This story provided to us by Denis Sharp, Hertfordshire Airfields Memorial Group
Some of the most successful Night Fighter Squadrons based at RAF Hunsdon in Hertfordshire were Canadian. The Royal Canadian Air Force raised two such Squadrons at Acklington, 409 and 410 Squadron RCAF. Both squadrons spent time at RAF Hunsdon in WWII, 409 converted to the Mosquito in March 1944 from the very successful Bristol Beaufighter, a twin engined aircraft armed with six .303 maching guns and four Hispano 20mm Cannons, which provided a most formidable punch. With the introduction of AI, or airborne interception as early radar was called, it became a reliable counter weapon against German night bombers operating over the UK.
409 (NightHawk) Squadron arrived at RAF Hunsdon on the 30 April 1944 Commanded by Wing Commander J W Reid. Their aircraft were Mk XIII 'Thimble nose' deHavilland Mosquitos and armed with four 20mm Cannon. The nose mounted radar array meant that the four .303 rifle calibre machine guns could not be fitted.
409 went into Intruder and night fighter duties from the start, working up to regular patrols over the Normandy beach head from D-Day and claimed quite a few 'kills' in that period but tragedy struck on the night of the 28/29 June 1944.
A flight of aircraft from the squadron were sent on a night patrol of the invasion coast, talking off from Hunsdon's main runway a little after 2130 hours. The weather that night was already bad with low cloud and drizzle with visibility being extremely bad.
After their patrol ended the aircraft were returning to their base and flew high over the airfield at Hunsdon, each reporting in their height. One of the Mosquito night fighters was being flown by 28 year old Canadian Pilot Officer AG 'Gerry' Vautour and his Navigator/Radar operator Warrant Officer LM 'Wally' Mitchell They had reported in their height as they crossed the airfield and asked what the cloud base was. The tower had broadcast the cloud base height was 1400 feet at 01:00. The time was now nearing 01:22 and other two aircraft were also reporting their heights. P/O Vautour would have lost height as he was in a slight turn to line up with Hunsdon's main runway.
The crews were told that the cloudbase was high enough for the airfield to safely land its aircraft but as Gerry Vautour came out of the cloudbase he hit electric power lines that were 300 foot above sea level that ran across a ridge near the village of Little Hallingbury, Essex at 01:31 AM. The aircraft was travelling at quite a high speed and made contact with the ground, it then became airborne again and flew on for another 200 hundred yards, striking a haystack, where it lost its port wing tip and propellor. It then flew on for another two hundred yards before it hit a hedge and lost its tail unit. It then became airborne after contacting the ground again for a further 300 yards before striking another power line and nosing into the ground, scattering wreckage around.
The main part of the aircraft then caught fire. The navigator's body - W/O Mitchell - was found nearby, having been thrown from the aircraft, but the pilot's body was found in the cockpit with his hands still on the controls. The aircraft burnt fiercely and the 20mm ammunition began to explode hampering the attempted help from a nearby resident at the time, Mr Albert Victor Hutley, who heard the aircraft and then the sound of the crash.
A letter written to the nephew of the pilot in 1996 from Lloyd Colborne, a navigator in one of the other aircraft in that flight of Mosquitos, highlights differences between what actually happened that night, and the official crash report in the RAF Court Of Enquiry papers that summed up the causes of the crash. Lloyd Colborne states that certain aspects of the enquiry were covered up and that 'pilot error' was given as being the cause of the crash instead of wrong reports about the actual cloudbase height that morning.
In March 2019 John and Cheryl Vautour were on holiday in the UK, and they had made contact with David Gibbs, who in turn contacted Denis Sharp and Jim Cosgrove from the Herfordshire Airfields Memorial Group, who are local airfield historians. The group had in 2005 raised funds and built the airfield memorial at the former RAF Hunsdon airfield.
The group then raised funds and built the airfield memorial at nearby RAF Sawbridgeworth in 2006. The group, through research instigated and led by Jim Gosgrove, turned research into the construction of RAF Hunsdon's 'Roll Of Honour' - a £5000 concrete and black granite plaque that records all 126 airmen lost on operations or killed on the airfield. This was completed in 2010.
John Vautour then met with David Gibbs and Denis Sharp and visited the crash site one Sunday morning, and then went on to take a look around the airfield. It was a chance remark made in the car of 'It is a shame that the crash site is not marked' that set Denis Sharp into investigating the possibility of placing some sort of plaque near to the site.
Over the next week Denis contacted Sue Meyer MBE, who is on the Parish council for Little Hallingbury, she in turn put Denis in touch with the landowner Stuart Padfield who agreed for such a plaque to be placed near to the crash site. After John Vautour had returned to Nova Scotia, Canada, Denis and Jim Cosgrove, who is the main researcher and archivist for the HAMG, supplied crash report documents and other interesting information to John who by now had contacted his extended family in Canada. They had began to realise that there were plans underway to honour Gerry and Wally and this sparked off inter-family fundraising. A plaque was commissioned with a company in Devon who manufacture memorial plaques and signs from Corian, a material that does not degrade and is worthless to steal for scrap.
In the meantime Denis contacted local North Weald and Ongar RAFA, the Hatfield Heath British Legion, Air Training Corp squadrons from both 1239 Hoddesdon & Broxbourne and 309 Sawbridgeworth so that a memorial dedication could be set up for the 75th anniversary of the crash. This was arranged for Sunday 30 June 2019. The best news was yet to come, for John indicated that he and his sister Lise would fly back from Canada to be present at the unveiling and dedication service. An even nicer touch was when Stuart Padfield and his wife Chris planted a Canadian Maple tree next to the plinth as the plaque that was now in place ready to receive the black, gold lettered plaque that also bore etched photographs of the two crew members.
Sunday 30 June 2019 saw the gathering of villagers, a representative of the People's Mosquito charity, members of the HAMG, Air Cadets, RAFA members, British Legion, and other interested people. The large group walked to the crash site led in by Warrant Officer Barry Lynn and Flt Lt Passfield . The completed memorial was then unveiled by John and Lise Vautour.
A service of dedication was read by North Weald RAFA while the assembled Standards of the Legion and RAFA were dipped and then raised to the Last Post , a minute's silence and then the Reveille.
The Kohima Epitath was then read and wreaths were laid by the Vautour family, the HAMG, the British Legion, The People's Mosquito Charity and flowers were also laid on behalf of the village of Little Hallingbury. Tea sandwiches and cakes were on hand at the village church after which everyone had a chance to meet and talk. The whole event was photographed by a video media company and a short film of the event along with interviews from those who took part is expected to be published in the near future.
A fitting tribute indeed to two young Canadian airmen who lost their lives in an unnecessary and tragic way in the corner of an Essex field.
Lest We Forget.
© Denis Sharp, Hertfordshire Airfields Memorial Group. 2019
Extensive material on 409 Sqd RCAF is provided by Aircrew Remembered at Nighthawks Story and Deryk Hore-Kennard's personal papers from his service with 409, along with our RCAF Notes and our Paradie Canadian Archive.