Remembering the tragic death of Lieutenant Turnbull in Knaresborough 100 years on

Lieutenant David Gibson Turnbull
Lieutenant David Gibson Turnbull

Lieutenant David Gibson Turnbull survived nine months of aerial combat during World War One across the Western Front but it would be in Knaresborough where he would die serving his country 100 years ago.

This Saturday will mark the centenary of Lieutenant Turnbull’s death at the age of 27 after tragedy struck as he attempted to deliver a BE12-A bi-plane, fresh off the factory line at Coventry, to the Aircraft Acceptance Park and Depot at Ripon in 1917.

Poor weather forced him to land at Crag Top where his aircraft failed to take off again safely, his wings struck tree branches after failing to clear a hedge line and his plane crashed into the River Nidd.

His body was found three weeks later by his wife, Edith Turnbull, who travelled to the area and searched every day until he was found.

Today his great-nephew, Colonel John Young, has looked back with pride in the face of the tragic event after spending time researching his great-uncle and his time in the early and dangerous days of Britain’s budding air force.

Colonel Young said: “He survived those nine months in France during this stage of aviation was in the face of the primitive aircraft of that time and it was a hazardous occupation. For him to have survived the rigorous over there in France and to die as he did in North Yorkshire was tragic.

“He was someone at the forefront of air combat fighting, I would have been incredibly fortunate to have been able to meet him and talk to him.

“Getting his private pilots license on June 5, 1916 his ID number showed he was only the 3820th person to get one as the field was still in its infancy.

“It has been nice to tie as much as possible together about him, sadly he was never a person I knew and if not for this accident I could have met him.”

Colonel Young produced a booklet about his great-uncle in 1997 after his own time in the army, serving in the Royal corps of Signals for 37 years and trained for posting as an Air Attache to the British Embassy in The Hague.

Gaining access to military archives he was able to carry out detailed research about his great-uncle.

First flying without a pilots license while studying at university in Edinburgh Lieutenant Turnbull did not originally plan for a career in the military.

Travelling around the world to Australia with Mrs Turnbull he had set his sights on building a fruit picking business. The outbreak of war in 1914 however led him to return home, enlist and take to the skies once again.

Initially joining the Royal Highland regiment, Black Watch, he was then attached to the Royal Flying Corps, and first flew over France as an Observer with number three squadron of the RFC, and then for nearly nine months as a pilot in number 10 squadron.

His service records reveal the hazardous life he led fighting in the air. After carrying out a bombing run and drop of propaganda pamphlets over Annay in France on September of 1916, that began at 3.50pm, he was forced to carry out an emergency landing after his plane ran out of fuel four hours

Returning to Britain from France he was assigned the task of delivering the bi-plane to Ripon on April,11 1917 but bad weather waylaid him and he stayed in Preston until repairs could be carried out on the plane.

Four days later in the face of still poor weather he set off again only to be forced to land again in Knaresborough.
An eyewitness account, recorded in the Mary Mann Archive at the Harrogate Library, described the heavy rainfall at the time of the accident and how search parties scoured the area to find Lieutenant Turnbull.

Mary Mann wrote: “The river was swollen with the heavy rain and his body had been washed down the river. Organised parties searched for him for three weeks, and were about to give up the search when his young widow found his body in the weeds at Birkham Deep.

“He was an early pioneer of flying who lost his life in the service of his country and ‘one of the few’ of the First World War.”

Mrs Turnbull, known as ‘Aunt Edith’ to Colonel Young, would remain a widow for the rest of her life after his death, passing away herself in 1976.

She however remained surrounded by family throughout her life, with Colonel Young remembering her visits at Christmas with his grandmother.

The importance of family in his work was not immediate for Mr Young who overtime came to realize its role in driving his efforts to document his great-uncle’s life.

Colonel Young said: “When I think about it now the large body of my work has been with a family angle in place, and I think it is important to me for me because of this as

“In Knaresborough, at the Church of St. John the Baptist, there is a plaque in place that gives details of his death but now after gathering information from military records, eye witness accounts and newspaper articles people will be able to learn more about him.

“It is something that will definitely be for our family archives.”