Dartmoor Survey Project

Caroline Belam was raised on the edge of Dartmoor, as was her mother Anne, and her family for generations before. All her life Caroline has been intimately involved with livestock farming and ponies in the area in which we believe the two aircraft came down in 1940. She grew up in Hexworthy, right under the path they would have taken according to the Brimpts Farm witness.

When Matt Bearman contacted Caroline she was immediately fascinated by the story and the apparent mystery of the planes’ disappearance. With the help of Professor Stone (see previous newsletters – Bob is conducting ongoing UAV work over the moor) Caroline unearthed the diaries of her mother Anne Belam, who was a teenager at the time.

On March 16th 1941, there is an entry: “Rode up to crashed planes. Twin British fighters. John went up in a carrier”
As Anne and her brother John were living in Hexworthy at the time, this certainly confirmed the area if not the precise location.
Caroline was not done yet. She immediately contacted people who used to ride with her mother over the moor – and two came back positive. Maintaining anonymity, witness A said Anne Belam had indicated a spot several times on trips over the moor. She described the route taken to reach it. Witness B said her future husband had identified wreckage that she could see from the track in the 1950’s as being from two RAF aircraft that came down in the war. The location she gave agreed with A. Contacting Witness B’s son, he was able to confirm on a map where this was said to be, though he had personally seen no wreckage.
On the morning of Sunday 19th February a party of project members set off to look for traces in the indicated area. Matt Bearman, Jim Munro, Ian ’The Mole’ McRae, Steve and Antonia Smith and Pete and Elspeth Chipping walked for two hours from the nearest road to find the spot, and spent another two hours searching it before the mist came down (navigation back was ‘blind’ with a compass – Steve got us back to the very spot we had left the cars). The ground was very difficult – uneven hummocks covered in very long grass and with sinking bog in between.

Sadly we found nothing at all. 

In March, Bob Stone will be returning to the area, armed with a new drone. Hopefully looking down through the grass rather than along it might reveal something. We are at least now certain of where to look.

If anyone happens to be going to Dartmoor in the meantime, we can share the grid reference on an individual basis.

Anyone who has followed the Whirlwind story to any extent will be aware of the almost legendary pair of Whirlwinds that disappeared over Dartmoor in appalling weather on December 29th 1940, with tragically fatal consequences to F/Lt Wynford O.L. Smith and P/O Donald M. Vine.


Though the two pilot’s bodies were found and given decent burial in Exeter, the location of the two aircraft was quickly forgotten, except to some local witnesses who remained clear and consistent in their claim that one or both were in Foxtor Mire – a dangerous and remote stretch of semi-liquid bog that was the inspiration for Conan Doyle’s horse-and-rider-swallowing ‘Grimpen Mire’ in the Hound of the Baskervilles.


In searching for these aircraft, the WFP have been very lucky

to now have on board Robert Stone and his team of Birmingham University Engineers

Robert is in fact Professor Robert J. Stone Bsc(Hons), MSc, C.Psychol, AFBPsS, CergHF, FIEHF Academician (IHEAS, Moscow), Chair in Interactive Multimedia Systems and Director of the Human Interface Technologies Team at the University of Birmingham –  http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/eese/ise/hit-team/index.aspx


There is a ‘team within a team’, who’s very appropriate logo is at the foot of this article, who are focussing on work in the ‘Digital Heritage’ arena. This includes compilation of data into models that aid the understanding and ultimately the preservation of our heritage.

Via Dutch WFP member Bas Coolen, himself a specialist in UXO detection and battlefield archaeology, Matt Bearman made contact with Robert. Bas alerted Matt to the fact that the team had been testing their remote-sensing drones over Dartmoor already, and when Bas told Bob what might be there at very short notice they performed some extra passes on our behalf over the area ‘most likely’ to have been where the two aircraft ended up.


Having obtained records of eye-witness accounts from Gareth Jones, a well known aviation archaeologist who had researched the Dartmoor Pair a decade ago, as well as Rob Jones (author of the definitive book on Dartmoor air crashes), Ian Macrae and others, along with met reports and the surviving ‘official’ documentation, Matt had already postulated on the (differing) approximate locations of the two at the WFP AGM. In August Bob and team returned to Dartmoor, this time specifically to take some high resolution (4k) video from a very low altitude at these locations.


There was one nasty moment – in an unintended bout of ‘practical experimental archaeology’ the drone did impact somewhere near the middle of the mire on the first day of the survey, thus replicating the fate of the aircraft that can’t have been too far away. In an operation that read like the tracing of a space probe on an alien planet surface from the last gasps of battery power, the drone was located and an intrepid team of Bob and student set of into the Grimpen mire to recover it from its calculated position. To everyone’s relief, they found it. 

There have been some potentially interesting results, but to prevent anyone traipsing over the mire – which is a very dangerous pastime – or digging it up, which could result in some quite severe legal repercussions, we will not be detailing much here at his stage – especially as no-one wants to look daft when things turn out to be interestingly-shaped stones, or even sheep bones.

In the meantime, here’s an example of an interestingly-shaped stone or bone from Bob Stone’s lone drone

Matt will be hiking to the most promising spots that are NOT in the squishy bit in the week 24th-28th October. If anyone wants to join in the ‘field walk’ please do, but there won’t be room in Matt’s camper with the wife and two kids – and please bear in mind these are PROBABLY NOT Whirlwind bits at all. Matt is really going to rule stuff OUT, not in.


The really exciting part of the ‘Mires Project’, as it is now rapidly becoming, is yet to come. Bob has really taken the bull by the horns, and he now has his PhD students designing specific instruments to detect aircraft parts in the mire, as part of their academic work. Very specifically the plan is to devise a sensitive, reliable yet lightweight metal detector that can be hung onto a drone and flown at very low altitude over the key locations in the impassible squishy bit. Frankly, if there’s a large body of metal in Foxtor Mire, it really can only be one thing.


A HUGE thanks to Bob and team for all of this – we are a lucky bunch of amateurs to have such extremely professional and dedicated help.