During the Second World War, Britain’s landscape changed forever. The friendly invasion brought new life, new music, rationed items became sought after bounties and they were plentiful – if you knew an American. But this dramatic change in the British way of life could also be explosive and deadly.
Anyone living near to a wartime airfield knew only too well the risks of such a life. Aircraft could ground loop, collide in the air or suffer a major mechanical failure on take off, all of which could result in a massive explosion in a fully laden bomber. There are numerous recordings of such accidents occurring, and the brave attempts of crewmen trying to avoid local housing. One such crash was that of B-17 #42-39825, “Zenobia” which crashed on take off coming to rest in the nearby village of Deenethorpe. Luckily, the crew were able to escape and warn the locals of the impending danger, thus averting a catastrophe when the aircraft, fully laden with bombs and fuel, exploded twenty minutes later. The explosion was so fierce that it was heard nine miles away!
However, not everyone was as lucky, and on August 23rd 1944, Wartime Britain experienced what is considered its worst wartime air disaster. A disaster in which sixty-one people lost their lives when a USAAF aircraft from BAD2 at RAF Warton crashed into the adjacent village of Freckleton in Lancashire.
Warton, or BAD2 (Base Air Depot No. 2), was responsible for the modification and overhaul of US aircraft and engines when they arrived fresh from the United States. They were assembled, modified and transferred from here to front line operational airfields across the UK. A massive operation that began even before the United States had even entered the War.
Initially, Warton was built as a satellite for the RAF Coastal Command station at Blackpool, known at the time as Squires Gate Airfield, an airfield with a history going as far back as 1909. With many pleasure flights, air pageants and civil flights, it was eventually taken over and used for fighters and bombers of Coastal Command.
With many aircraft being shipped into the UK via the Atlantic during the early years of the war, the need for a site to build and then maintain them became evermore apparent and urgent. It was not long after the outbreak of war, that four such sites were earmarked for use by the USAAF as Air Depots, each one dealing solely with aircraft maintenance and refurbishment. The proposal, initiated by Lord Beaverbrook as early as October 1939, which then progressed through discussions between the American and the British Governments in 1941 , specified that these bases would need to be able to deal with large quantities of aircraft and be able to handle aircraft modifications at any stage of the assembly process. In October, these bases were identified by a consortium of American and British representatives, who selected: Warton, Little Staughton (Bedford), Burtonwood (Warrington) and Langford Lodge in Neagh, Northern Ireland, as the most suitable sites.
Warton would be massive, housing almost 16,000 people in over ten accommodation sites, which when compared to a normal Class A airfield of some 3,000 people, was an enormous conurbation. To be adaptable, the runway was strengthened and extended to match that of any wartime airfield, at almost 2,000 yards long, it could take any aircraft brought over from the United States. Along side this were a wide range of ancillary buildings: stores, maintenance sheds, office blocks, hangars, engine test sheds and fifty dispersal points. As the war progressed, Warton was extended further with the largest European storage shed and further hangars being added in 1944.
The entire site was completed in just nine months, using a combination of construction groups led by Frank Thomas; this included both Alfred McAlpine, and Wimpey, two of the largest airfield contractors at that time.
Station 582 of the US Eighth Air Force was opened August 1942, housing a small contingent of USAAF personnel. Officially handed over to the USAAF a year later, it now had some 5,000 personnel on its books already, all specially trained to handle the unique American aircraft being brought over from the United States.
Each base would specialise, Burtonwood in radial engines and the B-17, whilst Warton concentrated on in-line engines and B-24s. However, that did not mean that this was a ‘closed door’ operation, Warton would, over the period of the war, see every example of US built aircraft pass though its doors, and at its peek, held over 800 aircraft within its grounds.
Living near such a large and active base would bring many benefits, 700, children were given a Christmas party that lasted for a week, the locals were well provided for and money poured into the local economy. However being so close also brought it dangers. There were numerous accidents with parked aircraft being hit as other aircraft taxied past. There were also several crashes, including a North American P-51D-5-NA Mustang #44-13403 that crashed on June 12th, 1944, killing its pilot. The accident being caused by a catastrophic structural failure of the wing assembly. Another P-51D #44-14608 (310th Ferry Squadron, 27th Aircraft Transport Group) was involved in a landing accident at Warton, on October 5th, 1944. The pilot survived, but the aircraft was destroyed in the crash.
Then there was the P-51B-5 #43-6623 that crashed after taking off from Liverpool’s Speke airport, it was was subsequently taken to Warton where it was combined with other parts of P-51Bs that had been dropped on delivery. The new aircraft, aptly named ‘Spare parts‘, would then be used as an unarmed two-seater ferrying VIPs around, delivering small spare parts to the other airfields and collecting supplies of of whiskey from a distillery in Glasgow. The aircraft itself was lost in late 1944 when it experienced engine failure. The two crew bailed out and survived but the aircraft crashed coming to a rest at the bottom of the Irish Sea.
One of the more terrible accidents at Warton involved the collision of two Douglas A-26B-10-DT Invaders, on November 29th 1944, when #43-22298 collided in midair with #43-22336 over Warton Marsh. The crews’ bodies were removed from the site, but the aircraft remained buried in the silt until excavation in 2004. Both aircraft were then transferred to the RAF Millom Museum at Haverigg, Cumbria where they remained until its closure on 1st September 2010. With many of it exhibits being ‘on loan’, they were returned to their original owners whilst the rest were publicly auctioned off in January 2011. The fate of the two Invaders is unknown at the time of writing.
However, it was on Wednesday, August 23rd 1944, that Warton would be shocked by Britain’s worst wartime air disaster and the terrible events that would unfold that day.
Everything appeared normal that day as the workers at BAD 2 and the surrounding area awoke. The news was generally good, the war was heading in the right direction and victory for the allies appeared to be on the cards. There were high pressure zones to the east and west and low pressure to the north. The first 2 weeks of August were generally dry and warm with spells of sunshine. There had been a spell of warm weather that continued into the third week, with temperatures reaching as high as 28°C in the south. On the 23rd, early sunshine was expected to change to light rain later on, nothing that should have caused any significant problems to the experienced crews at Warton.
Early on that day, two routine test flights were booked by experienced pilots on newly refurbished Consolidated B-24 Liberators before they were sent out out to the 2nd Bomb Division. The first, piloted by First Lieutenant John Bloemendal, ‘Classy Chassis II‘, and the second piloted by First Lieutenant Peter Manassero.
After a delayed start, First Lt. Bloemendal and his two crewmen boarded the B-24, ran their ground checks and started the engines. They then departed on was was a routine test flight. Meanwhile, the second B-24 piloted by First Lt. Manassero also departed and both aircraft headed out from Warton. During this time a weather warning was passed to Warton tower informing them of an impending storm, the likes of which even the British had rarely seen. The notorious British weather had played a cruel joke. In seconds, the summer sky had turned jet black. Daylight had been all but wiped out, Heavy rain lashed the landscape, localised flash floods and unprecedented strong winds battered the Warton skyline. Locals reported seeing trees being uprooted and buildings being damaged such was the strength of the wind and lashing rain.
The tower issued an immediate warning to land the two aircraft. B-24 #42-50291 “Classy Chassis II“, was given clearance first, the second flown by First Lieutenant Manassero was to come in next. With visibility down to some 500 yards, the two aircraft approached the airfield in close formation, simply to keep in visual contact. Bloemendal lowered his undercarriage followed by Manassero. Bloemendal then began his approach, suddenly retracting his undercarriage informing Manassero he was going round again for another try. But by now, the weather had deteriorated so much that the tower was extremely concerned, and issued an order, to both aircraft, to withdraw from the circuit and abort landings, telling them to fly to the north to avoid the storm. Bloemendal never received the message.
By now contact had been lost between the two pilots, Manassero headed out of the circuit and flew out of harms way, Bloemendal on the other hand had already hit the ground, a massive fireball ensued. Eye witness accounts differed as to what the cause of the crash was, one witness said she saw lightning strike the aircraft at the wing root, “splitting the aircraft in two“, others say they saw the wings in a near vertical position as if the pilot was banking steeply to turn away.
The aircraft came down across Lytham Road, after hitting the ‘Sad Sack Snack Bar’, purposefully built for the American servicemen of BAD 2. It demolished three houses and the infant section of Freckleton’s Holy Trinity School, which at the time, was full of children between the ages of 4 and 6 who, along with their teachers, were going about their daily routine. The resultant crash led to a fireball, one that eventually took the lives of sixty-one people. Eighteen in the cafe, forty in the school and the three crewmen aboard “Classy Chassis II“. Many of these dying in the days that followed from severe burns as burning petrol engulfed the school before flowing into the street .
The crash was so devastating that at the inquest, only the School’s register could be used to identify some of the missing children whilst others were identified merely by parts of their clothing painfully presented to grieving parents. First Lieutenant John Bloemendal was only identified by the remains of his dog tags and wedding ring, the only married man aboard the aircraft.
The US servicemen from BAD2 were highly praised in the days that followed for their quick and brave response to the crash. Pulling away debris while the aircraft still burned, attempting to put out the fire and fighting to save whomever they could from the burning wreck that was once Freckleton village school.
The papers understandably ran the story for months and even years afterwards, as more and more information came to light. Some of the injured were so severely burned, they were read their last rights, whilst many had to have long term skin grafts, including some as part of McIndoe’s Guinea Pig Club.
From Lytham St. Annes, to London and New York, the story of Britain’s worst air disaster spread, putting good news from the front line into painful perspective. Whilst convalescing, young survivors were visited by Bing Crosby, who diverted from his tour of American airfields across the UK, to pay his respects. A small gesture to avert the grieving now felt across both sides of the ocean.
A mass funeral service took place in Freckleton on August 26th, the streets were lined with mourners as service personnel carried the many tiny coffins along in one mass parade. Afterwards, a fund was set up by the USAAF, and an area of land was developed into a playground as a lasting memorial to those lost in the accident. A tablet laid at the playground reads: “This playground presented to the children of Freckleton by their neighbours of Base Air Depot No. 2 USAAF in recognition and remembrance of their common loss in the disaster of August 23rd 1944”.
The inquest into the crash could not prove conclusively as to the cause of the crash. It states:
“The cause of this accident is unknown. It is the opinion of the Accident Investigating Committee that the crash resulted from pilot’s error in the judgement of the violence of the storm. The extent of the thunder-head was not great and he could have flown in perfect safety to the North and East of the field”.
It also states that a possible “rough air structural failure occurred“, although verification of this was impossible due to the total destruction of the aircraft’s structure.
What did arise from the crash was that US service personnel who were trained in the bright blue skies of America, were unaccustomed to the changeable and fierce British weather. Many, like First Lieutenant Bloemenda, often under-estimating the dangers of these thunderstorms and as a result, training was amended to include warnings about such events.
With the eventual withdrawal of US forces from Warton, the memories of that day linger on, regular services are held at Frekleton in remembrance of those sixty-one lives who were all innocent victims of Britain’s worst air disaster of World War Two.
Sources and Further reading
There are many sites that cover this story, in particular I refer you to:
British Newspaper Archive website.
The Lancashire Aircraft Investigation Team Website which has many photographs pertaining to the crash and is well worth a visit.
The Book “The Freckleton, England, Air Disaster” by James R. Hedtke, details the accident in depth giving eyewitness accounts, background details and transcripts of the conversations between pilots and the tower. It served as a valuable source of information for this post and is worth buying if interested in reading about this further.
Also, the book ‘Blood and Fears‘ by Kevin Wilson, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) also briefly mentions accounts of the event. Again a good book should you wish to read further.