On this day in history : 5th January 1941 – The death of English record-breaking aviator Amy Johnson CBE – who is killed whilst delivering an RAF aircraft from Prestwick to RAF Kidlington in Oxfordshire, via Blackpool….
Amy was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia – a journey that took 19 days…. She was also the first woman to fly from London to Moscow in under a day, completing the 1,760 mile trip in approximately 21 hours…. In her time she held World records for the fastest flights from Britain to India, Britain to South Africa and Britain to Japan….
It was in 1940, during World War 2, that she joined the newly formed Air Transport Auxiliary, transporting RAF aircraft between airfields all over Britain….and it wasn’t long before she rose to the rank of First Officer….
On the 5th of January 1941 Amy was delivering an Airspeed Oxford aircraft to RAF Kidlington, near to Oxford….the weather conditions were atrocious, with freezing fog and heavy snow…. It was a journey that should have taken ninety minutes – but four hours later Amy’s plane was seen to ditch into the water of the Thames Estuary, on the Kent coast, near to Herne Bay….
An eye-witness, who was on board a Destroyer escorting a convoy, said he saw the plane was in trouble – with the engines cutting out and restarting. He also said the aircraft had hit the sea between the Destroyer and HMS Haslemere, which was nearby…. As it made contact with the sea the plane skidded along the surface for a bit and then began to sink. The door opened and the pilot jumped out – just as the plane sank, creating a turbulence, so the pilot was lost from sight…. He then witnessed a man jumping from HMS Haslemere with a rope tied around his waist….
At least some of this does tie-in with the official account of what happened…. Possibly Amy’s plane ran out of fuel, after she had become lost in the fog…. The crew of HMS Haslemere, a small converted ferry being used as an escort vessel, apparently spotted Amy’s parachute as she bailed from the aircraft….and they mounted a rescue mission. The story goes that Amy called out for help and a rope was thrown to her but she was unable to grasp it…. HMS Haslemere’s Commanding Officer, Lt Cmdr Walter Fletcher, with a rope attached to him, dived in to save her – but she had disappeared beneath the surface – and he had to be pulled back on board…. Amy’s body was never found – and Lt Cmdr Fletcher died a few days later from hyperthermia…. He was awarded the Albert Medal for his bravery posthumously….
However, Amy’s death has always remained shrouded in mystery….and it is a possibility there may have been a ‘cover-up’….
One theory, however an unlikely one, is that her plane was shot down by ‘friendly fire’…. In 1999 a former member of the 58th (Kent) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment claimed that an aircraft had been contacted by radio and the pilot asked to identify themselves…. Twice the wrong identification code (which was changed on a daily basis) was given…. Sixteen rounds of shells were fired and the plane crashed into the Thames Estuary…. Initially they believed they had shot down an enemy aircraft – and it was only the next day when they learned of Amy’s plight did they realise what they may have done…. Officers ordered them to keep quiet…. Experts believe this theory to be implausible – given the distance the guns were from the aircraft that Amy was flying….
In 2016 another version of what happened on board HMS Haslemere emerged….via the son of a naval reservist who had been serving as part of the crew at the time…. The ship had hit a sandbank during the rescue mission and had been put into reverse to free it…. The reservist sailor saw that Amy was getting too close to the stern and so he shouted to the Bridge to cut the engines…. An angry retort came back from one of the officers ~ “Don’t you tell me what to do!”…. A few moments later Amy was dragged beneath the boat….and was sucked into the blades of the propellers….
Of course this claim can never be verified – the reservist and his crew-mates were not called to give evidence at the enquiry….and no inquest was ever held in to Amy’s death as her body was never recovered…. Amy was 37-years-old – such a short life – but she achieved so much….and was much-loved by the British public….