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The Miracle of Holt - remembering the men that died when two RAF planes collided 50 years ago

PUBLISHED: 15:37 18 August 2018 | UPDATED: 13:35 20 August 2018

The story of the miracle of Holt plane crash between RAF aircraft, a Victor tanker and a Canberra 50 years ago in the North Norfolk News. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The story of the miracle of Holt plane crash between RAF aircraft, a Victor tanker and a Canberra 50 years ago in the North Norfolk News. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Copyright: Archant 2018

Seven men lost their lives when two planes collided 50 years ago. The night is still rememembered by the people of Holt, and in the landscape itself

A section of one of the crashed planes still smouldering a day after crashing into a potato field near Holt.A section of one of the crashed planes still smouldering a day after crashing into a potato field near Holt.

In woods near Holt a tree stands as a living memorial to seven men, its huge trunk curled protectively around the spot where, 50 years ago this weekend, its branches broke the fall of a body hurtling from the sky.

That night a thunderstorm was raging over Holt. Suddenly a searing light blazed, and instead of flickering away like the lightning all around, it became a mass of flames and pieces of burning metal spiralled down across a swathe of north Norfolk. In Holt people rushed outside to see the sky raining flames.

Ian Jarvis had just moved to the town with his wife and baby and was due start his new posting as a police constable the next day. As they unpacked in the police house the storm roared outside. But above the tumult they heard an even louder noise, which rumbled on and on. Ian rushed to the back door to see a fireball blazing through the thunder clouds and falling towards the town, followed by countless more clusters of flaming debris.

“My immediate impression was that a plane had exploded,” said Ian, now 76. He rushed into the next door police station to call 999 and summon help and then headed out. “I hadn’t even unpacked my uniform,” he said. By now his new boss and a probationer police officer had arrived and they drove towards the largest fire, in a cornfield on the edge of town. “We couldn’t get anywhere near, it was so hot,” said Ian. At the centre of the blaze was an aircraft cockpit. Flares exploded out of it, narrowly missing onlookers, and when firemen eventually quenched the flames, Ian remembers seeing the human cost of the disaster as the remains of the four men were recovered.

On the night of August 19, 1968, the Victor plane had taken off from RAF Marham on a routine training flight. Another RAF plane was returning from a bombing exercise off the Lincolnshire coast to a base in Germany. Out of contact with ground crew and invisible to radar during the thunderstorm the two aircraft collided above Holt.

All seven crew members perished.

This was 1968 with Cold War tensions high and fears of a nuclear armageddon rife. As the night sky burned and the ground was alight with smouldering wreckage people wondered whether this was it, the end of the world.

Ian Jarvis who was the first person on the scene after RAF aircraft, a Victor tanker and a Canberra, crashed over Holt in a storm. He is by the 'living memorial' pine tree which has grown twisted after the body of one of the airmen landed in it in Holt Country Park. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYIan Jarvis who was the first person on the scene after RAF aircraft, a Victor tanker and a Canberra, crashed over Holt in a storm. He is by the 'living memorial' pine tree which has grown twisted after the body of one of the airmen landed in it in Holt Country Park. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Aircraft from the RAF bases at Marham and Coltishall and the US base at Sculthorpe often flew over Holt and it was known that the American aircraft were equipped to carry the hydrogen bomb. An accident could bring nuclear disaster.

Two eyewitnesses were driving through rain about five miles from Holt when the planes collided. “Suddenly, the whole landscape was lit as daylight in a steady bright sodium type light such that we could clearly see each others puzzled faces,” said one. “We stopped the car and got out and discussed what it could be. Innocently and foolishly, we thought it might be a nuclear first strike.

“This ‘daylight’ lasted, to us, a very long time and there was an eerie silence to go with it, until suddenly a lone bright flare-like light spiralled down through the highlighted cloud base. There was a gradual localised increase in the light over the Holt area, accompanied by an ever increasing roaring that reached a crescendo as a very bright flaming mass, accompanied by smaller but equally bright objects, broke through the cloud base and a few seconds later reverted the area back to blackness and silence.”

Around the town crowds gathered to watch firefighters extinguishing the blazing wreckage. An emergency headquarters was set up in Holt Hall. An RAF helicopter, and the Sheringham and Cromer lifeboats, helped searched for survivors, but there were none.

The 'living memorial' pine tree which has grown twisted after the body of one of the airmen landed in it in Holt Country Park after two RAF aircraft crashed in a storm 50 years ago over the town. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe 'living memorial' pine tree which has grown twisted after the body of one of the airmen landed in it in Holt Country Park after two RAF aircraft crashed in a storm 50 years ago over the town. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Over the next few days there were many terrible discoveries. One airman’s body was found by a tree in Holt Country Park. To this day the tree is a living memorial to the tragedy, its trunk spiralled around damage caused by impact of the young serviceman’s body.

A glove with a hand still in it was found in Sheringham. A helmet and a wad of scorched papers were picked up from the playing fields of Gresham School.

In Gravel Pit Lane, Holt, part of wing crashed into a garden and a piece of aircraft flattened a neighbouring shed. But despite the huge amount of burning wreckage, no-one else was hurt.

In Parliament MP Merlyn Rees said it was a miracle that there were no deaths on the ground.

The plaque at St Andrews Church in Holt commemorating the airmen of the Victor tanker and the Canberra aircraft which crashed over Holt 50 years ago. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe plaque at St Andrews Church in Holt commemorating the airmen of the Victor tanker and the Canberra aircraft which crashed over Holt 50 years ago. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

At the inquest into the airmen’s deaths, held in King’s Lynn, the commanding officer of RAF Marham said none were to blame for the accident. Military air traffic controllers were also exonerated.

Exactly 50 years on, on Sunday, August 19, a memorial to the victims will be unveiled at the Holt Country Park visitor centre and a commemorative service will be held in Holt church. Relatives from as far afield as South Africa and Canada are expected to attend. RAF Marham commander Group Captain Cab Townsend will attend and the RAF Marham chaplain will preach.

The Rev Canon Howard Stoker, rector of Holt, said: “Holt’s miracle was someone else’s tragedy which robbed young men of their lives, wives of their husbands, children of their fathers, brothers and sisters of a sibling, and it seems only right that 50 years on we gather to remember them.”

The dead airmen from the RAF Marham Victor were:

•Pilot William Gallienne, a 36-year-old married man from Essex.

•Co pilot Roger Morton, aged 26, from Hertfordshire.

•Navigator Kenneth Peacock, aged 31, from Cornwall.

•Navigator Michael Doyle, aged 39, and married.

•The Canberra crew were Stuart Cowie a 24-year-old married man from Yorkshire.

•John Woolnough, aged 24, from Essex.

•Johan Slabber, a 25-year-old married man from South Africa.

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