The wartime tragedy that Horndean children never forgot
Over the clinking of beer glasses in festive cheer, the members of 464 RAAF Squadron wished each other Merry Christmas in the Ship and Bell, Horndean, in 1944.
The 464 Squadron, based at Thorney Island, near Emsworth, was named Gestapo Hunters, after their precision low-level attacks on particular buildings used by the Gestapo.
Thorney Island was an active air force base that played an important part in the defence of the country with a rapid change of squadrons to meet the changing battlefront.
With personnel drawn from as far away as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, they were many thousands of miles away from home, risking their lives to protect Britain.
Little did they know that Christmas, as the end of the war in Europe, at least, looked in sight, that two of their number would meet their deaths just yards away.
At 9.15pm on February 4, 1945, Pilot Officer Edward (Ted) Wicky, 22, and 21-year-old navigator, Pilot Officer Oswald Mountford, left for a bombing mission to Ruhr, an industrial region of Germany which was producing Hitler’s armouries.
For weeks the airmen had been engaged in dogfights and had just been decorated for bravery, having almost completed their second tour of operations.
Records show their de Havilland Mosquito Mark 6 contacted the base and then descended through low cloud to determine their position.
That was the last contact from the plane before it crashed in Horndean killing both crew members, just after 2am on February 5.
In what is believed to have been a bid to avoid crashing in the village centre, they steered the plane, still full of ammunition, out towards the sea.
After crashing through the roof of the Parish Hall, and clipping a cottage, the Mosquito eventually landed at the top of Five Heads Road.
An intense fire started and set off many of the .303 machine gun rounds as well as the 20mm cannon shells.
The pilots were found in the trees, the parachutes having opened on impact, shrouding their shattered bodies.
It is an image Eddie Harmer and Peter Barge will never forget.
They were sleeping at the time and the force of the impact made Peter leap from his bed in the nearby policeman’s cottage where he lived with his family.
The enormous bang woke Eddie who was a mile away in Catherington Lane.
Now, after more than a decade of campaigning and fundraising, they are about to unveil a memorial dedicated to those two young Australian officers.
Eddie, now 84, and living in Cosham, says: ‘There were many children in Horndean during the war because they had been evacuated from Portsmouth. Every house was occupied.
‘The crash was a major event and it left a huge impression on us all.
‘To be honest, it was all very exciting. We can remember seeing the two bodies in the parachutes hanging in the trees. It is something that stays with you forever.’
Eddie and Peter are part of the social group, Horndean Children of the 1940s.
Together with a committee from the group, they have spearheaded the campaign for a memorial to PO Wicky and PO Mountford.
Many of them were in the village on that fateful night.
During the Second World War, Horndean saw much activity with troop movements and camps, the woods were taken over and out of bounds to the public.
Visitors to the picturesque village arrived not as day-trippers to enjoy a tea and pick wild flowers, but as refugees from the blitz on Portsmouth.
It is hoped that through school talks Horndean’s part in the war, the fate of the Australian airmen, and the memorial will help the new generation of village children understand the sacrifices made for them.
Eddie says: ‘It’s very important young people understand what happened.
‘There are children in the community now whose parents are in the forces so it’s very pertinent to them.’
Eddie and Peter have invited the Australian government to send a representative to the official opening of the memorial, which will take place on the 75th anniversary of the crash, next year.
Horndean escaped any severe damage from enemy action although several aircraft crashed locally in the open fields.
A parachute bomb or land mine caused the only fatalities when it hit Bulls Copse.
Another similar device exploded behind Gales Brewery blowing out many windows and doors, but no serious damage or casualties was caused.
The Australian tragedy changed all that.
Daylight revealed the extent of the damage with the main crash site under armed guard and clearance parties removing wreckage to open the A3.
One of the twin engines was found to have leapfrogged across the Havant Road and up the hill, giving some idea of the momentum of the final impact.
The tail section lay almost intact against the end of a chicken run.
Peter Barge, now 86 and living in Westbourne, says: ‘They did not have to join up but they did.
‘Many Australians looked to what they saw as the Mother Country and felt they ought to join up.
‘But sadly they would not survive.
‘They gave their lives for us and that is why it so important that we honour these two brave young men.’
MEMORIAL GARDEN WILL BE A PLACE FOR PEACEFUL REFLECTION
The memorial to the Australian airmen is made from Portland stone and features an inscription to PO Wicky and PO Mountford, along with their portraits.
East Hampshire District Council has given land at the top of Five Heads Road, at the junction with Portsmouth Road, which is where the de Havilland Mosquito crashed.
So far £22,000 has been raised for the memorial stone – including a £10,000 grant from East Hampshire District Council. But a further £8,000 is needed to landscape the area in order to create a garden of remembrance.
To donate, send a cheque made payable to Australian Aircrew Memorial Horndean Group, 7 Whiteley Close, Westbourne, PO10 8TT.
Or make a Bacs payment to HSBC, sort code 4017 16 account number 32078813.
WHO WERE THE BRAVE AIRMEN?
Pilot Officer 422783 Edward ‘Ted’ George Wicky and Navigator/ Observer Officer 422628 Oswald ‘Billy’ Mountford were described as a fine team that never let either enemy opposition or adverse weather deter them from completing their missions.
Oswald Mountford was born in Leeton and attended high school before entering public service in Sydney. He enlisted three years earlier and had spent two years overseas.
Edward Wicky also spent his childhood in Leeton and attended the same high school before moving to Manly with his family. Before enlisting he was employed in the head office of the Bank of NSW.
They had become close friends during flying training in Canada. Both men had been twice mentioned in despatches and were the chosen aircrew to fly the thousandth sortie for their squadron.
An Australian newspaper report records the shock of the loss of two airmen coming only a week after the announcement that both had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for completing their missions bravely.
Under normal flying regulations they should have been rested but such was the need that they kept on flying.
In a letter sent to Eddie Harmer by Gordon Nunn, a friend of Mountford, says: ‘I met Ossie the evening before. He looked physically and mentally worn out and should have been pulled from operations there and then, but these things happen in war.’
Relatives of both men have visited Horndean and it is hoped they will be there for the unveiling.