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Tragedy beside Richmond RAAF Base, 1929.

A tragic and absolutely INCREDIBLE chain of events from 3 Squadron’s early history - as related in contemporary newspaper articles:

A two-seat DH-60X Cirrus Moth aircraft of the RAAF

From The Richmond and Windsor Gazette, Friday January 25th, 1929:


DEATH came suddenly from the sky in awful form on Monday to Mr. Albert Charles Smith (51), a well-known Hawkesbury farmer, who was killed instantly when an aeroplane dived on top of him while he was chipping weeds on his cultivation at Cornwallis, a few miles from Windsor.  

WHEN the 'plane struck the unfortunate man, it smashed the handle of the hoe he was using, dragged him about 15 yards, and bounced another 10 yards before it came to rest.  The deceased's son, James Smith, who was working on a tractor nearby, witnessed the awful tragedy, though he did not actually see the 'plane strike his father.  

SHORTLY after the machine struck the ground it burst into flames, and was destroyed.  The pilot, Sergeant Robert F. Somerville (26), of the Royal Australian Air Force, Richmond, and the mechanic, Leslie Milgate (24), were rescued from the 'plane by workmen on Mr. Smith's property.  They are now lying in Richmond Hospital, but their condition is not serious, although it is reported that they were so deeply shocked that they are suffering from partial loss of memory.  

EARLY on Monday morning Mr. Smith, who lived with his wife and family in a pretty bungalow cottage on The Terrace, Windsor, accompanied by his son James, left home for his fruit and vegetable farm at Cornwallis.  On his arrival at the farmhouse he decided to hoe a new cauliflower bed.  Meanwhile his son prepared the ground practically alongside him with a tractor.   At the same time a De Havilland Moth 'plane, which had been in use for only four months, left the Richmond aerodrome.  It was piloted by Sergeant Somerville, who had with him Leslie Milgate, a mechanic.  When the 'plane ascended from the 'drome the engine was in perfect running order, and as it advanced towards Cornwallis the gradually increasing roar attracted the attention of the farm workers.  

As it hovered over Mr. Smith's farm, Sergeant Somerville, who was a friend of the deceased's family, waved from the cockpit of the machine.  Mr. Smith immediately took off his hat and waved it in return.  The 'plane then circled around the farm, the airmen acknowledging the signals of the men below.  The third time the machine circled the ground, and when at an altitude of about 150 feet, it suddenly dived.  Mr. Smith apparently did not realise that the pilot had lost control, and consequently made no attempt to leave his position.  He leaned back on his hoe and watched the oncoming machine, realising his mistake when it was too late.  With a terrific roar the 'plane swooped upon him.  He jumped back, but as he did the whirring propeller struck his head, decapitating him.  The under-carriage caught his body and carried it a distance of about 15 yards, inflicting further shocking injuries.        

AEROPLANE AFIRE.   The aeroplane turned over on its side when it struck the ground and it appeared that the airmen were stunned and helpless in the cockpit.  Dense volumes of smoke poured from the undercarriage, and were followed by leaping flames.  Mr: James Smith, who did not see the aeroplane actually strike his father, ran to the machine and assisted by Mr. Herb Woods, of Newtown, Windsor, dragged Somerville from the wreckage. Milgate was also rescued from the burning wreck.  He was bleeding profusely from many wounds on his head and face caused by flying fragments, and he was suffering from intense shock.   'Where's father?' James Smith asked when the two airmen were safe.  He had last seen his father bending over the long, straight furrows of the cauliflower bed he was hoeing, and even then did not realise that his father had been struck by the crashing aeroplane.

On the other side of the burning machine, about three yards from the fuselage, was the terribly injured body of Mr. Albert Smith. Overcome by the sight, Mr. Smith jnr. collapsed, and when Somerville realised the awful result of the accident he sobbed bitterly.  Several people working on the farms nearby had seen the 'plane dive towards the ground, and they rushed to the scene.  The police and ambulance were immediately summoned.

CAN'T REMEMBER ANYTHING.  Although dazed and stunned by his terrible experience, Sergeant Somerville went to Mr. Smith's residence in Windsor, and from there he was taken to Windsor Hospital and admitted by Dr. Arnold.  Milgate's wounds were treated at a farmhouse, and he, too, was conveyed to the Windsor Hospital.  The two men were subsequently taken to Richmond Hospital, and instructions were issued that they were not to be disturbed.  Dr. Steele, of Richmond, the medical officer attached to the Richmond aerodrome, declared that after admitting and treating the two men in the Richmond Hospital, he asked them how the tragedy occurred. 'I don't remember anything,' both airmen replied.  Dr. Steele stated on Tuesday that the two men were in 'a very shocked condition,' and they would not be in a fit state to be interviewed for a few days.  In his statement to the police, Mr. James Smith said that he was working the tractor some seventy yards away from his father when the machine crashed. He had previously recognised Somerville waving from the 'plane. It circled over their heads three times. “The third time,” he said, "when the aeroplane was about 150 feet in the air above us, and about 200 yards, away, it appeared to crumple up, and swoop towards us.  The pilot did not regain control, and it crashed to the ground.”

CAPABLE PILOT.  SERGEANT SOMERVILLE, the pilot of the plane that caused Monday's shocking tragedy, is regarded as a most capable flier by R.A.A.F. officers.  Twenty-six years of age, he graduated with distinction as airman pilot at Point Cook, Victoria, on November 27 last; and, since then, he has flown over 200 hours.  Monday's flight was the first he made since returning from annual leave.

DIVE TO EARTH.  Mr. A. E. Cordner, who has a farm close by that of the late Mr. Smith, was an eye-witness of the crash.  He was about 500 yards away from the scene of the accident, and told the police that he had seen the 'plane flying over Smith's farm at a low altitude.  It descended to within ten feet of the ground, and rose to about 150 feet.   It then turned back over the same route it had previously come, and all at once it seemed to take a dive to earth.  The engine was shut off, and that gave Mr. Cordner the impression that it had failed.  He next heard a crash as the aeroplane dived into the loose tilled soil, and he saw a cloud of dust arise.  He ran across to the spot, and no sooner had he arrived than the machine burst into flames.  Mr. Smith, who was partly decapitated, was lying with his feet within about three yards of the burning 'plane, and bending over him, sobbing piteously; was the pilot of the machine; Robert Somerville.  

LOW FLYING.  Mr. J. Gardiner, whose farm adjoins Mr. Smith's holding, arrived at the scene of the tragedy a few minutes after the smash.  “Dense smoke first arose from the machine.” he said.  “Then it burst into flames. It was destroyed in a few minutes.” On many occasions, he declared, he had seen machines from the Richmond aerodrome swooping over the heads of the farmers working in the district, and so he did not pay any attention to Somerville's 'plane when he saw it flying low over Mr. Smith's property.  A Royal Australian Air Force waggon was later despatched to dismantle the machine, but when the dismantling crew arrived the engine was practically red-hot.  The aluminium pipes had been melted by the intense heat, and the struts and stays had been burnt and twisted.  Only one strut had been destroyed.  The machine [DH.60X Cirrus Moth, registration A7-8], which was fitted with the slotted-wing device, was the most modern in the aerodrome.  It had been in use for only four months, and was valued at £750.  One theory advanced at the aerodrome regarding the cause of the fatality was that the machine had encountered an air pocket, which frequently occur at low altitudes on hot days, and the pilot had been unable to regain control.

OFFICIAL INQUIRY.  Professor Payne, chairman of the Air Accident Investigation Committee, and Squadron-Leader Harrison, another member of the committee, left Melbourne on Monday night and arrived at the Richmond aerodrome on Tuesday. They will conduct an inquiry into the cause of the accident.  Investigation into the possible cause of the crash will be made more difficult because of the fact that the aeroplane has been totally destroyed.  All that is left, apart from the engine, is a pile of white ashes.

The District Coroner (Mr. .H. S. Johnston, J.P.) formally opened an inquiry on Monday and adjourned it until a date yet to be fixed, when the two airmen have recovered sufficiently to be able to tell their story.   Discussing the tragedy during the week, farmers in the Windsor district alleged that, on account of low flying, they have been terrified into lying prone as 'planes passed over their property. "They have been making it a bit too hot," said a well-known pea-picker. "A few weeks ago it took a boy all his time to get out of the way of a low-flying 'plane. I have known instances where men picking peas have had to throw themselves on their stomachs for fear of being hit.'

WELL-KNOWN IDENTITY.  When the sad news of the tragedy became known, profound sympathy was expressed throughout the Hawkesbury district, for the late Mr. Smith was a well-known and popular identity.  For the greater part of his life the late Mr. Smith lived in the Richmond district and accumulated considerable property.  Some three years ago the family came to Windsor to live in a pretty bungalow cottage that had been built on The Terrace by the deceased.  

'Ab' Smith, as he was affectionately known to his intimates, took an active part in the social and political life of the district.  For several years he was an alderman of the Richmond Council and a councillor of the Hawkesbury District Agricultural Association.  He was also a prominent worker for the Labor cause, and took an active part in local political campaigns.  He was local manager for the Nepean Products, Ltd., and was instrumental in inducing the firm of Henry Jones and Co., jam manufacturers, to commence tomato pulping operations in Windsor.  He was a successful farmer, an honest and generous man, and employed many hands.  To the widow and three children who survive - Freda, James, and Mary - the 'Gazette' extends heartfelt sympathy.

St Matthews, Windsor NSW.

THE FUNERAL.  In Windsor on Tuesday morning the mortal remains of the late Mr. Smith were conveyed from his home on The Terrace to their last resting place in the historic churchyard of St. Matthew's Church of England, a few hundred yards away.   A fortnight ago the deceased had told his wife that it was his desire that his burial, whenever it may be, should be carried out early and simply.  On Tuesday that wish was observed.  Notwithstanding the fact that the funeral was set down for 10 a.m. - twenty-four hours after the tragedy - people of all classes and creeds attended from all parts of the Hawkesbury, and from distant parts, to show their respect and esteem for the late Mr. Smith.  The funeral was one of the largest in the history of Windsor.  Indeed, had all the cars that assembled at that pilgrimage to the homestead taken part in the funeral, the cortege would have reached the churchyard before half of them had made a start.  Hence, the majority of those who came in cars walked in the sad procession.  

THE RECTOR'S TRIBUTE.  After a short service in St. Matthew's, the Rector (Rev. N. Jenkyn), in an eloquent address, paid a high tribute to the deceased, a man who delighted to be at his work early and regularly.  To be hurled into eternity in a moment's notice brought home more forcibly to them the words, "In the midst of life we are in death."

"The late Mr. Smith," continued the Rector, "was a manly man, a good man.  I had personal dealings with him, and I speak of him as I found him.  He was a good husband and father, a good employer, and there was nothing mean about him.  He had a kind and sympathetic heart, and will be sorely missed, for he gave work to many."  The minister also referred to the deceased's business dealings, and said great trust was placed in him by the merchants of Sydney.  Mr. Smith was a progressive man, and had built a nice home on The Terrace, which was good for the district. To illustrate the deceased's kind-heartedness and generosity, the Rector mentioned a little incident that occurred only a few days before the awful tragedy.  Two men came asking Mr. Smith for work, but he had nothing for them.  They had no food and their pleadings so touched him that he gave them 10/- each to buy whatever necessities they required.  That was only one of the incidents of the deceased's life, but it showed his true worth.  The Rector said the late Mr. Smith had a regard for good things, and he loved the early morning.  Indeed, it was his wish that he should be buried quickly and in the early morning, and that wish was being fulfilled.  He wanted no show, and that was why there was no tolling of the funeral bell.  Kindly acts during the deceased's lifetime were not forgotten when friends, neighbours, and employees paid their last tribute in silence at the graveside.  

A large wreath from No.3 Squadron, R.A.A.F., Richmond, together with other floral tributes, rested on the coffin.  


Two months later, from The Richmond and Windsor Gazette, Friday March 29th, 1929:


FOR the first time in the history of the Central Criminal Court an airman was tried on Friday for manslaughter while in control of an aeroplane.

…LOST HIS MEMORY.  It was necessary to prove, the Crown Prosecutor said, that the act of the accused rendered him guilty of culpable negligence or of a total disregard of life.  That was a heavy burden for the Crown, and it could not be lightened.  No one could say what took place in the control of the aeroplane, as Somerville had lost his memory as to what had happened at that time, and he had not yet recovered it.  Mr. E. W. Street then asked the judge to direct the jury to acquit, as on the admitted facts Somerville's act did not come within the definition of criminal negligence as laid down in the Gunter case.  After the judge was assured by the Crown Prosecutor that he had no evidence to carry the case further than he had intimated in his opening address, Justice Ferguson told the jury that there was only one course, and that was to acquit the accused.


From The Sydney Morning Herald Saturday, 23 March 1929

… It made the case more pathetic that the accused was engaged to the daughter of the deceased.


Seven months after the accident.  From The Richmond and Windsor Gazette, Friday August 2nd, 1929:


As a sequel to the aeroplane tragedy in January last … the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor has made a satisfactory payment to the widow and children of the deceased.  An advice from Melbourne states that the amount of compensation paid was £1600.  In the settlement an amount was included for damages for trespass and damages to crop done by the aeroplane on the farm.  Relatives of the estate, through their solicitor, Mr. Ronald B. Walker, of Windsor, had made a claim for £10,000 against the Defence Department, and after protracted negotiations the settlement was arrived at, but, it is understood, the Defence admitted no liability.


Seven years later, from The Richmond and Windsor Gazette, Friday December 18th, 1936:


An advice from Melbourne states that two R.A.A.F. pilots were injured when their machines became locked together as they were landing on Wednesday morning of last week at the flying training school at Point Cooke. The 'planes crashed and were greatly damaged.  The pilots were Flight-Lieutenant C. D. Candy, who suffered lacerations to the face and hands, and Pilot Sergeant R. F. Somerville, who suffered a fractured left leg and abrasions.  Both pilots were testing their machines when the accident occurred.  Flight-Lieutenant Candy was flying an Avro Cadet 'plane, and Pilot- Sergeant Somerville a DH Moth.  Apparently, neither pilot was aware that the other was attempting to land, and the 'planes collided when they were only a few feet off the ground.  Those who saw the accident consider the pilots were fortunate to escape death.  Both were taken to the Caulfield Military Hospital.

A further advice from Melbourne states that Pilot-Sergeant Robert Frederick Somerville died on Thursday morning in the Caulfield Military Hospital from injuries suffered the previous day.  The first medical report indicated that Pilot-Sergeant Somerville had suffered a fractured leg and lacerations to the head, and it was not thought that he had been critically injured.  A later examination, however, disclosed other injuries which caused his death.

Pilot-Sergeant Somerville joined the Royal Australian Air Force in June, 1925, and for some years was attached to the Richmond Aerodrome.  He qualified as a metal rigger and later was trained as a pilot.  Since December, 1935, he had been engaged as a flying instructor at Point Cooke, and was regarded as a most efficient pilot.  

He is survived by a widow and one child.  Mrs. Somerville was formerly Miss Smith, daughter of Mrs. Smith and the late Mr. A. C. Smith, of The Terrace, Windsor, and lived with her husband in the town for some time before removing to Melbourne.  The deceased pilot was accorded an Air Force funeral.      



Nearly ten years after the original accident.  From The Sydney Morning Herald Tuesday November 29th 1938:

Mishap to Visiting R.A.F. Machine.

The Vickers Wellesley long-distance bomber which led the record-making non-stop flight from Egypt to Australia was damaged yesterday when it made a forced landing in a potato field near the Cornwallis Road, two miles from Windsor.  No one was injured, but the four personnel and a farmer had miraculous escapes when the plane struck the rough field, bounced 20 feet into the air, ploughed through a barbed wire fence, and came to rest 50 yards further on.

Jack Drayton, a farmer, who was ploughing in the paddock where the aircraft crashed, escaped death by inches.  His hearing is bad and he was unaware that the plane was landing until his horse started to bolt, and he looked round to see the plane roaring over the field towards him.  He flung himself on the ground, and the wing of the machine passed a few feet over his head.

The accident occurred in a field belonging to Malcolm James Smith, whose father was killed in 1929, when his head was cut off by the propeller of a Moth machine which crashed in the same paddock.  The pilot of the machine, Pilot Sergeant Robert Somerville, later married Smith's daughter.  Somerville was himself killed in a crash at Point Cook in 1936.

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