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Heroic Smethwick pilot whose plane crashed just yards from his home

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: July 29, 2004

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A few weeks ago the Bugle featured the story of Fred Ward and his wartime exploits, including the time he spent with the Maritime Royal Artillery, fighting in Italy and taking part in the D-Day landings. But whilst Fred was otherwise engaged in matters across the Channel, there was a tragedy unfolding on his very doorstep, back home in Smethwick.

Fred lives close to West Smethwick Park, almost on the Oldbury and Smethwick boundary, and grew up not far from where he lives now, so he knows the park like the back of his hand. As well as fulfilling an important role at the local Royal British Legion, Fred is also a member of the Friends of the Park Group, and is keen to promote its wide open spaces and lake as an attractive amenity for all those who live in Smethwick and beyond.

Fred had always known about the existence of a memorial stone that lay hidden from view in a small garden in the park, and wanted to investigate more. With the help of his good friend Keith Cherrington, he pieced together a remarkable story of heroism and tragedy, which the Bugle is able to retell, nearly sixty years to the day since it happened.

In July 1944, the country was still wallowing in the successes of D-Day and everyone began to believe that at last the war might soon come to an end. Life in Smethwick began to get back to something like normal, as in every other Black Country town. The factories were busy with munitions production and other important war work, housewives were engaged in their normal sequence of household chores, and because it was Monday 31st of July, it was washing day; and the kids were starting to enjoy their summer holiday away from the school classroom, filling the air with their childish laughter. Because the immediate area and surrounding townships were heavily industrialised, Smethwick had been prone to air-raids since the start of the war, so aircraft, both friend and foe, were a common sight in the skies above the town.

Just before 11am on that fateful Monday morning, a plane was spotted overhead flying very low, apparently suffering from engine trouble. It was recognised as British so the air-raid siren remained mute, causing most people who saw it to carry on where they'd left off. But housewives in the vicinity of West Smethwick Park, attracted by the unusually loud engine roar, stood in their gardens as the plane circled overhead. Some thought the plane was following a stunt routine, whilst others stared more quizzically and realised that things were not as they should be. In a desperate bid to avoid the buildings that ringed the park, the aircraft gained a little height, but this was only a temporary manoeuvre and once again it began to fly dangerously low. The aircraft was an RAF trainer, possibly a Miles Marston, with two young flight sergeants on board, Allan Charlie Cox and Gordon Preston. Both were experienced and qualified pilots with more than 1,000 flying hours each to their name. But fate had played them a terrible hand that summer morning.

Allan Cox was a native of Luton, but had come to live in Smethwick at an early age. He attended Smethwick Hall School and afterwards began work at William Mills Ltd. as a pattern maker. He joined the RAF in 1941, was trained in Arizona, USA, and then posted to RAF Training Command. Gordon Preston, an equally experienced pilot, was Allan's best mate and came from Pinner in Middlesex. Both friends had been enjoying a period of leave together at Allan's home, which was in Ernest Road, just a stone's throw away from West Smethwick Park. Allan obviously knew the park very well and was at the controls, desperately trying to find somewhere to put the aircraft down. His immediate objective was the strip of land nowadays occupied by the football pitch and cricket square. It was the only ground of any size clear of trees, but there were young children playing there, whose bemused young faces were looking skywards at the tragic events unfolding before their eyes. With no chance of crash landing on open ground, the two pilots turned the plane and swooped low over the park lake, only to find several rowing boats out on the water. The way in which they handled the plane showed courage and heroism, and within seconds of aborting a belly flop into the lake, the plane crashed. A fisherman nearby saw the machine rise again, but in trying to avoid more trees, it stalled and nose dived into a disused tennis court, bursting into flames. The two pilots died instantly. As the flames rose to a level above the trees with the petrol-soaked fuselage fully ablaze, it was obvious that nothing could be done to save the occupants even if they had still been alive. Four N.F.S. pumps were quickly on the scene under the direction of Divisional Officer J. R. Cartmell. Every effort was made to quell the flames, but the wreck was completely burnt out. Ambulance and police worked heroically to extricate the two pilots, but when their bodies were eventually retrieved they were almost unrecognis- able.

Minutes before the crash, as the plane circled above the park, Allan Cox's mother had seen the stricken aircraft from her kitchen window. She watched in horror as it disappeared behind the trees and burst into flames, a black pall of smoke rising high above the park. She was, of course, unaware that her son had been one of the pilots on board. On returning home from work her husband visited the park to inspect the wreckage, as most of the local residents had done during the day. As he closed in on the crash site, he began talking to an RAF officer still at the scene, whom he recognised as being from the same aerodrome as his son. He was then given the gruesome news that it had been Allan and his mate who had died in the crash some five hours before. A terrible discovery to make and no consolation to be told his son had behaved like a hero. But the flying skills of both Flight Sergeant Allan Cox and Flight Sergeant Gordon Preston had certainly saved the lives of many innocent people in West Smethwick Park that day.

Fred Ward invited the Bugle down to West Smethwick Park to visit the crash site and memorial stone that once carried the names of the two pilots who died on 31st July 1944. Fred explained that the stone has been neglected for many years and stood in the middle of a small memorial garden which had been laid out just after the war. The hedgerows had grown up around it to such an extent that the stone was completely hidden from view, only recently being cleared. It is now Fred's intention, with helps from the local council and other Friends of the Park Group, to put the memorial garden back to how it was and reinstate the stone with a plaque commemorating the bravery of the two airmen. Because this year is the 60th anniversary of the crash, with the help of the Smethwick branch of the Royal British Legion, it is hoped a commemorative service will be held in their honour in the park, probably in September.

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