The Dunbeath air crash - more commonly referred to as The Eagle's Rock Crash - involved the loss of a Mark 3 Short S.25 Sunderland W4016 of 228 Squadron (Coastal Command) that crashed in the Scottish Highlands on a headland known as Eagle's Rock (Creag na h-Iolaire) near Dunbeath, Caithness on 25 August 1942. The crash killed 14 of 15 passengers and crew, including Prince George, Duke of Kent, who was on duty as an Air Commodore in the Royal Air Force on a mission to Reykjavik; a message of condolence was proposed in Parliament by the British Prime Minister. A Royal Air Force Board of Inquiry determined that the crash was the result of a navigational error by the crew. But to many this looked like a whitewash.
The Sunderland had not long taken off from its base at 228 Squadron (Coastal Command) in the Cromarty Firth. The crash had ignited the aircraft's newly topped-up fuel tanks and the subsequent fireball had virtually destroyed everything. Such incidents were apparently not rare. The North Highlands, with its mountainous terrain and challenging weather systems, had claimed numerous other victims during the war years. What singled out this accident, above all others, was the the death of HRH the Duke of Kent.
The aircraft and crew were assigned a VIP transport mission to RAF Reykjavik, specifically to transport Prince George, Duke of Kent to Iceland. The aircraft departed from a seaplane base at RAF Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth at 1305 GMT on Sunday 25 August 1942 into foggy weather. The Sunderland (flying on instruments) veered off its flight plan track and crashed into the remote Eagle's Rock at 13:42 GMT. The official board of inquiry concluded that the plane crashed into the hillside due to an error of navigation; i.e. there was not enough allowance made for wind that caused the aircraft to drift off its planned track up the eastern coast of Scotland. Fourteen of the fifteen crew and passengers, including HRH The Duke of Kent, perished in the crash.
On the day of the crash, the aircraft had taken off from the Cromarty Firth at Invergordon, and then flown up the coast. The flight plan was for the aircraft to fly parallel with the east coast of Sutherland and Caithness until it reached Duncansby Head, where it would turn north west and head directly for Iceland.
Take-off: RAF Invergordon - Planned turn point: Duncansby Head - Crash Site: Eagle's Rock
It remains a mystery why the aircraft turned inland when it did, and it is a still greater mystery why it had descended to 700ft by the time it struck the ground. The crew on board was hand-picked and highly unlikely to make a navigational error of the scale necessary to suggest they simply turned north west too early. And while there was patchy cloud around, visibility ought to have been sufficient for the crew to see they were flying into hills.
Once described by Prime Minister Winston Churchill as a ‘gallant and handsome prince’, George Edward Alexander Edmund, the popular Duke of Kent, was the youngest brother of the reigning monarch, King George VI. Fifth in line to the throne, the duke had much to live for; he and his wife, Princess Marina, had just celebrated the birth of their son, Michael, only seven weeks previously. In his position as an air commodore he had responsibility of the welfare of RAF personnel and, as the inscription on the memorial at Eagle's Rock records, he was killed on a ‘special mission’.
Sir Archibald Sinclair, then Secretary for Air, reported to the House of Commons the official investigations had revealed: ‘First, that the accident had occurred because the aircraft was flown on a track other than that indicated on the flight plan given to the pilot and at too low an altitude to clear the rising ground on the track; secondly, that the responsibility for this serious mistake in airmanship lies with the captain of the aircraft; thirdly, that the weather encountered should have presented no difficulties to an experienced pilot; fourthly, that the examination of the propellers showed that the engines were under power when the aircraft struck the ground; and fifthly, that all the occupants of the aircraft were on duty at the time of the accident.’
However, a number of issues remained unresolved. The flight crew were all hand-picked and vastly experienced aviators. The question was asked why, at such an early stage in the flight and in such poor visibility, did they veer away from the planned flight path and drop altitude over known hilly terrain? A lack of official documentation, much of which went missing, together with denied access to the, albeit limited, royal archives, has over the ensuing years, fuelled speculation and conspiracy theorists. One theory is that enemy infiltrators tampered with the flight before it took off from Invergorden. It is alleged that a secret report received by German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, on 5 December 1942, claimed the Duke of Kent was apparently sympathetic to a peaceful understanding with Germany and an internal sabotage plot had been carried out as a last resort to avoid a potentially embarrassing ‘problem’ for Britain.
Incredibly, one of the members of the flight crew survived the crash: Flight Sergeant Andrew Jack was the tail gunner, his turret broke off on impact. Miraculously he had survived the fireball which engulfed Eagle's Rock. Confused, disorientated and suffering from burns to his face and body he had wandered aimlessly in the misty conditions before his discovery by the Sutherland family at their remote croft at Rinsary, the following day. Flight Sergeant Jack claimed to have crossed many bridges whilst lost, there are four footbridges in the area so the family concluded he must have been going around in circles.
It is known while in hospital in Wick, Jack was visited privately by two senior RAF officers. Some believe he was forced to sign the Official Secret Act because, until his death in 1978, he refused to answer questions in connection with the accident. He did allude to his personal belief that the crash was not due to pilot error and no ‘serious mistake in airmanship’ could be attributed to the aircraft's official captain. However, he would not elaborate further.
The official investigation had blamed Flight Lieutenant Frank Goyen, the Sunderland's pilot and captain. However, Goyen was not the senior officer on board. In the last minutes before take off the crew had been joined by Wing Commander Thomas Mosley 228 Squadron's Commanding Officer. And the Duke, of course, held the rank of Air Commodore.
A more plausible explanation is the allegation that friends of the duke were known to be staying at Langwell House very close to the crash site and the last known message heard from the flight deck was ‘Let's go down and have a look...’ The question raised is just exactly whose hands were on the controls at the moment of impact? Listening on the intercom in the rear of the aircraft Jack would have known exactly what was taking place but his version of accounts was never disclosed.
Members of the Royal Family still visit Eagle's Rock from time to time. It has become a focal point for their grief. King George VI had made his own special pilgrimage not long after the crash. The Celtic cross, bearing the names of those who died, records how they had died while on a ‘special mission’, a mission that ended in disaster.
Those on Board at the time of the crash were:
Air Commodore HRH The Duke of Kent.
Lieutenant John Crowther, RNVR Private Secretary.
Pilot Officer The Hon. Michael Strutt.
Leading Aircraftman John Walter Holes, Batman.
Flight Lieutenant Frank McKenzie Goyen, Captain.
Wing Commander Thomas Mosley, Commanding Officer of 228 Squadron, 1st pilot.
Pilot Officer Sidney Wood Smith, 2nd pilot.
Pilot Officer George Saunders, Navigator.
Flight Sergeant William Jones, Flight Mechanic Engineer / Air Gunner.
Flight Sergeant Charles Lewis, Airframe Fitter.
Flight Sergeant Ernest Hewardine, Wireless Operator / Air Gunner.
Sergeant Edward Blacklock, Wireless Operator / Air Gunner.
Sergeant Arthur Roland Catt, Wireless Operator / Air Gunner.
Sergeant Leonard Sweett, Fitter.
Sergeant Andrew Jack, Wireless Operator / Air Gunner.
The crash remains an unsolved mystery and the views of those who, having studied the facts as they are known to them, still insist that whatever caused the ill-fated flight to crash, it was not pilot error. It seems that the crash (not rare by the standards of the time) was just a terrible accident - the fact that will never be known is who was really at the controls at the time of the crash.
Duke of Kent Marker
In 1946 the Ministry of Works asked a local contractor to erect two memorials at the site. The first, in the form of a Celtic cross rising from a plinth, commemorates all those who died that day. The second, to the north and out of sight of the first, marks the place where the body of the Duke of Kent was found.