A local walk with my dog along a local country road in the spring of 1998, and a chance meeting with a friendly local farm labourer who fleetingly referred to a story of a local plane crash only a few fields away, started me off on a compelling quest to find out about the true story behind the tragedy and heroism of an incident, that resulted in the deaths of two young British RAF aircrew who were flying their Mosquito Night Fighter, in the closing months of World war II.
Apart from a few locals, this piece of true recent history had never been fully investigated and was virtually forgotten.
But thanks to the close support and teamwork of Tom Hastie, now in his seventies, who witnessed the crash himself as a lad, we were able to finally discover the real details.
We found first hand documentary evidence, discovered crash site artefacts, made contact with the families, got to see the aircrew’s photographs, actually experienced the inside of a Mosquito cockpit, and most importantly, got to listen to some very personal and cherished memories from those whose lives had been touched ever since, by those events of March 1945.
Hundreds of aircrew died in tragic crashes all over East Anglia, and there are very few parishes today that were not effected in some way by similar undiscovered tragedies.
But now after almost 60 years, the memories of those that lived through that era will soon be gone, and the real life detail behind these largely forgotten incidents will shortly be lost forever, and will probably never be told.
However the people of Foxearth village can be proud that the crew of Mosquito MT470, and their attempted rescuers will never be forgotten.
Flt Lt Edward Guy Sheppard, popularly known as Ted was just twenty five years old, but already a well seasoned and highly experienced pilot, having clocked up nearly 1,700 flying hours since he joined the Royal Air Force as a commissioned officer in 1941.
Now based at Castle Camps on the Cambridgeshire/Suffolk border as part of No 25 Squadron, operations had consisted in recent months from flights to destroy flying bombs, escorting allied bombers, and the interception of enemy intruder aircraft on or around the eastern coastal areas.
Before the war, Ted Sheppard worked in local banking in his hometown, of Brentwood in Essex, and excelled at most sports, especially having a keen liking for playing football.
And now on Tuesday March 6th 1945 with the war finally being won in Germany, he had a young wife and was the proud father of a son who was still only a few months old. Walking out in full flying kit to his plane, he was looking forward to be going home on leave later that day, to be with his family at their Brentwood home.
He knew more than most about the perils of flying on operations, and had seen at first hand the very real devastation of war on both his own family, many of his fellow Squadron aircrews, and of course regularly at first hand from his cockpit seat.
The death of one of his younger brothers Gordon, killed in action whilst flying as an observer in a Wellington bomber raid in June 1942 to Emden in Germany, embodied the shocking reality of close personal loss that was to leave a permanent effect both on him, and his remaining family for many years to come.
It was about 2.25pm on March 6th 1945 that Flt Lt Ted Sheppard hauled himself up into the small underside hatch, via a small telescopic ladder, of his Mosquito Night Fighter MK 30, Registration MT470.
Climbing up behind was his trusted Navigator Flt Sgt Frederick George Ward aged 20 years, (also known as Ted). He then positioned himself in his navigators seat just slightly to the rear right hand side of Flt Lt Sheppard, and carried on with his own well drilled, pre flight equipment checks.
A fit, broad, and largely built man, Ted Ward had spent much of his earlier years labouring hard on his family farm near Weymouth in Dorset, and was always able to maintain a naturally kind, steadying, and at times humorous quality about him.
Ted Ward, had joined the air force during the middle of the war, and had trained to be a navigator in Canada having previously joined originally wishing to become a pilot.
Although Ted found the flying easy enough, it was the difficulties he had with landing the training aircraft that then persuaded him, and his instructors, to train him as a Navigator, at which he naturally excelled.
Ted had eagerly volunteered to go into flying, having been a former young member of his local Home Guard unit, back home in the picturesque Dorset countryside, at the out break of war.
What had almost certainly helped to bond the close flying partnership or “marriage” as it was called between the two Teds, within the realms of Night Fighter crews, was almost certainly their mutual enjoyment of music, particularly dance band sounds.
Ted Sheppard had even played live concerts with his three brothers, in their very own band around the dance halls of Essex, attracting many a large turnout on a Saturday night.
Flt Sgt Ted Ward now sitting beside his pilot with both Rolls Royce Merlin 76 engines first firing, then revving up on each side of him, were planning to fly a straight forward, and routine day light air test on that bright March afternoon.
Taking off at approximately 2.35pm in their fully armed Mosquito, they climbed rapidly up into the clear crisp, and sunny blue sky, before pushing ahead with their air test flight, whilst all the time, keenly surveying the skies for the many friendly allied aircraft in the air that day, to prevent any risk of mid air collision.
Nearly twenty miles away, the pace of rural wartime life was going about its usual seasonal business at Brook Hall Farm, near the pretty village of Foxearth, set quietly right on the Essex Suffolk border.
Activity in the fields, ditches, and buildings surrounding Brook Hall on such a dry day was well apace.
Mr Marjoram the Shepherd, was herding the sheep in the top field above Brook Hall farm
Beside the narrow coach road that slowly wound its way up to the farm, young Italian prisoner of war, Bruno Cornazzani was working along a ditch and hedge line with his spade.
Living locally in a POW camp at nearby Borley, Bruno had been captured by allied forces in North Africa in 1941.
In the main field to the right of Bruno on the brow of the gently sloping hill Mr Leslie Mayhew, a man in his fifties, and well used to farming for years out doors and in all weathers, was working on the farms open top International W30 tractor, and making good progress with his harrowing work that afternoon.
Overlooking the Coach Road, Mrs Ruby Hastie was on her doorstep at Brook Hall Cottages talking to her neighbour Mrs Allen, whilst two of her young teenage sons Tom, and Robin were working in the farm buildings of Brook Hall Farm itself, tending the horses and livestock in the stables.
At 3.25 pm, and at relatively low height above them, came the familiar sight, and distinctive sounds, of some large American B17 Flying Fortress bombers, making their final left hand approaches before turning to land onto runway 07, at the nearby airfield at Sudbury. This was now home to the United States 486th Bombardment Group.
Looking down below them from their Flying Fortress, pilot Lt Gerson Bacher, co pilot Nathan Spungin, and bombardier Lt George Edgar, suddenly spotted the familiar outline of an RAF Mosquito at very low level and flying a great speed, hedge hoping across the bare arable fields.
What the B17 crew next witnessed, and those working on the ground at Brook Hall experienced, took just moments as
Ft Lt Ted Sheppard, and Flt Sgt Ted Ward suddenly lost complete engine power on both engines at low level, as they sped near to Foxearth village.
Still at very low level Flt Sheppard fought for control as both his engines completely stopped, and immediately prepared bracing for a downhill landing, as they came over the brow of the hill leading down towards Brook Hall farm in front of them.
To make matters worse the wind was behind them, there was probably no time to feather the propellers to reduce drag, and the heavy radar in the bulbous nose of their plane, plus weight of fuel, and ammunition, made the Mosquito with now no firing engines, a near impossible beast to fly.
Flt Lt Sheppard attempted to belly land, but quickly running out of clear but sloping field, pulled back hard on his controls in a desperate attempt to avoid hitting a large ash tree looming up right in front of them.
With faltering response from his controls the plane ploughed right through the top of the ash tree scattering debris, as the doomed Mosquito careered a few hundred feet across and over the Coach Road, before finally crashing at high speed onto the rising ground of the main field, on which Leslie Mayhew was still working diligently on his tractor.
On impact the Mosquito appeared to somersault twice, and immediately burst fuel, and debris into an opening cone of searing flames that quickly sprang up across and up the hillside, covering an area of at least three hundred yards.
With debris just stopping short of where Leslie Mayhew was working on his tractor, he looked behind in startled disbelief, as dust and black smoke billowed heavily around him, and into the afternoon sky.
Running closer to the scene, a small crowd gathered to within about 30 feet of the two largest pieces of remaining fuselage, but were held back by the intense heat, and the now visibly large exploding 20mm cannon shells that were now scattering their brass cases liberally about the field.
Minutes later a break in the flames intensity prompted both Leslie Mayhew and Bruno Cornazani to dart forward bravely into the largest piece of fuselage, where briefly they disappeared from view.
Locating each crew member they turned their motionless bodies over, beating out the flames of one of the aircrew‘s burning clothing as best they could. They quickly saw they had clearly died instantly in the impact of the crash, before quickly making their way back through the tangled wreckage, and chocking thick smoke, to relative safety and fresh air.
The B17 crew on seeing the initial impact immediately radioed their Sudbury airfield control tower of the crash, and station fire tenders then sped to the scene, and extinguished the remaining pockets of flames.
Later that day RAF officials arrived to take statements from those who witnessed the crash, and then Flt Lt Sheppard and Flt Sgt Ward’s bodies were carefully removed, and taken by ambulance to the base at RAF Stradishall.
An overnight guard was the placed on the site, and the next day air investigators came to sift amongst the wreckage to examine the aircraft parts, before removing the remaining wreckage onto large low loaders.
One can only imagine the effects on the aircrew’s families as they received their unexpected telegrams bringing the tragic news, and later, letters of condolences from the 25 Squadron Commanding Officer.
Flt Lt Ted Sheppard was later buried in the main cemetery in his hometown of Brentwood in Essex, and Flt Sgt Ted Ward is buried at the Cambridge City Cemetery.
The cause of the crash was inconclusive, but was reported at the time, as probably being caused with Flt Lt Sheppard experiencing problems with switching over his fuel tanks, with the result being fuel starvation to his engines.
The real true cause of the crash will never be known, but in months and years to come there were other reported cases of total engine failures on the MK30 Mosquito, that again resulted in further unexplained crashes and deaths.
However the magnificent Mosquito that both Flt Lt Sheppard and Flt Sgt Ted Ward felt very privileged to be able to fly, was one of the most outstanding and successful combat aircraft of the Second World War.
The simple inscription at the base of Ted Ward’s gravestone to many, pays fitting tribute to both the short young lives of both Flt Lt Ted Sheppard & Flt Sgt Ted Ward:
And Far with the Brave I Have Ridden
And Now with the Brave I Shall Sleep
In a marking final tribute to the incident, a truly memorable Remembrance Day service was held in November 2000.
A commemorative plaque, kindly donated by the Foxearth and District Local History Society was unveiled in tribute at the village church, by the aircrew family members.
The Royal Air Force kindly sent along uniformed representation, and of course many supportive villagers helped to make this day a very proud occasion.
Thanks to: T Hastie, R Andrews, A Fitch & The Foxearth and District Local History Society, Mr P Windley, Mr & Mrs J Brand, Ministry Of Defence, Royal Air Force Museum, Imperial War Museum, Mosquito Museum, Mr P Dixon, Mr T Peacock, 486th Bomb Group. RAF Honington, A Cocksedge, and of course the families of Flt Lt Sheppard and Flt Sgt Ward.
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