The Story of Stirling LK488

The loss of Short's Stirling LK488 on the night of 18/19 October 1944 was typical of many wartime training accidents. What makes this accident particularly tragic is that it took the lives of six aircrew - five of them New Zealanders. Miraculously, a sixth crew member survived.

Photograph of LK280, sister ship to LK488. Note the crew under the nose to give scale to how large these aircraft were.

A colour photograph taken by Charles Brown of Stirling N6101 which was with 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit, the same unit LK488 was attached to.

LK488 was a Mk III Short S.29 Stirling and was built by the Austin Motor Company. It was attached to 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit, which was part of 3 Group, and had the code letters of QQ-E. It departed from RAF Wratting Common in Cambridgeshire at 2305 hours on Wednesday 18 October. For the crew of six, this was to be their last training flight before being posted to an operational squadron.

The aircraft was on a cross-country naviation exercise, which was to be flown at low level. Their track took them north past Goole. They were then to have flown further north to Hexham before returning south back past Gainsborough. As they tracked north, the weather closed in and fog was widespread. Initially the pilot climbed to 4500 ft to find clearer skies. It is thought that sometime after this climb the aircraft changed course and flew west of the intended track. For reasons not known, it then decended to 2500 feet and in poor visibility collided with the top of Mickle Fell (some seven miles ENE of Appleby-in-Westmoreland) at 0315 (some reports put the time at 0100).

In the impact, the starboard wing was torn from the aircraft and it then cartwheeled down the north side of the hill and ended up in an inverted state (evidenced by the fact that the bomb bay was relatively undamaged). The rear turrent separated and rolled down the hill. With remains coming to rest upside down and fire present, this may account for the high mortality rate. In the crash, the tail gunner, W/O Alan G Small of Takaka, New Zealand, was thrown clear and survived. Reports vary as to the extent of his injuries but he was able to walk to Birkdale Farm, which is 3 kilometres north across rough ground and north of Maize Beck (a stream) which can be difficult to cross. A newspaper report published on 25 August 1976 recalled details of what happened to Small:

"The survivor was apparently thrown clear of the aircraft when it crashed, and seeing the bodies of the rest of the crew scattered about the wreck, he left the scene in search of help.

"After a long and weary trudge down the hillside, he eventually arrived at the door of Birkdale Farm. His flying clothes had been stripped off and his helmet was missing, as were his dentures. He suffered from a head wound and other injuries. The farmer took him in, attended to his wounds and then sent for help."

Small was taken to Northallerton's Friarage Hospital where, after five weeks, he was released. He returned to 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit and completed his service as a spare gunner and an instructor.

Those airmen killed were:

NZ425313 Flt Sgt Peter Dawbarn Young, RNZAF, Age 22, of Castor Bay, Auckland,  532 hrs - 16 solo on Stirling
NZ4212641 Flt Sgt Neil Conway Burgess, RNZAF, Age 21, of Karapiro, Auckland, 248 hrs
Flight Engineer:
1896494, Sgt Bertram G Davies, RAF, Age 36, of Purley, Surrey
Air Bomber:
NZ4213651 Flt Sgt John Matthew Stack, RNZAF, Age 27, or Paraparaumu, Wellington, 243 hrs
Wireless Operator:
NZ428189 Flt Sgt Rex Patrick Furey, RNZAF, Age 21, of Okaiawa, Taranaki, 194 hrs
Air Gunner:
NZ425233 Flt Sgt George Child, RNZAF, Age 31, of Blockhouse Bay, Auckland, 231 hrs

All those killed were buried at the Commonwealth Wargraves plot at Harrogate's Stonefall Cemetery, Yorkshire. Plot details are:

Young - (Sec H, Row B, Grave 4)
Burgess - (Sec H, Row A, Grave 19)
Davies - (Sec H, Row B, Grave 1)
Stack - (Sec H, Row B, Grave 3)
Furey - (Sec H, Row B, Grave 2)
Child - (Sec H, Row A, Grave 20)

Captain - Flt Sgt Peter Young

Navigator - Flt Sgt Neil Burgess

Air Bomber - Flt Sgt John Stack

Wireless Operator - Flt Sgt Rex Furey

In 12 July 1977, the crash site was photographed by John Earnshaw

This photo shows some of the larger pieces of wreckage located in shake holes on the north side of the hill. Photo: John Earnshaw

This photo is looking east and shows the impact point on the south side of the hill before coming to rest 220 metres NNW on the north side. Before impact, the aircraft was flying from right to left of the photo.  Photo: John Earnshaw

On 1 September 1977 major pieces of the wreckage were recovered by RAF Puma helicopter.

Satellite image showing approximate crash site 200 metres north of Mickle Fell based on position provided on maps.

After the crash the RAF cut up the aircraft into sections and put them in a shake hole. This was how the wreckage looked in 1972 before big items were recovered. Photo: G Sharpe.

The remains of the Stirling are arguably the most complete of any Stirling in the UK as none were preserved after WWII and therefore none exist in museums.

The remains of LK488 at the RAF Museum Reserve Collection at Stafford. Photo: Wattisham Aviation Society

The Stirling Project was formed in the United Kingdom in 1997 in the hope of one day building a complete example of the famous bomber which played an important part in Bomber Command's campaign during WWII.

Parts in the collection:

A section of framing with a stiffener and two bolts from LK488

A section of aluminium pipe with fabric glued to the exterior. The purpose of this lagging is unknown.

A close up of the woven fabric covering the pipe - remarkably preserved given the item lay in the open for over 60 years.

A piece of aircraft skin measuring 255 mm x 140 mm and still containing some of the aircraft's black paint.

  • John Earnshaw
  • G Sharpe
  • Wattisham Aviation Society
  • The Stirling Project
  • Errol Martyn For Your Tomorrow
  • Auckland Museum
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