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The rain in the glen is the mountain mourning for them

The rain in the glen is the mountain mourning for them

Postby BlackPanther » Fri Jun 11, 2021 5:11 pm

Sub 2000' hills included on this walk: Beinn Mhealaich

Date walked: 23/05/2021

Time taken: 5.75 hours

Distance: 13.8 km

Ascent: 616m

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The far north-east coast of Scotland is an infamous area for plane crashes. Many aircraft and their crews were lost on the hills of Sutherland and Caithness. Some of them became well known due to strange conspiracy theories, like the Eagle Rock accident, others fell in complete obscurity. Especially the hills above Helsmdale and Brora are littered with countless wrecks, mostly from the times of WW2. We shortened our list to four sites where, based on our book and internet research, we expected to find significant amounts of wreckage. As weather on Monday and Tuesday the 23th was c**p anywhere but in the far north, we decided to spend the two days doing Panther's Aircrash Investigations.

We had already climbed the only Glen Loth Graham, Beinn Dhorain but each of our wreck hunting trips could be combined with visiting the summit of a nearby Sub'2 Marylin. On Monday, our plans covered Beinn Mhealaich, which is 592m so only 20m short of being a Graham. One of the crash sites we had in mind is situated on the eastern slopes of this hill, about 150m below the summit. The second one is on Creag Riabhach on the other side of Glen Loth and easily accessible from the road. Both sites are worth a visit, but if you decide to follow our routes, please, please, treat these places with respect. Remember that people died there. They are of course buried somewhere else, but the crash sites are protected by Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 as war memorials.

Part 1. Liberator BZ724
Dist: 10.6km
Asc: 418m

The first crash site for today was a Liberator. In particular, the RAF Coastal Command Liberator BZ724 of 59 Squadron at Ballykelly, Northern Ireland. On the night of 17th/18th August 1944 the aircraft, manned with 10 crew members, was flying over the North Atlantic on an anti-submarine mission. The accident happened on the way back, most likely due to bad weather. The Liberator was diverted to land in Tain, but sadly it never reached the airport. The plane was short on fuel and while descending through cloud, it struck the eastern side of Beinn Mhealaich. There was only one survivor.
The story is described in detail in "Hell on high ground" by David W. Earl, a fantastic book in two volumes, describing stories behind hundreds of crash sites all over the UK. It is only available online second-hand but I begged and begged Kevin to buy it so he ordered it for me for Christmas. The other book we use, "Aircraft Wrecks: The Walker's Guide" also has a short entry about this Liberator, including 6 digit grid reference so we hoped we'd find the site without problems.

Track_LIBERATOR 10.6KM.gpx Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts

We drove up Glen Loth and parked on top of the pass, where we found ample room for parking. Starting from 340m, we only had a couple of hundred meters to climb, quite convenient :wink:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 239.JPG
Parking spot

Views were fantastic from the very start, especially north to the hills of Caithness:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 232.JPG

Beinn Griam Beg and Mor, two great Subs, recommended not only for Marylin Baggers!
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 001.JPG

We walked back along the tarmac for a short time and quickly spotted a wet ATV track branching from the main road and heading east over a small hillock (377m TUMP). As the track was going in the right direction, it would be a sin not to use it :lol:
Panther claiming a TUMP (I don't even know how it is called, has no name on any maps):
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 014.JPG

Panoramic view back to Beinn Dhorain:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 012 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Weather was lovely but it wasn't supposed to last, as rain was forecast for the afternoon. That's why we wanted to visit the more remote crash site first, before climbing Beinn Mhealaich. It was hard to believe that bad front was on its way, considering the blue sky above us. Kevin happily posed with the so-called "Caithness weirdos" :lol:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 243.JPG

Distant Ben Loyal and Ben Hope:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 023.JPG

We knew the site was at the height of about 450m and mostly hidden in peat hags so we prepared ourselves mentally for a long search and a lot of hag-hopping. We had the grid ref but in such terrain, 100 by 100m square could hide enough wreckage to build a Boeing 747 :roll:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 245.JPG
It's out there somewhere!

Kevin heading for the area where the Liberator crashed:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 244.JPG

We reached the edge of the grid square and couldn't see anything even remotely looking like a piece of metal. We decided to split and walk about 20-30m apart, checking different peat hags and holes. Kevin was more thorough...
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 251.JPG
Should I move 10m to the left?

...but it was me who spotted the first peat hag filled with debris:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 249.JPG

Kevin quickly joined me and scrutinized the scene:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 029.JPG

Most of the wreckage is concentrated in 3 large peat hags and this was the highest of them. We spent some time photographing the remains and trying to recognize them. The obvious pieces we could name were several fuel tanks:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 269 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Most of what we found in the first hag was very fragmented, mostly pieces of metal frame, pipes and rubber from the fuel tanks, but also this interesting round item, I wondered if it could be part of one of the cockpit indicators?
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 031.JPG

More wreckage photos:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 290.JPG

2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 035.JPG

2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 273.JPG

2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 300.JPG

This strip of yellow canvas made me wonder. Could it have been torn from a life vest? Was one of the crew wearing it when the crash happened?...
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 309.JPG

Let's try to go back in time to the year 1944 and imagine what happened here on that cloudy August night. The liberator left Ballykelly at half past eleven (exactly 2338hrs) on a long range anti-sub patrol. Amongst the crew on board were three pilots hence on those long patrols it was not uncommon for a fatigued pilot to fall asleep behind the controls. We know that no U-Boats were spotted that night; at 0330hrs the Liberator received instructions to end the patrol and head for Tain.
Heavy cloud over the whole area reduced visibility to nearly zero. The pilot, P/O John Lloyd took the plane up to 6 thousand feet and crossed the west coast of Scotland near Tiree, then turned SE and saw what he thought was RAF Wick. Sadly, he was wrong. The plane was actually circling Skitten aerodrome. This initial confusion in the exact position might have contributed to the later tragedy...
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 302.JPG

In "Hell on the high ground" the story of Liberator BZ724 is told by Jim Heron, former pilot from 59th Squadron RAF Coastal Command, who was stationed at Ballykelly at the time of the accident and worked for the Maintenance Unit. In his words:
"About 10-15 minutes elapsed after leaving Skitten and No. 4 engine spluttered and showed fluctuating rpm and petrol pressure. No. 4 booster was switched on and then No. 3 engine began to give trouble. Lloyd started to increase power and recalls an altitude of 2.800 feet, but after that he remembered nothing."
It was 0438hrs when the big plane struck the hillside of Beinn Mhealaich with such force that it disintegrated completely. Nine of the crew were killed instantly. Miraculously, the captain somehow survived. Pure strike of luck, that someone could actually live through this disaster!
Let's get back to Jim Heron's story:
"We visited the crash site that afternoon (Friday 18 August). The liberator was strewn across the hillside over a distance of about 75 yards. There were bits everywhere and the whole thing had been reduced to a terrible mess."
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 092.JPG

"As my memory serves me, we found the pilot's seat almost intact on the ground. it seems incredible that Lloyd should have lived, considering the state of the wreck, and no one else survived!"

Near the first peat hag, we found a metal frame looking like it could be the upper part of a seat. I might be totally wrong here, but what if this is part of the seat that saved P/O Lloyd's life?...
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 348.JPG

The Maintenance Unit managed to salvage the engineer's log from the crash site. The last entry states that at 0303hrs the plane was desperately short of fuel (only 94 gallons left). Why didn't the engineer mention the problem to the captain? P/O Lloyds admitted that he had expected two more hours of flying out of the Liberator (this type of plane was capable of 19-20hrs flying time and they were in the air for only 17 hrs). The investigators stated that "Subsequent analysis of the Flight Engineer's Log confirmed the shortage of petrol as the cause of the accident."
One of the tanks that had ran dry, probably due to the use of a high rpm:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 326.JPG

So basically, weather was bad (low cloud base) and the Liberator spent too much time flying around looking for the aerodrome, burning extra fuel. The crew were all tired after 17 hours in the air, no wonder mistakes were made and the tragedy happened...
We wandered around the hillside, spotting some more small pieces of wreckage. Not far from the first peat hag, we found a second one filled with larger pieces of debris:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 079.JPG

Kevin suggested this could be a supercharger from one of the engines:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 068 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Just opposite the supposed supercharger, we noticed a large, flat part. We identified it as part of the elevator. This piece was taken down the hill after the crash and stored by one of the locals, it was actually photographed by the author of "Hell on the high ground" and the photo placed in the book. In 2018, the part was carried back up to the crash site and left here with all the remaining wreckage of the Liberator. It was a strange feeling, to see this piece with our own eyes.
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 320 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Serial numbers on the flap:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 063 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
We wanted to find and photograph as much as possible, so spent more time walking up and down to locate the third peat hag with wreckage. It is about 100m below the first two and it took us some time to find. In the meantime, Kevin spotted a ratio transfer box:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 355 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Close up:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 094.JPG

The last collection of wreckage was nearby:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 357.JPG

Possibly part of the undercarriage:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 097.JPG

Small panel from the main fuselage:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 368.JPG

Most of what we found showed signs of the unbelievable force of impact, pieces of metal mangled beyond recognition. No traces of fire though - if fuel tanks were empty, there was nothing to cause explosion.
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 104.JPG

How could anybody survive this? Even now, after nearly 80 years, it is still hard to believe.
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 114.JPG

Having located all three peat hags with wreckage (and more small pieces scattered around) we headed for the summit of Beinn Mhealaich. This was easy enough just by following a line of old fenceposts. The summit has a substantial cairn and nice views, but by the time we got there, weather was beginning to turn and the blue sky was gone, replaced by high cloud.
As if our moods were not somber enough after visiting the Liberator crash site.
View west from the top:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 129.JPG

Kevin on the summit with Lucy (her 22nd Sub):
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 390.JPG

Morven, Scaraben etc. There is one more crash site on the southerns slopes of Scaraben which we haven't visited yet, an English Electric Canberra WT531 which struck the western top, Sron Gharbh, on the 2nd February 1966. Maybe we'll get around to this one as well this year.
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 388.JPG

After a short rest by the cairn, we descended to the road. Beinn Dhorain dominated the view as we walked back:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 134.JPG

Part 2. Short Sunderland S25-DP197
Dist: 3.2km
Asc: 198m

Back in the car, we had a quick something to eat and drove a few miles down the glen. Plenty of room to park by a new hydro dam (next to the bridge over Sletdale Burn). The second site is situated on Creag Riabhach, very close to the summit:

Track_SUTHERLAND 3.2KM.gpx Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts

A grassy ATV track can be followed to the top of the ridge:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 135 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Lovely views north to Beinn Dhorain:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 139.JPG

Panoramic view of Glen Sletdale with another SUB'2 Marylin, Carn Garbh, to the left. Our target for the following day!
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 149 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
The ATV track petered out on flatter ground, but the crash site was easy to locate, we saw the impact crater from the distance:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 398.JPG

In contrary to the Liberator crash site, where it was impossible to determine where exactly the plane struck the mountain, here the spot of impact is obvious. Also, the remains are much closer together.
The aircraft was RAF Short Sunderland S25-DP197, the very same type of plane as was involved in the infamous Eagle Rock disaster. This one crashed on 14 August 1944. The seaplane was part of the No 4 Operational Training Unit at Alness. It took off at 1116hrs on a radar homing exercise with 15 crew on board. After an hour, they received orders to abandon the exercise and return to base as weather was deteriorating. The plane aimed for Lybster and the followed the coastline in south-westerly direction. But then, suddenly and for no obvious reason, the Sunderland made a sharp turn NW and headed into Glen Loth. At around 1230hrs, the aircraft struck the hillside near summit of Creag Riabhach and burst into flames. All 15 crew member perished in the accident.
In 2019, a memorial plaque was erected on site of the disaster, commemorating the seaplane and its crew. The Gaelic sentence at the bottom translates as: "The rain in the glen is the mountain mourning for them".
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 442.JPG

More details in this article from The Northern Times.
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 412.JPG

The first piece we approached was an armour plate, half buried in the grass:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 405.JPG

Next to the armour plate, part of the undercarriage assembly:
2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 154.JPG

Some debris is located in nearby peathags and boggy holes, but it is all easy to spot and photograph.
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 437 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Most of the wreckage was removed in the weeks after the crash by the Maintenance Unit, well used to such operations on the hills. During the WW2 only, 13 Short Sunderlands were lost to Scottish mountains :(
The second, smaller plaque:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 429 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
We found a surprising amount of remains, considering that this site had been cleared as it is close to the main road in Glen Loth. Many small pieces of debris show signs of fire and high temperature:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 426 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 418 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Another fragment of undercarriage mechanism, I think:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 167 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
A section of fuel tank:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 197 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
We found four of these metal structures, most likely engine-cowling rings:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 459 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Sometimes the tiniest fragments make the most somber impression...
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 471 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
More wreckage in one of the shallow peat hags:
Image2021-05-23 liberator and sutherland 198 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
As always, we photographed what we could find, without moving or disturbing anything, then spent a minute or two standing by the memorial plaque in silence, thinking about the young souls lost to the hills around Glen Loth. Weather was deteriorating quickly now, with more low cloud coming in from the south, as if the sky decided to mourn with us...
Good night, boys, sleep tight.
* * *
We returned to the car just before the first drops of rain fell from the sky. The nasty front has arrived and it was forecast to stick around till next morning, so we drove home in pouring rain, discussing options for the following day. We decided to return to Glen Loth and do the circuit of Glen Sletdale, climb Carn Gharbh and visit two more crash sites. Therefore in my next report I will continue the tale of Panther's Aircraft Investigations.

Internet sources:
1. Hell on High Ground, Vol. 2: World War II Air Crash Sites. (1999)
by David William Earl
2. Aircraft Wrecks: The Walker's Guide: Historic Crash Sites on the Moors and Mountains of the British Isles. (2009)
by Nick Wotherspoon, Alan Clark and Mark Sheldon
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Mountain Walker
Posts: 3735
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Joined: Nov 2, 2010
Location: Beauly, Inverness-shire

Re: The rain in the glen is the mountain mourning for them

Postby SummitViews » Fri Jun 11, 2021 11:25 pm

Excellent report BP and very interesting too :clap:
Posts: 59
Joined: Apr 1, 2018

Re: The rain in the glen is the mountain mourning for them

Postby BlackPanther » Tue Jun 15, 2021 5:27 pm

SummitViews wrote:Excellent report BP and very interesting too

Thank you :D There's more to come in the subject of crashed planes. We visited another one last Saturday, a Vickers Wellington R1646 on Carn Aosda. I'm badly behind with my TRs... I should sit down and write them rather than watching football :lol:
User avatar
Mountain Walker
Posts: 3735
Munros:260   Corbetts:172
Sub 2000:57   
Joined: Nov 2, 2010
Location: Beauly, Inverness-shire

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