Photographed by Joseph McKeown 

Described by Willi Frischauer 

Editor’s note: This is the text from an article that first appeared in “The War Illustrated” on 31st December 1949, kindly supplied by Peter Beauchamp, RAF Harpur Hill MRT, 1949-51. More photos are in his Flickr Gallery at: – 

Within minutes of a plane crash being reported, R.A.F. mountaineers move off on their mission of mercy.Dusk sets over the bleak landscape and December rain beats down. The penetrating whine of an air raid siren splits the air. Before it has died away there is furious activity in the mist.  

This is no flashback to the grim days of the Blitz. It happened quite recently at the RAF station at Harpur Hill, near Buxton, in the centre of the Peak District-and it happens frequently in similar establishments in other parts of the country. The siren indicates that somewhere in the vicinity, probably on the inhospitable moors of the Pennines, an aircraft has come to grief. It may be a forced landing, it may be a crash. But the siren finds the men at Harpur Hill ready. 

Because it is near territory where aircraft are liable to get lost in mist and mountains, Harpur Hill has organised one of the many RAF Mountain Rescue Units. The siren signal has been retained because it has proved the most effective. When it sounds the Cook drops his spoon into the stew, the “admin” officer pushes away his accounts, the stoker abandons his shovel and the adjutant forgets the hundred and one duties which are his daily routine. Daily routine, indeed, stops for thirty men at the station who are members of the mountain rescue unit, all volunteers and prepared at any time, day and night, for any emergency which might arise in the district. 

They put on their special kit – felt hoods, light coloured overalls and heavy boots. Their commanding officer Flight Lieutenant EE Allen, AFC, tough and devoted to his job, takes over, and in a matter of minutes, the unit assembles. 

Somewhere up in the mountains-and nobody has yet to knows exactly where an aircraft has been lost and Harpur Hill has received the call for help.  What happened is still a mystery.  To locate the aircraft, take help to the crew and passengers, to save what can be saved, is the task of the unit.  A signal at once goes out to 613 (City of Manchester) Royal Auxiliary Air Force Fighter Squadron at Ringway.  As the planes take off to begin their part of the search and rescue unit moves towards a camping site as near to the crash as possible.  It is a compact and streamlined organisation.  Its nerve centre is the wireless van and Warrant Officer John Tyson, who operates it, has guided many rescue parties in the past year.  A medical officer Flying Officer John Birch-is second-in-command and in charge of an ambulance and its staff.  Big searchlights are part of the outfit, as are walkie-talkie operators-one attached to each of the four search parties into which the unit is subdivided. There must be a cook-of course-because the rescue operation may keep the men at work for days.  The unit is equipped with tents. 

The RAF is proud of this organisation – but prouder still of the highest safety standards of flying in this country which happily restricts the number of rescue operations. Yet the record of the Harpur Hill unit alone over the last year is impressive.  Remember the dramatic end to which one of the United States Air Force B-29s came just over a year ago? 

The search soon led Flight Lieutenant Allen and his men to Shelf Moor, near Glossop, a territory well known to them from many of the weekly exercises by which the unit keeps fit, up-to-date and abreast of its arduous task.  An HQ was established by the roadside and the parties set out for the climb through the heather on the moor.  When they had located the wreck they found that thirteen men had been killed. 

There have been five other major incidents to test the efficiency of the unit in earnest. There is often a pattern – the overall call to other branches of the Service-search planes, fireman and RAF police dogs – the steady climb across fields, over hedges, brooks and rocks, the often difficult identification of the aircraft and aid to the wounded and then the descent of the stretcher bearers. 

Every man of the unit must be a trained mountaineer and every man has expert knowledge of first aid. Rigorous training makes these volunteers good at almost anything.  They accept the hardships of the job in an enthusiastic, pioneering spirit and in the knowledge that their fitness and proficiency may mean life or death to others. 

As the Berlin airlift showed, the RAF can shine as bright in great salvage operations as when their operational sorties are marked by the explosion of their bombs.