Sunday, 15 January 2017

Ghosts of RAF Montrose

The first operational military air base in Great Britain also happens to be – reputedly – one of the most haunted sites in Angus, or should we say the place with possibly the most detailed body of evidence or hearsay concerning the supernatural in the modern age (with due apologies to venerable Glamis Castle).  The range of witnesses, length of time which the haunting cover, as well as the circumstances which engendered the haunting, make RAF Montrose almost unique as a centre of paranormal activity.
   Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, sanctioned the commissioning of the base at Upper Dysart Farm, several miles south of the town of Montrose, the first of twelve intended air bases. The site was chosen so that the aircraft stationed there could protect the Royal Navy bases at Rosyth, Cromarty and Scapa Flow. Five aircraft arrived at the new site on 26 February 1913, under the command of Major C J Burke, having left Farnborough on 13 February and flown north in stages.
    Shortly after the station opened there was an accident which allegedly triggered the beginning of a long-running supernatural saga.  The death was the first military aviation fatality in the United Kingdom (as well as the first fatal aircraft accident in Scotland), and the victim was the first Irishman killed in an aeroplane accident. 

Arthur of Glenomera, His  Early Life
    Desmond Phelps Pery Lucius Studdert Arthur was born on 31st March 1884, and as his name suggests he was born into an upper class family in Ireland.  He and his brother Charles inherited the Glenomera (or Glanomera) estate, their father dying when Desmond was four.  His mother remarried and the boys moved from O’ Briens’s Bridge in County Clare to Dublin when Desmond was ten.  He was schooled at Portora Royal School, Enniskillen.  But their mother and step-father died in 1902 the brothers were cut loose and were reputedly rather wild until careers in the military beckoned.  After becoming a lieutenant in the Army Motor Reserve in 1908, Desmond Arthur became an officer in the5th Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers.  In retrospect it could be imagined that Desmond Arthur was marked out by fate and later his is indeed rumoured to have been a ‘fey’ man, marked out for an early death.  The year in which he came of age, 1905, was also the year in which his ancestral mansion home of Glenomera burned down.  Whether or not he actually courted death is open to question, though he was an undoubtedly sporting individual and sought speed records before he was bitten by the flying bug at an aviation event at Leopardstown Racecourse in 1910.  Following getting his pilot’s license in the summer of 1912 he transferred to the 2nd Squadron, Royal Flying Corps in 1912.  In April 1913 he came to the air base at Montrose.

Crest of Arthur of Glanomera.

Death of Desmond Arthur and Initial Enquiries

   Around seven in the morning of 23rd of May, 1913, Arthur headed up in his BE2 biplane for a training flight above Lunan Bay and, around forty-five minutes later and flying at around 2,000 feet, the machine broke apart and the pilot was thrown to his death. One report states that he actually jumped rather than choosing to crash with the machine.  A macabre detail is added by an eye-witness, the grieve on the farm of Captain Blair-Imrie.  He saw the plane overhead, then heard a crashing sound, then looked up and saw something plummeting to the earth.  As it descended he saw that it was a man, falling perfectly silently.  The body, as it came down, was perfectly straight, with its arms held directly above its head.
   The right wing had snapped off the aircraft and Arthur’s seatbelt snapped, throwing him out of the plane as it went into a spin.  Medical help was summoned to attend to the body of Lieutenant Arthur, which was found 156 from the wreckage of his plane, but it was of course useless.  The wreckage landed near the old Lunan Railway Station. 

   The Aeroplane magazine, reporting the accident, states that Desmond Arthur took the plane up for an initial test flight and reported that it was ‘flying splendidly’.  It was the second, extended flight which proved fatal.  The aviator was given a military funeral, with a procession through the streets of Montrose, and his was buried (though possibly not laid to rest) in Sleepyhillock Cemetery in the town.  The first investigation into the incident was conducted by the independent Royal Aero Club (on 2 and 10 June) and stated that an inadequate repair to a spar on the wing was the cause of the crash.  It was stated the plane had been built in June 1912 and rebuilt in August. There was suspicion that accidental damage to the machine had been covered up by a mechanic at Farnborough, but there was no suspicion that this had been done maliciously and no record of the repair.  This report was issued on 21 June 1913:  ‘The Committee is of opinion that the primary cause of the accident was the failure of the faulty joint in the repair to the rear main spar.’
   A government inquiry commenced on 11 July 1913, following which Mr Joynson-Hicks MP complained of a whitewash in the matter.  Further criticism came from another member in 1916, Pemberton Bilings, who had business interests in aircraft manufacturing.  He stated that poor manufacturing was causing fatalities among servicemen.  He called for a judicial enquiry into the military and naval air service, but the government only responded by setting up their own enquiry on 3 August 1916.  This Interim Report found that pilot error and dangerous flying had caused Arthur’s death, something that was disputed by contemporary pilots in the Royal Flying Corps, where rumours were awash.  Although the Final Report was dated 17 November 1916 it did not appear until Christmas and went some way to clearing the dead pilot’s name.

Desmond Arthur.

The Hauntings Begin

The alleged haunting of Montrose did not happen until around three years after Desmond Arthur’s death, and at a different location.  The station commander was unhappy with the original site of the airfield and it was agreed to moved the base to Broomfield Farm, a mile north of Montrose.  It was here, at the end of 1913, that engineers erected hangars on the new site (later known as ‘Major Burke’s Sheds’) and the squadron moved there early in 1914.  Fliers at Montrose were still housed in the previous Militia Barracks, as they had been in Arthur’s time.
   Number two squadron moved to France in August 1914, the month after the commencement of the First World War.  Different squadrons of the Royal Flying Corps occupied Montrose during the first years of the conflict (No 6 Squadron, No 25 Squadron and No 80 Squadron).  Few if any of the military staff in 1916 and later would have known Desmond Arthur.  Even some of those who had been there in the beginning of the base’s history died in the war.  One such was the base commander Major C J Burke, later promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and recipient of the DSO, who died in 1917.
   It was during 1916 that reports of an unknown airman began to surface at Montrose.  One prominent witness was a senior flying instructor named Major Cyril Foggin who saw the ghost on a number of occasions.  One evening when he was making his way to the mess he saw the figure going the same way as him and vanish when it reached the door.  He put the sighting down to overwork and did not initially communicate it for fear he would jeopardise his position.  The writer Peter Underwood stated that Foggin witnessed the ghost five times during that autumn and the figure was also witnessed by the station commander and several witnesses who were flying instructors.
   One of the latter woke at night to see a uniformed man sitting in a chair in his room, but when he challenged it, the person vanished.  

Lt. Arthur in uniform.

Cyril Foggin’s Career and Death

Newcastle-upon-Tyne born Cyril Edgar Foggin (1891-1918) was an enthusiastic early aviator who joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1914.  During his early training, in 1912 at Eastborne, he had narrowly escaped death in a flying accident, which was reported in The Times (25 September 1912).  Losing control of his aeroplane at 60 feet, Foggin fell to the earth, but landed safely on the grass, his helmet saving his life, and he was completely unhurt.  Ironically, his death came in a car accident while he was serving with the RAF on the Western Front, on 30 July 1918.

Arthur’s Love, Contested Will and his family

  When Desmond Arthur’s will, over £12,000, was read at Dublin on 9 June 1913, it was revealed that he had left most of his wealth to Miss Constance Ropner, the fourteen year old daughter of a shipping magnate from West Hartlepool, County Durham.  A sum of £1000 was bequeathed to Desmond’s elder brother Charles (born in 1882) , subject to the agreement of the main beneficiary.  The will raised an amount of interest, not only because it went to a young girl, but also for the fact that Arthur (who was fifteen years older than the girl) was romantically involved with her.  The airman carried a miniature portrait of the young girl with him at all times.  Desmond Arthur in fact had known the Ropner family for a number of years.

   Charles Arthur challenged the will, partly prompted by the fact that his own previous inherited wealth had run out.  As headstrong as his younger brother, he had married  and went to India in 1909, returning to serve in the artillery during the Great War.  Charles challenged the will, raising an action against the executors Thomas Studdert and William Ropner, father of Constance.  The case came before Justice Kenny at the Irish High Court in February 1914.  It was Charles’s contention that the will was not properly executed, and indeed the two witnesses to the will could not even remember signing it.  Despite this the case was dropped and Charles William Augustus Arthur had to sell his Irish estate.
   The two main players in the drama had very different fates.  Constance Winsome  Ropner (born 15 March 1899) led a quiet life, marrying Major George Talbot Wilcox in 1922 and she died in 1988.  Desmond’s great-nephew Nick Arthur  revealed, a century after his demise, that the locket containing Constance’s portrait was found on Desmond’s body after he died.  And Paul Willcox, great-grandson of Constance, said that she never forgot her original love.  This photograph has now been donated to the Heritage Centre, along with Lt Arthur’s diary.

Constance Ropner.

   By contrast, Desmond’s brother led an unsettled life. Following the war, Charles Arthur’s luck seemed to change when he was appointed as an aide to Prince Hari Singh, heir of the Maharajah of Kashmir. But he was soon implicated in a famous  fraud case, where a group of conspirators attempted to steal £300,000 from the Prince. Charles Arthur was never charged or officially accused, but his reputation was tainted and the fallout led to his divorce in 1921.  He was arrested in Paris in 1924 over the conspiracy and imprisoned for thirteen months.  Two years later he was thrown out of the army and he remarried in 1930.  A pattern of failed business ventures and far fetched money making schemes followed.  By 1934 he was trying to sell interest in an expedition to recover pirate treasure from an island near Costa Rica.  All the investors except Captain Arthur and his wife were left out of pocket.  The couple remained in the Caribbean and Charles apparently died in 1937, some two years before bankruptcy proceedings were raised against him.  Even to the last he was attempting to outwit the authorities. 

Further Deaths at Montrose During WWI

   But, given the deaths of witnesses and other areas of uncertainty, could anyone be sure that the ghost was actually Desmond Arthur?  There is an alternative story that the returning shade was a trainee pilot who died after being made to go on a training flight despite feeling unwell.  A number of pilots besides Arthur lost their lives in the vicinity, mostly during World Wars I and II.  One such was Second Lieutenant  Richard Perry Waller, who died in May 1918.  Two members of No 2 Squadron died away from Montrose, on exercise in Salisbury Plain in 1914.  Another fatality was Second Lieutenant Morrison, who died there in October 1916.  It has also been suggested that the original ghost is Major F F Waldron who died in France in 1916.

   The ‘facts’ about the Montrose haunting are compounded by the great numbers of men and units who served at the base in the early years.  British, Canadian and American forces were stationed there at different times.  25 Squadron formed there on 25 September 1915, followed in 1917 by 83 Squadron and 80 Squadron.  (At least a dozen other units are listed there in the years to 1918.)  There are over eighty graves of airmen in Sleepyhillock Cemetery, Montrose.

                                                     The Twenties and Thirties                         

   The airfield at Montrose closed in 1920 and the years until the Second World War were quite in terms of unusual occurrences.  (The base opened again in 1935 and became a training site.).  But also in 1920 a friend of Desmond Arthur named C G Grey published a story of the haunting in The Aeroplane magazine, of which he was the editor.  Detailing the ghost’s appearances in 1918, he noted that it appeared in the No. 2 Squadron’s officer’s mess.  He identified the spirit specifically as Desmond Arthur and tied in the manifestation with the controversial reports of the war years which blamed Arthur for his own death.  He stated that the haunting ceased in January 1917 (another source nails down the last sighting as 17 January.).  The ghost was not seen again, allegedly, until 1940.  There was a rumour that the pilot ghost on the site was protecting those personnel who served there, though a counter tradition, supported by two fliers who wrote to Popular Flying magazine in April 1934, suggested there was a presence at Montrose which bad affected flying operations. 
   Still, though few in number, Forbes Inglis reports a number of eerie encounters from the inter war period, following the re-opening of the airfield.  An RAF policeman named Norrie Webster encounter footsteps, but nobody making them, one night on patrol.  Another guard told Webster a few nights later he heard the sound, plus saw a strange mist.  Another witness encountered a man in a flying suit one foggy night beside Waldron Bridge, but the man passed him by without a word and it was only realised later that the night was far too foggy for flying and nobody could have been there dressed like that. 
   One estimate says that, between the re-opening of the station and the end of the Battle of Britain, around 800 men were trained to fly at RAF Montrose.  But the shade of World War I did not reappear until 1940, and then possibly briefly.

Luftwaffe Photo of Montrose, April 1943.

World War Two and Immediately After

   With the greatly increased activity at Montrose sponsored by a new conflict, supernatural events were reported thick and fast.  The most well known story, reported by Peter Underwood and others, concerns a Hurricane pilot who took to the air in 1940 to challenge a prowling Heinkel.  He didn’t find it, but made some strange and abortive attempts at landing before finally coming down safely.  The pilot was incensed and said he had been prevented from landing by the dangerous proximity of an antique biplane.  The station commander assured him that nobody else at all was flying that night, and besides there were no biplanes on the base. 
   Another story of the same period states that eight planes took off on a flying exercise.  Following their safe return another plane landed but exploded on the runway.  Strangely, there was no wreckage recovered and no record from any surrounding airfield of one of their planes going missing. 
   The day of 25 October 1940 was a busy day for the Luftwaffe.  Raids targeted London, Birmingham, Pembroke, Cardiff and Liverpool.  Further north, they targeted Angus also.  A trio of  Heinkel III’s on 25 October 1940 attacked RAF Arbroath plus Montrose town and station, seven people were killed at the latter site.  Around 7.20 in the evening the officers’ mess was destroyed by a fire, and inside the building was a safe which contained –supposedly – a report on the Montrose ghost written by a Major Impey.  The details of the document are sadly unknown, as is the precise identity of Impey.  He may in fact have been Thomas Smith Impey  (1880-1949).  One of seven children in a Quaker family, Thomas  served in the Royal Flying Corps and in 1915 was on active service in France as a pilot. He was injured following a fall from his horse, which meant he could no longer serve on the front.  By October that year he was a Major and RFC flying instructor at Montrose.  In 1918 he was granted a permanent commission in the RAF and retired in 1922. (In 1918 his brother Arthur was also in the area, staying at the Lindertis home of Sir Hugh Munro.)  The only document by Impey which seems to be extant is an account written for his old school magazine, giving a brief account of his flying experiences in 1916 ( Bootham School Blogs).
   Following the death of a trainee pilot named George Hogben in 1941, his ghost was supposed to have been seen by his friend.  But it was not until the following year that there was a significant surge in occurrences.  The story goes that an unpopular Flight Lieutenant with a reputation for being harsh and authoritative with ground staff had a fatal crash after arguing with a fitter and putting him on a charge.  It was rumoured the mechanic had possibly tampered with his plane and caused the crash.  Soon afterwards the dead man returned to haunt the site, being seen wearing a flight suit and goggles.  Stories of an apparition were told by guards and the figure was particularly prevalent in the Wedron Bridge area.  The ghost or ghosts was kitted out in full flying gear, though some people saw a figure in a white flying suit.  A girl preparing tea in the NAAFI at the time saw a fully kitted man come into the building and then vanish in front of her. 
   The personnel at Montrose during the Second World War were even more cosmopolitan than those who had previously served there. Polish, American, Czech, Turkish and other nationals passed through RAF Montrose.  These foreign fliers had their share of accidental deaths here too.  One such, for example, was a Pole named Wieslaw Oselkowski, who died on a training sortie, crashing near Laurencekirk in the Mearns on 13 May 1941.
   In 1942 ‘Squadron Leader Ovenden was confronted by two airmen one night who asked me who had been killed in the crash.  He replied there had been no crash.  The due swore there had been a plane crash on the shore and the aeroplane had burst into flames.
   Following the war there was a reduction in RAF activity.  Montrose was run down, being unsuitable with its grass runways for modern aircraft. Before the field was closed for good in June 1952 in became exclusively a training establishment.  Men stationed there still saw unaccountable things.  A guard in September 1947 met a man who seemed to be dressed in an old-fashioned uniform, who soon disappeared.   In the previous year an experienced serviceman on guard duty met something strange.  While his mate went off for a smoke, at around three in the morning, this man was checking the area where a plane was standing, between the morgue and control tower.  Suddenly the morgue doors flew open and a man in full flying kit emerged.  In shock, the guard dropped his gun.  The doors had slammed and the man was gone.  The doors had earlier been checked and found to be locked.  It later emerged that the morgue building had served a different purpose years before, and it was from here that the ghostly flight lieutenant emerged to go on his final flight. 

Station Crest, II Flying School, Montrose.

Sir Peter Masefield

   The ghosts of Montrose roared back into prominence through the means of Sir Peter Masefield and an article he published in Flight International magazine, 21 December 1972.  His strange story centred around the ‘strangest entry’ he every entered in his flying log.  A renowned aviation expert and businessman, Masefield had flown up to Inverness to give a talk about his experiences and, on Sunday 26 May 1963, was sitting chatting in the Station Hotel, Inverness.  He was due to fly back south the following day in his Chipmunk aircraft.  After dinner in the hotel those present discussed flying history and an old RFC veteran mentioned the air base at Montrose.  He told the story of how Colonel Charles Burke brought up planes from Farnborough to Upper Dysart in early 1913 and shortly afterwards another airman died there flying the plane.
   A second veteran said he had heard the story – and a lot more besides – while serving with the Royal Flying Corps in France in 1917.  He said the BE2 planes were supposed to be the safest models there were.  Then he recounted Desmond Arthur’s accident, the reports into his death, and the supposed sighting of him one August evening in 1916 by Cyril Foggin.  Two nights later, at midnight, he saw the same figure, swinging his helmet, near the Old Mess.  Foggin hurried after him, but again the man vanished.  Foggin, according to Masefield’s informant, saw the ghost another five or six times. The ghost story came out in September, following sightings by the station commander and half a dozen others.  Two men saw him sitting in a chair reading papers.  A visiting officer, who had been at Farnborough, also saw the ghost and recognised him as Desmond Arthur. 
   Masefield links the sightings then to the report and comments that the Final Report carried an addendum by Sir Charles Bright and Arthur Butcher exonerated the dead pilot.  The ghost visited Foggin just once more, on Christmas Eve 1916 and was seen no more.  Another person, sitting in the shadows, contributed technical details to the early aeroplanes which were based at Montrose.  Next day, at Dalcross airfield, the same Irishman appeared and asked for a lift in Sir Peter’s plane down south to England which Masefield agreed to.  As they flew down the east coast towards Turnhouse at Edinburgh, Sir Peter spotted an old biplane flying close to Montrose. He watched in horror as its wing collapsed and it spiralled to the ground.  When he turned to speak to his passenger, the man was missing.  Shaken, he landed at Montrose  and ascertained that nobody on the ground had seen this latest ‘accident’.  When he got back to England he was even more astonished to find the date was 27 May 1963, fifty years to the day since Desmond Arthur’s fatal crash.
   Good story, but does it stand up?  Author Forbes Inglis – a man who should know – said that he spotted some geographical inaccuracies in the story printed by Masefield.  We can also note that it appeared in print just before Christmas, a good time for the telling of supernatural yarns.  Beyond that it should be noted that Sir Peter, who died in 2006 aged 91, was an accomplished journalist before he entered the aviation business world.  He may have first learned of the Montrose tale in person from C. G. Grey, editor of The Aeroplane, the man who wrote of the story in 1920.  Grey appointed Masefield technical editor of the magazine.  Against that, it might be said that he was a man of longstanding integrity who would surely not have made the whole thing up as a joke.  The writer and supernatural researcher Peter Underwood said that Sir Peter vouched for the truth of the story to him personally. 
    The Scottish Daily Express reported strange things in the Montrose sky in 1963, but then all went quiet for several decades.

Recent Events:  The Eighties and Afterwards

   In 1983 a group of enthusiasts, led by Ian McIntosh, formed the Montrose Air Heritage Trust and funds were raised by the Montrose Air Heritage Trust to open a heritage visitor centre on the site.  By 1992 the groups had purchased the watch office and ground, which became Montrose Air Station Museum.  Exhibits were bought and displays made for the public to see.  There was a pickup in incidents as visitors came in increasing numbers.  Footsteps were heard, a ghostly black Labrador was seen, voices experienced, men in uniform glimpsed who couldn’t be there.  Beyond the station a WWII plane was seen roaring over Rossie Braes.  Children on nearby grass saw a figure with no face glide noiselessly towards them.  These and more phenomena are detailed in Forbes Inglis’s book. 
   Most fascinating possibly are the auditory incidents, including the time when a volunteer named Ian Robb heard the vintage phone in the CO’s office ring.  When he answered it, a voice uncannily asked for help.  Linked to this possibly is the vintage PYE radio which randomly and unaccountably broadcast Winston Churchill and Glen Miller, despite being unplugged and having no aerial.  An Australian medium visited the place in 1990 claimed one of the resident ghosts was actually a lunatic who liked to dress up as an airman.  Another medium, Cat Perks, witnessed only the shade of an airman begging for help. 
   Derek Green of the Ghost Club tells how a company was doing a photo shoot around the old hangars.  In one of the images captured there was an ‘extra’ unidentified figure standing at the rear of the scene, dressed in full flying gear. Grampian Television also captured the video image of a flier in the area of Waldron Bridge.  He also comments that phenomena have decreased since 2007 when many crash site exhibits were moved from display.

Recent Supernatural Investigations

     Forbes Inglis, who worked at the heritage centre, participated in a Ghost Club investigation of the site in 2005.  Nothing dramatic materialised, though there were sounds heard, such as the clicking of unseen billiard balls, plus recorded knocks and ‘received’ communication from several spirits.  In the previous year a door in the HQ building opened twice by itself while the Ghost Club was on site; plus there were knockings and other sounds heard. 

   In September 2008 a team from Paranormal Research Scotland visited the air station. The trio from Dundee recorded the voice of a man who identified himself as Sergeant Jackson and also a Desmond, though they did not believe he was Desmond Arthur.

Glasgow Paranormal Investigators’ overnight vigil on a separate occasion captured an array of sounds such as voices, breaths, footsteps and bangs in May 2010.  Their ‘contacts’ included a Group Captain Stapleton, plus anonymous and ominous voices which announced ‘You have left us to die’ and ‘You have deserted us.’  Their previous visit in April 2009 gave evidence of a variety of taps and bangs and light anomalies. 

An End to It?

In 2013, to mark the centenary of Desmond Arthur’s death,   a small group gathered at Sleepyhillock Cemetery and a wreath was placed on his grave. Dr Dan Paton, the curator of Montrose Air Station Heritage Centre, expressed a hope that the airman would now rest in peace. 


Inglis, Forbes, Phantoms and Fairies, Tales of the Supernatural in Angus and Dundee, Brechin, 1990. 
Masefield, Sir Peter, ‘The Montrose Ghost,’ Flight International, 21 December 1972.
Underwood, Peter, The Gazetteer of Scottish Ghosts, London, 1974.

Plane of No 2 Squadron, Montrose, 1914.

1 comment:

  1. Another brilliantly researched and narrated blog. I lived inJohnshaven in the early 1970s and played rugby for Montrose and District RFC who at the time played on the links adjacent to the old airfield. I knew the place had a history - as all places do - but I was unaware its story had this mysterious thread running through it. I'm overawed by the drama and atmosphere of your concluding illustration. Thank you again Keith for enriching my experience of the places I came from.