The Comex II Tragedy 1967

On 30th September 2017, Keele graduate Nick Eden-Green will attend a Memorial Service at Durham Cathedral, organised by Durham University. The Service occurs on the 50th Anniversary of a tragic accident in 1967, in which fourteen students lost their lives and will be attended by many participants and survivors. Nick represented the Keele 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. Several universities - including Keele - sent contingents for this overland expedition as an exercise in Commonwealth friendship.

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

Keele Memories  Nick Eden-Green

“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 so-called motorway which was in effect a narrow two way single carriageway road with no central reservation. We will probably never know who was at fault. Did the Durham driver stray towards the middle of the road? Did the crane driver do so, thus swinging the crane jib into the path of the coach? 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 as fault was never established on what was a notoriously dangerous road.

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. When I took the survivors to the airport I remember a girl who had her arm broken in the crash weeping copiously. She was one of the Durham cooks. Her brother, the Durham leader, was one of the dead and she had not been officially told. 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 came out of a side road or 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)

There is a blog memoir about the expedition here.