Memorial to Spitfire crash pilot unveiled at Holme Lode near Peterborough

The family of a Spitfire pilot who died in a crash have unveiled a permanent memorial near the site where his plane was excavated near Peterborough.

Friday, 23rd September 2016, 9:29 am
Updated Wednesday, 5th October 2016, 2:18 pm
Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. EMN-160922-232235009
Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. EMN-160922-232235009

Pilot Officer Harold Penketh, 20, died in 1940 during a routine training exercise when he entered a dive from which he failed to recover.

The aircraft crashed vertically, was buried several metres into peat, and exploded underground, killing Mr Penketh instantly.

He had just 13 hours 15 minutes of Spitfire flight experience at the time.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. EMN-160922-232303009

A week-long excavation at Holme Lode, the Great Fen, Cambridgeshire, recovered the crashed plane in 2015.

Personal items belonging to Mr Penketh, including his initialled cigarette case and watch, were found, along with some skeletal remains that had not been recovered in 1940 when his body was laid to rest in his home town of Brighton.

These final remains were laid to rest last year.

No known relatives could be traced at the time, despite efforts by the Ministry of Defence, but two family members subsequently made contact with the Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust, which has commissioned the memorial plaque, after seeing a news report about the excavation.

Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. Pictured is David Thomsom Bishop of Huntingdon EMN-160922-232249009

First cousin Valetta Cranmer, 78, was just two when Mr Penketh died.

She never knew him but always had a photograph of him in his RAF uniform, with his father Jim Penketh’s handwriting on the back: “Born 20 May 1920, taken to a higher life 22 November 1940.”

She places a poppy by the photo every Remembrance Sunday.

Her husband Roger saw a TV news report about the Spitfire being excavated in the Fens last year, and made the connection, then Mrs Cranmer learned of plans for the memorial plaque.

Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. Pictured is David Thomsom Bishop of Huntingdon EMN-160922-232222009

She attended Thursday’s dedication service with Sheila Morris, 77, also a first cousin of Mr Penketh.

They unveiled the memorial, which was then dedicated after readings by the Bishop of Huntingdon and others.

Speaking after the service, Mrs Cranmer said: “It’s closed a chapter for us actually, because we didn’t really know anything about this or where Harold fell. We thought he was lost at sea.

“It has been a rollercoaster since last year but it’s been wonderful and we feel very honoured and proud.”

Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. Pictured is Flt Lt Andrew sell from RAF Wittering at the service EMN-160922-232208009

Spitfire X4593, of 266 Rhodesian Squadron Royal Air Force, was based at RAF Wittering.

Its crash was witnessed by locals including Maxey Stacey, who was 10 at the time.

Mr Stacey, now 86, attended the service, and said it felt “strange and sad”, but it was a pleasure to meet relatives of Mr Penketh.

He recalled seeing the Spitfire climbing before breaking formation from two other planes.

“There was a revving sound and it spiralled down,” he said.

Mr Penketh did not use his parachute.

Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. The pilots second cousins Valetta Cranmerven and Sheila Morris who attended the service EMN-160922-232328009

The cause of the crash is not known, but it is thought a failure of the plane’s oxygen system may have contributed.

The Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust commissioned the excavation of the plane last year as the area is being restored to a wetland habitat.

Parts of the plane that have been recovered and restored are now at RAF Wyton Pathfinder Museum and can be viewed by appointment.

The plaque is set in stone, with an information board nearby detailing the history of the incident and of Mr Penketh.

Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. EMN-160922-232303009
Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. Pictured is David Thomsom Bishop of Huntingdon EMN-160922-232249009
Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. Pictured is David Thomsom Bishop of Huntingdon EMN-160922-232222009
Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. Pictured is Flt Lt Andrew sell from RAF Wittering at the service EMN-160922-232208009
Memorial service for Pilot Officer Harold Penketh killed in a Spitfire crash in 1940 at Holme Fen. The pilots second cousins Valetta Cranmerven and Sheila Morris who attended the service EMN-160922-232328009