The Burntwood & District War Memorial Project
John Speirs Paterson
Burntwood Family History
Researched and written by Alan BETTS, Pam WOODBURN and Gareth JONES
John Speirs PATERSON biography was researched and written, following Gareth JONES making initial contact with the BFHG, asking for help in an article he was writing entitled 'The Retreat Aircraft Accident'. His article can be read at the end of the biography.
John Speirs PATERSON was born 01 03 1927 in Chorley. He was the only son of Mr William Speirs PATERSON and his wife Stella Irene PATERSON nee HITCHENSON.
John’s birth was registered at Cannock in the January / February / March quarter of 1927, Volume 6b Page 778.
John was educated at King Edward VI Grammar School, Lichfield. On leaving school he found a place a Cambridge University.
In 1944, aged just 17, John joined the Royal Air Force, but was allowed deferment to further his studies at Cambridge University.
He spent upwards of two years with the Royal Air Force in Southern Rhodesia and then, after a period in this country, he was a pilot on routes to the near East, Singapore, India and Malaya.
For upwards of seven months, he was a regular pilot on the Berlin Air Lift with Bomber Command.
On the 16th November 1948, John’s details appear in the Supplement to the London Gazette…
As Pilot Officers, short service (four years on the active list and four years on the reserve) Pilots IV. 7th. Oct. 1948.
John Speirs PATERSON (3054087)
About November 1950, John was transferred to Fighter Command flying Meteor jets.
(*1) Meteor F8 fighter
On Friday the 29th February 1952, thousands of people in York were watching a formation of eight Meteor jet aircraft flying over the city. In the skies, onlookers saw the tail of one aircraft break away and the machine plummet to earth. The tail of the aircraft crashed into the cemetery. The main part of the aircraft crashed in the grounds of The Retreat Mental Hospital, Heslington Road, hitting the
recreation room, and tearing off part of the roof.
Fortunately no one in the hospital was hurt. A member of the hospital staff said that it was a mercy that the machine had not travelled another 10 yards. If it had it would have landed in a male ward.
Two cleaners had just left the recreation room after completing their cleaning duties. And they had followed patients in that had left the room 20 minutes before the incident.
A joiner working on the premises, Mr Herbert HUDSON, 20, of 64 Bootham Road, said that he saw the jet fighters flying in formation when one dived away from the rest. There was a terrible noise as the aircraft crashed.
Councillor L. SPOFFORTH, who, with The Retreat Fire Prevention Officer, was on duty near the recreation room said the plane came down almost vertically with a screech and hit the roof.
Another witness said that although he watched the machine as it hurtled earthwards he saw no sign of anyone leaving it by parachute. So far as I could see, the pilot did not bale out before I lost sight of the machine behind a clump of trees. There was a loud explosion almost immediately afterwards, he said.
Standing at the door of his Francis Street, Fulford home, Mr S KIRKHAM saw the crash. He said that he was admiring the aircraft as they flew over in flights of four, it was a marvellous sight. As they passed over I saw one break away and drop. I ran to the top of the lane but all I could see was the tail spinning gently to earth.
Another witness said that the tail seemed to fall off and the two parts separated like falling leaves.
John was the only occupant and the pilot flying the Meteor F8 fighter, WH342, from 66 Squadron that crashed. He was the last of a second flight of four aircraft which had been flying over the city on a training flight from Linton-on-Ouse.
Some of the hospital staff stood by for rescue work. There was a full turnout of York Fire Brigade, but the wreckage of the machine which formed a mangled heap of twisted metal did not burst into flames. One witness said that it was just as if someone had swept the wreck into a neat pile against the wall.
(*2) John's Meteor F8 fighter WH342 in the wall of The Retreat
John’s body was later removed from the wreckage by airmen. He died the day before his 25th birthday.
(*3) John Speirs PATERSON - far left
Rumours quickly spread around York that afternoon that a second plane involved in the accident had also crashed.
An Air Ministry spokesman commenting on the reports said that although two aircraft touched each other in flight, only one of them crashed. The other returned to the base at Linton on Ouse and landed safely.
An Air Ministry statement said the machine was one which took off from Linton on Ouse on a squadron formation cross country flight. The planes had been in the air for about 65 minutes when the crash occurred.
York Police said they were unable to confirm rumours about a second crash.
John’s death was registered at York in the January / February / March quarter of 1952, Volume 2d Page 922.
John’s funeral took place at Christchurch, Burntwood on Tuesday 4th March 1927. The service was conducted by the Vicar, (the Rev. C. C. D. LEWIS) (see also) and Mr A. J. ROSTER was at the organ.
Attending the service were John’s parents who were living at Waterworks House, Maple Brook, Chorley. Also in attendance were Flt.-Lt. HAWARD and P/O CORRASHAW from F/O PATERSON’s camp, Lynton-on-Ouse.
The coffin, draped with a Union Jack, was borne to the grave by three cousins, Messrs. J. HULME, A. KNIGHT and W. SIMKINS.
There were upwards of 40 wreaths, including the Royal Air Force Wings from the Camp and another from Mr and Mrs R. A. ROBERTSON, engineer-in-chief South Staffordshire Waterworks, who were represented by Mr A. PYNE, mechanical Engineer.
(*4) John's headstone reads:-
IN LOVING MEMORY OF - FLYING OFFICER - JOHN SPEIRS PATERSON - ONLY SON OF - WILLIAM SPEIRS AND STELLA IRENE.
DIED FOR HIS COUNTRY - FEBRUARY 29TH 1952 - AGED 25 YEARS - GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN
John is also remembered on Christchurch War Memorial, Burntwood. The memorial plaque reads John PATTERSON instead of John PATERSON
(*5) Christchurch War Memorial
His family placed a notice of his death in the Lichfield Mercury:-
PATERSON (F/O John Speirs).
On 29th February, 1952, aged 25 years, died for his country serving with the Royal Air Force.
“We will remember”
Mother, Dad, Gloria and Pat
A line in the The Operations Record Book for 66/III. F. Squadron at Linton-on-Ouse for February 1952 reads:-
PART I OPERATIONAL - ‘A’ Flying Practices
A fair months flying marred by the death of Fg.Off. PATERSON on 29th February 1952 when his aircraft crashed after a collision with Sgt TODD.
An Inquest into John’s death was held in York
Squadron Leader A. G. LANG, Squadron Leader at Linton-on-Ouse near York said “Flying Officer PATERSON had 840 flying hours, 210 being in the Meteor type jet he was piloting at the time.”
Flight/Lieut. Bernard HANDLEY said “He was in charge of a formation of eight machines which were flying on a squadron formation flying exercise. He was leading one section with PATERSON on his left rear. They were turning from flying east to go north-west and he gave the order ‘aircraft echelon starboard’ at the completion of the turn. Paterson started to make the turn straight away, which he should not of done. He should have waited until Number 4, who was directly behind him (HOWARD), had completed the move. There was no question of any mechanical mistake. It was just human error creeping in – an error in drill. If the tail was knocked off a plane the pilot lost complete control and it was more than likely that he would have a complete black-out.”
Sergeant Pilot Thomas Edward TODD said “The first thing he saw after receiving the order over the radio ‘Aircraft echelon starboard’ was PATERSON flashing down on his left-hand side. The aircraft slid underneath him. He took avoiding action but felt no bump. When he returned he found his aircraft was damaged on the port wing. In his opinion there was no doubt there was contact between PATERSON and himself, as a result of which the tail of PATERSON’s machine was cut off. PATERSON had come across before he started to make his move.” [His aircraft, WE961 remained in service for another 6 years following the incident]
After hearing all the evidence, the jury returned a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’
Service - Royal Air Force
Service Number - 3054087
Station - RAF Linton-on-Ouse
Date of Birth - 01 March 27
Age - 24
Date of Death - 29 February 1952
John’s father William Speirs PATERSON died on the 23rd November 1997, aged 95 years, having been born on the 14th June 1902.
John’s mother Stella Irene PATTERSON nee HITCHENSON died on the 2nd August 2001, aged 100 years, having been born on the 23rd November 1900.
They were both buried with their son and their names were added to a new grave stone.
(*6) John's parent's gravestone reads:-
WILLIAM SPIERS PATERSON - 14. 6. 1902 – 23. 11. 1997
STELLA IRENE PATERSON - 3. 11. 1900 – 2. 8. 2001
REST IN PEACE - GOD BLESS
Item, Source and Credit
(*1) Leaflet print Meteor F8 fighter © Unknown
(*2) Photograph John's Meteor F8 fighter WH342 in the wall of The Retreat © Jenny McALEESE - Chief Executive of (The Retreat)(*3) Photograph John Speirs PATERSON - far left © Alan MAWBY - Honorary Curator of the Memorial Room of (RAF Linton-on-Ouse)(*4) Photograph John Speirs PATERSON headstone © Alan BETTS (BFHG)(*5) Photograph Christchurch War Memorial © Alan BETTS (BFHG)(*6) Photograph John Speirs PATERSON's parents gravestone © Alan BETTS (BFHG)
The Retreat Aircraft Accident - researched and written by Gareth JONES
The Retreat is a specialist mental hospital, situated on Heslington Road in York. It was founded in 1792 by William TUKE, a Yorkshire Quaker and remains to this day a Quaker organisation. At an exhibition organised by the Retreat’s archivist, some photographs were
displayed which illustrated the aftermath of an accident in which an aircraft had crashed onto the hospital about 60 years ago.
One of the hospital’s senior medical staff knew that I had an aviation background and asked if I could find out any information on the accident. The only information I had initially was that the aircraft was an RAF Meteor jet fighter. The first step was just to Google Meteor/Jet/York but although there were some promising looking websites nothing mentioned the accident. However a bit more searching led to an American website, aviation-safety.net which had a searchable database of just about every aviation accident there has ever been. This quickly identified the most likely candidate as it listed an RAF Meteor F8 fighter, WH342, which lost its tail after a mid-air collision on 29th Feb 1952 and crashed on a York mental hospital. The aircraft was from 66 Squadron and the pilot was killed, but there were no other fatalities.
Knowing the date and aircraft serial number I was then in a position to search a similar British website UK Military Serial Allocations which confirmed the details of the accident and that the other aircraft involved, WE961 remained in service for another 6 years so presumably survived the accident. A bit more research on the net revealed that 66 Squadron were based at RAF Linton-on-Ouse just outside York in 1952, so it was likely that the aircraft originated from there. Having a date for the accident the next step was to visit the central library in York and see if the accident was reported in The York Press and not surprisingly perhaps, it was front page news on the day. The microfilm of the paper was a very poor copy and the extract from the paper has had to be transcribed.
Unfortunately the following two weeks papers have not been microfilmed so there was no way of following up this line of enquiry.
On the RAF Linton-on-Ouse website and I discovered that they had a Memorial Room, dedicated primarily to the memory of aircrew who flew from there during the second world war. The curator was a retired RAF Officer, Alan MAWBY so I got in touch with him to see if they had any record of the accident. He confirmed that the accident had happened on a 66 Squadron formation flying training flight and that the pilot who was killed was Flying Officer John Speirs PATERSON.
By chance he had a copy of a photograph, recently given to him by Joe HARRINGTON, a surviving member of the Squadron (Meteor Pilots picture). F/O PATERSON is on the far left of the row of pilots in the photograph; Sgt HARRINTON is on the far right.
I also wrote to the RAF Museum Research Group to see if there were any other records available relating to the accident. This provided three more bits of information. Firstly there was a link to the UK services Roll of Honour at Veterans UK which records F/O Paterson’s death. Secondly, there was a link to the RAF Squadron operational records in the National Archives, in which I was able to find 66 Squadron’s operations report for the month of February 1952. This was a rather faint copy but it is just readable. The third item of information was that F/O PATERSON was buried at Burntwood Parish Church.
Not knowing where Burntwood was located, I searched Google maps and also found a reference to the Burntwood Family History Group. After emailing them to see if they could confirm whether F/O PATERSON was buried in Burntwood, they very kindly did some more research and came up with extracts from The Lichfield Mercury with information on the funeral and inquest and finally photographs of F/O Paterson’s grave.
The story of the accident was now pretty well complete. Sadly it appears F/O PATERSON died as a result of a simple mistake while flying in formation over York. There is a well-known saying in aviation circles, Aviation is not inherently dangerous but is very unforgiving of the slightest inattention – I think this is a good example of how true that can be.
The RAF operated around 2,500 Meteor aircraft from the mid-1940's until the early 1960s. During that time 890 Meteors were lost and there were 436 fatal accidents a very high loss rate by today’s standards but considered quite normal at the time, coming so closely after the extremely high loss rate of the Second World War. An information leaflet on the Meteor had been retained along with the original Retreat photographs.
The Retreat decided that they would commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the accident, on 29th February 2012, by planting some snowdrops just outside the building where the aircraft came to rest. As they are still very much a Quaker organisation they did not want to mark the event in any way which might glamorise military activity.
When I started this research I did not know how much I would be able to find out about the event. As it turned out it was surprisingly easy, and I am grateful to all those who helped, particularly the Burntwood Family History Group who were able to find final pieces of the jigsaw. I hope you have found it interesting and, having spent all my working life as a military aircraft engineer, I am pleased to have been able to tell the story of one of the many RAF pilots who lost their life in a simple accident.
Burntwood Family History Group