Crash of an RAAF Avro Anson at Riverstone – 28 April 1939

One of the distinctive features of the Hawkesbury is the Richmond RAAF base, which has been operating just east of the town since 1925, and is still going strong 90 years later. Many different RAAF squadrons using many different types of aircraft have been based at the station during that time. By 1939 the base was home to No 6 Squadron and their Avro Anson reconnaissance planes.  No. 6 Squadron was responsible for conducting reconnaissance patrols along Australia’s east coast as well as undertaking training exercises with the Royal Australian Navy  In early 1939 the Squadron  gained the additional role of providing conversion training on the Anson for new pilots and air gunners. The Anson was the RAAF’s first retractable undercarriage, low wing monoplane, and over 1,000 served in various RAAF Squadrons from the mid-1930’s onwards.

A RAAF Avro Anson similar to the machines used by 6 Squadron
A RAAF Avro Anson similar to the machines used by 6 Squadron

Unfortunately there were several examples of Ansons being involved in in-flight accidents, which lead to the deaths of RAAF personnel, including 6 Squadron. On the 28th of April, an Anson was returning from an air navigation course training exercise over the Sydney coast. At 3.27 pm Richmond RAAF base received a message that the radio transmission aerial was being retracted in preparation for a landing. At that time, the aircraft was within a few miles of the base, and everything seemed in order. This was the final communication with the aircraft, which crashed into the ground on the outskirts of Riverstone, killing all four crew members.

The loss of an aircraft was keenly felt in the district, and the crash and the ensuing coronial inquest received large coverage in the Windsor and Richmond Gazette. Here, word for word, are the reports on the crash and the subsequent coronial inquiry.

WINDSOR & RICHMOND GAZETTE, Friday, May 5, 1939

ANOTHER AIR TRAGEDY

BOMBER CRASHES AT RIVERSTONE

CREW OF FOUR KILLED

“Crashing at the outskirts at Riverstone shortly after 3.30 pm on Friday last while returning to the Air Station after a routine flight, an Avro Anson bomber was reduced to a heap of tangled wreckage, killing instantly its crew of four, and adding to the growing RAAF list a further lamentable tragedy which shocked the whole district – and, in fact the whole state – when the news became generally known. A particularly sad feature of the unfortunate affair was that two of the victims were married, and leave widows and young children, for whom every sympathy is felt in their sudden bereavement.

In several respects eye-witness reports of the tragedy bear a marked resemblance to the observations of those who saw the fatal crash in which a similar machine was involved in Windsor some months ago, when another young pilot, who was the only occupant of the plane in that occasion, also met his death. For instance, there is mention in both instances of a loud report from the plane, similar to an engine backfire, which first attracted attention, the unaccountable dive towards the ground, the momentary righting of the machine, and, most peculiar of all, the continuing of the dive with both motors at full running speed, there evidently being no attempt to throttle them back – usually an instinctive action by a pilot when he sees that he is going to crash, and followed immediately by the equally instinctive switching-off of the ignition, as a partial safeguard against fire.

Apparently quite a number of people variously employed around the town – and particularly in the immediate vicinity of the crash – had their attention attracted by the unusual behaviour of the plane when it suddenly began to dive towards the ground. It is stated that the machine, in which there were two pilot officers – LJ Harness (20) of Mordialloc, Victoria and ML Hickson (22) of Kensington – and two aircraftsmen RD Knight (31) of North Richmond, and H Clark (28) of Parramatta – was returning from a navigational training exercise flight. Approaching the outskirts of Riverstone, on its proper course to the Air Station, it was flying at about 1500 feet when it appeared to go into a dive suddenly, after witnesses on the ground had heard the engines begin to fire irregularly. When it began to dive its engines appeared to pick up again, the throttles apparently having been opened to pick up flying speed, and the machine appeared to right itself momentarily, and then continue to dive, with the motors still running, striking the ground with a terrific crash.

When a number of horrified spectators reached the scene, it was immediately evident that nothing could be done for the occupants of the plane, which was nothing more than a tangled heap of wreckage, hardly one portion of it being intact, and the whole crew had obviously been killed instantly, when the machine struck. The Air Station was immediately notified, and within a few minutes had despatched the ambulance and a guard to be posted around the wreckage until such time as it had received official examination. The bodies were recovered from the wreckage, and were conveyed to the station.

The possibility that the crew had been having trouble with the machine before it reached Riverstone is evident from a later official statement from the Station to the effect that it was overdue when the accident was reported. It had been used in certain routine navigational exercises out to sea, and it is stated that the last message to the Station received from it was to the effect that it had begun the return trip. Owing to the fact that it was completely wrecked leaving no evidence as to any defect, and the crew were all killed, it is probable that no definite information as to the primary cause of the tragedy will be ever ascertained. The Air Accidents Investigation Committee left Melbourne immediately on receipt of the news, arriving here on Saturday, and spent all Saturday afternoon, Sunday and Monday morning at the scene of the crash, later returning to Melbourne, preparatory to preparing a report for presentation to the Minister. In the meantime an official Court of Inquiry was convened at the Air Station and has concluded its sitting.

The largely-attended funeral of three of the men killed in the crash – Hickson, Harness and Clarke – took place in Sydney on Monday, a service, in which the local RAAF chaplain, REV RGB Ashcroft, assisted, being held at the Kinsela chapel, Taylor Square, and attended by a large gathering of citizens, in addition to officers and members of No 6 Squadron, to which the men were attached. A further Air Force detachment joined the funeral at Rookwood, where a short service was held at the Crematorium, and a firing party presented a final salute.

The fourth member of the crew, Aircraftsmen (First-class) Knight, was an extremely popular resident of North Richmond, where he was very well known and widely esteemed, and the news of his tragic passing was received in this area with especially keen regret, the sincere sympathy of the whole district being extended to the widow and her young family of four in their irreparable loss. The funeral took place on Monday afternoon, after a service at the Methodist Church at North Auburn, conducted by Rev SW Bonner and the chaplain, Rev W Evans. At the approach to the Methodist Cemetery, Rookwood, the cortage was met by the RAAF Band, which proceeded the casket to the graveside, playing the Dead March, while a firing party fired a salute and the Last Post was sounded at the conclusion of the Burial Service – touching last tribute of the Service to a popular comrade.”

WINDSOR AND RICHMOND GAZETTE, Friday, September 1, 1939

ACCIDENTAL DEATH
AIR FORCE TRAGEDY FINDING
CORONER HOLDS INQUIRY

The Coronial Inquiry into one of the worst tragedies associated with the history of the Richmond Aerodrome, the fatal crash of the Avro Anson bomber at Riverstone on the afternoon of Friday, April 28, when four airmen attached to this station, Pilot Officers Maxwell Leonards Hickson and Lloyd George Harness and Aircraftsmen Raymond Duncan Knight and Harrie Clarke, were killed, was held at the Windsor Court House on Tuesday, the Hawkesbury District Coroner, Mr HS Johnston, JP, returning a verdict of accidental death, adding that as to what caused the aeroplane to crash, the evidence before him did not enable him to say.

During the hearing of the evidence, one witness, a girl of 17 years, after describing how she had seen the machine make its fatal dive 70 yards from where she was standing, stated that she had run to the scene and had tried to extricate the body of one of the unfortunate victims from the wreckage, but found that the body was too mutilated for her help to be of any avail. Her heroic effort was commented on by Sergeant FB Forde, who assisted the Coroner, the sergeant stating that such an action – especially when it was made by a girl of such youthful years, in the face of a shocking scene, was deserving of the very highest praise. The coroner also paid a tribute to this young witness, stating that her action was most commendable, and had proved her to be a lady possessing outstanding courage and character.

PILOTS “ABOVE AVERAGE”

Lyle Charles Holswich, Flight-Lieutenant of the RAAF, Richmond, stated in the course of his evidence that he was a member of No 6 Squadron, to which Pilot Officers Harness and Hickson and Aircraftsman Knight and Clarke were also attached. Witness had flown with each of these men on different occasions, and knew that each was fully qualified to fly Avro Anson machines, each having about six months experience with that class of machine. Aircraftsman did not in any way concern the flying or control of a plane, though the wireless aircraftsman might assist in really bad weather in obtaining bearings for the navigator. Harness and Hickson were both First Pilots, fully qualified to take charge of any Avro Anson. In their 18 months flying experience Harness had completed 60 hours as a First Pilot and 54 hours as a Second Pilot, while Hickson had completed 49 hours as First Pilot and 60 hours as a Second Pilot. The officers of the Anson on this occasion were engaged on a navigational reconnaissance course which involved wind finding exercise at sea, up to approximately 100 miles out, and were in constant communication, reporting their position each 30 minutes of the flight. There was no unusual occurrence reported during the flight, and the last message received, at 3.27 pm, when the Anson was within 3 or 4 minutes of the aerodrome, was that the aerial was being reeled in preparatory to landing, and no forced landing signal was received.

Both pilots had done their regulation 40 hours day qualifying to qualify as First Pilots, witness continued and altogether Harness had a total of 220 flying hours, and Hickson 234 hours, both being “above average” pilots. Witness visited the scene of the Anson crash, at Riverstone, at 11 am on April 29, and was able to identify the plane by its engine numbers and numbers on the fabric parts. The machine was a complete wreck, and from statements witness received from eyewitnesses, he would estimate that the height of the aircraft prior to the crash was between 800 and 1200 feet. Witness had been flying a Gypsy Moth around the aerodrome on the day in question, and it was a good day for flying, being calm, and with practically no wind. The Avro Anson concerned had been flown in England for 1 hour 10 minutes prior to being issued to No 6 Squadron at Richmond in August 1938. There it had a 1 hour 15 minutes test, and since then had completed 226 hours 50 minutes flying. It had not been involved in any previous crash, and the records showed that it was serviceable for leaving the ground on April 28. The plane was due back at the RAAF Station on that date at 3.50 pm. Witness was present at the RAAF Station at about 8 pm when four bodies from the crash were brought to the mortuary there by the Air Force ambulance, and he was able to identify three of them by various means, subsequently identifying them to the Coroner.

EVIDENCE OF AIRWORTHINESS

In reply to questions by Sergeant Forde, witness said that there was in the hands of the Court conducting an inquiry into the crash, a form which gave a record of the inspections carried out on the machine, and the times that it had been flown. This form was signed by the officers who carried out the work and also by the pilots, who signed it before taking the machine in the air. This record would show the machine as being in good serviceable conditions.

Dr GP Arnold, Windsor, said that at 9.30 pm on April 28, at the Hawkesbury District Hospital, he examined the remains of four men, who were identified to him as the four deceased, and in his opinion death was caused from extreme violence.

John David Furze, wireless operator attached to No 6 Squadron, Richmond, stated that he had been associated for a considerable time with Knight before the date of the fatality, and last saw him on that day when he was preparing for the flight. Witness went out at the same time in a similar type of machine, and was on the return journey when he saw the other plane out at sea, approximately 10 miles of North Head. Witness subsequently returned to the aerodrome with his machine, and heard that one machine had a forced landing. Later witness identified the body of Knight, who was a very cool, level-headed man of very temperate habits.

Nelson William Edward Hartnett, aircraft hand, Richmond, gave evidence of having identified one of the bodies as that of Harrie Clarke, who had been a quiet, reserved type of man, not excitable in any way. Leonard Bathurst Hickson, clerk, Kensington stated that the deceased Hickson was his son, and was 22 years of age at the time of his death. He was a normally healthy man of sober habits, and was a native of Sydney. His life was insured, and he left a will.

ROUTINE INSPECTIONS DESCRIBED

Gustav Charles Wenesmius, leading aircraftsman, Richmond, stated that he saw the subject Avro Anson bomber on April 28, and assisted in removing it from the hangar just prior to lunch. After lunch the machine was started, and the engines were run for about 15 to 20 minutes, and then the airman took control. Witness examined the port engine during the morning, before the machine was removed from the hangar, and everything was quite satisfactory. He had spent approximately an hour examining the port engine of the machine that morning. Witness saw the machine take off, and saw the crew, which comprised the four deceased, leave in the machine. Witness had previously completed a “20-hour inspection”, which was a thorough inspection after 20 hours flying, this inspection being completed on April 27, and it had taken about two days work. The flight on April 28 was the first flight after that inspection. Witness was satisfied that the engine was in a serviceable condition. He was a fitter, and had served his apprenticeship with the Clyde Engineering Co, at Clyde.

Kenneth George Paul, leading aircraftsman, Richmond, stated that he was attached to No 6 Squadron. The subject Avro Anson bomber was also connected to that squadron. Witness saw the machine in the hangar before it went on a flight on April 28. During the morning, as a rigger he completed a daily inspection of the aeroplane, during which inspection he went over the controls too see that they were working freely, and also the fuselage, undercarriage, the main planes and the tail-plane unit. This work took about an hour, and everything was found to be satisfactory. At about 11 am on the day in question the machine was removed from the hangar and taken out for a flight, after which he went over all of the inspections again, and signed the daily inspection form.

Joseph Webster, aircraftsman Class 1, Richmond, stated that he knew the plane that crashed at Riverstone on April 28. He saw it prior to its going out on that flight, and he carried out a fitters daily inspection, whilst it was in the hangar, of the starboard engine and installations, switches, magnetos, petrol gauges, tanks, oil and petrol. He was engaged about one and a half hours on that work. At about 11 am the machine was wheeled from the hangar, and then at about 12.35 pm it was started and the engines warmed up. He saw the machine take off, and he was the last one to leave it. Witness signed the machine off at its departure, where everything was running smoothly and it was serviceable. The petrol and oil were checked by witness, and the tanks were full, Pilot Officer Harkness, who took the machine off, signed the necessary chart. Later witness went to the scene of the crash at Riverstone and checked up the engine numbers, and found that the crashed plane was the Avro Anson bomber in which Pilot Officer Harkness and crew had left Richmond that day.

EYEWITNESS EVIDENCE

James Edward McLean Boyes, gardener, Schofields, stated that on the day in question, at about 3.30 pm he was in a paddock near his house when he saw an Avro Anson bombing plane passing over his paddock, the plane flying at a height of about 1,000 feet. As it passed over there was a snapping noise from the plane, but the engines appeared to be running perfectly and he could not account for the other noise. Witness watched the machine and it was traveling evenly, when suddenly the engines appeared to increase their speed, and the airplane to rise, then it nosedived straight down, and witness heard a crash. “It was a dull thud like an explosion”, added witness. Nothing dropped from the machine, it went down intact, falling in a paddock about 400 yards away from witness. Before it crashed it was flying in a direct line, in a north-westerly direction. Witness had seen Avro Ansons pass over his property frequently prior to the day in question, and sometimes the machines back-fired, but there had never been any noise similar to the snapping noise he had heard on this occasion.

Charles Edmund Fisher, baker, Riverstone, gave evidence that at about 3.30 pm on April 28 he was on his property at Neville Road, Riverstone, engaged in ploughing operations, when his attention was attracted to a plane traveling from Schofields and going towards Richmond. He was spelling his horses at the time, and was watching the plane. “The first thing I noticed that I thought it was in trouble”, he added, “was when it was doing a nosedive very fast, then it temporarily righted itself. The engines were running well at the time, then after that the plane veered to the left that would be towards the south – then I lost view of it through the trees. I heard the crash”. When he first saw the plane it would have been about 800 feet in the air. It lost altitude and came fast towards the earth, then it was righted, and picked up speed, to then nosedive straight down. Witness saw a little smoke from the engines, but they appeared to be running perfectly. The spot where the plane crashed would be about a quarter of a mile from where he was. Witness later went to the scene, but found that he could not do anything for the plane or for the occupants.

To Sergeant Forde, witness said that it would be approximately 15 seconds from when he first saw the plane until it nosedived.

David James Wagner, signal ganger, Granville stated that at about 3.30 pm on April 28 he was standing on the platform of Riverstone Railway Station, and saw an aeroplane, at a height of about 800 feet, coming in the direction of the aerodrome. It appeared to be traveling at an angle of about 45 to 60 degrees below the horizontal, and for about 1.5 seconds witness could not hear the engines. Then the engines “roared terrifically” for about 2 to 3 seconds, when witness lost sight of the machine behind the hotel. He could hear the roar of the engines for about a second after the plane disappeared behind the hotel, then the roar ceased, and he heard a thud, but did not hear any explosion. The machine did not come to pieces in the air, as it was intact when it disappeared from witness’ view behind the hotel. Witness asked the Station Master the time, and was informed that it was 3.32 pm.

YOUNG WOMAN’S COURAGE

Dorothy Dobson, single woman, Riverstone, stated that about 3.30 pm on April 28 she was walking along Carnarvon Road, Riverstone, when she saw an aeroplane, the noise from which at the moment was quite normal, and which was flying in the direction of the aerodrome, from Sydney, at an average height. While she watched, it glided down, and at the same time turned to the left and dipped a little on the left wing. Witness then heard “two bangs”, and saw dark-coloured smoke come from the plane in two streams, one from each wing. The engines roared immediately afterwards, and the machine leveled off, when its nose appeared to rise slightly, then, with its engines still roaring, it dived straight towards the ground at a spot about 70 yards from where witness was standing. As soon as it crashed witness ran to the scene, where bits of the machine were scattered about, and, seeing the body of one man in the debris, tried to drag it clear, but saw that it was so mutilated that life must be extinct, and desisted from her efforts. She could see other bodies in the wreckage, and had started to move away to get assistance when three men came to the scene, and, in answer to their inquiries, witness informed them that the bodies of the crew were in the wreckage of the machine. She then started to wall to a nearby house but “felt giddy and fell”, and was taken to the house.

Cecil Badenham, contractor, Schofields, stated that he leased a property at Carnarvon Road, Schofields, owned by Mrs Edith Owne. On April 28, at about 3.25 pm, he was at the bottom of the property, at about 200 yards from Mrs Owne’s place, when he saw a plane approaching from the direction of Sydney, at a height, he thought, of about 1000 feet. While witness was standing there, a man named George Hurst came up to him, and remarked “Another one of our bombers”, and when witness had answered in the affirmative, the wing of the plane dropped sharply, and the machine nosedived straight down, the engines roaring at full speed. The engines continued at full speed until the machine crashed. Witness and Hurst went to the scene, and he noticed that there was petrol dripping from the tops of the tress through which the machine crashed. Witness could see plainly the body of one man, two others were buried in the bank of the water hole, and the fourth was buried well in the mud. At about 5.45 pm witness saw Sergeant Daws and asked him for assistance to keep people off the property. One man spoke to witness, stating that he intended to take photos, and witness told him that he could not. Later witness met two reporters at Mrs Owne’s gate, and they asked for a formal statement, but witness refused. The reporters were from the “Daily Telegraph”, and witness gave them a verbal account of the occurrence. To Sergeant Forde, witness said that he had the machine under observation for about one minute prior to noticing anything wrong, and during that time it appeared to be flying in a normal course.

POLICE EVIDENCE

Constable Percy Oliver Pike, Balmain, said that on April 28 he was stationed at Riverstone, and at about 3.40 pm on that day he received a telephone message that an aeroplane had just crashed in the creek near Carnarvon Road. He telephoned the Richmond Aerodrome and advised them of the crash, and telephoned the Parramatta police, requesting the latter to send the Parramatta Ambulance. He then communicated with Dr Rich’s locums tenens, who arrived at the scene of the crash at the same time as witness. The doctor looked at the wreckage and said “There is nothing I can do, they are all dead”. The Air Force ambulance arrived soon after, as also did Sergeant Dawes and Constable Davis, from Windsor. There were quite a number of people about at that time, and witness, assisted by other members of the police force, set about guarding the scattered portions of the machine, keeping persons from coming too close to the wreckage. Flight-Lieutenant Wright, of the RAAF then arrived, and requested the police to keep the people away and to prevent photographs being taken of the wrecked plane. While the bodies were being removed, witness was engaged keeping the crowd back, and after the ambulance left Sergeant Dawes and witness removed all persons from the paddock, at the request of the lessee. On April 29, at 8.30 am, witness went again to the scene and was present when the Riverstone fire engine pumped the water out of the creek, where the wrecked plane was, and he was also present when the Coroner viewed the wreckage.

Detective-Sergeant John James Flint, Parramatta, stated that at 4.20 pm on April 28, in consequence of a telephone message received, he went with Constable Power to the scene of the crash, where he saw that the machine had been completely wrecked, and he was informed that there had been a crew of four in the plane when it crashed. Rescue work was then being carried out by members of the Air Force, and, after obtaining the particulars, witness telephoned these to the Coroner at Windsor. He was present at the aerodrome at 8 pm when the deceased were identified to the Coroner. On the following day witness again viewed the scene of the crash, and directed the taking of police photographs of the scene (produced). He was present when the members of the Air Accidents Investigation Committee visited the scene on the same afternoon, and had later made exhaustive inquiries, interviewed numbers of people, and obtained statements from those able to give evidence in connection with the matter. At the request of the Coroner, witness produced, as evidence, statements from several people.

This concluded the evidence, and the Coroner returned a verdict to the effect that the deceased had died from the effects of injuries accidentally received through an aeroplane in which they were traveling crashing, but as to what caused the aeroplane to crash, the evidence adduced did not enable him to say.”

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2 thoughts on “Crash of an RAAF Avro Anson at Riverstone – 28 April 1939

  1. Hi Graham
    Raymond Duncan Knight was my father. I was 6yo when he was killed, so I only have a fleeting memory of him. My wonderful stepmother kept his memory alive for us. So much so that when I was 19, I also joined the RAAF, graduated as a pilot and flew combat in both the Korean and Vietnam wars.
    I have read previous official accounts of the crash, but your blog added some interesting details of crew community facts. Also the name of the 17 yo witness. If she were still alive, she would be 95. I would like to research her to see if she is still alive. Do you have any ideas on where I might start?
    Thanks for your blog

    good things

    Lloyd Duncan Knight
    lloydknight@mac.com
    0414 266 643

  2. HI Lloyd,

    Thank you very much for your comments. I am so pleased that you found the Gazette reports informative.

    In regard to Dorothy Dobson, I think that it might be very difficult to find here, assuming that she is still alive. She may have married, and if still alive, would be known under another name. Unfortunately Dobson is a very common name, so doing online searching would not give you a small list of possible candidates.

    Maybe you could contact the Riverstone Historical Society as a starting point?

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