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The Airmen's Stories - F/Sgt. E E Williams

 

Eric Edward Williams, from Taplow, Buckinghamshire was born in 1912 and educated locally. He joined the RAF from school in 1928 as an Aircraft Apprentice and passed out in 1931. He was accepted for pilot training in 1934 and by 1939 was with 29 Squadron at Debden.

 

 

He was posted to 46 Squadron at the start of the Battle. On September 3rd 1940 he landed at Debden with damage and wounds sustained in combat off the Essex coast. On October 15th Williams was shot down by Me109’s over the Thames Estuary. His Hurricane, V6550, embedded itself in Barton’s Timber Wharf, Gravesend and could not be recovered.

He is remembered on the Runnymede Memorial (below).

 

(Image above courtesy of Dean Sumner)

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In 2007, in advance of redevelopment of the site, the authorities made a final attempt to retrieve Williams' remains for burial, it was reported as follows:

 

Battle of Britain Hurricane excavation called off -

A History and Honour news article

31 July 2007

Attempts by an MoD team of engineers, firefighters and scientists to locate a Battle of Britain pilot and his aircraft shot down over Kent in 1940, have been abandoned after the presumed crash site revealed little more than a broken-up barge. Report by Steve Willmot.

Army digger

An excavator from the Army's Construction Engineer School, at Chatham, removes concrete and top layers of the site which promptly fills with water from the river Thames


Hopes that the team had located the last resting place of Flight Sergeant Eric Williams faded after a mass of metal at the site was found four meters down at the site in Gravesend, Kent. A wheel which might have been from the Hurricane's tail section that would have sheered off at the moment of impact was all that was recovered. Project leader Wing Commander David Lainchbury, Officer Commanding the Defence Fire Services Central Training Establishment (DFSCTE) at Manston in Kent said:

It was a huge disappointment. An enormous amount of planning and resourcing went into locating the last resting place of Flight Sergeant Williams, partly due to the fact that it is believed he was the last remaining Battle of Britain pilot still to be recovered from British soil. The disappointment at not finding him means the mystery of his last resting place endures. We wanted to help ensure that this long-lost hero of the Battle of Britain received the recognition he deserved and be afforded an appropriate final resting place. Sadly after three days effort we were not able to locate him or his aircraft.

Bartons Timber Wharf

An aerial shot of Bartons Timber Wharf, taken shortly after the crash showing the damage caused by the Hurricane to the roof of the timber yard [Picture: MoD]

Another Battle of Britain pilot still lies at the spot where he crashed in Chart Sutton in Kent, but has a memorial over the site and will never be excavated. Flight Sergeant Eric Williams was engaged with Luftwaffe fighters in the skies over Gravesend in October 1940 when his Hurricane was strafed by German ace Major Adolf Galland in his Messerschmitt BF109. The Hurricane rapidly lost height over the Thames. At the last moment his aircraft was seen to veer away from a group of houses and plunge through the roof of a Gravesend waterfront timber yard, burying itself in the ground several meters down. No parachute was seen by eye-witnesses and although he was officially recorded as missing-in-action, later records state that he was confirmed dead at the time. Despite a huge effort to recover the remains at the time, engineering teams were unable to find the crashed aircraft during the War and the site was subsequently concreted over. A succession of light industrial buildings then covered the site until wholesale clearance of the area was carried out recently to make way for a prestige development of homes beside Gravesend Marina. It provided a last opportunity for F/Sgt. Williams's remains to be recovered and laid to rest.

Crash eyewitnesses

L-R: Mr Lewis Deal, head of the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society, Mr Ron Neudegg from Gravesend - eye witness to the crash in 1940, project manager Wg Cdr David Lainchbury, Officer Commanding the Defence Fire Services Central Training Establishment at MoD Manston and Lt Col Phil Hogan, Commanding Officer of the Army's Construction Engineer School at Chatham.

 

The excavation attempt was carried out by a joint service team under an MoD licence issued by the MoD to the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society. Any remains would have been handed over to the coroner for North Kent.

F/Sgt. Williams joined the RAF as an aircraft apprentice and graduated from RAF Halton in 1931. Within three years he was selected for pilot training and achieved an above average grading and posted onto fighters. He joined 29 Squadron at RAF Debden in 1939 before moving to 46 Squadron at RAF Digby in July 1940. He then moved south with his squadron on 1 September 1940. Two days later he was involved in an aerial combat off the Essex coast when he was wounded, but managed to bring his damaged aircraft home. It is unclear how long he spent out of and then back in action before his final combat above the Thames estuary on 15 October 1940.

On that day the 28-year-old pilot took off from RAF Stapleford to intercept German raiders coming up the Thames. Before they could reach the height of the enemy aircraft Galland's Fighter Group 26 attacked them out of the sun. Three Hurricanes were quickly shot down. F/Sgt. Williams crashed into Barton's Timber Wharf near Albion Parade on Gravesend's historic waterfront. The fighter embedded itself into the earthen floor, defying all attempts at the time to locate the wreckage due to being so close to the water's edge.

 

Hurricane aircraft

A Hurricane from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, RAF Coningsby, overflies the site where one of its sister aircraft crashed.


The timber yard was redeveloped after the War and a five-inch concrete floor laid over the site, effectively sealing off the site. Now 67 years later it was decided that, once again, regular military units were best placed to attempt the recovery as a training exercise for both the Army's Construction Engineer School based at nearby Chatham and RAF salvage technicians from MoD St Athan in South Wales. Due to the close proximity of the site to the tidal waterfront, MOD firefighter trainers and a course of RAF trainees from the DFSCTE provided flood advice and high volume pumps to counter possible flooding. All gave up their spare time to assist with the project and the exercise was classed as core training for all three units. Ground mapping was provided by scientists from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at MoD Fort Halstead near Orpington, Kent.

At 1100 hours on the third day a Hurricane from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, flew over as a mark of respect during a brief Service of Remembrance led by Wg Cdr Lainchbury.

Service of Remembrance

The Last Post was played by retired RAF Bugler FS Philip Todd and the eulogy was read by one of the DFSCTE's youngest RAF firefighter trainees, who said:

They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.

Wg Cdr Lainchbury, who is also the Senior RAF Officer for Kent, added:

Throughout the process we have kept in touch with his family. Sadly his widow Joan died just a few years back, but his niece attended the Service on the last day. Due to our working out just how far down this aircraft may have penetrated into what at the time was foreshore mud I can rule out us ever going back. It is just too far down to recover.

Eye witness Ron Neudegg, now 81, was a 14-year-old boy who was at home having his lunch while working for outfitters F Teece and Sons in King Street, Gravesend, when he heard machine gunning in the skies above him. He said:

I saw a glint in the air and then a small aircraft flying erratically. It did not look damaged but seemed not to be going anywhere, as if the pilot were unconscious. I was looking out for a parachute but there was none. After about two minutes it crashed close by, but not before changing direction at the last moment and missing some houses. Ever since then I have been interested in finding the aircraft and paying my respects to the pilot, but that will have to wait. At least there is a small memorial to him in nearby Gordon Gardens.

 


 

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