Gordon CUNNINGHAM (1921 – 2004)
Flight Lieutenant(rtd), 297 Squadron, RAF
From David Cunningham(son)
For all those that met my father Ft.Lt. Gordon Cunningham(rtd) at Marks Hall and elsewhere I sadly have to inform you that he passed away today, 12 November 2004.
Flying with 297 Squadron he was one of the first to drop Paras behind the lines the night of D-Day and continued to do sterling work until his crash in Halifax LL406 on the 29th November 1944.
He was a wonderfully kind man and will be missed dearly by his family. He is now back with his crew.
Note of the webmaster:
We all join to give to David and his family our deepest sympathy.
Thanks to this website I had the chance to met David, the son of Gordon Cunningham. We so started to correspond. David wrote an article about the last flight of his father on 29th November 1944. He allowed me to edit it.
Gordon Cunningham was a wonderful man and loved by all. Wally Wallace, who helped me to create this website, flew with Gordon and remembered him well. He wrote me that he went several times to visit his friend Gordon while after rehabilitating.
As a last tribute, I’m going to publish the text that David wrote before his father passed away.
The text wasn’t changed and is as David wrote it.
It is a last tribute to a great man: Gordon CUNNINGHAM.
‘PER ARDUA AD ASTRA’
– The last flight of LL406 –
Before I start I think it is relevant to give you a bit of background history to this story.
My father joined the RAF in 1941 where he did his basic training before being shipped off to Canada.
He then progressed through single engined types like the Harvard, Battle and Norseman and onto twin engined aircraft like the Anson and Crane.
He returned to the UK in 1943 where he was processed through training units flying such diverse types as Oxfords and Whitleys and on to the Albemarle before being assigned to 297 Squadron at Brize Norton on the 15th April 1944 just in time for the D-Day landings. In October of that year he converted onto the Stirling and finally the Halifax.
My father has no recollection of that last flight. The trauma of the crash and the injuries he sustained have blocked out all the events of that day. Although he speaks freely of his service life his only recollection is waking up in Hospital and the end of his flying days.
Over the years I became a lot more curious about the circumstances of that last flight and was determined to find out exactly what had happened. My only reference was my fathers log book which gave the serial number of the aircraft, the date and the crew. In recent years a number of books have been published that started me researching in greater detail and finally after about 2 years I solved the mystery.
On the morning of the 29th November 1944 H.P. Halifax V serial no.LL406 of 297 Squadron lifted off from its base at Earls Colne in Essex for a cross country exercise.
The crew comprised:
P/O G.W. CUNNINGHAM Pilot
Sgt. W.M. FORBES Wireless Operator
Sgt. W.D. COPLAND Flight Engineer
F/O T.E. REILLY Bomb Aimer
St.Sgt. F.J. STARTUP Glider Pilot Regiment (Passenger)
It was a Wednesday and the weather was cold and clear with a heavy frost on the ground. It was 10.30am in the village of Stanton to the north east of Bury St. Edmunds and the children in the village school had just come out to play. As they played their attention was drawn to an aircraft approaching from the North West. It was seen to be a Halifax bomber and was in trouble as the starboard outer engine was on fire and trailing smoke. The aircraft was heading for the nearby Shepherds Grove airfield.
It passed over the school and turned down wind for a landing. As it turned base leg for the active runway the damaged engine was seen to fall away. Dovehouse wood was between the aircraft and the runway so as the aircraft lost power it levelled off and with undercarriage down attempted a landing in the nearest field. The landing was normal until it reached a deep depression where it somersaulted and broke up.
Amongst the children in the playground that watched the aircraft crash were two boys Derek and Stan. They are now in their seventies but remember the incident vividly.
They left the school at lunchtime and cycled to the crash site. The area was cordoned off by the authorities but Stans house was inside so they were let through.
Wreckage was strewn over both sides of Wyken road just south of the village and on the extended centreline of the runway.
The tail had broken off at the impact site. The force of the disintegration had destroyed the aircraft and it ended up as flaming debris on both sides of the road. The fuselage had broken away from the wings and the cockpit had snapped off. This lay next to the road and was noted as exploded outward. The fuselage lay some distance away next to Dovehouse Wood. It was not clear where the wings ended up but they remember the wheels pointing up and still attached to the undercarriage.
Three of the crew lay beside the road under covers however they noticed one of the uniforms was different from the rest. (Staff Sergeant Startup).The pilot had come out through the cockpit and was found with one other member of the crew in a slurry ditch adjacent to road.
It should be pointed out at this time that P/O Cunningham, Sgt. Forbes and Sgt. Copland all survived the initial impact. I assume Sgt. Forbes died at the scene as
P/O Cunningham and Sgt. Copland were taken to the American Hospital at Redgrave where Sgt. Copland subsequently died of his injuries.
The crash site was under cultivation and farm hands rushed to see if they could do anything. One hand by the name of Richard who was only 16 at the time jumped into the ditch and with his own clothes alight he pulled both crew members to safety. He was restrained from doing more.
The wreckage was removed a few days later but not before the boys had retrieved a piece which was kept in Stans house until given to me last year.
I took my father back last year to meet these boys and had a very emotional reunion over an old fashioned pub lunch.
There are still questions to be asked about this crash and I would be interested in any replies. Apart from the witnesses information has come from many sources not least the squadron and base records of the time. I have met many interesting people throughout my research and have kept in touch with many of them. I hope this story will help in telling the true story of fate and heroism that many servicemen and women went through in those dark days.
The photos are published thanks to David Cunningham
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