Local People and the Whitley Bomber Crash at Saltcoats

This post is one in a series of posts on the crash of an Armstrong Whitworth Whitley Z9362, which crashed into the sea 2-miles from Saltcoats Harbour on the 2nd of May, 1943.

Many people in the Saltcoats area knew about the Whitley Bomber crashing into Saltcoats harbour on the night of 1st/2nd May 1943.

A large crowd of people witnessed Sergeant Leslie Noel Atkinson being brought ashore in the early hours of the morning. Over the years, the memories of the incident faded into the mists of time, and were almost completely lost. However, John McCallum’s family and Carol Abercrombie’s family were told about it throughout their childhoods. John as a fifteen year old boy had met one of the airmen after he had baled out, and Carol still vividly remembers as a two and a half year old toddler, the commotion in her flat in Windmill Street in Saltcoats after her mother was awoken by the sound of the aircraft impacting on the sea and seeing the flames from burning fuel on the surface of the water. Tom McVey was the foreman working on decorating David Shedden’s flat (David rescued Sergeant Atkinson) many years later, and he was shown newspaper cuttings from the reports of the incident, including details of the RNLI reward of £1.

Almost 80 years after the event, local research was undertaken to find out what actually happened that night. It was found that Oxford University had previously published information about the pilot, Flying Officer John Clifford North-Lewis, which had been uncovered by researcher John Hamblin, who had looked into it on behalf of the University. Approximately forty people locally, nationally and internationally assisted in piecing together the details. David Shedden’s great niece Julie Newland Thomson came forward with photographs and details of her Great Uncle’s life. Sandra Colley provided significant amounts of information about Flight Sergeant Leslie Noel Atkinson, who tragically, had later been killed on active service along with her father-in-law, Sergeant Ronald Jack Colley. The outcome was a fifty-one page report with details too numerous to include here, and new information is still being found.

Every death meant personal tragedy for families, and within ten months of the Saltcoats Whitley Bomber crash, the two survivors were also killed, and so all five aircrew were dead.

Twenty-one year old Sergeant Watts was the only one who was never laid to rest, as his body wasn’t recovered, and his remains may still be in the aircraft wreck two miles off Saltcoats harbour. All the aircrew are on memorials as detailed in information from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Photographs of some of the people with an interest in the Saltcoats Whitley crash:

John McCallum with Paul Coffey, President of the Royal British Legion Saltcoats Ardrossan and Stevenston Branch, who provided guidance throughout the research. Paul added “From the Legion’s and veterans’ point of view it is right that we honour those who paid the ultimate price and ‘gave their today for our tomorrow’”.

John McCallum with Dame Mary Richardson who lost her father when the aircraft carrier HMS Dasher sank in the Clyde between Ardrossan and Brodick five weeks before the Whitley Bomber crash. Dame Mary has been searching for answers to questions about the fate of her father and his fellow crew members ever since.

Flying Officer David McKay, Adjutant of 1138 (Ardrossan) Squadron, Air Training Corps, who provided expert advice and guidance on many aspects of the research.

John McCallum and Carol Abercrombie at Saltcoats Harbour, where Sergeant Leslie Atkinson was brought ashore. Carol often talked about the incident, which had awoken her family in the middle of the night, without ever knowing what had actually happened.

John McCallum with Councillor Jim Montgomerie (North Ayrshire’s Veterans’ Champion) who has a strong interest in the tragedy and in the facilitation of the creation of a fitting memorial to the aircrew and local fisherman David Shedden.

Paul Atkinson, whose cousin Leslie Atkinson was rescued from the sea off Saltcoats harbour. In this photograph, Paul is sitting at the controls of the Lancaster bomber at Motat museum in Auckland, New Zealand.

John McCallum approximately around the age at which he met 19 year old Sergeant Edward Dyer on the road bridge over Saltcoats railway station. Here he is walking with his mother Jean McCallum (Fergus) at the shore front at Saltcoats close to the old bandstand. Jean was working night shift in Ardeer explosives factory when John and his father were awoken by shouts for help.

John McCallum (senior) with his wife Jean. John and his son (also John) had been asleep in their house in Parkend Road, and they went out to see if they could provide assistance.

These posts were researched and kindly contributed by John & Ian McCallum and Sandra Colley, with support from Flying Officer David McKay of 1138 (Ardrossan) Squadron Air Training Corps and Paul Coffey, President of the Royal British Legion Scotland Saltcoats, Ardrossan and Stevenston Branch.