On the afternoon of July 13, 1941 Sergeant-airman of the Royal Air Force, William Bernard Oakes, 21, died at the controls of a Wellington bomber of the RAF when it crashed into the sea opposite to Fão, near Esposende., in the North part of Portugal.
Seventy years later, and after consulting several files the family continues to seek answers to questions that were never answered so far, and is trying to reconstruct what happened that day.
William's aircraft plunged into the sea with five other companions (see HERE) ... Their mutilated bodies were gathered in a single coffin and were put to rest in the cemetery of St. James, in Oporto.
Conflicting British reports as quickly explain the accident with a fire in one of the engines, as blame the weather for what happened.
When I got the message from Ian Garth, the brother-in-law of William, I confess I had very little information about this disaster. And even after reading some newspapers of the time, the contradictions did not fade away. In fact...
The daily newspapers from Lisbon "Republica", "Diário de Lisboa", "Diário de Notícias" and those from Oporto "Jornal de Noticias", "Comércio do Porto" and "Primeiro de Janeiro" were not unanimous in their reports about the disaster.
Everyone agrees that the accident happened at 14.30 hours and that the weather was cloudy and rainy. The sea was choppy, but from here on the versions change...
One disaster, many versions
Some newspapers ensure that local eyewitnesses just heard a plane flying over the area - as if looking for a place to land – and then an explosion when it hit the sea.
In another the witnesses heard not only the aircraft but were also able to see it. At one point it raised his nose and plunged into the sea, where at the impact it exploded ...
The "Diário de Noticias" - and I refer the name because it is the only one that has this description of the accident - details how people heard an explosion before the plane- already in flames - crashed into the sea, leaving behind a trail of black smoke ...
The machine smashed into the sea, according to the news between hundred and 300 meters from the beach.
The fuel and some debris burned on the surface of the water releasing an intense black column of smoke.
"Immediately a group of fishermen, despite the fury of the sea, volunteered to proceed to the site of the tragedy. A small boat was launched into the water, crewed by seafarers Julio Vilela da Silva, António António Herdeiro and Joaquim Soares, taking on board also firemen volunteer and chef of fire department of Fão, Mr. Figueira Gonçalves, "says the Jornal de Notícias Newspaper seconded by other publications.
During the sortie they found no crew, but the vessel collected two parachutes, a rubber dinghy and a raincoat. Latter on a wheel and part of a landing gear would also be found...
Among the debris that arrived at the beach head a letter, bound for Malta, and Canadian distinctives were found...
The tugboat "Teixeira de Queiroz" and a lifeboat from the Shipwrecked Rescue Institute were also called to collaborate on rescue efforts and attempts to locate the bodies.
On the morning of the following day the first sign of humanity was discovered. The mutilated torso of a man, with part of the uniform worn was found in the beach... it bears sergeant's stripes.
Taken to the firebrigade house in Esposende it will be identified as belonging to the Wireless operator of the aircraft, which appears already identified as a Wellington bomber.
The beach is littered with all sorts of debris "such as parachutes, wheels, landing gear, and many packets of mail addressed to Malta," explains once again the Jornal de Notícias.
In the following days - by choice or by imposition of censorship - newspapers silenced the news about the rescue operations.
Only on the 19th July, they return to the subject to report that the bodies had been recovered, and that during that afternoon the funeral would be held.
The English community of Oporto closed shops and services and mass to the funeral. Hundreds of persons are present at the ceremonies.
Infantry soldiers lined at the paths through which the crowd accompanying the ceremony (below).
The mutilated remains of sergeant’s William Bernard Oaks, Henry Gerald Peel, Colin James Dixon, Trevor Vaughan Davies, Derek Cecil Haynes and Stephen Thomas Mcneil are all joined in one single coffin, guarded, in the chapel, by a guard of honor from the 3rd Machine Guns Company.
At the end of the Mass, conducted by the Rev. Johnson, everybody follows for the English cemetery. The shoulders of British veterans from World War I carry the casket between the different tracks, but there is also a delegation of Portuguese sergeants, Portuguese militaries of various ranks as wel as civilian authorities to integrate the Portuguese national pageant.
Soldiers fired three salvos in honor of the dead (below)
In the cemetery, members of the 6th Infantry Company, stand guard on the passage of the procession.
Next to the grave, at the time the urn descents to earth, "the soldiers of the Machine Gun Company, armed with rifles, make three successive discharges under the command of a vibrant imperative voice: - Fire," reports newspaper “Primeiro de Janeiro”.
"The English authorities and Portuguese pass one last time before pit, where the first shovelfuls of earth are already falling, and everyone parades without a gesture, a word," concluded the Jornal de Notícias.
More dramatically, in the theatrical sense of the word, is the conclusion of "Primeiro de Janeiro": "On our side, an English lady – with a austere and noble Profile (...) - is living a deep emotion. The eyes get flooded with tears, but soon she revives and solemnly raises his right hand, draws on the space a V - the symbolic start of the word Victory... "
A public appeal
Given this continued sum of contradictions it was decided to perform a public appeal in order to try to find other reports (perhaps in the local press) and especially memories about this incident...
Finding someone alive or who had knowledge of what happened through memories of family is also important...
Anyone knows or knew the fishermen who did not hesitate to throw themselves into the small boat, despite the raging sea?
Pictured Michael Garth, Ian Garth, Ian Oakes and Fred Oakes, William's brother.
Ian Garth would like to have access to all information about this moment that marked the history of his wife’s family.
To preserve some privacy and avoid being bombarded with information that has nothing to do with this issue, Ian asked me that the messages be forwarded to the e-mail of this Blog “Landing in Portugal” (click HERE).
I promise to forward everything to Ian.
To facilitate this work I would be grateful - whenever possible - to receive the messages in English...
The family of William Oakes thank in advance all efforts related with the clarification of this matter.