Boulton Paul Defiant Mk.I T4042 of No.60 OTU, RAF, crashed on Hunt Law near Lauder on the 29th August 1941
|Anthony Dominica Cyril La Gruta||Sergeant, RAAF||Pilot||Killed|
During the early morning of the 29th August Sgt La Gruta was briefed by Sergeant R J McNair, an instructor with C Flight at 60 OTU who had previously flown Defiants with No.96 Squadron, for a local R/T and D/F homing practice flight. He was told to remain close to the airfield and to attempt to keep it within sight. It was expected that he would land back at 06:45.
Cloud that morning was at between 1,500 and 2,000ft with the top of the cloud at about 6,000ft.
At just after 06:00 Sgt La Gruta checked the meaning of a green flare with a member of ground crew and then took off from East Fortune. He did not then make radio contact with the ground station as expected and when he had not returned by 07:00 Sgt McNair contacted the radio operator at East Fortune instructing him to call T4042 and recall Sgt La Gruta. He did not reply to this attempt to contact him which was reported by the radio operator who was then ordered to continue calling at regular intervals, which he did until just after 08:00. By this time T4042 had been declared overdue and a search was organised. Help was requested from the sector controllers at Turnhouse, Acklington and Ayr, and the Flight Commander of C Flight took off in a Miles Master to conduct a local search to the south of East Fortune. He returned after one hour and organised another search by three aircraft. At 11:15 one of those aircraft reported seeing smoke rising from an area of moorland thirteen miles to the south of East Fortune which turned out to the crash site of T4042.
At about the same time a shepherd from Earncleugh reported to Police in Lauder that while on Burncastle Hill he had seen smoke rising from the hills to the north. He had walked towards the smoke and heard the sound of an explosion which caused a plume of smoke to rise into the air. At this point he decided to leave the area and report the sighting to the Police. A Constable from Lauder was sent out on a motorbike, he reached the crash site and found a wide scattering of wreckage which is recognised as being from an aircraft.
After receiving the report from one of the search aircraft three officers from No.60 OTU had set out by road and on arrival at the crash site met the Police Constable who had been sent to investigate the report from the shepherd. The wreckage was soon confirmed it as being from a Boulton Paul Defiant.
From the distribution of the wreckage it appeared to have dived into the ground at approximately 40o with the majority of the aircraft being either buried or destroyed by fire.
During the investigation other pilots who were airborne during the morning were interviewed, one of those pilots reported that at 06:45, 35 minutes after T4042 had taken off, while above cloud he had seen another Defiant about 3 to 400 yards ahead and to port which dived into the cloud top and disappeared from view. After landing he had enquired with the other two pupil pilots who had also been airborne at the time if they had carried out such manoeuvre, when they said they hadn’t he reported the sighting to the Flight Commander.
It was concluded that the cause of the crash was due to Sgt La Gruta being inexperienced at flying in conditions of poor visibility. The lack of radio communication was put down to him disobeying orders, however it is possible that the radio equipment in the aircraft had failed but for some reason he continued with the flight anyway.
Having assessed the conditions at the crash site the Officer Commanding at East Fortune gave authority for the Medical Officer to obtain proof that Sgt La Gruta had been onboard the aircraft at the time of the crash and then for the site to be covered over. A funeral service was then held at the crash site on the 5th September and a temporary wooden Imperial War Graves Commission grave marker was placed at the site. Early in 1942 Sgt La Gruta’s father asked about the possibility of a marble cross being placed at the crash site to replace the wooden marker. The IWGC (later CWGC) representative in the area turned down the request due to the amount of work that would have been required to erect a cross. He also said that while during wartime it would be impractical to attempt to recover Sgt La Gruta’s body that after the war it may have been possible to recover him and rebury him at Haddington, where the RAF already had a burial plot for casualties from the area.
It was after then when the IWGC began permanently commemorating people who were either not buried in a cemetery / burial ground or had no known grave on single memorials, as had happened following the First World War. Sgt La Gruta’s name was added to the RAF Memorial at Runnymede in Surrey.
During 1950 further enquiries were made by the La Gruta family as to whether or not the crash site could be made the official place of commemoration but the Imperial War Graves Commission said that in line the policy which was established after the crash that Runnymede would remain as the official place of commemoration. Despite this plans were made to mark the crash site as Anthony La Gruta’s final resting place.
On the 2nd September 1951 a permanent headstone was unveiled at the crash site during a service which was attended by more than 100 people from the local area as well as representatives of the RAF and RAAF. This was organised by Captain Arthur McDougal from Blythe Farm, Lauder and was made possible by local residents volunteering their time to build the memorial. A concrete foundation was installed, which required a portion of the crash site to be dug into, and then a plinth made of blocks was built on top of this with the headstone mounted on the very top. While not a CWGC type headstone, it was bought by the community from them.