Saturday 21 January 2017

How French Girl Guides miraculously survived after mountainside plane crash

Teenagers on an exchange trip to Ireland had a lucky escape 70 years ago, writes Jane O'Faherty

Jane O'Faherty

Published 08/08/2016 | 02:30

The site of the 1946 plane crash in the Wicklow Mountains
The site of the 1946 plane crash in the Wicklow Mountains

High up in the Wicklow Mountains, a group of 21 French Girl Guides walked away from a plane wreck in what has become the stuff of local legend.

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In the aftermath of World War II, the teenagers were flying to Dublin to meet their Irish counterparts for a holiday. Little could have prepared them for their disastrous journey there, as their old military plane crashed into the side of Djouce Mountain.

Some of the girls involved in the crash before their flight home to France
Some of the girls involved in the crash before their flight home to France

The crash occurred on August 12, 1946, and a group of locals now plan to visit the site to pay homage to the passengers, all of whom miraculously survived.

Suzanne Barnes, an author who has researched the story, will lead a group of locals close to where the accident happened 70 years ago.

Speaking to the Irish Independent, Suzanne said the group of Girl Guides had been on a French government-funded excursion to meet Irish guides in Rathfarnham.

As part of the journey, they travelled from France in a Junkers Ju 52, a sturdy plane originally designed for German military use.

Some of the survivors with author Suzanne Barnes in Paris in 2004
Some of the survivors with author Suzanne Barnes in Paris in 2004

"The weather was appalling, and the pilot was blown off course and didn't know where he was going," she said.

"There were no radar then," she added. "He was more or less relying on what he saw.

"All he knew was that he crossed the Irish Sea."

The plane soon found itself in the misty Wicklow Mountains, shortly before it crashed head long into one of its peaks.

Locals help carry one girl to an ambulance
Locals help carry one girl to an ambulance

The impact ripped the engine from the plane, but crucially left the fuselage behind. As the engine was quickly shorn away, the plane didn't catch on fire. All those aboard survived the impact, which Suzanne called "absolutely miraculous".

"There were terrible injuries, but the plane didn't catch fire, which was amazing," she said.

Both the pilot of the plane and the leader of the Girl Guides had minor injuries, and both left the wreckage to seek help from the local community.

"They wandered over the mountain in the mist, cold and rain and found the way to Powerscourt Waterfall," Suzanne said. "They actually managed to slide down the cliff face at Powerscourt."

The remaining 19 guides, aged between 13 and 17, huddled in the remains of the fuselage. Eight of them were seriously injured.

After six hours of wandering through the mountains, the guide leader managed to find a hotel and get help from locals.

The remains of the plane were eventually discovered 12 hours after the crash, and casualties were sent to St Michael's and St Bricin's Hospitals.

As word spread throughout the local community, residents from all walks of life came forward to lend a hand. Among them was Dominick Browne, also known as Lord Oranmore and Browne, and his wife Oonagh Guinness.

While the girls were relieved to have survived the impact of the crash, Suzanne said many were left with devastating injuries.

"One of the girls can't remember anything about it except being treated very well by the doctors in hospital," she said. "All of her childhood memories before the plane crash are gone, so it's so important that she hears the girls' memories because they are her memories.

"Another girl had at least five fractures in her leg."

Suzanne has met with several of the remaining survivors in France, as well as many of the locals who came to their rescue.

Since the 50th anniversary of the crash in 1996, the ladies continue to meet regularly in France to remember that fateful day.

In spite of the shocking events on the journey, Suzanne said that they regarded the trip as a "very positive experience."

"They had already lived through a war. Some had seen the worst of the conflict in France. Some of them were Jewish," she added.

"There was one girl who had to wear the yellow star when she was a little girl during the war."

Suzanne is now organising a walk close to the crash site to mark the accident's 70th anniversary this Friday, from Crone Wood car park at 11.30am.

"It's important to do it (remember the crash) now," she said. "The Girl Guides' leader is now 91 years old, and it could be the last time they'll be here for a big anniversary like this."

Suzanne's book, 'When Our Plane Hit The Mountain', is available from trailhead.ie for €9. One euro from the sale of each book goes towards mountain rescue.

Irish Independent

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