An appeal has been launched to track down the family of a Wearsider who gave his life for King and Country. Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner takes a look.
A WEARSIDE war hero is to be honoured for his bravery – 70 years after his death. Philip Heslop Milne, a wireless operator and air-gunner with 518 Squadron, was killed in a plane crash over the Scottish island of Tiree on August 16, 1944.
A memorial to the RAF man and his 15 lost comrades is to be unveiled on Tiree next summer – and an appeal for family members to attend has been launched.
“Philip and those who died with him on that fateful day were unacknowledged heroes,” said military historian Mike Hughes, author of Hebrides at War.
“They were part of the RAF’s 518 Meteorological Squadron, gathering vital data on the weather for General Eisenhower to make a decision on the D-Day invasion.
“The invasion was postponed once because of bad weather but, thanks to the men of Philip’s squadron, the Allies realised June 6, 1944, would be one good day.”
Philip, the only son of former soldier Ernest Milne and his wife Edith, was born in Sunderland in 1920. He had two sisters – Mary and Annie.
Census records reveal Ernest, a former groom, served with the Durham Light Infantry in India before his marriage to Edith. He died when Philip was just 10.
Young Philip was to follow in his father’s fighting footsteps. As the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe, so Philip signed up to the RAF following his 18th birthday.
Sadly, little is known of his early years of service, but, in July 1943, he is believed to have joined the new 518 Squadron at RAF Stornoway before being sent to Tiree.
“Tiree before World War Two was an island without mains water or electricity, farms used horses, fishing boats used sails and Gaelic was spoken by most,” said Mike.
“But the war brought conflict to Tiree’s doorstep. The North Atlantic became Britain’s lifeline for food and fuel supplies, and a base for weather observations was vital too.
“Tiree became ultra-important in the war effort, though people seldom understood the strong connection between “intelligence” on weather and success in bombing raids.”
Long-range meteorological sorties over the Atlantic were flown from Tiree from 1943 until 1945, with the air crews also tasked with keeping watch for U-boats activities.
The weather information obtained from the trips – code-named Bismuth and Mercer – were relayed in code by wireless operators such as Philip and used to plan attacks.
“The work of 518 Squadron was unsung but invaluable. Flights left Tiree twice a day for ten-hour trips out into the Atlantic. Pressure to fly was relentless,” said Mike. “Often ice and enormous waves made flying dangerous and 518 lost 12 aircraft during their spell on Tiree. But the weather readings were vital in many operations.”
Tragically, on August 16, 1943, Wearside flier Philip became one more casualty of the war, when the Halifax he was in collided mid-air with another of the squadron’s bombers.
Maurice Foster, an Australian airman based with 518 Squadron at the time, witnessed the tragedy and later described it as “probably the worst day of the war for me.”
“One plane, which wasn’t as badly damaged as the other, tried desperately to land on the water, where it had a better chance of surviving than crashing on land,” he said.
“But the pilot didn’t make it. He came down and blew up near the beach.”
Maurice, as duty officer, ran to the closest plane – which had crashed near to the runway. The scene he witnessed was to remain forever etched in his memory.
“When I had a look inside the plane I saw the remains of one of the crew. What has stayed with me all these years was the sight of his badly burnt head,” he said.
“It was a terrible sight and I will never forget that. The flying conditions hadn’t been that bad, but for some reason the planes had lost sight of each other.”
All 16 members of the two Halifax aircraft were killed in the crash. Among the dead were father-to-be Philip and the grandson of Czech foreign minster Jan Masyrak.
“Records show Philip married his fiancée Madeline Williams in December 1943, during a visit to Sunderland, and that they had a house at Ranson Street,” said Mike.
“Sadly, it appears his wife was pregnant when Philip died. A baby boy, called Philip Milne, was born to a Madeline Milne in Cleveland in 1945. This boy later had a son called Philip too.”
Plans to unveil a memorial to the Tiree plane crash victims are now being drawn up for next year – the 70th anniversary – and an appeal for relatives has been launched.
“Although Philip’s parents have passed away, we are hoping some of his family are still alive. We’d be delighted if they could join us at the ceremony,” said Mike. “The men of 518 Squadron were heroes. Each day they flew halfway to Canada and back in unheated planes to do their bit for Britain. They should never be forgotten.”
* Mike can be contacted on 01698 843557 or via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Accounts of the tragedy
David MacClounnan, of Balephuil: “I was on top of Ben Hynish and it was a lovely day. One plane got up off the ’drome and the other one was coming in and they were straight in a bee-line.
“I was seeing them before they crashed and they seemed to come so close to each other that they tipped wings. The next thing the two of them went up in flames.
“You could see the wheels with the tyres burning and falling right to the ground. One of the engines fell at the pillar box at Island House.”
Willie Dickie, who was in NAAFI at the time of the crash:
“It was just a big flash. I was supposed to be off in the afternoon ... but they took us over and we just started hunting around for bits and pieces. I remember somebody with a fishing net fishing out a hand.”
Georgie Porazka, WAAF:
“I vividly remember the stretchers stained with blood, even after scrubbing, put out to dry outside the Sick Bay.”
The origins of RAF Tiree
Midland and Scottish Airways started flying to Tiree in 1937.
* A D notice was placed on Tiree in 1939, banning publication of island details.
* The landing site was requisitioned by the Ministry of War in 1940.
* Aberdeen contractors built an airstrip, roads and living quarters.
* Prisoners from Scottish jails were brought in to help with the work.
* The 31 Embarkation Unit RAF arrived in April 1941.
* RAF Tiree was said to have the highest suicide rate of any RAF base.
* Plans were made to evacuate the Royal Family through Tiree if necessary.
* It opened as part of 15 Group, RAF Coastal Command, in November 1941.
* 224 Squadron arrive in April 1942, flying Hudsons on anti-submarine patrol.
* 304 (Polish) Squadron arrived in May 1942, flying Wellingtons.
* 518 Squadron arrived September 1943, flying Halifaxes on weather missions.
* 281 Squadron arrived in February 1944 flying Warwicks for air-sea rescues.
* RAF Tiree was transferred to the Ministry of Civil Aviation in 1947.