Oxford PH404 - Beinn a Bhuird

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Last Flight
Lost then Found
Discovery of a Watch

Beinn a Bhuird
Beinn a Bhuird

Oxford PH404 from 311 Squadron

The Last Flight. Lost then Found
On January 10th 1945 at 1045 hrs, Oxford PH404 took off from RAF Tain on the North East coast of Scotland bound for RAF Hornchurch near London. The weather in Tain at that time was reported to have been good with blue sky, no clouds and no wind. However, the met forecast was apparently for adverse weather. Onboard the aircraft were five airmen from 311 (Czech) Squadron which was based at Tain, four Pilots and a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner.

Squadron Leader Karel Kvapil - Pilot
Flying Officer Leo Linhart - Pilot
Flying Officer Jan Vella - Pilot
Flying Officer Valter Kauders - Wireless Operator/Air Gunner
Warrant Officer Rudolph Jelen - Pilot

The flight was not an operational one. It is believed that F/O Jan Vella was travelling to London to receive his DFC award, F/O Linhart, S/Ldr Kvapil and F/O Kauders are believed to have been taking some leave, and W/O Jelen was detailed to return the aircraft from RAF Hornchurch to RAF Tain.

The aircraft failed to arrive at RAF Hornchurch, and no record could be found of it having landed at any other airbase. It was believed that Oxford PH404 must have crashed in the sea since no trace of any wreckage had been reported.

It was not until August 19th 1945, that the fate of Oxford PH404 and her crew was finally known when the wreckage was discovered by two hill walkers.

The hill walkers that
discovered the wreckage
Dr James Bain
F/L Archie Pennie
Dr James Bain
F/L Archie Pennie
Photo: A Pennie
Photo: A Pennie

The men who unwittingly found the aircraft were Dr James Bain, a teacher in Elgin, and Flight Lieutenant Archie Pennie who was in the RAF but who was at the time taking a few days leave at his mothers in Elgin. Long time friends and both keen hill walkers, they had decided to spend their Sunday climbing two mountains in the Cairngorms, namely Beinn a Bhuird (3924 ft / 1196 m) and neighbouring Ben Avon (3843 ft / 1171 m).

They set out at mid morning from Inchrory, and on approaching the summit of Beinn a Bhuird they found some aircraft debris and soon afterwards part of a wing. Finally, they discovered the remains of the wreck of the Oxford PH404, and alarmingly the bodies of five airmen.

The cockpit and tail section were reasonably intact. The engines were relatively undamaged, perhaps because the aircraft had fallen on snow. The yellow paint work on the aircraft suggested to Archie Pennie that it had been a training aircraft. The bodies of two airmen were located in the cockpit, two others lay outside amongst the debris. The saddest discovery of all was that of the body of the fifth airman. It was found inside the remains of the fuselage and it was clear that he had initially survived the crash. He was wearing several layers of clothing that he must have removed from his dead crewmates in an effort to combat the cold. He appeared to have suffered a serious head injury and had made himself a make-shift bandage for his head wound using a towel.

It was clear to Dr Bain and Flt Lt Pennie that the crash had occurred some months previously owing to the condition of the bodies. They made a note of the aircrafts number and location and after descending the mountain went to Tomintoul and reported their discovery to the local police. They also reported the details to the local police in Elgin when they returned home.

The following day, Monday 20th August, a recovery team including Police Officers and members of the RAF Mountain Rescue Team from RAF Dyce made their way from Tomintoul towards Beinn a Bhuird to attempt a recovery of the airmen. Local assistance in locating the crash site was provided by Captain D McNiven, proprietor of the Richmond Arms in Tomintoul, and Mr William Stewart, a farmer from Clashnoir, Glenlivet.

A base for the recovery operation was set up near Inchrory. The Ambulance and transport wagons also waited at Inchrory as they were unable to travel any nearer the mountain due to the rough terrain.


By Monday night the recovery team on the mountain had removed the bodies from the wreckage and made efforts to prepare them for removal down the mountain. It was not possible to further progress with the recovery that night, and indeed some of the recovery team were in doubt as to whether it would be possible to remove the bodies down the mountain at all. They returned to the base near Inchrory to report on their difficulties and the NCO in charge of the party departed for RAF Dyce to inform them of the situation and to enquire about the possibility of burying the airmen on the mountain. However, the RAF authorities refused to permit a burial on the mountain and ordered that the bodies be brought down.

To assist in bringing the bodies down mules from an Indian regiment based at Braemar were transported by road to Inchrory. It took ten days to complete the recovery operation with the recovery team working in a very remote location on steep, uneven and boulder strewn ground.

The Mountain Rescue Team burnt the remains of the wreckage at the crash site to avoid it being mistaken for any other lost aircraft in the future. Only the engines and a few other small parts of the aircraft were not burnt. It was a gruelling operation for all the men involved.

The bodies of the five airmen recovered from Oxford PH404 were taken by road to an Aberdeen mortuary and placed in coffins. From here they were taken by train to Brookwood Military Cemetery near Woking in Surrey. They were buried there on September 3rd 1945 in the Czechoslovak section of the cemetery.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Jim Hughes in Scotland, Pavel Vancata in the Czech Republic and Archie Pennie in Canada.

The Czechoslovakian section of Brookwood Military Cemetery where the crew are buried.
Grave of Jan Vella born 10.05.1906 Grave of Karel Kvapil born 28.03.1918 Grave of Leo Linhart born 16.11.1912 Grave of Rudolf Jelen born 30.03.1902 Grave of Valter Kauders born 18.04.1918
Archie Pennie 2000
Archie Pennie 2000
Photo: A Pennie
Visit to the crash site of Oxford PH404 in 2002

The Mission: To take photographs of the crash site of Oxford PH404 to send to the Czech Republic.

The Date: 15th September 2002

The Team: Myself as Expedition Leader and James as Navigator.

Having looked on paper (ie: maps) at the various options for tackling Beinn a Bhuird, we decided to approach the mountain from the Strathdon side rather than the Deeside side. This would involve a long walk in of ten miles, however, we could shorten the time taken for the walk in by doing it on mountain bikes as we knew the tracks were reasonable for biking.

We set off from home bright and early in thick mist, but by the time we arrived at the start point for our mission the mist had cleared and it was a stunningly sunny September day with very little wind. Perfect!

The cycle in took quite a while because it was such a beautiful day that we had to keep stopping to admire the view and the scenery (well those were some of the excuses for taking a rest!).

Taking a break..........
..........and another!
taking a break and another......

Finally, 10 miles later and a little saddle sore we dumped the bikes and started on the ascent of Beinn a Bhuird. The sun was still shining and so far we hadn't seen another soul.

Hiding the bikes
Starting the walk up Beinn a Bhuird
hiding the bikes
setting off on foot

The less said about the walk up the better I think! Suffice to say there was an abundance of stops for varying reasons - 'admiring the view', chocolate, checking the map, chocolate, sitting on rocks that looked like perfect stopping places (lots of those!), more chocolate, and so it went on...............

Navigator checking the map........nearly there
checking bearings

At long last we reached the area where we were expecting to be able to find some remaining wreckage from Oxford PH404. It took a while of hunting around the boulder strewn landscape before we finally located the site where the two Cheetah engines still sit along with other small bits of debris.

The engines from Oxford PH404
Debris at the crash site
the engines debris

We spent a bit of time at the crash site and placed some wild flowers on one of the engines in memory of the five men who lost their lives in January 1945. On the day that we visited the crash site the sky was blue and the sun was shining, there was hardly a breath of wind, we were most fortunate. In January 1945 this area would have been a wild and desolate place with a thick covering of snow.

One of the engines
A large piece of wreckage
one engine large piece of wreckage
The other engine
the other engine

Having spent a bit of time examining the crash site and taking photographs it was time to head back down the mountain as we wanted to reach our car again before darkness fell. On the way down we stopped to examine one of the amazing rock formations that can be found on Beinn a Bhuird. They were seriously large and look like works of art. To give an idea of scale, that's me standing at the bottom left of the rock!

rock formation

On reaching the bottom of the mountain and recovering our bikes we looked back up to see the mist starting to swirl over the tops. We had just made it down in time. The weather in the Scottish mountains can vary so much at any time of the year and it's possible to experience all four seasons all in one day.

Mist coming over the tops
mist on the tops

After the long cycle out we reached the car just before dark after having spent 10 hours out in the mountains and having covered a distance of 26 miles (42 km). Exhausted, but very happy we made our way home via the Colquhonnie Hotel in Strathdon where a well earned drink was enjoyed - thanks John and Sally!

Wild flowers for the crew of Oxford PH404
September 2002
flowers for the crew
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© Linzee Druce 2002-2012