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Excavations continue at crash site that claimed four wartime airmen

The Ottawa Memorial commemorates 794 men and women of the Air Forces of the Commonwealth who have no known graves. There are four names on the memorial matching the date a military plane recently discovered southwest of Cowichan Lake went down: William Baird, Robert Ernest Luckock, Anthony William Lawrence and Charles George Fox. - courtesy Commonwealth War Graves Commission
The Ottawa Memorial commemorates 794 men and women of the Air Forces of the Commonwealth who have no known graves. There are four names on the memorial matching the date a military plane recently discovered southwest of Cowichan Lake went down: William Baird, Robert Ernest Luckock, Anthony William Lawrence and Charles George Fox.
— image credit: courtesy Commonwealth War Graves Commission

Oct. 30, 1942 was likely a bad day for flights, given the West Coast's fickle fall weather.

And those risks were amplified without a working radio inside a canvas-and-wood military Avro Anson being used for training flights above southern Vancouver Island.

British RAF volunteer-reserve pilots Anthony William Lawrence, 21, and Charles George Fox, 31, British RAF volunteer-reserve Sgt. Robert Ernest Luckock and Canadian RCAF Sgt. William Baird were on that plane that day when it left the  Patricia Bay airport outside Victoria.

Their fate has been unknown for 71 years. But now their families may finally have answers.

In October, loggers working for Teal-Jones out of the Mesachie Lake area found wreckage tossed across 100 metres of heavy bush near Mesachie Lake, southwest of Lake Cowichan.

Federal investigators believe that grim spot is where the plane went down.

Laurel Clegg, Department of National Defence's forensic anthropologist, visited the snowy site in December. She aims to return "weather pending" to sift metal, wood and fabric for human remains and the crew's personal effects that could confirm it is, in fact, the answer to a mystery seven decades old.

"We're already notifying next of kin; we're working with the British to notify them," she said.

Finding needles in that forested haystack won't be easy. But work by Clegg's team — including bomb-disposal agents — will be easier as the remote location was undisturbed by artifact hunters, war buffs, and others who could have desecrated the site.

"There's wide dispersal of metal and wreckage, seats and fuselage. With 70 years, there's lots of forest growth over things," she said. "We want to protect the site; the whole area is logging."

The DND has a record of the Avro's engine-plate serial numbers, which it has used to pinpoint the flight.

"The serial numbers match our records," Clegg said of the light aircraft used for navigational training during the Second World War. "We also have crash records of all airplane crashes in Canada."

Those accidents claimed some 26,000 Canucks still missing in action from the First and Second world wars, plus the Korean conflict.

With most West Coast mishaps, investigators assume the plane probably crashed in the ocean, meaning it is unlikely they will ever pinpoint the final resting place of the deceased.

That's why Clegg called finding this land-based Avro a rare viable case of investigators finally being able to connect the tragic dots.

"We're meeting next week with crash investigators to figure out what was going on," she said. "From crash records, we assume it was weather related — and their radio was not functioning, so if they got into trouble, they had no way of getting any assistance."

"Fairly unlikely" was her hunch about any of the occupants surviving the wreck.

Finding and identifying remains, data and personal effects, will usher decisions about saluting the four airmen.

Their names are now listed on the Ottawa Memorial saluting Commonwealth air-force training personnel with no known grave.

"The ultimate goal is to have each airman with his own resting place in nearest place Commonwealth War Graves can attend to the place," Clegg said.

The airplane remains Canadian Armed Forces property. It was unknown if the Avro's wreckage will be hauled out.

"We look to local heritage groups, and the air force about what's reasonable and possible."

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