The 1955 Millthorpe Air Crash

On 12th May 1955 at 3.25pm, RAF Worksop based Gloster Meteor F.Mk.8 No.WE904 of 211 FTS (Flying Training School) crashed into Brookside Farm on Mill Lane, Millthorpe in the Parish of Holmesfield, Derbyshire. 19 year old Pilot Officer Robert Anthony Tritton of Stonehouse, Gloucestershire was killed instantly.

Farms and cottages in the small hamlet of Millthorpe near Holmesfield were shaken when a Gloster Meteor plane crashed and disintegrated on the barn at Brookside Farm.

The location of the crash was in the heart of the small hamlet. Cottagers and farmers only yards away had miraculous escapes. In the cottages behind the well known thatched tea rooms (since demolished and now the site of Coghlan's), the explosion of the crash brought down ceilings and flying wreckage tore holes in outbuilding walls and roofs.

Wreckage of the plane was scattered over a wide area. Trees in the lanes were shattered and the barn plus other outbuildings were demolished. Small pieces of flaming wreckage were thrown on to the roofs and gardens of surrounding cottages. Witnesses, who saw the plane approaching from the Holmesfield direction, make a steep dive and turn, believe that an explosion occurred before the plane hit the ground. Within seconds of the crash, most of the people of Millthorpe had hurried to the blazing wreckage.

Rescue work was impossible as there was only fragments of twisted metal left, the biggest chunk being a ten foot length of fusalage which landed 100 yards away from the main crash site. The skeleton of the barn at Brookside Farm covered the debris littered crater which the plane dug in its screaming dive to earth.

After the crash of the Meteor, a 17 year old Roger Webb and his friend cycled over from Cutthorpe. They were told in no uncertain terms to "clear off" by the police (Sgt. David Wilson and Constable Ian Parker) who were detailed to preserve the site from looters and souvenir hunters until the RAF Accident Investigation team arrived and were involved in the gruesome task of collecting bodyparts.

In those days there was no such thing as walkie-talkies or mobile communications for the police so the local pub - the Royal Oak - telephone was made into a dedicated police 'phone line.

Andrew Gazzard, now of Cowley Lane, was working as a young painter and decorater at Mrs McKinlay's house in Millthorpe at the time of the crash. He recalls people saying they had found the pilot's severed arm with the attached wristwatch still working.

Fields and gardens for many yards around were littered with parts from the plane. Around the barn, branches were torn off trees and a heavy jet engine compressor was wedged deeply into the trunk of one. One hour after the crash, one rubber tyred wheel was still blazing on the lawn of a bungalow a hundred yards from the barn.

John Knight, aged 29 and his 3 year old son (also called John) were in the farmhouse just before the crash happened and amazingly escaped unhurt. The child was sitting on a tractor when it started to rain. Mr. Knight picked him up, carried him to the barn for a piece of sacking to protect him from the weather. As they emerged, the baby in his father's arms, Mr. Knight saw the plane diving steeply through the trees a hundred yards away. There was a terrific explosion, flames and smoke shot into the air and blazing wreckage flew in all directions. "We had a miraculous escape", said Mr. Knight, "I was coming out again and stood on the steps. I heard a plane and saw it diving down. The next I knew, the barn door had hit me". The plane crashed into the other end of the barn, missing Mr. Knight's cottage by a few yards.

Mrs. Knight was away from the farm at the time, working at the nearby shop and cafe at the top of the lane. She heard the plane go over "very, very low" just before the explosion, and knowing that her baby was in the farmyard, screamed and ran to her home.

One of the first to see the plane in trouble was Mrs. Doreen Jubb, who lived on Millthorpe Lane. She saw it approach in a dive from the direction of Owler Bar. She said, " it seemed to skim my rooftop and I heard an explosion in the air. I pushed my two babies under the table and followed them".

Mr. Ernest Haslam of The Common in Holmesfield was on the main road to Cordwell Valley when the crash occurred. He said, " the plane pulled out of one dive and then turned and dived steeply, wing tip down, before ploughing into the barn and exploding."

Wilfred Siddall of Millthorpe was standing at his farm gate when the crash occurred. At the resulting inquest in Chesterfield, he said that "the right wing-tip of the plane was pointing down and there was a red glow coming from both engines".

Johnny Morgan of Holmesfield Hall Farm was travelling down Horsleygate Lane when the aircraft 'whooshed' over his head very low to the ground. He also saw it rise up sharply before going into a steep dive after it had evidently stalled.

Local newsagent, Mrs. Doris Frew, was resting on her bed when the crash occurred. Her son Barry, aged 25, was the first to inform the outside world, putting in a 999 call which brought fire tenders, ambulances and police to the scene. Mrs. Frew said that as she sat up in bed, she could see burning wreckage landing in the yard outside her door.

Mrs Frew's neighbour, Mrs. Ethel Morris, had come to the door of her cottage which faced Brookside Farm to shake mats when debris from the explosion landed only a few feet from the step.

Derek Heald, was building his new bungalow at the time and was travelling on a bus from Sheffield to his home when he overheard people talking about the dreadful crash but details of whereabouts were sketchy and he was alarmed to think it might have been his new home.

Neville Biggin of Unthank recalled how the sound of the crash was heard by Brian Thorpe as far away as Winsick Farm in Hasland, the other side of Chesterfield heading towards Mansfield!

Derbyshire firemen from Dronfield and Chesterfield were engaged in clearing debris and damping down the damaged barn and piles of hay, but managed to recover a calf alive from the rubble of the barn.

Photo : Gloster Meteor WE905, 5th October 1961.
This was the sister machine to WE904 which crashed in Millthorpe.

A Group Captain later arrived on the scene in a Staff Car and confirmed that the Meteor 8 from RAF Worksop had only one occupant, a pupil pilot - Robert Tritton - indicating that he was probably nearing the end of his training as he was flying solo.

E. Newton was the Chief Investigating Officer and published his report two months later. It transpired that the student pilot had been briefed to carry out a solo 'simulated controlled descent' through cloud from 10,500 feet but prior to this flight, he had been given only 30 minutes dual instruction which was his first instructional excercise on instrument flying in the Meteor. Tritton had been told to steer clear of clouds. In the event, it seems P/O Tritton disobeyed instructions and actually climbed to 20,000 feet as he radio called "Oxygen Checked" six minutes into the flight. This call is normally made at 20,000 feet whilst climbing.

He took off at 14.18 hours and about 2 minutes later, the aircraft was observed diving steeply below cloud which was at 3,600 feet. The aircraft was seen to partially recover and vapour trails indicative of a high "g" loading were observed. The aircraft then performed a very steep turn to the right and still losing height, struck some trees in a steeply banked attitude. The aircraft exploded on impact with the ground. He had been airborn for just 7 minutes.

The aircraft, which was fully serviceable before taking off was only built in October 1952 and had flown 756 hours since new.

Pilot Officer Tritton held a White (Piston) instrument rating and hs flying assessment was "Average". He had flown 12 hours 45 minutes solo with 8 hours 40 minutes dual in Meteors (Mk. 7 and Mk. 8). His total flying solo experience was 110 hours.

Inspection at the scene of the accident showed that the aircraft flying on a southerly heading had first struck a tree about 35 feet above the ground. The cleavage marks made in this tree indicated that the aircraft was in a steeply banked descending turn to starboard when the impact was made. It had then struck the ground starboard wing first and disintegrated. Examination of the wreck showed that the undercarriage, flaps and air brakes were retracted. Both engines showed evidence of high speed rotation. The cockpit canopy was in position and the ejector seat had not been fired. There was no evidence of any part being detached before impact or on fire in the air. Examination of all parts available reveals damage by impact only and there was no evidence of pre-crash mechanical or structural failure.

In conclusion, no technical fault had been found to which the accident could be attributed. The evidence suggests that the pilot disobeyed his brefing instructions by climbing to 20,000 feet and entering cloud. Loss of flying control probably occurred whilst flying in the clouds.

The pilot's lack of experience in instrument flying and flying generally may have been a contributory factor. It was noted that the sequence of the pilot's training on Meteors was unbalanced with respect to solo and dual flying, excercise, presentation and practice. The lack of instrument training was also a notable omission.

As a result of the crash investigation, the flight leader and pilot's instructor were reprimanded for failing to take sufficient care in their supervision of pilot training.

Summing up at the resumed inquest on July 7th 1955, Chesterfield District Coroner, Mr Michael Swanwick, commented:

"While we sympathise with the parents, we must assure them that it is not a life wasted. They can be very proud of this young man."

Mr. Swanwick added, "There is a risk in flying any aircraft, particularly Meteor aircraft flying at very high speeds and obviously if there were no pilots willing to take the risk there would be no air force. It would be a very bad thing for the country if there were none to take this risk."

The jury returned a verdict of 'Accidental Death'.

Sadly, plane crashes were all too frequent in the 1950s. Pathé News were on hand to record the aftermath of a crash on 26th January 1956 by a two seat night fighter Meteor. It crashed into the historic Sussex village of Wadhurst, devastating many buildings. Both crew men were killed plus two civillians on the ground.

Newsreel footage of the 1956 Wadhurst crash | The Crash Site Today

Sources: The Derbyshire Times, The Sheffield Telegraph, Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation Accidents Investigation Branch Report dated 11th July 1955 (courtesy of Alan Clark, The Peak District Air Crashes website)