Monday, 19 August 2013

Fitful Head memorial to the crew of Halifax Bomber No 9438

On the night of March 30th 1942 Halifax bomber No. 9438 of 35 Squadron RAF was returning from a bombing mission against the German battleship Tirpitz that was at anchor in a fjord near Trondheim, on Norway's western coast.


The bombing raid comprised 34 aircraft from squadrons 74, 35 and 10 taking off from RAF bases at Tain, Lossiemouth and Kinloss.

Halifax Bomber  

On reaching their target they found it obscured by cloud and many of the bombers had to jettison their bombs before returning to base.

For some reason that we will probably never know bomber No 9438 ploughed into the 1000' high cliffs of the eponymous Fitful Head on the western side of south Mainland Shetland killing all 7 of its crew

The location of Fitful Head.

The crashed aircraft and the bodies of the airmen lay undiscovered for over a week. Two local men, John Mainland and George Leslie, tending their sheep discovered the wreck and notified the RAF. More than 50 years later John's son, Willie Mainland would be responsible for raising the stone memorial to the victims.

Most of the bodies were found but the body of Ronald Meredith lay is such a precarious position that the authorities accepted the advice of the local men that it could not be recovered. His body had been wrapped in his parachute and placed in a cleft in the cliff and covered with aircraft wreckage. It is still there today.

What caused the crash is still unknown. It has been conjectured that they were trying to land at the nearby RAF Sumburgh air base because they were short of fuel as a result of damage to their fuel tanks. They were probably using Shetland as a waypoint for their navigation back to Kinloss but why were they so low as to crash into the cliffs? My guess is that they were trying to land for some reason and were a mile too far north to make safe landfall.

The site of the crash was initially marked by a wooden cross but through time and weather this eventually disappeared. In 1995 a more permanent memorial stone was placed on the cliffs. The memorial is not easy to find as it is hidden from view to anyone walking the cliffs along the fence line. If you go looking for it tread carefully as it is close to the cliff edge and it is located at NGR  HU 34682 12841. When I visited the site in August 2013 there was a white fishing net float attached to the fence near the point you need to cross but this should not be relied on.

The memorial stone at the crash site.
© JB Winterburn 2013

The cliffs of Fitful Head
© JB Winterburn 2013

The historic Quendale Water Mill which is just less than 2 miles from the crash site houses files of local history information including information about this crash and the erection of the granite memorial stone.

Quendale Water Mill

Acknowledgments and references. 

Thanks to the Aviation Research Group of Orkney and Shetland ( A.R.G.O.S) for the use of some historic photographs. Their informative web site can be found by clicking HERE

Sandy Pearson, Shetland Life May 2010.  Tragedy, bravery , mystery, controversy:The Fitful Head Halifax Tragedy. pp14-16.

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