The Parkfield Road was the scene of an awful air crash on 21 July 1941, but details on this are sparse. Accomplished military historian, Mick Powis, takes a look at the story.
A Brief Recap
This crash has often been mentioned in the question section at Wolverhampton Society talks. I have been doing some research, although this will continue to evolve as I am restricted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Briefly the story is this, during the afternoon of Monday 21 July 1941 an Airspeed Oxford twin engine training aeroplane hit houses in Parkfield Road. Setting the roofs on fire. The houses were 179 and 181. The pilot and navigator were Czechs from 2 Service Flying School, operating from Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire. Both airmen were killed, there were no civilian casualties, mainly because people in the nearby houses, had gone outside to see what was an impromptu low flying display by the airmen. It was widely believed that the reason for the display and crash was that the airman flew very low to impress a girlfriend who live in the Blakenhall/Parkfield area.
The Czech Evacuation
The Munich crisis meeting took place on 29-30 September 1938. Hitler was granted the ethic German Sudetenland. This meant Czechoslovakia was open to a German invasion. This took place on 15 March 1939, when German troops marched into Bohemia and Moravia and established a German controlled protectorate. The Czech army was ordered to offer no resistance, as it was futile. Over the next few months thousands of Czech soldiers and airmen escaped to Poland, some joined the Polish Army others went to France. After the defeat of Poland in 1939, many more made their way to France. After the fall of France about 4000 sailed from ports still open to the UK, to join the British Army and RAF.
These Czech volunteers were at first processed at Cholmondeley Park in Cheshire and later in 1940 at RAF Cosford. These volunteers included the men involved in the Parkfield Road crash. The pilot Josef Melena, serial number 787459, was born in Prague on 9 February 1918. The navigator Miroslav Drnek serial number 487469 was born in Blovice near Plzen on 26 October 1917. We know more about him; it seems he was a pharmacist in his fathers’ shop. He joined the Polish Army as a Private on 27 July 1939. After the fall of Poland, he travelled through the Ukraine, Romania, Egypt and Palestine, reaching Marseilles, before the fall of France. By July 1940 both men had joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve, and had applied for pilot training.
Though I don’t have specific details it seems likely both men were assigned to number 28 Elementary Flying Training School, based at Wolverhampton Airport. This would explain the girlfriend in Wolverhampton. They would have completed elementary and basic training on de Havilland Tiger Moth biplanes, and were sent to the final part of their training at the Service Flight Training School at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, for advanced training as bomber pilots.
At the advanced training stage pilots were separated into those going on to fly single engine fighter planes, and those going on to twin or multi engine planes, usually as bomber crews. The 2 Service Flight Training Schools (SFTS) used Airspeed Oxford Twin engine aircraft. The Oxford was an important but underestimated aeroplane. It was the most important advanced trainer for Bomber Command. Some 8000 were produced to 1945. It was used in SFTS’s in the UK, Canada, Australia and other training centres throughout the Empire. Slow with a top speed of about 130 mph, with two 355 horse power Armstrong Siddeley Cheetah engines, it was highly versatile. Its main role was to teach pilots to cope with two engines and a retractable undercarriage, but it had a full set of instruments similar to those on an operational bomber, and complex navigational equipment. It was fitted with night flying aids, and powerful radio and direction-finding equipment. It could carry practice bombs and had a bomb aimers position in the nose. It could be fitted with a gun turret to train air gunners. It was used not only to train pilots and navigators, but the whole of a bomber crew. The Parkfield Road Oxford V 3973 was a fairly new aeroplane, built in 1941 at the Standard Motor Works in Coventry.
The Final Journey
Josef Malena and Miroslav Drnek, were LAC’s (Leading Aircraftmen), at the end of their course as 2 SFTS they could expect to be promoted to Sergeant and sent via an Operational Training Unit to a bomber squadron, probably 311 Squadron, the main Czech bomber unit. They set out from RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, on instrument flying and map reading practice. They were not complete novices, by this stage in their training they were probably quite capable fliers. To navigate from Brize Norton to a small area of Wolverhampton would have required a good degree of navigational skill, they were probably quite confident and keen to show off to the unknown girlfriend in Wolverhampton. Their overconfidence would kill them.
Eyewitnesses described what happened when they got to Parkfield Road. It seems the Oxford flew very low for several minutes. The Express and Star interviewed local people, a Mr H G Chatfield of 179 was going upstairs to lie down his wife advised him not to go up, as the aeroplane sounded to very low. They went outside to look. The residents of 181 also went outside to look, Mrs Doris Willis left her ten-month old baby in the house. Seeing how low the aeroplane was she, went back in to grab her child. The Oxford hit the house a second later. It burst into flames, setting the roofs of several houses on fire. An engine was later found upstairs. It seems the aircrew were killed instantly. A pupil at Dudley Road School, Dennis Lawton heard there had been a plane crash in Parkfield Road, he ran home only to find his house 181 had been seriously damaged, his family had been outside but the aircrew were dead.
The civilian residents of Parkfield Road were all very lucky. Most had gone outside to watch the impromptu air display. They were not inside the houses when the plane hit. The rumour that the aircrew had been showing off to impress their girlfriends quickly spread.
As was always the case after a fatal crash there was an investigation by the Air Ministry. The cause of the crash was a collision with house tops when low flying, due to a lack of discipline by the pilot, deliberate low flying over houses, in contravention of orders. The report accepted the low flying was in the vicinity of the house of the pilot’s girlfriend. The pilot was to blame.
Miroslav Drnek and Josef Melena were buried with full military honours at Donington (St Cuthbert) Churchyard) (Drnek row 13 grave 6), (Melena row 12 grave 7).
While the air accident report follows British tradition in attaching blame as far down the chain of command as possible, there is little doubt the airmen were flying low to show off. We don’t know exactly what happened; did the pilot overestimate how high they were, did the plane stall, was there an engine problem. We will never know. I suppose the biggest mystery are the girlfriends, who were they, did they live in the area?
I hope to continue with this research when different archives re-open. Even if the cause of the crash was pilot error. The crew were two Czechs who came to this country to fight fascism, young men often show off to impress girlfriends. There are worse things to die for.
- Zdenek Hurt. Czechs in the RAF. Red Kite. 2004
- Derek Mills. Rough Hills. An East End Story. Rough Hills Wolverhampton, its history, people and places. Mereo Books 2018.
- Elizabeth Rees. Wolverhampton in the 1930’s and 40’s. Hendon Publishing 1988.
- Free Czechoslovak Air Force. www.fcafa.com
- Roger Darlingtons World. www.rogerdarlington.me.uk
Further Reading from Mick:
Mick is acclaimed author of military history and his work can be found in “The Defeat of the Zeppelins”, available below:
In addition, Mick has contributed a chapter to our book on WW1, which can be purchased here: