A family’s fight to reveal the truth, after 74 years

June 26, 1945...two weeks before the end of the Second World War.

Flight Sergeant Daniel ‘Danny’ Sorfleet who was awarded his wings just two weeks before that fatal flight. Photos: Peter Sergeant

A Dakota aircraft took off on a training mission in Canada.

It failed to return.

The three man crew were never seen again.

The pilot was Sergeant Daniel Sorfleet, from Horncastle.

A former Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School pupil and known to everyone as “Danny”, he was just 20.

For the next seven decades, Sgt Sorfleet’s family thought no wreckage had ever been discovered.

Older family and friends passed away with fond memories of a young man who had always wanted to be a pilot.

Peter Sergeant and brother David with a representative on Hampshire Police at a commemorative service in 2017

Last October, the Horncastle News published the obituaries of local servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice in the war,

Sgt Sorfleet’s name was among them...along with that official listing - ‘missing, believed killed.’

Research by locally based historians had failed to produce any update.

But - unbeknownst to them - the mystery behind 
Sgt Sorfleet’s disappearance had been resolved.

A memorial plaque placed on the wreckage by Cye Laramie - the American who visited the site and did so much to help the family. Photo: Cye Laramie

The family had finally discovered the truth and unearthed a remarkable and truly emotional story.

The wreckage was actually found in 1953 by three hunters on the 7,000 feet high Sulphur Mountain in Washington State - hundreds of miles from the course the plane should have been on.

A search was mounted by the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) who, assisted by their American counterparts, located the crash site on October 14, 1953.

The six-strong search party climbed Sulphur Mountain in heavy mist, fog and rain and discovered the wreckage, just below the summit.

The only human remains found were two shin bones and a scalp.

A report was compiled and sent from Canada to the Air Ministry in London in 1954.

For some reason, details of that report remained locked away - until 2019.

The Sorfleet family, starved of information, were left in the dark.

But thanks to the tenacity of two family members - Alison ‘Ally’ Ellis (Sgt Sorfleet’s niece) and her brother Peter Sergeant - the truth finally emerged.

Mr Sergeant explains: “Ally’s determination was triggered by our mother’s frequently expressed wish that she wanted know what had happened to her adored brother.”

It was Ally who made the breakthrough.

She explains: “I first began my search in January 2010 but because I was making no progress , I had to put it on the back burner .

“I was also in the midst of completing my teaching degree.

“I next made an effort in January 2011 which is when I found the news article about Dakota FZ583 in the Victoria Times in British Columbia.

“This is when I set about trying to find who the author of the article was.”

One thing led to another and, slowly, the whole story began to emerge.

It took the intervention of Mr Sergeant to discover that missing report.

An ex-teacher, he turned to one of his former pupils, Group Captain Nick Bayley for help and it was it his letter to the Historical Branch (RAF) that revealed the existence of report.

The family saw it for the first time in 2019 - 74 years after Sgt Sorfleet’s plane was reported missing.

It detailed how Sgt Sorfleet and his crew were wildly off course when they struck the top of Sulphur Mountain.

It also detailed how the hunters had found the remains of the aircraft and reported their find to the US Coast Guard.

And the report revealed how an employee at the Air Ministry had taken the decision not to pass on details to the family.

Mr Sergeant added: “The RCAF report arrived at the Air Ministry in the UK in January 1954 where it remained filed until we uncovered it.

“A hand-written note, dated 11th January 1954, ‘authorised’ was added to a letter accompanying the report and stated simply (and devastatingly) ‘No action required re N/K’.

“In other words, do not inform relatives!”

The discovery offered closure to some family members but it came too late for others.

Mr Sergeant adds: “Sadly, my grandparents, Victor and Alice, died without discovering what happened to their only son and my mother’s older sister, Joyce, also died without knowing the truth.

“For all those years, we were led to believe Danny and the crew were ‘missing, believed killed’.

“Because the report was filed away, we’d no idea what had happened - or where. Danny’s remains were.”

The memoirs of Mr Sergeant’s mother Jean Sergeant (nee Sorfleet, (pictured above) revealed the devastating impact of the day the family had first heard Danny was missing

Mr Sergeant explains: “She wrote - ‘June 1945 was a very sad time for us.

‘We received a telegram from the Air Force to say ‘We regret to inform you that your son,Sgt Pilot D V Sorfleet, is reported missing from flight in Canada.

‘Both parents and I were very upset.

‘Dad retired to his office all day. I remember my mother saying ‘We are not the only ones’

‘I did not stay at school that day but went home early to a friend’s house.

‘It was this news I think that decided Mum and Dad to leave Horncastle, and its memories, and move to the bungalow at Mavis Enderby.”

Jean is still alive and lives at the Russell Green Care Home in Woodhall Spa.

Mr Sergeant adds: “Due to the early onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia, she’s no longer able to recall any of the awful events of 1945.

“However, after telling her what we had uncovered, we’re just hoping that she was able to understand her brother’s aircraft had been found and that there was a memorial to him and his crew placed on the site.

“Sadly, Ally and I never knew Danny but the family would be proud of him - after all this time.”

The first official search to the crash site took place on October 14, 1953.

It followed the discovery of the wreckage by three hunters.

The search party established the aircraft flown by Sgt Sorfleet had ‘collided with the north slope of the mountain.’

Among pieces of wreckage were an instrument panel, an Air Force ration pack, and an undercarriage leg with a wheel and tyre. At the base of the mountain, in a creek bed, the party discovered an engine. The serial number confirmed the identity of the aircraft.

An official report complied after the search states: “Due to the very difficult terrain and the impossibility of erecting a cairn either on the mountain slope or on the creek bed and the fact that no identification could be made of the meagre (sic) remains they were buried as best as possible on the slope of the mountain.”

The report concluded that ‘no further information can be obtained by revisiting the scene of the accident and that this report should be the conclusion of the investigation into the disappearance of this aircraft.’

The authorities have confirmed Sgt Sorfleet and his crew are commemorated on the Ottawa Memorial to aircrew lost in Canada during the war who have no known grave.

Peter Sergeant has revealed how his sister helped the family of crew member Charles Wilton discover the truth about what had happened to their relative.

Before volunteering, Mr Wilton had served in the Portsmouth City Police.

Every year the now Hampshire Police force hold a commemorative service for officers who died in the war

After hearing about the search to uncover what had happened to the Dakota crew, they invited ‘Ally’

Ellis to a service in 2017.

Mr Sergeant explains: “Due to Ally being unable to accept the invitation, the service was attended by me and my older brother, David, on November 10, 2017 – coincidentally on

what would have been our uncle Daniel’s 93rd birthday.

“Last year, on November 9, Ally was able to join me at the service and immediately afterwards, knowing where the Wilton family home had been in Stubbington and determined to make sure that Charles’ relatives knew the truth too, she went to the area and simply set about knocking on doors in the hope that she would find someone who knew something about the Moast family into which Charles Wilton’s sister, Kath, had married.

“After six houses without success, she was about to give up when the seventh house’s occupant (Douglas Curtis) who answered the door said that while he didn’t know of the family, he knew someone (Dennis Bill) who knew of the family and where Bill Moast (Kath’s husband) lived and where their daughter, Jan Russell, lived in Stubbington.

“Ally met Jan and Bill and in an emotional conversation it became clear the Wilton family had been just as much in the dark about Charles’ fate as had our family. Without my sister’s incredible determination, our family and that of Charles may have never known what happened - and the true story never told.”

Sgt Sorfleet’s father, Vic, was well known throughout Lincolnshire as a school attendance officer.

Peter Sergeant explained: “A local resident, recalling him to me some time ago, remembered him as ‘the kid catcher!’

“When my mother and father moved back to Horncastle in 1989 (we lived on Lincoln Road in the 1950s when my father, John, taught at QEGS) they ended up in Banovallum Gardens, less than quarter of a mile from Jean’s childhood home on Spilsby Road.

“My father died in 2009 having spent a great deal of time trying to establish the truth about Danny’s fate.

“He would have been incredibly proud of his only daughter, Alison, for her role in the discovery of the awful truth.”

An American aviation enthusiast believes that had the Dakota been flying just one metre higher, it would have cleared the summit of Sulphur Mountain.

The enthusiast, Cye Laramie, was initially contacted by ‘Ally’ Ellis (Sgt Sorfleet’s niece) and agreed to try and locate the crash site.

In an interview with RAF News last year, Mr Laramie revealed how it took three attempts for him, his son, and his grandson to reach the remote site.

Although there was little surviving wreckage, he said: “I believe the Dakota struck the very top of the mountain and broke apart as it tumbled into a ravine on the opposite side.

“If they had been a metre higher, they would havecleared it.”

“I already knew about a plane wreck from a story told by a hiker who had stumbled on it 15 years earlier.”

“Luckily, he had taken a couple photos of the wreckage and drawn a map.

“I had copies of both in my possession.”

After two failed attempts Cye, his son John Laramie and grandson Tyler Coleman reached the site in August 2016.

The trio mounted a memorial plaque on the aircraft’s wings.