The 1967 Comex II tragedy

On 30 September 2017, Keele graduate Nick Eden-Green attended a Memorial Service at Durham Cathedral, organised by Durham University. The Service recalled the 50th Anniversary of a tragic accident in 1967, in which fourteen students lost their lives and was attended by many participants and survivors. Nick represented the Keele contingent at the service and provided much of the following account, with vital additions from David Hayward of the Exter contingent.

What was Comex II and what happened?

The Commonwealth Expedition, or COMEX, started in 1965 as an expedition from Britain to India in support of the multicultural ideals of the British Commonwealth. The idea was conceived by Lt-Colonel Lionel Gregory, who attributes some of the ideas to conversations he had with Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru invited young people "to organise a new consciousness in the Commonwealth through cultural and intellectual activities as well as common adventure." Nehru's death in 1964 led to the cancellation of the project, but at the invitation of the Government of India, an expedition of 204 young people set out from London on 30 July 1965 - this was Comex 1. In India, the five contingents visited different regions - then known as Calcutta, Madras, Bombay, Rajasthan and Lucknow. They all met up again in Simla - staying at the Vice-Regal Lodge and performing at the Gaiety Theatre.

Comex I came under the patronage of HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. The young participants had been trained by the RAF Regiment to be competent drivers, navigators, and radio operators. They travelled overland in five buses via Europe and the Middle East conducting a programme of cultural exchange in the capital of each country visited, arriving in India on 30 August 1965. The model was followed at regular intervals for a total of 14 expeditions, overland across the Asian Highway, within India, and into Africa.

In 1967, a contingent of Keele people joined Comex II - the Second Commonwealth Expedition - to India. Twelve universities - including Keele - sent contingents in twelve coaches for this overland expedition as an exercise in Commonwealth friendship and to celebrate 20 years of Indian independence. Some places on the Keele bus were taken by students from various other local institutions – various Art, Nursing, Teacher Training and Catering Colleges in Staffordshire. Keele was the coordinating institution. The participants assigned to the Keele bus or to the Keele contingent are listed below but we have not been able to confirm all of the Keele students (Class is given where a Keele student is confirmed).

  • Keith Bellingham (Class of 1969) - navigator
  • Pat Birdsall – radio operator
  • Mary Cross (Class of 1967) – hostess and folk singer
  • Jan Chapman - hostess
  • Anita Clark (Class of 1970) – radio operator
  • Tony Clewett (Class of 1967) - driver
  • Dave Clough - photographer
  • Steve Collis - storeman
  • Sue Dutch – radio operator
  • Nick Eden-Green (Class of 1967) – driver
  • Nick Edgerton (Class of 1968) – leader and driver
  • Helen Felce - banker
  • Terry Gaussen (Class of 1967) - driver
  • Mike Hadley - photographer
  • Sue Haill (Class of 1970 - hostess)
  • Nigel Hollingdale (Class of 1967) –maintenance
  • Peter Hudson - mechanic
  • Babbie Joynson - diarist
  • Sue Lawson – hostess
  • Philipe Le Roy - mechanic
  • Paddy Lowman (Keele Health Centre) - nurse
  • Bob Millar - navigator
  • Eve Muir (Class of 1969) – diarist
  • Janis Norton - diarist
  • Felicity O'Neill (Class of 1971) – water supplies
  • Vicky Robson – maintenance
  • Mike Selby - driver
  • Lindsey Stewart (daughter of Vice-Chancellor, Professor William Alexander Campbell Stewart) - navigator
  • Phil Wain - cook
  • Cedric Wilkins (Class of 1970) – mechanic and folk singer

Photo below: Nick Eden-Green (bottom right in Keele tie) attended the Memorial Service at Durham Cathedral in 2017, with the sister of one of the victims.

Keele memories - Nick Eden-Green

Comex ii 2017 "The second Comex expedition comprised 12 identical Bedford coaches, each from a different university. In theory, we travelled in convoy but in fact, due to breakdowns, border delays, and runny tummies we were often hours if not days apart. Indeed, the expedition leader, Lt-Colonel Gregory, was allegedly still in Greece or even Turkey. We had no mobile phones and although the coaches had mobile radios they rarely seemed to work and never over a distance of about a mile.

On the return journey, when we were in Yugoslavia, near Zagreb I think, the Durham coach was hit by the jib of a mobile crane which tore through the offside (or left-hand side) of the coach. This was on a Yugoslav motorway which was in effect a narrow two-way single carriageway road with no central reservation. In any event, 14 good people were killed outright all on the left side by the crane jib. The survivors suffered remarkably few injuries.

The Keele coach was, I think first on the scene but it might have been Glasgow. The press and TV crews were soon on there and of course it became headline news in the UK. My parents realised I was OK when they saw pictures of me on the 6 o'clock BBC news searching the wreckage for passports. British embassy staff were very good in making a list of those killed and the survivors and contacting next of kin. Although I was not on the coach my parents got a telegram in due course with the one word 'safe'.

The Durham driver was imprisoned pending trial. It must have been utterly terrible for him but he was finally released. (Further details about this distressing and unjustified case are below. Ed.)

I had semi-permanently transferred to the Glasgow coach - it's a long story as to why - we came across the accident, as did Keele both about the same time. It was a pretty shocking scene we came across and one I will never forget. Because I spoke German I got quite involved, together with British embassy staff, in trying to get the survivors and those with minor injuries identified and then back on a plane to London the next day. I was also involved to some extent in trying to sort out who had died. This delayed our two coaches at the scene for two days and I remember driving the survivors in either the Keele or Glasgow coach onto the tarmac at the airport and putting them on a plane. Pretty traumatic as they had just lost half their friends in a near-identical coach 30 hours earlier. The Keele and Glasgow coaches then both headed back together for Calais and we drove almost non-stop for home.

Nick Edgerton and the leader of the Glasgow coach (whose name I can't remember) performed brilliantly I certainly remember Nick Edgerton and Eve Muir but I spent a lot of time on the Glasgow coach as they were short of drivers. Of course, the Keele students were a year or more below me so they were not my strict contemporaries as I had technically left at the time of the accident, so did not return to campus next term."

Others remember

"I wasn't on Comex II but I do remember the news of the accident. As I knew Nick Edgerton, it was a nasty shock for me and quite a lot of us. Term started soon afterwards - a fortnight later. The story therefore got about Keele very quickly and what I recall is this. The members of Comex II travelled in their university groups in designated coaches. The Keele gang were in the coach ahead of the one struck. As it was a British coach in Yugoslavia, the near side was on the off side of the road. Because of the heat, the coach entrance door at the front was open. A vehicle veered across the road and was a mobile crane. Of which the hook came through the coach entrance door.... It was big news in Britain at the time. TV, radio and press covered it, but there weren't the on-the-spot reporters and film crews who rushed to the scene as there would be now. All this is only what I recall at this distance in time. Malcolm Clarke was just starting his year's Union Presidency, which was pretty grim for him."

John Meager (Class of 1968)

"Eve Muir was part of a Comex expedition during which there was a major accident in Yugoslavia. I recall her telling me of the burden she still felt having had to translate for the authorities during what was clearly a traumatic time (she spoke German, which was a common language with the local Croatians)."

Mike Brereton (Class of 1969)

Nick Eden-Green reflects on the expedition after the memorialservice:

"I was one of the Keele coach drivers, and I attended the service on behalf of Keele. I was honoured to be able to go and to meet again some of those who survived the accident. I retain a mental image of the accident scene we came across, which will never leave me. I spent the ensuing 30 hours both checking the wreckage (the police were unhelpful) and at the house of one of the embassy staff trying to establish exactly who had survived and where they were. There were two serious injuries and two others with relatively minor injuries. Having spent all night and much of the next day in negotiation with the authorities, we managed to get the two minor injuries out of hospital together with the rest of the survivors. I then drove them to the airport in the virtually identical Keele coach. We drove across the tarmac and I saw them onto a plane. Despite having been up all night I barely sleep for days as we drove back hard for England. Even 50 years on from that dreadful event there were harrowing tales told of how families had been affected. Parents, brothers and sisters."

Further facts and clarifications - David Hayward

"Together with a couple of Comex 2 Exeter comrades, I also attended the reception and subsequent Durham cathedral memorial service on 30 September, the 50th anniversary of the Comex 2 Durham coach tragedy in Yugoslavia.

I was a radio operator on the Comex 2 Exeter coach back in 1967. Of all the coach contingents, Durham was the one we knew most people from, through our respective cultural activities and concert contributions. The Exeter coach passed the scene of devastation some two hours or so after the accident but with plenty of people from the Keele and Glasgow coaches to assist, we did not linger; we were quickly waved on and subsequently attended a memorial service at Zagreb cathedral early the following day.

Phil Dobson was the Durham coach driver. There was a trial, at times farcical, which suffered greatly from lack of adequate interpreter facilities for translating technical details which were absolutely critical to Phil Dobson's defence case. This led to the crane driver being allowed to go free with Phil Dobson initially receiving a 6-year prison sentence. Within less than two weeks, President Tito granted him, not a pardon, which would have meant accepting guilt as the price, but an 'Abolicija', i.e. a complete abolition of the case and all prosecution against Phil Dobson.

Lt-Col Lionel "Greg" Gregory's book entitled "Crying Drums - The Story of Comex, the Commonwealth Expedition" published in 1972 by George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London gives a full account. His book covers the history of the first four Comex expeditions and includes full details of the Comex 2 Durham tragedy from the point when Greg first heard of the accident, through the investigation and finally the indictment and trial. It includes a forensic analysis of all technical evidence."

To clarify some points above:

Two of the Durham contingent members were seriously injured, others were less injured physically and all the survivors suffered from the shock of the tragic accident.

There were 11 coaches on Comex II, from Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Keele, Liverpool, Oxford, Sheffield and Sussex.

We were never required to drive in nose-to-tail convoy except for formal arrivals or photo-shoots.

"Greg" wasn't in Greece or Turkey at the time of the Durham coach accident; he was in Bulgaria looking after the Oxford group who had gone off route to add another country to their list of conquests and were involved in an accident (relatively minor, thank goodness).

I was a radio operator on the Exeter coach. They were Pye VHF radios which officially had a range of about 7-8 miles (manufacturer's claim) although it could be more or less depending on atmospherics, mountains etc. On one occasion they saved our Exeter coach from a potential disaster in Afghanistan on the outward journey. While night driving (because we were behind schedule) on the Asian Highway between Kandahar and Kabul, the Sheffield coach found that there was a large section of road which had been washed away and, unavoidably, shot off the end and dropped some 8 feet into a bed of sand. Fortunately, no great harm was done to the coach and no passengers were injured apart from a few bumps and bruises. At daybreak, a passing tanker helped to tow the coach out of the sand and it continued on its way to Kabul under its own power. Sheffield had only passed our coach a few minutes earlier that night after I had warned them and Durham by radio to be aware of a very large hole in the road, the only warning sign being a row of boulders which had been placed across the width of the highway a short distance before the hole. These had caused our coach to swerve off the road. Eventually, both coaches proceeded along a short diversion track at a lower level before getting back on to the main highway, by which time Sheffield had overtaken us. I was still on radio duty at the time when Sheffield then drove off the end of the broken highway. I had received an urgent Mayday call loud and clear from their duty radio operator warning of the problem ahead. Had it not been for that call, our coach could easily have also shot off the end of the highway as well, landing right on top of the Sheffield coach! I shudder to think what mayhem might have resulted. So, the radios did have their uses!"