Death at Maydown

The news that the Fleet Air Arm Museum at Yeovilton in Somerset is at last to have a complete Fairey Barracuda in its display has significance in the north-west. When it does appear, the ‘Barra’ will be composed largely of an aircraft recovered from Enagh Lough in 1971.

A wartime aerial view of HMS Shrike, also known as Royal Naval Air Station Maydown. The airfield had been built originally for the RAF. The Lisahally wharves are visible to the top of the photo and some of the barrage balloons that protected the city and the port may also be seen.
A wartime aerial view of HMS Shrike, also known as Royal Naval Air Station Maydown. The airfield had been built originally for the RAF. The Lisahally wharves are visible to the top of the photo and some of the barrage balloons that protected the city and the port may also be seen.

That aircraft was DP872 of No. 769 Naval Air Squadron, a training unit, based at HMS Peewit, or Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) East Haven, in Angus, Scotland. Piloted by Sub Lieutenant (Air) Dennis Herbert Oxby, aged 21, from Nottinghamshire, the Barracuda’s crew included two other personnel, the observer Sub Lieutenant Frederick Dobbie, also aged 21, from East Lothian, and the air gunner, Leading Airman Derek Mew, aged 19, from Norbury, London.

Trainees at HMS Peewit were qualifying to operate from aircraft carriers and 769 NAS’s role was to train crews in deck landings. Sub Lieutenant Oxby, the pilot of DP872, was in his final week of training and had flown from East Haven to RNAS Maydown, HMS Shrike, on a training flight. Although Maydown was the home base for the Swordfish squadrons that flew from the improvised merchant aircraft carriers, or MAC-ships, it was also used for training purposes by other Fleet Air Arm units.

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DP872 was a Barracuda Mark II that had entered service with 769 NAS the previous November. In January 1944 its undercarriage had collapsed when the machine was in the hands of another trainee officer. However, the plane was repaired and returned to service, and many more pilots would have added it to their logbooks before Dennis Oxby flew it from East Haven to Maydown.

Two Barracudas of No. 769 Naval Air Squadron in formation. The bulge under the fuselage of the aircraft in the background housed the new secret air-to-surface radar which was fitted to DP872.

At about 2.40pm on 29 August 1944, a bright, sunny day, Oxby lined up to take off on Maydown’s runway 27. Cleared to go, the Barracuda raced down the runway and into the air. However, soon after it became airborne DP872 got into difficulties and began to bank to starboard. It was only 150 feet above the ground, a height that allowed no room for errors. One effect of the banking was that the aircraft lost height and, within seconds, it had spun out of control and smashed into a bog about a half mile from the end of the runway.

One eyewitness, who lived close to the crash site, recalled that the plane ‘was making such a terrible noise that I knew … it was going to crash’. As she watched it plunge down she thought it was going to hit the nearby school. Another witness, who was walking nearby, saw the plane which ‘seemed to lose height’. He thought that the pilot ‘opened up the engines’ (although the Barracuda was a single-engined machine) just before hitting the ground. Another witness, working on a nearby farm, remembered seeing three Barracudas ‘rising from Maydown’, one of which seemed to stall for a minute or two before ‘the engines revved up’ and the plane ‘tipped over and dived’.

Crash teams were soon at the site, known as ‘The Moss’, and found the front of the Barracuda submerged completely. Various parts had broken off, including some of the undercarriage and a wheel, which were lodged in a tree.

Since DP872 was carrying a new and secret type of radar, its tail section, with the radar unit, and parts of the wings, with the antennae, were removed and the plane was allowed to sink below the bog’s surface. In fact, these had been the only parts of the Barracuda visible when the crash teams arrived.

It was clear that none of the crew had survived. However, since the dangerous nature of the ground made bringing in suitable lifting equipment very difficult, the Admiralty decided that there would be no attempt to recover the wreckage. A memorial service for the crew was held at the site and a wooden cross erected. And then, it seemed, the crash was forgotten, although it is known that the family of one of the dead airmen did visit the site in the mid-1950s.

And there the story of DP872 might have ended. But two factors led to a different outcome. The first was that not one of over 2,700 Barracudas built had survived and the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) Museum at Yeovilton was anxious to find an example. The second factor was the formation of a Historic Aircraft Society at RAF Ballykelly. This group made an appeal across Northern Ireland for information on any aircraft crashes and soon the fate of DP872 was being recalled.

As a result the curator of the FAA Museum, Lieutenant Commander L. A. Cox, instigated an investigation into the possibility of a recovery operation. The site was identified, and a preliminary survey carried out for the museum. By the end of 1970 it had been decided that removal was possible. However, the Royal Navy had neither the technical expertise nor the equipment for the task and so the Army was asked for help.

Sappers of 63 Headquarter Squadron (Airfields) of 39 Engineer Regiment (Airfields) arrived on the site in May 1971. Having built an access road they began their work. Using helicopters had been ruled out since power lines now stretched over the crash area. Navy frogmen were deployed to try to free some of the plane from deep underwater mud.

The operation was a lengthy one, and sensitive, since the wreck was also the grave of three young men. Their families had given permission for the bodies to be recovered and re-interred, a task undertaken by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). Personal effects recovered from the crash site included a watch that had stopped at 2.45, the exact time of the tragedy, and a belt purse containing 3 shillings and 4 pence (16p). By 18 May 1971 the recovery operation was complete.

Dennis Oxby, Frederick Dobbie and Derek Mew were re-buried in St Canice’s churchyard at Eglinton with full naval honours on 19 May and, the following day, the remains of DP872 were taken to Sydenham in Belfast from where they made their way to Yeovilton.

It had been hoped that the Barracuda would be rebuilt to join the FAA Museum’s collection but it is only now that this seems likely to happen as the parts of DP872, supplemented with parts from up to four other crashed ‘Barras’, will come together to form the world’s only example of the Fairey Barracuda.

Why had the Barracuda crashed? No definitive cause has been attributed but the evidence suggests that the propeller was in the wrong pitch, equivalent to having a car in the wrong gear, and that this was the most likely reason for the change in engine noise recalled by witnesses.