Several years ago this column carried an account of an air crash in Eramosa Township during World War II. The aircraft was a twin-engine Avro Anson, a very popular model widely used for training air crews. The Canadian forces had some 4,400 of them.
There were several wartime air bases in Southern Ontario to the west of Wellington County, set up primarily to train young crews for overseas service. Many of the young airmen were British, in Canada under the Commonwealth Air Training program. Instructional and practice flights frequently brought their aircraft over Wellington County.
In addition to the Eramosa crash, there were several other incidents involving Ansons in Wellington. Most were emergency landings, but one of them was more tragic.
Late in the evening of April 23, 1941, an Anson took off from the then-new Port Albert air base on Lake Huron, near Goderich. The crew of four were all British, and they were in the air to gain experience at night flying.
About 1:30am on April 24, the radio operator, C.J. Clark, reported his position over West Luther Township to the base at Port Albert. Their altitude was a little over 3,000 feet. Flying Officer R.E. Ransome, the pilot, encountered heavy cloud cover a minute or two later.
In 1941, radar was not yet in use, so that meant he was flying blind. After a quick discussion with the rest of the crew he decided to drop altitude to get under the clouds in order to see where he was going.
Ransome did not realize the altitude of the land in West Luther. He was barely out of the clouds when his wings skimmed the tops of trees in a bush on the formation known locally as the Hog’s Back, on the Nixon farm. It is part of the geological formation of the Niagara escarpment, and one of the highest points in southern Ontario.
The wings clipped the tops of trees for several hundred yards, then nosed into the ground. Before the plane came to a stop one of the engines was ripped off and hurled about 75 feet ahead of the plane A gasoline tank was torn from the craft, and the second engine was twisted and bent beneath the fuselage.
Fragments of wreckage came to rest along a path several hundred feet long.
Unbelievably, all four crewmen were still alive, though two, including pilot Ransome, were unconscious and had obvious severe injuries. Radio operator C.J. Clark was hurled from the wreckage, landing about 30 feet away with a broken leg and bad facial lacerations. The fourth man, W.H. Goodman, was unconscious only briefly. He managed to spread out some blankets and a parachute in an attempt to attract the attention of other aircraft.
Though he had no idea of where he was, Goodman decided to set out to find some help. He crawled through a swampy area, and eventually came to the farm house of Alex Graham, more than a mile from the crash. By then it was about 5:30am, four hours after the plane came down.
Graham was sound asleep. His collie dog, Ted, sensed someone outside, and aroused Graham from his slumbers, first barking and then nudging Graham’s face with his nose. As he was getting up he heard someone banging. The sight when he opened the door fully wakened Graham. Airman Goodman was covered in blood and mud. He had crawled most of the way to the house.
Though badly injured and exhausted, Goodman was still coherent. He told Graham they had crashed a short time earlier and that the rest of the crew was badly hurt. He asked him to get a doctor, and to contact their home base at Port Albert.
Interestingly, Graham’s wife had been awake at the time of the crash. She heard the plane overhead while she was doing some ironing after 1am, but thought little of it because so many training flights flew over the area. She thought she heard the crash and peered through a window, but could see nothing.
After helping Goodman into the house and onto a couch, Graham grabbed his phone, and called Dr. McPherson and Police Chief Seim, both in nearby Mount Forest. The doctor was soon at the farm. Goodman wanted to accompany him to the crash site, but Dr. McPherson insisted he stay at the house and rest after dressing his wounds.
In the early light of dawn, Graham and the doctor could clearly see the path the Anson had taken through the bush. The smell of gasoline was strong from the ripped tanks, and periodically they could hear a shout from radio operator Clark.
They found most of the craft in small gully, much of the wreckage entangled in a clump of trees. All four men had been catapulted from the cockpit. Pilot Ransome had part of the control in his hands, but he was quite dead, his body partially buried in the ground. Airman Donald Hughes was also found dead.
Dr. McPherson set Goodman’s broken leg before removing him from the crash site. By midmorning two OPP constables were on the site to secure it, and later in the day a group of airmen and officers from Port Albert arrived to conduct an investigation.
By then the two injured men were under competent care at Louise Marshall Hospital in Mount Forest. Though both badly injured, the two youngsters (they were both 19) impressed the nursing staff with their courage and good humour. The following day an ambulance arrived from their Port Albert home base to transport them to the infirmary there.
The two dead men were removed to the Mount Forest undertaking parlour. In late afternoon of April 24, another vehicle transported the bodies back to Port Albert. Their funerals were held at Goderich on April 26, with full military honours. It was a traumatic day for the airmen at the base, which had opened only six months earlier. These were the eighth and ninth flying fatalities there in that short span of time. And on the same day as the West Luther crash, another plane from the Port Albert base came down near Sarnia, but fortunately without fatalities.
Goderich citizens turned out en masse to honour the airmen, lining the streets and square to watch the procession to honour two young men who were strangers to them. Both had come from London, England to train as flight crew. Flying Officer Ransome, at 19, had been the youngest commissioned officer at Port Albert. They would rest for eternity at Goderich’s Maitland Cemetery.
Meanwhile, the crash scene became a magnet for the curious on the weekend of April 26 and 27. OPP officers estimated that more than a thousand cars visited the site on the Sunday. Many of the people picked up pieces of the wreckage as ghoulish souvenirs of the tragedy.
On Monday, April 28, air force crews were at the crash site, salvaging what they could of the aircraft. They had a large truck, but due to the soft ground they could not get it close to the wrecked plane. Several farmers from the neighbourhood pitched in with teams and wagons, hauling parts of the plane to the truck. They returned the plane to Port Albert, where it probably was used as a source of parts for other craft.
For the people of northern Wellington the incident was a reminder that the casualties of war were not all on European battlefields, and that accidents could be as deadly as enemy fire in claiming the lives of young and vigorous men.