Rex Needle: Wartime plane crash memories

A rare photograph of the Butcher's Arms, Bourne, in 1938 with landlord Charles Lappage at the door
A rare photograph of the Butcher's Arms, Bourne, in 1938 with landlord Charles Lappage at the door

Although the Second World War ended almost 70 years ago, there is still an active interest in what occurred during those fateful years from 1939-45 and the Eastgate plane crash in which ten people lost their lives - four civilians, three British soldiers and three German airmen - has become part of our history.

Bourne escaped the worst of the bombing although enemy aircraft were often heard overhead at night on their way to industrial targets in the Midlands but this one disaster brought home to the people of the town the real consequences of the war.

A few minutes before midnight on Sunday, May 4, 1941, the town was woken by the sound of gunfire and the throb of aircraft engines as two planes battled it out overhead. At this time, the enemy was engaged in a massive bombing campaign against sensitive British targets and a Junkers 88, which was probably bound for Grantham where several munitions factories were located, was intercepted by a Royal Air Force Bristol Beaufighter and a dogfight ensued.

The Junkers loosed a number of incendiary bombs but they failed to inflict any damage and after several minutes of combat, with flashes of machine gun fire lighting up the night sky, the plane nose-dived earthwards with flames streaming from the fuselage and crashed on the Butcher’s Arms alongside the Bourne Eau at No 32 Eastgate, demolishing the public house, setting fire to the ruins and killing seven people inside.

Among those first on the scene was the late Ernie Robinson who was on duty with a team of volunteers from the town’s Civil Defence unit that had been specially trained to deal with air raid casualties. In 1998, then aged 97, he recalled the scene when they arrived. “We heard the plane coming down”, he said. “It was only on the other side of the Abbey Lawn and so we did not have far to go and we turned out immediately. Soldiers were billeted in Eastgate and one of them who had been on guard duty had been killed. We found two of the German aircrew and carried their bodies to the stables behind the Six Bells public house in North Street. Then the police arrived and took over and we left them searching through their clothing to find some identification.”

The Junkers had a crew of four and three of them baled out but two were killed when their parachutes failed to open and their bodies were found some distance away. The pilot, Adam Becker, aged 28, had remained at the controls and was buried in the wreckage of the inn where the aircraft had embedded itself in the foundations. The other two who lost their lives were Reinhold Kitzelmann, aged 22, radio operator, and Karl J Focke, aged 22, observer.

The fourth crew member, rear gunner Rudolf Dachsesel, survived. He landed by parachute near Northorpe and was slightly injured but gave himself up to the Home Guard next day after walking into Bourne along South Road. He later returned with a police escort to recover a revolver he had hidden at the roadside a few yards from Baldock’s Mill.

The body of the pilot, Adam Becker, was recovered by the rescue services and all three of the bomber crew who had been killed were buried in the town cemetery the following Thursday after a short graveside service conducted by the Vicar of Bourne, the Rev Charles Horne. In 1959, the War Graves Commission arranged for their exhumation and reburial at the war memorial cemetery at Cannock Chase in Staffordshire.

The couple who ran the public house were killed in the crash. They were the landlord, Charles Lappage, aged 63, and his wife Fanny, aged 59. Also killed were two relatives who were visiting, Mrs Lappage’s sister, Mrs Minnie Cooper, aged 62, and her daughter, Mrs Violet Jackson, aged 29, who had only been married for a fortnight, her husband George, a fitter with the RAF, having been posted to Egypt a few days before. All four were buried together in Grantham cemetery.

The three soldiers who were killed were all serving with the Loyal Regiment (North Lancashire) based at Grimsthorpe Castle although some platoons were billeted at various locations throughout Bourne, including Eastgate. They were Lieutenant Harold Schofield, aged 28, Private Harrison Mackean, aged 33, and Private Clifford James, aged 29, who was fatally injured and died in hospital a few days later. Six other soldiers were hurt in the incident but all recovered from their injuries and returned to duty.

During the war, salvage teams had no time to retrieve debris after such incidents and so the hole was filled in and the site of the Butcher’s Arms levelled. It remained derelict until after the war when it was bought for a garage development by the late Jack Lovell (1929-2005) who opened Riverside Motors in 1959 and who, ironically, had recovered the badly damaged pub sign which he hung in his garage as a reminder of the crash.

Five years later, in September 1964, when new underground petrol storage tanks were being installed at the garage, a mechanical digger unearthed a 1,100 lb. unexploded bomb eight feet below the surface that had lain undetected for 23 years. The area was cordoned off and local residents evacuated for the night. The following morning a squad arrived from RAF Newton near Nottingham and loaded the bomb on to a lorry and took it away for disposal together with several clips of live ammunition that had also been unearthed.

The garage was eventually demolished in 2001 and new homes now occupy the site where there is now no indication of the wartime tragedy that shocked the town. Memories of the disaster were revived in 1998 when a campaign was launched in Bourne to provide a lasting memorial to those who died, both German and British. An engraved plaque to be financed by public subscription and placed in the Abbey Church was contemplated but interest waned and the idea of a memorial came to nothing.

A Portrait of Bourne is the definitive history of the town and is available on CD-ROM. An order form may be downloaded from the Bourne website at www.bourne-lincs.org.uk.