Police recover remains from World War II Spitfire crash site

editorial image

On the afternoon of January 16, 1943, a New Zealand pilot was killed as his spitfire crashed into the Borders countryside, shortly after he took off from an East Lothian air base on a training flight.

The wreckage was discovered at the time by local residents near the site at Westruther near Greenlaw in Berwickshire, and investigators 69 years ago concluded there was only one person on board the fighter plane: Sergeant Malcolm Eric Edward Robertson of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.

The 20-year-old pilot’s remains were then believed to have been interred at Craigton Cemetery in Glasgow.

But now police have been called in to solve a part of this almost 70-year-old mystery, after a voluntary group specialising in the excavation and recovery of World War II aircraft discovered more bones two weekends ago.

It is understood the Westruther site has long been of interest for aircraft enthusiasts, as the reason for the crash has never been fully explained.

Sgt Robertson had been on a routine training flight from RAF Drem, East Lothian: the base for 602 Squadron during the war, and an air defence fighter unit for the City of Edinburgh and the shipping around the Firth of Forth.

Now it seems not all of the Kiwi airman’s remains were collected and buried after the crash, or, less likely, he may not have been alone in the tragedy, as anthropologists and pathologists examining the find confirmed the bones are human.

Police said the identity of the remains are yet to be confirmed, and that the family of Sergeant Robertson had been informed. All RAF Spitfires were originally built with a single seat.

Officers from Lothian and Borders Police began a search on Friday last week for human remains on the crash site.

The team was assisted by anthropologists from Dundee University’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, who joined the search after pathologists confirmed that the bones were human.

Detective Superintendent Lesley Boal of Lothian and Borders Police said: “While the remains were recovered at the site where a World War II Spitfire crashed on January 16, 1943, we will not be able to confirm identity until specialist forensic testing has been 
carried out.

“Our primary objective is to safely and securely undertake a dignified recovery of any other human remains present at the previously excavated site.

“While we are unable to confirm identification at the moment, the next of kin of the deceased pilot have been contacted and we will continue to keep them updated.

“An initial report has been submitted to the Scottish Fatalities Investigation Team of Crown Office Procurator Fiscal Service and we continue to liaise with the Ministry of Defence”.

Inspector Brian MacFarlane of Lothian and Borders Police added: “We’re in close contact with the family at this time and they’re fully aware of what we’re doing. We’re treating the scene with as much dignity as we can.”

In the high pressure atmosphere of World War Two, Sergeant Robertson’s story was all too common.

Large numbers of pilots died on training flights.

Ian Brown, assistant curator at the National Museum of Flight, explained: “In Scotland it was in the thousands in the six years of the Second World War alone, and over the whole of the UK it was tens of thousands – and that’s just training flights, not people being shot down by enemy aircraft.”

The detailed search and examination of the site in the Borders is now complete and tests will begin to identify the remains.