There are many tragic and sad events associated with the Second World War, a recent discovery is no different. The story of a B-17 and her crew as they left on one of the first missions of the American air war has recently come to light with the discovery of the aircraft off the North Norfolk coast.
The story of this particular aircraft, believed to be B-17F-VE ’42-29752′ is especially sad, not only because it was the first operational mission of the unit and the first casualty, but because of the nature of the loss; just moments after take off, a month after it and its crews had first arrived in the UK.
The B-17, was built and delivered at Cheyenne on February 12th 1943. Its journey to the UK would take it through a number of stations, via Walker airbase, Salina, and on to Presque Isle, in the north-eastern sector of Maine, where it arrived on April 8th 1943. It was here that it was allocated to the 338th BS, 96th BG and ferried across the northern route with the air echelon of the 338th, arriving at RAF Grafton Underwood in April 1943, before onward shipment and operational duties.
The 338th BS had only been activated themselves one year earlier in July 1942 and as such were relatively new to the war. Their journey took them through a number of training bases from Salt Lake City, through Utah, Idaho and onto their final station at Pyote AAB Texas. From here, the air and ground echelons went their separate ways, the air echelon travelling north and the ground crews to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey and onward via the Queen Elizabeth to Greenock, Scotland and the European Theatre of Operation. The ground echelons arrived at Great Saling (Andrews Field) in early May 1943 moving to Snetterton Heath a month later where they would join up with the air echelons.
It would be whilst temporarily based here at Grafton Underwood, on May 13th 1943 that the B-17 would end its short life and become an almost forgotten part of history.
The 338th would take part in a 72 aircraft mission to bomb the Longuenesse and Ft. Rouge Airfields at St Omer, France. On the day in question, the aircraft were to form up over the North Norfolk coast, before heading off south. Crews had been briefed about the possibility of being attacked by marauding Luftwaffe aircraft and so many crews had their guns charged as they climbed away from the airfield. It was this very precaution that led to the tragic death of one of the crew members and demise of the B-17.
As the aircraft, piloted by Capt. Derrol Rogers, formed up, a waist gun was accidentally discharged sending high calibre bullets into the stabilizer completely severing it and forcing the aircraft into an uncontrollable climb and potential stall. Fighting with the controls, Capt. Rogers fought to keep it from crashing. Both he and his Co-Pilot: Lt. Norville Gorse, managed to get the aircraft back under control long enough to allow the crew to bail out over land. Once out, they took the aircraft back out over The Wash and jettisoned the bombs. Then as they approached land once more, they tied a rope to the yolk and bailed out themselves.
Lt. Gorse was picked up by an RAF rescue launch and returned to his unit, but unfortunately, Capt. Rogers, being in the sea for some time, didn’t survive. He was the only fatality of the incident, the remaining crew all returning to their base and operational duties.
The B-17 now unmanned and destabilized, plunged into the North Sea where it has laid for the last 70 years. A truly tragic start to a very bitter war.
An engine was initially caught up in a fishing boat net in the 1970s, but no real investigation was made of the wreck. More recently, towards the end of 2015, a small team of divers went back down to photograph the aircraft, and it was then that it was identified and its remarkable story revealed.
The Crew of B-17 ’42-29752′
Capt: Derrol W. Rogers,
Co-pilot: Norville Gorse,
Navigator: Joe Hudson,
Bombardier: George Rawlings,
Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Basil Maxwell,
Radio Operator: Bob Bennett,
Ball turret gunner: Alf Miles,
Waist gunner: Bob Dominick,
Waist gunner: Edwin Wolfkuhle,
Tail gunner: Ed Youngers (injured by discharged bullets)
Capt. D.W. Rogers (s/n O-403737) is listed in the St Paul’s Roll of Honour, (Page 360), he is buried in the Cambridge American Cemetery, Madingley, Plot D, Row 7, Grave 69, he was awarded the DFC and Purple Heart.
*1 Photo from the American Air Museum (IWM) UPL 19232
The story first appeared in the Eastern Daily Press on November 30th 2015.