Dig team solved 37-year riddle of lost RAF pilot

As a team of aviation archaeologists wiped the mud off a piece of wreckage at a Shropshire wartime crash site, a serial number was revealed to them – T8827.

This then was the Miles Master trainer of 19-year-old airman John Toplis Carr, who had died when his plane had plunged into a bog at Helshaw Grange, near Tern Hill airfield, on April 10, 1941.

And now 87-year-old David Thorp, of Wellington, has told the inside story of how 37 years after that tragedy the site was pinpointed and excavated, while the remains of the teenage pupil pilot were also recovered to be given a decent burial.

In a recent feature we told how salvage attempts at the time were abandoned because the ground was so swampy it presented a danger to the rescue teams. The submerged plane was simply left and Leading Aircraftman Carr was posted as "missing, presumed dead".

At the time of the excavation in October 1978, David was a member of the Wartime Aircraft Recovery Group, comprising enthusiasts in Shropshire who identified and excavated wartime crash sites.

Its first task in excavating the site of Carr's crash was to pinpoint where the aircraft had come down all those years ago following a mid-air collision.

"We started by going to the local pub and asking if anybody elderly in there remembered a plane crashing in Helshaw Grange," said David.

"A chap came along and said his father had been involved. He took us to this big 400 acre field. He looked around and he said try with a metal detector over there. Immediately we picked up bits of aluminium and screws and stuff. I knew we were in the right place."

David says that Helshaw Grange was Peter Thomas' farm. He took a great interest in their investigation and loaned the team a digger. Originally a bog, the field had been drained to some extent and used for growing beans.

"The digger driver got down about 14 or 15ft and put the bucket in. I could see there was something in the bucket. I went in the hole. The smell of petrol down there was unbelievable. I looked in the bucket and cleared off all the dirt, and there was an engine in the bucket. It was the engine from the Miles Master.

"There was something on top of the engine. I didn't know what it was to start with, but when I cleaned the mud off it was an RAF sweater."

Among the discoveries, preserved in the petrol, was a map case in perfect condition complete with Carr's flight plan from 1941 clearly marked out. Then there was that poignant piece of the fuselage bearing the serial number T8827, which proved short-lived.

"It had been under water for 37 years and survived, but shortly after being exposed the paint all peeled off when it dried out."

It was David who found the remains of the pilot. They had not, he said, known that there was anybody inside the wreckage when they embarked on the dig.

"As soon as we found his body we had to stop. We had to call the police and the MOD and they took over the whole operation. There was another complete whole day I believe and they found all sorts of other bits and pieces and every scrap they could and took it away.

"The hole was filled in and that was that."

The WAR group was able to retain the Irvin parachute, for which the silk was in perfect condition, and still bore the name of the woman at the parachute factory who signed it off. David took the parachute to the company and discovered that the same woman was still working there.

Carr had hailed from Eastbourne and was doing his flying training at RAF Tern Hill. David says that MOD investigators tracked down his dental records in Eastbourne and were able to make a match with the remains.

"I did some research and found his niece, I can't remember how, I think it was somebody in Australia we got in touch with. They said his niece was at Southampton University and we got hold of her. I can't remember her name.

"She came to the funeral and brought some friends of the family."

Carr's sister, Mrs Mary Seagrief, was traced to South Africa. David does not think she was at the funeral but is unsure as he was unable to check.

David, who attended on behalf of the WAR group with his stepson, John Wright, said: "Unfortunately we got delayed at the end of the funeral. I wanted to go and talk to these people but they had gone."

Carr was laid to rest with full military honours on April 4, 1979, at the huge wooded 500-acre Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey after a service conducted by the padre of RAF Uxbridge.

So far as David is aware, no photo turned up of Carr.

"I was hoping somebody would come up with one as I wanted to do a portrait of him. I'm an artist and specialise in military stuff."

However, as a thank you to Peter Thomas for all his help, he did a painting for him of that Miles Master which crashed at his farm and was to yield up one of the RAF's last lost victims of the war so many years later.

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