GWENT rugby fans returning from a Five Nations game in Ireland died in what was then the world’s worst aviation disaster. Martin Wade recalls the Llandow air crash, which happened 66 years ago tomorrow.

IT was a tight but thrilling game. Wales had beaten England at Twickenham for the first time since 1933 and now eyed their first Triple Crown since 1911. Ireland had won the Triple Crown the previous year and the last time the two teams had met in Belfast, Ireland had won to secure the Grand Slam in 1948.

The score was 3-3 with minutes to go before Wales scored a try in the last moments of the game. The Triple Crown was theirs.

The next day as the triumphant Welsh team were led by a band through the Cardiff streets, lined with cheering and joyful people, eighty of the supporters who had cheered them to that win less than 24 hours before would be dead in what was the world's worst air crash.

The plane flying back from Ireland had many from Gwent onboard. The Avro Tudor airliner called 'Star Girl' was carrying members of rugby clubs in Abercarn, Risca, Abertillery and Blaenavon. A party from the Greenhouse pub in Llantarnam was also there. The aircraft had been initially booked for 72 passengers, but the plane had been stripped to accommodate another six.

Eyewitnesses told how the Avro Tudor was approaching the runway at Llandow in the Vale of Glamorgan at a very low altitude with the undercarriage down. The pilot tried to gain height by increasing the power of the engines and brought the plane up. Star Girl rose steeply but then stalled and plummeted towards the ground with the right wingtip hitting the ground first, followed by the nose and left wing, which broke from the fuselage as it hit the ground. The plane span around and finally came to a rest near in a field near the village of Sigingstone.

Only three of the 83 onboard survived. Two of them were sitting in extra seats bolted in at the back of the tail section and walked away unaided, while a third man, who was in the lavatory and knocked unconscious at the time of the crash, survived but was in hospital for four months.

Eight more survivors of the initial impact died later in hospital of their injuries, bringing the final death toll to 80, 75 passengers and all five crew

Nearly half the passengers came from the western and eastern valleys of what was then Monmouthshire.

Abercarn RFC lost their captain Don Rowlands, coach Ray Box and centre Doug Burnett who was the brother of Roy the Newport and Wales outside half. They also lost their kit-man Albert Robbins. Brother of the Burnetts, Ivor, had decided not to go on that fateful trip. Don Rowlands had been an air gunner in the RAF during the war.

From the Greenhouse Inn, seven had set out for the Ireland game and only one came back. Mr John Maggs, of Llantarnam, who changed to an alternative flight, survived. The other six, including the licensee of the pub, Bert Butcher, were killed.

The trip from the Greenhouse was arranged by Squadron Leader Bill Irving. He had been shot down in North Africa, survived Dunkirk and fIown Lancaster bombers on 63 missions. At the time he was Commanding Officer of 614 (County of Glamorgan) Squadron Royal Auxiliary Air Force. The unit was then based at Llandow. Five years after the end of the war, many had served and survived great danger only to die on their way home from a rugby match.

Argus coverage at the time described the aftermath of the crash, saying: “On the floor of the bar at the 18th century inn Greenhouse, Llantarnam, when it was opened on Monday morning was a playing card. It was the ace of spades – superstitiously regarded a card of ill-omen: of death.”

South Wales Argus: TRAGEDY: How the Argus reported the crash on its front page in 1950

TRAGEDY: How the Argus reported the crash on its front page in 1950

The Argus told how at the Greenhouse that day, it was “business as usual”. Mrs Butcher, wife of the licensee, decided to carry on, because “it would have been his wish”. She told the Argus reporter as she served behind the bar: “My husband was the life of this village, now the life has gone out of it. He was always laughing and the boys who went with him were a grand lot.

“Then my son came back with his wife. They had been to meet my husband and got there just after the crash occurred. My son saw his father’s body being carried on a stretcher.”

The coroner, Col Harold Rees said: The disaster is unparalleled in recent times in South Wales and is comparable only to the great colliery disasters of the past.

"In times of war one is ready to meet disasters of this kind. Many of those who died in the crash had survived the war."

An enquiry into what was the world's worst air disaster found that the probable cause was the loading of the aircraft, which had moved the centre of gravity considerably aft of where it should have been, making the aircraft less stable.

It was not the first time the type had crashed. The Tudor had a troubled history and despite being designed by Roy Chadwick, the man who created the wartime Lancaster bomber, it had numerous problems. Early models had problems with stalling and controlling on take-off. Chadwick himself was killed when the Tudor he was flying in crashed in Manchester.

Wales won the Grand Slam that year but it was a bitter sweet victory. On 25 March in the final game against France at Cardiff Arms Park, the crowd stood in silence as buglers sounded Last Post in tribute to those who had died coming back from a rugby match.

South Wales Argus:

MEMORIAL: The propeller on the Abercarn RFC badge which commemorates the club members who died in the Llandow air crash

The victims are remembered still. When Abercarn RFC designed its first crest in 1955, former player David Benjamin included a propeller as its centrepiece, representing the loss which the club had suffered. Plaques at both Risca and Abercarn recall their dreadful losses. The grief they tell of is a reminder of how drama on the pitch turned to horror off it all those years ago.