Wellington? If anyone has any other recollections, we would like to hear from them. Our email address is [email protected].”

This year’s service is taking place on Remembrance Sunday 14 November at 1100. Cars can be parked in the car parks on Crowborough Road on the Forest. There is a 15-minute walk to the memorial and the return leg is steep and muddy.

James added:

“The Remembrance Sunday memorial service for the airmen is a poignant but very significant date in the Forest’s calendar. It is a day for us all to focus on a tragic event in the tranquillity of the Forest – and remember the sacrifices that were made to ensure we have the freedom to enjoy it today”.

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The Ashdown Forest Research Group has gathered more detailed information on the Bomber and its crew, reviewing original sources to be found in the RAF and National Archives, and also elicited information from those with flying expertise. The Group have recently published a short article in the Ashdown Forest News. The full research will be published in due course on their website

The aircrew who lost their lives were: Flight Sergeant Henry Alexander Vincet Vidler, aged 27, (First Pilot); Sergeant Victor Ronald Sutton, 24, (Second Pilot); Sergeantb Wilfred Stanley Brooks, 21, (Navigator); Flight Sergeant Arthuir Ernest Cave, 21, (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner); Sergeant Thomas Stanley Hathaway, 24, (Wireless Operator/Air Gunner) and Flight Sergeant Leonard Saunders, 21, (Rear Gunner)