The final flight of the doomed duchess
PUBLISHED: 16:49 11 August 2017
In the post-war decades, the Duke and Duchess of Bedford and their Woburn Abbey country seat regularly made headlines in the gossip and society columns of national newspapers.
We ordinary folk relished reading about their antics but sniffily dismissed the relentless publicity as “how the other half lives.”
But not until last month did I learn for the first time that the aristocratic family also hit the newspaper front pages - not only in Britain and around the world but also hereabouts in Norfolk and Suffolk - eight decades ago.
Sadly, the 1937 publicity was for all the wrong reasons when tragedy struck the redoubtable 71-year-old Duchess. For nine years she had revelled in the new-found excitement of flying her own aeroplane, but perhaps unwisely decided to take off on a solo flight from her private airfield at Woburn in adverse weather...a March snowstorm!
Her intended route, it was believed, was to fly across the flooded Fenland area. Neither the flying Duchess nor her De Havilland Moth aircraft was ever seen again.
Naturally, her failure to return to her Woburn airfield sparked an intensive ground search along her planned route: woods were combed and lakes were dragged. To intensify the efforts, planes from no fewer than ten Royal Air Force stations took off to make a search from the skies.
Wireless messages were broadcast for civilians, police patrols, commanders of aerodromes and ships at sea to keep a lookout. Coastguards from the Wash to the Thames estuary scoured the shoreline continuously for days without any sign of the aircraft or pilot.
It was described as “the biggest search in years.” But it all proved futile.
The drama persisted for 11 days before the first definite clues were discovered.
An aeroplane’s green strut, 4ft 8in long by 4in wide, was picked up on Great Yarmouth’s North Beach by fisherman John Hales, of Garfield Road, as he strolled along the foreshore.
That very same day, a similar piece of wreckage floated ashore at Gorleston where it was spotted and salvaged by Mr Walter Waters.
At the coastguard headquarters on Yarmouth’s Marine Parade, replaced in 1964 by the Tower entertainment complex, the finds were closely scrutinised by the Duchess’s personal pilot, Flight-Lieutenant R C Preston, and her ground engineer, Mr J W Todd.
The strut John Hales found was marked with a small representation of a silver plane with the letters “D.H.” (De Havilland) on it. It was sufficient to enable the RAF officer and Mr Todd to identify them as part of her aircraft.
“The strut would have been one of the first things to break away from the aeroplane if it fell into the sea and sank,” they explained.
Subsequently, other fragments of suspected wreckage were found on the shoreline at Sheringham, Winterton, Lowestoft and Southwold. The Winterton discovery was significant: it was part of a propeller from a Moth aeroplane. The officers did not anticipate any pieces of clothing being washed up because, they reasoned, the pilot had strapped herself securely into her aircraft.
It was reckoned that the Duchess’s aircraft had plunged headlong into the North Sea. Coastguard officer Lieutenant J Maguire declared: “It must have struck the sea with immense force.”
The location of the washed-up struts and information about the prevailing winds led the experienced pilot to the conclusion that somehow the Duchess had crossed the coast and flown out to sea, possibly diving into the Wash and sinking. Winds and tides slowly washed wreckage ashore.
The official search was abandoned.
The recovered pieces of wreckage were taken to Woburn and stored pending a possible official Air Ministry inquiry. Whether or not such an inquiry was ever held I cannot ascertain.
The Duchess, born in 1865, did not take up flying in earnest until she was 62. According to a newspaper report: “Her reason was that she regarded it as the most exhilarating of sports.”