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Story of the Spitfire called Blue Peter which crashed near Cairnsmore of Carsphairn in 1942

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Engine of the Spitfire called Blue Peter in Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum

The picture above shows the restored Merlin engine of a Spitfire called "Blue Peter" which crashed on 23rd May 1942 in the Galloway Hills (picture shown courtesy of Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Museum where the engine is on display). The history of how this Spitfire crashed and how the engine was located and recovered is told in the information sheets that you can see here above the engine. That history is provided below.

About Blue Peter and how it came to crash

03 In 1941, the people of Newmarket raised £5100 as part of the war effort, towards Spitfire Vb, AD540, which was presented to the RAF, and named "Blue Peter", after the 1939 Derby winner. On May 23rd 1942, at 1pm, AD540 took off from RAF Ayr to provide aerial cover to the approaching vessel "Queen Mary" laden with US sevicemen. Flying her on this occasion was Pilot Officer David Hunter Blair. On the way, Blue Peter, and a second Spitfire, piloted by Flight Sergeant Gordon "Matt" Mathers, were directed to investigate a suspected enemy sighting inland. Soon, at an altitude of 20,000ft, Blue Peter was seen to behave erratically, and then descend through the clouds. David Hunter Blair had fallen unconcious due to a fault in the oxygen system, and regained conciousness as the aircraft plunged to a lower altitude. Unable to regain control, he baled out. However, his parachute did not deploy fully before he landed, and he died in the remote valleys of Cairnsmore of Carsphairn in South West Scotland. He was nineteen..... The accident was witnessed by a local farm worker, and David was subsequently buried with full military honours on the family estate of Blairquhan Castle, some 15 miles from where he had been killed. The wreckage of Blue Peter was buried on site and lay undiscovered until 51 years to the day after it crashed, by a team including members of the Dumfries and Galloway Aviation Group, led by Ralph Davidson, chairman of the Scottish region of The Spitfire Society, and later covered by a team from the BBC children`s programme Blue Peter.

Finding the wreckage
Text by Ralph Davidson, chairman of the Scottish region of The Spitfire

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 the day.
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 its surface.
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 gloom.
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 before.
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 Spitfire.
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 valley.
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 28, 1993.
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 on schedule.
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 World War.
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, who could
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.

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