On 9 October 1937, Cecilie’s father-in-law died at the age of 68. On 12 October, Cecilie was joined by both her mother and grandmother for the funeral. There was a strong Nazi presence at the funeral, and both Cecilie and her husband had joined the Nazi party on 1 May 1937 (with party numbers 3766313 and 3766312, respectively). Cecilie’s husband now succeeded as Head of the House, but more tragedy was to come.
Cecilie’s brother-in-law Louis was due to be married to Margaret Geddes in London, but the wedding was postponed to 20 November because of Ernest Louis’ death. Cecilie wrote to her uncle Lord Louis Mountbatten (later Earl Mountbatten of Burma) on 12 November, thanking him for putting up so many of the family. She added, “I hope we won’t be in the way.”1
On 16 November 1937, Cecilie, George Donatus, their sons Ludwig and Alexander, her mother-in-law Eleonore with her lady-in-waiting (sometimes also referred to as nanny to the boys) Lina Hahn and two friends of the family, Joachim Riedesel zu Eisenbach and Arthur Martens, boarded a flight to London. The plane was also scheduled to land in Brussels. The three-person crew consisted of Antoine Lambotte (pilot), Maurice Courtois (wireless operator) and Yvan Lansmans (mechanic). The passengers sat in leather seats that lined the sides of the plane, and they wore earplugs to protect them from the noise of the three engines but also forced them to shout if they wanted to share something. There wouldn’t be much to see from the windows as it was quite a foggy day.
The thick fog prevented the plane from landing in Brussels but just above Ghent, the wireless operator handed the pilot a note stating that he would have to land at Stene by Ostend to pick up two passengers. Brussels had assured the operator that it would be safe to land there as the visibility near the coast was a lot better. Above Bruges, the pilot requested an updated weather report from Stene, and they duly reported that the fog was coming in quickly there too. The pilot requested the guidelines for landing from his company, but they left the decision on whether or not to land up to him. He decided to go ahead with the landing and requested flares to be lit so that he could localise the airport.
Around 2.30 P.M., the search for the airport began. Three flares were planted, but apparently, only the first was on time and visible, the second did not go off, and the third was lit too late. This meant that the aeroplane flew over the airport at a relatively low altitude. The pilot turned and began to follow the railways back to the airport. The fog became worse and worse, which was also being signalled to the plane. The plane then hit the 50-metre high chimney of a brick factory with its right-wing, which was torn off and ended up in one of the warehouses. The rest of the plane ended up upside down in two parts in the middle of the brick factory – which was being operated at full power. It immediately burst into flames. The time was now 2.47 P.M.
A witness later reported, “Several people from the factory ran towards the plane. They could hear screams, but it was impossible to help as the plane was one big fireball. So they saw those people being burned alive.” The passengers never had a chance to escape. When the fire died down, the cabin was in pieces, and the bodies of the passengers were clearly visible “in their grotesque positions” in charred seats. Newspapers also reported the discovery of the head of an infant, and Cecilie had been pregnant at the time of the crash. The newspaper Midi-Journal said a Belgian inquiry into the disaster indicated that the pilot attempted to land because Cecilie had gone into labour.2 However, it does seem strange that if there was any distress or emergency on board that this was not signalled to the ground. Therefore, it seems unlikely that this would be the cause of the crash, and the pilot was told to pick up passengers, so it was not like the plane diverted for an emergency. In the end, the fog was blamed for the accident, and as there was no malfunction of the aeroplane, it was classified as a “controlled flight into terrain.” Cecilie’s young daughter Johanna had remained at home due to her age and was now orphaned.
Cecilie’s brother-in-law Louis had been waiting for the arrival of the plane at Croydon when he was informed of the horrific events. His wedding to Margaret was moved to the following day with the guests dressed in mourning in St. Peter’s Church in Eaton Square. Lord Louis Mountbatten was the best man, and Margaret wore a black coat and a skirt. The newlyweds travelled to Ostend to collect the bodies and to bring them back to Darmstadt. That same morning, the bodies were removed from the aeroplane and put into caskets. Louis and Margaret arrived that evening on the ferry. The following day, the caskets were loaded onto a train and were taken to Darmstadt.3
The funeral took place on 23 November at Rosenhöhe. Her mother, Alice, came from Berlin with her sister Sophie while her father, Andrew, came from London with her brother Philip. The funeral would be the first time her parents saw each other in six years. Her father later wrote, “I’m keeping fit up to a point, but I cannot say that time has had any healing effect – it was a very hard blow, and the weight of it becomes heavier as time passes.”4 For Alice, her daughter’s death was a turning point for her mental health. Theodora wrote, “The first curative shock to her was brought about by the plane-crash causing the death of her third daughter, her husband and children. Contrary to what was expected, it apparently tore her out of everything.”5
Johanna was adopted by her aunt and uncle, but tragically, the young Princess would die of meningitis on 14 June 1939. She, too, was buried at Rosenhöhe.
- Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece by Hugo Vickers p.272
- The New York Times
- You can contact info.AAIU@mobilit.fgov.be for the report (in Dutch) by Walter Major on the accident with the date and plane registration: 26 November 1937 Junkers JU 52/3M OO-AUB (The date is incorrect, but they have it listed under this date). It can also be found in the Cahier voor Luchtvaartgeschiedenis (Year 9 – Het vliegongeval te Stene). The original investigation report can no longer be found.
- Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece by Hugo Vickers p.274
- Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece by Hugo Vickers p.275