Welsh filmmaker pays tribute to fallen New Brunswick airman in short film

·9 min read
New Brunswick airman Ivan Raymond Trafford was just 20 years old when he died in a crash in November of 1941 in the south of Wales.  (Trafford family  - image credit)
New Brunswick airman Ivan Raymond Trafford was just 20 years old when he died in a crash in November of 1941 in the south of Wales. (Trafford family - image credit)

For New Brunswick's Ivan Trafford, Nov. 7, 1941 likely began with a mixture of excitement and nervousness.

At 20, the young Royal Canadian Air Force pilot was a long way from his hometown of Centreville and well along in the 34-week training afforded to RCAF pilots at that point in the war.

Raised on a farm in Connell, near Centreville, Trafford enrolled in the University of New Brunswick's forestry program in 1939.

But like many Canadian men his age, he joined up to fight and volunteered for the RCAF in October of 1940, where it was soon decided he was good pilot material.

After stops at training bases in Canada and England, he was awarded his pilot's wings, and eventually, Trafford found himself in Wales at RAF Llandow, an airfield just west of the city of Cardiff.

This was where the 53rd Operational Training Unit was based, and he had been there nearly a month.

The unit's job was to give new pilots their first taste of the aircraft they would soon fly in combat, the iconic Supermarine Spitfire.

The fighter aircraft had become the symbol of victory over the German air force in the Battle of Britain.

It was a far cry from the days Trafford spent back in Canada, flying biplane trainers that cruised at a speed only slightly faster than a car on a modern highway.

He had already damaged a Spitfire while landing early on in his time in Llandow, after only about 90 minutes of flying time in the aircraft.

This day's flight was a chance to get more comfortable with the powerful, manoeuvrable aircraft.

But Nov. 7, 1941 would be Ivan Trafford's last flight, one that would end in a fiery crash at a place called Caerphilly Mountain.

Chris Lloyd in front of a hangar at Llandow airfield, where Trafford was training to fly Spitfires.
Chris Lloyd in front of a hangar at Llandow airfield, where Trafford was training to fly Spitfires.(Chris Lloyd)

Chris Lloyd had never heard about this tragic crash, despite living in Cardiff and having a deep appreciation for local history.

When a friend posted a photo taken on Caerphilly Mountain, Lloyd was fascinated by what he saw in the background.

It was a stone memorial with a three-bladed propeller on its front, and a plaque in memory of a 20-year-old New Brunswicker whom no one in the area would likely have known or even met.

Lloyd makes short films about the region's history, telling stories that interest him.

"The comment I love to get is 'I lived here all my life and I never knew that'," he said during a phone interview from his garden on a cool spring day.

He was pretty sure this story would get that kind of reaction.

It took a few weeks to research – fortunately the RAF kept very good records of such incidents – and he reached out to New Brunswickers for help.

In particular, he wanted to contact the family.

"I wanted to get their blessings," Lloyd said. "If they didn't want me to do it, I wouldn't."

This monument was erected not far from the crash site to remember the young pilot killed in the crash.
This monument was erected not far from the crash site to remember the young pilot killed in the crash.(Chris Lloyd)

Lloyd tracked down David Trafford, who works as a paramedic in Florenceville-Bristol and is Ivan's nephew.

"I was elated," Trafford said of hearing from Lloyd.

Although he had never met Ivan, his story was well known to him and to his older brother, who is named after Ivan.

Their grandmother, Gladys, spoke of her son often, and the family always attended Remembrance Day services, Trafford said.

"I took it really to heart," David said. "I felt like I had a real connection to him."

David Trafford went on to join the Canadian Navy, serving for six years, and spending seven more in the reserve.

"Ivan's story inspired me," he said.

David Trafford is Ivan's nephew and works as a paramedic in Florenceville-Bristol. Although he never met him, he says Ivan inspired him to pursue a military career, serving 13 years in the Canadian Forces.
David Trafford is Ivan's nephew and works as a paramedic in Florenceville-Bristol. Although he never met him, he says Ivan inspired him to pursue a military career, serving 13 years in the Canadian Forces.(David Trafford/Facebook)

Family supportive of Lloyd's endeavour

Lloyd said the family was very supportive, even providing archival material, including the official message from the Royal Air Force to the family, reporting their son's death.

He also got help from a New Brunswick filmmaker, who provided footage shot in the province.

"There was such a wealth of help from New Brunswickers," Lloyd said.

The resulting six-minute film tells the story of what happened to Sgt.-Plt. Ivan Raymond Trafford on that cloudy day in November of 1941, and how he came to die on a mountainside in Wales.

The iconic Supermarine Spitfire. Ivan Trafford was learning to handle the powerful and manoeuvrable British fighter when he lost control of the aircraft and crashed.
The iconic Supermarine Spitfire. Ivan Trafford was learning to handle the powerful and manoeuvrable British fighter when he lost control of the aircraft and crashed.(Darrin Zammit Lupi/Reuters)

Trafford left Llandow airfield in a Spitfire Mk 1a, an early model that had flown against the Germans in the Battle of Britain.

Spitfire X4772 was delivered to 152 Squadron in January of 1940, and was stationed at RAF Warmwell in Dorset through much of the heaviest air combat.

152 Squadron was responsible for defending the naval yards and port facilities in nearby Portland and Portsmouth, as well as most of the rest of the southwest of England.

As new models of Spitfires appeared, X4772 was sent to the training unit, and on that tragic November day, it was assigned to Ivan Trafford.

The flight was scheduled to take an hour, with 45 minutes of formation flying and 15 minutes of individual aerobatics.

Reports of the accident say that at about 12:50 in the afternoon, after flying at low altitude, Trafford took the aircraft into a steep climb.

The cockpit of a Spitfire is extremely cramped and spartan. The pilot's handbook for the fighter warns that the aircraft can stall out and spin if the pilot does not react quickly in a climb.
The cockpit of a Spitfire is extremely cramped and spartan. The pilot's handbook for the fighter warns that the aircraft can stall out and spin if the pilot does not react quickly in a climb.(Ian Johnson/CBC)

Moments later, the plane went into a tight spin and the engine cut out. It fell out of control, crashing into the mountainside and erupting into a ball of flames.

The investigation found Trafford had likely stalled the aircraft, essentially climbing so steeply that the wings no longer afforded the plane enough lift, and could not regain control of the Spitfire.

All pilots received training on how to recover from a stall, and they would have done that beginning in a biplane trainer, likely a slow, easy-to-fly de Havilland Tiger Moth.

Like any aircraft, these trainers would stall if put into too steep a climb, but their inherent stability meant recovering from a stall was not especially difficult.

Spitfire stall warnings

Pilots could practice the manoeuvre without the danger of putting the aircraft into a deadly spin.

The same stall recovery would be practised later in monoplane Harvard trainers, to give the pilots a better feel for the manoeuvre in a more powerful aircraft.

But the Spitfire was a different beast altogether, and the handbook given to new Spitfire pilots warns about the dangers of a stall.

"If the control column is brought back too rapidly in a manouevre such as a loop or a steep turn, stalling incidence may be reached and a high speed stall induced. When this occurs there is a violent shudder and clattering noise throughout the airplane, which tends to flick over laterally, and unless the control column is put forward instantly, a rapid roll and spin will result."

Early models of the Spitfire were also prone to temporary engine stoppages in a roll.

It's not known if the Mk 1a model Trafford was flying had the engineering fix that solved the problem.

The letter no mother wants to receive: the official notice sent to the Trafford family informing them of Ivan Trafford's death.
The letter no mother wants to receive: the official notice sent to the Trafford family informing them of Ivan Trafford's death.(Trafford archive)

Trafford's Spitfire was destroyed in the crash, and his body was taken to the local hospital.

His remains were interred in Llantwit Major Cemetery, where he still lies today.

Trafford was just one of many victims of training crashes in World War II.

Flight training was a risky and sometimes hazardous business. During the five years that Canada trained airmen for the Commonwealth, 856 trainees were killed in crashes.

Chris Lloyd said Llandow airfield alone saw 90 crashes during the war, with 10 involving Spitfires.

In recent years, two men from Caerphilly, the town near the crash site, learned about Trafford's story.

The view from Caerphilly Mountain in Wales.
The view from Caerphilly Mountain in Wales.(Chris Lloyd)

Harry Lewis and Matthew Ferris worked to have a monument placed on Caerphilly Mountain, the same one Chris Lloyd saw in the background of his friend's photo.

David Trafford believes that memorial should be officially recognized by Canada as a war monument.

The children from a local school in Caerphilly hold their annual Remembrance Day ceremonies there, and he'd like to see someone from the RCAF attend one day.

He also plans to go there himself.

"The way the people of Caerphilly feel about it – I will go after I retire."

Meanwhile, he hopes the public attention Chris Lloyd's film is receiving will help get Ottawa's attention.

Ivan Trafford's gravesite in Llantwit Major Cemetery. April 11 will mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, and Chris Lloyd plans to visit his grave to mark the day.
Ivan Trafford's gravesite in Llantwit Major Cemetery. April 11 will mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, and Chris Lloyd plans to visit his grave to mark the day.(Chris Lloyd)

Lloyd's hope is that his film brings home the message that "behind the stripes and badges, there's a human."

Sunday, April 11, will mark the 100th anniversary of Ivan Trafford's birth. Lloyd plans to mark the occasion, taking some flowers to the gravesite.

Trafford "sounded like a likeable chap," he said.

"I feel like I made a friend, following in his footsteps."

In his last letter home in October of 1941, Trafford contemplated what the war could bring.

"If I must pay the big price, it'll be OK," he wrote.

"I'll be happy and feel highly favoured to know that I, just one-fifth of the family, was the one chosen, and I was ready and capable of paying the necessary price for the guarantee of the other four-fifths of the family's future, freedom and happiness."