ON May 1, 1992, I received
a short letter from the late Tony White - Spitfire Society historian and
acknowledged expert on the legendary fighter aircraft.
''BLUE PETER.'' This name stood out of Tony White's letter, obviously
because of the well-known BBC children's programme, but this was not concerning
this long-running series; no, this was in fact the name of a presentation
Spitfire which had crashed long ago on the remote hills of Galloway, tragically
taking the life of her young pilot, Pilot Officer David Hunter Blair.
The letter went on to ask if the Dumfries and Galloway Museum, with which
I am associated, had any information on the crash site as the BBC, which
had been contacted at an earlier stage by Jake Wilson, an aviation enthusiast,
was keen to make a fiftieth anniversary film on their famous Blue Peter
namesake; it all began a few weeks later . . .
It was raining when I first saw the valley of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn
on that September day in 1992. A BBC production team had travelled north
to film the first efforts to try to locate the crash site of AD540 Blue
Peter. A witness named Andy Adamson, who had seen the aircraft as a boy
on the hillside in 1942, was also with us; and so it went on, the camera
filming take after take with Blue Peter presenter John Lesley becoming
as wet as the rest of us. After five hours, and with camera equipment
beginning to pack up due to the atrocious weather conditions, Bill Locke
- producer of Blue Peter - decided he had sufficient film for his purposes.
We then began the long journey back down the mountainside. There were
none of us sorry to say goodbye to Carsphairn on that day, but I was to
return, and soon.
September passed into October with myself and a few associates searching
the four-mile length of the valley almost every weekend for any sign of
AD540, this usually being in atrocious weather conditions as the area
lies at 1200ft above sea-level; the mists and rain usually persisted throughout
As the weeks passed a few of my colleagues became disillusioned and dropped
out of the now dwindling search party. It was mid-November now and another
fearsome stormy day. I stood at the end of the rough track built by a
mining company many years before, which was the only means of getting
a car within an hour's walk of the reported crash area. I set off, scrambling
down the steep slope to a small stream named Bow Burn, which was my only
means of direction to the supposed crash area as it ran through the entire
length of the valley floor.
Reaching the burn, I placed two small rocks on top of a large rock as
a marker for my return. I struck off northwards. An hour later I was at
the ''Roaring Cleugh'' - a fast flow of water which ran from the top of
Cairnsmore into the burn. I assembled my metal detector and began to sweep
southwards back up the valley. Witnesses had reported wreckage lay south-west
from the roaring cleugh.
Two hours later I found myself standing at a little cross with a poppy
attached, placed there two weeks earlier as a mark of respect on Remembrance
Day. On that day we had taken Tom Gordon with us. He had come forward
in response to an article which had been placed in a local newspaper appealing
for witnesses to the event 50 years ago. He told us he had been a shepherd
in the area in 1949, and he used to scrape mud from the soles of his boots
on a heavy piece of metal protruding from the rough turf; this had been
seven years after the demise of AD540, but was it Blue Peter? Tom was
sure it was. He described it as a piece of metal with holes drilled on
Now I found myself in bad visibility and knew I would have to hurry to
make my way to the car and safety, but with an hour and a half of light
still remaining I thought this would not be a problem. I was very wrong.
An hour later I was at the base of the slope beside the Bow Burn which
I had followed faithfully, joining it east of the small cross, but where
was the large rock? I was positive I hadn't passed it. Decreasing visibility
led me to decide I must have passed the marker. I began to head up the
slope. I had travelled 200 yards when gradually the realisation hit me
- I was lost. Small spruce trees lay scattered around me - they had not
been there on my previous descent.
I stopped, and fear began to grip me. I looked back the way I had come
- I could see nothing but the white mist before me. The stream had vanished
into the gloom. Having no compass I could not even tell east from west.
I started to stumble, to run blindly, the fear welling up inside me. This
desolate valley had already claimed a victim in David Hunter Blair - was
I to be the next? I began to run faster, then finally I forced myself
to stop my blind, headlong flight.
Dropping to my knees, I checked the slope and began to hurry in that direction,
hoping the stream lay somewhere before me. It was the correct decision.
Now as I stood beside the water I had a choice - head south, which meant
I had not come upon the marker rock earlier, or north, which meant I had
missed it before as I had fought against the driving wind and rain. Again
I headed south. A few moments later the marker rock appeared through the
With the last of my strength I found myself on the track. The car was
not in sight. I had, in fact, joined the ''road'' about 50 yards down
from the car. As I unlocked the door in the pitch darkness and slumped
in, I realised just how lucky I had been.
I do believe to this day I was guided to my final decision; this was to
be just one of the many strange happenings and coincidences which occurred
during the search for Blue Peter.
served to end our excavation attempts.
In mid-January, 1993, the snow was still on the Galloway Hills. I had
not returned to the valley of Cairnsmore since my narrow escape. It was
not because of fear of repetition; it was simply because of the snow.
It never really melts throughout the winter months, so I would have to
wait until the spring.
But I would make good use of these winter months. I decided to speak with
Jim McGarva, whom I discovered through a series of leads from local people.
He still lived in the area in the village of Patna and only a few miles
from the crash area. I met with Jim at his cottage in early February.
Jim had been alone in the valley outside the solitary farmhouse which
had once stood there and is now a hill-walkers' bothy. Only 19 years old
and a shepherd/labourer, he had been working for the farmer digging drainage
ditches when he heard the sound of an aircraft.
A small plane suddenly appeared through the storm clouds, spinning gently.
As he watched, fascinated, it finally came to earth on Cairnsmore of Carsphairn.
He began to run in the direction of the downed plane, about a kilometre
away. ''I was looking to pull folk out of it. It was upside down with
its tail sticking in the air and it wasn't on fire, just kind of steaming.
I could see the cockpit clearly, its glass all broken, but there was nobody
inside. It was then I noticed in the distance of Dugland Hill what I thought
was smoke and I began to run once again.''
The smoke was, in fact, Hunter Blair's parachute billowing in the wind
and was immediately behind the spot where Jim had been working. He never
saw it fall as he had been so intent on reaching the aircraft. Had his
parachute been fully inflated as he landed on the hillside? Or had he
baled out of his doomed aircraft too late to save his life?
After cutting PO Hunter Blair free and covering him with the parachute
he then ran the three miles to where his motorcycle was parked and sped
off to St Johns Town of Dalry where he informed the local police.
A search party arrived three hours later and the doctor pronounced Hunter
Blair was dead. Jim hadn't known how to check for a pulse, and hadn't
detected any injury apart from a faint trickle of blood from the nose.
Had Blair still been alive? Jim still thinks so to this day and bitterly
regrets he could not have done more for him on that hillside.
From my meeting with Jim McGarva I had gleaned a good idea of the location
of Blue Peter and in the spring months took video footage of the area
he had described. But Jim could not pinpoint it on the film footage. He
did identify the location of the downed pilot. A stone sheep pen lay on
the slopes of Dugland Hill and Jim noted the spot as a place he had known
well, the location being a constant reminder of that fateful day in May
1942; I now knew the location of the downed pilot but where was the crash
site of Blue Peter?
Towards the end of April, after another lone, fruitless search, it occurred
to me I had never asked Jim how long it had taken him to run from his
position at the farmhouse to the downed plane. A telephone call revealed
it had taken him 20 minutes. Taking into account this was the speed of
a healthy 19-year-old, on my next visit I would try to retrace Jim's path.
Armed with Jim's co-ordinates and timescale, how could I go wrong? Twenty
minutes later I stopped walking. I looked around me, but there was no
sign of the wreckage - but then I was only looking for a small piece of
metal sticking from the hillside, as Tom Gordon had described many months
before. I began to sweep in ever-increasing circles willing my metal detector
to sing out its song of discovery. Half-an-hour later I once again stood
alone with the familiar feeling of disappointment welling up inside me.
On my return to Glasgow a phone call from a colleague brought new hope.
Another former shepherd had been found, who had witnessed the recovery
team dragging the broken Spitfire's wings down the hillside in 1942. I
quickly dialled the telephone number .
JIM Bell told me: ''Aye, I remember it quite clearly. It was sticking
out of Cairnsmore, south of the Roaring Cleugh.'' He went on to say he
remembered the wings being dragged down the hillside by horse to Moorbrock
Farm for uplift by the RAF. He had been a boy of 14 then but assured me
he remembered the incident clearly as if it had been yesterday He also
said he would assist me in my search. This was marvellous news! I immediately
made arrangements for a search the next weekend.
We stared down into the valley from the track's end. For Jim, after 45
years, it was an emotive sight; for me, a familiar one - I thought by
now I knew every boulder and clump of heather on those hillsides. Perhaps
I did but I certainly did not know where Blue Peter lay. With Jim's help
I very soon would.
From our lofty position over the valley Jim began to point and identify
particular areas by name. As I looked at Jim as he spoke of this beautiful
valley he had the same look in his eyes that I had seen in Jim McGarva's
and Tom Gordon's. A look of pleasure and fondness; the remembrance of
youthful years spent in this remote unspoiled countryside. We set off
down the slope and soon set a quick pace, Jim with his shepherd's crook
striding ahead of me - his 60-plus years melting away as he strode among
those once familiar hills.
Two hours later that familiar feeling began to overtake me. Blue Peter
had once again kept her secret. Jim apologised profusely. I told him not
to worry and we would return the following weekend.
Seven days later, as I stumbled over another unseen rock on Cairnsmore,
I called out to Colin Nicol, the third search-party member, that we should
go lower down. I had been following a hunch and had remembered at the
same time Jim McGarva's words: ''Twenty minutes'', the time it had taken
him to go from the farmhouse to the crashed Spitfire. We were coming upon
that area now, that much I knew from my previous visits. This was confirmed
by the many marker pegs on the hillside - legacies from the many expeditions
Then it happened! The moment I had yearned for. I had been walking north
up the valley, Colin Nicol to my left, Jim Bell ahead and to my right,
our three metal detectors sweeping from left to right, when I glanced
up for an instant and there, staring me not three yards ahead, was the
unmistakable shape of a piece of aircraft aluminium. Stopping, not believing
my eyes, I called on Colin to come and look. We both stared at this piece
of aluminium, the rivet holes on its surface staring back at us.
Still motionless, we called on Jim, dear Jim. I don't know what he must
have thought as he stopped and looked back at these two men, their eyes
out on stalks. The three of us then moved in on this man-made object which
lay in the midst of nature itself, each of us not daring to think the
unthinkable, that it could be anything else than the long lost Blue Peter
Dropping to our knees we began to scrape the earth and then I saw a part
of the Spitfire's Merlin engine sticking through the rough turf. I think
we then did a little jig or dance of joy, the elation indescribable. We
chattered like excited schoolboys and then realised we had no tools with
us to excavate the remains.
Jim Bell came up with the idea of utilising the iron stanchions from an
old boundary fence and with these makeshift tools we began to uncover
the long lost remains. The first substantial piece which came to the surface
was a five-feet section of the trailing edge of the port wing, identified
by its serial number. This initially was a surprise to me as I had thought
the wings were removed by the recovery team in 1942. Later events were
to confirm this had not been the case.
After digging for two hours,we had collected a considerable amount of
artefacts, but could do no more as both time and lack of proper tools
had served to end our excavation attempts.
We were, however, satisfied we had finally found Blue Peter. We buried
her remains once more as secrecy at this point was important, and headed
back down the valley to the car. It was only as I was driving down the
track it suddenly dawned on me what date it was. I stopped the car and
asked Jim and Colin if they knew what this date was. Colin said it was
the 23rd of May and then he, too, realised Blue Peter had crashed on the
23rd of May 1942, exactly 51 years ago to the very day.
We had finally found Blue Peter but how were we to retrieve it from the
desolate valley? The recovery team in 1942 faced with this very same decision
had obviously decided to recover everything salvageable and bury the rest.
The answer to our question would come in a few weeks time but there was
much work to be done before then. We first had to uncover the wreckage
from the long lost burial site.
The following three weekends were spent digging and digging. Many volunteers
aided with this mammoth task. The BBC also came back to film the discovery.
Among the many surprising finds at this early stage was the discovery
of the aircraft's cannon magazines. Both were found complete with complement
of 20mm ammunition (60 rounds per magazine).
Shortly afterwards we found one of the hispano cannons itself, a round
still in the breach, the guns never having been fired in anger by Blue
Peter's young pilot. It was found later to have a damaged barrel and was
probably the reason it had been buried with the rest of the aircraft;
the other cannon was never found. The live ammunition was handled very
carefully. It was on the third weekend I discovered a second burial site
200 yards further down the valley. The first part to be uncovered at that
new location was the broken remains of the starboard wing.
We had already discovered the port wing remains at the original crash
point of Blue Peter - it now seemed that the ''wings'' which Jim Bell
had witnessed on May 24, 1942, were in fact only the wing tips, which
were found near to where PO Hunter Blair had died - these wing parts had
once contained the Browning machine guns. Being almost eight feet long
it is understandable that these broken parts of the wings had been mistaken
for the wings themselves. But how had they landed close to the pilot and
nearly a kilometre from the Spitfire itself?
Also found at that second burial site was the oil tank, cockpit section,
and lower fuel tank, These had lain in three sites in the same peat bog.
Obviously the RAF had buried these parts at that lower point because of
the softer ground. However, as the Dumfries and Galloway Museum has had
many years' experience in aircraft excavation, they made short work of
the aircraft's recovery.
And so in just five short weekends the remains of Blue Peter lay at the
second discovery site. Only the aircraft's once mighty Merlin engine now
lay at the impact point. All of the other small pieces had been placed
in sacks for transportation to the group's museum at Dumfries.
On July 12 the sound of a Sea King helicopter broke the silence of Cairnsmore
of Carsphairn. This was to be the means of transporting the remains of
Blue Peter from her lonely resting place. David Reid, chairman of the
DGAG, had contacted Commander Galloway of the nearby HMS Gannet (Ayr)
and asked if it would be possible to airlift the wreckage from the isolated
Cargo nets were dropped from the helicopter and quickly loaded. In all,
three loads were transported to the drop-off point at Drumjohn in an area
beside the A713 Dumfries to Ayr road.
As the Sea King approached for the final airlift I stood beside Jim Bell
wondering what his thoughts were; I was sure there had been a tear in
his eye as the once mighty engine took to the skies once again - I know
there was in mine.
The wreckage was transported to the DGAG museum in Dumfries and now resides
there. An extensive collection of the aircraft's artefacts are on show
and the Merlin engine has been stripped and will eventually be on show
to the public; it is in quite remarkable condition despite its lost years.
There remained one more task to complete. From the outset I had decided
a memorial should be erected at the point on Dugland Hill where PO Hunter
Blair lost his life. With the help of a local man, Walter McCrae, and
Colin Nicol the work began. We chose a granite rock which nature itself
had provided and was close to the point which Jim McGarva had pointed
out on the video film.
The work began in late July and at he same time I contacted the Battle
of Britain Memorial Flight based at Conningsby, Lincolnshire, with the
request for a flypast of one of their Spitfires as I intended a dedication
service should be held on the memorial's completion. Usually a year's
notice is required for a flypast but after the forms were returned (in
triplicate!) the request was granted for August 28 or 29, ''weather permitting''.
This was to coincide with the two-day air show being held at RAF Carlisle
(14MU). Imagine my surprise when shortly after receiving this marvellous
news I received a telephone call asking if I would like two Spitfires
for the flypast!!
It seemed that on August 28, the flight's two Spitfires would be heading
to another venue in the south of England after their performance at Carlisle.
As there had originally been a selection of two aircraft flying on that
tragic day in May 1942 I thought it more appropriate that the flypast
should consist of two Spitfires, so the service was scheduled for August
Work on the memorial pressed ahead at a faster pace. Also as a mark of
respect to the most famous of all fighter aircraft, the Supermarine Spitfire,
we had agreed earlier that a second memorial plaque should be erected
at the aircraft's crash point; this secondary work continued alongside
the main work at Dugland Hill; thankfully both memorials were finished
Blue Peter was, however, about to give up her last secret on August 26
- two days before the service. Walter McCrae, on a routine sweep with
his metal detector around the area of the former farmhouse, detected a
slight reading, and on digging at the spot discovered only two inches
below the surface, the gun camera magazine. This was synchronised to the
aircraft's guns and was the means of recording possible strikes on enemy
targets. It was subsequently sent to the photo reconnaissnace department
at RAF Brampton but nothing was revealed on the film's negative. It seems
the acidity of the peat would have destroyed it very quickly, but how
had it come to be there? It was just another mystery of Blue Peter.
The skirl of the bagpipes echoed across Cairnsmore of Carsphairn two days
later as all those who had been involved in the search and recovery gathered
around the memorial stone. The inscription was simple and appropriate.
It read: ''Near this spot on the 23rd May 1942 P.O. David Hunter Blair
aged 19, a Scot from Ayrshire, was mortally wounded after parachuting
from Spitfire AD540 Blue Peter. He died that others might live.'' The
final inscription was the appropriate ''Lest We Forget'' which signifies
not only the loss of one man but the many sacrifices during the Second
James Hunter Blair, the pilot's brother, was positioned at the southern
end of the valley at the end of the rough track which had been such a
help to us throughout the long search for the remains of his brother's
aircraft. Also at that point were Jim McGarva and Tom Gordon, accompanied
by other elderly witnesses who could not make the long arduous walk to
the memorial stone itself. They were ideally positioned for the flypast
as the submitted flight path brought them within a few feet of the aircraft
as the pilots began their approach to the valley.
It also gave Jim McGarva time to speak to James Hunter Blair with whom
he had never spoken. In fact, he had been due to have a meeting with P.O.
Blair's parents a few days after the fatal crash in 1942, and to this
end he had waited for hours in worsening conditions at the foot of Dugland
Hill for their arrival; he eventually presumed weather conditions were
severe enough to prevent their visit and he left, only to be told a few
hours later that they had indeed arrived and had been shown the spot where
their son died. Jim McGarva always regretted not being able to speak with
them personally on the loss of their son; the few hours on the track with
James Hunter Blair put that to right 51 years later.
''Do not despair for Johnny head in air'' - a line from a famous war poem
which I recited at the dedication service, - was followed by a minute's
silence in honour of the fallen airman.
You can always hear a Spitfire before you see it, it has such a distinctive
sound. Then we saw them, first one then the other overflew our position,
disappearing eastwards; the next pass was directly in front of us and
they turned and flew away north. In what seemed an instant they returned
again from the east, only this time Squadron- Leader Martin flew directly
over the memorial stone itself at barely one hundred feet. The hair on
my neck stood on end, the joy of seeing Spitfires here in this place which
had haunted my dreams for months, the final honour to P.O. Hunter Blair
- how absolutely appropriate.
How moving it all was. They returned once again from the east, these one-time
tools of war, these beautiful flying machines, only now this time to turn
southwards away from us and head back down the valley, past once again
the watchful eyes on the track; the tear-laden eyes, as were ours - we,
only stand and stare sadly now at those departing silhouettes of a bygone
age as the sound of their engines faded in the still air and once again
the lonely valley became silent.
We ourselves then turned in silence and began the journey out of the valley
of Carsphairn for the last time.