Remembering the loss of RL249 – 70 years on

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14 February 2019 marks a special day for The People’s Mosquito. It marks the 70th anniversary since the loss of Mosquito RL249, the former 23 Squadron NF.36 piloted by Pilot Officer ‘Dickie’ Colbourne alongside his regular navigator and friend, Flight Sergeant William Kirby.

The crash claimed the life of Flight Sergeant Kirby and resulted in a badly injured Pilot Officer Colbourne being awarded the George Medal for conspicuous gallantry as he fought to save his friend from the wreckage.

It is their poignant story of comradeship, bravery and tragic loss that inspires us to return RL249 to UK skies. As we work towards that goal in 2019, The People’s Mosquito is proud and honoured to do so knowing that we have enthusiastic support from the surviving family of Sergeant Kirby, a man who loved to fly and had always dreamt of joining the RAF. In the following article, we tell you a little more about the crew of RL249, and what happened on that fateful winter night 70 years ago.

Flight Sergeant Kirby

Like thousands of WW2 RAF aircrew, William Kirby dreamt of becoming a pilot, a path which led him to leave his Berkshire home at the age of 18 and sign up for the Royal Air Force in 1943. However, a combination of fate, aptitude and operational necessity meant he was eventually streamed for navigator/observer training. In 1944, William found himself bound for Canada, as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, where he was to learn the tools of his trade on a variety of aircraft, including the workhorse for bomber crew training, the Avro Anson.

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In July 1944, he began his course at No.1 Air Observer School (AOS) at Malton, Ontario, gaining nearly 100 hours of day and night navigation experience, culminating in successful qualification on 1 December 1944. An advanced navigation course followed with No.3 Advanced Flying Unit (AFU) before William progressed on to operational training in mid-1945, with a posting to RAF Charterhall and 54 OTU. It was there that William first experienced the de Havilland Mosquito, with a 55-minute flight in a Mosquito NF.30, registration MT459. Night training began in earnest, as William honed navigation and learnt the art of nighttime airborne interception. However, it wasn’t until March 1947 that Flight Sergeant Kirby joined 23 Squadron, where he was to eventually team up with his regular pilot.

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Flight Lieutenant, Richard ‘Dickie’ Colbourne

Richard Colbourne was born on 26 May 1919 in Preston. He joined the Royal Air Force as an apprentice clerk in October 1935 but by late-1940 found himself serving in Singapore.

In 1941, Dickie successfully applied for pilot training, completing his training in Rhodesia before serving with the Desert Air Force in a general reconnaissance role. Returning to Britain in May 1943, Dickie’s skills were employed providing air-sea rescue cover flying the Supermarine Walrus. It was while trying to save crew’s lives that Dickie learnt of the death of his younger brother, Andrew, shot down as part of a 10 Squadron Halifax crew on operations over The Netherlands. By June 1944, he was posted to 278 Squadron operating out of Bradwell Bay, providing essential rescue patrols for downed aircrews. It wasn’t until the end of hostilities in Europe that the then Pilot Officer Colbourne completed his night fighter training and began operating the de Havilland Mosquito.

The Fatal Flight

On the night of 14 February 1949, Dickie and William, by that time an established crew with 23 Squadron with many hours together, took off from RAF Coltishall, Norfolk at 21.35, bound for the Holbeach Gunnery Range.

Shortly after take-off, both engines failed. The pilot managed to crash-land the Mosquito in a small copse of trees about four miles from the airfield. The aircraft suffered severe damage and laden with fuel, it immediately caught fire. Severely dazed, Colbourne called out to his navigator. A reply appeared to come from outside.

Dickie’s legs were trapped, but as the fire intensified, he finally got clear of the aircraft and smothered the flames on his clothing. On failing to find his navigator, the injured pilot realised he must still be trapped in the wreckage. Despite his injuries, and knowing the aircraft was loaded with live ammunition, he climbed back into the burning wreck and found William trapped in the aircraft’s shattered nose.

Driving home at the time was a Mr George Cubitt who witnessed the crash and described what happened when he reached the scene: “The plane was a mass of flames. As I went towards it the pilot, who was bleeding from the head, was dragging his navigator to safety. The navigator’s clothes were ablaze, and I managed with great difficulty to tear them off with my bare hands.”

Despite his own severe injuries, Dickie refused to leave William’s side. Throughout the difficult journey to hospital in Norwich, he remained conscious, offering encouragement to his navigator. Both men were placed on the “dangerously injured” list, but William was too badly injured. He died 20 hours later. Badly burnt, Dickie remained in hospital for many months.

As a result of his selfless efforts to try to save his navigator and friend, Dickie was awarded the George Medal. The citation concluded: “Colbourne showed great fortitude, personal courage and devotion to duty under conditions of extreme danger when he was in considerable pain from his injuries.”

The stark final entry in William’s logbook, dated 14 February 1949

After the crash

The events of the night of 14th February 1949 resulted in a mechanical fix for all Mosquitos using 113/114A Merlin engines.

Having survived the accident, Dickie remained in the RAF, becoming an instructor at the RAF School of Survival and Rescue before returning to flying duties when he commanded the Coastal Command Communications Squadron at Bovingdon. He went on to serve in both Singapore and Hong Kong before retiring in 1976. Dickie died on 26 February 2005, aged 85.

The remains of RL249 were removed and stored on Coltishall’s perimeter track following salvage of the Mk.X radar, engines and guns. For several years it was used as an instructional airframe before the remains were eventually buried when the airfield perimeter was reduced.

Those precious mortal remains form the basis of The People’s Mosquito today, as we strive towards returning RL249 back to UK skies.

In doing so, we seek to honour those men and women who helped shape the remarkable story of the Mossie, especially two young men – Dickie and William –  who shared that special bond as Mosquito crew and will forever be closely connected with RL249.

“Although I never knew my father, I know from my grandparents that he was especially proud of his RAF service and loved flying,” said Trevor Kirby, who was a one year-old baby when Flight Sergeant Kirby lost his life. “Dickie, when he retired to Devon as a local postmaster, continued to send my grandparents a Christmas card every year.

“I’m delighted The People’s Mosquito is seeking to return my father’s aircraft to the air and I believe my father would be too. I wish the project every success and will be watching progress with great interest.”

How can you help?

We need your help to return RL249 to where she belongs: the skies above Britain and Europe. The de Havilland Mosquito was a truly special aircraft. The story of its development and the vital role it played in helping win the air war in WW2 are remarkable. However, as the above article demonstrates, the stories of bravery and sacrifice didn’t end in May 1945. RL249 is a special Mosquito, with its own special story. What better way to honour both William and Dickie than to get her flying again?

You can donate by clicking here. Alternatively, why not join The People’s Mosquito Club and keep up-to-date with the project as our UK-build and restoration of RL249 takes shape.

Do you know the Colbourne family?

The People’s Mosquito would love to contact a member of Flight Lieutenant Colbourne’s family. Dickie had three daughters and one son. If you are a member of Dickie’s family, or know someone who might be, we would be honoured to share our vision for RL249. Contact the project via info@peoplesmosquito.org.uk

6 thoughts on “Remembering the loss of RL249 – 70 years on

  1. The Mosquito is the reason I fell in love with aeroplanes, and their smells and sounds.

    My father was Wing Commander Operations at West Raynham in Norfolk from roughly 1952 until 1954; and sometimes, in the early morning, he used to take me out onto the airfield in his WW2-era Hillman staff car – ostensibly, as far as I was concerned (I was about 6 years old) looking for mushrooms. But as far as he was concerned I expect he was checking that the day’s flying schedule was getting off to a good, timely start.

    There were Gloster Meteors at West Raynham (so I naturally became addicted to the smell of partly-burned kerosene!), and to a young lad they were seriously-impressive in their way; but there were also photographic reconnaissance Mosquitos stationed there, which caused a far more important and visceral addiction. I can still recall vividly the sights and sounds of these splendid aircraft quite close by, their seemingly-enormous propellors turning slowly while their crews did their checks and then lined-up on the runway – to the rising snarl of both propellors and Merlins as they powered down their take-off runs. I was hooked!

    Even though my father went on to fly Valiants, Vulcans (and eventually desks), and while I was still a schoolboy he would occasionally take me out onto airfields, sometimes during night-operations, to experience the extraordinary sights and sounds of V-bombers quite close-to. But they never quite replaced my first West Raynham ‘plane-gazing during those crisp early mornings – although tangentially I did end up in the UK aircraft industry, starting at Hatfield when it was still the de Havilland Division of Hawker Siddeley Aviation, and going on to live in and visit a wide variety of places during my subsequent 25 years with the company in its various forms.

    It is indeed an exciting thought that in just a couple of years, to quicken the pulse there may once again be a Mosquito to admire doing its pre-flight checks and then getting airborne to thrill us all: I hope so – the best of luck to your team; although these days I think I’ll just go out and buy the mushrooms!

    1. Hi Peter,

      Many thanks for sharing your wonderful irrepressible childhood memory. The Mossie truly was something to behold and with plenty of support behind us, it will once again when RL249 reminds the UK public what a truly special aircraft the Wooden Wonder was.

      Thanks for the words of encouragement and support.

      The TPM Team

  2. I was a a young pilot on the Coastal Command Communications Squadron in 1961/62 when Dickie was CO. Initially we were stationed at RAF Coastal Command HQ at Northwood before moving up to Bovingdon.
    Dickie had an Austin A30, which I think was a van, but I might be wrong. Anyway we had quite a few adventures around the local pubs. Many years later when I was on Britannias I bumped into him and his wife near where he was stationed at Hartland Point in North Devon.
    He was a great guy and a lot of fun to know. God bless Dickie.

    1. Thanks for sharing those memories John, everyone who knew him seems to speak very highly of Dickie – whether in service life or during retirement.

      He will forever be linked with the story of RL249. Although I never knew him, like many men of his generation i guess he wouldn’t all this fuss made about his flying career etc, but we will remain proud to share his story to anyone who cares to listen.

      The TPM Team

  3. Hi,
    This is a strange twist because I served in the RAF 1969 -1977 (in fact it is 50 years ago on Friday 15 that I went out there) and one of my postings was to Hong Kong (1969-71) and the later part of my tour we had a new Watch commander A Flt Lt Dickie Colbourne, he did have scarred features and he did have the GM.

    1. Thanks for sharing those memories of Dickie, Bernard. Now you know the story!

      Best,
      The TPM Team

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