The Day a Typhoon hit Bognor Regis

The West Sussex holiday resort of Bognor Regis, noted for sunshine and fun, was once hit by a typhoon, killing two people and destroying two houses. This was no freak weather phenomenon but a Hawker Typhoon aircraft crash in WWII.

Len Martlew, 65, and his 63-year-old wife Annie lived at number 13 Beatty Road Bognor Regis, a home they had lived in for many years, with a small but well-tended garden. It was mid-afternoon on Thursday 22 April 1943 and the morning rain and drizzle had been replaced by slight winds and watery sunshine, when tragically an RAF aircraft crashed onto their home.

Annie Martlew was out shopping leaving her husband Len alone at home when a Hawker Typhoon aircraft from RAF Tangmere crashed onto two houses, 13 and 15 Beatty Road killing Len. His body was later recovered from a toilet attached to the now wrecked houses by the local fire brigade and rescue workers.

The Hawker Typhoon came from 197 Squadron based at RAF Tangmere, equipped with a bombing capability rather than firing rockets. It was the job of the squadron to pinpoint and accurately dive and deliver bombs to specific targets in occupied France and get out at speed. Termed as ‘hit and run’ the squadron had been highly successful as the run up to D-Day in 1944 started. The mighty eight-ton Typhoon, with a speed capability of 400mph plus, carried two 5001b bombs, one on each wing (later increased to 10001b), and four 20 mm cannons, two in each wing. While it had notable successes the rate of attrition among the pilots was high.

The pilot of Typhoon DN545 OV-J that day was 21-year-old Ernest Fletcher, or better known as ‘Fletclr on the squadron. He had joined 197 ‘A Flight in late February after he had trained in America. Joining the list of pilots on this elite squadron on the West Sussex airfield he was quite ‘chuffed’. Undaunted after his first flight in the Typhoon he commented to a fellow pilot that it was like flying being strapped to a rocket projectile!

By April he had already undertaken a number of bombing missions to Northern France, well aware that the Typhoon, while fast and formidable, also had several major issues. Two pilots had been killed soon after he joined the squadron, one with an engine failure and the other with a tail breaking off. One, Jack Bowler, is buried in his home of Hayling Island, while Pilot Officer Bokobza was taken home to Lincolnshire. Further deaths were to follow until the Typhoon’s problems were sorted out some months later.

On 22 April 197 Commanding Officer Squadron Leader Leader Prevot DFC required an air test on Fletcher’s Typhoon to be done after some major work had been carried out by the ground crew; it would also give the pilot more flying time. So after a casual lunch in the Sergeants’ mess, and with the weather now improving, he walked to his aircraft for the test, the ground crew standing on the wings ready to strap him in. Thirty minutes should see the job done and he could be back at base with a little more flying time added to his logbook and in time for tea. After a cursory walk around the aircraft to make sure that wing and elevator tabs had been removed, he soon found himself in the cockpit, ready to start the mighty Napier Engine. These engines were sometimes troublesome to start and sometimes even caught fire, but this time the engine fired up and roared into life and he quickly slid the canopy into place, an urgent procedure to prevent the deadly carbon monoxide gases from entering the cockpit. He glanced at the array of instruments before him and with oil and engine temperature settling down he waved away the chocks while asking permission to take off for local flying and air test. With clearance from Air Traffic Control given he lined up his aircraft and held at the end of the runway while he made one further and final check that all was working. Happy now that the Typhoon was ready to fly he opened the throttle, zoomed down the runway and took off aiming to fly over Bognor Regis and along the coast and back. Climbing hard he called to say he was airborne and clear of the airfield. These were his last words. Just minutes into the flight the engine seized with a mighty bang and stopped. He must have scanned the ground below possibly to find an open space to drop down and belly flop but he was still under baling out height. He was over a populated area and there was nothing he could do as his aircraft suddenly spun into Beatty Road, and he was killed.

His body and that of Len Martlew were carefully removed from the debris that was once two houses. Fletch’s body was taken to the mortuary at RAF Tangmere and Lens to a local undertaker in Bognor Regis. Two days later at the Fletcher family home in Abbey Wood, London, widow Mrs Florence Fletcher, whose husband had died while Ernest was a young boy, opened and read the dreaded and very formal telegram from the War Office stating simply that her son 1336582 Sergeant Ernest Fletcher had been killed during operations. There were no further details to help console her.

The family decided on a private funeral for Ernest in Woolwich Cemetery, London, not far from 175 Commonwealth War Graves of fallen servicemen on the same site. He was buried in the family plot joining his father James who died in 1926, and brother Oswald who had died in 1934. Mrs Florence Fletcher died in 1985 and was later joined by Elizabeth in 1997, with a further family member named on the tombstone, reserving her place for when she dies.

Len Martlew is buried in Bognor Regis Cemetery, Hawthorn Road. His grave sadly ravaged by recent storms; the headstone is blown over and face down. He was joined by his wife Annie just over two years later. Their epitaph ‘God took the loved ones from our home but never from our hearts’ was possibly placed by relatives who, after an extensive search I have failed to locate. That said Roger Clement, Cemetery Superintendent at Bognor Regis Cemetery, who was kind enough to show me the correct location of Len and Annie’s grave is responsible for well over 16,000 burials on the site. He told me that he hopes to have their grave repaired as soon as possible, but it, along with many other damaged graves in this cemetery are victims of the severe weather. Any repair must reach current Health and Safety standards.

Beatty Road returned to normal after the war. Any residents who recall this tragedy have either moved away or have since died. Apart from the road now being jammed with parked cars the only change, to the inquisitive eye, is that the shapes of number 13 and 15 differ from all the other properties along that road. Phil and Claudette Silchester now live in one of the houses and they were happy to show me their very neat and tidy back garden. Phil told me that while digging foundations in the garden for home improvements some years ago he came upon bits of ‘Fletch’s’ Typhoon. He identified them as parts from the undercarriage which he handed over to the museum in Bognor Regis.

I managed to source a poor quality picture of 197 Typhoon Squadron showing a picture of each of their pilots taken just a month before that fateful day in April 1943. Next to Ernest Fletcher is Jack Bowler, another Gould, and Bokobza, who all died flying the Typhoon.

The problems with the Typhoon’s engine and structural issues were resolved by the end of 1943 and the aircraft went on to be the finest allied ground attack aircraft of WWII. It particularly came to note during the Battle of Falaise in the late summer of 1944 when half the retreating German Armour and Transport was caught on the open main Falaise Road and was wiped out. Described in former Typhoon pilot John Golley’s excellent book The Day of the Typhoon, the aircraft’s true value had arrived but sadly too late for Beatty Road.

From mid-1943 to the war’s end West Sussex had the highest concentration of fighter and fighter bomber stations in the UK as plans for D-Day in 1944 were put in hand. On a clear day, viewed from the weathervane atop Chichester Cathedral Spire, nine active airfields could be seen: to the west Thorney Island and Appuldram while to the south Selsey. The north saw Westhampnett and Funtington, and east Merston, Bognor Regis, Tangmere and Ford. Only one of these historic flying sites exists today as an airfield, now known as Goodwood. In wartime it was RAF Westhampnett.

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