DUNSFOLD PARK The Dunsfold Aerodrome.
For decades, staff at the Dunsfold Aerodrome in southern England talked of the dead Canadian beneath the runway. Clifford Davies heard the story when he started working there in the 1960s, 20 years after the Royal Canadian Engineers built the airfield during the Second World War.
The story, as Davies recalled, was about a Canadian accidentally killed by a machine during construction of one of the runways. Under war-time pressure to finish the aerodrome on schedule, the Canadian serviceman’s comrades kept working, leaving him entombed in the cement.
The 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Engineers was called in to construct the bomber airfield in May 1942, after civilian contractors said they couldn’t finish the job in only three months, according to the 1966 volume “The History of the Corps of Royal Canadian Engineers.”
Detachments from the Mechanical Equipment Company, the Road Construction Company and the Canadian Forestry Corps and the Canadian Army Service Corps Reinforcement Unit were enlisted to help. They finished by Aug. 15, 1942, two weeks ahead of schedule.
The airfield currently operates as a private airport and business park. It has also been used in film and television productions, including the BBC series Top Gear.
“It was just general knowledge, really,” Davies said, adding that he had never seen any evidence of the claim. “It was a very strong rumour.”
Now the historic aerodrome, 60 kilometres southwest of London, is facing the prospect of being replaced by an 1,800-unit residential development. And Davies — a long-time opponent of the proposal — has raised concerns that construction on the site might amount to the desecration of a grave.
But after conducting an investigation this month, an official with the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) said the story is just folklore.
After receiving a letter from Davies last month, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission — with its mandate to safeguard all war graves — took notice. But without a name of the dead serviceman, or an exact location of the grave, or any discoveries of Canadian remains at the site, there was little they could do. “I think the commission is simply going to have to monitor the situation,” Dominique Boulais, a spokesman for the commission’s Canadian agency, told the National Post last week.
The commission alerted DND in Ottawa, which assigned a researcher to look into the matter.
The U.K. Planning Inspectorate, which is conducting a review of development proposal, said the story has also been brought to its attention. After an inquiry in July, the inspector will make a recommendation to Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Sajid Javid, who will decide on whether the plan goes forward. The review comes amid local outcry that the development would transform a stretch of sleepy English countryside into a congested suburb.
For its part, Rutland Group, the property development company behind the plan, said the legend of the dead Canadian has been discredited, though it still included two kilometres of parkland over the aerodrome’s main runway, to be lined with Canadian maples.
But the original aerodrome actually had three runways, as local historian Paul McCue pointed out. In his 1992 book “Dunsfold: Surrey’s Most Secret Airfield,” McCue suggested that the rumour of a Canadian in the runway stems from the death of an Irish contractor who drowned at the site after his tractor fell into a pit filled with rain water. “Local word of mouth eventually distorted this fact into a tale, surviving today,” McCue wrote, “that an unfortunate man had fallen into the cement-laying machine and had subsequently been laid out somewhere in the runway foundations!”
After the book was published, a group of veterans from the Royal Canadian Engineers heard McCue give a presentation, where he refuted the Dunsfold rumour. They approached him afterward, McCue said, and told him they were at Dunsfold during the construction and believed the story to be true, though none of them witnessed it. Still, McCue said he has never come across any proof.
“I really can’t believe that they wouldn’t have stopped work and just dug him out there and then,” McCue said. “I think his mates would have created hell about it, to be honest.”
Three Canadian serviceman did, in fact, die at during the construction, DND said Tuesday. After it was alerted by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission last week, DND dispatched a researcher to check the war diaries of all Canadian detachments involved in the three-month construction at Dunsfold in 1942.
The three servicemen — two from the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Canadian Engineers and one from the 2nd Road Construction Company — were killed in traffic accidents, said Major Ivan Dellaire, heritage officer with the Canadian Forces Directorate of History and Heritage. None of the deaths involved a cement-pouring machine, he said. All three were buried at the nearby Brookwood Military Cemetery.
“There are no missing soldiers. Everybody is accounted for,” he said. “There’s really nothing for us to do here.”