I arrived at Shriveham for officer training 10 days after my wedding on 25 September 1940. Less than two years later, I was stationed in Lincolnshire as a Searchlight Officer for the 84th Regiment.
Cliff, left, with Sgt. Kendall, who was commissioned later in the war but killed in action weeks before the ceasefire.
On 12 August, I received a report at 2300 hours from one of the searchlight sites west of Scotter that an aircraft was in trouble and losing altitude fast. I contacted Battery HQ, gathered my Troop Sergeant, Brian Kendall, and set off at once.
“After fumbling in the dark for what felt like for ever, we found it – a crashed Wellington Bomber”
Within moments, we arrived at the T-junction between Scotter and Susworth, and that’s when we saw them: incendiary bombs, huge flames tearing through the field to our right, and yet there were no signs of wreckage.
Perplexed, we made our way back to the road but as we approached, I spotted something in the plantation, a figure. Sure enough, it was an airman from the plane we had been looking for. He was in shock and suffering from a deep laceration, so I sent him with our driver to the local doctor in Scotter.
Soon after, Lance Bombardier Beckett arrived at our location. With time running out to help any other survivors, we set off in search of the aircraft yet again. It was pitch black, and to make matters worse, we were surrounded by hundreds of fir trees, but we had no choice, we had to find that plane.
The Troop HQ team and searchlight detachment, September 1942.
After fumbling in the dark for what felt like forever, we found it – a crashed Wellington bomber. The plane had been split in two and I could hear groans coming from within. Without a moment’s delay, I crawled under the wing. My torch lit up an airman who was trapped and covered in blood.
Sadly, there was nothing I or anyone else could do for him. All of a sudden, something caught my eye. I shone my torch on the ground and realised that we were standing in fuel. It was leaking from the wing and could ignite at any moment. But that didn’t make any difference, these people needed our help, and we had to do all we could to save them, so we set off in search of the cockpit.
We found two pilots, both of whom were trapped in the wreckage. We dragged the first one to safety. He was suffering from a fractured skull and two broken legs. We administered First Aid and went back for the other as soon as possible.
We pulled him out, but we were too late. Within minutes, an RAF ambulance arrived, at which point the situation was handed over to a Polish medical officer and his team. They opened the ambulance’s rear doors and found all the lights had fused, meaning a grim ride for their patient.
“One nudge, and ‘boom!’ – that would’ve been it for us all”
The RAF squadron leader arrived shortly afterwards. He inspected the plane and remarked on how lucky we’d been. He gestured towards an emergency flare that had been balanced all that time just a few feet from where we were positioned. One nudge, and ‘boom!’ – that would’ve been it for us all.
Cliff’s medals – the 1939-45 Star; France and Germany Star; Defence Medal; War Medal 1939-45; and Territorial Decoration.
Tragically, one of the men we saved, Pilot Officer Frank McCreavy, died in hospital a week later, which meant that there was only one survivor of the crash: Flight Sergeant James Pike, the airman we’d encountered in the plantation. If only the rest of the crew had been so lucky.
There are only two hills marked on the Lincolnshire Ordnance Survey map and their plane struck the smallest one – Tuetoes Hill it’s called, it’s only 10 feet high.
“I’m not a hero. I just did what I could, and that’s all that matters.”
Two months later, Sergeant Kendall, Lance Bombardier Beckett and myself received a Commendation for Gallantry from Sir Frederick Pile, Commander-in-Chief of the Anti-Aircraft Command, for our ‘prompt action and courage’.
The commendation report written after the crash.
It wasn’t until a few days later, when I visited my wife Renée, that it all sunk in. There is no warning when you find yourself in a situation like that, no time to think. All you can do is act.
Years later, I attended a dedication for the officers who died in the crash, and the whole thing came rushing back to me: the trapped men’s cries for help, the smell of the fuel, everything. The next day I was on the front page of the Scunthorpe Echo. ‘Hero returns to site,’ it said. But I’m not a hero. I just did what I could, and that’s all that matters.
Cliff in November 2015, shortly after his 100th birthday.