Hurricane Crash at Coldharbour, Stansted

Pilot Officer Colin Francis

Colin Dunstone Francis, of Stoke d’Abernon, Surrey, was educated at Emanuel School Battersea and joined the RAF on a short service commission in April 1939. He was posted to 253 Squadron at Kirton-in-Lindsey and after a spell in Scotland, the squadron moved to Kenley on August 29th 1940. This was the epicentre of the daily air combats between hundreds of aircraft that were taking place over the south-east of England. It should be noted that this was at the height of the Battle of Britain, which started in July.

On the morning of the 30th August 1940, Francis took off in a section of three aircraft to join the rest of the squadron in attacking a force of bombers, which was escorted by some thirty fighters. It was his first encounter with the Luftwaffe and he was shot down and reported ‘Missing’.

Colin Francis was one of 20,287 airmen posted missing believed killed with no known grave in WW2. The truth was that he lay buried with his aircraft within the parish boundary for over 40 years, out of sight, but doubtless never out of mind to those who remembered him. It was only when the burgeoning interest in aviation archaeology gained traction in the 1970’s/1980’s that his aircraft was excavated in 1981 with his body still strapped into the cockpit.

Geoff Allgood at the site of the Hurricane crash
Plaque in memory of Colin Francis

Geoff Allgood moved to Windy Ridge in Wrotham Hill Road, Stansted, just prior to the recovery and was present during the excavation. The photograph of Geoff Allgood was taken at exactly 11:15 on Thursday 30th August 2018, the 78th anniversary of the crash, and shows Geoff standing on the spot where the Hurricane crashed.

Although Colin Francis is not recorded on Stansted War Memorial, Geoff Allgood felt his sacrifice should not be forgotten by the Parish, and erected a plaque in his memory close to the crash site on the footpath that leads from Wrotham Hill Road to Coldharbour. Each year, he places a poppy cross in his memory.

The period leading up to the crash had seen an escalating number of German aircraft attacking RAF airfields, radar stations, docks, ports and coastal shipping. Stansted was on the flightpath to and from the London docks, and its proximity to the airfields at Gravesend, Detling, West Malling and Biggin Hill, all of which had been heavily bombed, meant that the sight of vapour trails overhead, and the sound of machine gun fire would have been commonplace.

Situated just to the west of Biggin Hill, with almost overlapping circuit patterns, Kenley had also been hit hard over the previous two weeks, suffering many casualties. Keeping the runways operational and communications open was an increasing challenge. 253 Squadron had been previously based at Kenley for a brief period before they went to France, so the surrounding area would have been familiar to what remained of the “Old Lags”. But for new boys like Francis, who had hitherto done all their flying in the relatively peaceful and rural skies over Lincolnshire and Scotland, the more densely populated urban outskirts of London may have presented challenges in orientation and navigation.

At dawn on their first day, the Squadron was put on readiness to intercept the inevitable raids. The first was a feint, with aircraft attacking shipping in the Thames Estuary, but at 1030 a much larger raid was picked up on radar assembling over Cap Griz Nez. Sixteen squadrons were scrambled to intercept, with two, including 253 Sqn, tasked to protect Kenley and Biggin Hill. Pilot Officer Francis, followed by his friend Pilot Officer Carthew, were the first two of fourteen 253 Sqn Hurricanes scrambled to patrol Maidstone in two flights. However, for some reason, the flights lost contact with each other, so all aircraft were ordered to return to orbit Kenley and then join up with the remaining five Squadron aircraft which were scrambled at 11:25.

The Hawker Hurricane single-seat fighter aircraft
The Hawker Hurricane single-seat fighter aircraft

The Squadron Operational Record Book times Francis’s crash at 1115, so it seems likely that he was shot down whilst returning to Kenley. The leader of his ‘vic’ of three aircraft was the co-commanding officer, S/Ldr Tom Gleave.

Gleave recalls being detached from the rest of the Squadron and seeing a formation of Me109’s in the haze about 500 feet above them, stretching as far as the eye could see. Unhesitating, he led the formation right through the enemy fighters, firing as he went. He remembered the scene clearly, and described the smell of the cordite, the hiss of the pneumatics, and the way the Hurricane’s nose dipped as the guns recoiled. He gave the first Me109 a four-second burst and saw his bullets hitting the engine. He saw the Perspex of the hood shatter into fragments that sparkled in the sunlight. The 109 rolled onto its back, slewed, and then dropped, nose down, to the earth. The third aircraft in Gleave’s vic, flown by F/Lt Brown, received hits and disappeared.

Gleave and Francis then turned to engage the aircraft attempting to regain formation when another enemy aircraft came into Gleave’s sights. Gleave turned with him, firing bullets that brought black smoke from the wings before the Me109 dropped vertically, still smoking. Gleave narrowly missed colliding with his third victim, and then gave him a three-second burst as the Messerschmitt pulled ahead and turned into the gunfire. The cockpit seemed empty; the pilot slumped forward out of sight. The Messerschmitt fell. The German pilots were trying to maintain formation and by now there was so much gunfire curving through the air that Gleave had the impression of flying through a gigantic golden bird-cage.

A fourth Messerschmitt passed slightly above Gleave, and he turned and climbed to fire into the underside of its fuselage. But after two or three seconds’ firing Gleave heard the ominous clicking that told him he had used up all his bullets. But already the fourth victim was mortally hit and rolled on its back before falling away. (Ref: Fighter: Len Deighton 1979)

Of Colin Francis there was no sign. Gleave recalled “after Brown was shot down, Colin and I went in by ourselves. We went right into the middle of them and I never saw him again. He was a damned fine kid and full of guts.” (Ref: I had a row with a German: Tom Gleave 1941)

Overall, that day, the RAF shot down forty enemy aircraft for the loss of twenty-four of their own, with nine pilots killed, three of whom were from 253 Sqn. The Sqn therefore accounted for 12.5% of the days kills, suffered 16.7% of the aircraft losses and 33% pilot losses, one of whom was Colin Francis, who died in his aircraft in the field at Stansted. The very next day, Stansted was again in the thick of it when an Me110 belly-landed at the Court Lodge with its gunner mortally wounded and two Me109’s crashed nearby, one in West Kingsdown and one in Knatts Valley.

Colin Francis was finally laid to rest at a funeral with full military honours at Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey, in 1981.

Military funeral for PO Colin Francis, Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey.

Note: A more detailed history of Pilot Officer Colin Francis is available as a PDF synopsis by selecting the following link.

Colin Francis Synopsis

The following link provides video news coverage of the military funeral.