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Ex-detective's book will take 'in-depth' look at Duke of Kent air crash in Caithness


By Alan Hendry

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The memorial at Eagle's Rock, inland from Dunbeath and Berriedale. Picture: Alan Hendry
The memorial at Eagle's Rock, inland from Dunbeath and Berriedale. Picture: Alan Hendry

A former detective is writing a book that will put forward a new theory about the Caithness air crash that killed the Duke of Kent and 13 others during World War II.

Michael Morgan has been carrying out an "in-depth inquiry" into the disaster that occurred on August 25, 1942, when a Sunderland flying boat seemingly lost its way in thick mist just over half an hour after taking off from Invergordon.

The 39-year-old Duke of Kent, the youngest brother of King George VI, held the rank of air commodore and was being taken to Iceland for a welfare visit to RAF stations when Sunderland W4026 came down at Eagle's Rock, on hilly ground inland from Dunbeath and Berriedale.

There was one survivor. After the war, a granite memorial cross commemorating the victims was erected at the site.

Mr Morgan (58), a writer and researcher of military history who lives near Gravesend in Kent, intends to visit Dunbeath next month and is keen to meet anyone who has souvenirs or pieces of wreckage from the crash.

He is a retired senior police detective and a trained senior investigating officer for murder inquiries. He held the rank of detective chief inspector.

Writer and researcher Michael Morgan is a retired senior police detective. 'I like a bit of a mystery,' he says.
Writer and researcher Michael Morgan is a retired senior police detective. 'I like a bit of a mystery,' he says.

The circumstances of the crash continue to be a source of intrigue. Some researchers have claimed that Rudolf Hess, Germany’s Deputy Fuhrer, was a passenger on the flight as part of secret plans to negotiate a peace deal.

Mr Morgan said: "I've written a number of books about the air force during the war, and one thing and another, and it's probably because of my old job – I like a bit of a mystery. I had often read about this.

"This story kept coming back and it always linked into the Rudolf Hess mystery. I was always curious about it – was there or wasn't there anything there? And I've dug around for years."

Mr Morgan says he has discovered new information which "steers it away from Rudolf Hess" and points towards "perhaps another conspiracy of a different sort".

A key aspect of his investigation is the flying boat's variation setting corrector, an instrument that was used to take into account the local magnetic field and its influence on a compass.

Wreckage of the Sunderland flying boat at the crash scene. Picture: After the Battle
Wreckage of the Sunderland flying boat at the crash scene. Picture: After the Battle

Mr Morgan says he is grateful for the help he has received from Dunbeath man George Bethune and staff at both Dunbeath Heritage Centre and the Nucleus archive centre in Wick, among others. Mr Bethune is an authority on the crash and has a close personal interest in the subject as his late father, Will Bethune, a special constable, was one of the first to arrive at the scene and identified the Duke of Kent’s body.

"A number of other institutions have been very helpful, and people across the local area," Mr Morgan said.

Documents from the Royal Archives at Windsor are among those Mr Morgan has studied as part of his research into the crash and its aftermath.

He plans to be at Dunbeath Heritage Centre on the afternoon of Wednesday, March 13, and would be pleased to meet anyone who has "anything of interest".

Anyone unable to attend that day can contact Mr Morgan by phone or email at 07432 374531 or outofkent03@gmail.com

The Duke of Kent (second from left) held the rank of air commodore. Picture: Imperial War Museum (CH 3167)
The Duke of Kent (second from left) held the rank of air commodore. Picture: Imperial War Museum (CH 3167)

He hopes his book will be on sale later this year. It is being published by Pen and Sword Books, which specialises in military history.

"It's going through its first proofreading, although I'm still adding bits to it," he said. "It could be out in the summer.

"I've been touching base with all sorts of people. It has been quite an in-depth inquiry but I think we're beginning to get there."

Sunderland W4026 was carrying more than 2500 gallons of fuel in its wings, as well as 2000lb of depth charges, when it crashed into Eagle's Rock.

"Speaking to George and reading other bits and pieces, a lot of the wreckage appears to have just been bulldozed into a hole," Mr Morgan explained.

"Although they were on a special flight, just in case they spotted any submarines they were armed with depth charges. These were all detonated at the crash site – they were detonated in one big explosion without any warning, and apparently it scared the living daylights out of everybody in Dunbeath.

"Then what was left of the wreckage was just bulldozed, apart from a few engines and other bits and pieces, into this hole and buried. Over the years quite a few bits have reappeared on the surface which have often been handed in to the heritage centre.

"The holy grail would be to find part of the compass. It's highly unlikely, but you never know."

All but one of the 15 men on board were killed. The survivor, Flt Sgt Andrew Jack, had been occupying the rear turret which broke away on impact. He turned up the day after the crash, badly injured, having struggled across country to an isolated cottage.

A court of inquiry found that the accident occurred “because the aircraft was flown on a track other than that indicated in the flight plan given to the pilot, and at too low an altitude to clear the rising ground on the track”. It added that “the responsibility for this serious mistake in airmanship lies with the captain of the aircraft”.

According to most accounts, the captain was Flight Lieutenant Frank Goyen, a 25-year-old Australian. However, there have been claims of a last-minute change of captain.

Inscription on the Eagle's Rock memorial. Picture: Alan Hendry
Inscription on the Eagle's Rock memorial. Picture: Alan Hendry

Jack died in 1978, having never talked openly about the crash or its aftermath, but he was said to have felt that the inquiry findings were grossly unfair to Goyen.

Rudolf Hess had flown to Scotland in May 1941 and it has been suggested that he joined Sunderland W4026 en route to neutral Sweden where he and the Duke of Kent planned to reveal a peace deal between Germany and Britain, a move that would have coincided with the ousting of Winston Churchill as prime minister. According to this theory, it was a Hess “double” who languished in Spandau prison for more than 40 years after the end of the war.

The Eagle's Rock memorial, with its reference to the “special mission” being undertaken by the Duke of Kent, was erected around 1946. An inscribed stone slab marking the spot where the duke’s body was found was unveiled in 2005.

The Duke of Kent was the only member of the Royal Family to be killed on active service during World War II.

This stone slab in memory of the Duke of Kent was installed in 2005, close to the memorial cross at Eagle's Rock. It contains the Latin phrase Hic Mortuus Est, meaning 'This is where he died.' Picture: Alan Hendry
This stone slab in memory of the Duke of Kent was installed in 2005, close to the memorial cross at Eagle's Rock. It contains the Latin phrase Hic Mortuus Est, meaning 'This is where he died.' Picture: Alan Hendry

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