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Mercury readers solve aircraft mystery

PUBLISHED: 16:52 17 June 2010 | UPDATED: 18:03 30 June 2010

THE mystery surrounding a downed wartime plane witnessed by a three year old in 1943 has been solved by Mercury readers

Tony Gallant, 78, contacted The Mercury after businessman Joe Larter last week appealed for help in finding out more about his earliest memory- in which he was scooped into the cockpit of a downed fighter near Damgate Lane.

THE mystery surrounding a downed wartime plane witnessed by a three year old in 1943 has been solved by Mercury readers

Tony Gallant, 78, contacted The Mercury after businessman Joe Larter last week appealed for help in finding out more about his earliest memory- in which he was scooped into the cockpit of a downed fighter near Damgate Lane.

The piece, which came about from Mr Larter's desire to write a book covering his lifetime, took great-grandfather Tony straight back to a warm spring's day in 1943.

“It was a lovely fine day and around one o'clock lunchtime when it happened, and I was out in the fields around Martham near Mr Pike's shop, which I used to help him with.”

Enjoying the sunshine amid the reds of nearby poppy fields, the 11-year-old noticed a plane buzzing in particularly low over the horizon.

“The plane was making a big row and I just saw it coming into the poppy fields and pull up again before lowering into the field after it- the pilot said afterwards he thought the fields were full of roses, so he didn't want to ruin them.”

Tony, who now lives in Antingham, ran towards the Bristol Beaufighter, which had been brought down by a single shot from a Focke-Wulf in a dogfight that had penetrated the oil tank and caused it to stall.

“It came sliding sideways across the field because only one wheel had descended but the pilot-who must have been great- landed it ok and emerged smiling with his navigator and asking for a phone.

“He warned me not to go too near the plane as it was so hot then I was given two homing pigeons in cages to hold before they let them go.”

Having cared for the pigeons, which used to be carried on board in case the planes were shot down at open sea, the boy returned home.

However, the despite the police and the RAF showing up at the scene, Tony was able to return before the plane was moved a few days later.

“It was only a few hundred yards from where I lived so I was able to get into the cockpit before it went, and the RAF let me go in there- not like you'd get now- and it was lovely as it was the first time I'd been in a plane and there were cartridges lying everywhere.”

Following the incident, Tony, who recalls he once painted the railings of the village's school green for Mr Larter's father Ossie, went on to serve in the army in Egypt during the Suez crises.

He added: “I have always been fascinated by flying even before the crash, and you always used to get things coming over to go to the air bases in East Anglia- I love planes and still do.

“It also seems to run in the blood, as my son, Derek, is a keen pilot and got his private license in under six months- almost record time.”

Among those who also got in touch was Bob Collis of Lowestoft Aviation Society, who was able to pin point more precisely the details of that hazy afternoon.

Of the Bristol Beaufort of Mr Larter and Mr Gallant's memories, the historian said that, according to Norfolk Civil Defence records, the force-landing took place at 12.55pm on May 11, 1943.

He added that he did not know the unit of the aircraft but said that the No.68 Squadron at RAF Coltishall were the nearest unit flying the type at the time.

He also explained that there were two crashes in the area over the second world war, and that the second did not end so smoothly.

On March 4 1945, a Mosquito night fighter shot down by friendly fire crashed in flames near Grange Farm, with the crew bailing out and surviving.

Mr Collis said: “It was only a straw stack which stood in the path of the blazing Mosquito as it careered across the ground that prevented Grange Farm being demolished.”

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