18.11.1942 47 Squadron Beaufort Mk.I DE118, Wg Cdr. Richard A. Sprague DFC
Operation: Transit mission
Date: 18th November 1942 (Wednesday)
Unit No: 47 Squadron
Type: Beaufort Mk.I
Base: RAF Shandur, Egypt
Location: 80 km (50 mls) south of Sidi Heneish, Egypt
Pilot: Wg Cdr. Richard “Joe” Alfonso Sprague DFC 26067 RAF Age 34. KiA
Observer: Sgt. Alfred Leslie Augustinus 401183 RAAF Age 33. KiA
Wireless Op: Sgt. J.C.M. Lake R74837 RCAF Age? Survived
Air Gunner: Fg Off. Claude Arthur Henry Collier 82199 RAF Age 30. Survived (1)
Passenger: LAC. Frederick Douglas Isbell 1254814 RAFVR Age? Survived
REASON FOR LOSS:
Beaufort Mk.I DE118 took off from Shandur, Egypt at 08:40 hrs to fly to RAF Shallufa, near Port Tefiq, on test flight, after a 40 hr inspection, and was to continue the flight to RAF Gambut, Libya if the aircraft performance was satisfactory. Aboard the aircraft was the crew of four along with LAC Isbell, a photographer from 47 Sqn. The aircraft landed at RAF Shallufa without incident. Here it was armed with a torpedo and took off again at 12:08 hrs. Enroute to RAF Gambut the aircraft flew into the ground 80 km (50 mls) south of Sidi Heneish at 12:45 hrs.
Wg Cdr. Sprague and Sgt. Augustinus were killed in the crash. Fg Off. Collier, Sgt. Lake and LAC Isbell, who sustained minor injuries, survived.
The formal investigation into the loss of DE118 determined that Wg Cdr. Sprague, the Officer Commanding of 47 Sqn, was proceeding on detachment to the Sqn’s advanced Landing Ground (LG) at RAF Gambut.
RAF Gambut comprised six airfields designated Gambut 1/Main (LG139); Gambut 2 (LG142); Gambut 3 (LG143), Gambut West/Gambut 4 (LG156); Gambut (LG159) and Gambut 6 (LG158).
It is believed that the 47 Sqn advanced LG was Gambut 3/Satellite 2
The following witness statements from Fg Off. Collier, Sgt. Lake and LAC Isbell were given to investigating officer:
Statement by Fg Off. Collier:
“I was Air Gunner briefed to fly with Wg Cdr. Sprague to Gambut on detachment on 18th November 1942, in DE118, 47 Squadron Beaufort Mk.II.
En route to Gambut, I noticed that we passed over the half way House at Wadi El Natrun and later LG100. We had been briefed, so I learnt later, to fly 2 miles south of the railway, but Wg Cdr. Sprague informed us over the inter-com that he would bear further to the south and look at the Quattara Depression.
We flew along the northern cliff of the Depression for some miles, and when asked for a course to steer, presumably for Gambut, I heard the observer give the captain a course of 280 degrees.
There was a very heavy sandstorm blowing about 10 miles to starboard at this time, but was clear where we were and also ahead of us.
I was under the impression that the wind was blowing from the starboard side, but I heard the observer say that it was a following wind. The crew found it difficult to hear everything that the observer had to say to the pilot, and on two occasions the pilot was heard to ask the observer to move back to the pilot's side and to bring his maps. Just prior to the crash I heard Wg Cdr. Sprague remark that the aircraft should be passing a certain track marked on the map in three minutes time, I gathered they were then looking at the map together,
We had been flying normally at 800 to 1,000 feet all the time and as far as I can tell the engines were also behaving normally.
I felt a change in temperature and noticed that we had lost height to approximately 300 feet. I was in the turret the whole time. When at 200 feet or so, I noted a slight yawing motion of the aircraft but didn't pay particular heed to it. We continued to loose height in a tail-down attitude until we hit the ground. It was then approximately two minutes after I had noticed by the increased temperature that we had lost height.
After skidding along rough ground for about 150 yards, the aircraft stopped and I scrambled out through the turret top. The starboard engine was on fire, and the whole aircraft was seen enveloped in flames. I was dazed by a sheet of flame which had scorched my face and hands.
Sgt. Lake and LAC Isbell, joined me, and we ran clear of the flames when it was realised that the torpedo would possibly explode, which did occur a few minutes later. There was 4 very violent explosion which scattered the wreckage, and I assume that the war-head had exploded.”
Statement by Sgt. Lake:
“I was wireless operator in Beaufort DE118 of 47 Squadron on 18th November 1942.
The aircraft had been flying along for some considerable time and everything appeared to be normal, when I had a feeling that we were losing height slightly. I assumed that we were going down a bit to practice low flying.
There was a certain amount of wallowing and undulating motion which I took to be caused by air currents passing over uneven ground.
At about this time I noticed that the Navigator, who was then sitting at the pilot’s side, was apparently trying to pinpoint the a/c’s position and was searching for identifiable landmarks. The pilot and navigator were also discussing their apparent position.
I suddenly felt the tail sink, and on looking out of my window I noticed that we were dangerously near the ground, I felt that things were now definitely amiss, and told the passenger to hang on, while I braced myself, and the aircraft immediately hit the ground. I was at first slightly dazed, but I escaped out of the front of the aircraft where the nose had been smashed off.”
Statement by LAC Isbell:
“I am a photographer in No 47 Squadron. On 17th November, 1942 I was warned that I was to proceed on the following day by air [to] Gambut on detachment, The advance detachment of 47 Squadron with 247 Wing at Gambut was warned to that effect.
At 08:40 hours 18th November, with my kit, I took off as passenger in Beaufort aircraft DE118 for Gambut via Shallufa, Wg Cdr. Sprague was piloting. After picking up one torpedo at Shallufa, there was some delay owing to faulty starting battery, but we were able to proceed on the journey to Gambut at 12:05 hours.
As far as I can tell, the engines and the aircraft behaved normally throughout the flight. Most of the time I was lying on the kit in the body of the fuselage, between the wireless operator's seat and the rear hatch.
I was in this position when the wireless operator turned round, touched my arm, and shouted to me to hold on, I held on to a bracket, and was able to ascertain by looking through the rear hatch that we were not very high up - certainly under 1,000 feet,
By leaning forward I was able to tell that we were gradually getting lower, and I thought at first that we were already landing at Gambut. It then seemed to me that the pilot was carrying out a crash landing, only the engines were still working normally. As far as I can make out, it was the belly of the aircraft that first hit the ground, approximately one minute after the wireless operator had first told me to hang on.
We skidded along on what felt like rocky ground and considerable dust entered the aircraft. The aircraft was still moving when I noticed a flame under the starboard side of the turret, and there was also a loud report in the aircraft close to my right ear - I was facing aft.
After the aircraft had come to rest there was too much dust flying for me to tell whether the air gunner and the wireless operator had got out the aircraft before me or afterwards, but they were near the front of the aircraft, apparently unhurt, when I had reached there.
There was apparently no signs of life in the front cockpit. The aircraft was on fire at this time and was soon burning furiously, with ammunition exploding nearby.
It was quite obvious that we could do nothing to help the pilot and observer, and remembering the torpedo aboard we ran to a safe distance.”
In the opinion of then investigating officer the primary cause of the loss of Beaufort Mk.II was due to the pilot intently studying a map whilst losing height preparatory for low flying practice and consequently hitting the ground. It was assumed that the pilot was suddenly surprised by his close proximity to the ground. He endeavoured to climb, but had insufficient speed for the heavily loaded aircraft to clear the highest levels of ground ahead. The aircraft hit belly first and caught fire. There was an explosion soon afterwards which was assumed to have been the war-head of the torpedo.
In the final assessment the investigation report recorded that DE118 was a Beaufort Mk.II however the description of the aircraft recorded that it was powered by two Bristol Taurus engines which were the power plants for the Beaufort Mk.I. The Mk.II was powered by two Pratt & Whitney, twin wasp radial engines.
(1) Flt Lt. C.A.H Collier, 82199, was dismissed the service for reason(s) unknown, by sentence of General Court-Martial, gazetted 26th June 1945.
Above: El Alamein War Cemetery - Credit: The War Graves Photographic Project.
Above Grave markers for Wg Cdr. Sprague DFC and Sgt. Augustinus - Credit: The War Graves Photographic Project.
Wg Cdr. Richard “Joe” Alfonso Sprague DFC. El Alamein War Cemetery XXXI.D.10. “REQUIESCAT IN PACE”. Born in about 1909. Youngest son of the late Col. Louis Charles Sprague, Royal Irish Rifles, (of Gibraltar) and Frances Helena Mary (née Ross) Sprague, of Paddington, London.
DFC awarded whilst with 208 Sqn, gazetted on the 28th March 1941.
Sgt. Alfred Leslie Augustinus. El Alamein War Cemetery AIV.F.13. “OUR LOVED ONE”. Born on the 28th April 1909 in Talbot, Victoria. Son of Henry and Isabella Jane (née Boveird) Augustinus; husband of Mollie Augustinus, of Murrumbeena, Victoria, Australia. A.F.I.A., A.A.I.S.
Researched by Ralph Snape and dedicated to the relatives of this crew (Nov 2020). Thanks to “The War Graves Photographic Project” for their great work.
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