ST COULOMB MAJOR is a small town in north central Cornwall. It has a beautiful gothic parish church, St Columba, which dates to the 13th to 15th centuries. Inside, on the north wall of the church, there is a memorial plaque that caught my eye and roused my curiosity. It lists 18 people, members of the Royal Air Force (‘RAF’) along with their ranks. The plaque was place in memory of:
“Members of two crews of No. 42 Squadron Royal Air Force missing on a flight over the Atlantic. January 11th 1955.”
I was both horrified and intrigued by this.
Both ‘planes that were lost were Shackletons. At 10.14 am, Shackleton WG531 took off from RAF St Eval to commence a routine 15-hour patrol over a part of the Atlantic. At 10.20, Shackleton WL743 took off from the same airfield to join WG 531 on patrol in the same area. At 20.00, the two planes were 85 miles apart. At 20.58, a ground-based radio operator tried to make contact with WL 743, but was unable to do so. This was not cause for alarm because contact was often difficult when planes were at normal operating altitude.
After both aircraft failed to return at the expected time, a search and rescue operation was launched. An extensive search failed to discover either of the aircraft or any bodies of the crew members. In July 1966, one of the engines of WL 743 was caught up in a trawler’s net. Despite a thorough board of inquiry, no plausible explanation of the planes’ disappearances was provided.
St Coulomb Major is 4 miles southeast of RAF St Eval (as the crow flies). There is a church, St Mawgan, between these two places, but that in St Columb Major is larger. Maybe, that is why the memorial to the airmen is where it is. Apart from the RAF plaque, the church contains many other items of interest including its font (c. 1300), which has several faces carved on it.