Pilot Officer Vivian (“Viv”) Owen,
10 Squadron, Royal Air Force.
Died in the crash of WH669 on 27 March 1953, near Dilhorne, Staffordshire,
Buried in the Ham (St Andrew) Churchyard, Surrey.
Every year on Remembrance Sunday, the parishioners of St Andrew’s Church in Ham gather at the Parish War Memorial to pay tribute to the men and women whose names are recorded there. At least some members of the congregation are likely to have noticed a grave nearby, whose proximity to the War Memorial suggests it had been chosen as a fitting spot for a local lad, killed while on active service with the Royal Air Force, at the time Britain was involved in the Korean War.
This year a handful of people also marked the silence at the War Memorial the following Wednesday, on Armistice Day—11 November—carefully adhering to the prevailing social distancing rules. Not for the first time, I paused at P/O Vivian Owen’s grave, and not for the first time, recorded the details. I felt impelled to discover the story behind this young man’s death and this time I began my research that afternoon.
On Remembrance Sunday, tributes had been laid at Ham’s War Memorial, and I noticed, as usual, the cross left by a ‘little sister’ who has never forgotten her brother, killed in Italy in March 1945. Little did I know then, that within a short time, I would be learning from Vivian’s youngest sister. as well as other relatives. about the loving brother, uncle and great uncle that the family had lost.
Vivian Owen was born on 19 October 1929 in the Bridgend district of Glamorgan. His parents, William Arthur Owen and Blodwen Louisa Jane Rees, were married in Pontypridd in 1920, where the first of their children, Gwaenydd and Megan, were born. Joan, Ronald, Trevor and Vivian were born in Bridgend, where Ronald died shortly after his first birthday. In the early 1930s, the family moved to London, the birthplace of the youngest members of the family, Beryl and Gloria. Their family complete, in the late 1930s, the Owens moved further out, to the new housing development in Ham. Although Vivian’s father was an Aircraft Instrument Assembler this was not, as I initially thought, the reason behind their move. I have since learnt that all the instruments arrived at the Kingston factory already assembled and Vivian’s sister, Beryl, has confirmed that their father did not ever work there. There were indeed a number of manufacturers of aircraft equipment within a few miles of Ham, with Grace’s Guide listing numerous aircraft suppliers in the Croydon area.
The Owens’ home was in Broughton Avenue. Vivian was educated at the Gainsborough County Secondary Boys’ School (formerly the Richmond Central Boys’ School). At the time of his death, Vivian was a Pilot Officer, serving in 10 Squadron of the Royal Air Force. 10 Squadron was first formed in 1915 and was disbanded and re-formed between the wars and again after WW2, when it took part, for example, in the Berlin Airlift, before being disbanded again in 1950. It was re-formed once more in 1953, at which point RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire became the squadron’s base, and it was here that the squadron reverted to its former role as a bomber squadron. This time the squadron was flying the aircraft industry’s latest triumph, English Electric’s Canberra B2 fighter bombers.
Vivian was killed with two others, on Friday 27 March 1953 during a training exercise, in the third and last year of the Korean War. I thought it would be easy to answer the usual “What happened?” question by searching the digitised British Newspaper Library for any reports of a mishap to a Canberra bomber, during March 1953. Instead I found one, then two, then three Canberra incidents in March, all involving fatalities. And exactly a week before his death, another Canberra jet-bomber had crashed after an explosion as it was making its approach to touchdown at Hemswell. Its crew was killed.
Designed as a substitute for the de Havilland Mosquito, the first Canberra bombers had come into service in 1951 and were the RAF’s first jet-propelled bombers. It must have been awful for the aircrew, aware of the risks, and of the loss of many colleagues. How difficult for the families of those airmen to accept that the RAF could tolerate continuing to expose its crews to that risk, at a time when the distant war we were involved in was winding down towards its Armistice. I wondered why these accident-prone Canberras had not been grounded after the first few accidents and explosions, and sought an opinion from David Hassard, the local expert on Kingston Aviation. From him I learnt that the early part of 1953 was a time when Canberra production was expanding rapidly, with the aircraft being built by four different contractors. Thirteen new Canberra squadrons were formed during 1953, one of which, as we have seen, was 10 Squadron.
The Flight Safety Foundation’s ‘Aviation Safety Network’ database provides information on the last flight of WH669 and includes some recommendations made as a result of the RAF Court of Inquiry. Thus we discover that, when the aircraft took off from its base at RAF Scampton, Flying Officer Patrick Esmond Reeve was its pilot. Accompanying him were Pilot Officer John Golden Woods as Navigator/Plotter and Pilot Vivian Owen as Navigator/Observer for the training exercise they were required to undertake. The target airfield for this exercise was Meir Aerodrome at Stoke on Trent.
The RAF Court of Inquiry established that the pilot had carried out a ‘Controlled Descent through Cloud’ approach to Meir from 20 000 feet, and had then climbed to 30 000 feet to carry out what was a successful Beam Approach at 700 feet before climbing to 30 000 feet to begin a third approach from a different direction. Eleven minutes later, the aircraft crashed near Dilhorne, hitting the ground at an almost vertical angle.
This is what was seen from the crash area, as reported in many newspapers the following day:
Crashing jet skims a town: crew die
The crew of three were killed when an RAF twin-jet bomber crashed near the market town of Cheadle, Staffordshire, yesterday, after narrowly missing a crowded service bus.
The bus stopped as the plane flew low over the road, and passengers saw the machine go into a vertical dive and crash in a cloud of smoke, making a crater 25ft deep.
Debris was scattered over two acres. The plane was on a local training flight from its base at Scampton, Lincs.
The damage to the aircraft was so great that the Inquiry was unfortunately unable to ascertain whether the crash was due to mechanical failure, nor, in the absence of a surviving airman, to rule out human error.
One of the outcomes of the Inquiry was advice that the position of the Gee equipment within the aircraft should be moved, so that its operator could be seated in an ejection seat, rather than having to sit in an ordinary spare seat. It was realised that its position would create a delay before the crew could eject, since its operator needed to move to an ejection seat before the crew could abandon the aircraft. Changes were also recommended as to the sequence of escape from a doomed aircraft. We can only hope that these measures were implemented to save other lives.
Soon after the crash of WH669, the Canberra bombers began to break the existing altitude records. This was regarded as a great achievement as well as carrying the superior advantage that being able to climb 1000m higher than your opponent carries—holding the initiative to attack.
Vivian’s death had a huge impact on the Owen family, and was particularly painful, since he had predicted it shortly before his death. He had come down from Lincolnshire to visit his family in Ham. During that last visit, Vivian had gone for a walk with his sister-in-law, Ruth, wife of Gwaenydd, his eldest brother. He had confided in her that the aircraft he was flying—the Canberras—were having so many fatal crashes that he was sure he, too, was going to be killed.
Viv’s sister, Gloria, described him as having been, as a child, an action-packed extrovert compared with his brother, Trevor, a year older than Vivian, who had been the more serious and studious of the two. In adulthood, their roles would be reversed and Vivian would become the reflective introvert while Trevor became an extrovert. Gloria described him to me with great warmth, as “incredibly mature, with a lovely nature, gentle and kind”. From Viv’s surviving relatives, I now know how huge an impact his loss had made on his parents and siblings, and on those who came after, who continue to remember him with affection, acknowledging his charm, and the courage with which he confronted the high risk of death facing the crews flying the new jet-bombers.
My thanks go to Vivian’s great nephew, Owen Toms, who has responded with interest to this project, and who put me in touch, with his mother’s assistance, with Vivian’s youngest sister, Gloria, who in turn has conferred with their other surviving sister, Beryl. Owen responded to this stranger’s tentative approach to him via Ancestry more speedily than any relative ever has. My thanks to all four for their support of my research of their Vivian.
Local asset and Kingston Aviation expert, David Hassard, responded quickly and helpfully when I queried why on earth the Canberras were not grounded after the first few accidents. I am always grateful for his sage advice.
I have not been able during lockdown to visit The National Archives at Kew, which has the records relating to the loss of WH669. I note their record references here, for the benefit of other researchers or relatives of the three members of the crew.
Aviation Safety Network, Aviation Safety Database, Occurrence #21021, last updated 19/9/2020, accessed 6/12/2020.
Grace’s Guide, ‘1939 Suppliers to the Aircraft Industry’, https://www.gracesguide.co.uk/1939_Suppliers_to_the_Aircraft_Industry, accessed 1/12/2020.
The National Archives, AVIA 5/32/S2624, ‘Canberra B2 (WH-669)’, March 1953.
The National Archives, BT 233/144, Services Accidents Investigation Files, Canberra, WH669, 27 March 1953.
The Tatler, ‘New Height Record’, 27 May 1953, p.29.
Vivian Owen, photograph from the collection of his sister Gloria. The Owen family owns the copyright of the photo of Pilot Officer Vivian Owen, which accompanies this blog post.
Appendix: Beginning your research into deaths in service post-WW2
Here is how I accessed Vivian’s story, in the order in which I discovered it, in the hope it helps you if at any point you have to research people who died on active service after WW2.
From the headstone, I knew his age (23), the date of his death (27 March 1953), his rank (Pilot Officer) and his unit (Royal Air Force).
I looked for Vivian’s birth in 1929 as well as in 1930—as he died in the first quarter of the year, I knew it was 3:1 that he hadn’t had his 24th birthday yet. Over those 24 months, the births of three Vivian Owens were registered, all three being in Welsh Registration Districts. Two of the three had a middle name, and I thought it likely that the one not blessed with a middle name. was probably our man, unless he had disliked one of his given names and dropped it.
I looked for evidence of the Owen family in Ham—possible sources were the electoral roll, local directories and the 1939 Register. Vivian would have been 9 on 29 September 1939, when the Register was taken and I knew that his name would not have been redacted. It wasn’t, and his birth date fell into the category I expected. It was easy to find his family at 17 Broughton Avenue, though in that household, only the records for Vivian and his parents are visible. the details for the rest of the family having been redacted.
Using the GRO Births Index, I was able to identify all his siblings, and from that information, to identify living relatives, and, finally, to make contact with Vivian’s great nephew.