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The fallen Fortress

The fallen Fortress

Postby BlackPanther » Wed Aug 25, 2021 7:14 pm

Date walked: 25/07/2021

Time taken: 4.75 hours

Distance: 13.6 km

Ascent: 115m

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The day after Panther's Biathlon I was too knackered to even think about any mountains (and my backside was so sore I could hardly sit :lol: ) but the day was so lovely that it would be a sin to sit home, so Kevin suggested a trip to another crash site, up north this time. We had this one in mind last year but never got around to it. Now, in a period of hot weather, we had a good occasion to find the fallen Fortress in the ocean of boggy moors north of Dunbeath. The site is only 4km east of the A9 and 1.5km north of Loch Ruard. We had 6-digit grid ref and read all available online descriptions of the site. In our previous trips, we found it useful to have a few photos of the crash site (with background views visible) saved to our phones. This time, we knew that we were about to enter a wide, flat moorland, where views are the same for miles on end, so we were prepared mentally for a long search. In the end, we did indeed spend some time wandering around, looking for plane parts, but once we found the site, all regrets were forgotten.
The story of the fallen Fortress, specifically a Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress Mk IIA, serial number FL455, is described in detail in the chapter from "Hell on High Ground" called "Tragic Met Flight", so my description of the events is based mainly on this source, but also on several online blog sites (all links below). Grid reference for the site came from "Aircraft Wrecks: The Walker's Guide" which we had used extensively over the last few years and can't imagine wreck hunting without it!

Track_RANGAG 13.6KM.gpx Open full screen  NB: Walkhighlands is not responsible for the accuracy of gpx files in users posts

We drove up the A9 to a tiny hamlet called Rangag (about 8km north of Lybster). Parking along the A9 can be problematic but we spied a good layby a few hundred meters north from the track we intended to use to get out on the open moors. But first, we wanted to visit the small memorial dedicated to the crew of the B-17 FL455 of 519 Squadron. We had grid references from the internet and knew how it looked like. Later we noticed it is actually marked on 1-25k map, 4 km north of Rangag, by a large off road parking area next to the entrance to Causeymire windfarm.
Image2021-07-25 rangag 001 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
The plaque on the memorial:
Image2021-07-25 rangag 002 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
The wind turbines next to the memorial:
2021-07-25 rangag 004.JPG

Having driven back to the layby we had spotted earlier, we parked up and walked a short distance along the A9 to the start of a farm track, leading out on the moors:
2021-07-25 rangag 007.JPG
Track to nowhere

This particular crash site was something I really wanted to do for a long time so I could hardly curb my enthusiasm, but soon my happy meowing was replaced by nasty swearing... We were attacked by a swarm of blood thirsty clegs. If it wasn't for the repellent, we'd have no chance to survive on Rangag moors for long!
2021-07-25 rangag 010.JPG
Cleg country!

At least the long spell of dry weather meant we didn't encounter any knee-deep mud and the swampy moorland was reasonably dry. A good track took us to the ruins of Achararskill:
2021-07-25 rangag 014.JPG
Des res?

Past the ruined farm buildings, the track shrinks to a path which runs alongside Allt Reidhe Mhoir to a boathouse on the shores of Loch Ruard. We followed this path for some distance, before turning north just before reaching the loch.
2021-07-25 rangag 021.JPG
Loch Ruard and the distant Caithness hills

From now on, it was tough going despite the moors dry as a bone. The lumpy terrain was very soft and our feet sank in it, making the march very energy-sapping. Plus the countless clegs still buzzed around us. Kevin held the GPS with the grid ref programmed into it, hoping that we might get lucky and walk straight onto the crashsite... Sadly, no such luck.
2021-07-25 rangag 027.JPG
Wandering around...

Miles and miles of flat moors, with wind turbines on the horizon. Where is the fallen Fortress?...
2021-07-25 rangag 025.JPG

We reached the marked grid reference and looked around. No plane remains in sight. We were not sure which way to go next, when Kevin noticed a single fencepost, about 100m to the north of us. Well, it was the only feature in the surrounding landscape so just as well we could start from there.
As soon as we got closer to the fencepost, we realized it wasn't a fencepost at all, but a part of wreckage. Yay! We found the fallen Fortress! Or at least one piece of the lost aircraft:
Image2021-07-25 rangag 022 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
We knew now, we were close to the actual crash site. Whoever put this piece in its position, probably didn't bother carrying it too far. We started scanning the horizon and shortly, I spotted something on the ground, reflecting the sun. Convinced it must be a piece of metal, we walked towards the shiny object and...
2021-07-25 rangag 143.JPG
The first view of the actual crash site

We knew from our earlier research that two of the engines and some substantial pieces of the fuselage still remained on the moorland, but what we found exceeded our expectations. The wreckage is still more or less in the original position. How do we know it? Because the crash scene was photographed from above, soon after the accident.

I feel that before we get to the details of the crash site itself, I need to tell the story of the tragic flight of FL455 in detail.

Her name was A for Able. Originally, she served with the 206th Squadron at Thorney Island, before being retired from frontal duties and passed to the 519th Squadron, Coastal Command, in November 1944. I guess the authorities assumed that she was still capable of flying, performing lesser tasks. A for Able was assigned a new crew and given her new duty: meteorological surveying. And she served well until the fateful day, 1st February 1945.
Typically, the crew of a Fortress consists of 10 men: 10: pilot, co-pilot, navigator, bombardier/nose gunner, flight engineer/top turret gunner, radio operator, two waist gunners, ball turret gunner and tail gunner. But on this particular meteorological flight, A for Able had a crew of 9: F/Lt F. K. Humphries (first pilot), F/O G. H. Pullan (second pilot), F/O T. G. Wrigley, (third pilot), F/S G A Panzer (wireless operator/air gunner), F/S W H Payne (flight engineer), F/S K A Day, (wireless operator/air gunner), Sgt A P Beatson (wireless operator/air gunner), Sgt E. A. Wood (met observer) and Sgt D. A. Pressley (met observer). They took off at 09:30 in the morning to conduct a 10 hour met survey over the Arctic Circle, flying at 25 000 feet. Initially, weather conditions were good but later, as they turned back home to Wick, it started to deteriorate. About 700 miles from home, another problem surfaced: two of the four superchargers stopped working, rendering tow of the four engines totally useless.
Flying now on only two engines and in very cold conditions, A for Able started to ice up severely. F/Lt Humphries notified Wick Airport at 15:30 that due to the thick layer of ice on the wings they couldn't sustain height and were dropping down quickly. Half an hour later, the plane entered an area of intense snow showers, basically a winter blizzard. Visibility dropped to zero thus navigation was extremely difficult. The Fortress was still losing height and the situation didn't look rosy, but the crew still hoped they could bring the aircraft home to Wick Airport...
What happened next, is not 100% clear, as different sources give different details. I'm relying on "Hell on High Ground" here, and the book states as follows:
"Still over coastal waters at 20:00, F/Lt Humphries contacted Wick again, his aircraft now flying very low on only two engines, , and in serious trouble. The tower at Wick suggested that he divert due to bad weather to RAF Tain, some 57 miles SSW of base. Not surprisingly Humphries was reluctant to carry out this diversion and co continued, despite the tower's request, to head for Wick."
We can't be sure about how this conversation looked like word for word, but it was suggested that the pilot and the Wick tower had a heated argument. On one hand, F/Lt Humphries went again the tower's advice, but on the other side, he must have been aware that A for Able wouldn't make it to Tain in one piece. At this moment, the aircraft developed all kind of problems: the altimeter packed up, carburetor icing warning circuits failed and large chunks of ice were breaking off from both wings and the tail, most likely damaging the fuselage as they dropped. The crippled Fortress was dying... but she didn't go quietly into the cold, snowy February night.
Sadly, due to the appalling weather, the crew didn't realize that they had overflown the airport, if only by a few miles. In the last effort to mark their position, second pilot F/O Pullan fired a flare, but this first flare was not spotted by anybody. Only minutes later, A for Able struck the snow-covered moors west of Rangag and broke in two sections at the radio room. Five of the crew died instantly, the remaining four, including the plane commander, F/LT Humphries, survived the impact but all sustained some kind of injuries. Luckily, the fuel tanks were nearly empty so the aircraft didn't explode. Humphries found the flare pistol in the wreckage and shot another flare. And guess what - this one was actually spotted, but not by the rescue crews!
In the meantime, the four survivors gathered inside the front section of the broken plane, waiting for the blizzard to pass. I'm trying to imagine how they felt, cold, injured and scared in the middle of white nowhere, listening to the wind whistling around the wrecked Fortress, and my heart goes out to them...
In the morning, the blizzard stopped and the surviving crew could now see the carnage around them. The two sections of the fortress have come apart. The cockpit section was still more or less intact, but the tail part was resting on the parts side with the port tail-plane torn off. Both port engines have broken loose; luckily there was no fire. The survivors made the effort to lay down dye markers to help being seen from the air. Soon the markers were spotted by a passing Spitfire and the message passed to Wick. Another aircraft, a Vickers Warwick, was dispatched from Wick Airport to drop supplies, including hot drinks, for the stranded Fortress crew. But just by sheer bad luck, the parachute failed to open properly and the dropped parcel was buried in deep snow. When the survivors eventually dug it up, they found out that flasks with hot coffee were broken...
Thankfully, shortly afterwards, the crew heard voices. Two local crofters came up, struggling in deep snow. They brought warm blankets, some food and hot tea spiced with whisky. What a relief, the surviving crew must have thought, at last we are not alone!
The two crofters, Andrew Falconer and Jimmie Sutherland, explained that they had heard the plane fly over and later they saw the second flare, fired from the ground. They had since alerted the authorities, but decided to check on the crew themselves as well.
The Mountain Rescue arrived around 1pm and the survivors were transported back to the road on stretchers. Having walked this bumpy moorland myself on a good, dry, summer day, I can't even imagine how tough it must have been in knee deep snow, especially when carrying the wounded men!
Sadly, one of the survivors, Sgt Presley, died soon in hospital as a result of his injuries.
The remains of the fallen Fortress still lay on the remote moors of Rangag today, a sad reminder of six young lives lost to the effort of WW2...
2021-07-25 rangag 208.JPG

The picture below is an aerial photo of the fallen Fortress FL455 taken shortly after the crash (source: "Hell on High Ground" by David Earl). I added arrows to indicate some parts of the plane which we managed to identify on the ground.
fortress rangag.jpg
1.tail plane
2.tail rudder
4.recess hole for the tail wheel
5. side cockpit windows
6. the nose
A-D. engines

What reminds of the front section of the Fortress today. Two of the engines (A and B) are visible in the upper left of the picture:
2021-07-25 rangag 148.JPG

A closer view of the two remaining engines and a cowling ring from one of them:
2021-07-25 rangag 176.JPG

Engine B:
Image2021-07-25 rangag 045 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Engine A:
Image2021-07-25 rangag 046 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
A small memorial plaque left on one of the remaining engines, presumably by the relatives of one of the lost boys:
2021-07-25 rangag 183.JPG

Below, a set of photos depicting identifiable pieces of wreckage from the front section of A for Able.
Undercarriage strut:
Image2021-07-25 rangag 216 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
An engine cowling and an air duct from the supercharger:
2021-07-25 rangag 173.JPG

A wing spar:
2021-07-25 rangag 041.JPG

Air intake on the engine (zoomed):
2021-07-25 rangag 055.JPG

Cockpit floor:
2021-07-25 rangag 207.JPG

2021-07-25 rangag 215.JPG

Another engine cowling:
2021-07-25 rangag 223.JPG

A small jubilee clip from the field of debris:
2021-07-25 rangag 276.JPG

A base of a cockpit bulb:
2021-07-25 rangag 279.JPG

Wing aileron:
Image2021-07-25 rangag 127 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
2021-07-25 rangag 138.JPG

Having photographed the remains of the front section, we had a look around for the tail part, which as the aerial photo suggest, should be nearby. Indeed, we found the second pile of debris only a few metres to the north, lying in a peat hag.
Kevin by the tail section:
2021-07-25 rangag 261.JPG

General view of the second debris field:
2021-07-25 rangag 106.JPG

We expected the tail section to be mangled beyond recognition, but it is actually quite well preserved. The picture below shows the part with the tail wheel recess:
Image2021-07-25 rangag 100 by Kevin Dalziel, on Flickr
Interestingly, the Flying Fortress was one of few types of WW2 planes that had a retractable tail wheel. In most aircraft from that time, the tail wheel was fixed in one position. I wasn't aware of that before doing my research on this crash!
The tail wheel and suspension strut:
2021-07-25 rangag 233.JPG

Zoom to the wheel hub:
2021-07-25 rangag 239.JPG

Another engine cowling and an air pipe:
2021-07-25 rangag 243.JPG

Not sure about this part, we suspect it is the back cover of the engine:
2021-07-25 rangag 256.JPG

Fuselage panels:
2021-07-25 rangag 254.JPG

2021-07-25 rangag 260.JPG

2021-07-25 rangag 155.JPG

We had been to over 30 crash sites in Scotland and i must admit, this was one of the most interesting. The remains are still close to their original positions and it was so easy to imagine the broken Fortress lying here, on that snowy February morning...
Surprisingly, the story of A for Able doesn't end on the moors near Rangag. A court inquiry was carried out after the accident to establish the circumstances of the crash and as a result, the pilot was held responsible. I could hardly believe it when reading about the inquiry. In the appalling weather conditions, with the plane basically falling apart as they flew, how come he was not exonerated due to the circumstances??? This poor man had hardly any choice. I feel so, so desperately sorry for him :(
We spent over an hour at the crash site but it was getting late and the clegs wouldn't leave us alone, so it was time to go home. After a minute of silence to remember the lost crew of the fallen Fortress, we were off on our way. The return walk took less time as we didn't have to scan the ground around us, just walked straight back to Loch Ruard and located the path leading to the ruined croft.
View back to Rangag on the return walk:
2021-07-25 rangag 144.JPG

The following day weather turned cloudy so we ended up wandering in the mist, looking for our next target. But sometimes when faced with haa, even haa-rd work is not enough... TR to come soon.


Internet sources:

1. Hell on High Ground, Vol. 1: A Guide to Aircraft Crash Sites in the UK and Ireland. (1995)
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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Re: The fallen Fortress

Postby gld73 » Wed Aug 25, 2021 9:01 pm

Another interesting read. I'm hoping to spend 3 or 4 days doing some of the hills up in that area and also visiting things like the Whaligoe Steps... this is another possibility to add into the trip, especially if gets too cloudy on the hills!
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Re: The fallen Fortress

Postby litljortindan » Thu Aug 26, 2021 6:00 pm

That is a sad story, particularly the court martial. Assuming this is the same person, they seem to have been quite experienced: http://www.rafcommands.com/database/awards/details.php?qnum=84673&qname=HUMPHREYS
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