Take a look back at the day hero speedway star Morian Hansen rescued crew members from the burning wreck of a bomber which crashed into Devil's Dyke in Newmarket
On the 80th anniversary of an act of wartime heroism, which earned a Danish speedway rider one of the highest awards for bravery, Mike Murray tells the inspiring tale of Morian Hansen.
This week marks the 80th anniversary of an act of heroism at Newmarket which earned a former speedway champion one of the UK’s highest honours for bravery.
Putting his own life on the line, RAF Pilot Officer Morian Hansen rescued crew members from the wreck of a burning Wellington bomber which had crashed into the Devil’s Dyke on take off and burst into flames.
His courage resulted in an honorary award of the George Medal, the highest available as Danish-born Hansen was not a Commonwealth citizen.
Jens Henning Fisker Hansen was a Danish speedway rider who had moved to England in 1933, with his wife, Ellen, and daughter Lillian, to ride for the West Ham Hammers speedway team.
Known to everyone as Morian, he later rode for teams in Hackney, Bristol, and Wembley, and competed in the inaugural speedway World Championship in 1936 and 1937.
He gained his private pilot’s licence in 1935 and, when war broke out in 1939, was the first Dane to volunteer for the RAF. At 33 he was considered too old to be a pilot but was accepted as an air gunner and was posted to Newmarket in February 1940, starting flying missions in May.
There had been a military presence on the racecourse in Newmarket in the First World War and in 1917 the Royal Flying Corps had based squadrons on the wide-open grass areas alongside the Cambridge Road.
On September 2 1939, the day before war was declared against Nazi Germany, the RAF again arrived on Newmarket Heath. Apparently no-one had thought to inform the Jockey Club of the plans as the irascible Cecil Marriott, then Jockey Club agent, was seen angrily waving his walking stick in protest at the aircraft of 99 Squadron as they landed.
Despite this unfriendly welcome, 99 Squadron would remain at Newmarket for the next 18 months.
By December 1940, 99 Squadron had seen extensive action over Germany and occupied Europe and had suffered many losses of aircraft and crew.
One mission alone, on December 14 1939, saw 12 Wellington bombers despatched from Newmarket to search for enemy shipping. The bombers were attacked and five were shot down with a sixth crashing on the edge of Newmarket Heath as its pilot tried to land it on the airfield. In total, 33 crew members were lost.
On July 25, 1940, Morian Hansen was manning one of the gun turrets in a Wellington when it was attacked by a German night fighter which had already shot down another RAF Wellington, killing pilot Bruce Power and Sgt Kenneth Sellwood, one of the gunners.
Pilot Officer Hansen, from his position in the turret, shot down the attacker, the first recorded victory by an air gunner over an enemy night fighter and recognised by the award of the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross.
The winter of 1940-41 was particularly harsh. As well as freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall, German night bombing raids brought fear to UK residents. One of the only ways to strike back at the all-conquering German forces was through the RAF’s Bomber Command and on the night of December 18 1940, 99 Squadron received orders to attack targets in the Ludwigshafen and Mannheim area.
Among the aircraft prepared for the mission that night was the so-called ‘Broughton’ Wellington. This aircraft had been built at the Broughton factory near Chester and had been paid for by money raised by factory workers. It had received a lot of publicity and had been delivered to 99 Squadron just over two weeks earlier.
Sergeant Cliff Hendy, who flew the mission as a wireless operator, later recalled: “We had been shot up pretty badly bombing Mannheim two nights earlier. We managed to get back to Newmarket, but the aircraft was unserviceable and there was no available spare aircraft so we were told we would not be flying that night.
“However, we were called to a briefing and told that a new Wellington had been flown in from the factory and we would be going to Mannheim again.” This new aircraft was the Broughton Wellington.
Remembering the night, Sgt Hendy said: “It had been snowing most of the day and was freezing. However, we finally moved down the flarepath and I remember thinking we were a long time lifting off. We kept lifting and dropping back to the ground. Then I heard the pilot say ‘We are not going to make it’ before our undercarriage hit the top of the Devil’s Dyke and we went up in flames.”
Michael Henderson, the pilot of the aircraft due to take off next, was watching as the plane hit the dyke and crashed.
Knowing that the stricken aircraft could explode as his plane took off over the crash scene, he took the courageous decision to carry on with the mission and set off on his take-off run. As his Wellington flew over the scene, Henderson was able to see the results of the crash.
“On climbing away, we saw the aircraft blow up, we saw explosions take place and the air was filled with bullets exploding in all directions and flares going off,” he reported.
Morian Hansen was not due to fly that night but had been put in charge of the flarepath at the airfield. The person carrying out this duty – always known as Paraffin Pete by the crews – was responsible for keeping all the lamps on the flare path lit as they were often extinguished by the wind.
Hansen, realising the Wellington was going to hit the Devil’s Dyke, leapt into his van and drove straight to the scene of the crash arriving before the airfield’s fire tender which was on duty at the other end of the runway.
There was little chance of survivors from an aircraft fully loaded with fuel and bombs but when Hansen arrived at the scene he ran towards the blazing wreckage. The wind was blowing smoke and flames directly into his face and his leg was burned as he tried to get to the aircraft as he heard a voice shouting a warning that the plane could blow up at anytime.
He spotted Sgt Hendy lying close to the burning wreckage. The heat was intense, the fire was spreading rapidly, and Hansen had to crawl to get to the crewman who was unable to move as his legs were broken.
Hansen pulled him on to his back and crawled back through the flames and smoke carrying the injured airman far enough away from the wreckage to ensure he was safe.
He then returned to the crashed aircraft where he spotted the figure of gunner George Lea inside the plane. Knowing that the bomb load could explode at any moment, Hansen fought his way into the wreckage where he managed to free Sgt Lea and carry him from the plane to safety. He went back a third time, but the plane was completely burned out and there was no chance of anyone else having survived.
The four crew members who perished that night were Flight Lieutenant Glencairn Ogilvie, pilot officer Arthur Pritchard, Sgt Rupert Bowden and Sgt William Boast. Sgt Bowden and P/O Pritchard, who were from New Zealand, are both buried in the cemetery at St John’s Church, in Beck Row.
Sgt Hendy was taken to Newmarket’s White Lodge Hospital and then on to the RAF hospital at Ely where he would spend the next two years recovering.
By the time he received his well-deserved George Medal on March 19, 1941, Morian Hansen had been promoted to flying officer and had left 99 Squadron and Newmarket to train as a pilot.
By the end of the war he had reached the rank of squadron leader and, after a spell flying in Burma, had been the first Danish volunteer to return to Copenhagen, flying in with General Dewing whose job was to accept the surrender of the German forces in Denmark.
After the war, he was unable to resume his speedway career in England when a rule implemented by the Speedway Riders’ Association banned non-British or Commonwealth riders from riding for UK teams.
Returning to Denmark, he opened a flying school and continued to compete in motor sport until 1965 when he was 60 years old. He had sustained permanent hearing damage during the war and at the age of 68 could not renew his pilot’s licence so, not wishing to retire, he became a taxi driver and continued until he was more than 80 years old.
He died in 1995 at the age of 90 and is well remembered in Denmark for his efforts for Danish motorsport and civil aviation, and not least for his courageous efforts in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.