Glancing through the Peeps archive this week, I came across a folder titled ‘plane crashes’. It seems these were quite a common occurrence in the post-war years, and many accounts of air mishaps and tragedies have featured in our pages over the years.

I shall feature more in coming weeks, but to kick off the series, here is the Farnham Herald’s report of the crash of an RAF de Havilland Vampire jet fighter off Kennel Lane in Frensham on Thursday, November 3, 1955. At least, it was believed to be a Vampire. As the picture shows, there was not much left of it.

This crash caused considerable upset locally, after the pilots jettisoned the aircraft in bad weather and seemingly allowed the jet to crash with little thought as to what lay below. The photo shows how close it came to smashing into a row of houses.

What went wrong? Report from the Farnham Herald of Friday, November 11, 1955:

Last Thursday the pilots of several RAF aircraft airborne from Odiham found visibility too bad to allow them to land there. Fuel ran short, and as a result one of the planes, abandoned by its crew, crashed near Frensham.

We do not know precisely what happened to the others. Fortunately the two men who baled out landed safely near Farnham Trading Estate. By the mercy of Providence, when the empty plane came down and exploded, it was in a field instead of on a school or a house, but the incident is disquieting.

The public is entitled to enquire whether the RAF has not better ‘drill’ in such circumstances. Surely there are regulations as to the minimum reserve of fuel to be carried and prearranged plans for the aircraft to make proper landings elsewhere in emergencies? Are all pilots properly briefed as to what they should do when the weather closes in unexpectedly?

What went wrong on the day in question? No doubt the RAF holds a Court of Enquiry into the total destruction of a plane worth many tens of thousands of pounds, but this is not the issue with which our readers are primarily concerned. They appreciate that there is always a risk of accidents in the air, but they do not expect aircraft just to be left to crash to the ground in a residential district.

The official account of the crash sheds a little more light, confirming the aircraft had been taking photographs of a Hawker Hunter display team, after which all the aircraft arrived back at Odiham at the same time, congesting the approach frequency.

The Vampire was diverted to Farnborough but failed to inform the air traffic control there, and because of low fuel the pilot and passenger were forced to bale out when the engine cut.

XD539 crashed one mile south of Frensham, Surrey, on Frensham Common, between the King’s Ridge and the Little Pond. This area is now known locally as the ‘Vampire Flats’.

Both crew ejected safely, but only one (the pilot) was identified as pilot officer Patrick Arthur de Courcy Swoffer. XD539’s second crewman was an unidentified US Air Force cameraman, who was taking the pictures.

If you have any memories of this crash, or the outcome of the RAF investigation, get in touch by emailing [email protected]