Memorial Unveiled at Balcombe in West Sussex Commemorates the Death the of the two-man crew of an RAF Night Fighter in October 1940 at the very end of the Battle of Britain
In the autumn of 1940, every measure was taken to try and stop the Luftwaffe from bombing London in its night-time raids. London’s main defence were the scores of anti-aircraft guns, searchlights and barrage balloons posted around the city but they inevitably had only a limited success. However, the RAF had another weapon up its sleeve – radar.
To operate night-time patrols with the aid of AI, or Airborne Intercept, radar, 219 Squadron was deployed to RAF Redhill in Surrey and equipped with the specially-adapted new Mk.I Bristol Beaufighter. The squadron was one of the first of five squadrons to receive the Mk.1F variant in October 1940 (the others being 25, 29, 600 and 640 squadrons).
On the night of 30 October 1940, Beaufighter R2065 took off from RAF Redhill at approximately 18.25 hours, the crew tasked to undertake a routine patrol around the London area. At the controls were 20-year-old Pilot Officer Kenneth Worsdell, originally from Bracknell in Berkshire, and his Air Gunner was 27-year-old Sergeant Eric “Lofty” Gardiner who hailed from Pontefract. R2065 was equipped with the Mk.IV AI radar which was still regarded as being experimental.
The Beaufighter was visualised as a night-fighter as soon as it became apparent that there was ample room within its fuselage to accommodate the bulky AI equipment. Once its role had been identified it was necessary to fit it with armament powerful enough for it to be able to disable or destroy an enemy aircraft as soon as contact had been made. As a result the Mk.IF Beaufighter was fitted with four 20 mm cannon in the fuselage nose (later models also included four 0.303-inch machine-guns in the starboard wing and two more in the port wing).
RAF Redhill was less than ideal for the Beaufighter with its muddy grass runways and the station was not popular with the air crews. Because of its geographical location and being situated on what was once a marsh, the aerodrome was more often than not shrouded in fog. The runway lighting was primitive to say the least – there were no runway lights – and the crews were forced to rely on two “goose neck” flares, one placed each end of the runway.
The weather on the night of 30 October was at first clear but quickly worsened to minimum visibility. It was on its return flight that R2065 tragically flew in to Beech trees on high ground near the village of Balcombe in West Sussex – near where the Wings Museum is now located. The aircraft’s crew, who had desperately been trying to locate Redhill, were instantly killed when the aircraft erupted into a ball of flame and wreckage. At the time of his death Worsdell had been in line for promotion to Flying Officer.
On 30 October 2010, a memorial organised by Daniel and Kevin Hunt, the Curators of the Wings Museum at Balcombe, was unveiled, marking seventy years to the day when the two young air men lost their lives. Several relatives of Sergeant Gardiner, two Cousins and a Great Nephew, were in attendance together with flag bearers from the Haywards Heath Branch of the RAFA. It has not been possible to trace relatives of Kenneth Worsdell.
For more images and information, visit: www.wingsmuseum.co.uk