I am addicted to looking around graveyards. Some, I admit, are more interesting than others for many give only the name of the dead and tell nothing of a once active life of the corpse buried below. What I am looking for are the ones that will stop me in my tracks. This is what happened one sunny and cold Sunday when I found myself staring at a tall grey granite gravestone topped by a pair of wings – not angel wings but stylised wing of an aircraft popular in the 1930s. The inscription confirmed this. A young man killed in an air accident at the age of 29 years.
Flying was still in its infancy but growing in popularity in the 1930s. Faster than merchant ships for transporting goods, military materiel and mail – as well as a few passengers – a network of early flight paths soon connected Britain’s far-flung colonies. Imperial Airways took its name from the British Empire it served and among its expanding fleet were 28 flying boats ordered from Short Brothers of Belfast (the first production aircraft company.)
These flying boat aircraft, Short Empire four-engined monoplanes,were being turned out at one a month with the first completing its initial flight in July 1936. Designated as C class each aircraft given a name beginning with the letter C. The intention was to fly them between Britain and its colonies- to Australia, British-run parts of Africa and North America.
Alexander Paterson was brought up in Ballater on Deeside in Aberdeenshire and as a boy he imagined what it would be like to be an airman. On leaving school he became an apprentice with the local Riverside Garage and emerged a time-served mechanic. From farm machinery and the few motor cars that would have been in the area at the time Alexander followed his ambition to work with aircraft. By 1929 he was employed by Imperial Airways and he and his wife set up home in Cairo in Egypt – then part of the British Empire.
On a clear day on the 24th March 1937 Captain Alexander Paterson took off on G-ADVA Capricornus from Southampton in England for Alexandria in Egypt. This was the inaugural flight for the £40,000, 88 foot boat plane with its 114 foot wing span. It could accommodate 24 passengers and 5 crew on its two decks but that day it carried only one passenger, Betty Coates from Folkestone in Kent, along with its crew of two pilots, radio operator, flight clerk and steward. On board was a large consignment of bags of mail and ten thousand pounds in gold bullion hidden beneath the floor of the cabin.
Over France the good weather deteriorated and atmospheric interference made communications with the ground difficult. As Capricornus flew over Dijon the air controllers there were busy and when finally the radio operator was able to make out a response he assumed it to be from Dijon when, in fact, it was from Tours. It took several more minutes of confusion to correct the mistake by which time Capricornus was way off course.
Ten hours into the flight with only broken contact with the ground the aircraft found itself in heavy cloud and snow as it approached Marseilles. The pilots could see nothing ahead in the freezing and blizzard conditions and struggled to maintain course. J.L. Cooper the radio operator heard an aircraft controller at Lyon suggest they alter course for it was noted Capricornus was descending on a course of 145 degrees. Suddenly a wing tip hit a tree hurtling the aircraft back into the air out of control and it dropped down careering through a dry stone wall, finally coming to rest in a pine wood.
Traffic control at Lyon was desperately trying to re-establish contact with the plane: at 14.12 pm it requested a bearing, Have you anything for me? Twice more it tried to raise a response but received only radio silence.
Cooper was thrown out of the craft and came to dazed and with a broken arm. He searched the wreckage then more or less crawled through snow to a farmhouse two miles away where he raised the alarm.
A rescue party discovered Captain Alexander Paterson and Betty Coates badly injured. She was taken to hospital where she died and Alexander to the farm house where four hours later he also died. The bodies of first officer G. E. Klein, flight clerk D. R. O’Brien and steward F. A. E. Jeffcoate were found in the aircraft.
Alexander Paterson’s mother at home in Ballater heard of her son’s death from a report on the wireless. He had been due home on a visit in the summer.
Bodies of the dead were returned to Britain by rail and boat and Captain Paterson was buried in his native Deeside at Tullich Churchyard just east of Ballater where blinds in homes and businesses were drawn in tribute to one of their own. Pupils from Alexander Paterson’s former school lined the road for his funeral cortege. Paterson’s widow was not at the funeral as she was still making her way back from Cairo but her mother was among mourners who heard of the bright boy who longed to be a pilot, of his courage and determination and the high regard in which he was held by those who knew him. Any casting their eyes to the mountain of Lochnagar on the horizon would have noticed it patched with snow, a reminder, if needed of the conditions that caused the plane to crash.
Among wreaths was one from Imperial Airways and another from Paterson’s former colleagues in the airline’s engineering department. A beautiful wreath inscribed Les Aviateurs Miliniques de Bron a leurs camarades Britanniques (Military Airmen from Bron to British comrades.) A wreath, too, from the Consel Municipal of Ouroux in Rhone where Capricornus was wrecked, one from radio amateurs of Egypt and Greece along with those from his family and friends in Ballater including one from pupils and staff at Ballater School.
The fatal accident was raised in parliament when Under-Secretary of State for Air, Sir Philip Sassoon, announced to the Commons that Capricornus had crashed on her maiden trip but when he was asked if the plane was fitted with de-icers, as was the regulation in America, the Speaker intervened and disallowed the question. MPs were reassured, however, that the mail was safe. No mention was made of the secret stash of gold.