World War II Spitfire unearthed in Slamannan field

Imagine you’re in your prime, young and fit, plenty of prospects with a life full of hope and ambition ahead of you.

You have a loving family of both parents and eight siblings. You’ve worked hard to become a teacher and have got a job at a local boys’ school.

You love sport and played hockey at county level and football for Wolverhampton Wanderers. Life is sweet.

A world war then breaks out endangering mankind’s freedom. You’re a patriot so you join the effort to fight against this threat, do your bit and sign up for the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserves like thousands of other brave souls.

You are posted to 58 Operational Training Unit (58OTU) RAF Grangemouth & Balado Bridge. Less than a year later you’re dead, killed in a tragic flying accident when the Spitfire you’re piloting ploughs into a field in Slamannan at 400mph on Valentine’s Day in 1941.

This is just one of the countless tragic stories of volunteers who put their lives on the line and paid the ultimate price during World War Two. It was unearthed after the fighter plane was dug out of the ground on Hillhead Farm 72 years after it mercilessly crashed.

The pilot’s name was RAF Sergeant John Tristram Silvester who was just 22 at the time of his death. He was born in Droitwich Spa in Worcestershire in 1918 and was buried in Ombersley St Andrews Church Yard, Ombersley.

An official entry about the incident in records from 58 OTU reported: “The aircraft was seen to dive into the ground from a low height, while circling in misty weather. The accident occurred at 1050hrs.”

RAF Grangemouth was an RAF station which opened as the Central Scotland Airport in May 1939 and was a Civilian Air Navigation School (CANS) until early September 1939.

Steven Spink from Maddiston was part of the team from the Dumfries & Galloway Aviation Museum who dug up the wreckage of the plane recovering its metal prop, instrument panel, an engine piston and an oxygen bottle.

Also among the debris was the pilot’s armour plating, the Sutton harness, the burnt remains and release buckle of the pilot’s parachute, a flying helmet, goggles and hundreds of other parts of the aircraft weighing around two tons in total.

Steven (52), a local tradesman, said: “We have been wanting to dig this aircraft up for about 15 years and finally got the permission through our team’s Alan Leishman who dealt with the land owner and got the licence from the Ministry of Defence.

“You need these permissions because you can’t just go around digging this kind of thing up.

“We think the plane probably had a fault that made it crash because it had been in a couple of collisions before it was issued to Grangemouth.

“The pilot would have hit the ground at about 400 miles per hour so he wouldn’t have stood a chance. The wreckage is quite mangled but it is in quite good condition considering.

“We will now clean it all up for display at the museum and we hope to build some sort of memorial at the site for Sergeant Silvester who died.

“We’ll hold a memorial service for him on Remembrance Sunday. It’s important to remember brave people like the sergeant who gave their lives for our futures.”

It’s not the first time the aviation enthusiasts have dug up historic aviation artefacts. They were on TV’s ‘History Detectives’ when they recovered a Lancaster Bomber at Loch Lomond in 2007.

The group does all the work on a voluntary basis, even paying for the digger which brought the Spitfire out of the ground, but the work is not without its dangers.

Museum curator David Reid said: “All the work must be carried out legally and it can be dangerous.

“For example there might be ammunition and explosives which can be live so we are all members of the BAAC British Aviation Archeological Council.

“All the guys give up their spare time to do this and it can be quite costly, but we split everything and it’s worth it when we uncover something like this.”

Sergeant Silvester was from Worcestershire and had only joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve service nine months before he died. He features in Andrew Long’s book, ‘The Faithful Few – Worcestershire’s Fighter Boys’.

The Spitfire 1a (L1059) which Sgt Silvester perished in certainly led a charmed life before its final flight. It was in Eastleigh with a Merlin III engine, completed on July 14, 1939. On October 1 that year Pilot Officer James “Hamish” Alexander Brownlie Somerville was killed when it landed on top of another Spitfire at RAF Grangemouth.

It was packed off to AST Hamble for repair and then issued to 226 Squadron in June 1940. It had to undergo more repairs after colliding with a building on approach to Wittering in poor visibility during a squadron manoeuvre on August 9, 1940.

Sergeant Arthur William Eade survived the crash and went on to become and ‘ace’ pilot. After being fixed up at 1 CRU (civilian repair unit) it was then issued to Grangemouth on January 29, 1941.

Just 16 days later it was not to be seen again for over seven decades.

The wreath-laying ceremony being held on Remembrance Sunday (November 10) at Hillhead Farm at 10.30 a.m.

As Remembrance Sunday approaches it’s worth remembering that whether you’re from Slamannan or Worcestershire, we must never forget the sacrifice brave men like Sgt Silvester made for the freedoms we enjoy today.

So when you see war veteran this Remembrance Sunday, or any other day for that matter, treat them with the respect they deserve.

Article provided by the Falkirk Herald, Reporter Scott McAngus.
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