Mystery about how RAF crew's bones moved five miles after fatal crash

A plane mystery: How did the bones of two wartime RAF pilots end up buried on the land of an obsessive military collector FIVE miles from Yorkshire moor where they crashed?

  • Kenneth Ward was an obsessive collector who searched for WWII aircraft
  • Police searching his North Yorkshire home found ammunition and bombs
  • He was jailed for five years in 2011 for harassing his next door neighbour 
  • Part of the remains of two RAF crew were found at his abandoned home  

When a family living in a farmhouse on the North York Moors went to investigate a blockage in the septic tank they shared with the cottage next door, they made a grim discovery.

Nestled in the earth beneath the tank was a bone. And not just any old animal bone. A medical professional among them immediately recognised it as a human jawbone.

The police were called and a major inquiry swung into operation. Detectives swooped on Appletree Hurst Farm just outside the isolated hamlet of Chop Gate. Scene-of-crime tents were erected and forensic archaeologists rushed to the scene.

Examination of the jawbone, and a second one found nearby, revealed that they predated 1950, while marks on teeth indicated sophisticated dentistry compatible with the RAF. Even the slightest toothache could become agony for anyone flying an unpressurised aircraft at high altitude, so the RAF became pioneers in dentistry to keep their pilots in the air. The forensic team also found evidence of impact injuries on the bones and discolouration from contact with a helmet or chinstrap.

Alfred Milne, pictured on his wedding day to Gwendolen Margaret Oliver in July 1943 died when the plane he was piloting crashed just south of Middlesbrough while on a secret mission

Milne was flying alongside Warrant Officer Eric Stubbs, 22, who also died in the crash 

It soon emerged that the remains were of two 22-year-old pilots who had crash-landed in the course of a secret mission in 1944.

What rang alarm bells, however, was that the bone fragments were found five miles from where the plane had gone down.

Last week, more than 78 years after the crash, a coroner’s court finally confirmed what everyone had long suspected. Detective Chief Inspector Carol Kirk, from North Yorkshire Police, and forensic archaeologist Dr Karl Harrison agreed that the bones were a ‘secondary deposition’, coroner-speak for them having been moved from another place.

That place was Bransdale, a valley on the moors south of Middlesbrough. It was there that Pilot Officer Alfred Milne and Warrant Officer Eric Stubbs met their ends on October 11, 1944.

That morning, they had said farewell to their loved ones — pilot Milne had only married Gwendolen Oliver, a Land Army girl, a year earlier — and boarded their Mosquito bomber at RAF Beccles in Suffolk. Their mission was to transport a revolutionary new weapon designed by Dambuster bomb creator Barnes Wallis to RAF Turnberry in Ayrshire.

The remains were found at the home of a perverted former military historian Kenneth Ward

Kenneth Ward, 67, pictured, was jailed for five years in 2011 after he terrorised a former female police officer Mandy Dunford. Police raiding his home in North Yorkshire recovered a cache of weapons, including live ammunition and a aircraft cockpit with loaded guns

But halfway to Scotland their Mosquito experienced a catastrophic mechanical failure and plummeted to the ground.

What elements of their shattered corpses could be retrieved from the crash site were subsequently buried in graves in Surrey.

Unbeknown to their grieving families and RAF comrades, however, the recovery of their remains was by no means comprehensive and significant body parts remained at Bransdale long after the war ended.

And years later — in a gruesome act of disrespect to the war dead — someone pilfered them. What Northallerton Coroner’s Court could not decide was how the body parts were moved, or who had moved them. This, despite the fact that Appletree Hurst Farm, and the derelict Appletree Hurst Cottage which sits on the estate, were formerly inhabited by Kenneth Ward, an ‘obsessive’ military souvenir collector.

Ward, 75, has dedicated his life to scouring Britain for World War II relics and his vast collection of military memorabilia was housed in a makeshift ‘aircraft museum’ composed of tin sheds on the land surrounding his cottage.

This included remnants of a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine from a Spitfire, which collided with another plane over Cleveland in 1940, and parts of a German Junkers Ju 88 twin-engined bomber which crashed in Cleveland in 1944, an event witnessed as a child by the old farmer who lent Ward the JCB with which to dig it up.

Other items are more personal, such as the frames of a pair of sunglasses and loose change from the wreck of a Spitfire crash in 1943.

Alongside these are thousands of propellers, radios, parachutes and dinghies. But apart from being one of the UK’s most fanatical collectors of wartime relics, Ward has exhibited bizarre behaviour on occasion.

In 2011 he was sentenced to five years in prison for harassing his next-door neighbour. A court heard that he terrorised retired police officer Mandy Dunford, 62, for nine years in her isolated property, which was next to his in the heart of the moors.

On one occasion Ward appeared outside her home in the dead of winter, naked except for a pair of military boots and a rifle slung over his shoulder.

At other times he climbed ladders with his trousers down or watched her through binoculars. When police arrested him in 2010, they found a cache of weapons at his cottage, including a loaded Luger pistol under his pillow and, in his yard, an aircraft cockpit with fully-functioning loaded guns.

The RAF crew were flying a De Havilland Mosquito, similar to this, while carrying a secret bomb designed by Dambusters inventor Barnes Wallace. Their aircraft came down five miles from Ward’s former home were some of their remains were recovered

So Ward is an obsessive military hoarder and a convicted criminal. But do his misdeeds extend to bone collecting? Did he really transport the remains of two deceased war heroes five miles to his decrepit cottage to be macabre additions to his collection?

Last week the Mail visited the North York Moors to attempt to unravel the mystery. Swathed in heather and gorse, the dramatic hills rise to almost 1,500ft and thanks to these peaks — and their position on strategic flight paths during the war — the area has witnessed hundreds of aircraft crashes over the years, including 14 in 1944 alone.

This has made the moors a magnet for military collectors, salvagers, historians and enthusiasts. They scour the land with metal detectors and clipboards to fastidiously document its wartime secrets.

Ken Ward was bitten by the collector’s bug at a young age, once telling a newspaper how he had been gathering aviation artefacts since the age of 11. He recalled how, in 1959, a school friend had taken him to see the crash site of a bomber which had come down in moorland in Bilsdale, less than four miles from where the Mosquito crashed.

‘It was foggy,’ he recalled, ‘and we couldn’t see very far. We were walking . . . through the heather, not knowing where we were.

‘We heard the sound of squeaking metal. As we moved towards the sound, the tail-plane of a Wellington — 20ft high and complete with tail turret — loomed out of the fog.

‘It was lying like a giant Airfix kit, its rudder was swinging in the wind and squeaking like a rusty gate.’

Ward then explained just what fascinated him about military excavations. ‘These were war machines hitting the ground at 400 to 500 miles per hour,’ he said. ‘Quite often, people were still in them. RAF recovery teams would try to retrieve any human remains, but sometimes personal effects were buried when the hole was filled in.

‘Such discoveries bring you closer to the event — and you know that the last person to touch or hold that article was the owner.’ Milne and Stubbs’ Mosquito crash formed a crater into which much of the wreckage was subsequently placed by the people charged with cleaning up the crash scene and covered over with soil.

It wasn’t until 1969 that it was excavated by the now-defunct Yorkshire Aircraft Preservation Society, which sent parts for restoration by specialist collectors and then to local museums.

According to the website of Richard Allenby, a Yorkshire aircraft historian who gave evidence at last week’s inquest, Ken Ward returned to the crash site ‘at a much later date’ and ‘did a further dig’.

William Fern, of the South Yorkshire Aircraft Museum, said Ward’s magpie-like tendencies revealed themselves to the close-knit military salvaging community decades ago.

He told me last week of a licence the museum received in the 1980s to recover a Wellington bomber on the North Yorkshire Moors at Braemar.

‘Several members went up to do a reconnaissance,’ he recalled. ‘Somehow or other Mr Ward tagged along. They did the reconnaissance and came down because a helicopter was needed to lift it off the moors.

‘But when they went back the next day, a very rare dustbin turret from this particular aircraft had disappeared. This turret is so rare, it’s the only one anyone has ever heard of, let alone seen.

‘Eventually, Mr Ward had a dustbin turret in his collection.’

In 1999, the MoD gave Ward an informal warning over his possession of a pendant believed to have belonged to a Canadian airman who died in a crash in East Yorkshire during the war.

The suspected date of the pendant offence was 1982 — four years before the Protection of Military Remains Act was passed, which made it illegal to search wrecks without MoD permission. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Ward became an established collector, loaning pieces to museums, buying parts from the RAF and restoring whatever he could get his hands on.

But the story of his home life was one of sadness and squalor. Local newspapers reported in 2004 —when Ward was 57, his brother Brian 65 and his mother Muriel 87 — that the family were ‘living in Victorian conditions’ in Appletree Hurst Cottage.

The council had ‘condemned it as unfit for human habitation’ and ordered the landlords, owners of the Sion Hill Hall stately home down the road, to pay to fix it.

Ward was the main carer for his ill mother, who had suffered five strokes and had only one kidney, and the family lived among rotting woodwork and a slug-infested kitchen, with only a portable tin bath to bathe in. After his mother and brother passed away, Ward continued to live alone in the squalid cottage. It is at this point that he began his campaign of terror against his new neighbour Mandy Durford.

After buying her Studsdale property — and moving in alone — she watched in dismay as Ward converted part of her land into his ramshackle ‘Air Museum’.

Even after he had been jailed for stalking and firearms offences, she lived in terror that he would be allowed to return to Appletree Hurst Cottage upon his release.

It was thanks to an intervention from her local MP, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (who was then Chancellor), that a restraining order was obtained to prevent him from doing so. Ward moved instead to a caravan park in Sutton-on-the-Forest, near York, and police cleared his field of junk. ‘The bones must have been buried way before I came to live here,’ Ms Durford said from the doorway of her traditional stone farmhouse near Chop Gate.

Last Friday, the Mail tracked down the site of Ward’s shabby static caravan in an isolated country lane. But neighbours say he was evicted and his van confiscated by police 18 months ago — after the bomb squad was called in to deal with live ordnance inside the caravan.

‘It was terrifying to think what might have happened,’ said one resident, who lived just yards away. ‘He had a turret of a World War II Lancaster in there that was still emitting radiation due to the luminous dials.

‘He had so many rounds of live ammunition in there the police and bomb squad were here for three days. They used a bomb disposal robot as well.’

After he left Chop Gate, Ward was said to make frequent trips to France for more wartime excavations. ‘You would see him carrying stuff out of his car into his caravan,’ said a neighbour. ‘He was often working on things with a metal grinder.’

Police forced Ward from the site but have not kept tabs on his whereabouts. Neighbours speculated he had gone back into the woods of the wild North York Moors, but no one has seen or heard from him since.

Ward had been arrested after the discovery of the bones in 2020, but released without charge.

North Yorkshire Police later said its investigation had concluded and that the Crown Prosecution Service had determined there was not enough evidence to warrant a prosecution.

For his part, Ward has always denied being connected to the airmen’s remains. ‘They [the authorities] are no further forward, except that they’ve wasted a fortune in taxpayers’ money,’ he said last year. ‘I was told the investigation has cost up to a million pounds.

‘They were looking for memorabilia they thought was buried in the fields for some reason, but they found nothing. They raided my home, took a lot of items away and haven’t returned them. I was forced to move away and my life was turned upside down.’

Meanwhile, in reaching a conclusion of accidental death at the inquest into Milne and Stubbs last week, North Yorkshire coroner Richard Watson said: ‘It’s 77 years since the end of the Second World War and 78 years since this incident.

‘This year would have been Sgt Stubbs’s centennial and P.O. Milne’s would have been last year. This is a timely reminder to us all of those young men who made the supreme sacrifice and it’s a reminder of the cost of war.’

And for whoever unlawfully removed their bones, it’s also a reminder of the importance of respect for the dead.

Additional reporting: MARK BRANAGAN

Source: Read Full Article