In mid-1943 a RAAF Beaufort bomber inexplicably crashed on Bass Strait’s King Island killing all four crew members. Unreported then by the media – presumably because of wartime censorship – a cluster of white-marble CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission) headstones in the Currie cemetery appear to be the Island’s only clues to this wartime tragedy.
Beaufort A9-352 was conducting a night-time landing approach into Currie when, at 0200 (Eastern Standard Time) on July 11th 1943 it reportedly crashed 1½ miles east of the airfield. Assigned to the RAAF’s No.1 Operational Training Unit (OTU) in East Sale, Victoria, it was – at the time of the accident – part of a three-plane formation engaged on a dead-reckoning navigation exercise. The aircraft was totally destroyed with the bulk of the burnt wreckage later recovered by personnel from the RAAF’s No.27 RSU (Repair and Salvage Unit).
A service funeral ceremony was performed for the entire crew at 1600 hours on 13th July 1943 attended by a No.1 O.T. U. officer, Squadron Leader R A Dunne.
Being unable to determine the cause of the accident the air force investigating committee categorized it (i.e. the cause) as ‘100% obscure’. The weather was not identified as a contributing factor on this occasion and significantly, as revealed during the subsequent investigation, the pilot was found to possess above-average piloting skills.
Pilot Officer Harold Snell, who was flying the aircraft when it crashed, had logged 280 flying hours altogether (88 hours on type). Moreover, Beaufort A9-352 was still an almost-new aircraft when it crashed, having only been delivered from the factory in Melbourne a month earlier.
Wartime flying training does however appear to have been a risky business, with No.1 OTU having lost another two aircraft (Oxford BM686 and Hudson A16-32) in the week prior to the King Island crash. Hudson A16-32 had also been conducting a night navigation exercise (East Sale- Flinders Island – Currie – Hogan Group – East Sale) when it disappeared without trace on 6 July 1943.
In a further cruel twist, Beaufort A9-354 (which had been flying formation with Snell’s A9-352 at the time it crashed on King Island) was also involved in a fatal accident the following month.
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The press of the day did report the accident (King Island News, 16 July 1943, page 1), funeral and burial of the crew as follows.
Funeral Of Air Accident Victims.
A very sad spectacle was witnessed at the Coastal Town, adjacent to which an air accident occurred and caused the deaths of four young airman, when the bodies of the victims were buried in the local cemetery. The men concerned, who were on an operational flight, were Pilot Officer Harold Roy Snell. N.S.W. (Pilot), Pilot Officer John Alexander Kildea, Vic. (Navigator), Pilot Officer Clarence Melville Leesue, S. A. (Wireless Air Gunner) and Pilot Officer Neville Wm. Allan Edwards, Vic., (Wireless Air Gunner). In addition to ‘the very large cortege of local residents, who followed the remains to the cemetery, there was a large representation of R.A.A.F, personnel (six Pilot Officers of whom acted as Pall Bearers), and also members of the Garrison. The service at the graveside was conducted by the R.A.A.F. Padre, F/Lieut. V.W. Deakin, who in a short address directed chiefly to the parents, stated that even though these men had lost their lives; on an operational flight, they had served their country in a similar capacity to those, who were actually in action. A large number of wreaths and other floral emblems were placed on the coffins as silent tributes of deepest sympathy with the bereaved parents. Mr. J. Kildea (father of one of the deceased Airmen) was the only parent able to be present. He was accompanied by his friend, Mr. Garnham both of whom later expressed sincere, gratitude for the hospitality and kindnesses that had been extended to them.