RAF Polebrook – the First USAAF Bombing mission (Pt 2).

In Part One of RAF Polebrook, we saw how the airfield had been developed, how it had been used by the first B-17s in RAF service. We saw how the first USAAF B-17 had landed setting the wheels of history in motion. We also saw the first USAAF bombing mission, and the American’s first major losses of the war. By mid 1943 a new unit, the 351st Bomb Group, was now arriving at Polebrook and they too were preparing for combat and their first mission of the War.

On May 12th 1943, the 351st would be initiated into the conflict, but it was not the most auspicious of starts to their campaign. The Eighth Air Force put up a force of seventy-two B-17s from the 4 BW and a further ninety-seven from the 1 BW. The call required all fourteen 351st BG aircraft to head for St. Omer / Ft. Rouge in France. After the lead aircraft discovered a fault in the oxygen system, it turned for home, the remaining aircraft then became disorganised and returned to base without dropping a single bomb.

The 351st would improve and go on to attack many prestige targets including: Schweinfurt, Mayen, Koblenz, Hannover, Berlin, Cologne, Mannheim and Hamburg. They would later go on to target submarine pens, harbours and ‘V’ weapons sites. Ground support was provided for both the Normandy invasion, the Battle of the Bulge and other major ground battles up to and including the crossing of the Rhine.


Stone foundations poke through the undergrowth.

In October 1943, the unit received the first of its Distinguished Unit Citations (DUC), with highly accurate bombing in very challenging conditions raising the standing of this new group. A second DUC was to follow in January 1944 for action deep in the heart of Germany. During an attack on Leipzig in the ‘Big Week’ campaign of 20th – 25th February 1944, two crewmen of the 510th, 2nd Lt Walter Truemper (Navigator) and Sgt. Archibald Mathies*2 (Flt. Engineer), both received Medals of Honour for taking over their stricken aircraft when both Pilot and Co-Pilot were injured / killed. B-17, TU-A ‘Ten Horsepower‘ (#42-31763), was directly hit by flak, both Truemper and Mathies nursed the aircraft back to Polebrook where they allowed the other crew members to bail out safely. On attempting to land the aircraft for the third time, it crashed (Great North Road) between Glatton (Trail 6) and Polebrook exploding, killing all three remaining crew members.

A B-17G Flying Fortress nicknamed

The last moments of B-17G “Ten Horsepower” (TU-A, #42-21763) piloted by Second Lieutenant Walter E Truemper  and Sergeant Archibald Mathies, as it is guided by a fellow aircraft after the pilot was severely injured. Truemper and Mathies unsuccessfully attempted to land the aircraft at Polebrook and were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honour for their bravery, 20th February 1944. (IWM FRE 4724)

It was also during this time that (Cp.) Clark Gable was stationed at Polebrook, initially to make recruitment films for air gunners, flying five combat missions in total and taking a film crew on each one. The first was on 4th May 1943 and his last on 23rd September that same year. He was initially awarded the Air Medal, and later the Distinguished Flying Cross, finally leaving Polebrook with over 50,000 feet of film on 5th November 1943. In 1944, the film ‘Combat America’, narrated by Gable himself, was shown in theatres around the United States. The film covers the 351st from their departure from the United states through their campaign. Included is footage of the collision between the two B-17s on May 7th 1943.

Another remarkable record was set at Polebrook, between 13th June 1943 and January 11th 1944, when Maj. Eliza LeDoux would lead the 509th BS (351st BG) for fifty-two  consecutive missions without losing either a single man nor a single aeroplane. An astonishing example set when at the same time other US Groups were losing aircraft at a rate of around 5%.

Major LeDoux, commanding officer of the 351st Bomb Group the cockpit of a B-17 Flying Fortress, 20 June 1943. Official caption on image:

Major LeDoux, CO, 509th BS, 351st BG, 20th June 1943. He led his squadron without loss for 52 consecutive missions.

The 351st remained at Polebrook until shortly after VE day, returning to the US and becoming deactivated on August 28th 1945. Polebrook then became quiet once more being put under care and maintenance until its closure in 1948.

During the three years the 351st were at Polebrook, they flew a total of 279 B-17s on 9,075 sorties with 7,945 of them dropping 20,778 tons of bombs. Air gunners on these aircraft were credited with 303 enemy aircraft destroyed. In all they flew 311 credited missions losing 175 B-17s in all.

One interesting point about Polebrook was that as a station under care and maintenance, it is thought that within its hangars was the last Short Stirling to be owned by the Royal Air Force.  A MK.V aircraft, it was struck off charge in 1946, a point that ended a long and interesting career for an aircraft that has long been considered a failure. As a bomber, this was certainly partly true, the many teething problems it had suffered – a lack of altitude, poor climb rate, continued engine problems and a tendency to swing on take off – all giving it a bad name. However, it could out manoeuvre a Lancaster and it could give any fighter of its time a run for its money. By the end of its flying career, the Stirling was loved by its crews, it had been a successful transport aircraft, mining platform and had brought many POWs back home after the war. Sadly though, none survived other than as wrecks at the bottom of Fjords or as bits salvaged from various crash sites across Europe. The days of the Stirling were now over and the only person to gain any benefit from them was to be the scrap man.

Thor site walls

3 Thor missile sites remain used for farm machinery.

But it wasn’t quite the same for Polebrook. Post war, and with the heightened threat from the Soviet Union, Polebrook was once more brought back to life, with three Thor missile sites being constructed in the centre of the main runway. These remained operational until August 1963 when they were finally removed and the site closed off. It was sold back to the former owners, at which point the airfield’s runways were dug up for valuable hardcore and many of the buildings were pulled down.

Standing on the site now, the wind howling across the open fields, it is easy to imagine how the site must have been all those years ago. A memorial stands on what remains of the main runway, a small section of concrete, overlooking the airfield.


A memorial looks over the remnants of the main runway.

Two benches carved in marble with a main triangular stone are beautifully carved and cared for. Trees planted in lines mark the threshold where many bombers would have left on their way to targets in occupied Europe. A guest book is supplied in a wooden box and signatures reveal visitors from all over the world.

Across the road from here, tucked away in the corner of a field, is the main battle headquarters. Originally a sunken chamber with communications centre and raised platform, it allows observers a full 360 degree view over the site and surrounding area. Built to specification 1008/41 it is sadly now flooded and standing proud of the ground. Both access points are open to the more adventurous, or fool hardy, explorer.

Battle Headquarters designed to drawing 1008/41.

The battle headquarters offers 360 degree views.

The single largest and most well-preserved building is the original ‘J’ type hangar. Used for farming purposes, it is well looked after and visible from most parts of the site. The T2 hangars that would have been opposite are gone. as has the control tower and other main structures.

The three Thor sites are still standing, used by the farmer for storage. They were (at the time of visiting) buried beneath hay bales and farm machinery. One is clearly visible however, the blast walls standing proud. Whilst careful exploring around the others reveals tracks and remains of the housing for the Liquid oxygen supply tank and hydropneumatic controllers, all ancillary buildings are gone.

The best evidence of life at Polebrook can be seen from the entrance to the ‘industrial’ site on the Lutton to Polebrook Road. This area, now woodland, is actually designated a nature reserve and access is freely available. This small road is the original entrance to the airfield and to both your left and right are the technical areas. Beneath the leaves and muddy floor, road ways still lined with kerbstones, are visible, and whilst the road way is not clear, it is possible to make out the general view of the site.

main entrance

The original entrance to the airfield. The main road in the distance separates the technical areas, left and right, from the accommodation areas in the woods ahead.

Hidden amongst the trees and brambles, are a few good examples of the buildings once used. Most, are now piles of concrete, but quite a few shelters are still about and accessible. Storage tanks are open, the covers gone and so as a caution, tread very carefully amongst the bushes watching your footing.

From the entrance, to your left and a little further in, are two buildings, still shells but intact. The larger, I believe is the operations block, a smaller building next to it may have been a power or perhaps communications building.

operations block and adjacent building

One of the various substantial remains, possibly the operations block.

Polebrook is unique in that it has/had examples of twin looped pill boxes. Here one firing window is situated above the other. A few other more standard examples are also on site some easily seen from the road or track.

I believe that the office on the site contains a full-scale model of the airfield as it was, and that the owner is more than helpful to visitors. Unfortunately on the day I was there, I was unable to take advantage of this so a return visit is certainly on the cards for later.

I was amazingly surprised by Polebrook. It is a truly an atmospheric place with plenty to see for the visitor; remnants of a time gone by lay hidden amongst the trees and brambles of the now wooded area, and little reminders of lives lost, lay beneath the leaves. A howling winter wind replaced by summer sun, carry the voices of those young men across its open expanse and through its decaying walls of history.

Polebrook appears in Trail 19.

Sources and further Reading

*1 Ashton Wold – Historic England information sheet List Entry Number: 1001715 accessed 6/2/19

*2 Photo taken from Wikipedia open source. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Polebrook-Aug1948.png

*3 The story of Archie Mathies appears in the ‘Heroic Tales‘. The crew list of B-17 ‘Ten Horsepower‘ was:

Pilot: Clarry Nelson,
Co-Pilot: Roland Bartley,
Navigator: Walter Truemper
Engineer / Top Turret Gunner: Archie Mathies
Bombardier: Joe Martin (POW)
Radio Operator: Joe Rex,
Ball Turret Gunner: Carl Moore,
Waist Gunner: Tom Sowell,
Waist Gunner: Russ Robinson,
Tail Gunner: Magnus Hagbo

Anton. T., & Nowlin. B., “When Football went to War” 2013, Triumph Books

Freeman, R., “The Mighty Eighth War Diary“, (1981) Jane’s Publishing.

Freeman, R., “The Mighty Eighth“, (1986), Arms and Armour Press.

For further information, see the superbly detailed website dedicated to the 351st BG with photos of crews and aircraft.

If time allows, the nearby Polebrook church also has a memorial dedicated to the personnel of the base.

Polebrook was originally visited in the latter part of 2014, the full Trail can be seen in Trail 19.

Heartbreak on Christmas Eve 1944

On the morning of December 24th, 1944, Brigadier General  Frederick W. Castle (s/n 0-319375), woke to the greet the day, and like most pilots facing perilous missions, he probably wondered if it would be his last. However, knowing what I know about Castle from my research, he was a calm, confident and highly competent pilot, so most likely, he had every reason to believe in the success of his next mission. Sadly though, that was not to be the case. Castle never made it back that night. On Christmas Eve of 1944, this brave pilot lost his 30th and final battle.

Lieutenant Colonel Elliott Vandevanter of the 385th Bomb Group with Colonel Frederick W Castle (centre) of the 487th Bomb Group and Brigadier General Curtis A LeMay. *1

Frederick W. Castle was born on October 14th, 1908 at Fort McKinley in Manila, the Philippines. He came from an active military family and was the son of Col. Benjamin Frederick Castle. Following the end of World War 1, he was to settle in the United States in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

From a young age, Castle was groomed for a life of military service. He attended Boonton High School and Storm King Military Academy before moving on to the US Military Academy from where he graduated in June 1930.

His first service was with the New Jersey National Guard, where he stayed for two years  transferring to the Air Corps, March Field, California, then onto Kelly Field in Texas. Castle gained his wings in October 1931.

Serving as a pilot with the 17th Pursuit Squadron for 3 years, he eventually left the forces returning to civilian life but holding a reserve status. With the entry of the United States into the Second World War, Castle would be called upon by his good Friend Ira Eaker, and he returned in January 1942, being promoted within two months to Major and then onto Lieutenant Colonel in the following September.

With the forming of the Eighth Air Force in England, headed by General Ira Eaker, Castle was one of seven high-ranking officers selected to fly with him on the dangerous route over the Bay of Biscay, eventually arriving at Hendon wearing their civilian clothes. Joining Eaker on February 20th 1943 in the DC-3 from Lisbon were: Lt Colonel Frank Armstrong Jnr, Major Peter Beasley, Captain Beirne Lay Jnr, Lt. Harris Hull and Lt. William Cowart Jnr.

Castle desired a combat role, and this desire would lead to him taking over the command of the ailing 94th Bomb Group. His methods of command were initially considered weak, but in the face of low morale and apprehension, he personally took the 94th to some of the furthest targets yet, his first being Oschersleben in the heart of Germany; a mission that went on to inspire the film “12 o’clock High“.  Castle went on to fly in many combat missions including numerous high prestige targets, a role that took him on to Brigadier General and command of 4th Combat Wing.

On Christmas Eve 1944, following a week of poor weather, orders came though for a maximum effort mission, involving every available B-17 and B-24 in support of the troops in the Ardennes. Airfields, supply lines and troop movements were to be attacked, and good weather was at last predicted.

General Arnold with Colonel Frederick W Castle, Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, General Williams and General Anderson during a visit to Bury St Edmunds (Rougham), home of the 379th Bomb Group. Image stamped on reverse: 'Passed for publication 3 Sep 1943.' [stamp] nand '282085.' [censor no.] A printed caption was previously attached to the reverse however this has been removed. Associated news story: 'American Air Forces G.O.C. Meets The

General Arnold with Colonel Frederick W Castle, Brigadier General Curtis LeMay, General Williams and General Anderson during a visit to Bury St Edmunds (Rougham)*2

A joint effort, this would be the largest single attack to date involving 500 RAF and Ninth Air force bombers, 800 fighters and just short of 2,050 Eighth Air Force bombers. Such was the demand for aircraft, that even ‘war weary’ examples, were hastily armed and prepared, many unfit for more than assembly or training duties. Truly an armada of incredible proportions.

Taking lead position, Frederick Castle, was in B-17G-VE, ’44-8444′ “Treble Four“, an aircraft that had itself seen battle experience. Assigned to the 836BS, 487BG, and at RAF Lavenham, it was previously damaged in a raid over Darmstadt. The aircraft was salvaged in January 1945.

A veteran of 29 missions, Castle was a more than a competent leader. They set off, the weather as predicted, but with a haze that restricted ground level visibility. This haze prevented the fighters from leaving causing an all important delay. This delay was not considered a major problem at the time however, as the escorts would soon catchup and overtake the laden bombers. The Luftwaffe, making an unprecedented move, brought forward fighters into the Liege area to meet the oncoming bombers before any escorts could reach them. In the first few minutes of the battle, four of the 487th BG’s aircraft were downed and a further five forced to land in Belgium.

Castle’s lead plane, suffering problems with one of its engines (possibly due to previous battle damage) was attacked by the first wave of fighters, action was taken to leave the flight and join a formation further back. It was then attacked again, the aircraft catching fire, and the navigator wounded.

Castle took control, and even though still being attacked, refused to jettison the bombs for fear of killing civilians or allied troops below. Further attacks led to both engines on the starboard wing catching fire, which ultimately led to the fuel tank exploding sending the aircraft into an uncontrollable spin.

Through Castle’s actions, seven of the crewmen were able to leave the aircraft, sadly not all survived.

Frederick Castle died in the crash, his body is now buried in Henri-Chapelle American Cemetery, Liege, Belgium, Plot D, Row 13, Grave 53.

His citation reads:

“He was air commander and leader of more than 2,000 heavy bombers in a strike against German airfields on 24 December 1944. En route to the target, the failure of 1 engine forced him to relinquish his place at the head of the formation. In order not to endanger friendly troops on the ground below, he refused to jettison his bombs to gain speed maneuverability. His lagging, unescorted aircraft became the target of numerous enemy fighters which ripped the left wing with cannon shells. set the oxygen system afire, and wounded 2 members of the crew. Repeated attacks started fires in 2 engines, leaving the Flying Fortress in imminent danger of exploding. Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the bail-out order was given. Without regard for his personal safety he gallantly remained alone at the controls to afford all other crewmembers an opportunity to escape. Still another attack exploded gasoline tanks in the right wing, and the bomber plunged earthward. carrying Gen. Castle to his death. His intrepidity and willing sacrifice of his life to save members of the crew were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service*3.”

For his action, Frederick W. Castle was awarded the Medal of Honour posthumously. In 1946, the Castle Air Force Base, in the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley, was dedicated in his name, and on June 20th, 1981, the Castle Air Museum was officially opened on the now closed base, for the purpose of preserving the Air Force and Castle heritage. Museum details can be found here. His  name is also on a plaque in the Memorial Park, in Mountain Lakes, New Jersey.

The awarding of the Medal of Honour, reflected the determination and personality of one of Eakers “Original Seven”, who chose to leave a safe position for a combat role, taking on the demoralised 94th, and leading them into some of the Second World War’s most ferocious air battles.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9833

*2 Photo from Roger Freeman Collection, IWM, FRE9879

*3 Congregational Medal of Honour SocietyWebsite, accessed 22/12/15

Mountain Lakes Library, Website, accessed 22/12/15

“The B-17 Flying Fortress Story”, Roger A Freeman, Arms and Armour, 1997.

Air Forces Historical Support, Division,  Website, accessed 22/12/15

“The Mighty Eighth”, Roger Freeman, Arms and Armour, 1986.

Two B17s Collide near RAF Snetterton Heath (Station 138)

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.

Aug 2015 found in North Lopham

The memorial stone at North Lopham

In honour of the crews:*2

B-17 ’44-6137′

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)

B-17, ’43-38746′

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)


RAF Snetterton Heath appears in Trail 27.
*1 – “The B-17 Flying Fortress Story”, Roger A Freeman with David Osborne, 1998, Arms and Armour
*2Find a Grave, accessed 14/11/15

RAF Fersfield – The Last Flight of Joseph Kennedy Jnr and Wilford Willy

There has been much written about the young Kennedy, his life, his family and his death, but a lot of information around his death has remained ‘unknown’ for many years. Even today, the actual cause of his death is not clear and will probably remain so.

Joseph Kennedy Jnr was based at RAF Fersfield (originally RAF Winfarthing) in Norfolk (Trail 27), and had only been there a few weeks before he tragically died on August 12th 1944, whilst operating on secret operations. A tragic loss, this is the last flight of Joseph Kennedy and Wilford Willy from RAF Fersfield, Norfolk, England.

The Crew – Lieutenant Joseph Kennedy Jnr.

Joseph Kennedy was born July 25th 1915, Nantasket, Massachusetts, he was the eldest brother of eight siblings including John F. Kennedy. He was son to Joseph Patrick Kennedy and Rose Fitzgerald. Throughout his life he had been pressured into the political life by his father who had high hopes that his son would become the future President. Joseph Jnr wanted to please. As war loomed, Joe Kennedy Jnr rose to the challenge seizing his opportunity to become the ‘shining light’ of the Kennedy family.

The Kennedy parents instilled a desire to be competitive, to win and succeed and to be the best. This came out in Joseph during his time at both home and at school. The pressure on Joseph was enormous, and it was clearly evident throughout his short life.

Joseph lived in the shadow of his younger brother John, who would captain a PT boat in the Far East, and in Joseph’s absence, go on to become President of the most powerful nation on Earth. John was the brighter, the more determined of the two, and this caused friction between them. Joe always wanting to ‘out-do’ his brother persevered, but never seemed to quite make it.

It was this determination and rivalry that perhaps led Joseph to do what he did, to impress, to be the best and the ideal way he thought was as a war hero.

With a remarkable academic background behind him, Joseph Kennedy joined the U.S. Naval Reserves on October 15th 1941, reporting to the Naval Air Station (N.A.S.) at Jacksonville, Florida the following day. After several months of training he received his commission and on January 10th 1943 he joined a flying patrol squadron. In May he became a Junior Grade Lieutenant transferring to a bomber squadron in the following July that year. In 1944, on July 1st, he was promoted to Lieutenant United States Naval Reserve. His military life would last just one more month.

Joseph was posted to RAF Dunkeswell serving under the RAF’s Coastal Command. Flying a PB4Y he would carry out U-Boat searches over the Atlantic around the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic. As he accumulated flying hours, he rarely came into any real danger, even when posted to cover the Allied invasion fleet over Normandy he rarely came into contact with any opposing aircraft or vessels.

Joseph Kennedy’s opportunity came when volunteers were asked for to undertake a special secret and dangerous operation. He jumped at the chance to be a hero.

Joseph Kennedy arrived at RAF Fersfield, Norfolk on 30th July 1944 where he was trained for two weeks.  On August 10th 1944 he wrote a letter home, it would be his last communication with his family. Joseph Kennedy was to become a pilot in operation Anvil.

Lieutenant Wilford John Willy

Sadly, Lieutenant Wilford J. Willy (s/n: O-137078), has remained in the shadows probably because the status of Joseph Kennedy Jnr. A tragic loss nonetheless and no less an important one. Willy was born 13th May 1909, New Jersey. He enlisted in the Navy in 1928, gaining his Naval Wings on April 30th 1937, just two years after he had married his sweetheart, Edna C. Schaffery, the women he left behind. On advancing through the rank of Chief Petty Officer,  he was awarded Lower Grade Lieutenant (April 28th 1942) and two months later, on June 26th, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant. Willy served at a number of operational stations, including Pearl Harbour, before being posted to RAF Fersfield, in Norfolk.

Willy, now an expert in Radio Operations and procedures, became the Executive Officer of the Special Air Unit One (S.A.U.1), the rank he achieved when he took off with Kennedy on August 12th 1944.

Operations Anvil and Aphrodite.

Whilst Drone technology and research had been around as early as World War I, it was still relatively unchartered territory. However, radio controlled drones (modern name Unmanned Aerial Vehicles or U.A.V.s) were already being used with relative success for target practice by the RAF and USAAF during World War II. The ‘Queen Bee’ being one of many used by the RAF. The Germans had also been investigating drone and guided bomb use through examples such as the Mistel aircraft (the most successful being a combination of either a FW-190 or Me-109 mounted above a Ju 88).

Both the  USAAF and USN were undertaking secret trials into drone aircraft operations with the view of attacking
the  heavily defended and ‘impenetrable’ submarine and ‘V’ weapons sites across northern France . The aim, to stop, or at least reduce, the Nazi’s use of the V1, V2 rockets and the development of the new V3 canon.

Codenamed ‘Aphrodite‘ by the USAAF,  and ‘Anvil‘  by the Navy, they were two secret operations running side by side. The idea behind these operations, was to remove all excess equipment from war-weary B-17s and B-24s, fill them with explosives, such as the British Torpex, put in radio receivers so that the drone (baby) could be controlled by a separate aircraft (mother) and fly them into designated targets. A volunteer crew of two would take off, set the aircraft in flight and then bail out over the U.K. or English Channel, leaving the ‘baby’ in the control of the ‘mother’ aircraft. These would then fly, by remote control, to the target when they would be put into a dive destroying whatever they hit.

The controls of the B-17 . The arm linkage moved the control column in response to the radio controls. (credit USAF)

The idea was remarkable but not new, and the equipment whilst innovative for its day, was limited to say the least. In all the operations undertaken only one drone ever reached its target, and that was through more luck than skill.

‘Azon’ (from AZimuth ONly*1) controls had been used successfully on individual 500lb or 1000lb bombs, where the control box was attached to the rear of the bomb and controlled by the bomb aimer through a joy stick. Using two directional controls (left or right) he could direct a bomb very accurately onto a given point. The downside of Azon, was that range and fall had to be determined in the usual way by the bomb aimer and could not be altered once the bomb had left the aircraft.

Azon had been used and proven in attacking bridges, railways and other longitudinal targets and was very accurate with a good bomb aimer. However, because of its limitations, it could only be used in one dimension and therefore was not capable a making a ‘baby’ take off.

Two aircraft types were identified for the project. Boeing’s B-17 ‘Flying Fortress’ and Consolidated’s B-24 ‘Liberator’. These once converted would be given new identifications BQ-7 (usually B-17Fs) and BQ-8 (B-24D/J). In each case it was deemed that two crew members would be needed to raise the ‘baby’ off the ground, partly because of the strength needed to pull back the control columns in these heavy bombers. Once airborne, they would climb to around 20,000ft, arm the Torpex, set the aircraft on a trajectory to the target, switch on the receivers and bail out.

About twenty-five  BQ-7s were modified, but it is not known accurately how many USAAF BQ-8s were converted. However, it is known that at least two naval PB4Y-1s (the naval version of the B-24 of which 400 had been converted from B-24 status – these were given s/n 31936 – 32335) were converted to BQ-8 standard; one of which was flown by Lt. Kennedy and  Lt. Willy on the 12th August 1944.

A number of support aircraft were needed for each mission. Prior to the attack a Mosquito XVI of the 653rd BS would photograph the target. Then the ‘baby’ would be accompanied by at least one fighter (either P-38 or P-51) incase the ‘baby’ lost control and had to be shot down and for fighter escort; a ‘mother’ either a Lockheed Ventura or another B-17 modified to CQ-4 standard, and a photographic  Mosquito from the 8th Combat Camera Unit (CCU) to record inflight behaviour. A post mission photo reconnoissance operation was carried out by the 25th BG at Watton to analyse the effectiveness of the bombing. It therefore took a lot of fuel, crew and aircraft to fly one drone to its target.

Because of the design features of the bombers, the USAAF looked into removing the cockpit to allow easy departure. The only aircraft that received this treatment was B-17F, “Olin’s 69’ERS” 42-30595 formally of 560BS, 388BG at Knettishall. It was never used on an Aphrodite mission  and was scrapped post war after being used for training in the open cockpit mode.  The BQ-8  (B-24) also had modifications made in the form of a widened hatch in the nose allowing for an easier escape from the aircraft. Once modified, the aircraft would have had all previous markings removed, and a special white or yellow paintwork applied to identify them from other bombers. To assist the controllers in sighting the ‘babies’ whilst in flight, the aircraft were fitted with a smoke canister that would be ignited allowing the bomb aimer to see the aircraft as it began its dive. In addition to this, two cameras were fitted to some ‘babies’ that transmitted pictures to the mother or support ship. These pointed at the controls and through the plexiglass. A revolutionary step forward in drone technology.

A modified B-17 (BQ-7) with its canopy removed, this aircraft became a training drone. Credit USAF

In all, there were fifteen missions undertaken by the USAAF and USN, but none were to successfully hit their targets.  These included: Mimoyecques (Fortress); Siracourt (V1 Bunker); Watten (V2 Bunker); Heligoland (U-boat pens); Heide; Le Havre (docks); Hemmingstedt (oil refinery); Herford (marshalling yard) and Oldenburg (Power station). Both the operations and entire programme were cancelled only a few months after the Kennedy/Willy mission.

The last flight.

At RAF Fersfield, on August 12th 1944, Lieutenants Joseph Kennedy Jnr and Wilford J. Willy, both of the S.A.U. 1 of the Fleet Air Arm Wing Seven, boarded their converted B-24 Liberator, s/n 32271 (ex USAAF B-24J 42-110007)*2 and began their preflight checks. The aircraft was filled with 21,270lbs of explosive. At 17:55 and 17:56 two Lockheed Ventura ‘mother’ aircraft took off, followed by a further navigation aircraft and then the ‘baby’ at 18:07. The ‘baby’ climbed to 2,000 ft, the two ‘mothers’ 200 feet higher and slightly behind. They were joined by two Mosquitos, one for monitoring the weather, and the second, A USAAF F-8, to photograph the ‘baby’. This aircraft was flown by pilot Lieutenant Robert A. Tunnel and combat camera man Lieutenant David J. McCarthy. There was a further B-17 relay ship, a P-38 high altitude photo reconnaissance aircraft and five P-51 Mustangs to provide fighter cover.

The group set off toward the target at Mimoyecques , Northern France. They were to fly south-east toward the Suffolk coast, then turn south and head toward the target. Once level and stabilised, Kennedy and Willy handed over control to one of the ‘mother’ ships Then they reached the first control point (CP) at which time the group began to turn south; the ‘mother’ controlling the ‘baby’. Shortly after the turn was completed (about two minutes) Kennedy was heard to give the code “Spade Flush”, then at that 18:20 the ‘baby’ disintegrated in what was described as “two mid-air explosions” and a “large Fireball”.*4 The explosion, spread debris over a large area of the Suffolk countryside killing both crew members instantly. The following Mosquito also suffered damage and minor injuries to its crew. Following the explosion, all the aircraft were ordered back to base and the crews debriefed.

Many months (and indeed years) of investigations followed, but no firm conclusions could be drawn as to the precise cause of the explosion that ripped the aircraft apart. A number of speculative theories were drawn up, but the most plausible is that the electronic arming system was faulty and when Kennedy or Willy flicked the switch, an electronic short occurred that caused the bombs to detonate. Oddly the film that was in the following Mosquito has never been seen or made public – if indeed it was filming at that time.

The cause of deaths of Joseph Kennedy and Wilford Willy still remain a mystery to this day.

Joseph Kennedy wanted to be a hero. He wanted to be talked about as the one who achieved and outshone his brother. Sadly, this dream cost him his life.

Page 1 of August 23, 1944 condolence letter to the parents of Lt. Joseph Kennedy, Jr.,

The letter sent to the Kennedy’s after Joseph’s death.*3

Page 2 of August 23, 1944 condolence letter to the parents of Lt. Joseph Kennedy, Jr.,

The letter sent to the Kennedy’s after Joseph’s death.*3

This fateful mission and its two crew members are remembered across the world. In France, the Mimoyecques museum contains a memorial honoring both pilots, and their names are carved in the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridge. Kennedy has a ship the Destroyer ‘USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.’ DD850 named after him and this is now a museum in Battleship Cove, Fall River, Massachusetts. Both aviators were awarded the Naval Cross posthumously,

joe kennedy

Lieutenant Joseph P Kennedy Jr, USNR, appears on the Wall of the Missing at the American Cemetery, Madingley, Cambridgeshire.

Lieutenant Jospeh P. Kennedy Jnr had no dependents but Lieutenant Wilford J. Willy left a widow and three children.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Azimuth being the clockwise horizontal angle from a given point (usually North) to a second given point.

*2US Navy and US Marine Corps BuNos, Third Series (30147 to 39998)‘  Joe Baugher, accessed 20/8/15

*3 Photos taken from ‘A People at War‘  Archives.Gov, Accessed 20/8/15

*4Crisis Hunter: The Last Flight of Joseph P. Kennedy Jr.’ Paul Elgood, Columbia Point, 2014 pg 45, 65,

For a list of USAAF drones and pilotless missiles, see here.

For the details on Drones see Wikipedia.

For more information and types, see Mistel aircraft, on Wikipedia.