CRASH OF A BEAUFORT BOMBER
INTO THE SEA 20 KMS WEST OF SORRENTO

BETWEEN PEARCE AND ROTTNEST IN WA
ON 6 JANUARY 1944

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On 6 January 1944, a Beaufort bomber of 14 Squadron RAAF, piloted by 26 year old Wing Commander Charles Learmonth, DFC and bar, plunged into the sea 20 miles west of Sorrento during a training flight between Pearce and Rottnest in Western Australia. Learmonth was leading a formation of 3 Beauforts at the time of the tragic accident. Learmonth and the other three crew members were all killed. Learmonth was the Commanding Officer of 14 Squadron RAAF.

Maurice Flynn, a wireless operator in one of the other 2 Beauforts stated that he saw a lone parachute floating on the water after Learmonth's Beaufort crashed into the sea.

Prior to the crash Wing Commander Learmonth asked the No. 2 aircraft in the flight of 3 Beauforts to come in close to his aircraft to inspect his tail plane as he was having some handling problems with his aircraft. The crew of the other Beaufort noticed that the rod to the elevators was hanging down. All other Beauforts were immediately grounded after this accident. until the fault in the elevator coupling was rectified.

Squadron Leader Learmonth was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his attack on a Japanese destroyer in the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in March 1943. Learmonth lead 5 Boston bombers of 22 Squadron RAAF during the attack. He scored two hits on a destroyer which subsequently sank. He was awarded a Bar to his DFC in August 1943 as Commanding Officer of 22 Squadron RAAF.

As many as 93 Beauforts based at Sale in Victoria had crashed during training, killing many crew members. Until this accident involving WinG Commander Learmonth the cause of all of the crashes had been unknown. One suspicion that engine/exhaust fumes may have leaked into the cabin causing the crew the black out. Ernest Baker of Albany, an ex fitter and turner at Sale in Victoria, contacted the "Western Australian" newspaper in May 2000 to reveal that he had reported the faulty elevator coupling as the likely cause of the many Beaufort crashes way back in 1942. He said that he was not believed by his superiors and was in fact accused of sabotage and confined to barracks when he reported it.

In about 1998, a company carrying out a cable-laying survey for Telstra reported a mound of metal debris on the sandy seafloor about 20 kms west of Sorrento in about 40 metres of water. Western Australian maritime archaeologists were not sure whether it was a shipwreck or the remains of Wing Commander Learmonth's Beaufort bomber. WA Museum staff used a side scan sonar system to try to determine the nature of the debris. On 24 May 2000, archaeologists Jeremy Green and Mike McCarthy, returned to the location with staff from "The Western Australian" newspaper. They used a torpedo-shaped sonar device and a magnetometer to probe the 10 metre by 20 metre mound of debris which rose about 2 to 3 metres above the sea floor. Professor Jeremy Green stated that a further survey would soon be carried out using a remotely operated video camera. It was hoped that this would confirm whether it was the remains of Wing Commander Learmonth's Beaufort bomber or a shipwreck.

In anticipation of war, Charles Learmonth joined the RAAF in 1938 aged 21 years. He graduated from Point Cook in Victoria when World War 2 was declared. He met his wife at a party in 1940. He married her in about 1942. She later remarried in 1947 becoming Mrs. Le Souef. In May 2000, 82 year old Mrs. Le Souef said that she did not expect her first husband to be killed in Australia just off the coast and indicated that she preferred the possible wreck site be left in peace.

Learmonth flew his first operational sorties in New Guinea in 1942, for which he received a Distinguished Flying Cross and bar. He returned to Pearce airfield in 1943.

 


 

The following details are from the Australian War Memorial's Roll of Honour database:-

Chidlow, Frederick Erick
Number: 406689
Rank:   Pilot Officer [PO]
Unit:  14 Sqn
Place of Death: Pearce, WA
Cause of Death: Accidental

Memorial Panel: 100
Source: AWM148 Roll of Honour cards, 1939-1945 War, Air Force

Cullen, Douglas Raymond
Number:  406095
Rank:    Flying Officer [FO]
Unit: 14 Sqn
Place of Death: Off W Aust Coast
Cause of Death:  Accidental
Memorial Panel:  100

AWM148 Roll of Honour cards, 1939-1945 War, Air Force

Learmonth, Charles Cuthbertson DFC & BAR
Number:  385
Rank:  Wing Commander [Wing Cdr]
Unit: 14 Sqn

Place of Death: Rottnest, WA
Cause of Death:  Accidental

Memorial Panel:  100
AWM148 Roll of Honour cards, 1939-1945 War, Air Force

Moore, Gordon Gwynne
Number:  401523
Rank:  Flying Officer [FO]
Unit:  14 Sqn

Place of Death: Off Coast W Aust
Cause of Death: Accidental
Memorial Panel:  100

AWM148 Roll of Honour cards, 1939-1945 War, Air Force

 

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