Second World War

When the second world war escalated, Beacon Woods again became a military training ground, as had been the case in previous conflicts over many centuries. It also became the location for an Auxiliary Operating Base and was the site of several tragedies.

Plane Crash in 1943

At 08:15 on the 12th April 1943, Flying Officer Arthur L. Barge and Pilot Officer Arthur J. Matthews of 264 Squadron, took off from RAF Colerne on a ‘ Day Ranger’ patrol mission.  The aircraft, a De Havilland Mosquito (DD 727), was plotted as being on track by the Royal Observer Corp, but by 08:30 the plots faded near Shepton Mallet. The wreckage of the aircraft was found 1 mile due south of the Oakhill church, both men were killed.

In the accident investigation that followed it was noted that there was low cloud (400 feet) over RAF Colerne that became lower on the route. The aircraft hit the hill at approximately 300 feet above the aerodrome level (RAF Colerne is 581 feet AMSL). If the aircrafts altimeter was  set at the aerodrome and there was no technical failure, then the altimeter would have read 500 feet  at the point of impact. The map reference was noted as ‘Sheet 12 TU.0667’ (GSGS series ‘Purple Grid’ reference).

GSGS Map 1940 Revision

Sixty years later, the events of the day were recalled by Mr R.E. Wood who lived in Shepton Mallet during the war, he was a member of the local Army Cadets and a Civil Defence messenger.

“…the Mosquito crashed on the 12th April 1943, it came from Colerene and was piloted by a Free French pilot. He was flying south, extremely low from the direction of Oakhill and hit a tree in the south hedge of the Old Frome Road, this disabled the wooden Mosquito and it crashed in the area of the building at Lapwing Farm. I can remember seeing the tree with which the aircraft collided and it was damaged; I have marked the location on the map. From memory, the Mosquito did not catch fire, but was wrecked against the barn. it was fully armed with 20-mm cannon shells, which were thrown all over the area. this confirmed the Mosquito was the fighter variant, as the Bomber variant was not armed with 20 mm cannons. The Mosquito must have passed over some smoke canisters/phosphorous grenade shelters at about 15/20 ft before it crashed. Had it collided with the grenades, there would have been a massive explosion and fireball. The pilot and navigator were killed on impact…”

Aerial photograph from 1947 showing the location of the accident.

Arthur Barge was buried in Wansted, London, aged 27. The son of Arthur Leslie and Grace Ethel Barge, of Wanstead; husband of Betty Dorothy Barge, of Wanstead.

Flying Officer Arthur Barge

Arthur Matthews was buried at Lambeth cemetery, aged 23. The son of Arthur Alfred Matthews, and of Clara Alice Matthews, of Brixton; husband of Lilian Ellen Matthews, of Dulwich Village.

Sources
  • GSGS Map – http://digitalarchive.mcmaster.ca/islandora/object/macrepo%3A66452
  • Accident Report – NRA/AIR27/1555
  • Accident Log – NRA/AIR27/1553/66
  • CWGC
  • Eye witness account by Mr R.E. Woods

Mortar Incident

During the second world war the lower part of Beacon Wood was used as a mortar range on the 18th April 1941 an accident at a training event led to tragic consequences. The Shepton Mallet Journal  for the 2nd May 1941 describes the incident that led to the death of four soldiers:

“Tragic Death of Four Soldiers. Premature explosion at a Demonstration.

The deaths of four soldiers  through the premature explosion of ammunition from a trench mortar was described to the Coroner for South East Somerset (Mr. G. L. Rutter) at an inquest on Monday .

The dead men are: – Fusilier Thomas May (24), of 79, Matilda Street, Newcastle-on-Tyne: Sergt. Joseph Spence Pick (30), of 26, Waverley Cresecent, Lemington-on-Tyne; Lance Corporal William Foster Scott (21), of 8, Linum Place, Fenhuam, Newcastle-on-Tyne:  and Lance Sergt. Thomas James Bradley (29), of 8, Chiefwood Road, Melrose, Scotland.

After evidence of identification, the officer commanding the regiment stated  that he ordered a demonstration of a mortar platoon coming into action. The battalion was lined up as spectators in a semi-circle about 25 yards from the mortar. The detachment nearest the mortar commenced  to fire and the first round was normal. The second round appeared to have exploded immediately on leaving the muzzle of the mortar, because although he was not watching it at the time he heard the explosion, and on looking around at the battalion he saw men on the ground and smoke clearing from the mortar. He then found that a number of officers and other ranks had been hit. Casualties were removed, and he ordered the mortar and remaining ammunition to be left untouched. All proper precatuions were taken, and he believed that no blame could be attached to any person. A technical enquiry was being held and attended by an expert.

The Cororner asked if this evidence would be available for the adjourned hearing, and the officer replied that he thought parts of the document would be privileged.

The Coroner said he could hold parts of the enquiry in camera. Otherwise he would only be able to bring in an open verdict, which was unsatisfactory from his point of view.

The Medical Officer of the Regiment said one soldier was dead on admission to hospital, two died the same day and one the following day. He thought it likely that there would be at least one more death. The cause of the death in each case was shrapnel wounds.

The inquest was adjourned to Friday, May 9th.”

The CWGC entries for the casualties are below:

Auxilliary Operating Base