Southwick’s Miraculous Escape: New book reveals truth about top-secret Cold War bomber crash

Top-secret documents from the Cold War have been scoured to uncover the true story behind a bomber crash in Southwick.

Monday, 23rd August 2021, 2:26 pm

Southwick Society chairman Mary Candy has pieced together the events of May 11, 1956, using newspaper reports, the memories of local people and, particularly, official documents which were previously classified but have now been released to the National Archives.

The story of that fateful day and its effect on the community in Southwick are told in Mary’s new book, Southwick’s Miraculous Escape, which will be launched at Manor Cottage Heritage Centre on Saturday, August 28, from 10.30am to 12.30pm, with all proceeds going to the Southwick Society.

The RAF Vickers Valiant was a top-secret bomber, designed to fly high and fast over the USSR to drop atomic bombs. When one crashed in Southwick in the depths of the Cold War, it was widely reported in the press but the story behind it was long shrouded in mystery and attracted much speculation and rumour.

Southwick Society chairman Mary Candy at Southwick Recreation Ground, where much of the wreckage landed

Nigel Divers, Southwick Society secretary, said: “Mary is to be congratulated on her superb research and for producing an excellent book which answers all our questions about this tragic event.

“When I first went to Manor Hall Road School, now Eastbrook, not so long after the event, stories of the crash sill abounded, many of them lurid and, in hindsight, fanciful. Not surprisingly, amongst small boys there was much talk of spies and sabotage and many were convinced that it was carrying a bomb -conspiracy theories are nothing new!

“Now we know what actually happened. The illustrations and maps superbly show the effects on Southwick and damage to local houses. Southwick really did have a miraculous escape.

“Southwick’s Miraculous Escape should be on the book shelves of everybody who is interested in the history of Southwick and of the aircraft of the RAF.”

Wreckage still smouldering in Croft Avenue. Photo by Peter Sayer.

It was at lunchtime on May 11, 1956, that the bomber crashed on the railway line, just south of Croft Avenue. Tragic though it was, the crash could have been a more major catastrophe.

If the aircraft had crashed a little to the north, it could have obliterated Manor Hall Road Junior Boys School and adjacent houses. A little to the east or west it would have crashed on to houses, and just to the south there were more houses and the busy harbour where the new Brighton B power station and major port installations were under construction.

Many people could have been killed or injured, so Southwick had a miraculous escape but sadly, the pilot, navigator and a civilian engineer were killed. Only the co-pilot was able to eject, landing near the railway station, and he survived.

The bomber had been on an experimental flight from the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough when on-board test equipment began to fail and the pilot decided to abort the mission.

A damaged house in Croft Avenue, Southwick

However, the aircraft had a high load of fuel and it was decided to fly between Selsey and Brighton to burn off fuel before returning to base.

As the Valiant was flying fast and low eastwards near Southwick, there was an electrical failure and the pilot lost control of the plane. He ordered the crew to eject and then the aircraft crashed on the railway east of the station.

It exploded and disintegrated, scattering burning wreckage nearly half a mile from the sight and causing considerable damage to nearby houses, especially in Croft Avenue and Whiterock Place.

Mary said she had used all the information she uncovered to write a detailed, illustrated book, which is now available at the discount price of £8. The book will be available to buy at Manor Cottage Heritage Centre, in Southwick Street, on open days and at Southwick Society Heritage Talks, which will be held from September. Orders can also be made via email to southwicksociety@gmail.com.