Search for family of Preston flying hero killed in tragic war crash ahead of memorial

William Cross
William Cross
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An urgent appeal has been launched to find the family of a Preston airman killed in a wartime plane crash.

William James Cross from Ribbleton died along with seven other RAF airmen when two North American B-25 planes collided in mid-air over West Sussex while returning from bombing factories in occupied France on January 7, 1944.

The plaque to commemorate the flight

The plaque to commemorate the flight

For 75 years there has been nothing to mark their loss just three miles from landing at RAF Dunsfold, but now a memorial plinth is being built, with a service to commemorate the dead on Saturday, August 31.

“Within a generation, these men have been forgotten and we need to built a memorial to remember their sacrifices”, said Adam Tudor-Lane, the great-nephew of George Ormandy, a gunner in the squadron 180 plane, which collided with William’s.

“Both crash sites are just grass, you’d never know there were the remains of a 12 ton North American B-25 below your feet, let alone that four men perished in each.”

For the past year, 30-year-old freelance motor journalist Adam has made it his mission to trace the families of the dead airmen, to find out more about the men who perished alongside his great-uncle, and invite them to the service.

William Cross's gravestone

William Cross's gravestone

But with just seven weeks to go, he has hit a dead-end searching for William’s relatives, despite visiting his grave at Preston Cemetery and leaving a metal business card, speaking to local historians, looking at family trees on ancestry websites and research in libraries and online.

He said: “I’ve managed to find the families of the plane George was on, but the 98 squadron plane (which William was on), has been much more difficult. I’ve only got contact with one of the families so far.

“With William, someone in his family sold his medals a few years ago, so I’m hopeful someone is still alive.”

With the help of Frank Phillipson from the Dunsfold Airfield History Society, Adam has managed to trace two photographs of William and his death notice.

All that is known is that he was 22, an air gunner for the RAF Volunteer Reserve, he was the son of Nancy and William Cross of 46 Dorman Road, Ribbleton, brother to John and May, uncle to Dorothy of 36 Grosvenor Street, Preston, and sweetheart of Vera.

Adam, from Milton Keynes, began his journey when looking through old family photographs and discovered there was only one of George, his grandmother’s brother.

In January 2018, while looking at the photograph on his coffee table, he decided to find out more, and the journey took him to the Dunsfold website which had only been put online three weeks beforehand.

He said: “I was able to find out everything my family hadn’t known, and that happened to be on January 7, 2018 - the 74th anniversary of the crash.

“Since then I’ve been to the crash site, which used to be a stately home, but is now a Japanese Christian school.

“I went to the crash sites and it was just grass. I started to wonder how we knew that these were definitely the right sites.

“We were going on passed-down information that could be wrong.”

After enrolling the help of a local metal detectorist, Adam was able to confirm the crash sites were where eye-witnesses had said, and he recovered eight to 10 pieces of crash debris from the surface of the land.

The bulk of the wreckage from both planes was removed almost immediately after the crash, due to the presence of bombs.

Adam has managed to trace five out of the eight relatives - some from as far afield as New Zealand and Canada.

And over the last nine months, with donations from four of the families and a local museum, he has set out building a memorial near both crash sites, with will see a bronze set onto a plinth.

Currently there are around 60 people attending the service, there will be representation from the RAF, Royal British Legion and the Mayor of Abergavenny is attending to represent Douglas Morris as he has no next of kin.

Adam said: “It’s quite amazing to find these people. When I started out, I had no idea it would take this long, or what would be involved. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive from my home to the crash site, and I’ve had to get permission from the school to visit the land, do research and fundraise, but these people shouldn’t be forgotten.

“The families want to see this happen. I spoke to one relative who wanted to do this 45 years ago, but it didn’t happen - life got in the way.”

Anyone who has information about William Cross, contact Adam on 07745484448 or by email on: adam.tudor.lane@gmail.com

The disaster

At 1.35pm on January 7, 1944, North American Mitchell II, FR396, Code letter ‘K of 180 Squadron collided over Rudgwick, West Sussex with Mitchell II, FL682, Code letter ‘N’ of 98 Squadron.

This occurred at 12,000ft as they approached RAF Dunsfold in two separate six aircraft box formations in poor weather. They were returning having just bombed targets in Occupied France. Crew members of both aircraft were all killed.

Each aircraft carried eight 500lb Medium Capacity bombs, most of which had not been dropped due to bad weather.

The Mitchell of 98 squadron crashed in a fairly flat manner and burst into flames 200 yds south-east of a stately home called Pallinghurst, in an orchard.

The other Mitchell of 180 Squadron dived straight into the ground 200 yds north-east of Pallinghurst, near the stables. The aircraft had probably not dropped its bomb load due to cloud cover obscuring the target. One or more bombs exploded, either when the aircraft hit the ground or fell out and exploded nearby as the aircraft descended.

It was concluded the crash occurred when the leader of the 180 squadron formation broke away too early and warnings were not heard as the microphone had been turned off.

William Cross

- He was 22 when he died on January 7, 1944

- Air Gunner RAF Volunteer Reserve

- Service number 123264

- Son of Nancy and William Cross of 46 Dorman Road, Ribbleton

- Brother to John and May

- Uncle to Dorothy of 36 Grosvenor Street

- Sweetheart of Vera.