Welsh clouds have hard centres.

“Welsh clouds have hard centres” is a quote by an unknown flying instructor to an unknown trainee fighter pilot during World War 2. When you look at the number of aircraft crash sites from WW2 and since, it’s clearly good advice.

I’ve written before about the sites I’ve visited around the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain. All of them are situated in bleak, lonely places usually on high ground and inevitably on slopes steep or slight.  Some of these crews were new, completing their operational training on the type of aircraft they would fly into battle. Others were re-training, having survived a tour of operations over enemy territory. A few were returning from operations and got lost in bad weather, or succumbed to battle damage.

Yesterday, I decided to visit a new site for me. Vickers Wellington MF509 was on a training flight from RAF Stratford  on 20 November 1944. The crew of 6 Canadians were carrying out a night navigation exercise when a fault developed with one of the engines. The plane began to descend over the Black Mountain and hit the ground on the western slope of Carreg Goch, a couple of miles west of Craig y Nos. Sadly, the crew were all killed on impact. The engines were salvaged but the rest of the wreckage was left in situ.

I had read about this site several years ago and had always planned on visiting. But the site was in the middle of a difficult limestone landscape and not on any route that I regularly took during training for treks. So I never got round to making the trip.

The initial climb from the main road was short and steep but I quickly gained height and left the trees and farmland behind. I passed a limestone quarry and finally reached the first over many limestone pavements overlooking Glyntawe and Craig y Nos. Now the fun started as I tried to find the best route to the crash site. The main path from here would take me north of where I wanted to go so I decided on some cross country walking, taking a more direct but much less obvious route. I took advantage of sheep trails and open rock to climb quickly onto Castell y Geifr.

This area is full of sink holes and is frequently used by pot-holers exploring the vast cave system of which Dan yr Ogof is a part. I passed several deep holes lined with scaffolding poles and blocked for safety reasons. The going underfoot was tough, with broken limestone hidden just beneath the surface of heather and grass threatening to turn and ankle. I took advantage of exposed flat limestone slabs to make better progress but this meant my route twisted and turned and I had to stop frequently to check the map for progress and to keep heading n the right direction.

As I headed west, off to my right was a large area of peat bog known as Waun Fignen Felen. In prehistoric times, this was a shallow lake surrounded by trees which slowly silted up, providing a habitat for wildlife. 8000 years ago, the climate was warmer and upland areas of Wales were more habitable than now. Traces of human habitation from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze ages have been found on the margins of the bog, in the form of flint tools and flakes and a small drilled stone bead. Ancient people hunted here, and stayed in the area while the hunting was good.

I continued on, following a particularly sinuous sheep track through thick purple heather and onto the top of Carreg Goch. Slightly sloping slabs of limestone made the final few yards much easier and from the description of the crash site, I expected to find the wreckage on the reverse side. But it wasn’t there. I checked the map and decided that I was a little too north of the co-ordinates and turned south. There was no path, just lots of broken and weathered rocks ready to trip me up. I scrambled and wobbled from rock to rock until I reached a little stream bed, now dried up. I followed that for a while and climbed up onto a rock slab to see where I was. There, on the western slope, was a great pile of silver-grey metal and beside it flew a Canadian flag.

The Vickers Wellington bomber was designed by Barnes Wallace, the genius behind the Dambusters bouncing bomb. In the early years of the war, aluminium to make aeroplanes was scarce and Wallace produced a two engined bomber with a metal frame covered in fabric to minimise the use of aluminium. The airframe had a distinctive geodesic form, a series of struts and bars forming triangles. It was very strong and proved capable of taking a lot of damage without losing its structural strength.

At the crash site, a large amount of the wreckage had been gathered into one place. The largest piece was instantly recognisable as a part of the inner wing. A lot of the metal had been burnt in the fire that followed the crash and had melted out of shape but the wing retained it’s distinctive form. I could see the undercarriage legs and a couple of pieces of armour plating, which had rusted to a deep orange. Down the slope, what appeared to be a long section of part of the fuselage lay in the rocks and around about, other parts of the plane were scattered.

There were a few others at the site when I got there. I got talking to one who said he’d first come to the site 35 years ago and he remembered a large wheel, complete with tyre, lying just down the hill. We went a little way down to see if we could find it. All we saw were more scattered fragments and a short section of metal tubing which could have been from the landing gear. I knew the engines had been removed by the RAF shortly after the crash.

After the others had gone, I spent a few minutes taking in the atmosphere. It was a lovely summers day but I know what these hills can be like on cold, wet and misty winters morning. This crash happened at night it terrible conditions for flying. The crew probably never knew what happened.

I love being in the hills. I love the sense of open space, the remoteness and the spectacular beauty all around. But little parts of our countryside hold sad secrets that clash with this beauty.

The crew:

  • Sgt C. Hamel
  • Sgt J.R.R. Villeneuve
  • F/O W.J. Allison
  • Sgt J.P.E. Burke
  • Sgt J.A.E. Groulx
  • Sgt J.L.U. Du Sablon

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PB4Y 38753

Last year, Rufus and I visited the site of a crashed Lancaster on Garn Las. Today, Remembrance Sunday, we decided to visit another site we had discovered on our travels. On 24 August 1944, a US Navy Liberator bomber was on night exercise when it hit the top of Moel Feity. All the crew were killed. The crew were Lts Byrnes and Hobson Jr, Ens Manelski, ARM Shipe and AMMs Holt Jr and Keister. If any of their relatives are reading this, you should know that there are a number of poppies laid here during the year; people continue to remember. The weather may sometimes scatter them but the sacrifice these men made is not forgotten.

The site is remote. It’s not visible from the road or from any of the sheep tracks that skirt the top of the hill. The first time I went looking for the site was in heavy rain, and both Rufus and I got drenched without coming anywhere near it. The first time we found it, it was almost by accident. This time I had an idea where to look but I started to doubt my own direction sense. However, just as I was about to turn back to try and find it on the next hillock, the white stone appeared on the horizon.

It’s a beautiful setting on a fine morning, as it was this morning. It’s a poignant place, too because you can see how close the plane was to missing the top of the hill. I replaced the wreath on the little cairn, placed my own poppy, on a wooden cross, and stood for a few minutes. Rufus, as usual, was well behaved and didn’t complain as he usually does when I stop walking for any length of time.

Then it was on to the lake. The weather was wonderful this morning and although there was a cold wind now and again, the sun was strong and warm. Underfoot was a different matter, however, as all the recent rain had clearly collected on the route I was taking. Many times my boots disappeared completely under water and only the recent waterproofing I applied kept my feet dry. I tried to push the pace up the hillside towards the lake to try out my knee. Before long, Rufus, who had run ahead as usual, appeared on the crest of the hill to see where I was. He alternated between looking off into the distance and looking at me. That usually means he’s seen something he wants to go to but he knows I’ll probably tell him no. As I crested the hill, I saw that he was staring longingly at the lake. He’s learnt some hand signals while we’ve been walking, and when I waved him on, he shot off to the water’s edge.

We sat in the  heat of the sun at the lake shore and snacked. Rufus cooled his paws, I took photos and marveled at the weather. We set off around the edge of the lake and on towards the path up to Fan Brecheiniog. At 11am, I stood for a few minutes as part of the 2 minute silence. Rufus, unsure what was going on, reminded me that it was time to go and at 11.02, we went. It took us 21 minutes to climb from the lake to the ridge of Fan Brecheiniog. It always looks harder than it is and I’ve learnt to ignore my first impressions and just estimate the time it will take. It helps tackle the steep parts.

On top, we bumped into several walkers and dogs taking advantage of the lovely weather.  We made our way along the ridge with magnificent views in all directions. This is one of my favourite places in the Brecon Beacons. In the distance, the trophy summits of Pen y Fan and Corn Du stuck out on the horizon and I still get a buzz getting to the top of Pen y Fan. But for me, the empty, isolated ridge of Fan Brecheiniog is so much better .

We walked out to the burial cairn on Fan Foel before reluctantly turning around and heading back. I’m still getting used to the walking pole and so coming down was slower than I would have liked. But it was definitely easier on the knees. At the bottom, Rufus was waiting for me at the lake shore and there were a few stones thrown and caught before we splashed and slurped our way across the boggy marsh and down to the river.

We skirted the side of Moel Feity, avoided horses and foals, splashed through fast flowing streams, got muddy and finally reached the car a little less that four hours after we’d left.

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