Just after New Year 1944, two RAF B-25 Mitchell Mark II bombers collided just a couple of miles from Dunsfold Aerodrome, where they were based. Both planes instantly came down. All eight men – a crew of four in each aircraft – lost their lives that afternoon.
The two planes crashed down within a few hundred yards of each other in the grounds of what is now the Rikkyo School, a privately-run Japanese school close to the village of Rudgwick. Despite having grown up in Rudgwick and lived there for most of my life, I was completely unaware of the fate of these two planes – FR396 from 180 Squadron, and FL682 from 98 Squadron – until I was contacted this summer by Adam Tudor-Lane, a freelance motoring journalist from Milton Keynes and great-nephew of one of the men from the aircraft.
His great-uncle was Flight Sergeant George Ormandy, a gunner with 180 Squadron and just 20 years of age. But like me, Adam had also been unaware of what had happened at Pallinghurst all those years ago. He was saddened to realise that there was no visible memorial to the loss of his great-uncle and his fellow servicemen. So over the course of two years, Adam had traced relatives and arranged for a commemorative plaque to be made, marking the tragedy. There would now be a memorial service to commemorate the men, and the newly-installed bronze plaque would be officially unveiled by representatives from the Royal Air Force.
I had been recommended to him as a local event photographer. This was a very meaningful event for those who would be attending, and Adam wanted to commission a series of photographs that would document the day as it really happened, in an unobtrusive manner. It was something that I believe my style of photography is well-suited to, because I prefer to work as unobtrusively as possible, respecting the event. I prefer not to interfere or contrive the order of events for the sake of my own photography, but rather to observe the natural, true flow of events and document them as they happen in real time. This is what documentary event photography is all about – recording the story, and keeping a core element of it alive – through the photographs – for generations to come.
I realised that this event was something different – marking a loss of life that happened in the place I call home. And after almost 75 years, the only evidence that remained on site were a few twisted remains of the two aircraft left hidden in the beautiful Surrey countryside. These were young men – their average age was 23.5 years old – who gave their lives fighting for the freedoms that we still have today. It was absolutely right that there should be a memorial plaque to mark their sacrifice, and also a memorial service and unveiling ceremony to mark the occasion.
So what had started as research into family history had ended with a gathering of more than 100 people, and relatives from almost all of the eight families of the men who died. These were people who had travelled from many corners of the UK and indeed as far as New Zealand – FR396’s pilot was Flying Officer Ernest Fooks, a New Zealander serving in the RAF Reserve with all the other seven men. An immaculately-uniformed delegate from the RAF was also present. The Last Post was played by a bugler. And as the visitors were taken from the first crash site down to the second (which was further from the main school building) they were piped down the hill accompanied by the bagpipes.
So I wanted to record the event faithfully and respectfully. I was honoured to play my own part in the memorial, by photographing an event that commemorated part of the history of my home village. I wanted to take photographs that told the story of the day. This was an event of intense importance to the organisers and those in attendance. I was happy to know that my event photography would play a part in this.
I hope the photographs I took will help keep memories of the event itself alive for many years to come, and perhaps play a small part in keeping the more important memory alive of what these eight men – and thousands of other men and women – gave up for us, just 75 years ago.