Recovery of Flight Sergeant Williams, Gravesend 28-29 July

28 July 2007

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Flight Sergeant Eric E Williams, aged 28, was a Royal Air Force fighter pilot who served with 46 Squadron of Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain flying Hawker Hurricane aircraft.  On Tuesday 15th October 1940 the squadron took off from its home base of Stapleford to intercept incoming German raiders over the Thames Estuary.  Shortly before 1 p.m., with the Squadron’s aircraft still climbing towards their assigned height, they were attacked from out of the sun by Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter aircraft of the crack German Fighter Group 26 led by Major Adolf Galland, one of the leading German aces of the period.  Three Hurricanes were quickly shot down.  One of these aircraft, serial number V6550 flown by Flight Sergeant Williams, crashed into Barton’s timber wharf at Gravesend close to the southern bank of the River Thames; no parachute was seen.  The aircraft smashed through the timber yard roof and embedded itself deeply into the earthen floor, defying subsequent attempts to recover the pilot’s body due to the waterlogged ground.  A contemporary report refers to the recovery of part of a flight sergeant’s badge but little else.  Flight Sergeant Williams was officially listed as Missing in Action, although some records state that his death was confirmed at the time.

Flight Sergeant Eric WilliamsThe timber yard was redeveloped post war and a new warehouse with a concrete floor was erected on the site.  At the same time land reclamation extended the river frontage by some 30 metres.  This new work, together with the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 – which forbids interference with a known or suspected war grave within the United Kingdom without prior Ministry of Defence approval – effectively sealed off the site.  However, it is now earmarked for major redevelopment within the Thames Gateway rejuvenation project and both the current landowner – Feabrex Ltd (Mr Ronald Nash) – and the estate developers – Latin Quarter, Kiran Curtis Architects and Barratt Homes – are keen to resolve the issue of Flight Sergeant Williams and to help ensure that this long lost hero of the Battle of Britain receives the final resting place and recognition that he deserves. 

There are known to have been two previous attempts to recover the remains of Flight Sergeant Williams during the 1990s.  One was licensed by the Ministry of Defence but the other was not.  The first (licensed) excavation in 1995 found nothing and is now known to have missed the mark by a wide margin.  The later (unauthorised) attempt was much closer, but was fortunately stopped in time.  After some recent controversy regarding the site in the local media, and in view of the pressing timeline for redevelopment, Mr Lewis Deal MBE of the Rochester based Medway Aircraft Preservation Society applied to the Ministry of Defence for a licence to undertake the excavation.  A meeting of all interested parties took place at Gravesend on 18th June 2007 chaired by Mrs S Raftree of the Joint Services Casualty & Compassionate Cell from MOD Innsworth.  It was subsequently decided that it was in the public interest to perform a proper excavation of the site and that a licence would be granted to Mr Deal on the basis of his extensive experience working with historic aircraft, although the recovery operation itself was best undertaken by regular military units. 

Accordingly the excavation will be performed by Chatham based Royal Engineers of the Construction Engineer School commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Philip Hogan.  Recovery of the wreckage and Flight Sergeant Williams’ remains will be undertaken by Royal Air Force salvage technicians from MOD St Athan led by Warrant Officer Ken Scott.  Royal Air Force & Defence Fire Service Firefighters from MOD Manston commanded by Wing Commander David Lainchbury will provide high volume pumps to counter the anticipated high water table and the attendant risk of the excavation flooding.  Wing Commander Lainchbury will also act as senior Royal Air Force representative and Mrs Raftree will represent the Ministry of Defence.  All military personnel involved have given up their spare time to assist.  There is no cost to the taxpayer in respect of the military equipment being used as the project is serving as core training for the three different units involved. 

If the project is successful it is hoped that a Hawker Hurricane of the Royal Air Force’s Battle of Britain Hawker Hurricane MK IMemorial Flight from RAF Coningsby will be able to perform a fly past salute at an appropriate point during the excavation.  After formal notification to Kent Police, Flight Sergeant Williams’ remains will be handed over to the local Coroner who will convene an Inquest into his death in due course.  Provided that the Coroner is satisfied with the evidence presented in respect of identification Flight Sergeant Williams will finally be laid to rest.  The location and manner of his funeral has yet to be announced.  Any aircraft wreckage recovered remains Crown Property and will initially be held for safekeeping at MOD Manston until the Ministry of Defence decides upon its final disposal.  It is possible that the excavation may also reveal some quantities of live .303 calibre machine gun ammunition; if so this will be dealt with by ordnance disposal specialists. 

End note: 46 Squadron relieved 151 Squadron at Stapleford on 1st September 1940 and is reported to have taken over most of 151’s aircraft at the same time.  This was probably because 46 Squadron lost all of its own aircraft when the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious was sunk following the squadron’s evacuation from Norway earlier in the year.  Therefore Hurricane V6550 might still have been wearing 151 Squadron codes of CZ.

Profile of Eric Williams

Eric Edward Williams was born in Taplow, Buckinghamshire in 1912.  He left school at 16 and joined the Royal Air Force as an Aircraft Apprentice, graduating from the apprentice training school at RAF Halton in August 1931.  Within three years he had been selected for pilot training.  As a pilot he clearly achieved an above average grading as he was eventually posted onto fighter aircraft.  He joined 29 Squadron at RAF Debden in 1939 before moving on to 46 Squadron at RAF Digby in July 1940.  He then moved south with his squadron to Stapleford on 1st September.  Two days later he was involved in an aerial combat off the Essex coast when he was wounded, although he managed to bring his damaged aircraft home successfully.  It is not known how long he spent out of action before his final combat above the Thames estuary on 15th October.  At the time of his death in action he was married; his wife, Joan, subsequently remarried and emigrated to Canada after the war.  She died within the last few years.

IN MEMORIAM

As a mark of respect to the late Flight Sergeant Williams all participants, guests and media personnel are asked to remain silent whilst his remains are transferred to the Coroner’s vehicle and as it exits the site.  Military personnel should stand at attention.  Only previously nominated personnel are to salute. 

Health & Safety Notice

All personnel are reminded that the excavation site is a potentially dangerous place, with heavy machinery and vehicles in constant operation.  Only those personnel directly involved with the recovery operation are permitted to enter the marked zone where hard hats and appropriate protective equipment are to be worn at all times.  All other guests and invited observers (i.e. green pass holders) are to remain behind the tape barriers at all times. 

Editor: Sgt Ewen Garwood

Image 1: Flight Sergeant Williams

Image 2: A Hawker Hurricane MK I plane

 

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