On the 9th December 1957 an RAF radar reconnaissance flight was returning to base at RAF Pershore in Worcestershire, after completing a testing mission in conjunction with a radar unit installed on the summit of Drum, on the Carneddau mountain range in Snowdonia. A radio call was made by the Flight Lieutenant to confirm the mission was complete and that the aircraft was returning to base. However, this was the last contact that was made with the crew of Canberra WK129 and after disappearing from radar ten miles North of Drum and fearing the worst, search parties were deployed to their last known location. The rescue teams eventually found the wreck, with pieces of it found up to half a mile apart. Sadly, the pilot and navigator (the only two crew) were killed on impact.
The resulting investigation found that whilst flying in low cloud the plane struck Carnedd Llewellyn, about three hundred feet below the summit, into a ridge connecting the mountain with Foel Grach. The slopes to the West of the ridge, were littered with pieces of wreckage whilst the remainder of the plane crashed down the East side and landed near Ffynnon Llyffant; a small lake at the foot of the cliffs. With pieces of wreckage found either side of the ridge it was suggested that if the plane was flying only a few feet higher it would have avoided the collision. There was no reason found, however, to suggest why the plane was flying below its safe altitude. The crew’s commander put forward the possibility that there was engine failure due to icing. Weather reports from that day indicate that icing was expected at above three thousand feet.
My hiking buddy Chris and I had been exploring the Carneddau mountain range in recent weeks and after returning home one day stumbled across this story when reading about the old mining and quarry operations that took place there long ago. After a good read up on the topic, we were consumed by the story and had to get out to take a look for ourselves and at almost fifty-eight years exactly since the day of the crash, in similar weather conditions what better time to set out to follow in the footsteps of the search party to find flight WK129.
It was a cold, wet and grey December morning. The type of day that if you were getting up for work you’d need ten snoozes, but this was mountain day! No snoozes required. I’d packed my rucksack the night before, slung it in the boot and made my way to Chris’ house a couple of towns away down the coast. Chris the coffee connoisseur whipped me up a strong Bolivian coffee and retrieved a well used, dog-eared paper map from his rucksack to go over our route. If the weather reports were right there would be strong gales and map reading, whilst out in the thick of it would be challenging to say the least. Perhaps amusing to some! With a photographic image of the route in our heads we were heading down the A55 before the sun had even come up and ready for a testing and enduring day on the hills.
We arrived at an empty car park for first light and were greeted by some wild Carneddau ponies who’d come to see what was going on. The first thing that hits you on the Carnedd’s is the sheer vastness of the place. Due to this, it is often neglected by the masses who opt for the more popular routes such as Snowdon or Tryfan. This suited us as it looked like we had the place to ourselves for the morning (and the ponies of course). The first few miles of the route were flat and straight on a slightly flooded rocky path which led to the old quarry we had been exploring only weeks earlier. The flat path allowed me to try and get used to the biting, icy wind which was driving straight at us. The snow hadn’t hit yet but the coldness of the air hinted it wasn’t far away. After sampling some of Chris’ homemade flap jacks for a quick fix of energy I pulled my buff over my nose, adjusted my hat, tucked my gloved hands inside my jacket pockets and waded into the wind.
We arrived at the quarry about an hour after leaving the car and by this time the rain was coming down hard and combined with the wind, was becoming impenetrable. We took shelter in a disused quarry building which had a solid, thick piece of Welsh slate for a roof and had obviously stood the test of time. Inside were some candles and two tins of Heinz spaghetti hoops kindly left by previous occupants on slate shelves built into the walls. Opting for some boil in the bag food brought with us we left the rusted tins for someone else and fired up the stove. Whilst the water was heating I wondered what the building I was in originally served a purpose for, how many others had been in here and how many of them had used it as a toilet. Without too much thought I proceeded to boil my expedition breakfast and sip on a hot steaming brew, watching the weather batter the landscape from the small door which had a curtain of water droplets streaming down from the grassy roof above. I thought about the search parties that would have had no time to stop for tea and porridge and had no choice but to continue their search in the dreadful weather.
With warm food inside us and the driving rain settling to more of a drizzle we were now faced with a long grassy climb following a stream to its source, Ffynnon Llyffant, the apparent resting place of the fated flight. It was a good slog up through long, wet grass and boggy marshland. The wind had picked up as we gained elevation and at some points we were on all fours, clinging to the ground. Had we been on rocky ground this would have been dangerous but with the soft long grass we decided to plod on, winding each other up about who was going to get blown over next. Upon reaching a plateau we checked the co-ordinates against the GPS and followed the digital arrow the short distance to the small lake.
As we crossed a small stream we located our first piece of wreckage. It was clear it was from an aircraft as we could see the rivets along the panelling but it was unclear what part of the aircraft it was. Reaching the lake we could clearly see the remainder of the wreckage that had been collected and placed together next to a rocky outcrop. It was quite strange standing in front of it imagining what had happened. The shelter from the large cliffs in front of us had diverted the wind and a deathly silence fell around us. The lake was still and the presence of the wreckage stood out on a landscape not famous for its manmade objects. Its silver edges and corners catching the sun that had now decided to make an appearance.
A piece of the fuselage that we found had an inscription that read:
In memory of the crew
of Canberra WK129
who died when they crashed
here in Dec 1957
Flt Lt Shelley
Flt Lt Bell
Whilst we set out to purposely find the wreckage it was a sad end to the day when we did. It gives me some comfort to know that they completed their mission and their aircraft now lays to rest in such a stunning corner of the world.