The sad memorial to 'apocalyptic' air disaster: How wreckage of Gatwick flight that crashed killing 34 tourists is still strewn across the French Pyreness more than 60 years after tragedy

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Strewn across a steep mountain side in the French Pyrenees are the jagged remains of a plane which once carried dozens of British holidaymakers.

The shell of the main passenger cabin is wedged between a rocky outcrop and pine trees next to a hiking trail.

Scattered randomly on scree below are lumps of the engine, fuel tanks and the landing gear.

For 60 years, this wreckage has remained 2,200m up on the slopes of Mount Canigou, a macabre reminder of a long-forgotten aviation disaster described as ‘apocalyptic’ by those who were first on the scene on a stormy October night in 1961.

All 34 on board – including the pilot, co-pilot, and a stewardess – were killed instantly when the tourist charter flight from London Gatwick to Perpignan smashed into the mountain as it was buffeted by driving winds and rain.

Strewn across a steep mountain side in the French Pyrenees are the jagged remains of a plane which once carried dozens of British holidaymakers

Strewn across a steep mountain side in the French Pyrenees are the jagged remains of a plane which once carried dozens of British holidaymakers

For 60 years, this wreckage has remained 2200m up on the slopes of Mount Canigou, a macabre reminder of a long-forgotten aviation disaster described as 'apocalyptic' by those who were first on the scene on a stormy October night in 1961

For 60 years, this wreckage has remained 2200m up on the slopes of Mount Canigou, a macabre reminder of a long-forgotten aviation disaster described as ‘apocalyptic’ by those who were first on the scene on a stormy October night in 1961

The names of those who died will also be engraved into a separate plinth at a popular nearby mountain refuge run by local man Thomas Dulac (pictured)

The names of those who died will also be engraved into a separate plinth at a popular nearby mountain refuge run by local man Thomas Dulac (pictured) 

The passengers – many local government and hospital workers – were headed on a sunshine break to Spain’s Costa Brava.

Next week a team of 40 French volunteers will finally clear away the gnarled remnants of the splintered aircraft.

In its place will be a plaque, embedded into a granite boulder, to provide the first proper memorial. British Embassy officials are expected to attend an official unveiling ceremony next year.

Among the victims were William Northcott, 55, and wife Alice, 54, of West Drayton, Middlesex, who were on their first ever romantic holiday as a couple without their children.

Reports from the time reveal that they had originally planned to travel with their youngest son, Peter, 14, but decided to leave him at home after he had been saved from drowning in a river near the family home just ten weeks previously. The elderly man who rescued him in the water drowned.

After their parents’ deaths, Peter’s older brother Ronald, who had emigrated to Canada, flew back to Britain, and formally adopted his younger sibling so he could live with him across the Atlantic.

Peter, now 75, settled in Ontario, where his sister Patricia, who had been living in Somerset, also relocated.

His niece Susan Hickey, of London, Ontario, recalls: ‘It was a huge shock when it happened. I was very sad. The crash affected my family so much. It was very challenging, particularly for my dad.

‘I assumed it had all been forgotten, so finding out that there will be this memorial plaque all these years later is amazing.’

Susan remembers young Peter, who later became a school portrait photographer, arriving in Canada with his beloved dog.

‘There were only five years between Peter and I, and suddenly, we had a big brother,’ she added. ‘There were 18 years between him and my dad; it was a life-changing thing for everyone.

‘My nan had been over the year before for a visit. I became very close with her. She wrote to me a week before they left, telling me they were going on holiday in Spain, and that she’d write again when they got back. That was the last contact I had with them.’

The passengers ¿ many local government and hospital workers ¿ were headed on a sunshine break to Spain's Costa Brava

The passengers – many local government and hospital workers – were headed on a sunshine break to Spain’s Costa Brava

The catastrophic scene of that day is imprinted on the memory of former mountain rescue volunteer Jean-Pierre Bobo, now 82. A university student at the time, Jean-Pierre, from the nearest city Perpignan, is the only surviving member of the team who witnessed the terrible impact of the crash first-hand

The catastrophic scene of that day is imprinted on the memory of former mountain rescue volunteer Jean-Pierre Bobo, now 82. A university student at the time, Jean-Pierre, from the nearest city Perpignan, is the only surviving member of the team who witnessed the terrible impact of the crash first-hand

Jean-Pierre helped carry the bodies down with fellow volunteers using makeshift stretchers and improvised body bags strapped to their backs

Jean-Pierre helped carry the bodies down with fellow volunteers using makeshift stretchers and improvised body bags strapped to their backs

Next week a team of 40 French volunteers will finally clear away the gnarled remnants of the splintered aircraft

Next week a team of 40 French volunteers will finally clear away the gnarled remnants of the splintered aircraft

The wrecked plane which is still atop the mountain 60 years after the tragic crash

The wrecked plane which is still atop the mountain 60 years after the tragic crash

The names of those who died will also be engraved into a separate plinth at a popular nearby mountain refuge run by local man Thomas Dulac.

The catastrophic scene of that day is imprinted on the memory of former mountain rescue volunteer Jean-Pierre Bobo, now 82.

A university student at the time, Jean-Pierre, from the nearest city Perpignan, is the only surviving member of the team who witnessed the terrible impact of the crash first-hand.

Despite the passing of time, he still shudders when he recollects the many hours spent at the wreckage site.

The extreme weather, with winds of up to 120mph recorded on the Mediterranean and tornadoes in Marseille, made the operation incredibly difficult. It was thought that the plane, a twin-engine Douglas Dakota IV operated by Derby Aviation – later to become British Midland – changed course after losing contact with air traffic control in Toulouse.

Jean-Pierre helped carry the bodies down with fellow volunteers using makeshift stretchers and improvised body bags strapped to their backs.

‘I was called at 11 in the morning to help locate the plane following the distress call at about midnight,’ remembers Jean-Pierre, a grandfather-of-four. ‘They had not been able to locate the aircraft during the night.

‘What we saw when we got to the spot was just so awful. My friend who was with me just couldn’t stop crying. The wreckage and the victims were everywhere across the steep mountain side.

‘It was just such a terrible night. The weather was awful; there were very high winds and it just never stopped raining. We had to wait for an inspector to come to confirm everyone on board had died, and then we took the victims down on foot. There were around 60 of us there. We all felt so upset for those people. What I saw then changed my life.’

‘I’ve never understood why there is no monument up there in honour of those who died,’ he continued. ‘I’m very glad there will be something now, something more appropriate. For a long time, it has seemed wrong that hikers walk past it, with some taking macabre souvenirs from the wreckage.’

The other victims included Margaret Greenleaf, 44, who worked in the Town Clerk’s Office in Southend and her daughter Janice, 15.

The extreme weather, with winds of up to 120mph recorded on the Mediterranean and tornadoes in Marseille, made the operation incredibly difficult. It was thought that the plane, a twin-engine Douglas Dakota IV operated by Derby Aviation - later to become British Midland - changed course after losing contact with air traffic control in Toulouse.

The extreme weather, with winds of up to 120mph recorded on the Mediterranean and tornadoes in Marseille, made the operation incredibly difficult. It was thought that the plane, a twin-engine Douglas Dakota IV operated by Derby Aviation – later to become British Midland – changed course after losing contact with air traffic control in Toulouse.

Pyrenees guide Thomas, 56, who spends four months a year on the flanks of Canigou - considered a sacred peak for the Catalan people ¿ has long been determined to do something to honour the memories of the British tourists

Pyrenees guide Thomas, 56, who spends four months a year on the flanks of Canigou – considered a sacred peak for the Catalan people – has long been determined to do something to honour the memories of the British tourists

Typist Rhona Jones, 31, and her 70-year-old mother Fanny Jones, both from Blackpool, were in adjoining seats in the twin-engine charter jet.

Near them were former RAF warrant officer Stanislaus Graham, 45, of Barry, Glamorgan, and his wife Winifred.

Pyrenees guide Thomas, 56, who spends four months a year on the flanks of Canigou – considered a sacred peak for the Catalan people – has long been determined to do something to honour the memories of the British tourists.

‘We want it to be a more appropriate memorial for the people who died here in such terrible circumstances,’ explains Thomas. ‘In September we will remove everything, even the metal that is now covered in soil and vegetation. Our plan is to take it all down and to preserve the most significant parts in a local aviation museum. ‘It was such a horrific accident. The pilot had a problem with the radar; from what they found he was badly off course and just couldn’t navigate around the mountain in such bad weather.’

After clearing some of the sharpest chunks of the wreckage from the mountain by himself to protect wild animals, Thomas requested assistance from a French charity called Obsolete Installations which works to clear manmade debris in France’s most picturesque regions.

‘Some people have suggested we should leave it here,’ continues Thomas, ‘but I think it’s more important to clean up the mountain and leave it in a better state for the next generation.’

Jean-Pierre remains a nimble mountaineer even though he retired two decades ago, so he intends to climb up to the refuge for the plaque unveiling.

Two years after the crash, Jean-Pierre was called into action again when another British passenger jet crashed on Mount Canigou. On the latter occasion 40 died.

Between 1949 and 1967, there were at least nine crashes on or near the mountain, prompting a parliamentary review of airlines following that route towards France’s south-west Mediterranean coast and the Costa Brava.




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