Mystery of airman's death

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Dunbar-memorial-wTHE World War Two death of Cardross man Sergeant Alexander Glass Dunbar is shrouded in mystery.

The former Hermitage School pupil, the son of Francis G.Dunbar, who maintained the Kilmahew Castle gardens, and his wife Mary, died on September 23 1940 at the age of 23 when his training aircraft crashed in Shropshire.

But  it has never been established for certain whether the crash resulted from an accident or another pilot committing suicide.

Tom Thorne, who has conducted research into some 600 aircraft crashes in his home county of Shropshire during the Second World War, admits: “It is a strange one.”

The Unit’s war diary for that fateful day records: “11.40 hrs. Fatal collision in the air at 800 feet over Hadnall, three miles south west of the aerodrome.

“A formation of three Oxfords from ATS [Advanced Training Squadron] was interfered with by an Oxford from ITS [Initial Training Squadron]. Two planes crashed, resulting in the deaths of two pupils (Sgts) and one AC passenger.

“Sgt pupil pilot N.H.Pulford of ITS apparently deliberately dived on the three ATS machines, with one of which he collided.

“One machine was burnt out, N4769 (Cat 3). Other total wreck N4637 (Cat 3), Sgt pupil A.G.Dunbar and passenger AC2 C.M.Gwynn (983903). Enquiry to be held.”

Five days later the diary record was: “28th September – Investigation commenced into accident of two Oxfords on 23rd September by Wing Commander E.W.Simpson, HQ 21 Group. It ended on the 30th September. Funeral at Cardross of Sgt Dunbar. Full local military honours were accorded to the deceased by the RAF.”

Tom Thorne says it is a possibility that Sergeant Pulford was diving towards them to give the other pilots a bit of a scare, or was undertaking some sort of practice attack.

“He would have been a very inexperienced pilot at such an early stage of training and not yet having a full understanding of speeds, distances and closing speeds, especially while in a diving attitude and in a twin engined aircraft.

“It was a mistake on the pupil's part. No doubt he would have been in high spirits being in control of such an aircraft on his own for one of the first times. He chose to dive on the other aircraft and, sadly, he was too inexperienced to undertake such a maneouvre and unfortunately the results were fatal.”

He added: “There were a large number of similar accidents from inexperienced pilots colliding, as they did not appreciate closing speeds in aircraft and judging distances. Sergeant Pulford was part of the Initial Training Squadron so this would have been one of his first flights solo in a relatively high performance aircraft.”

The tragedy was witnessed by and had a huge effect on Sergeant Dunbar's wartime comrade Bill Hall from Paisley, a bomber pilot who later won the Distinguished Flying Cross.

His account of what happened is this: “Formation flying had to be practiced. On September 23 Alec and I were detailed to fly solo in separate planes and carry out this practice. We took off together at 0825 and flew for 1 hour 20 minutes.

“After a break we took off again at 1140. Flying side by side at about 700 feet with Alec on my starboard wing I saw an Oxford diving down towards us. As he neared us he started to pull up the nose of his plane but he appeared to sink down and, trying to veer away, he hit Alec's plane.

“Alec's plane seemed to hover for a moment and I can still see him getting out of his seat to go back to the door with the apparent intention of baling out.

“His plane disappeared under mine and as I swung round to see what had happened, both planes were on fire on the ground. The other pilot was killed. Alec was too low to get out. What a waste of such a fine looking and talented person!”

Bill concluded: “That was the first fatal accident I had been closely involved in and I suffered some trauma after it. Indeed it still affects me. I decided I was in a dangerous game and that I should not get too close a friendship with any colleague again.”

Bill's daughter, Maureen Hall, says that almost 70 years later, and despite all the deaths he witnessed in the war, Alec's death still affects him most. He is of the view that the cause of the accident was the Oxford pilot 'showing off'.

More information may be recorded in personnel records, but only relatives are allowed to see them. So it remains a sad and strange mystery.

The funeral took place in the old Cardross churchyard, where he is buried, and his name was included on the war memorial in the old Hermitage School in East Argyle Street.

  • Photo by Bill Hall.