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Harleston to remember heroic Canadian airman who died in First World War plane crash

PUBLISHED: 12:48 18 July 2017 | UPDATED: 12:48 18 July 2017

Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs

Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs

Ian Carstairs

A heroic airman who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death.

Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs

For almost a century, a cross has stood among a line of ancient trees in Harleston where 2nd Lieutenant Joseph Leo Phillips, on his second solo flight, was killed.

Until recently very little was known about the Canadian airman and how he came to be a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Attempts to find his service records and make contact with family members failed.

But several years ago, when the present memorial built by the Redenhall with Harleston community was rededicated, Nancy Melnyk - a member the Hamilton Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society - agreed to see if Lt Phillips’ records and any of his relatives could be found.

When she sat next to Glenn Wright, a renowned military archivist, at a conference in Canada, he was able to help her get hold of all of Lt Phillips’ enlistment papers.

Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs

From the documents, more details about Lt Phillips emerged - where he worked, where his father lived and how a Canadian came to be flying with the Royal Flying Corps.

Then, just in time for the anniversary on July 20, an email arrived from Allan Blackborow, a two-times great nephew whose father had been named after the airman.

With the surprise correspondence came a copy of the front pages of the Phillips family bible, recording Baptisms stretching back to the early 1800s - but stopping short of Lt Phillips’ birth.

Soon after sunrise on Thursday, the time of the crash, The Rev Nigel Tuffnell will address representatives of the Redenhall with Harleston Town Council, The Royal British Legion, Royal Air Force Association, the Army Cadets and members of the community.

Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs

Following a moment’s quiet contemplation, the Last Post will be played while a line Canadian national flags will be raised along the Thoroughfare through Harleston in tribute.

Barry Woods, chairman of Redenhall with Harleston Town Council, said: “Taking the time to remember one man on the centenary of his passing – thought to be the only person on service to perish actually in our parish during the Great War – is also to remember symbolically all who have sacrificed their lives far from home for their country.”

About Joseph Leo Phillips

Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs

Joseph Leo Phillips was born on April 17, 1896, in Hamilton, Ontario - the only son of Joseph and Helen Phillips.

He worked as a rodman for the Welland Canal Company when he enlisted. He was placed with the Royal Flying Corps rather than the Naval Air Service for which he had applied, because it had stopped recruiting.

He was flying a Maurice Farman Shorthorn aircraft from Snareshill Aerodrome, Thetford. No-one knows why he crashed.

Small parts of the wreckage of his aircraft survive. A broken tip of the propeller and part of a strut are on display in the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum in Flixton.

Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs Heroic airman Joseph Leo Phillips, who died when his plane crashed in a Norfolk cornfield during the First World War, is to be remembered in a poignant ceremony a century after his death. Photo: Ian Carstairs

He died in hospital in Norwich on July 20 1917, aged 21. He is buried in Earlham Road Cemetery, Norwich and is remembered on a bronze plaque Roll of Honour on St Catharines Town Hall, and at The Cathedral School, Hamilton, both in Ontario.

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