At about 1.50 p.m. on Tuesday 25 August 1942, a Short Sunderland flying boat en route from the seaplane base at RAF Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth to RAF Reykjavik in Iceland inexplicably deviated from its planned course and flew into a hillside at Eagle's Rock in Caithness, three miles west of Dunbeath. Fourteen of the fifteen men on board at the time were killed. Amongst them was Prince George, the Duke of Kent, a younger brother of King George VI. There was only one survivor, the rear gunner of the aircraft, and he was found, injured, some distance away by a local girl nearly 24 hours later.
The Duke of Kent served as an air commodore in the welfare section of the office of the Inspector-General of the RAF. His role was to visit RAF stations and meet the men and women who served at them, with the aim of improving welfare and morale. The trip to Iceland had been planned for some time. The aircraft that crashed, serial number W4026 and squadron code DQ-M, was flown by 228 Squadron, based at RAF Oban. It had left Oban two days earlier, and flown up to Invergordon in preparation for the Duke's trip to Iceland.
On the day of the crash, the aircraft had taken off from the Cromarty Firth at Invergordon, and then flown up the coast. The flight plan was for the aircraft to fly parallel with the east coast of Sutherland and Caithness until it reached Duncansby Head, where it would turn north-west and head directly for Iceland.
It remains a mystery why the aircraft turned inland when it did, and it is a still greater mystery why it had descended to 700ft by the time it struck the ground. The crew on board was hand-picked and highly unlikely to make a navigational error of the scale necessary to suggest they simply turned north-west too early. And while there was patchy cloud around, visibility ought to have been sufficient for the crew to see they were flying into hills.
The official conclusion was that the responsibility for a "serious mistake in airmanship" lay with the captain of the aircraft. Over the years there have been many theories about why the crash happened, some more fanciful than others. The truth is that the real cause of the crash at Eagle's Rock is a mystery that is unlikely ever to be resolved.
In 1946 the Ministry of Works asked a local contractor to erect two memorials at the site. The first, in the form of a Celtic cross rising from a plinth, commemorates all those who died that day. The second, to the north and out of sight of the first, marks the place where the body of the Duke of Kent was found.
Eagle's Rock today remains a very poignant place. Those building the memorials did so from the head of a track up from the A9 at Upper Borgue, and we suspect that the RAF operation to recover the wreckage in 1942 used the same point of access. Modern maps show a potentially shorter route in, from the inland end of a longer track above Ramscraigs. When we visited, vehicle access along both the tracks leading up from the A9 was prevented by gates. This made an alternative approach more attractive, from a disused quarry on the minor road that runs east from Dunbeath to Braemore. From here it is only a mile and a half to the memorials, with no significant climbing en route. This approach from the north follows what are in places vague tracks over, in Winter at least, extremely wet ground.
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Grid Ref: ND 110 283
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Eagle's Rock In Fiction
Eyes Turned Skywards by Ken Lussey (31 May 2018).
Wing Commander Robert Sutherland has left his days as a pre-war detective far behind him. On 25 August 1942 the Duke of Kent
is killed in northern Scotland in an unexplained air crash. Bob Sutherland is asked to investigate.
Eagle's Rock has a central role in the novel.