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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.