A guest post from Mitch Peeke.
June 19th, 1944: Just thirteen days after the Allied D Day Invasion. The weather that day was dry, but the late afternoon sunshine over Kent in Southern England was hazy. A formation of around 30 American B17 “Flying Fortress” bombers from the 379th BG, part of “The Mighty Eighth”, were returning home across the Kent countryside, heading due North, toward their base at Kimbolton, in Huntingdonshire. They were returning from a raid on the V1 launching site at Zudausques in Northern France.
The raiders had taken some Flak, but thankfully, no German fighters had found them. They were doubtlessly busy elsewhere, trying to stem the Allied advances. But the Flak they had encountered had been accurate and had exacted a price from the 379th for their raid. Many of those B17’s were now badly damaged and flying home on three engines rather than four. More of them than not, now had “extra ventilation”, courtesy of the German Flak Gunners, and were trailing heavy smoke from those engines that remained running. However, the B17 was known to be “a good ship”. Inherently stable, it was a remarkable aircraft for its size, able to withstand a hell of a lot of battle damage and still be capable of flying. Many a pilot had been able to “nurse” one home, despite the odds. The crews all had faith in their aircraft. It was a faith that was born from hard experience in hostile skies.
The formation crossed the South coast of England at 21,000 feet. Leading the No. 2 Section was B17 Heavenly Body II, of the 525th Squadron, Captained by 1st Lieutenant Lloyd Burns. A veteran crew, this had been their 29th mission over enemy territory. Just one more mission and the crew would have completed their tour and then they’d be going home, Stateside. The D Day Invasion had of course been keeping them busy. This mission to the V1 site at Zudausques had been their second mission of the day.
Lloyd Burns was an exceptional pilot with an enviable reputation for pulling off the smoothest of landings under any circumstances. The original Heavenly Body had been written off quite recently when the brakes failed on landing. Not even Burns could prevent that aircraft from being a runaway and as the heavy B17 simply ran out of airfield space, she rolled off the end of the runway, down a small hill and straight into a pile of scrap concrete rubble. Miraculously, Burns and his entire crew walked away from that landing. They got a new aircraft and quickly named her Heavenly Body II. (In fact, there were at least 4 other US aircraft named Heavenly Body. Two B29’s, another B17 of the 401st Squadron and at least one B25, all of which had a pin-up girl as nose art). This was now their third mission in the replacement aircraft and although they’d not yet had the time to paint the name and art on the bomber’s nose, the crew had happily settled in to their new ship.
Just after the formation crossed the South coast, Lloyd Burns swapped seats with his co-pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Fred Kauffman. Fred was hoping to get a ship of his own after they completed their tour and had asked Lloyd if he could take over for the descent and landing, as he wanted more 1st pilot experience. Lloyd saw no reason not to. Now as the formation was beginning the let down toward Kimbolton, they gradually lost their height over Kent.
At nearly 18:15, the formation was almost over Allhallows and down to 17,000 feet. Ahead of them, left to right, was the Thames Estuary; even busier than usual, with all sorts of shipping, due in no small part to the D Day invasion traffic.
At 17,000 feet, the haze grew thicker. Fred Kauffman was beginning to work hard for his 1st pilot experience. He was having to fly more by instruments as the visibility forwards was down to about 1,000 yards and the horizon was beginning to disappear into the miasma, though to the airmen flying through it, it didn’t seem to be too bad at that moment.
Flying above and slightly behind Burns’ aircraft, was his Port Side Wingman. This B17 bore the serial number 44-6133, but no name. The pilot was 2nd Lieutenant Armand Ramacitti and he was in trouble. This was his first combat mission and his B17 had been very badly damaged by the German Flak. He’d been nursing her along since leaving France behind. He’d already lost one engine, his Port elevator and a fair piece of the Starboard one had also been blown away and he had another engine on the Port side smoking heavily and running rough. Now, that engine was making an unbearably loud whining noise, looking and sounding as if it was about to seize up too. Jockeying the throttles on his remaining engines, Ramacitti was trying to compensate for the dropping power, but the flight controls were growing sloppy and with the Port elevator gone, maintaining the crippled bomber’s height was getting harder by the minute. She was beginning to give up the unequal struggle to stay in the air.
Ramacitti’s Bombardier, 2nd Lieutenant Theodore Chronopolos, saw that having surged slightly ahead of their leader, they were now dropping back, out of formation. He called Ramacitti on the intercom, warning him to pull up, as they were now dropping very close to Heavenly Body II. Ramacitti was desperately wrestling with the dying bomber’s controls, trying to claw back some height, but it was a losing battle. Without warning, 6133 side-slipped sickeningly to Starboard, literally dropping out of Ramacitti’s hands. Chronopolos frantically buckled on his parachute, as did the Navigator, for both men now knew with absolute certainty, what was coming next.
6133’s side-slip cut across the top of Burns’ aircraft at an angle of about 35 degrees. Engine bellowing, the Starboard outer prop cut into the top of Heavenly Body II‘s flight deck, right behind the Pilot’s window, killing Fred Kauffman instantly. The two aircraft momentarily locked together in a deadly embrace.
Theo Chronopolos knew they’d hit Burns’ aircraft. All he’d heard was a very loud, sharp bang and a terrible rending sound, as the two aircraft collided. He and the Navigator went straight for the nearest escape hatch. The Flight Engineer and a couple of the Gunners were already there, but the hatch was totally jammed. Just then, 6133 rolled off Heavenly Body II‘s back and inverted. Thrown about inside the aircraft like a small toy, Theo didn’t know what happened next. He recalled hearing another big bang, then he blacked out.
The momentum of 6133’s continuing side-slip had separated the two planes. As 6133 rolled off Heavenly Body II‘s back and then inverted, her Flak-battered Port wing now sheared off completely, which was probably the second bang that Theo Chronopolos had heard. As the wing came off, 6133 started to spin, pointing her nose straight down and plunging headlong toward the muddy waters of the Thames Estuary below.
When Theo came to, he was free-falling outside of the aircraft. Instinctively, he pulled the ripcord on his parachute, which thankfully deployed. As his descent rapidly slowed, he saw a B17 going down below him, its death-plunge marked by a thick trail of black smoke. Then shock set in and he blacked out again. Unbeknown to Theo, he was the only one who’d got out of 6133 alive.
Literally moments before, on Heavenly Body II, Lloyd Burns suddenly realised that something was horribly wrong. He was about to reach over behind Fred to pull back the curtain. He wanted to see if their rookie wingman, Ramacitti, was keeping with them, when a terrible grinding noise to his left made him duck down instinctively. The daylight through the left side windows was blocked momentarily and he felt the aircraft shudder viciously. He realised in that instant that they’d been hit by another B17, which seemed to him, to be on top of them. Then as 6133 slid off the top, he looked over at Fred. Lloyd was in no doubt at all that Fred was now dead. The first thing Lloyd tried to do was to somehow stabilise the aircraft. Grabbing the controls, he found the ailerons completely unresponsive and he got next to no feedback from the elevators. This was not surprising as the B17’s control cables ran centrally along the top of the fuselage. 6133’s prop had undoubtedly chopped through them. Heavenly Body II was still flying as she’d been trimmed, just; but for how much longer was the question.
Lloyd noticed that the Flight Engineer was at the escape hatch, trying to open it. Realising that he’d no hope of flying the plane, Lloyd quickly reached for where his parachute was stowed, but couldn’t find it. As he climbed off the flight deck, one of the crew thrust a chute into his hands and he hurriedly strapped it on; only partially as it turned out. He assisted the Engineer in forcing the escape hatch open then literally shoved him through it, as he immediately followed the Engineer himself. As his parachute opened, Lloyd realised he was only half in the harness. Hanging on for dear life, he saw a B17 going down in a steep turn with one engine smoking badly, but was unsure which of the two aircraft it was.
The Bombardier on Burns’ aircraft, Jack Gray, later recalled that the bomber’s Plexiglas nose had been all but severed and he suddenly found himself seemingly more outside of the aircraft than inside it. Jack pulled himself back in and went for his parachute.
Heavenly Body II continued flying, though steadily losing height, even though there was only the dead co-pilot at the now useless controls. Six of her crew managed to safely escape. The Ball Turret Gunner, S/Sgt William Farmer, was one of the last to leave, noting that the aircraft looked like it was coming apart. He needed no second telling to get out and fast.
The six crew members that managed to escape were: Pilot Lloyd Burns, Bombardier Jack Gray, Top Turret Gunner Leonard Gibbs, Ball Turret Gunner William Farmer, Tail Gunner Richard Andrews and Radio Operator/Gunner Leroy Monk. All but one of those six landed in the water and were rescued by fishing boats. Tail Gunner Richard Andrews came down on dry land at Canvey. The three men who didn’t make it were: Co-pilot Fred Kauffman, Navigator Edward Sadler and Gunner Louis Schulte.
Crew of Heavenly Body II: Front Row, L to R: Edward Sadler; Fred Kauffman; Jack Gray; Lloyd Burns
Back Row, L to R; Louis Schulte; Leroy Monk; Richard Andrews; Richard Billings; William Farmer; Leonard Gibbs
Note that Richard Billings was part of the Burns crew on arrival at Kimbolton, but was the 10th man when crew size was reduced to 9, and so was not with the crew at the time of the collision. The survivors of the Burns crew are all deceased except for Richard Andrews. (Photo courtesy 379th BG Association archive, by kind permission.)
6133 meanwhile, had gone straight down and crashed in twenty feet of water, in what was then a minefield, about half a mile or so off the west beach at Allhallows. The Estuary bottom was and still is, soft Thames mud and the main part of the wreck undoubtedly buried itself to some extent in the mud. (What remained of the wreckage was later salvaged, probably when the minefield was cleared). She had taken most of her crew with her, trapped inside.
Sole survivor Theo Chronopolos, landed safely by parachute. He was fished out of the water by a passing boat. The eight men of 6133’s crew who died that day were: Pilot 2nd Lt. Armand Ramacitti, Co-pilot 2nd Lt. William Hager, Navigator 2nd Lt. Donald Watson, Gunner S/Sgt. Richard Ritter, Gunner S/Sgt. Cecil Tognazzini, Gunner S/Sgt. John Burke, Gunner Sgt. Warren Oaks and Gunner Cpl. Paul Haynes.
Meanwhile, having been abandoned by her crew, Heavenly Body II continued flying, somewhat erratically and losing height all the time. At first, she’d turned west and seemed to be heading directly toward the oil storage tanks at ShellHaven on Canvey Island. To those watching on the ground, a disaster seemed inevitable, then; still losing height, she miraculously turned east, away from the refinery, over the town, toward Canvey Point and the mudflats. It seemed as though the pilot was still trying to find somewhere safe to put her down. She then circled once over Canvey Point before she finally nose-dived onto the mudflats, throwing an engine forward as she crashed.
To this day, those who can remember the event have always held the pilot of that aircraft in high esteem. Trouble was, the pilot was at that moment, just landing in the water off Canvey Island by parachute! Did Fred Kauffman not die in the collision after all? Had he somehow survived his injuries, regained consciousness and taken control of the shattered aircraft? Unlikely. Burns had tried to take control just after the collision and found the controls unresponsive. It is also extremely unlikely that Fred could have come round from such traumatic head injuries as he’d received when 6133’s Starboard outer prop cut through the roof and side of the Flight deck.
The answer probably has more to do with the B17’s inherent stability. With the nose section totally open and the escape hatches gone, the sheer force of the through-rushing air was probably responsible for the apparent “steering” of the aircraft. Also of course is the fact that, though a stable design, the aircraft was literally coming apart in flight. Who knows precisely how the aerodynamics were working, but one thing is certain, she was not being actively piloted.
The semi-submerged wreckage of Heavenly Body II remained on the mudflats for decades. Every so often, the tides would uncover more of it and bury other sections. The wreck was easily accessible and so subjected to many souveniring expeditions. A local historical society salvaged some of it and put it on display in a museum, until it closed. The thrown engine was salvaged fairly recently and together with some other artefacts, is now on display at another local museum. There is also a storyboard on the seafront close to the crash site at Canvey Point and a memorial plaque, dedicated to the memory of both crews. Sadly, there is nothing of the kind at Allhallows, where 6133 crashed.
Most of the bodies, including Ramacitti’s, were recovered; some at the time, some a little later, and are interred in the American Cemetery at Madingley, Cambridge; a long way from home. One body was later sent home. The body of Gunner Louis Schulte from 6133 now rests at home in a cemetery in St. Louis. Only two are still unaccounted for: Fred Kauffman, Co-pilot of Heavenly Body II and Gunner Cecil Tognazzini from 6133, both of whom are listed on the tablets of the missing at Madingley. Their last resting places are very probably in the soft Thames mud that their aircraft crashed in. They too, are a long way from home.
The US Military Authorities naturally held an inquiry into the crashes. It was chaired by Lieutenant-Colonel Robert S Kittel of the United States Army Air Corps. The Pilots and Co-pilots of both aircraft were charged to account. At the end of the inquiry, the official findings were that 2nd Lieutenant Armand J Ramacitti had failed to keep proper position within the formation. In trying to correct this, he had over-controlled, slid into and collided with, aircraft 42-97942 (Heavenly Body II) which was leading the second section of the formation. It was further stated that “No pecuniary or disciplinary action is contemplated”.
Comment from Mitch.
Personally, I cannot help but feel that this was a “cop out” and an extremely harsh outcome for the enquiry to have reached, to say the least. Given the actual circumstances involved, simply blaming the collision on Pilot error seems to me to be grossly unjust. Some of the deceased crew members were awarded posthumous decorations, as indeed was Ramacitti. In my opinion though, Armand Ramacitti deserved far better than the enquiry board’s sanctimonious posthumous censure, their apparent “favour”of no official punishment and the award of what certainly looks to me to have been a “token” Purple Heart. He’d given his young life, on his first combat mission, desperately trying to get his Flak-blasted aircraft back to base; as had seven others of his equally meritorious crew, all of whom will remain forever, a long way from home.
My thanks go to Mitch for allowing me to post his write-up, it was a tragic accident that may or may not have been avoidable. Whatever the cause, I personally feel that the pilot was struggling with an aircraft that was unstable, difficult to control and likely to fall out of the sky at any moment. The fact that the aircraft had gotten as far as it had was a miracle in itself and those who lost their lives should be remembered for what they did and the sacrifice they made. To even consider that the pilot(s) were to blame for what happened to me is a travesty, they were young men fighting a war that was taking the lives of thousands.
Mitch is currently trying to have a memorial or plaque raised as close to the crash site as possible, I sincerely hope he achieves that aim and that these men are remembered in perpetuity.
B-17 #44-6133 was a Douglas/Long Beach B-17G-45-DL Flying Fortress delivered to Tulsa airbase, Oklahoma, May 10th, 1944. It was transferred to Hunter airbase, Savannah, Georgia, on May 19th, 1944, and then onto Dow Field on May 29th, 1944. She was assigned to the 525th BS, 379th BG as ‘FR-Y’at Kimbolton Jun 8th, 1944. The crew of #44-6133 were:
Pilot: Second Lieutenant Armand Ramacitti
Co-pilot: Second Lieutenant William ‘Bill’ Hager
Navigator: First Lieutenant Donald ‘Don’ Watson
Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini
Radio Operator: Sergeant Richard ‘Dick’ Ritter
Ball turret gunner: Staff Sergeant John Burke
Waist gunner: Corporal Paul Haynes
Tail gunner: Sergeant Warren Oaks (his second mission)
Bombardier: Second Lieutenant Theo Chronopolos
Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini (Photo Janet Penn, via www.findagrave.com)
#42-97942 was a Lockheed/Vega B-17G-40-VE Flying Fortress delivered to Denver on April 11th, 1944. She then went onto Kearney air base in Nebraska on May 4th, 1944, before transferring also to Dow Field May 23rd, 1944. She was then assigned to 525th BS, 379th BG at Kimbolton as ‘FR-K’. The crew of #42-97942 were:
Pilot: First Lieutenant Lloyd Burns (just 19 years of age)
Bombardier: Second Lieutenant Jack Gray
Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Technical Sergeant Leonard Gibbs
Radio Operator: Technical Sergeant Leroy Monk
Ball turret gunner: Staff Sergeant William ‘Bill’ Farmer
Waist gunner: Staff Sergeant Richard ‘Dick’ Andrews
Co-pilot: Second Lieutenant Fred Kauffman
Navigator: Flight Officer Edward Sadler
Tail gunner: Staff Sergeant Louis Schulte
Mitch is the author of a number of books including “1940 – The Battle to Stop Hitler“the proceeds of which go to help the preservation of the Medway Queen a ‘little ship’ used in the Dunkirk evacuations.
A ‘gofundme’ fundraising account has been set up with a target of £1000, for which it is hoped the public will get behind, and secure a memorial for those young men who lost their lives that tragic day. Find the account at: https://www.gofundme.com/ww2-aircrew-memorial
Further reading and sources: