I am constantly amazed and delighted by the contacts that this little blog generates from all over the world. Recently, an email containing a fascinating link to Fearnan’s past landed in my inbox. It was from Anna Belorusova, writing to us from Russia.
Three years ago, Anna set out on a quest to unravel the mystery of her grandfather’s service during the Second World War. Her research uncovered the almost forgotten story of the Moscow Special Assignment Air Group, who were based at Errol near Dundee, and their reasons for being in Scotland as part of the war effort.
This investigation was to bring her to Scotland for a special ceremony in 2015 (more of which later), as well as inspiring her to research and write about one of her grandfather’s fellow officers, a Hero of the Soviet Union, who was also the pilot of the Russian plane that crashed in the Fearnan Cow Park on 29th May 1943.
As with many other Second World War incidents, very few people (other than the locals) knew anything about this tragic accident; and in this case, the involvement and speculation surrounding the Russian aircrew resulted in a ring of secrecy around the village, with only a very few knowing the actual details.
Anna has kindly provided information and photographs from her own research. She was also able to provide, all the way from Russia, a copy of a monograph about the air crash written by Phillip Hapka from Crieff, and which is based upon the eyewitness accounts of his mother Christine Hapka (nee McEwen) and his uncle John McEwen, both of whom lived in Lawers View at the time of the crash.
Phillip has given permission for extracts from his monograph to be reproduced on the blog, but we start with Anna’s story:
“At home, together with my pilot grandfather’s WWII awards, there was an old bunch of papers: a fragment of Britain’s coastal map, a 1943 Christmas dinner menu adorned with a thistle, and an Everyday English Course with the inscription on the front page: “Good luck and may you visit again under better conditions. Russia & (Britain) – V!”
My grandfather died soon after the end of the war aged 42, when my mother was still a child. All that was left were scraps of her childhood memories, and something vague about his trip to England for the airplanes presented by the King of England himself.
The puzzle had been bothering me for a long time, and then a couple of years ago, at the National Archives in London, in the Operations Record Book of Errol RAF air station I saw the name of my grandfather Pyotr Kolesnikov:
“1.01.43. No 305 Special Ferry Training Unit formed to convert and ferry train Russian crews on Albemarle Special Transport Aircraft for ferrying 100 aircraft to Russia“.
“24.04.43 Russian pilots have been practicing circuits, landings and single engine flying. Flying times: St.Lt. Kolesnikov: dual – 3.45 hrs., solo – 3.35 hrs.”
This was how, from the reports and orders of Errol RAF air station in Scotland, the reconstruction of the history of the Moscow Special Assignment Air Group began.”
In brief, ‘305 Ferry Training Unit’ was established at RAF Errol, 10 miles west of Dundee, on 1st January 1943, following the decision of the British Government to supply 200 Albermarle planes to the Soviet Union. The planes were to assist in the transport of troops on the vast Russian Eastern Front, where they were engaged in fierce warfare against invading German forces. The role of the unit at Errol was to convert Russian aircrew (the Moscow Special Assignment Air Group) to the then new twin-engine Albermarle special transport and glider tug. The ‘Ferry Training’ designation was a convenient cover for this top-secret exercise and a means of allaying local suspicion of the foreign aircrew. The first intake of 10 (three pilots, three flight engineers, three radio operators and one navigator) arrived on 11th January 1943.
Training began on 25th January, and consisted of 2 day and 2 night flights with an instructor, followed by a minimum of four flights without an instructor.
Just a few months later, the village of Fearnan came close to a catastrophic disaster when one of the Albermarles crashed just inside the Cow Park, close to Cromrar Cottage.
It was the skill and courage of the crew that saved the village, at the expense of their own lives.
We will return to Anna’s story later, but thanks to Phillip Hapka’s monograph “Fall of a Red Star”, we are able to relate an account of the crash, from the perspective of the Fearnan villagers in 1943.
Extract from Fall of a Red Star by Phillip Hapka (© 2006)
“The small crofting village of Fearnan, on the northern shore of Loch Tay in Perthshire, was a relatively peaceful place during the early years of the Second World War.
Nonetheless, the community had seen the occasional Luftwaffe bomber drone up and down Loch Tay on moonlit sorties, attempting to locate the well-camouflaged hydroelectric dam and power station at Tummel Bridge, some 10 miles to the north, in a parallel valley.
Villagers had witnessed, albeit from afar, the night sky and loch surface illuminated by reflections of fiery explosions from the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Clydebank, over 50 miles away, when waves of over 200 enemy bombers over-flew western Perthshire, from 21.00 hours on 13th March 1941 to around 04.00 hours on 14th March 1941, to evade detection by personnel of the Observer Corps and interception by RAF fighters.
However, the cost of war was graphically bought home to the community, just before mid-day on Sat 29th May 1943, when an Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle, from 305 Ferry Training Unit, crashed just north of the village.
During the forenoon, Albermarle ST1, P1503 had taken off from RAF Errol in good weather, on what was ostensibly a training flight. At the controls was thirty nine year old flight operator Major Aleksander Gruzdin who held the highest honorary title Hero of the Soviet Union, having flown over 200 missions behind enemy lines and with 4,800 hours in his log book. He was accompanied by Russian colleagues: thirty four year old flight engineer Aleksandr Aleksejev and thirty year old flight navigator Vasily Drjamin, who wished to do a little aerial sight seeing before returning to Russia. Also on board was S/Sgt Frantisek Drahovzal, a Czechoslovakian cook and interpreter for the Russians.
The aircraft’s route initially took it in a westerly direction from its base, later turning northwards and climbing above the southern Grampian Mountains to reach the southern shore of Loch Tay near the village of Ardeonaig. Having cleared the higher ground, the aircraft was put into a gentle decent over the loch but a sizeable nose-down attitude developed, from which level flight could not be regained.
From the garden of Lawer’s View in Fearnan, 18-year-old John McEwen and his friend Ian Anderson spotted the aircraft flying over the loch towards them. Not being able to identify the twin-finned type, they thought it might be a Luftwaffe aircraft about to bomb or strafe the village. Therefore, after instinctively shouting a warning, they took cover under a nearby hedge.
The aircraft flew very low over the village, still in a nose-down attitude, before impacting the ground just inside the Cow Park, to the east of Clach an Tuirc, where it exploded.
The shock waves from the explosion cracked windows and blew open a number of house doors in the village.
McEwen and Anderson jumped the garden wall and ran across the crofts towards the crash site, pursued by John’s 20-year-old sister, Christine who was still wearing a silk flower in her hair, having returned from a local dance in the early hours of the morning.
The sudden explosion unnerved horses and cattle in the intervening fields, causing them to stampede. Although the men were able to pass the animals, albeit with some difficulty, Christine was forced onto the public road adjacent to a row of cottages at Dalchiaran. Here she joined up with a number of bewildered inhabitants, including Mrs McLaren carrying her infant daughter Isobel, making their way towards the column of black smoke rising high above the village. The scene that greeted the would-be rescuers was one of utter devastation, with debris scattered over a wide area to the north of the crash site. The aircraft was raging inferno.
Burning debris had fallen on and around Cromrar Cottage and the traumatised occupants, Archie and Kate Robertson, emerged from their home to find it, and the outbuildings, covered in pieces of smouldering wreckage. The main wheels were alight to the south and west of the cottage, and the nose wheel lay near the access gate to the Cow Park, immediately to the north of Clach an Tuirc.
The aircraft had come down in the hanging valley to the west of Drummond Hill, on sloping grassland which may have looked suitable for a forced landing from the air, but which in reality had only an extremely thin covering of soil over solid rocks. Major Gruzdin and his crew were killed instantly in the impact and in their heroic and successful endeavour to clear the village.
Shortly after the crash, Special Constable Duncan McGregor and District Nurse Kennedy arrived from Fortingall. Others, who could see the column of smoke, came from Fortingall and Lawers, to see if they could render assistance. One man, who had been employed on casual labour in the garden of Balnearn 2.5 miles away, ran the whole way to the site. The nearest Fire Brigade unit stationed in Aberfeldy turned out, but when they arrived on the scene there was nothing they could do.
A police guard was mounted on the crash site by Special Constables Duncan McGregor and Alexander McEwen, to prevent the wreckage from being disturbed further by inquisitive villages, until a military presence arrived many hours later.
A number of pairs of tattered overalls were found, one containing a wage packet, and it was feared that the owners might also have been aboard the Albemarle. However it was later discovered that, having been given weekend leave while servicing the Albemarle, mechanics had rolled up their overalls and left them in the aircraft the previous evening to await their return to complete the task.
Over the following week, a salvage team arrived in Fearnan. They conducted a painstaking search of the site and then cleared the ground of aircraft debris to make it suitable for cattle to graze off once again.
Another recovered item, which local residents quickly capitalised upon was a parachute pack, which had been blown clear of the wreckage on impact, with some young women becoming the fortuitous recipients of underskirts fashioned from parachute silk.
A Board of Inquiry was later convened at RAF Errol and to which John McEwen was invited as chief civilian witness.
Albermarles had been designed to utilise non—strategic materials and their Bristol Hercules engines were known to occasionally overheat. It was, therefore, initially suspected that either of these features may have been a contributory factor to the crash.
However, the findings of the Board of Inquiry revealed that the accident had been caused by insecure ballast weights.
The aircraft was fitted with the then unconventional tricycle undercarriage and lead ballast weights were installed aboard the airframe which could be slid forward on a shaft in order to maintain the centre of gravity when the aircraft was loaded with paratroops or freight. The investigation found that the aircraft had been undergoing servicing on the Friday prior to the crash and that the weights had not been locked in place. Therefore, when the aircraft began to descend over Loch Tay, the weights slid forward and could not be repositioned to regain the correct trim, thus making the aircraft virtually un-flyable.”
The men who died in the crash were:
Following his cremation in the UK, Major Gruzdin’s ashes were buried with in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow with full military honours. He is buried with his wife, who was also a pilot.
Over time, back in Fearnan, the crash site healed and the details surrounding the accident, in as much as they were known by residents of the time, faded within the village’s collective memory.
An excavation of the site was carried out by the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum in 2006, and some wreckage and engine parts were recovered which are now on display at the museum.
More than 70 years after the Russian airmen came to Errol, Anna started to piece together the story of the Moscow Special Assignment Air Group and the background to their top secret mission in the UK began to re-emerge.
On 15 May 2015, through her efforts and with support from the Consulate General of the Russian Federation in Edinburgh, an exhibition opened at Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre. The Russians In Scotland Exhibition is now part of the permanent display at the Centre, and is dedicated to those Soviet pilots who came to Scotland in 1943.
On 16 May 2015, a commemorative plaque was unveiled at the Errol airfield and is dedicated to the Soviet pilots of the Moscow Special Assignment Air Group. (Later, in November 1944, the Group was awarded the honorary name ‘10th Guards Air Transport Division’ for its deeds during the war – ‘Guards’ being the highest honorary title.)
These two events were attended by a delegation from Vnukovo, near Moscow – where the Air Group was based from the early days of the war. The delegation included the Head of Vnukovo Air Museum and pilots of the post-war generation, who had followed in their father or grandfather’s footsteps.
Anna herself commented at the time:“The RAF airman E Fielding who, in 1943, left an inscription on the front page of my grandfather’s English phrasebook: ‘ Good luck and may you visit again under better conditions. Russia and Britain–V!’ has proved to be right. The Russian pilots were indeed back under better circumstances. Their memory will be in good hands here.”
We hope to welcome Anna to Fearnan for the first time later this year, when she makes a return visit to Scotland.