FOUR RAF pilots, from the UK, Canada, and South Africa, came within 100 feet of a smooth water landing yards off Lyford Cay one fall evening when things suddenly went horribly wrong.
The plane, one of its engines ablaze, smashed into the reef between Goulding Cay and Clifton Bay, Lyford Cay and even though help arrived minutes later, all of them perished. In November, 2022, just under 80 years later, a team of four amateur divers found the distinctive bomb doors with two windows – a circular one inset on a rectangular one - from the B-26 Marauder.
It is likely that the two pilots not in the cockpit at the time of the crash were anxiously looking through that same belly window at the sea below when they crashed. Two of them were buried in Nassau, the other two never recovered, and efforts to reach their families in 2023 have so far not availed result.
The four aviators were Roland Henry Barber, age 21, son of Roland Arthur and Gladys Mabel Barber, of Northampton, England. Douglas Waitt Whitehurst Cormack was Canadian, as was Denis Durward. John Griffith Owen was the senior pilot on board, and had earned a Distinguished Flying Cross. Aged 27, Flight Lieutenant Owen was the son of David Griffith and Olive Eveline Owen of Winklespruit, Natal, South Africa. Barber, Durward and Cormack were the student pilots. At 6.30pm the day after the accident, Owen and Barber were buried in the RAF Cemetery in Nassau, with full service honours. RAF Chaplain Squadron Leader the Rev EJ Jay conducted the ceremony.
Douglas Cormack was from Winnipeg, Manitoba, and studied at Isaac Brock and Gordon Bell schools. He left a job at the Winnipeg Electrical Company to enlist in the RAF in July of 1941 and earned his wings in Macleod, Alberta. His posting to the RAF Ferry Command took him to Dorval, outside Montreal, and thence to Nassau. At home Douglas liked to play tennis with the Greenwood Church young people. He left two brothers, Jack and Gordon.
This Martin B-26 Marauder II aircraft was delivered to the RAF from the US Army Air Force just a month before. This aircraft took off on Wednesday October 13, 1943 from Windsor Field on a training flight for No 113 Transport Wing, RAFTC, heading to the northwest.
At 9.20pm, it crashed in the sea off Lyford Cay without sending any Mayday message. The RAF relates that “the aircraft was on a routine training flight and had been doing circuits and landings for two hours, when, at about 1,000 feet, the port engine was seen to be on fire. The pilot apparently tried to ditch the aircraft [at sea] but was seen to stall at about 100 feet [altitude], and crashed into the sea”. Smoke floats and an oil patch were seen by at least one other aircraft, a B-24 Liberator. A crash boat from the nearby RAF air-sea-rescue base nearby in Lyford Cay was quickly on site.
“All of the crew were killed and only two bodies of F/Lt JG Owen, DFC, and F/O R H Barber, were recovered.” From another observer’s perspective, at 9.15pm “Marauder FB 454 dived into sea one mile due West of Windsor Field during a training flight. Cause unknown. One engine, believed port, caught fire in air.” Durward and Cormack “are missing and in spite of an extensive search being carried out no trace of the bodies could be found”.
Since no radio signal was sent, the casualty was not known until other aircraft in training and going back and forth to base noticed it. “First a smoke float and a patch of oil was sighted over Simms Point, Lyford Cay, the very northwest tip of New Providence. Message was intercepted from a Liberator in the vicinity “Searching for survivors”. An ASR launch was observed to be approaching.”
Eyewitnesses included military guards at Clifton Pier reported that 9.20 pm they saw flames at that location. “At 9.30 pm a report was received from DFC 60, Windsor Field, that... a B-26, belonging to the RAFTC... had crashed into flames into the sea, between Lyford Cay and Goulding’s Cay. A Liberator on local flying circled the scene of the crash. ASR launch was despatched ...The boat recovered the bodies of two of the occupants. It was thought that there were four occupants of the aircraft. Arrangements were made for a further search to be carried out at dawn.”
This crash site is also confused, or conflated, with a B-25 Mitchell due to miscommunications calling the B-26 a B-25, which was a much more common training aircraft in The Bahamas at the time. This in turn led to a belief for over 75 years that there were two different aircraft in Clifton Bay; a B-25 which professional diver Stuart Cove found in 1983, and the B-26 which a team of colleagues and I thought we discovered in November 2022. Stuart personally dived and salvaged much of this plane wreck going back decades. Our family is fortunate to have a long association with Stuart; when I “ran away from home” to the Caves out west in my early teens Stuart gave me a lift at dawn, and he hired my godson.
Unlike many persons who find historically significant things, Stuart was very forthright and helpful with me about the “B-25” he found in Clifton Bay. This stymied me until we found aircraft pieces that could only be from a B-26, such as the bomb door with double windows. By that point I had found two other B-26 Marauders in the Bahamas, both ashore and at sea. Stuart and I had found the same plane, yet called it different names.
The volunteers who located pieces of the B-26 in 2022 were led by Rich Ashman of New Orleans aboard his dive support boat Kimber-L, and the crew included Lamar Ard, Rusty Schull, and I. Two family members also shared their vessels; my brother John Wiberg the 23’ Mako Shoal Shaker, and Amanda Lindroth, owner of the lobster boat Schooner Queen. John towed me behind each boat until I found various pieces of the aircraft. John and I dove on 13-14 November 2022, and then from 15-18 I lived aboard Rich’s boat. This was an act of faith, since I had never met Rich or his crew!
My siblings and I often sought shelter in Clifton Bay growing up, I met with Bill Buckley on the Bay. As anyone who has been there can attest, the cove is a very charmed and gorgeous place. And it turns out the Cormack and Durward families have others who consider Clifton Bay sacred to the memories of family members; my godson and nephew had his ashes scattered there and close friends lost their father in a boating accident there.