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and the Imberdown tragedy of 13th April 1942
(page updated January 2018)

Lt. Gerald George Cates was a member of the 5th Warwickshire (Solihull) Battalion under the command of Lt.-Col. F. Blennerhassett.

Gerald Cates was born on 22nd October 1897 in Portsea, into a military family, the son of Henry John and Frances W.B. Cates. This military connection probably explains his enlistment in the Army in 1913 at the early age of 15 or 16.

He had a long Great War career in the A.S.C. (which later became the R.A.S.C.) and in the later years of the war as a pilot in the R.F.C./R.A.F.  In 1924 he married Ruth Pougher of Solihull. By the outbreak of WW2 he was living with his family at 5 Winterbourne Road, Solihull and was employed as an official in the Birmingham Inland Revenue office.


Gerald Cates's Great War military experience would have led to his immediate appointment to a position of authority as soon as the Home Guard was formed in May 1940. All that is so far known about this Home Guard service is contained in a newspaper cutting of late April/early May 1942:


"A military funeral at Solihull Parish Church, tomorrow, will be accorded to Lieut. Gerald George Cates, of the Headquarters Company of the Solihull Home Guard, who was fatally wounded last week in the battle exercise tragedy at Imberdown, near Warminster, when nearly 30 officers and men were killed as a result of a fighter pilot getting off his target.

"Lieutenant Cates, who attended the exercise in company with Captain D. Hirons, second in command of the same H.Q. Company, was wounded in the abdomen and died shortly afterwards in Shaftesbury Military Hospital. Captain Hirons escaped uninjured, and although these were the only two officers who attended the exercise from Solihull, there would have been others there but for the fact that an important lecture was scheduled for the night of the tragedy. The lecture, incidentally, was cancelled a few hours before its advertised time, but it was then too late, of course, for other officers to get to the Warminster exercise.

"An official of the
Inland Revenue office in Birmingham, Lieutenant Cates, who leaves a widow and two children, lived at 5 Winterbourne Road, Solihull. He was 45 years of age and had a varied and distinguished career in the last war. Joining the Queens Royal West Surrey Regiment in 1913. he transferred to the A.S.C. (now R.A.S.C.), with whom he served from 1914 to 1917. Later he became a second-lieutenant in the old Royal Flying Corps and served with them for two years as an instructor-pilot. One of the first to join the Home Guard in Solihull, in May of 1940, he was commissioned in February of the following year and promoted to lieutenant seven months later.

"Speaking of his former officer and colleague,
Colonel F. Blennerhassett, Commanding Officer, Solihull Home Guard, said: "He was generally an extraordinarily fine fellow, and a most competent and efficient soldier. His death will be a great loss to us, and in such tragic circumstances it is felt very deeply by all officers and men".

            The circumstances of Gerald Cates's death are described below.

In a time of tragedy and loss, the incident referred to in the above press cutting was barely reported - and perhaps it is surprising that it was reported at all: the presence amongst the casualties of non-Regular Army men, i.e. Home Guards who might be classified as "civilians", may be the reason.

The Times of the following day, Tuesday April 14th, briefly noted a joint statement from the War Office and Air Ministry made the previous evening:

"During combined exercises today in Southern England there was an unfortunate accident in which a number of soldiers, including some members of the Home Guard, were killed and others injured. The next of kin have been informed".
And, on Wednesday, there appeared some further information about the incident and a preliminary list of those who lost their lives, including four Home Guard officers. This list does not include the name of Lt. Cates; he was one of the many wounded but regrettably he did not survive and he died of his injuries on 20th April.

Later, of course, there was both a civilian inquest, on June 26th, and a full enquiry by the military authorities into precisely what had occurred. The information which emerged from those processes forms the basis of what is now known, more than seventy years later. Below is a brief description of the events of that Monday afternoon, 13th April 1942, at
Imberdown, near Warminster, on Salisbury Plain.

A Combined Services demonstration of tactical airpower was organised by the Army and the RAF at Imber, a British Army training ground on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, in April 1942. This demonstration was to be witnessed by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill and General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army. Three days before the visit of those men, a dress rehearsal took place, on Monday 13th April, and was attended by a number of military personnel, including some of very senior rank and also a number of Home Guard officers from various units.

The exercise included the attack by a number of RAF ground attack aircraft, Spitfires and Hurricanes, on an area where there were dummy men and vehicles positioned. The spectators' enclosure was positioned sufficiently close to enable the onlookers to get a clear view of the effectiveness of the planned attacks.

It was a day of fairly poor visibility, bright but hazy. The first pass, by six Spitfires of
234 Squadron, was of limited success, with several aircraft either firing too late or witholding fire altogether because of difficulty in seeing the target in time. The second pass involved six Hurricanes of 175 Squadron. Because of the difficulty in timing their firing in these conditions, the pilots received an instruction to fire early, possibly even before their target became invisible. The aircraft approached the area line astern and the attack of the first four was successful. But the pilot of the fifth Hurricane unfortunately lost sight of the aircraft immediately in front of him, unknowingly drifted slightly off course and then made his attack. The result was catastrophic: the spectators' enclosure was raked with machine gun fire. Some 45 years later, a survivor, Mr. Charles Lester, described the scene (in the Leicester Mercury):
"I was a junior NCO with the 38th Welsh Reconnaissance Squadron, and with other NCOs, was sent to watch the demonstration. I shall never forget the sight of the Hurricane, with guns blazing, flying low straight along the line of troops. All we could do, was to curl ourselves up into balls as the bullets hit the grass. It was a miracle none of my unit was hit. Eventually, the Tannoy blared out 'All ranks disperse and make for home'.

"As we walked back to our truck, I passed a soldier lying on the ground with bullets in his chest, his comrades attending to him. I can still hear him say, 'Don't let them see me die'."

The inquest at
Warminster on Friday, 26th June 1942 was reported in The Times the following day:



A verdict that the 27 deaths at a combined Army and RAF demonstration on Salisbury Plain on April 13 were due to gunshot wounds caused by misadventure was recorded at the resumed inquest at Warminster yesterday.

An RAF pilot gave evidence that when he approached the target he lost sight of the aeroplane which he should have been following, because of a haze across the target and a crosswind. He realised that he had made a mistake after he had fired.

The Coroner said they all realised the anguish which the pilot had suffered and sympathised with him. The pilot was British, and there was no truth in the rumour that he was not of British origin."

In addition to the deaths, and of course not the business of the Coroner,  approximately 70 further men received injuries, including Home Guard members, and we have to assume that some of these wounds were very serious and life-changing.

The pilot involved was understandably not publicly identified. But he was
Flight Sergeant William John Andrew McLachlan, R.C.A.F., aged 20.

The Coroner's final comment about the pilot's nationality was presumably to correct rumours which were circulating at the time about the tragedy. There is even evidence of wild stories to the effect that the act was deliberate. The latter was of course most definitely not the case but the question of nationality is a little more complicated than the Coroner implied. Flight Sergeant McLachlan was in fact a member of the R.C.A.F. He had been born in
Spokane, Washington State, USA to a Canadian father and Scottish mother. The family moved to Vernon, British Columbia while he was still young and he was living there when he enlisted in the R.C.A.F. on 25 October 1940.

The newly formed 175 Squadron had not, at the time of the accident, undertaken any operational sorties. The Hurricane IIB ground attack aircraft shown here (left) was a sister aircraft to the one flown by William McLachlan and bears an adjacent airframe number. It almost certainly took part in the Imber exercise on Monday April 13th (although without the bomb load shown in the photograph). Its fate was to be lost in the Channel, together with its 20-year-old R.C.A.F. pilot, Flight Sergeant Bricker Forman, during the Squadron's first operational mission on the following Thursday, April 16th.

The exercise was repeated a few days afterwards in the presence of Winston Churchill and General George Marshall. It passed without mishap. One must assume that 175 Squadron took no part in the repeat.

It is a relief to hear that in the course of the Inquest the Coroner expressed his sympathy to this unfortunate young man, William McLachlan. We can only hope that it was of some consolation to him for his part in the tragedy.

The inquest at Warminster at which William McLachlan was present and gave evidence took place on Friday 26th June. Afterwards William McLachlan returned to his unit at RAF Warmwell, near Weymouth in Dorset. Very shortly afterwards, during the night of Sunday/Monday, 28/29th June, he and at least one other member of his Hurricane squadron took off to attack enemy shipping between Alderney and the French coast. When the flight returned to base he was found to be missing, presumed shot down over the sea by a ship's anti-aircraft fire. His body was never recovered and the only formal commemoration of his loss is on the Runnymede Memorial in Surrey.

It took a long time for his death to be confirmed and his parents to receive formal confirmation. This (right) is the report in a Canadian newspaper.

Later in the war, his parents would lose another son, Donald, mentioned in the newspaper cutting.
Lt. Donald Hugh McLachlan of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada died on 23rd May 1944 at Monte Cassino.

Perhaps it is appropriate for us to remember, as we pursue our mainly safe and comfortable 21st century lives, the sacrifices made by a family such as the McLachlans in the cause of freedom and justice.

            The tragedy, and the loss of individuals, has been commemorated in different ways:

As a result of the creditable efforts of the
Wiltshire Historical Military Society, a memorial plaque was unveiled in Warminster Church on the 70th anniversary of the tragedy, in 2012.

This lists the victims of the incident who lost their lives. It includes the names of five Home Guard officers, as follows:

Maj. G.B. Davies
(aged 58) - 8th Hampshire (Avon Valley) Battn.
Lt. H.E. Phillips
7th Wiltshire (Salisbury) Battn.
2/Lt. M.W.B. Robson, C.I.E., O.B.E.
5th Hampshire (Winchester) Battn. (late Lt.-Col., Indian Army)
Capt. J.R. West, M.C.
(aged 47) - 5th Dorset (Weymouth) Battn.
Capt. F.J. Willy
(aged 55) - 3rd Dorset (Poole) Battn.

And to that list, we can now add:

Lt. G.G. Cates
(aged 43) 5th Warwickshire (Solihull) Battn.

(Omission of the name of Lt. Cates from the Warminster memorial is probably the result of inadequate contemporary records and the timing of his death from wounds several days later.  Perhaps, some time in the future, an addition might be made so that his sacrifice is permanently recorded in Warminster Garrison Church for visitors to see and honour).

UPDATE - January 2018
The omision of the name of Gerald Cates from the memorial plaque has not gone unnoticed elsewhere. The Wiltshire Historical Society have arranged for his name (and that of another casualty,
Capt. Peregrine Makepeace Matson, 2nd Field Regt. R.A.), to be added to the memorial. The ceremony has been arranged for Friday April 13th 2018  and the unveiling will be carried out by Lt. Gen. Sir Roderick Cordy-Simpson.
(Grateful acknowledgement to John Pidgeon for this information)

Lt. Gerald Cates now rests in the Robin Hood Cemetery, Solihull:

In Memory of
 Lt. Gerald George Cates - 5th Warks (Solihull) Battn.

his Home Guard comrades who died in the same incident:
Maj. G.B. Davies, Lt. H.E. Phillips, Lt. M.W.B. Robson,
Capt. J.R. West and Capt. F.J. Willy

Flight Sergeant William McLachlan - R.C.A.F. 175 Sqdn.

and of
all those whose lives were affected by the Imberdown tragedy of 13th April 1942

Grateful acknowledgement
is made to the following sources of information:
Matt Felkin and his Wartime Birmingham and the Blitz Facebook page (for the original cutting); Mr Danny Howell (for the plaque image and other information); Maggie Laity (for the headstone image); the Commonwealth War Graves Commission; The Times Archive; the Leicester Mercury; Lives of the First World War;; "After The Battle" magazine;

Source of information for further research
"After The Battle" magazine, Issue 49, 1986. (Back copies still available from the publisher).

Plaque image Danny Howell 2016
Headstone image Maggie Laity 2016




x145 - January 2017, updated January 2018