Page last updated at 06:53 GMT, Friday, 12 March 2010

60 years since Welsh rugby air disaster at Llandow

Passengers and crew before the Llandow air disaster in 1950 (Pic: South Wales Police Museum)
80 passengers and crew died when the Tudor V plane 'Star Girl' crashed at Llandow in March, 1950

Rugby supporters and families have been remembering what was at one time the world's worst air disaster at Llandow in the Vale of Glamorgan.

The crash on 12 March, 1950 claimed the lives of 80 people, mostly jubilant Welsh fans celebrating a Triple Crown-winning game against Ireland.

Only three people survived when the Avro Tudor V plane crashed on its approach to the former RAF airstrip.

Abercarn, Risca and Llanharan rugby clubs all lost players in the crash.

The tragedy touched families from across south and west Wales, from Carmarthenshire and Swansea across to parts of Monmouthshire, up to Blaenau Gwent and the south Wales rugby heartland valleys in-between.

Llandow air disaster close to Sigginstone village, Vale of Glamorgan, in 1950
Despite no fire or explosion, the impact killed all but three on board

"I lost seven mates, seven friends in that crash " recalled Mel Thomas, who had played for Llanharan RFC at the time, in Rhondda Cynon Taf.

Now 84, and still living in the same village, the former colliery fitter is the only living survivor of the accident 60 years ago.

"I was in the toilet of the plane when it happened, and that's how I survived," he explained.

"But I was badly injured. I spent four months in hospital at St Athan. I had a fractured nose, jaw, my neck was bad, and cracked my skull. The doctors were also worried about my sight.

"But to be honest, I simply can't remember anything that happened in the crash, I was unconscious.

"I remember getting on the plane out and I can remember landing in Dublin. I can remember a lady who was working on the flight when she took the steps up, telling me that this was the biggest plane to land at the airfield.

Melfyn Thomas, 84, on what he remembers of the crash

"But the accident itself - I can't remember a thing."

The four-engine prop plane, 'Star Girl', had been a veteran of the airlifts to Berlin following World War II, and was based on the Lincoln bomber.

It left Dublin heading for Wales after fans celebrated the first Triple Crown win in 39 years. Onboard were 78 passengers and five crew members.

But as it approached the Llandow airfield at around 3.30 on the Sunday afternoon, it was seen coming in at an unusually low height, before the engines roared and it pulled up almost vertically, stalling and then crashing to the ground.

It came to rest just feet from homes at Sigginstone.

All the crew were killed, along with 75 of the passengers.

Along with survivor Mr Thomas, the only other two to escape alive were Handel Rogers, who went on to become President of the Welsh Rugby Union, and his brother-in-law Gwyn Anthony.

The two walked free from the wreckage, virtually unscathed.

Aerial scene of Llandow air disaster close to Sigginstone village, Vale of Glamorgan, in 1950
The plane came to rest within feet of homes at Sigginstone

It emerged that all three survivors had been in the tail section of the plane, with extra seats that had been specially fitted - and more importantly bolted - to the cabin floor.

The other unfortunate fans were seated in chairs that were strapped and clipped to the plane body, which were ripped away as the pilot desperately tried to save the aircraft from the impending disaster.

The pain was especially felt in the rugby clubs of Abercarn, Risca and Llanharan.

Both Abercarn and Llanharan clubs lost six members each, while Risca saw three team mates die in the crash.

The disaster was reported around the world, at a time when air passenger flights were still a relatively rare event.

Passengers and crew before the Llandow air disaster in 1950 (Pic: South Wales Police Museum)
The disaster prompted a message of sympathy from King George VI

The Times newspaper carried the disaster on its front page, as eye-witnesses described the events as they unfolded.

"The aircraft was coming in so low that we thought it was going to hit us," Selwyn Newman told reporters.

He was one of three brothers playing football in a field next to the airstrip on the fateful day.

"We ran to safety. Then suddenly, the engines seemed to cut out, then started again, and the machine rose slightly, but immediately nose-dived into the ground.

"We saw one of the passengers staggering towards us. He was cut on the head and called out, 'Try and help them'."

King George VI sent his own message to the grieving families and the hundreds of rescuers who descended on Llandow, and the neighbouring village of Sigginstone.

"The Queen and I were shocked to hear of the air disaster at Sigginstone. Will you please convey our deep sympathy to the relatives of all who have lost their lives."

Within two days of the crash, the government announced it would hold a public inquiry into the devastating accident.

However, while pilot error was hinted at during those hearings, the true cause of the crash was never fully revealed.

But the plane's owners were later fined £50 and ordered to pay £100 in costs after a court ruled that the company had breached the air-worthiness certificate for the aircraft in the way it had loaded passengers and placed seating.

Interior of Tudor V following Llandow air crash, Vale of Glamorgan, 1950
An inquiry failed to pinpoint the exact cause of the crash

Club badges

Today, 60 years on from the disaster, survivor Mr Thomas says he still does not like talking about the tragedy.

"I try not to think about it, unless someone asks me," he confided.

"It was a terrible thing to happen."

But the memory of those who died lives on, both in memorials to the accident, and at those rugby clubs affected.

At Abercarn RFC, the club badge has a propeller on it to mark the loss, alongside the Prince of Wales feathers which recall the loss of life in the Prince of Wales colliery explosion of 1878 that killed 268.

A black cross also divides the Llanharan club badge as a mark of respect to those players and supporters killed in 1950.

A plaque stands at Risca RFC to remember its loss, while a specially commissioned stone was unveiled by Mr Thomas and fellow survivor Handel Rogers at Sigginstone in 1990.

Last Saturday, the Abercarn and Risca clubs marked the disaster themselves, as they met in a regular league fixture.

Abercarn club secretary Andrew Chetland said: "It was the closest Saturday to the day when we were playing, so we carried a full page in the programme recalling what happened.

"It happened so long ago, 15 years before I was born, that a lot of people don't know about it. This was a way of reminding them.

"And of course it was special, because it was two clubs who lost so many players and supporters."

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