No.600 Sqn Bristol Blenheim I crashes at Manston – 11th March 1940

Bristol Blenheim Mark I, L1295 in flight above the clouds. This aircraft commenced service in August 1938 with No. 107 Squadron RAF, followed by No. 600 Squadron RAF, the Royal Aircraft Establishment, No. 54 Operational Training Unit, RAF Cranwell, No. 3 Radio School, and finally No. 12 (Pilots) Advanced Flying Unit, with whom she was damaged beyond repair after crash-landing at Harlaxton on 29 July 1943. For reasons not known, the fuselage roundel and unit code were painted out at the time this photograph was taken. © IWM (CH 655)

No.600 Sqn’s Blenheim L6682 piloted by F/O Anthony Henry Hamilton Tollemache took off from Manston for a searchlight co-operation exercise. On completion, while approaching the flare-path at 2320hrs, the aircraft struck a tree and crashed into a field, bursting into flames. Witnesses later reported that a wing had been torn off by the tree and the plane was already on fire before it he the ground.

F/O Anthony Henry Hamilton Tollemache

F/O Tollemache was thrown clear of the aircraft according to the official account and Leading Aircraftman Smith, the air gunner was able to scramble out of the aircraft. Both found themselves uninjured. Realising that their passenger, Lt Philip Rowland Sperling of the Welsh Guards was still in the aircraft, he made a gallant attempt to rescue him. Despite the flames and small arms ammunition exploding, he attempted to break through the forward hatch to reach him but was eventually beaten off with his clothes on fire. Sperling died and Tollemache’s injuries almost cost him his life.

A local farmer drove the two airmen back to RAF Manston where Tollemache was initially treated by the station medical officer Dr Attwood. He soon realised the severity of Tollemache’s injuries and fearing for his life, sent him to Chatham Naval Hospital where the symptoms of his severe burns saw him fight for his life.

Tollemache’s terrible burns led to him becoming one of the RAF’s first ‘guinea pigs’ for the experimental plastic surgery at Queen Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead under Sir Archibald McIndoe. He later became friends with Richard Hillary who was shot down and badly burnt over the sea off Margate in September 1940. Tollemache made a good recovery and later returned to duty.

He was originally awarded the Medal of the Order of the British Empire for Gallantry (EGM) on 6th August 1940 but it was exchanged automatically for the George Cross when that was introduced on 24th September 1940 by King George VI.

He again escaped with his life when the tank he was in was hit by a shell in Normandy during 1944 which decapitated the man next to him. He was an RAF ground liaison officer helping to coordinate air attacks.

He survived the war but died tragically in a car crash on 20 February 1977 during a business trip to Paris. He is buried in St Mary’s Churchyard, Helmingham, Suffolk.

On December 5th 1988, the George Cross was one of five medals stolen from the home of his widow, Celia who was in hospital at the time having an operation. The family feared that the collection was lost forever, but by chance it was found in February 2005 on a beach, in Maroochydore, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast by a tourist who handed it in to the local police.

First published 11th March 2017.

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