King Island’s war

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.

King Island’s Currie cemetery, with Pilot Officer Harold Snell’s (Pilot) headstone closest.

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.

A No.1 OTU Beaufort similar to that which crashed on King Island in July 1943 (Mike Mirkovic)

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.

NAA A9845, 254 (National Archives of Australia)

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.