When the Littlehampton Gazette printed a story seeking to solve the mystery of a memorial plaque in Rustington some years ago, no-one could have guessed how far it would go.
Historians Mary and Bev Taylor had known about the stone tablet on a grassy island in Chaucer Avenue for many years but they had never been able to get to the bottom of it.
The Latin inscription ‘Dum Spiro Spero – 1959 – Solvitur Ambulando’ was the only clue, translated to ‘While I breathe, I hope. It is solved by walking’.
It was suspected the plaque linked to the village’s only wartime plane crash but little else was known about it.
Mary and Bev came to us for help and within hours of the Littlehampton Gazette hitting the streets on August 6, 2009, a survivor had been traced and the full story of the crash began to unfold.
Now, Rustington Museum is paying tribute to all involved to mark the 75th anniversary of the plane crash on February 17, 1945, and the 10th anniversary of the unveiling of the new Chaucery Memorial, which incorporates the Latin plaque and adds another with the names of the two airmen and three residents who lost their lives.
A display cabinet at the museum, in the Samuel Wickens Centre, has been filled with mementoes, including photos of the pilot, 32-year-old Wing Cdr William Hudson Maguire, and navigator Flt Lt Denis Strickland-Lake, 22.
Chaucer Avenue residents Florence Ward, 50, and Edward Leonard Vincent, 63, who had served as a Special Constable in Rustington, also died, as did Arthur Sydney Foster, 57, a retired police officer, who was working in his garden in Milton Close.
Four bungalows, nos. 46, 48, 50 and 52 Chaucer Avenue, were destroyed or badly damaged.
Claire Lucas, museum manager, said: “We only know the plane crashed when it was testing new equipment. He was known to be a very good pilot. We don’t know what caused the crash, all we know is that during its third roll, it lost control.”
The RAF Mosquito was on a flight from Ford Airfield and thanks to the Taylors’ painstakingly research, enough detail was uncovered for Mary to produce a book.
Through that 2009 article in the Gazette, survivor Angela Harffy, née Rockall, was traced. She was just a few months old at the time of the crash and flames engulfed her pram moments after the plane came down. Both she and her mother, Mrs Kathleen Rockall, suffered serious burns.
Claire said: “Angela was outside in her pram and something fell on top of it, trapping her underneath, but she was rescued by a man called Harold Wilson.”
A friend was able to provide contact details for Angela, who had moved to Wales, and the follow-up story in the Gazette resulted in Mary, Bev and the Chaucer Avenue residents, led by Littlehampton RAF Association branch president Bill Kelsey, forming a committee in September 2009 to set up a more substantial memorial.
Bill said at the time: “It all started with the report in the Gazette. People wanted something to be done to record the air crash.”
Angela returned to the area to meet Mary and Bev the same month and revealed that her mother had written her own account of the crash a few years before she died.
Mrs Rockall described the scene, saying she was getting ready to go out, and had put her baby in the pram just outside the bungalow, when she saw, through the bedroom window, the Mosquito approaching.
“The last thing I remembered was debris falling on me, which must have knocked me out for a few seconds. I came to and my wardrobe was holding up the ceiling where I was lying. I scrambled up thinking that I must get to Angela, I walked through the bedroom to the lounge, there wasn’t a wall there any more ...
“I rushed round to where the pram was, shouting ‘my baby’. By that time, the bungalow was alight and burning rubble had fallen on to the pram. I was pulled away, still screaming for my baby ...
“A man who was visiting his brother’s family across the road ran over and with his bare hands, got Angela out of the pram.”
Angela’s father, Harry, was serving in India and the first he knew of the crash was when an RAF colleague showed him a copy the Littlehampton Gazette.
Harry wrote a letter to Mr Wilson and he replied that ‘anyone would have done the same’, adding that some people were ‘making a mountain out of a molehill’.
Though Angela could provide much detail about the crash, the mystery of the Latin plaque remained. She remembered it was a replacement for an original placed by a Mr Green. He had created a community garden on the grassy triangle but years later, when he no longer lived there, the plants were ripped out and the plaque smashed by council workers.
Angry residents demanded a replacement and the Latin plaque was installed. Angela told Mary and Bev it had nothing to do with the crash, though she could not say why it was there or the reason for the inscription.
It had, at least, brought out the story of the plane crash, which, as it happened, Mary had actually witnessed when she was 14. She was cycling nearby with her cousin John Sopp and saw the brief glimpse of a plane. It was making a funny sound and going fast, nose down. Then, there was ‘an almighty bang’. Mary could see the fire and heard the canon shells exploding.
With all this in the back of her mind, work began on investigating the Latin memorial. It was thought it was placed in Chaucer Avenue in 1959 because that was the year Ford Airfield closed. Residents cleared away ivy and carried out some renovations, including picking out the lettering in gold paint.
Interest in the inscription increased after the opening of Rustington Museum at Church Farm Cottage in March 2009 and countless enquiries were passed on to Mary and Bev.
Then, the committee was set up to honour those who died and, working closely with Rustington Parish Council, a new plaque was planned.
The Chaucery Memorial, featuring the propeller blade of a De Havilland Dove aircraft, was completed in time for the 65th anniversary of the crash and an opening ceremony was held on February 17, 2010. Work on the site continued through the summer months and the Chaucery Memorial Garden, with pergola archways and a flowering cherry tree, was officially opened on September 25, 2010.
Rustington Museum, in Broadmark Lane Car Park, Broadmark Lane, launched its anniversary display last Wednesday and it will be on show for a month. Opening hours are Monday to Saturday, 9am to 5pm, with closure for lunch from 1pm to 1.30pm. Admission is free. Visit www.rustingtonmuseum.org for more information.