P/O Keith G Proverbs: Out Of Tragedy Came Advances in Air Safety and Science

On 10th September 1945, P/O Keith Proverbs (Bajan Captain and 1st pilot) and his crew from 517 Squadron tragically lost their lives when their aircraft a Halifax Met. Mk. III crashed in dense fog trying to land. On the anniversary of that fatal crash we remember the sacrifices made by the RAF Meteorological Squadron crews who flew in perilous weather conditions, day in, day out, when all other flying operations were cancelled so as to provide Allied Commanders with a continuous source of high-quality weather data to direct the war effort. Out of this tragedy and loss of life came the annual LG Groves Memorial Award, established in 1946 to promote advancements in air safety and meteorology.

This article would not have been written without two major elements of chance:

  • In 2016, the Groves family went searching for the relatives of the aircrew who died in the crash of RG380. They wanted to invite them to the dedication of a memorial. To do this they went through the UK telephone directories and phoned likely names, one was Keith’s first cousin, Ralph Proverbs in Hampshire – a contact was made for Keith.
  • At the Dedication and the Award Ceremony on 6th September 2016, Lyall Seale heard that one of Keith’s earlier wartime crew members from Australia, Kevan Smith, was still alive and managed to contact him by email. Kevan Smith’s first hand information provided significant insight into Keith’s time in Meteorological Reconnaissance. Unfortunately, within two months of that first contact, Kevin was hospitalised and died.

The Tragedy

On 10th September 1945, a Halifax Met. Mk. III X9-N number RG380 of 517 Squadron a RAF Meteorological Unit crashed on the Quantock Hills in Somerset. Based at RAF Brawdy in South Wales, RG380 was returning from an the afternoon Epicure meteorological reconnaissance sortie over the Atlantic Ocean and Bay of Biscay, lasting 9½ hours. They were diverted to RAF Weston Zoyland in Somerset due to heavy fog. On arrival over the station they could not see the airfield but were heard on the ground. Due to radio interference neither the aircrew nor ground controller could hear each other and RG380 turned away without anyone on the ground knowing its destination. At 1954 GMT flying in dense fog, below the the safety altitude for the area whilst making an extended circuit to the west of the airfield at RAF Weston Zoyland, the aircraft hit trees on the highest point of the Quantock Hills, above Crowcombe Court, about 13 miles to the west north west of the airfield. RG380 broke up and caught fire when it hit the ground.

For that afternoon Epicure sortie on 10th September 1945 RG380 was unusually carrying two Meteorological Air Observers; SGT John Gordon, a newcomer to the squadron, was being screened by SGT Louis Groves, by now an experienced meteorological observer. The crew for the morning Epicure sortie, who were also diverted to RAF Weston Zoyland, heard RG380 as it passed over the airfield; 30 minutes later, whilst relaxing in the village pub, they were quietly told that RG380 Halifax MET MK III had crashed.

None of the nine aircrew of RG380 survived the crash. They were:

  • P/O Keith Gordon Proverbs aged 27 (Bajan Captain and 1st pilot),
  • F/O John Joseph Fredrick Hobden aged 22 (2nd Pilot),
  • F/O Lindsay George McMillan aged 23 (Navigator),
  • F/SGT Dennis Norman Everett aged 25 (Flight Engineer),
  • SGT Louis Grimble Groves aged 24 (Meteorologist Air Observer).
  • SGT John Macilrick Bryce Gordon aged 21 (Meteorologist Air Observer),
  • F/O Patrick Alfred Bee aged 25 (Wireless operator and Air Gunner),
  • W/O Roy Donald Cartwright aged 24 (Wireless operator and Air Gunner),
  • F/SGT Robert William Vinton aged 21 (Wireless operator and Air Gunner).

A wartime crew member could not understand how this tragedy could have happened, as RAF Weston Zoyland was a normal diversion station and the aircrew were well aware of the location and height of the Quantock Hills. His only explanation was that, with the radio interference, the crew misheard the pressure reading from the station and erroneously re-set their altimeter too low.

Who was Keith Proverbs, what was meteorological reconnaissance and how was it done by the RAF, what did Keith’s wartime crew think of him and what were the positive outcomes of this tragedy.

Keith Proverbs (known in the RAF as: Prov)

P/O Keith Proverbs
Keith Proverbs during pilot training at Piarco, Trinidad. Source Keith’s brother Desmond Proverbs.

Keith Gordon Proverbs was born on 28th December 1917 in Barbados. He was the eldest child of Ivor Gordon and Nellie Kathleen Proverbs. His father was the managing director of several Knights Ltd. Pharmacies located in Barbados and Trinidad. He had one younger brother, Maurice Desmond Proverbs who was born in 1921. The family lived in a house by the sea, at Accra, Barbados.

Keith enjoyed the outdoors, had a pet caiman (alligator family), Persian cats, dogs and birds. He was an excellent swimmer, and enjoyed sailing, fishing, and spear fishing with his brother, cousins and friends. Keith graduated from Harrison College in Barbados and later attended Imperial College in Trinidad, where he then worked in the oil industry.

In Trinidad Keith volunteered to serve in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve (RAFVR) and was attested (took the oath of allegiance) on 28th July 1942, with the Service Number: 6054713. On 29th March 1945 when Keith was promoted to an officer his Service Number changed to: 197664.

Keith would have been a contemporary of fellow Harrison College RAF alumni Errol Barrow and George Inniss.

Keith did his his pilot training at Piarco airfield, Trinidad. On 5th January 1943 when Keith arrived in UK, he was promoted to Sergeant Pilot and was re-trained to fly larger aircraft for posting to RAF Coastal Command. RAF Coastal Command’s primary duties were to keep Britain’s vital sea lanes open, the hunting of German U-boats and the collection of meteorological data to help better forecast the weather. Its secondary duties were the attacking German shipping and trying to locate Allied aircrew from downed aircraft. By the end of the World War II, RAF Coastal Command had suffered an ever higher loss rate than RAF Bomber Command with 2,060 aircraft lost, along with the lives of 5,866 personnel.

On 11th August 1943 Keith was posted, as a second pilot, to 517 Squadron, No.19 Group of Coastal Command. 517 Squadron was formed as a Meteorological Unit. It was based at RAF St. Eval located southwest of Padstow in Cornwall, moving to RAF St. Davids in November 1943 located near St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, Wales, and RAF Brawdy in February 1944 located 6.3 miles east of St. Davids.

The Meteorological Unit aircrew typically comprised a crew of eight: a first and second pilot, a navigator, a flight engineer (Flt Eng), 4 Wireless operator / Air Gunners (WAGs) and a Meteorologist Air Observer (MAO).

The aircrews of the RAF Meteorological Squadrons were unsung heroes of World War II. They flew, day in, day out, undaunted by atrocious weather conditions, when all other flying operations were cancelled, to provide weather and meteorological information vital to the war effort.

In August 1944 Keith was appointed first pilot and Captain and re-trained at RAF Aldergrove (Belfast, Northern Ireland). The photograph below is of Keith’s first crew during a break from training at a hotel in Newcastle, Northern Ireland at the foot of the Mountains of Mourne. The original 2nd Pilot, Macey was not present and Kevan Smith (Australian, WAG) later replaced John deRosier (Canadian, WAG) as there was one too many in the crew.

P/O Keith Proverbs
Keith Proverbs first crew during a break from training at a hotel in Newcastle, Northern Ireland. L to R: Lindsay McMillan (Navigator); Barry Kinsman (Canadian, WAG); Keith Proverbs (1st Pilot, Skipper); John DeRosier (Canadian, WAG); Roy Cartwright (WAG); Bob Penfold (MAO); Kevan Smith (Australian, WAG). Photo was probably taken by Dennis Everett (Flt Eng). The 2nd Pilot Macey was not present. Photograph courtesy of the Cartwright Family. Air crew identified by Kevan Smith.

Following the end of the War in Europe, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand personnel were released from service awaiting repatriation for operations against Japan and Meteorological Squadron aircrews were re-assigned. Lindsay McMillan (Navigator) and Roy Cartwright (WAG) were the only remaining members of Keith’s wartime crew.

The Meteorological Unit Aircraft

At the time Keith joined 517 Squadron it used the Handley Page Halifax Mk. V. Because of undercarriage issues it was of limited use as a heavy bomber, and so, after it entered service in June 1943 most Mk Vs were transferred to other duties. The Mk V was the first Halifax to be converted for meteorological duties. Three Coastal Command squadrons (Nos. 517, 518 and 520) used the aircraft to fly long range missions over the Atlantic from bases in Britain and Gibraltar. The Merlin engines in the Mk V were not well suited to this duty which required very long range operation. Engine failures were relatively common, and delayed the entry of the type into regular meteorological service – with the heavy fuel load needed for these long range missions three engines could not keep the Halifax Mk. V in the air.

The Halifax Met. Mk. III, introduced to Coastal Command in March 1945, saw the original Merlin engines replaced by Bristol Hercules radial engines. These provided significantly more power than the older Merlin engines, increasing the maximum speed and altitude of the aircraft. Most importantly, for high altitude observations, the most economical cruising speed of the Halifax III was 215 mph at 20,000 feet, 3,000 feet above the service ceiling of the Halifax Mk. V.

P/O Keith Proverbs
Handley Page Halifax Met. Mk. III of 517 Squadron X9-N that crashed on 10th September 1945 above Crowcombe Court, Quantock Hills, Somerset. Photograph courtesy of the Cartwright Family.

Defensive firepower was provided by a 4 gun Boulton Paul Type E turret in the rear, a single Vickers K gun in the nose and a 4 gun Boulton Paul Type A upper turret, each carrying 0.303 inch machine guns. Later versions included a streamlined ventral turret with a 0.5 inch Browning machine gun. The main bomb bay could carry an extra 702 gallons of fuel, for a total of 2,688 gallons.

P/O Keith Proverbs
Supplement to the London Gazette 19 June 1945, (page 3180) ROYAL AIR FORCE VOLUNTEER RESERVE. GENERAL DUTIES BRANCH. Appointment to commission. As Pilot Officers on prob. (emergency), effective date 29th March 1945. Source: The London Gazette – Friday 15th June 1945.
P/O Keith Proverbs
Keith Proverbs (right) whilst on leave with two of his first cousins (sons of Bertie Proverbs). Allan Proverbs (left) and Lawrence Proverbs (centre) at Allan’s house with his elder daughter Valerie and dog.
Allan was the Doctor and Medical Officer for the railway engineering town of Eastleigh, Hampshire, 5 miles north of Southampton. Lawrence was a RNVR Sub-Lieutenant dentist who served at Holy Loch Naval Base on the River Clyde in Scotland and Portsmouth, in Hampshire.
Another two of Bertie Proverbs sons were in England during WWII: Malcolm, providing veterinary care to military horses as well as farm animals in the Southampton area, and Hugh, serving with the Canadian Army in 1944/45. Malcolm (Maxie) returned to Barbados as Senior Government Vet from 1950 to 1978, before private practice. Hugh subsequently graduated from McGill University, Canada (where he had enlisted), in Animal Husbandry and pursued his career in Nyassaland, later Malawi. Both Lawrence and Hugh returned to Barbados following retirement. Hugh is buried in the Military Cemetery at Needham’s Point, , St. Michael, Barbados.
This is a colourised Black & White photograph. The original Black & White photograph was provided by Allan Proverbs’ daughter Valerie Gordon.

RAF Meteorological Reconnaissance

(Adapted from “Meteorological Reconnaissance A Brief Introduction” by 202 Squadron Association and “Even the Birds Were Walking” by John Kington and Peter Rackliff.)

Today, with the advent of remote sensing systems like satellites, the main method of finding out about the weather over the oceans is still to persuade merchant ships on passage to observe and report the weather every six hours. Eighty-odd years ago there was nothing else.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, ships in the North Atlantic could no longer report their positions and weather and the Atlantic became what is known in the jargon as a “data sparse area”. The target number for a reasonable network of ocean observations was 1,000 reporting British ships. Attrition during wartime reduced the number from 995 in 1939 to 480 in 1945 when peacetime reporting restarted.

Knowledge of the weather, particularly predicted weather, is essential to the prosecution of modern warfare and those countries who had weather data during the war classified them SECRET. Other sources of information had to be found. The use of aircraft for recording the atmosphere over a spot from ground level to their ceiling began in the 1914-1918 war, mainly as an aid to artillery work, and had been routine since 1925; these provided early examples of the acronym – “THUM” from “Thermal Upper-Air Measurement” and “PRATA” from “Pressure and Temperature Sounding”.

Long range reconnaissance, carried out by the RAF’s Coastal Command, began in Spring 1941 with three Met Flights, 1403, 1404 and 1405, being established at RAF Bircham Newton (located 2.1 miles south east of Docking, Norfolk and 13.4 miles north east of King’s Lynn, Norfolk), RAF St Eval (located southwest of Padstow in Cornwall) and RAF Aldergrove (located 4.4 miles south of Antrim, Northern Ireland and 18 miles northwest of Belfast) respectively to fly Blenheims. Soon afterwards 1407 Met Flight was formed to operate out of RAF Reykjavik (at Reykjavik, Iceland). 1406 Met Flight was formed at RAF Wick (located at Wick, at the north-eastern extremity of the mainland of Scotland) and absorbed 1408 Met Flight. Flights were also formed to operate out of RAF Tiree (located 2.9 miles north northeast of Balemartine on the island of Tiree in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland) and RAF Gibraltar (Gibraltar).

P/O Keith Proverbs
Source: “Even the Birds Were Walking” by John Kington and Peter Rackliff published by NPI Media Group (1 Nov. 2000).

This image shows the network of long range meteorological reconnaissance flights in the latter part of the war, by which time some thirty flights a day were being made. Initially these flights were equipped with Blenheims, but soon progressed through Hampdens to Hudsons allowing them to progress towards truly long range work. There were also flights operated by the United States Army Air Force from Burtonwood (Lancashire), Newfoundland, Bermuda and the Azores.

In 1943 Halifax and Ventura aircraft were approved for long and medium range reconnaissance and new squadrons, 517, 518, 519, 520 and 521, were formed or moved into the reconnaissance field subsuming the earlier Flights. RAF Brawdy (South West Wales), RAF Tiree (in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland) and RAF Langham (Norfolk) were added to the stations operating Met Flights. This is a drastic simplification of the formations, amalgamations and moves that took place. The re-equipping was also less simple than suggested, with each Command and Squadron claiming higher priority for available aircraft.

Initially the weather observing on RAF flights was done by the Navigator. A Meteorological Observer Section manned by volunteers, many from the civilian Meteorological Office, was set up in early 1943. By the end of the war 20 RAF officers and 80 NCOs had been trained in addition to a number for the USAF. In addition to weather observing, training included navigation and air gunnery; in fact the first observers wore the AG Brevet. They didn’t hang about in those days: from basic training to operations was about two months!

Sorties varied from day to day to suit operational requirements, but a typical triangular flight would be two low level legs with one high level one. The first, outward leg, would be about 700 nautical miles in length and would be flown following a pressure altitude of 950 millibars (MB). This was achieved by the Met Observer (MAO) using his barometer to talk the pilot onto that height and then the remainder of the leg was flown on the altimeter with no alterations to the sub-scale. If the mean sea level pressure made 950 MB flying at that height unwise, 930 MB or even 920 MB could be used. Weather observations were made every 50 nautical miles with a descent to 50 feet above sea level at every fourth position to measure the sea level pressure. On these “sea level” runs the height was estimated by the pilot, though radio altimeters did come along later!

At the end of the low level leg, after descending to 50 feet, a box climb (a series of short legs on reciprocal headings) was made from until 500 MB pressure was reached, with the aircraft levelling out every 50 MB to enable measurements to be made. 500 MB (about 20,000 ft) was approximately the Halifax’s maximum height and above 10,000 feet oxygen masks had to be used as the aircraft was unpressurised. After completion of the high level leg with measurements taken every 50 nautical miles as before, a box descent to 50 feet and low level return leg was carried out as a near mirror image of the outward leg.

In addition to the barometer, the MAO had two main instruments: the psychrometer and the air speed indicator. This latter was essential to apply corrections for the effect of air friction to the temperature readings. The psychrometer was an aviation version of the familiar dry and wet bulb barometer and was mounted on a strut outside a window close to the observer with water being supplied to the wet bulb by pumping from a tank inside the aircraft. Relative wind direction was provided by the navigator, In addition the MAO recorded present and past weather, visibility (downward and horizontal), cloud types and amounts, icing, turbulence and air speed; wind direction/speed was provided by the navigator. Having applied the necessary corrections to allow for heating by airflow the MAO would encode all the data for transmission to base by the wireless operator. With the aircraft cruising at typically 165 knots, there would only be about 20 minutes between each set of observations.

By 1945 some 30 long range meteorological reconnaissance flights a day were being made the by the RAF in the Eastern Atlantic in addition to those being made by the American Air Force.

When peace broke out there was immediately a reduction in the requirement for meteorological reconnaissance flying: the need for accurate weather forecasts was less acute and civilian ships were once again able to report positions and weather in real time.

The Atlantic, however, remained the source of most of Britain’s weather and the forecasting techniques of that era required the analysis by hand of charts plotted by hand with as much detailed weather data as possible. Professionally made weather observations from an area chosen by the forecasters were invaluable and the answer was still Meteorological Reconnaissance.

The crew for a post war reconnaissance flight now normally comprised 2 Pilots (one being Captain), Navigator, Flight Engineer, 2 Wireless Operators (WO) and 2 Meteorologist Air Observers (MAOs). The “on duty” MAO occupied the right hand pilot seat. MAOs were selected from experienced airfield observers of the Met Office and had perhaps unique conditions of service: they were signed on for two and a half years with an extension for a further two years.

Now, normally only one route, chosen by the Meteorological Office’s Chief Forecaster, was flown in daylight each day, but occasionally during exercises and alerts two or more, including a night one, were flown. Tracks fell into two main types:

  • Triangles, similar to the wartime ones but with the distance between observation positions increased from 50 to 60 nautical miles.
  • Probe tracks, when a weather system beyond the reach of the triangles had to be investigated. These were designed to fit the prudent range of the Halifax.

202 Squadron became a Meteorological Reconnaissance Squadron when it amalgamated with 518 in 1946. During its period of flying the Halifax (1946 to 1950) it lost 32 aircrew in accidents; an enormous number for what may have seemed to many to be a cushy peacetime job.

The story of Wartime Meteorological Reconnaissance is told in “Even The Birds Were Walking” by John Kington and Peter Rackliff. The title refers to the requirement to fly in any weather, however bad when all other aircraft were grounded, to provide information vital to the war effort. A number of extracts are included below:

“Although they didn’t face flak or enemy fighters, there was an even deadlier enemy – the weather, which caused the losses of a large number of aircraft when trying to get back to base.”

“Although Met Recce flight aircrew missed the limelight that was naturally focussed on Bomber and Fighter Commands, observations made on weather sorties provided a continuous source of high grade meteorological data which allowed Allied Commanders to undertake military actions, particularly combined operations, with increased confidence and minimum risk. Met Recce flights, for example, were especially successful in providing weather intelligence over the North Atlantic which pinpointed the short weather window for D Day and Operation Overlord in June 1944.”

Following this, the Meteorological Reconnaissance Squadrons received a letter of appreciation jointly signed by Allied Commander in Chief General Eisenhower and Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

“Met Recce flights were made both deep into enemy territory, over the surrounding seas and sometimes inhospitable waters of the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean. By the end of the war over 1600 sorties had been flown and at least 52 aircraft had failed to return. Many more crews were lost in crashes due to air tests or on transit flights to base following diversions or other unexplained incidents.”

A poem describing a Met Flight: An Ode to 519 Squadron.

P/O Keith Proverbs
Source: “Even the Birds Were Walking” by John Kington and Peter Rackliff published by NPI Media Group (1 Nov. 2000).

Taken from “Meteorological Reconnaissance A Brief Introduction” by 202 Squadron Association and “Even the Birds Were Walking” by John Kington and Peter Rackliff.

Recollections from Keith’s Australian Wartime Crew-member: F/SGT Kevan Smith WAG

Australian WAG, F/SGT Kevan Smith served with Prov from August 1944 to June 1945. Post VE day Canadian and Australian crew were withdrawn from flying duties and were sent to the Far East to fight the Japanese. Kevan was able to provide valuable first hand information on Keith, crew operations and recreation in three emails detailed below.

Kevan died in Australia within 2 months of my first contact in October 2016.

Email 1: 2nd October 2016

Keith Proverbs was the pilot and captain of our 8 man crew. I was a Wireless operator/Air Gunner (WAG). Keith was a Flight Sergeant at the time as I was too. He preferred to be called Prov and had already served some time as second pilot with another crew at RAF St. Davids which was close to our base at RAF Brawdy in South Wales. I had also been with another crew flying Liberators (B24) and while I had a short spell in hospital they were sent elsewhere and I had to find another crew. I was sent to RAF Aldergrove in Northern Ireland to convert to Halifax bombers and that is where I first met Prov. He had been promoted from second pilot to captain and sent to RAF Aldergrove for more training and to pickup a crew of his own. I was lucky enough to be selected by him and we started our training flights on the 8th August 1944.

Prov was a superb pilot – I flew with many pilots during the course of the war and two stood out as the best and Prov was one of them. At 3.25pm on the afternoon of 15th October we took off for a long navigational exercise over the North Atlantic. It was a miserably wet day with thick cloud and high winds. Our navigator could only navigate using the weather information he had been given. About 4 hours out he asked me to get him a fix. This meant tuning in to beacons in known locations and getting a direction from them. This showed us as being miles from where we were supposed to be and after a few more attempts the navigator realised that he had picked up yesterday’s weather information by mistake. We turned for home using radio bearings, but the weather was so bad that we had to land at RAF Tiree on the west coast of Scotland. When we arrived it was night and pouring rain and blowing a gale but Prov landed smoothly and safely.

Soon after we went on leave and then were posted to 517 Squadron at RAF Brawdy. Our first flights at RAF Brawdy was to look for a crew who had ditched in the Bristol Channel and escaped into their large life raft. We spent three days looking without success. Soon after they had ditched in the late afternoon, they had been seen in their raft but by the time an air/sea rescue boat had reached the spot it was dark and they weren’t to be found. The aircraft floated for days before it was sunk by the Navy. A body was later washed up near Liverpool and identified as one of the crew. Not an auspicious beginning to our new life with the squadron!

517 Squadron was one of a number of Meteorological Reconnaissance Squadrons based as far apart as Gibraltar and Iceland. There is a book “Even The Birds Were Walking” by John Kington and Peter Rackliff which is devoted to these squadrons and mentions the accident which killed Prov and his crew.

Our squadron carried out two flights per day each about 9 hours long and starting at 12 noon and at midnight. Each flight had the code name “Epicure”. We carried out our first Epicure flight on 29th November. In December we did 9 more. Each flight consisted of flying into the Bay of Biscay and somewhere off the south coast of France we would descend to sea level (50 feet above the waves at day and 100 feet at night) and then start a spiral climb to about 18,000 feet before turning for home and descending again. As we did this, our Met Observer would take readings of temperature, wind speed and direction, barometric pressure etc and code them. It would then be the WAGs turn to send them back to base using morse code.

In total, I did 32 Epicure trips with Prov. The Epicure operations sound routine but that was far from the case. Our squadron had a record of never cancelling an operation under any circumstances. Unfortunately the winter weather in Wales was such that we spent a lot of time at other bases because we couldn’t use ours because of fog or snow. Nevertheless we were supposed to take off whatever the weather. This is where Prov’s skill came to the fore. On one occasion we were at the start of the runway in thick fog and Prov called the control tower and told them that he couldn’t see the runway and he didn’t feel that it was safe to take off. He was asked what he could see and answered that he could see a runway light at his wingtip and just make out the one ahead. Our CO who was in the control tower told him that when he reached the next light he would see the one ahead so “off you go”. This might have worked for a slow moving car but our take-off speed was well over 100 miles an hour. Prov had no option but to obey orders so away we went. Needless to say we took off safely but if we had deviated a fraction from the centre of the runway we would have crashed spectacularly.

On another occasion it had snowed heavily overnight and the airfield had been covered in at least three feet of snow. We were scheduled to take off at midnight but our snowplough was snowed in at RAF St. David’s some miles away. Everybody on the station was called out to shovel snow from the runway but they could only clear the first hundred yards or so before we were due to take off. Once again we had to go irrespective of the conditions. Everybody seemed to think that our attempt would end in disaster so the whole station lined up to watch what happened. At midnight we taxied out and faced a wall of snow that had to be ploughed through and enough speed gained for us to get airborne. Once again Prov was equal to the task and away we went.

At the end of February 1945 Prov was promoted to Warrant Officer and certainly deserved it. On the 24th March 1945 we took off as usual and did our usual job. However, as we turned for home one of our engines started to race and shook the whole aircraft very badly. Prov shut down the engine and we continued on our way. We weren’t concerned as we had flown home with only three engines working at other times. This time was different as the vibration had upset another engine which had to be shut down. This was serious as two engines would just keep us airborne without any safety margin. Prov ordered myself and the other AGs to lighten the aircraft by throwing overboard anything we could. We threw out all the ammunition, dismantled and threw out the guns, our spare radio set and whatever else we could find. Meanwhile Prov had kept the aircraft on an even keel and managed to maintain height. But worse was to come. A third engine shut down, and a four engined aircraft doesn’t fly well on one engine! Prov’s flying was superb. He didn’t panic but did the best he could to keep the aircraft in the air and flying straight. He kept trying to restart another engine and finally succeeded. This allowed us to maintain height but that was all. We were so low that we threw out our parachutes as they were of no use to us. I had sent out an SOS and we were in contact with our base but they could do nothing for us. By now we had reached the English Channel and passed over a coastal convoy with naval escort. Prov asked if we wanted to ditch alongside the convoy or try for the land. We opted for the land and we flew into RAF Predannack near Mullion on The Lizard peninsula on the Cornish coast which had a runway extending to the edge of the cliffs. We landed safely and Prov said later that he didn’t need to do anything other than to put the wheels down as they ran on to the runway. Magnificent flying by my favourite pilot!

I did my last Epicure with Prov and his crew on the 19th June 1945. There was a Canadian WAG in the crew and our Governments [Canada and Australia] had an agreement with the British Government that we would be withdrawn from flying duties at the end of the war in Europe. I was sent to Beccles to await transfer to the Far East to fight the Japanese. I was there when I heard about the accident. I found it hard to believe because we had been to Weston Zoyland a number of times and knew about the hills near the airfield. In those days nobody studied the reasons closely. From what I have read I think that the crew misunderstood the barometer readings they were given and set their altimeter too low.

I hope this gives you some idea of the work we did and how we all respected Keith Proverbs. He was commissioned at about the end of May 1945.

Kevan Smith email: 2nd October 2016

Email 2: 3rd October 2016

When I joined Prov he was 26 and I had my 21st at RAF Aldergrove. He seemed like an old man to us and we teased him about it. Also, I always thought he came from Trinidad although he had air force friends from Barbados who used to visit him at times. He used to like to talk about sailing around the islands and I think he felt the cold of England a bit hard to take. In the middle of winter he received a bottle of rum from home and he “acquired” some condensed milk from the Mess and he and I spent a happy afternoon lying on adjoining beds drinking rum and milk. Another time he received a bottle of some very hot spicy sauce and offered some to us. I tried it but it was far too hot for any of us.

Prov had been stationed at RAF St. Davids nearby and was well known at the Cambrian Inn in Solva, a coastal village between St. Davids and Brawdy. He introduced us to the three ladies (sisters) who ran the pub and we became regular visitors and were made very welcome. When we left the pub at night they would sneak us a few sandwiches which were very welcome.

We went on leave to London and stayed at the Strand Palace Hotel where Prov had been previously and he took us to a Chinese restaurant in Shaftesbury Avenue. Rationing was severe at that time and it was hard to find a decent place to eat. It was my first visit to a Chinese restaurant and I was very impressed. (We had nothing like it in my home town).

The Halifax was a very cold aircraft. We had no heated flying suits as the Americans had and the Halifax was very draughty so it was cold at anytime. At high altitude in the winter with ice forming on the wings and breaking off the propellers and crashing into the fuselage it was no fun. There was a small glass dome called an astrodome where the navigator took star shots. He had just left it one night when a piece of ice smashed the dome to pieces.

We all dressed as warmly as we could but it was never enough. For example, I dressed in normal underwear and then “long john” woollen singlet and pants. After that came uniform pants, shirt and tie; topped by a normal jumper and then a high-necked thick jumper. Over that we wore an Irvine jacket and trousers (these were made of fur lined leather). Our feet were covered with normal socks, long socks which came up to our knees and fur lined flying boots. Finally, silk gloves, woollen gloves and fur lined leather gloves. And we still froze!

We started using oxygen at 10,000 feet which meant we had masks on until we came down again. At this time we ate our rations consisting of sandwiches and a thermos of tea or coffee. Of course the sandwiches were frozen solid and the tea cold. Happy days!

We were often diverted away from our base because of the weather so we carried extra clothes to last us a few days. RAF Gibraltar was one of our diversionary airfields and we were sent there one day. We arrived at night. This was tricky as the runway ran across the isthmus parallel to the Spanish border. Both were lit with lights either side of the runway looking exactly like the lights either side of the no-man’s land between the borders. Prov didn’t make a mistake fortunately. When we left a few days later we were so loaded down with official stuff and unofficial mail and parcels for friends of the local staff that Prov order a tractor to tow us backwards so that our tailwheel was on the sand of La Linea Bay so we had the maximum length of runway for takeoff. We took back with us some wine for the Mess, some sherry for the Cambrian ladies and some bananas which we gave to the local policeman to hand on to the small school in the village. He reported later that most of the children didn’t know what to do with the bananas as they had never seen them before.

Kevan Smith email: 3rd October 2016

Email 3: 15th October 2016

Hi Lyall once again, your photo of the aircraft is the plane they were flying when they crashed. ie; X9-N Reg 380.

It is in peacetime mode ie; it has no mid-upper turret, and no guns in either the rear turret or in the nose. It is a Mark III Halifax fitted with radial engines and a big improvement on the Mark II and Mark V Halifaxes that we had earlier. This aircraft came to our squadron not long before I left.

The aircraft is identified in “Even the Birds Were Walking”. The authors, John A Kington was a post-war Met forecaster and Peter G Rackliff was a Meteorological Observer with 518 Squadron. The book was published in 2000 by Tempus Publishing Ltd, of Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Back to the main story!

They would have received a signal by Morse Code when they were still an hour or so from base directing them to land at RAF Weston Zoyland. This was not unusual. We landed at RAF Weston Zoyland a number of times and were well acquainted with the Quantock Hills and surrounding area.

At a distance, up to 50 miles, morse code would have been used by the WAG on duty on the wireless and the message relayed to the pilot. On one side of the beam the WAG would hear a series of morse dots and on the other side a series of dashes. When correctly aligned with the runway he would hear a steady signal.

As they approached the runway they would hear short special signals telling them their distance from the airfield so that the pilot could come down to the correct height for a proper landing. Even without the fog, on a dark and rainy night with very limited visibility, the runway lights of those days were goose-necked flares (kerosene filled drums with wicks), Prov would not have expected to see the runway until he was almost on top of it. We practised these landings in a simulator at RAF Brawdy so they were second nature.

Closer to the airport voice communication would be used and this was usually handled by the 2nd pilot. He would have been told which runway to use and given local weather information such as cloud height, wind speed and direction, visibility and ground barometric pressure so their altimeter could be set correctly.

A report I read said that reception was bad and that the messages were breaking up. Hence my belief that their accident was caused by an incorrectly set altimeter. They had a radio altimeter which was very accurate, but over trees and uneven land it would have been of no use to them.

Once when we returned to RAF Brawdy after a night flight the weather was awful and visibility zero even though it was daylight. The ground controller told Prov that the cloud base was at 100 feet so that he could come down and land safely. We were using the goose-necked flares lighting system mentioned above but when we got down to 100 feet we could still see nothing.

Prov told the controller this but was told he was wrong and could come down some more so we edged down a bit and made some more runs but to no avail. On one of our runs we felt a slight bump but thought nothing of it.

Finally Prov had had enough and decided to land at another base. Next day we flew back to Brawdy and were told that everybody on the base could hear us flying over and sometimes got a glimpse of us in the fog. We had our wheels down ready to land and the bump we felt was when a wheel hit the chimney of the Mess and sent bricks flying everywhere. Luckily no one was hit.

Kevan Smith email: 15th October 2016

The LG Groves Memorial Award for Advances in Air Safety and Science

Today meteorologists rely mainly on radar data (first developed during World War II) and meteorological satellite imagery (the first meteorological satellites were put into orbit in the 1970s) combined with sophisticated computer and statistical modelling to predict the weather.

Before the advent of this advanced technology, weather data needed to be collected in person. During World War II this involved flying meteorological sorties day in and day out, twice a day, often into extremely treacherous conditions, as this was the only way of collecting accurate weather data.

This was the the task of the 18 RAF Meteorological Squadrons of Coastal Command. It was on the return from an Epicure meteorological reconnaissance sortie over the Atlantic Ocean and Bay of Biscay that the crew of RG380 lost their lives trying to land in dense fog at RAF Weston Zoyland on the evening of 10th September 1945.

P/O Keith Proverbs MAO SGT Louis Grimble Groves

In 1946, Major and Mrs. Keith Groves instituted three prizes to be awarded annually in memory of their only son SGT Louis Grimble Groves (MAO) who was killed when RG380 crashed.

The LG Groves Memorial Award is for advances in Air Safety, Meteorology and Meteorology Observation, as originally set up, and Ground Safety, a more recent addition.

For the 70th anniversary of the Awards, on 6th September 2016, a ceremony was held at the crash-site to dedicate a memorial to the 9 crew members that lost their lives on 10th September 1945. The memorial is located at air-crash field, on the hill above Crowcombe Hall in Somerset in the Quantock Hills.

The simple memorial in the form of an obelisk is made of Italian limestone chosen for its durability.

P/O Keith Proverbs
Dedication of memorial to the 9 crew of Handley Page Halifax Met. Mk. III X9-N, tail number RG380 of No 517 Squadron who died on 10th September 1945 when their aircraft crashed into the steep southwest-facing escarpment of the Quantock Hills at about 1000 feet, striking the ridge just below the highest point, a mile north east of Crowcombe village. Source: 70th Anniversary of LG Groves Awards.

The west face recounts the mission and the crash-site listing the names of the nine crew members who were killed: SGT Louis Grimble Groves, F/O Patrick Alfred Bee, P/O Keith Gordon Proverbs, F/O Lindsay George McMillan, F/SGT Robert William Vinton, W/O Roy Donald Cartwright, F/SGT Dennis Norman Everett, F/O John Joseph Fredrick Hobden, SGT John Macilrick Bryce Gordon.

The east face of the monument records the setting up of the Award and states “Every life that is saved by this Award is a continual Memorial to the sacrifice of these young men”.

On the plinth is a quotation by Dalai Lama XIV “TRAGEDY SHOULD BE UTILISED AS A SOURCE OF STRENGTH”

Eight of the nine families of those killed were represented at the memorial dedication ceremony, including three children of Keith’s first cousins who placed a piece of coral from Accra beach in Barbados in the ground adjacent to the plinth.

P/O Keith Proverbs
Proverbs family representatives at the dedication to the memorial to the 9 crew of RG380 on 70th Anniversary of LG Groves Awards, 6th September 2016. Pictured from right, they are: Jean Tier (younger daughter Allan Proverbs) and and Lizzie Cox (younger daughter of Ralph Proverbs) and Lyall Seale. Source: Lyall Seale.

The service for the Dedication of the Memorial was led by Air Vice Marshall the Venerable Jonathan Chaffey – RAF Chaplin in Chief. After the very moving Act of Remembrance, a one minute silence was preceded by the Last Post and followed by Reveille played by an RAF bugler. Following the Kohima epitaph “WHEN YOU GO HOME, TELL THEM OF US AND SAY, FOR YOUR TOMORROW WE GAVE OUR TODAY”, at noon, there was a fly past by a Hercules C-130J of RAF 47 Squadron which climbed up from the valley below.

Later that afternoon at the Awards ceremony at Crowcombe Court, speeches were made by various dignitaries including:

Air Vice Marshall Richard Knighton, Assistant Chief of Air Staff, RAF who said:

“The LG Groves awards have had much to do with the success of avoiding air accidents. They are a brilliant incentive for air safety. The awards are open to both military and civilian personnel.”

“The Cenotaph is a memorial to the “Glorious Dead”, where is there glory in death? What the Groves family have done for air safety is the glory of those on RG380.”

Air Vice Marshall Richard Knighton, Assistant Chief of Air Staff RAF

Dame Julia Sligo, Chief Scientist of Meteorological Office, said:

“Collection of meteorological information was instigated by Robert Fitzroy in 1859 to improve safety at sea. The Met Office was formed in 1912 when it was realised how little was known about the weather despite UK’s location on the East side of the Atlantic. In WWI, Winston Churchill put the Met Office into the Ministry of Defence. Met Office data was key to winning WWII in Europe, particularly in determining that there was a weather window for D Day.”

“In WWII there was a total reliance on aircraft to obtain met data. Even today met data is gathered by aircraft below the clouds where satellites can’t see. The emphasis of the Met Office is still safety in air, at sea and on land.”

“…these awards, set up in 1946 as a result of inconsolable grief, have manifested themselves today.”

Dame Julia Sligo, Chief Scientist UK Met Office, 2009 – 2016
70th Anniversary of LG Groves Awards, 6th September 2016

P/O Keith Proverbs
Aerial photograph of RAF Weston Zoyland airfield that RG380 was trying to land at on the evening of 10th September 1945. RAF Weston Zoyland was on the outskirts of Westonzoyland a village in Somerset, 4 miles (6.4 km) south east of Bridgwater. RAF operations ceased in December 1957. Upon its release from military use, in the 1960s, the A372 was restored to near its original route by using a considerable length of the former main runway 11/29. Source: Wikipedia – RAF Weston Zoyland.

Rest in peace:

  • P/O Keith Gordon Proverbs aged 27 (Bajan Captain and 1st pilot)
  • F/O John Joseph Fredrick Hobden aged 22 (2nd Pilot)
  • F/O Lindsay George McMillan aged 23 (Navigator)
  • F/SGT Dennis Norman Everett aged 25 (Flt Eng)
  • SGT Louis Grimble Groves aged 24 (MAO)
  • SGT John Macilrick Bryce Gordon aged 21 (MAO)
  • F/O Patrick Alfred Bee aged 25 (WAG)
  • W/O Roy Donald Cartwright aged 24 (WAG) and
  • F/SGT Robert William Vinton aged 21 (WAG).

Out of this terrible tragedy came advances in air safety. Every life that is saved by the annually awarded LG Groves Award is a continual memorial to the sacrifice of the nine young men who died when RG380 crashed.

Bajan, P/O Keith Proverbs, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, Service number: 197664 of 517 Squadron is buried at Haycombe Cemetery, Whiteway Road, Bath BA2 2RQ, Somerset within the Commonwealth War Graves Commission section, Plot 39. Sec. H. Row D. Grave 249.

There is also a memorial to P/O Keith Proverbs in the Barbados Military Cemetery, Needham’s Point, St. Michael, Barbados. Keith’s baptism date is erroneously given as his date of birth.

The other crew members of RG380 are buried in their local home parishes in the UK.


Useful sources of Information on P/O Keith Proverbs and the RAF Meteorological Squadrons

4 thoughts on “P/O Keith G Proverbs: Out Of Tragedy Came Advances in Air Safety and Science”

  1. Vivid details. Can identify as a has been air traffic controller, private pilot and provider of spot weather to aircraft landing in awful weather conditions right here in Barbados.

  2. This is a very important reminder to us of some of the facts of War.
    Few remember that many of Barbados’ sons gave their lives in service during the two world wars; and in some events after 1945.
    We Must Remember Them.

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