Little Hallingbury pays tribute to Royal Canadian Air Force crew who crashed 75 years ago in Second World War tragedy
An amateur historian has traced the history of a Second World War tragedy which culminated in a Canadian family travelling to Little Hallingbury to commemorate the 75th anniversary of their forebears' bravery.
On June 29, 1944, Flying Officer Alfred Gerald 'Gerry' Vautour, of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), was returning from a patrol of the Normandy beachhead to RAF Hunsdon.
The weather was extremely difficult that night for the flight of three Mosquito night fighters.
Flying Officer Vautour was advised to lose height and did so. As his aircraft sank further into the gloom of low cloud and drizzle, it struck a heavy power cable at Little Hallingbury, four-and-a-half miles from the airfield, at 1.31am.
The Mosquito was travelling at quite a high speed and made contact with the ground. It ploughed on, striking a haystack, a hedge and another power line, losing its port wing tip, propeller and tail unit before nosing into the ground, scattering wreckage. The main part of the aircraft then caught fire.
The body of the navigator, Walter Leonard 'Wally' Mitchell, was found nearby having been thrown from the aircraft. The pilot's body was found in the cockpit with his hands still on the controls.
The aircraft burned fiercely and the 20mm ammunition began to explode, hampering a rescue attempt by villager Albert Victor Hutley.
A letter written to John Vautour, a nephew of the pilot, in 1996 by Lloyd Colborne, who was in one of the other Mosquitos, highlighted differences between what actually happened that night and the official crash report in the RAF Court of Enquiry papers.
Mr Colborne alleged certain aspects of the enquiry were covered up and pilot error was blamed rather than the cloud base height early that morning.
In March this year, John and his wife Cheryl were on holiday in the UK. They contacted David Gibbs, a former Hunsdon parish councillor, who in turn contacted Denis Sharp and Jim Cosgrove from the Hertfordshire Airfields Memorial Group.
The organisation was responsible for construction of RAF Hunsdon's roll of honour, a £5,000 concrete and black granite plaque that records all 126 airmen lost on operations or killed on the airfield. This was completed in 2010.
Denis said: "John met with David Gibbs and me and we visited the crash site one Sunday morning and then went on to take a look around the airfield.
"It was a chance remark made in the car of 'It's a shame that the crash site isn't marked' that set me to investigate the possibility of placing some sort of plaque near the site.
"I contacted Sue Meyer, who is on Little Hallingbury Parish Council, and she put me in touch with the landowner, Stuart Padfield, who agreed for such a plaque to be placed.
"After John had returned to Nova Scotia in Canada, Jim Cosgrove, who is the main researcher and archivist for the HAMG, and I supplied crash report documents and other interesting information to John, who by now had contacted his extended family in Canada.
"They'd begun to realise that there were plans under way to honour Gerry and Wally, and this sparked off inter-family fundraising.
"The best news was yet to come, for John indicated that he and his sister Lise would fly back from Canada to be present at the unveiling and dedication service.
"An even nicer touch was when Stuart Padfield and his wife Chris planted a Canadian maple tree next to the plinth.
"The black and gold-lettered plaque has etched photographs of the two crew members."
On Sunday June 30, villagers, a representative of the People's Mosquito charity, members of the HAMG, air cadets, Royal Air Forces Association (RAFA) members, the Royal British Legion and other interested people walked to the crash site, led by Warrant Officer Barry Lynn and Flight Lieutenant Andrew Passfield.
The completed memorial was then unveiled by John and Lise Vautour. A service of dedication was read by North Weald RAFA while the assembled standards of the Legion and RAFA were dipped and then raised to Last Post, a minute's silence and then Reveille.
The Kohima Epitaph was then read and wreaths were laid by the Vautour family, HAMG, the Legion and the charity. Flowers were also laid on behalf of the village of Little Hallingbury.
Tea, sandwiches and cakes were on hand afterwards at the village church, where everyone had a chance to talk.
The whole event was recorded by a video company and a short film of it, including interviews with those who took part, is expected to be released in the near future.