Fatal accident at Winterbourne Gunner
Although gas had not been used so far in World War Two, the possibility of chemical warfare was still taken very seriously, both the enemy and the allies had stockpiles of various types of gas and all Services were continually trained in defence against gas.
The Army School of Chemical Warfare (Winterbourne Wing), located in Winterbourne Gunner ran various courses in protection against chemical attack. One such course was for Non Commissioned Officers and NCOs and Course No 24 W was held in October 1943. On return to their regiments, those who had successfully completed the course they would become unit instructors in defence against chemical warfare.
Part of the Course was called 'Gas in the Field' and in one particular part of this period, they would be subjected to simulated gas in the form of a harmless water based training liquid, delivered by a low flying aircraft. This was delivered without warning and was designed to test them in how long it took to don respirators and thus save their lives.
Between 12.45 and 13.00 hours on Saturday 23rd October 1943, a column of some 160 troops (men and women) were marching on a road on the ranges in 'column of route', that is three abreast.
RAF Lysander (R 2613) fitted with a special canister filled with a harmless liquid spray to simulate gas droplets took off at 12.35 from Boscombe Down tasked with flying low over the whole column of troops beginning the release of the spray a little ahead of them. This Lysander was part of the Special Duties Flight which had been formed in 1938 to work with the Civil Defence Experimental Establishment at Porton. The main task was to investigate the air delivery of poison gas but they also assisted the Army School of Chemical Warfare on their courses. Details of this Flight and its work is not readily available from RAF Records but it is known that a number of Lysanders were equipped with canisters for this task. On this occasion the pilot concerned had 53 similar runs to his credit and was therefore extremely well used to the exercise. He flew into the wind which was about 15 mph and approached the column head on. Just ahead of the column he released the spray but at the same time the canister was seen to fall from the Lysander among the marching troops.
It struck those towards the rear of the column killing five women members of the A.T.S. (Auxiliary Training Service) and two men, both from the Royal Artillery. Seven more women of the A.T.S. and the Canadian WAC (Women's Army Corps) were injured together with one male soldier.
An enquiry was immediately held followed later by a Court of Inquiry. The exact findings of the Inquiry are not known but from what can be gleaned it appears to have been judged a tragic accident. The pilot had two separate controls, one to release just the spray and a second to release the canister, similar to that used to release a bomb. There were two separate controls of course, the canister release control was not to be used on this exercise as the pilot was required only to release the spray. It was decided that there must have been a short circuit when the spray release control was activated which initiated the second control thus releasing the canister with the subsequent fatal result.
The same Lysander was refitted with a similar container and flown again more than once to try and reproduce the failure, but without success. An exceptional and unexplained short circuit on the fatal flight must be the strongest possibility for the accident.
Those who died in the accident were:-
W/187708 Lance Corporal Margaret Ann CROFT ATS Aged 23
W/176983 Lance Corporal Louisa Jane KULKE ATS Aged 21
W/42911 Sergeant Joan Margaret MARSHALL ATS Aged 21
W/6701 Company Sergeant Major Dorothy Isa Gray MORRHALL ATS Aged 24
W/44804 Corporal Kathleen Margaret REYNOLDS ATS Aged 26
1567696 Bombardier Martin McCANN RA Aged 23
1558775 Bombardier Herbert WOOD RA Aged 27
Those who were wounded were:-
W/210089 Corporal M M PRESTON ATS