Seventieth anniversary of tragic plane crash

The recovered makers’ plate from the Audax two-seater RAF plane (c)

The recovered makers’ plate from the Audax two-seater RAF plane (c)

First published in Where I Live by

Seventy years ago tomorrow (Thursday), the most devastating plane crash in the country at the time struck in Edmonton. Hannah Crown went to speak to a relative of a family killed in aftermath of the incident.

Sylvia Ditcham, 52, is the daughter of Joyce Saunders, who lost her mother, father and two brothers when an RAF Audax two-seater plane, manned by a lone 19-year-old trainee pilot, crashed and burst into flames over their house, taking off the roof.

The incident, on September 4, 1938, left 12 people dead and 15 others injured. Then 14, Joyce escaped because she was visiting her grandmother.

According to relatives, Ben Saunders and his son Roy, 16, were out in Mr Saunders' delivery van when the accident happened and were injured on rushing home.

Mrs Saunders, who was in the house, grabbed son Derek, eight, and rushed upstairs away from the fire. Tragically they died, and were discovered under a bed in each others arms.

Relatives believe Mr Saunders, who was in the RAF, had told his wife to hide under the bed to escape bombings during the war.

Mr Saunders and Roy died later from burns in hospital.

Mrs Ditcham, 52, a bookkeeper, has just moved to the UK from Zimbabwe where she was born and grew up with her parents, brother Roy and sister Liz.

She said: "It was having lost her whole family that made her (Joyce) go to Zimbabwe, because she had cousins there.

"She worked in a conservation park, as a bookkeeper, and in the Post Office in Chinhowi, north of Harare, where she met my father.

"But she never spoke to us about it. She was a very nervous person and this could have been why - I don't think she talked to anyone about it."

Tragedy struck again and when Mrs Ditcham was just ten, her mother died of kidney failure aged just 42.

"She was a very caring and loving person, absolutely, very protective of all her kids, exactly like a mother is. She was just amazing, from what I can remember. I am proud of her - I just find it really emotional," said Mrs Ditcham.

The tragedy devastated an entire community. The pilot, SR Morris, was aiming for Pymmes Park, but found he was struggling to keep the plane above the roofs of nearby houses.

He was unable to reach the park in time and crashed into houses in Dunholme Road, Edmonton, taking the roof off the house at number 28, where the Saunders family were having Sunday lunch.

As fire raged and the plane lay in tatters across the road, people rushed to try to save those who had been hurt. Brothers Edward, 20, and James Letch, 22, were both awarded the OBE posthumously after trying to unstrap the pilot from his cockpit. The fuel tank exploded and all three died from their injuries.

Members of the Callaghan family in number 30 also died. And seven-year-old Jimmy Tant, who was playing outside in adjoining Dunholme Lane, was reportedly sitting on a gate frozen in shock and was decapitated by part of the plane. His three-year-old sister Jean escaped.

A memorial stone was laid at Dunholme Road Air Disaster Memorial in Church Street Cemetery, Edmonton, marked with the names of those who died.

On Thursday there will be a short service and wreath laying ceremony in memory of those who died at 2.30pm.

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