Sixty years after the air crash that devastated families from across Croydon, the final investigation documents are due to be released this week.
By NEIL BENNETT
Many families in south London are hoping that the mystery behind a terrible air crash in Norway in 1961 might finally be solved on the 60th anniversary of the disaster.
Thirty-nine people, 34 of them schoolboys from Croydon, lost their lives when their aeroplane crashed into a mountain near Stavanger on the cloudy and blustery late afternoon of August 9, 1961. Despite official investigations by Norwegian and British authorities, the cause of the crash has never been discovered.
An editorial in the Croydon Advertiser at the time said, “Rarely in peacetime has an English town suffered such a tragedy as overwhelmed Croydon last week.”
The boys that died were mostly 14 or 15 years old and from Lanfranc Secondary. They were being flown to Stavanger on their way to a summer school trip, for many of them the first time they had travelled by air or visited another country.
Two of their teachers, as well as both pilots and a stewardess, also perished on the top of Holtaheia Mountain.
The official investigation report stated, “The cause of this accident was a deviation from the prescribed flight path for reasons unknown.”
The last documents about the crash, held in the Norwegian archives, are due to be released this week, and one woman will be particularly keen to find out what they reveal.
Rosalind Jones was the older sister of Quentin Green, the boy who called heads on the toss of a coin to get the last place on the doomed plane. He was 13 when he died.
Their father, Ronald, died four months later of a heart attack, always blaming himself for letting his son go on the trip.
Jones has, almost single-handedly, ensured that the memory of the boys has not faded into history. In two books, The Lanfranc Boys, published in 2011, and The Papa Mike Air Crash Mystery six years later, she has told the story of the families, the crash and its aftermath.
She has spent the last 10 years poring through the evidence and searching for the answers which the official investigators never found. She believes that that both the Norwegians and the British were rather too anxious to close the investigation. “I am absolutely sure that there was a big cover-up both in the UK and in Norway because there were short-comings on both sides of the North Sea,” she says.
Jones has persisted through repeated setbacks. Two former airline captains helped her investigation, only to withdraw their co-operation just as she was ready to go to print with The Papa Mike Air Crash Mystery.
A Norwegian air traffic controller, Helene Bjorntvedt, who worked at Stavanger airport until her retirement, is still conducting research of her own but has different theories about the cause.
There is now just a chance that the documents released by the Norwegian archives 60 years on, will reveal the missing pieces of the puzzle.
As well as Quentin Green’s toss of a coin, the Lanfranc story has other bitter twists of fate.
Some boys pulled out of the trip at the last minute because their families simply couldn’t save enough money.
Lanfranc pupil David Randall was 14 in 1961 and chose getting a bicycle over joining his school friends on the trip to Norway. Now aged 73 and still living in the area, he has experienced what is has become known as “survivors’ guilt”.
He has dealt with it in a remarkable way by tracking down on eBay as many Dinky toy replicas of the Vickers Viking aircraft as he could find, then repairing and re-painting them in the 1961 livery of Cunard Eagle Airways.
They have been placed at the foot of a memorial cross at the top of Holtaheia mountain in Norway and at the Lanfranc Memorial in Croydon cemetery, where the boys are buried.
“As the years have gone on,” Randall says, “the feeling built that I needed to do something to commemorate the event and expressing that feeling with the models.”
Despite the devastation of so many lives, the Stavanger crash became almost a forgotten tragedy, even for the people of Croydon. Of course, it made headlines at the time, and one man has never forgotten.
A young Michael Parkinson, then with the Daily Express, was one of dozens of reporters sent to the town to cover the aftermath. In his foreword to Rosalind Jones’s first book, he writes: “Certain stories stick in the mind. I had covered disasters before but the Lanfranc air crash, involving as it did so many young people, was particularly poignant and has remained in my memory ever since.”
Croydon’s resilience was evident back in 1961.
Fred and Ruby Taylor lived in Thornton Heath. Their only child, Roger, was among those killed in the crash. He was the deputy head boy at Lanfranc School.
A week after the disaster they wrote to friends that they were still going to put up the wallpaper in Roger’s bedroom that he had chosen before the trip. “Tomorrow will be our worst day but we have just got to face it and I am sure it helps me when I think that so many people will mourn our Roger. He certainly was a fine boy, and everyone has known about him now. He certainly was a credit to us.”
And a bond has developed between the Lanfranc families and the Norwegians, whose heroic search and rescue efforts in 1961 were much appreciated in Croydon. Friendships have lasted between the two communities.
On Sunday, there was a memorial service at Croydon Minster and, on the same day, a new plaque was unveiled on the footpath leading to the top of Holtaheia Mountain in Norway with the names of all the victims, a rare beam of light in a dark and very sad story.
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