Mustang IV KH964

The 18th of June 1945 was a bright, sunny day. The war was over and Canadian pilot Vernon McClung from 442 Squadron took off from RAF Digby in his Mustang IV KH694 for one last flight before going home.

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Flying Officer Vernon McClung

The records say it was a navigation exercise but a rendez-vous with a close friend Flying Officer Arnold Gibb, who was flying Spitfires from 412 Squadron, was planned over Portland. Stopping at RAF Warmwell, McClung reported all was well and didn’t require refuelling. He departed, presumably with the intention of meeting up with with FO Gibb but instead tragedy was to strike and Vernon’s aircraft crashed into Castle Cove, Portland Harbour.

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Mustang from 442 Squadron RCAF – the same type flown by Vernon

There were several witnesses on the ground who all reported seeing parts of the aircraft separating prior to the crash. Mrs. Powell, moored on a boat in the harbour, was just 50 yards from the crash thought the aircraft turned on its back before hitting the water, with the fuel exploding on impact.

442 Squadron records on the 18th of June 1945, “A black day for the Squadron” with the loss of a popular pilot. F/Lt Johnson flew down to Warmwell the following day to see if there was any news. Divers were still working at the crash site. No body has been found but a parachute bearing Vernon’s name had been recovered.

On June 26th all Mustangs in 442 Squadron were grounded pending inspection and investigation. The airframe fault that killed Vernon was already known,  the cause identified and flying restrictions issued on the Mustang IV until modifications had been incorporated.

Trouble is, 442 Squadron had not been told.

By a series of tragic events the Squadron had not been told don’t dive the aircraft faster than 450mph until the mod was done.

Vernon McClung

Vernon was born in 1922 in Stoney Creek, Ontario, to parents Frederick and Jessie, with younger brother Jack arriving in 1924. The earliest records found to date relate to his time at Saltfleet High School between 1934 and 1940, lists his achievements in the District Softball League and the school’s rugby team where he played full back.

His nickname was “Butch” or “Meat”, on account of being the son of the local butcher, delivering orders by bicycle after school and at the weekends.

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Vernon at school c1940. Vernon is 2nd from right back row wearing the sweater. This photo was likely taken after a track and field event. Photo via Jim Leavens

From his obituary he was recorded as working for the Otis elevator company prior to joining the R.A.C.F in 1942. During this time there was love in the air.

A Fiancee Back Home

The date is unknown, but before he left for England and the war Vernon became engaged to Betty Parrott. From a family photo dated 1942 Vernon, is seen standing on the far right in RCAF uniform standing beside Betty at a family wedding where he was an usher.

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Family wedding photo from 1942. Vernon is standing at the back second from right in RCAF uniform. Family photo via Jim Leavens
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Family wedding photo from 1942. Vernon is standing far right in RCAF uniform. Fiancee Betty is standing next to her mother 6th from right. Family photo via Jim Leavens

RCAF Service

Vernon joined the Royal Canadian Air Force on the 19th of August 1942, and was posted to a variety of flying schools in Ontario. He learned to fly in North American Harvard, Northrop Nomad and the Hawker Hurricane.

All reports consistent, confirming Vernon was a stable, dependable pilot:

“A keen, alert, clean-cut airman with plenty of punch and drive. Has a pleasant and cheerful manner and is a conscientious worker with excellent motivation and service spirit.”

Vernon progressed from basic training in October 1943, when he moved to Saguenay, Quebec. Training was now more operational in nature with instrument flying, low level, night flying being taught alongside air combat, air-to-ground attack etc.

Training continued until May 25th 1944, when Vernon departed Halifax for England, arriving on the 2nd of June 1944. His first posting was to RAF Heston and 61 OTU on August 15th, and for the next two months worked up air to air combat, ground attack and high level bombing. From the Wing Commander:

“A good pilot, keen, reliable, needs practice and learns quickly. A good officer. Air/Ground gunnery result – good.”

On November 11th 1944 Vernon joins an operational unit – 442 Squadron flying Spitfires – who were stationed at Volkel, Holland until December 5th 1944 when they moved to Heesch in Holland and right on the front line.

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In this photo Vernon is seated on the wing and centre. Undated the aircraft has a four bladed propellor which was used from the Mk IX and all later variants fitted with the Merlin engine. The type entered service in March 1943 so the photo is likely to have been taken after this point and during Vernon’s service with 422 Squadron

Fellow pilot Ken Wilson records:

“Pilots lived in tents and were jammed in. During the last week at Volkel the 442 was moved into a nearby convent. This airfield was a permanent Dutch airbase that the Germans had just finished. When they evacuated during Operation Market Garden they sabotaged the drainage for the airfield. The Spitfires there were on site would get stuck in the mud and have to be lifted up to free them.”

Between the 16th of December ’44 and January 25th ’45, the Battle of the Bulge was underway. Vernon flew 25 mixed sorties during this period, ranging from armed reconnaissance, bomber escort and fighter sweeps. Even Christmas Day was not excluded:

“Squadron escorted Marauders to Munstereifel. This mission was entirely uneventful. One early return due to mechanical trouble. Forty-five gallon long range tanks used.”

A Crash To Walk From

On February 19th, Vernon took leave back to England. Upon his return he was back in combat, and on the 3rd of March and suffered engine failure:

“The squadron was airborne at 700 with F/L Gordon leading the sweep into the Enschede/Rheine/Munster area. No jerries but some movement on the ground. The squadron did two armed recce’s that were uneventful. F/L “Verne” “Junior” McClung had a narrow escape when he crash landed close to base with engine failure, and although the aircraft was a complete write-off, Junior was uninjured.”

Lucky Junior indeed.

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The crash landing of Spitfire NH369 on the 3rd of March 1945, following engine failure (Image supplied by fellow pilot Len Wilson via Kevin Summers).
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The crash landing of Spitfire NH369 on the 3rd of March 1945 following engine failure. Vernon is standing on the wing (Image supplied by fellow pilot Len Wilson via Kevin Summers)

442 would remain at Heesch until being reassigned back to England on March 23rd 1945 to begin training on the Mustang IV aircraft.

Back from the Front

442 Squadron stood down on the 18th of March 1945, and ceased operational flying on Spitfires. This two week gap, whereby the Squadron was in effect without aircraft, is perhaps one of the most vital steps in a chain of events that would prove tragically fatal.

On the 1st of April 1945, the Squadron commenced flying training on the Mustang IV and by the 9th of the same month were flying bomber escort duties accompanying Lancaster and Halifax.

Len Wilson recalled:

“We flew in close support of Lancasters and Halifax’s. We had to fly right near them. A Me 163 showed up, no idea what they were. “

On the 9th of May, 442 provided air support for the naval flotilla tasked with the liberation of the Channel Islands. The mission was intended to suppress any interference by German shipping, but proved uneventful.

By now the war in Europe was over. 442 Squadron moved to RAF Digby. They were kept busy flying and training as a move to the Far East was deemed likely.

18th of June

From the operational record book:

“A black day for the Squadron. All our sympathy goes to F/O L.H. Wilson, who learned that his mother died Friday at home. S/L Johnston had to force land at Bentwaters but received no injuries. We have to deplore the loss of F/O V.F. McClung (J.37017), who on take-off from Warmwell, crashed into the sea. His body has not been found yet, but as his parachute was found in the aircraft with flesh on the straps, he is believed killed. This accident deeply affects the Squadron as “Junior” was one of the most popular pilots.”

Vernon had taken off from RAF Digby that morning for a navigation exercise to RAF Warmwell. After takeoff, Vernon was due to rendezvous with F.O. Gibb but according to the records that didn’t happen. Tragically, Vernon’s Mustang was seen to dive straight into Portland Harbour, crashing in Castle Cove:

“At about 16:20 hrs on Monday 18th of June I was on Sandsfoot Beach when my attention was attracted by the roar of a plane in a dive. It was much louder than usual so I looked up and saw it at about 500ft coming from Chesil Beach towards the harbour. It appeared to me to be almost inverted and diving at an angle of approximately 70&deg….before hitting the water it appeared to swerve as if the pilot was trying to avoid hitting the beach. For some reason or other I looked back towards the way I had first seen the aircraft and noticed a piece fluttering to earth. It was a stiff piece and resembled a metal panel.”

Petty Officer T.G. Tidbury

The fuel exploded on impact and Vernon was killed instantly. Other witnesses reported seeing a part, or parts, separating from the aircraft before the crash.

The covers to the ammunition lockers had a known possible fault and the loss of one or more of these panels is believed to have caused a loss of flying control.

As the crash report revealed, this was not the first loss of a Mustang IV as a result of this flaw.

Group Captain “Sam” J.F.X. McKenna – Commandant Empire Test Pilot School

The same fault causing Vernon’s crash had already taken one life. On the 19th of January 1945, a Mustang IV flown by G/Capt McKenna crashed near Old Sarum when the ammunition locker cover detached. If the commandant of the Empire Test Pilot School was unable to control his Mustang after structural failure, what chance did Vernon have?

The investigation into Sam’s fatal crash determined the cause. There were notices issued on the 7th of February 1945 to all Squadrons operating the Mustang IV:

  • A modification that increased security of the ammunition locker covers.
  • Regular inspection routine to ensure the modification remained secure
  • Pending modifications flying restriction with diving speed not to exceed 450mph.

For reasons unknown, 442 Squadron Pilots Order Book did not contain a copy of the flying restriction and limit of dive speed.

Nor did the Squadron hold the maintenance instruction on the locker door modification, neither was anyone aware of its details.

No one knew.

This was  an accident waiting to happen. Caused by an easily repaired known fault.

At this point we suspect the Squadron, being equipped with Spitfires on the 7th of February, was not included in the distribution list. Why would they? The fault related to Mustangs.

When the Squadron reequipped to the Mustang IV,  the aircraft arrived and had already been modified to incorporate the additional security. But crucially, it simply looks as if the rest of the paperwork was not handed over.

Rendezvous Over Portland

From the crash report, we know Vernon departed RAF Digby that morning and stopped at RAF Warmwell before  planning to meet up with F/O Gill from 412 Squadron over Portland. There was only one small issue here; the records for 412 do not mention anyone by the name of Gill, but there is a Flying Officer Gibb. The crash report was littered with typos and errors – even the date of the crash is wrong – so we now know Gibb is the correct name.

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Vernon departed his Squadron base at RAF Digby and landed at RAF Warmwell. Not requiring any fuel he planned to rendezvous with his friend over Portland.

There is another good reason to think Vernon would have been planning to meet up with F/O Gibb. Arnold Taylor Gibb, Born in Montreal, July 4, 1922. He joined the RCAF and his service number is consecutive to Vernon’s. We think it highly likely they joined up at the same time and went through flying training, forming a deep bond through shared experiences of learning to fly.

Near the end of the war in Europe in April 1945, F/O Gibb shot down two FW 190’s on the same day with 412 Squadron.

It remains speculation, but would two young pilots have been keen to test each other and their respective aircraft in the skies above Portland? Possibly, yes.

But even high spirited mock combat by pilots in their prime should not have resulted in tragedy.

Had Vernon known of the 450mph limit for the Mustang in a dive? His service record points to discipline and responsibility. It would seem unlikely that he would have pushed beyond these limits.

When he climbed into the cockpit on the morning of the 18th, Vernon had no idea the aircraft was possibly prone to structural failure if pushed too hard.

Perhaps the best witness was F/O Gibb. However, the crash report remains silent apart from him reporting being at 6000ft and seeing an aircraft with an unknown ID crash into the harbour and Gibb was not close enough to recognise the type.

The Day After

442 Squadron record book is difficult to read – the typewriter ribbon must have been on its last legs – but the 18th is rightly recorded as a black day. No body had been recovered but Vernon’s parachute had been found inside the aircraft. On the 18th F/L Johnson flew down to Warmwell on a fact-finding mission, and reported divers were still working on the aircraft.

June 26th, the Squadron diary records the grounding of all aircraft pending investigation into Vernon’s crash. After this date the diary becomes increasingly difficult to read, just hints at fine flying weather and being grounded.

The impact on Vernon’s loved ones back home, has been preserved in the oral history passed down in Stoney Creek. Betty and her sister Barbara spent three days crying in the basement of their home. The pain and sense of loss must have been utterly consuming and unbearable.

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The childhood home of Vernon McClung in Stoney Creek. Photo – Jim Leavens

By December 29th 1945, the local paper, The Hamilton Spectator, was reporting Vernon was formally recorded as missing, presumed dead for official purposes.

At this point we are left wondering why this declaration? The loss of Vernon’s aircraft and the reason behind the crash were known and swiftly identified by the investigation. The crash report goes further, recording “a few pieces of flesh were found amongst the wreckage” and the presence of a parachute recovered noted in the Squadron diary. There was little speculation as to what happened to Vernon, where the crash site was and the authorities were confident to conclude this in the accident report.

But it seems no one told the local paper, nor the family.

We can again only speculate, but we have not picked up any oral history suggesting the family were told the precise chain of events that caused Vernon to crash, what happened with the paperwork and what the report concluded. Common belief suggested his aircraft blew up over the English Channel, which is a very, very big place indeed.

The truth was straightforward. The entire Squadron was not told of flying restrictions on the Mustang and a mandatory instruction to inspect the ammunition door whenever they were removed was not supplied.

It could have been anyone in the Squadron, but fate dealt a hand and Vernon was killed by missed paperwork. The authorities simply wanted the family and public to never hear the truth.

According to Robert McDougall Sr., the owner of MCDougall’s Garage in Stoney Creek, that Vernon’s death really affected his father’s health, and he died the following year. His mum Jessie died in 1977. Jack, Vernon’s older brother, returned from the war, was never married, and lived in Stoney Creek repairing televisions until his death in 1985.

With the passing of Jack, the last direct relative of Vernon was gone.

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Family gravestone in Stoney Creek. Photo – Jim Leavens

Not Forgotten

Betty eventually got married and went on to have a family with another Canadian pilot who survived the war. But according to Betty’s niece, she never got over losing Vernon and he remained the love of her life.

Saltfleet High School didn’t forget the sacrifices its students made during the war. Vernon’s name is on the memorial wall and he features in the School History Book co-written by former teacher Jim Leavens.

Deeper Dorset have not forgotten either. The witness statements in the crash report – recording the first hand reports of Vernon’s last moments alive – are pointing to a crash site just off Castle Cove in Portland Harbour.

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Castle Cove at low water near sunset with Sandsfoot Castle to the right hand side. Visitors to the beach are unaware of the tragic events of 1945

Areas of the harbour have been searched but so far nothing conclusive has been found. The crash report suggests significant portions of the airframe were never recovered, but are likely to be distributed over a significant distance following the impact with the sea.

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Sandsfoot Beach with Sandsfoot Castle to the left hand side. One witness was on this beach and recorded what they saw in the crash report.

Deeper Dorset will continue to search and look for the crash site. Frustratingly the crash report refers specifically to a map marking the impact point, but to date the map has proved elusive.

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Sandsfoot Castle looking east towards Castle Cove. All the eyewitness accounts suggest the crash site is off this beach.

Searching the seabed for a small target is time consuming and challenging. Limited visibility and few visual references can make it impossible to efficiently locate and – importantly – return to if further investigation is needed. Deeper Dorset have access to some very cool diver kit to assist but the areas involved are large and time consuming.

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Portland is a peninsular that juts out into the English Channel and its distinctive shape makes it a useful visual navigation aid.
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RAF Warmwell is close to Portland and the Isle is a geographically distinct navigation aid. The areas of interest within the harbour are highlighted and the next image covers this area in more detail.
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An overlay of the search areas at the northern end of Portland Harbour with the most likely areas to search (or have been searched) in green. The red crosses are the most likely witness positions. The red dots are sonar targets and the red area is closed to diving without permission.

Conclusions and Acknowledgements

Without directly saying so, the crash report makes it clear Vernon’s crash was caused by a known, identified and fully mitigated fault. The instructions to inspect the ammunition locker fastenings and the limit of permitted speed in a dive were not held by the Squadron and during the conversion from Spitfire to Mustang IV the paperwork didn’t follow, was lost or simply overlooked.

It was an error with paperwork but one that was to have far ranging impact on many.

The work of Jim Leavens for Vernon’s story has been priceless. Jim taught for many years at Saltfleet High – Vernon’s former school, and with a keen interest in history was very aware of those named on the memorial wall. Jim has spent time tracking down much of the family history and contacting Vernon’s fiancee’s family, adding significant background to the story.

Kevin Summers is married a 4th cousin of Vernon’s and is a military history buff. Over 20 years ago Kevin started researching Vernon’s story and was fortunate to have spent time interviewing former comrades from 442 Squadron. Their first hand recollections, and Kevin’s faithful documentation preserving their memories, has played a significant part of the story of Vernon and his service career prior to the crash. There may be an update to this story in time as Kevin is now pursuing the story of Flying Officer Arnold Taylor Gibb.

Deeper Dorset was deeply grateful to both Kevin and Jim for their willingness to share their knowledge and be able to finally tell the truth about Vernon.

Make: North American Aviation

Model: Mustang IV

Serial No: KH964

Pilot: F/O Vernon F. McClung

Date of Loss: 18th June 1945

Reason of Loss: Loss of control following structural failure

Rough Location: 300 yards off Castle Cove, Portland Harbour