French Girls Injured in Wicklow Plane Crash.
“French Girls Injured in Wicklow Plane Crash”
So read the headline of the Irish Times on Tuesday, August 13, 1946.
Seventy years ago on 12th August, a Junkers 52 with 23 passengers and a crew of four crashed in the Wicklow mountains, miraculously without any loss of life.
Not very often do people survive an aeroplane crash. One such person is French woman Chantal (de Vitry) Lacoin. I had the pleasure of meeting her and her delightful family in 2006 at her home in the south west of France. The circumstances leading up that meeting started, for me, with a piece of metal I came across in a workshop in Dublin in 1971. Years earlier when I was only 16 years old, my boss, Brian Siggins had found this small corrugated box section of an aeroplane while out hill-walking in the Wicklow mountains many years earlier. The aircraft had crashed on Djouce mountain in 1946, the aircraft was badly damaged on impact and scattered over a wide area. But critical to the outcome the fuselage remained virtually intact. The mental image of this aircraft never left me and over the next 25 years I dipped in and out of research to get the full story about that crash.
The Wicklow Times published an article I wrote to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that crash. Before the Wicklow Times article was published on 3 July 1996, there was scarcely a mention of that crash or the people involved. But copies of the article were sent to survivors in France from life-long friends in Wicklow made back in 1946 and many of the survivors returned to Ireland, Wicklow and Djouce for a re-union in May 1998. This attracted a great deal of interest in the media, on RTE, and the Irish Times Irishman’s Diary. One of the survivors who returned was Madame Chantal Lacoin. I unfortunately did not get to meet her on that occasion, but I had managed to get her address and we corresponded by letter. Some years later I was contacted, via the Wicklow Times, by Suzanne Barnes who was researching the event on behalf of the Irish Girl guides. Suzanne collaborated with myself and many others and she published a wonderful book in 2005 entitled “When Our Plane Hit the Mountain”. All of this came about because of the 1996 commemorative article. As Madame Chantal Lacoin could not attend the book launch in Dublin I again failed to meet her, but third time lucky came for me in 2006, when we made direct contact by telephone and she kindly invited my wife, Marie and I to visit her home.
As detailed in the article Madame Lacoin was instrumental in making the outside world aware of the crash on 12th August 1946. As a guide leader she took the responsibility to leave the crash site and using her experience make it, in treacherous weather conditions, to a safe haven from where the rescue efforts were launched.
Chantal (né) de Vitry was born on 18th June 1925 into a family of 10 children. In 1946 she was 21 years of age and had the experience and bravery to take on the biggest challenge in her young life, and succeed. The newspaper reports of the time all gave Chantal de Vitry notable mention for her bravery which she richly deserved. Four years after her close encounter on Djouce mountain Chantal de Vitry married Monsiuer Vincent Lacoin. He was a naval officer during WWII and accounts exist of his adventurous life in the French resistance and his subsequent efforts during 1944 and 1945 leading ultimately to retaking Paris with de Gaulle. So it is no surprise that Mademoiselle Chantal de Vitry and Monsieur Vincent Lacoin were drawn to one another as each of them were imbued with a heightened spirit of adventure. Monsieur Vincent Lacoin departed this life in his 90th year on 23 March 2009. “Que la Vierge Marie lui envelope dans son joli robe”. May he rest in peace.
On that August day in 1946 the aircraft was a Junkers 52 – AA1 Toucon and it departed Paris Le Bourget at 0900hrs that morning. On board were 23 French girl guides who were due to spend a holiday in Ireland at the very kind invitation of the Irish Girl Guides Association. The aircraft was piloted by Capitaine Christian Habez (29), who saw action during the war with the Free French Bomber Commands, co-pilot Daniele Duran (28), navigator Michel Jourret (27) , and wireless operator Georges Beagioni (26).
The flight from France over the Manche coast (NW France), the channel and England was uneventful. While over the Irish Sea the crew were alerted to an impending storm further west, but with the weather at Dublin still giving a ceiling of 300 feet with three miles visibility the captain decided to continue on. However the violence and speed of the storm was far greater than at first forecasted. With the flight crew relying only on instruments the aircraft was blown off course and the crew were unsure of their position. In attempting to establish the correct course the aircraft found itself overhead County Wicklow flying a North-Easterly heading towards Collinstown airport.
Being unfamiliar with the terrain, the crew did not realise they were literally flying through the Wicklow mountains. The first the captain knew of the closing terrain was when the cloud base got suddenly darker and he realised to his shock that his aircraft was heading for a mountain. He pulled up as hard as he could on the control column and although the response of the JU52 was excellent he could not prevent the aircraft from crashing.
The point of impact was on a gradually rising slope about 500 metres from the summit on the shoulder of the mountain that runs down to the south-west. Had the aircraft been at an even slightly lower altitude it would have impacted at a far steeper gradient and would certainly have been destroyed, resulting in far more serious consequences. As it was the undercarriage absorbed most of the initial impact and was ripped off the aircraft. The aircraft ploughed on for another 150 metres shedding its three engines and slewing around to starboard before finally coming to rest. Thankfully there was no post crash fire and the fuselage, wings and tail-plane remained largely intact, due mainly to the superb structural strength of the Junkers, preventing break-up of the fuselage structure.
The JU52, of which there were numerous varieties, was the backbone of the Wehrmacht during WWII. They were used primarily for troop and machinery transport and some bombing missions, but their relatively slow forward speed made them vulnerable to anti-aircraft attack. It was this relatively slow forward speed that probably saved the lives of many of the passengers on board the Toucan when it crashed as it would have significantly reduced the violence of the impact.
In all more than 4,800 of this aircraft type were built, mainly in Germany, but in this case also in France. For all its seemingly archaic appearance, with fixed landing gear, angular lines and corrugated skin, the classic Junkers JU52 represented the common denominator of many land operations by the German Wehrmacht, whether in advance or retreat. The JU-52/3m (three motor) was developed and first test flown in 1930. It went into regular production in 1932. It featured three 525-HP Pratt & Whitney Hornet nine-cylinder radial engines and it went into regular production in 1932. All told these JU52/3m flew with airlines in 28 countries worldwide. With the Swiss Flugwaffe being one of the last air forces to fly the JU52/3m, it’s low speed and docile landing characteristics made it ideal to operate from Alpine airfields with restricted approaches. In the early 1980s the JU-52 ended their service on these routes.
Ateliers Aeronautiques de Colombes in Paris produced in excess of 400 JU-52s in a version known as the AAC 1 Toucon.
It was this version that carried the French girl guides on their trip to Ireland. The operating aircraft; an Armee de l’Air AAC 1 Toucon, Serial Number 46, was silver coloured overall, with the French Tricolour painted on the rudder. It was configured in typical military transport style, with the passengers sitting facing each other on bench seats running the length of the cabin.
As a result of the crash, which occurred at 13h30, many of the passengers were badly injured and needed urgent medical attention. Unfortunately other than those on board the aircraft nobody else knew the aircraft had crashed. There were reports of locals hearing a low flying aircraft obscured by cloud cover but only in the aftermath of the crash becoming public did these reports carry any relevance. Dublin Air Traffic Control was under the impression the aircraft had turned back because of the storm. Around this time the same storm was building in momentum and was wreaking havoc in certain parts of Ireland as its wind-speed had increased since early morning. Houses and lands in the path of the storm were flooded, bridges swept away, torrential rains swept the country, rivers burst their banks, and roads became impassable, while an 80 kmph wind lashed the coast swamping boats at their moorings.
It was into these extremely hostile weather conditions that a party of three set off from the wreckage site in an attempt to raise the alarm. The party consisted of Madmoiselles Chantal de Vitry and Andree Bonnet, both guide leaders and the captain Christian Habez. They took different paths down the mountain in an effort to increase the chances of meeting someone and tell them of the crash and their plight.
The first news of the crash came at seven o’clock that evening when Mademoiselle Chantal de Vitry stumbled, drenched through, exhausted and injured, into the Mount Maulin hotel, eight kms from Enniskerry. Mademoiselle de Vitry had trekked for over five hours in dreadful weather conditions before coming across the hotel. What a wonderful relief it must have been to Mademoiselle de Vitryto see the dim lights of the hotel in the distance through the rain and wind and what a shock it must have been for the hotel staff and guests to see her literally fall through the doors in such a state. By a curious stroke of fortune one of those guests was Austrian woman who spoke French. The alarm was immediately raised and the Wicklow rescue services swung into action.
Meanwhile the other two who had set out to find anybody who could help reached a house at Deerpark, about two kms from the hotel. All three had narrow escapes in attempting to cross rivers swollen by unrelenting downpours. They were exhausted from their efforts and injured in the crash so the priority was to get them to hospital without delay. However Capt. Habez had taken periodic compass bearings so while they waited for an ambulance he relayed as best he could the direction and time taken on foot to the crash site. They were taken to St. Michael’s Hospital in Dun Laoghaire and the hospital staffs were put on alert there and in other hospitals, to expect more casualties while medical personnel were dispatched to be on hand near the crash site to administer first aid.
Search and rescue teams were mobilised and they set off, under the command of Sergeant J.McNally from Roundwood. The wreckage of the aircraft was not found until midnight, five hours after the alarm was raised. This was an extremely difficult feat in itself as the storm had continued unabated into the darkness of night.
The aircraft was discovered 1500 feet above sea level resting on the south-westerly incline of Djouce mountain approximately 250 metres from the summit. It was now eleven hours since the crash and many of the survivors were suffering from exposure. The girl guides and crew members who were not injured did their best to keep the others warm and dry but with the continuous rain and strong winds the task was proving increasingly difficult. The passengers had not eaten much since early morning so hunger was also a factor. But they must have been thrilled to see the rescue parties showing up as they would have heard absolutely nothing from the trio who set out from the crashed aircraft to raise the alarm.
The rescuers themselves ran into difficulties. In trying to prevent themselves from getting blown over and getting separated in the driving mist they were forced to form themselves into a human chain linking each other for support.
A first aid station was set up in a disused building known locally as “Sheep-bank” some distance from the crash site. A turf fire was lit and emergency medical attention was given to the injured by the Irish Red Cross, Civil Defence and St. John’s Ambulance personnel. Invaluable assistance was given to the emergency services by Mr. James Doran, the local postman who directed and guided them across the mountains.
Moving the injured from the crashed airplane to the sheep-bank and on to the ambulances was a dangerous operation in itself that needed careful and experienced hands. Frequently members of the rescue parties plunged waist deep into sodden bog-holes as they made their way heroically and bravely in pitch darkness over treacherous ground which was heavily flooded.
Some of the injured were carried piggy-back style by the rescuers while the more seriously injured girls were carried by stretcher. The rescue operation went on all night with the crash victims being brought to St. Michael’s in Dun Laoghaire, St. Bricin’s Military Hospital and Wicklow County Hospital.
When it was thought that all the passengers and crew had been accounted for the rescue operation was wound down. The following day around mid-day another girl guide was discovered, lying exhausted some distance from the crashed aircraft, by a party of Irish Red Cross members from Bray. The girl had become very disorientated and wandered helplessly for hours until she collapsed with exhaustion. There is also a report of either the navigator or the wireless operator being found in a similar state some distance from the aircraft. He could possibly have set out, having heard nothing since the original party of three departed, and he too became lost.
In the clear light of the following day, with the storm now passed, the wreckage could be seen, structurally intact, more or less, lying on its belly on the gentle slope of the mountain. Such a picture hardly portrayed the turmoil of the previous day and night.
An eye witness report from Patrick Campbell went as follows: “From the foot of Djouce on the seaward side I could see something glittering in the sun up near the summit. This was the resting place of the plane…I walked up close to her. She was rocking a little in the wind that came rushing down from the valley. In the cabin the first thing I saw was splints – of every shape and size, some bound with cotton wadding. There was a French prayer book. There were several small navy –blue berets lying about with tricolour linings. Stacked along the side of the cabin were tightly filled rucksacks. On top of the radio set just aft of the cockpit was a large sodden piece of turf….. Patrick Campbell 1946.”
There was plenty of evidence to suggest that occupants of this aircraft were extremely lucky to be alive.
The site was initially cordoned off by the Gardai from Roundwood and there was an investigation carried out by the French Air Force, Air Transport Command and by the aviation section of the Department of Industry and Commerce. What was left after the investigation was gradually picked up by souvenir hunters and hill walkers. And of course it was one such piece of the doomed aircraft that sparked my interest many years ago leading to the original article in the Wicklow Times in 1996 and all the other written, spoken, personal and cultural elements that exist to this day.
As far as is known nothing now remains except a piece that looks like a frame section, hammered into the ground by a local farmer and used as a gate post. Although a photo exists somewhere of Suzanne Barnes holding a landing gear strut upright at the site crash. But alas that too has disappeared. Suzanne organised a memorial walk to Djouce on 12th August for many.
For those who are interested in aircraft navigation, as a result of many such accidents a system called Ground Proximity Warning System (GPWS) was developed. This system used in conjunction with a Radio Altimeter, gives aural warnings in the cockpit if the aircraft comes within a pre-set height of closing terrain. Another more recent development of that system is called the Enhanced GPWS (EGPWS) or Terrain Awareness Warning System (TAWS) and it uses Global Positioning System (GPS) to add to the accuracy of terrain warning. While this system was being trialled in the late 1990s I had the opportunity to act as an engineering observer on an aircraft that flew low over the Wicklow mountains to demonstrate the efficiency of the system. While flying over Djouce my mind was cast back to 1946 and that fateful day where an air crash was turned into an opportunity for the people of Wicklow to demonstrate their resourcefulness in the face of extremely difficult odds. The decisive action in atrocious weather and through the night turned a possible disaster into a rescue operation ‘par excellence!’
So that is the story of the JU 52, AAC 1 Toucon. Built and operated by the French. Flown by a French crew carrying a full French party of girl guides, and bizarrely crashing into a mountain with a strangely French sounding name; Djouce. That name however may be a corruption of “Dubh ais” or Black mountain. After the 12th August 1946 the mountain can justifiably claim a French connection, from the time the plane hit the mountain and a brave young woman climbed out of the fuselage into a raging storm and put her foot on this iconic mountain for the first time. In a way the mountain having been the reason the plane crashed, may well have noticed the bravery of the first girl- guide that set out. That girl was Mademoiselle Chantal de Vitry. Djouce then took all the passengers and crew into its bosom and protected them until they were safely rescued. Maybe then Djouce deserves an award?
This year the 12th August 2016, the 70th anniversary falls on a Friday. Perhaps the people of Wicklow can take a minute or two at 13h30 and look towards Djouce and remember with pride their community’s unforgettable involvement in the French Junkers 52 accident that happened 70 years ago.
Bill Nelson is from Dublin. He worked as a Science Laboratory Technician, Aeronautics Engineer and Aviation Instructor in Europe and Africa. He now researches local history and gives talks on the subject of the statue on the end of the Bull Wall, c/f www.realtnamara.net. He dabbles in play writing. His play ‘A case of Wine’ featured at the Bray One Act Festival in 2013. He is researching the history of the Fokker 50 aircraft with a view to publishing a book. His blog www.billnelson.ie translates items of topical interest in France.