Lt Stephen Kershaw lost his life when his Royal Navy Buccaneer aircraft crashed on the edge of The Wash near Boston in Lincolnshire in November 1974. He was 28.
At the time I was a 20 year old local newspaper reporter for the Lincolnshire Standard based in Boston – just over a year into my career as a journalist. My editor assigned me to the story, asking me to cover every angle of the tragedy.
More than 40 years on, I have finally seen a photograph of the pilot who died after his son, who was only four at the time, came across this website and book and wrote to me.
The accident happened in darkness just before 5pm on Monday 11th November 1974. The Buccaneer hit the ground near Freiston Shore, triggering the ejection sequence. The observer in the back seat was badly injured but was found quickly by heroic Boston fishermen working in the area. The body of Stephen Kershaw was found two hours later.
I had already covered many stories across south Lincolnshire. I had done the `death knock` when you went to talk to someone who had lost a loved one and ask if they were happy to lend a photograph to the paper. I had sat through court cases and inquests, council meetings and industrial tribunals. I had reported on accidents on farms and on the roads but not one involving a military jet that proved to be fatal for the pilot.
I chased up the Royal Navy for details of the crew, the aircraft and its unit – 809 Naval Air Squadron which was then based on shore at Honington in Suffolk. Later on the evening of the crash, freelance photographer Bob Whitaker and I went to Boston docks to find the men who had jumped from their vessels into the dark, dirty water of The Wash to search for and rescue the Buccaneer crew. The extent of their selfless heroism soon became apparent as their boats got grounded on the ebbing tide and parachute straps got caught up in propellers.
My stories made the front page lead for that week`s edition of the paper. The subs gave me a by-line – putting my name against it all. The managing director of the newspaper congratulated me on my thoroughness and pulling it all together in a day and a half before the deadline for that week. Four months later, I was sent to cover the inquest on Lt Kershaw at the Pilgrim Hospital at Boston. I kept the cuttings and returned to them, yellowing in a folder, while writing the book. It made a couple of pages in Chapter 17 of Deadlines.
I endeavoured to be thorough and factual in all the stories that I covered but this one was special to me. I had been fascinated by military aircraft for 12 years since my debut at the Farnborough air show aged eight. The Hunters of `The Blue Diamonds` and the Lightnings of `The Tigers` were my abiding memory of that show in 1962 but the contribution of the Fleet Air Arm was equally exciting with Scimitars, Sea Vixens and…. Buccaneers.
Now I was faced with writing about a tragedy – and a reminder of the challenges and dangers faced by the people I admired who effectively took a risk every time they went to work. The Royal Navy press office released the names of the two men on board and wired us a photograph of a Buccaneer. The poignancy of the date of the accident – 11th November – was not forgotten. Earlier in the day, Boston market place had come to a standstill as the Stump clock chimed 11 o`clock.
`I am the son of Lt Stephen Kershaw. Only yesterday, I found an extract from your book dealing with your coverage of the Buccaneer crash at Freiston Shore.
I was quite moved to read aspects of which I was unaware – the efforts to which the crews of the Arthur Lealand and Jean Ingelow went to rescue the observer, and continue searching for my Dad. That led me on to further detail in the London Gazette articles about the Queen’s Gallantry Medal to Michael Green and Commendation to John Holland.
I have never before seen your Lincolnshire Standard article, I only have a cutting from the Bury Free Press which appears to be a syndicated article from your attendance at the Inquest.`
The son of Lt Stephen Kershaw, Simon Kershaw, had resumed his intermittent research on his father. One of the on-line searches pointed to my book and story of that crash in Lincolnshire and the heroism around the tragedy. He emailed me off the website. I was quite stunned and read it several times. Simon continued:
`May I thank you – nearly 44 years later – for your coverage of that event, whose shock-waves are still very much felt in the family. Discovering you are passionate about aviation, and that a military air crash also haunts your immediate family, reassures me that you ‘felt’ that story.
The number of years that have passed is immaterial. I was nearly five years old when my grandparents left the room, and my mother told me that my Daddy had been killed in his plane. Now, I’m 48yrs, with two boys of my own. But I can still feel myself crying in that room with my mother.`
Like my pursuit of the circumstances around the wartime death and disappearance of Colin Curtis, Simon is trying to find out everything he can about the loss in peacetime of his Dad. He has obtained official papers from the Coroner`s inquest which I covered, and he has studied all the documents that were presented at the Navy`s Board of Inquiry into the crash.
Simon has also been in email contact with the man in the back seat of the Buccaneer who survived. He has made contact with some of the other crew mates of his Dad and found out more about what it was like when getting into a Buccaneer was just another day at the office. He has also been given a glimpse of what that office was actually like with a high speed ground run in the back seat of a Buccaneer at Bruntingthorpe. He was wearing his Dad`s flying suit.
Simon asked if I could send him copies of my newspaper cuttings covering the crash and the inquest, which of course I was happy to do. He sent me the above photograph of his Dad in a Buccaneer not long before he died. 44 years after I wrote that sad story, I have now seen the young husband, father and Royal Navy officer at the centre of it. I finally met Simon at Bruntingthorpe at the end of April.
Simon concluded his first email to me thus: `Finally – and for the first time – I will go to Freiston Shore and walk to where Buccaneer XV351 hit the flats around 4:50pm on 11th November 1974. And then walk to the spot where they found my Dad – just two hours later.`
Simon and I finally met each other at a reunion for Buccaneer crews held at Bruntingthorpe airfield in Leicestershire in April 2019. There were several former aircrew there who had flown with Lt Kershaw. The sounds of two Buccaneers on taxi runs round the airfield were very evocative.
On Remembrance Day 2019, Simon visited the area near where his Dad lost his life. Exactly 45 years to the day (and time and coincidentally a Monday), Simon looked out across the Wash from the sea bank in the dark. He was there for a few hours around 5pm, which was when the accident happened and the rescue operation got underway. The Port of Boston Authority generously put out a flashing marker buoy to mark the exact spot where the Buccaneer came down. Simon described it all as very moving.
The following morning, Simon met two of the Boston mariners who were involved in the rescue operation and the search for his Dad – John Holland and Ollie Ashton. John was 24 at the time and skipper of the `Arthur Lealand`. Ollie was engineer on the dredger `Jean Ingelow`. Simon says: `Ollie was one of the crew that got out onto the mud and followed the wreckage. They found my Dad and signalled to the RAF rescue helicopter overhead. It was amazing to hear their stories.`
The grave of Lt Stephen John Kershaw can be found in the churchyard of All Saints in the Suffolk village of Honington, which gives its name to the nearby RAF base. His name is inscribed on the Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas in Staffordshire.
This page first published 28 October 2018