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.
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.
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.”
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org