With the number of aircraft in the skies over Britain during the Second World War, it was inevitable that some would collide, often fatally. Carrying full bombs loads and full fuel tanks, these aircraft were literally ‘flying bombs’ and a collision would often have disastrous consequences.
One such incident happened on 29th January 1945 just months before the cessation of war. Two B-17s from the 96th Bomb Group collided over the small village of North Lopham near to RAF Snetterton Heath with the loss of all eighteen crew members.
The first aircraft, B-17G-DL*1 ’44-6137′, of the 337th Bomb Squadron was delivered from the factory to Tulsa Air Base on 12th May 1944; travelling on via Kearney Training base to Dow Field, Maine, on the 1st June 1944. It was initially assigned to the 452nd Bomb Group, where upon it was flown to RAF Deopham Green in Norfolk, England. After arriving at Deopham, it was immediately transferred to the 337th BS, 96th BG, and given the coding ‘AW – J’. The aircraft was subsequently flown on to RAF Snetterton Heath and operational status.
The second aircraft, B-17G -BO*1 ’43-38746′, was initially delivered to Lincoln Air Base on 16th September 1944. It was also flown on to Dow Field but later in the September of that same year. Here the aircraft was assigned to the 338th BS, 96th BG, transported to Snetterton Heath, and given the coding ‘BX – J’. The aircraft arrived for active duty in the October of 1944.
The 96th BG, consisted of four squadrons: the 337th, 338th, 339th and 413thBSs, operating both B-17-F and B 17-G models. At the time of the accident they were part of the 3rd Air Division, 45th Combat Wing, Eighth Air Force.
The 96th BG like their crews, were relatively young. Activated on 15th July 1942 at Salt Lake City, Utah, the group wasn’t allocated any operational personnel until reaching Gallon Field in Idaho, in August that same year. They moved through a number of airfields and training camps, until setting sail for the European Theatre of Operation on the Queen Elizabeth, on 5th May 1943, arriving in Greenock, Scotland, six days later. After moving from Grafton Underwood to Andrews Field, in Essex, they finally arrived at their base RAF Snetterton Heath, on 12th June 1943 where they would remain until December 1945.
By the end of the war the 96th BG would have completed 321 missions in total dropping in excess of 19,200 tons of ordinance, a figure that included around 130 tons of supplies. They would lose 189 aircraft in operations over Europe and would receive two Distinguish Unit Citations for their operations over both Regensburg and Poznan.
On the day in question, January 29th 1945, two years into their war, the two aircraft took off from their base at Snetterton Heath (Station 138) to attack the Bielefield Marshalling yards at Kassel as part of Mission 811. As they were forming up to find their position in the flight, the disaster struck. The first aircraft flown by Second Lt. Alex Philipovitch, flew across the path of the second aircraft flown by Second Lt. George Peretti. As a result Peretti’s port wing struck the B17 causing it to explode whilst his own was split in half. As a result of the collision, both aircraft plummeted helplessly to the ground killing all eighteen men on board.
Regrettably, this collision was one of many that occurred both within the USAAF and RAF during the Second World War, a sad loss of many a young life. Thankfully however, neither this tragedy, nor the sacrifice of the crews will be forgotten as the people of North Lopham have laid a commemorative memorial stone in the village centre on their combined war memorial, just a few miles away from Snetterton Heath airfield, now Snetterton race park.
The names of the crew members, many of whom were only 19 or 20 years of age, appear in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, London.
In honour of the crews:*2
2nd Lt. George .J. Peretti: Buried – St. John Cemetery, Illinois (age 22)
2nd Lt. Ernest .S. Throne: Buried – Fountain Grove Cemetery, Ohio (age 29)
2nd Lt. Gerald. S. Stambaugh: Buried – Keokuk National Cemetery, Iowa (age 23)
Sgt. Robert. I. Good: Buried – Greenville Union Cemetery, Ohio (age 24)
Sgt. Maynard. A. Faux: Purple Heart and Air Medal, Buried – Cambridge American Cemetery, UK (age 19)
Sgt. Gordon. C. Shaul: Buried – Ford City Cemetery, Pennsylvania (age 20)
Sgt. Noble. E. Ellington: Buried – Gwin Memorial Cemetery, Louisiana (age 25)
Sgt. Clarence. C Hagler: ETO Ribbon with 1 Battle Star, AD Ribbon, Air Medal, Buried – Gilmer City Cemetery, Texas (19 years old)
Sgt. Robert. R.Stone: Purple Heart, Air Medal, Buried – Forest Lawn Cemetery, North Carolina (age 22)
2nd Lt. Alex. Philipovitch: Purple Heart, Buried – Gettysburg National Cemetery, (age 23)
2nd Lt. John. C. Hubbard: Buried – McCall Cemetery, South Carolina, (age 30)
Flt. Off. Slatten. H. Gooden: Buried – Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia, (age 27)
Flt. Off. Martin. P. Schmidt: Buried – Saint Mary Cemetery, Omaha, (age 19)
T/Sgt. Richard. J. Zander: Buried – Mount Sinai Cemetery, Pennsylvania, (age 20)
T/Sgt. Charles. H. Tibbatts: Purple Heart, Buried – Cambridge American Cemetery, UK
Sgt. Robert. K. Smith: Buried – Stones River National Cemetery, Tennessee, (age 19)
Sgt. James. E. Flora: Buried – Musselman Cemetery, Indiana, (age 20)
Sgt. William. F. Brauner: Buried – Calvary Cemetery and Mausoleum, Missouri, (age 19)