RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 3)

In Part 2, a number of twin engined models frequented Leuchars performing anti shipping roles and U Boat hunts out in the North Sea. BOAC had begun its clandestine role and shipping ball-bearings back from neutral Sweden. We now see a change to these flights and as the war ends, a new much larger breed begin to appear here are Leuchars.

Throughout all these changes at Leuchars, the BOAC company had been continually running its clandestine operations to Sweden. But by now it was clear that a new, faster more agile aircraft was needed. Even though they were marked with civilian markings and flown by Swedish crews, the Electras were slow and cumbersome and made easy targets for both fighters and flak. Now, with the development of the Mosquito, the opportunity had finally arrived.

It was during December 1942 that the first civilian operated model of the aircraft arrived here at Leuchars. A Mosquito PR.IV ‘DZ411’,  it was assigned the civilian registration G-AGFV, and would begin flights to Stockholm on 4th February 1943, after which it was joined by six other aircraft. These MK.VIs were given the sequential registrations G-AGGC to GH, and would arrive during the April and May of that year.

By the end of April the following year, a total of nine Mosquitoes would have been modified and delivered to BOAC at Leuchars*5.

BOAC Mosqquito BAE Systems (@BAE Systems)

All these aircraft had to be changed from military status to civilian, this required the removal of all traces of armament. Modified at Hatfield – the home of the Mosquito – the resultant weight loss altered the aircraft’s centre of gravity and so additional ballast had to be added to prevent changes in the aircraft’s flying characteristics.

It was vital that the Mosquitoes remained unarmed for these operations, so as to not infringe or violate Sweden’s wartime neutrality, however, this made any aircraft on this run a potential ‘sitting duck’, even though, like their Lockheed predecessors, they carried BOAC insignia and were flown by civilian aircrew.

These operations were by now carrying more than just mail and ball-bearings though. These covert operations, took the civilian marked and unarmed Mosquito across the North Sea to Sweden, where it would drop off the mail, papers and other written material held within its bomb bay, and return with prominent scientists, special agents or allied aircrew who had been interned in Sweden as well as vital ball-bearings produced by the Swedes. The faster and far more agile Mosquito would, in most cases, be able to out run any opposing Luftwaffe fighter that should, and indeed did, try to intercept the aircraft whilst on one of these flights.

The returning ‘passenger’ on these flights had the unfortunate prospect of having to sit in a modified ventral bay for the whole duration of the flight. The prospect of further internment probably outweighing that of cramp and three hours of discomfort.

One such notable passenger who was carried back from Sweden, was the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr, whose work on atomic structures and quantum theory, had won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922.*4 He would go on to work on the Atom Bomb in the Manhattan Project, the results of which were seen at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Even though these flights were highly successful, a few aircraft were lost. In Mid August 1944, G-AGKP ‘LR296’, a former 27 MU aircraft, was lost when it crashed into the sea nine miles from Leuchars. All three on board were killed as it approached on return from Stockholm; the passenger being a BOAC Mosquito pilot himself. The crash was believed to have been caused by a structural failure, the aircraft having been repaired previously after an accident in January. By the war’s end fourteen Mosquitoes had been used in some way by BOAC, five of which crashed.*6

As the war moved on, squadron numbers at Leuchars begin to diminish. 1943 brought only two, that of 235 Sqn and 333 (Royal Norwegian Air Force) Sqn who were formed here on April 5th as ‘B’ Flight after the dividing and renumbering of 1477 (Norwegian) Flight. This was a split unit, one part flying the Catalina from Woodhaven, whilst ‘B’ Flight flew the Mosquito MK.II. An upgrade to the MK.VI then saw the unit move to join the famous Banff Strike Wing in September 1944. Whilst at Leuchars they operated as sub-hunters and convoy escorts, whilst ‘A’ flight flew more clandestine operations smuggling secret agents and supplies into occupied Norway. The Mosquito as a multi-function aircraft performed well in these duties, and by the end of the war numerous U-boats had been attacked by aircraft based at the Scottish airfield.

RAF Leuchars

One of the Hangars at Leuchars 2018

With 1944 dawning and major events happening on the continent, more changes would take place at Leuchars.

In the early months, proposals to extend and widen one of the runways was put forward, a part of which was agreed in April. This move also required the relocation of the Watch Office and widening of the perimeter tracks. A further three squadrons would pass through this year beginning with a detachment of 281 Sqn, who stayed for a year from February. A second unit 206 Sqn, stayed here for less than three weeks. But then September/October would bring a new and interesting model in the shape of the B-24 Liberator and 547 Sqn. A change to the smaller twin-engined models that had frequented Leuchars for the last four years or so, the move here was unfortunately a signal of their ending though, the squadron being disbanded in June 1945 never to appear again.

Whilst here, the Liberators would patrol the Norwegian coast in the A/U (anti-U boat) role, many of these patrols being uneventful, the U-boat threat by now greatly reduced compared to its previous Atlantic successes. However, on October 12th, Liberator MK.VI “G” did spot a U boat on the surface which it attacked with both front and rear turrets. Strikes from both guns were seen on and around the conning tower, and it was initially thought that the sub was sunk. After patrolling for a further 45 minutes, the U boat was again sighted some two miles away, but managed to escape in the poor weather. It was believed by the crew to have been a 740 ton vessel which had subsequently suffered damage from the attack.

The B-24s of the these RAF squadrons would be complemented by B-24s now flying separate runs to Sweden by the Americans. In addition to these, Leuchars also saw the reintroduction of the popular and highly successful American built Douglas DC3. The route to Stockholm now being a little less dangerous than it had been in previous years.

The arrival of the Liberator had signified a big change in direction for Leuchars,  they were to be the first of many four engined heavies to serve from the Fife base.

In 1945, 519 Sqn brought along the Halifax III, but sadly they were to go the way of 547 Sqn and disband here at Leuchars in the following May; it too would not reappear in the RAF’s inventory of operational Squadrons. 519 were a meteorological unit, collecting data for flying operations. Using both the Spitfire VII and Halifax IIIs, they would climb to altitudes of around 40,000 ft, and collect valuable meteorological data. Using Prata I, Prata II and Recipe I (Pressure And Temperature Ascent) many of these flights would take the aircraft high out over the North Sea.

With the close of the war, Leuchars had seen no less than twenty-eight operational squadrons pass through its doors, some of these merely staying for a day, whilst others were more prolonged. A range of aircraft had come and gone, mainly twin-engined models operating in the photographic reconnaissance or anti-shipping role. With its position on the north eastern coast, Leuchars had proven vital to maritime operations protecting the seas between Britain and Scandinavia, an area it had operated in, in a number of clandestine roles. But with the war now at an end, these were no longer required, and Leuchars’ role would again revert back to its original one – that of training.

The post war world was very different to the pre-war one, Britain like many other countries was rapidly trying to revert to pre-war budgets. A reduction in the armed forces was seen as essential to cutting costs, whilst rebuilding the nations cities that had been so heavily bombed in the Blitz, was paramount. As a result, the RAF as with the other forces, were having to do with what they had. A reduction in man power and machinery though would not only mean a reduction in squadrons, but the airfields that used them.

Leuchars, like so many, was now under the potential threat of closure. However, the increasing post war tensions between the east and west created the Cold War, with a strained and anxious stand off between Soviet and Western forces right across the European frontier. As had happened before, Leuchars’ position would once again be its saviour. Over the coming years it would see a wealth of operational aircraft and a broad range of front line fighters be based in this small corner of Scotland,

The coming months after the war’s end would see further four-engined models reappear, a previous resident 203 Sqn who had been here in the 1920s, returned from overseas operations in May 1946, bringing back with them the B-24 (Liberator VIII). Within two months though, this would be replaced by the Lancaster GR.3, a version of the mighty four-engined heavy that had wreaked so much devastation across Germany’s industrial cities. But by 1947, 203’s link with the Scottish airfield would finally draw to a close, and the squadron would depart for good.

160 Sqn who arrived a month later in June, also brought the Liberator, and similarly began taking on the Lancaster GR.3. By October though their demise had also arrived, they were renumbered and reformed as 120 Sqn, and by 1947 they had lost the last of their Liberators retaining only the Lancaster.

In December 1950, 120 Sqn were posted to Kinloss, where its wartime bombers were replaced with the newer Avro model, the long range maritime patrol aircraft, the Shackleton with its rare contra-rotating props.

Avro Shackleton MR.3 (WR989) of 120 Sqn RAF (@BAE Sytems)

The aircraft, built in response to the growing Soviet threat, was designed around the Lancaster,  Roy Chadwick’s dream bomber. Chadwick, like R.J. Mitchell, having sadly died before their dream had finally been put into service. Built to Air Ministry Specification R 5/46, the Shackleton was initially designed with gun turrets and two Rolls-Royce Griffon 57A engines inboard, and two Roll-Royce Griffon 57 engines outboard.

One other unit arrived here at Leuchars that year, that of 82 Sqn, initially as a Lancaster detachment and then in June 1947 as a base with its own detachments at Eastleigh, Dar-es-Salaam and Lusaka. The last of the prop driven aircraft were now making their ultimate RAF appearances, and soon Leuchars would enter in the jet age.

In Part 4 Leuchars enters the jet age. The Cold War begins and Leuchars takes on a new challenge as it moves to a new Command, that of Fighter Command.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

RAF Leuchars – one of Britain’s oldest airfields (Part 1)

Following on from Trail 53 we leave the former RNAS Crail and Dunino behind and head north-west to the mecca of the golfing world, and the historic town of St. Andrew’s, where just outside of the University town is an airfield whose history goes back as far as 1911; this makes it one of Britain’s oldest and most established airfields. Its development then takes it through the First World World War, to the relative peace of the 1920s, the expansion period of the 1930s and on into the Second World War. Faced with potential closure it then went on to be one of the most significant and important airfields in Britain’s Cold War defence network.

Sadly politics played its part as it often does, and in 2011, its fate was sealed when at 4:48pm on July 18th, Dr. Liam Fox the then Secretary of State for Defence announced when talking about bringing the Army back from Germany: “Two major units and a formation headquarters will be based at Leuchars, increasing the number of posts there from 1,200 to more than 1,300. Consequently, the Typhoon force due to be built up there will instead be built up at RAF Lossiemouth.”*10 With that the airfield was to close, being transferred over to the Army, a transfer that occurred four years later in March 2015. Since then the RAF has, on occasion, returned for flying duties,  but its front line RAF role had gone. A state which exists today.

On this next stop, we take an extensive look at the long and incredible life of RAF Leuchars.

RAF Leuchars.

Leuchars sits on the north-eastern coast of Fife, on the banks of the River Eden as it enters the sea at St. Andrew’s Bay. To the north across the River Tay, lies Dundee, and to the west, the city of Perth. South of Leuchars is the University town of St. Andrews – the home of world golfing. Being literally on the shore line, Leuchars provided an ideal location for a whole host of maritime operations, aerial reconnaissance and even later on, search and rescue.

Its life began just after the turn of the last century in 1911, when powered flight was but a mere few years old.  Even before the first aero-engine had been started here, the site was being put to use by the Royal Engineers with a Balloon Squadron, who used it for reconnaissance training in the Tentsmuir Forest on the edge of what is now the airfield.

With the formation of the RFC in 1912, the Balloon Squadron would become part of the first military flying arm to exist in the UK. It would continue in its role as spotting for artillery, even as powered flight gradually became established. On the nearby beaches, small aircraft were tried and tested, but balloon training would ultimately remain the focus of the squadron.

In 1916, the RNAS then acquired the land and began to develop the site as a place for powered flight. Taking over farmland, and eventually swallowing up the resident farm, the airfield slowly expanded, and by 1918 its future was established. By this time, the RAF had been formed, the flying responsibilities of the Navy were transferred to the RAF and the first unit was ready to move in. The Grand Fleet School of Aerial Fighting and Gunnery, run by the RAF to train Naval airmen, resided at the airfield from the end of 1918 on into 1920. This unit, a new unit in its own right, was formed out of the disbanded 208 (Temporary) Training Depot Station which, whilst formed at East Fortune in the Scottish borders, had only been in existence for as little as one month.

RAF Leuchars

The control tower at Leuchars. The airfield’s proximity to the shore line being evident.

In these early days of flying, risks were high, the thrill of manned flight was a draw for many young men eager to experience the joy of soaring above the clouds. As a result, there were numerous accidents and Leuchars was no different.

On May 19th, 1919, Lt. David Gardiner Cooper (22) lost his life when he misjudged a slow roll whilst flying in his Sopwith Camel (F8497), and on August 1st, Canadian, Lt. Philip Hall-Smith (30) was killed, after his Camel was seen to inexplicably nose dive into the ground.*1*2 Two unfortunate losses after a war that had already taken hundreds of thousands of lives.

During the 1920s, with the war now over, military might was seen as an almost unnecessary waste, units were cutback, airfields that had been established for war were closed, and fighting men were returned to civvy street. Political fighting amongst the three arms of the military, saw the RAF cut back to a fraction of its former self, its cause for survival spearheaded by Lord Trenchard. However, Leuchars managed to cling on, remaining not only active, but receiving further development as well. More land was purchased and in 1925 the base was officially renamed RAF Training Base Leuchars.

It would be a time of dramatic change and turbulence for the fledgling Air Force though, and this was wholly reflected by the number of units appearing at Leuchars during this period. Operating as one of the UK’s major Naval training bases (the RAF being responsible for Naval flying at this point), the first of these units to appear was 203 Sqn in March 1920 which had reformed here after having been disbanded just two months earlier at Scopwick.

On April 1st 1923, the RAF Carrier units were re-designated under the new 400 series of squadron codes – a major stepping stone in RAF / Naval structure. Then a year later in 1924, these units were combined to form the new Fleet Air Arm (FAA), the flying branch of the Royal Navy. These changes had a major impact on operational numbers here at Leuchars.

Formally a Royal Naval Air Service unit, 203 Sqn initially flew the Sopwith Camel, replacing these  in April 1922, with the Nieuport and the General (Gloster) Nightjar. In mid September, the squadron was posted to Turkey, departing Leuchars onboard HMS Argus; a posting that would last for three months. After that, the squadron returned to Leuchars once more, again onboard HMS Argus, remaining active at Leuchars until 1st April 1923. At this point the squadron was disbanded, being divided into two Naval Flights: 401 and 402. The squadron as was, would be reformed later, but it would be another twenty-three years before they would see the shores of Leuchars once more.

203 Sqn would be joined a month after their arrival by another former RNAS unit – 205 Sqn. Like 203, it too was disbanded at Scopwick only to reform here at Leuchars in April 1920. Bringing another new model of aircraft to the Scottish airfield, 205 Sqn flew the Parnall Panther, and would serve in its entirety as 205 until October 1921, when the Mobile Flight element  was reformed as 3 Squadron. The remainder of 205 Sqn continued serving alongside here at Leuchars.

3 Squadron would operate out of the Scottish base until 1st April 1923, at which point it was similarly divided into three flights: 420, 421 and 422 now serving at Gosport. The remainder of 205 were also divided up into separate Flights – 440, 441 and 442, but unlike its sister unit, 205 would not return in any form to these Fife shores.

As part of this formation of the FAA, Leuchars would see all these Flights joined by another seven: 403, 404, 405, 406, 443, 445, and 446, and all around this time. This would bring a whole range of aircraft to these shores: Nightjars, Panthers, Nimrods, Flycatchers and the like.  Some of these units would depart for foreign shores whilst some would remain in the UK at other bases. The skies above Leuchars was now buzzing with activity.

For the majority of the 1930s, Leuchars would remain as an FAA training base, being renamed No. 1 Flying Training School, on April 1st 1935. Aircraft seen here would have included a range of training types including the: Fairey IIIF, Fairey Gordon, Avro Tutor and Avro 504N. For three continuous years pilots trained at Leuchars for the Fleet Air Arm, a branch that continued to be the responsibility of the RAF.

The mid to late 1930s would see tensions slowly rise in Germany, but Britain’s general post war doctrine was to defend her shores rather than attack any potential enemy. The Royal Navy was still seen at these times as the main military force, a belief that would very soon change. Britain in these early years, had not seen Germany (partly due to the devastating conditions of the Treaty of Versailles) but France, as her biggest potential aggressor, and as such long range aircraft or heavy bombers were not seen as an important requirement.

Government ideas that Britain should only arm itself with a view to defence against its nearest potential threat, meant that early on, defences were developed at the cost of attacking units. But by the time it was clear that Germany was the threat, Britain was lacking far behind, as little national development had been undertaken. This doctrine saw a far reaching impact right across Britain’s peace time airfields, which at this time included Leuchars. With only one squadron, 36 Sqn (the former Coastal Defence Torpedo Flt.) transiting through on its way to the Far East, preparation for war and flying in particular, remained limited to training flights here at the Scottish base.

As Britain then entered the Expansion Period, new aircraft specifications were being pushed through and airfield development became increasingly important. A number of new airfields were built and a restructuring of the RAF was once again on the cards. Here at Leuchars, the number of hangars was extended, with 7 Belfast Truss hangars being added to the site.

With further changes in the late 1930s, Leuchars became a Temporary Armament Training Camp (later station) with a small collection of Wapitis who used the nearby range at Tentsmuir.

Then in 1938, this restructuring took place, Leuchars, driven by its coastal location, was passed over to Coastal Command in an exchange that saw the two squadrons based at Thornaby (224 Sqn and 233 Sqn) transfer across here, whilst 1 FTS would leave for Netheravon. The Temporary Armament Training Camp previously established here would also disband.

Both these units brought the Avro Anson with them, 224 replacing them the following year with the Lockheed Hudson, a military aircraft born out of a civil transport model. Over the next two years, 224 Sqn would upgrade each of these with both the MK.II and MK.III models before departing to Limvadi in April 1941.

233 Sqn however, would have a more turbulent time, moving initially to Montrose, and then back to Leuchars, where they also took on the Hudson, only to replace it a month or so later with the Blenheim IV. Then, within less than a year, they would depart Leuchars for good, heading for Aldergrove in Northern Ireland where they would continue their operations with Coastal Command.

As 1938 passed the situation in Europe looked even more grave, and home based units were put on alert. 224 Sqn began carrying out searches of the North Sea, looking for vessels making their way to the open waters of the Atlantic. A further flight began sweeps of the Firth of Forth looking for submarines operating in the waters off the Scottish coast. However, in September, Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, and following his ‘Peace in our time’ speech, war had seemingly been averted for the time being, and these precautionary measures were then relaxed.

In mid December, with tensions eased, 224 Sqn was granted 3 weeks leave allowing personnel time to go home over the Christmas period. The relaxation of measures was however, short lived, and a year later the squadron was put on a war footing with mobilisation orders coming through on September 1st 1939.

In part 2 Leuchars enters the war, being a coastal airfield the sea would dominate its actions and the squadrons that would be based here. It would also be the first line of defence against Luftwaffe bombers, ships and U-boats.

The full story of Leuchars can be seen on Trail 62.

de Havilland Mosquitoes in BOAC Service.

Very few countries around the world managed to avoid the influence of the Second World War as it ravaged and rampaged its way across the globe. One such nation that did manage to keep its borders secure though was Sweden, a place that became known as a safe haven for downed airmen or those trying to escape the clutches of the Nazi tyranny that would engulf vast swathes of the European continent. Surrounded by conflict and declared neutral, Sweden was to all intents and purposes cut off from the rest of the world.

However, Sweden was a country reliant on imports and exports, a reliance that led to extensive negotiations between herself and both the axis and allied powers who effectively blockaded her supply routes. Through these negotiations she achieved an  agreement to the rights of passage for ‘safe-conduct traffic’, an agreement that allowed the passage through hostile waters of shipping, allowing the exports of paper and wood from Sweden, in exchange for imports of food and oil.

Sweden’s role in the Second World war was largely political. If she was to survive she was going to have to forge safe links beyond her closest Scandinavian neighbours. Fearing she would be sucked into war and absorbed into a Europe ruled by Germany, she turned to Britain with a view to forging a safe airway between Stockholm and Scotland.

Discussions around the opening of the Swedish air routes began prior to war breaking out, negotiations between the Chairman of Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Sweden’s airline company AB Aerotransport (ABA) and Germany’s Hermann Goring, eventually led to an agreed flight once per week from Stockholm – Oslo-Stavanger-Perth. However, ongoing Swedish concerns led to long delays in activation of the service, even though a successful test flight involving a Junkers 52 had taking place on November 27th 1939.

The Swedish ABA were to run the operation, initially using three DC-3s (named Gripen ‘Griffin’, Gladen ‘kite’ and Falken ‘falcon’) painted bright orange and clearly marked Sweden/Schweden in large black lettering to prevent attacks from either side on a neutral aircraft. Throughout the war though this link was tenuous at best, heightened German aggression and fearsome weather often being the determining factors for the safe passage of the aircraft between the two countries. German restrictions on both freight and passengers angered the Swedes, who defiantly disobeyed their rulings. This decision led to a number of Swedish operated aircraft being attacked and shot down.

By 1945 the Swedes decided it was now too dangerous to fly, particularly with trigger happy defences and over keen allied pilots. The airspace around Sweden’s near neighbour Norway, had become a cauldron of  fire, and so the service was eventually closed down.

However, this official Swedish run route was not the only airway that operated between the two countries. The Norwegians also ran a service albeit reduced, as did the Americans later on in the war with five stripped out B-24 Liberators. Another service however, a ‘British’ service, also operated, but this was much more of a clandestine role than that of their Swedish counterparts.

At the time Sweden was a producer of iron but more importantly ball-bearings, a  commodity essential for any moving parts in machinery; whether it be a simple tool or a more complex engine, without them machinery simply wouldn’t work.

Ball-bearings in Sweden were all manufactured by one company, Svenska Kullagerfabriken AB (SKF), who before the war, exported around 9% of her total output to Germany with another 9% going to the United Kingdom. During the war however, this balance dramatically fell heavily on the side of Germany with as much as 65% of her total output ending up in German hands by 1943.*1 This imbalance was primarily due to the exports that were received in the occupied territories, falling into German hands, and being diverted into Germany’s own industrial operations.

Britain however, also needed these ball-bearings, and was perhaps more keen on maintaining this link than many would have initially thought. Having her supply line to Swedish goods cut was going to hit Britain hard. Britain needed all the ball-bearings she could find, and so Sweden was vital to this supply. So desperate were the British  authorities to obtain these components that they mounted two naval operations,  ‘Rubble‘ and ‘Performance‘, both of which turned out to be disastrous in terms of both the loss of life and the loss of shipping.

There were many other reasons why Britain wanted to maintain this link though, one was the expansion of its resistance operations across Scandinavia, Sweden providing a safe passage for agents entering and leaving the region safely, a move that was just as important as it was for returning escaped or interned airmen of the RAF and later USAAF.

Furthermore, Britain needed to ensure that Sweden was receiving as much British propaganda as it was German. If this line were to be severed, there would be a chance that the imbalance in material may have detrimental effects on Sweden’s future as the war developed.

In late 1939 flights began in secrecy, operated by British Airways Ltd, who used three Junkers 52 transport aircraft and one Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra (the forerunner of the Hudson) named ‘Bashful Gertie‘ (G-AGBG). Like the Swedish operation, these flights took place between Perth and Stockholm via Norway and were flown by civilian crews in civilian marked aircraft. However, this route was subsequently closed when one of the aircraft was attacked by a Luftwaffe fighter, and another was captured in Oslo when the Germans invaded Norway.

Then in 1939/40 the two British aviation companies, British Airways Ltd and Imperial Airways, merged to form the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), a civilian operation that would go on to serve as Britain’s leading national airline for many years after the war’s end. The amalgamation of these companies was an important step forward leading to the reinstatement of the Swedish route, this time using the military base at RAF Leuchars in Fife.

Also piloted by Swedish or Norwegian aircrew, the idea behind the route was to pass POW mail and propaganda (magazines, newspapers etc) into Sweden where it could be forwarded to prison camps in occupied Europe. However, constantly aware of the need for ball-bearings and the fact that Sweden was a major supplier of them, plans were put in place for returning aircraft to be refuelled and filled with ball-bearings before returning to Leuchars. This run hence became known as the ‘ball-bearing run‘.

In these early years of the war, BOAC operated other similar aircraft types, these included C-47 Dakotas, converted Whitley IV bombers and Curtis Wright C46 aircraft, but their lack of speed and manoeuvrability left them vulnerable to Luftwaffe attacks. It soon became clear that a new and much faster type was needed and so BOAC began to put pressure on de Havilland for their new Mosquito.

Picture

A Whitley bomber in BOAC markings *7

A trial flight was undertaken using an unmarked Mosquito of 105 Sqn (DK292) on August 6th 1942 (there is some confusion over this exact date), flown by  Fl. Lt. Parry and P. Off. Robinson, the results of which showed the aircraft to be highly suitable for the purpose of the flights. The journey from Leuchars to Stockholm covered some 800 miles was, on average, completed in around 3 hours.

On 15th December 1942 the first civilian operated model of the aircraft arrived at Leuchars. A Mosquito PR.IV ‘DZ411’,  it was assigned the civilian registration G-AGFV, and began flights to Stockholm on 4th February 1943. After this, it was joined by six other Mosquito MK.VI aircraft between April and May (all being given the sequential registrations G-AGGC to AGGH) with a further three in April 1944.

The incredible carrying capacity of the Mosquito, which would be proven later in the war, would allow for up to 650Kg (10 -12 crates) of ball-bearings to be carried in the aircraft’s bomb bay.

The opening of such a link was kept very secret, the British not wanting the Germans to know about the new revolutionary Mosquito, nor their important cargo. However, keeping such an operation from German intelligence was difficult, if not impossible, and soon they discovered that the flights were again taking place between the two countries. Now embroiled in a political stand off, the Germans put pressure on neutral Sweden to put a stop to these flights, insisting that they were giving the British an advantage, and that as a neutral country, they should not be allowing British aircraft to land on Swedish soil. The Swedes maintained that the service was purely civilian and controlled solely by the Swedish authorities, to which the Germans threatened to inform Hitler thus rendering the aircraft legitimate military targets. Fearing that the British would in turn close the passage for the safe-conduct traffic, the Swedes ignored the German threats and so the service continued.

However, so as to not infringe or violate Sweden’s wartime neutrality, it was vital that the Mosquitoes remained unarmed for these operations. But that made any aircraft on this run a potential ‘sitting duck’, even though, like their Lockheed predecessors, they carried BOAC insignia and were flown by civilian aircrew.

So all of these aircraft had to be changed from military status to civilian, this required the removal of all traces of armament. Modified at Hatfield – the home of the Mosquito – the resultant weight loss altered the aircraft’s centre of gravity and so additional ballast had to be added to prevent changes in the aircraft’s flying characteristics.

The first example DZ411, was a Mosquito B.IV Series II, powered by two Merlin 21/23 engines built under the contract 555/C.23(a) and converted to a PR.IV at Hatfield prior to its delivery to BOAC at RAF Leuchars. It would go on to serve until early 1945 with BOAC before presumably returning to RAF ownership.

The first of the next batch, all FB.VIs, was ‘HJ680’ another example built at Hatfield under the same contract 555/C.23(a) but with Merlin 23/25 engines. This aircraft was initially passed to BOAC at Bramcote on April 16th 1943, receiving the registration G-AGGC before flying on to Leuchars immediately after. On the 18th, on the return leg of its maiden flight for BOAC, it was chased by enemy fighters, but its speed and agility allowed the Mosquito to escape unharmed. It was eventually removed from service on November 30th 1944, but remained at Leuchars in case a ‘spare’ aircraft was urgently needed. This particular model was the longest serving Mosquito in BOAC’s service, being taken off the civil register on January 4th 1946, whereupon it was passed to 22 Maintenance Unit. On June 15th 1950, the example was eventually sold as scrap to the John Dale Scrap merchants.

The next aircraft ‘HJ681’ arrived at the same time, and remained in service until January 1944, under the civil registration G-AGGD. This particular aircraft crash landed in Sweden and was reduced to spare parts.

‘HJ718’ arrived on April 24th and was given the registration G-AGGE, it served until June 1945, whilst ‘HJ720’ (G-AGGF) crashed into high ground at Invernairk, Glen Esk on 17th August 1943, killing both crewmen Captain L.A. Wilkins and Radio Operator N.H. Beaumont. A further FB.VI, ‘HJ721’ (G-AGGG) also crashed, this time on the return leg only a mile or so from Leuchars on October 25th 1943, when the port engine failed. Both crewmen, Captain Hamre and Radio Operator Haug, lost their lives along with their passenger Mr Carl Rogers.

The last FB.VI ‘HJ723’ also built under the same contract as the other models, arrived on the 2nd May 1943, and would operate until the end of June 1945 as G-AGGH . It was subsequently handed over to the RAF and eventually presumably disposed of.

By the end of May 1943, a total of nine Mosquitoes would have been modified and delivered to BOAC at Leuchars*5.

DH98 Mosquito G-AGFV (DZ411) MkIV BOAC on 8th January 1943 (© 2021 BAE Systems)

In June 1943, with the need for ball-bearings increasing, two Mosquitoes departed Leuchars with two very important dignitaries onboard. Firstly the British president of the Swedish SKF airline and secondly a ball-bearings expert from the British authorities, who were going to negotiate the delivery of further supplies to Britain.

In order to accommodate these additional passengers the bomb bay of the aircraft had to be converted, thus allowing them to lay on their backs on padded felt*6. An additional reading lamp was fitted, along with an oxygen supply, intercom and even coffee. The passenger would have a piece of string the other end of which was tied to the pilots leg, and should the conditions  in the bomb bay become too uncomfortable, they would pull the string.

These operations were very soon regularly carrying human cargo. On the outward leg mail, newspapers and other written material held within its bomb bay, would be deposited in Sweden, the aircraft would be refuelled and stocked up with either human cargo (allied aircrew, special agents or scientists), ball-bearings or a mix of the two. The faster and far more agile Mosquito would, in most cases, be able to out run any opposing Luftwaffe fighter that should, and indeed did, try to intercept the aircraft whilst on one of these flights.

One such notable passenger who was carried back from Sweden was the nuclear physicist Niels Bohr whose work on atomic structures and quantum theory had won him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922.*4 His journey almost cost him his life though after he failed to operate his oxygen mask correctly. Only when the failed to respond to the pilot’s attempts to contact him, was action taken and the aircraft reduced altitude allowing Bohr to breathe normally and regain consciousness. Bohr went on to work on the Manhattan project, an American project that led to the development of the atomic bomb that would end the war, and plunge the world into the nuclear age.

A large number of other significant people were also carried by these Mosquitoes, Sgt. Jack Byrne who went on to be a  founder member of the SAS, after being shot in the face, bayoneted in the groin and detained in several prisoner of war camps, was one such person repatriated to Leuchars. Three of those who escaped in the famous ‘Wooden Horse‘ escape were also returned via Mosquitoes from Sweden; as where Norwegians Peter Bergsland and Jens Muller two of the three to escape in ‘The Great Escape’.

In ‘Operation Gunnerside’, the SOE operation to blow up the German heavy Water plant in Norway (featured in the film ‘The Heroes of Telemark‘), six of the team were repatriated using this route. A key player in this operation was Leif Tronstad, a Norwegian Physicist who was also flown to Scotland to provide vital information about the German efforts to produce heavy water at the plant.

A considerable number of British personalities were also flown into Sweden using this method; T.S. Elliot, Sir Kenneth Clarke and even the Bishop of Chichester were flown into Sweden this way.

Sgt. Jack Byrne, was shot, bayoneted and imprisoned. He fought at Dunkirk, on D-Day, in North Africa and at the Battle of the Bulge and then went on to be a founder member of the SAS.*2

By the end of 1943, 157 such flights had been made, 129 of which were by these Mosquitoes. A total of some 110 tonnes of freight (a mix of human and mainly ball bearings) had been carried.

Even though these flights were highly successful, a few aircraft were lost. In Mid August 1944, G-AGKP ‘LR296’ a former 27 MU aircraft was lost when it crashed into the sea nine miles from Leuchars. All three on board, Captain G. Rae, Radio Operator D.T. Roberts and Captain B.W.B. Orton (himself a BOAC Mosquito pilot), were killed as it approached Leuchars on its return flight from Stockholm.  The crash was believed to have been caused by the aircraft’s structural failure, the aircraft having been repaired previously after an accident in January. The total number of aircraft being used by BOAC reached fourteen, with five of these crashing including one G-AGKR ‘HJ792’ being lost at sea in August 1944 with no trace of either the aircraft or crew ever being found.

On 17th May 1945 the service officially ceased. Between 1941 and the war’s end, 1,200 of these trips had been made, many by the Mosquitoes. The service between Sweden and Scotland had been a vital link between the two countries not only for the supply of ball-bearings but a life line for escapees and special agents. For these Mosquitoes it was a remarkable achievement for an aircraft that would prove itself to be one of the war’s most incredible designs.

de Havilland Mosquitoes used by BOAC*3:

DK292 – The first Mosquito to fly the Leuchars – Stockholm route
DZ411 – G-AGFV flew to 1945
HJ667 – G-AGKO flew to 1945
HJ680 – G-AGGC flew to 1946
HJ681 – G-AGGD crash landed Sweden 1941
HJ718 – G-AGGE flew to 1945
HJ720 – G-AGGF crashed Invernairk 1943
HJ721 – G-AGGG crashed near to Leuchars 1943
HJ723 – G-AGGH flew to 1945
LR296 – G-AGKP crashed near Leuchars 1944
HJ792 – G-AGKR lost at sea 1944
HJ898 – Crew trainer retained RAF serial flew to 1945
HJ985 – Crew trainer retained RAF serial returned to RAF 1944
LR524 – Crew trainer retained RAF serial returned to RAF 1944

RAF Leuchars appears in Trail 53.

Sources and further reading.

*1 Martin Fritz (1975) Swedish ball-bearings and The German war economy,
Scandinavian Economic History Review, 23:1, 15-35, DOI: 10.1080/03585522.1975.10407803

*2 Photo from “Think Scotland website”  accessed 12/3/21

*3*6 The Mosquito Page Website accessed 12/3/21

*4 For additional information and pilot stories about the ‘ball-bearing’ run see the Royal Institute of Navigation Blog.

*5 Thirsk, I. “de Havilland Mosquito – An illustrated History Vol.2“, Crecy 2006

*7 Photo from Aircraft Enthusiast Group Website.

BAE Systems Website

1st. Lt. William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

In early 2020, I posted an article about the crash and subsequent death of William G. Rueckert of the 93rd BG, 409 BS at RAF Hardwick in Norfolk. Since posting this article, I have been contacted by his son, ‘Little Bill’, who has very kindly sent me a collection of photographs, letters, documents and a considerable amount of information around both his father’s life and his tragic accident. I wholeheartedly thank Bill for this – in some cases – very personal information, which has helped to build a bigger and more detailed image of the life of William Rueckert. This has been added to the page and is included here with Bill’s permission.

The journey of how ‘Little Bill’ found out the details of his father’s death was a long and somewhat difficult one, as many of the official records were destroyed in the St. Louis fire. It was made more difficult by the fact that at home, 1st. Lt. William Rueckert was never talked about by Bill’s mother and step father (2nd Lt. Leroy H. Sargent), and as Bill was only two and a half  years old at the time of his father’s death, he knew little of him. It’s only since Bill’s mother sadly passed away in 1994 that Bill has been able to make proper enquires, kick started by the discovery of a copy of the “Ladies Home Journal” in the attic of her house. All Bill knew before this, was that his father was a pilot and that he died in a crash in England.

Ladies Home Journal ( Jan. 1945)

Ladies Home Journal (Jan. 1945) The magazine that started Bill’s journey to find out about his father.

Since then, Bill has written an article for the “STAR”, a journal for “AWON” (American War Orphans Network) and he has been given an article published in the ‘Weekender’, a supplement published by the Eastern Daily Press*1 newspaper in Norwich, UK, written in December 2014; the title of which was “No Greater Love”, an article about Bill’s mother and father.

His journey also allowed him to make friends with David Neale, an officer of the “Friends of the 2nd “, an organisation he joined not long after. Since then, he has travelled to England on many occasions, including attending the 2nd Air Division  American Library Dedication in Norwich, in November 2001; visiting Madingley Cemetery and the former Hardwick airfield (owned and run by David Woodrow) where Bill’s father lost his life. He has also donated a replica of William’s Purple Heart to the local church at Topcroft, who honour both him and all those who served at Hardwick, every year.

This is 1st. Lt. William Rueckert’s story.

William Gamble Rueckert (S/N: 0-420521) was born June 9th 1920, in the Lutheran Hospital, Moline, Illinois. His father, Reuben Franklin Rueckert (26) was a chief electrician whilst his mother, Fay Wilforim Gamble (24) was a Housewife.

At school, William was a model student, developing a studious and conscientious approach to his studies. He worked hard at all he did, continuously achieving high grades; a work ethic he would carry and continue throughout his short life.

William, Dee and Little Bill

Dorothea ‘Dee’, Little Bill and William

At 18 years of age William joined the Cavalry Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Illinois, becoming a member of  the ‘Scabbard & Blade‘, an Honorary Military Society that promotes and develops the “Five Gold Stars”: Honour, Leadership, Professionalism, Officership, and Unity.  Here William studied law and used his passion for reading, particularly the classics like Shakespeare and Proust, to continue to achieve those high grades he was known for. His reputation for hard work and dedication was his bedfellow.

Whilst in the Cavalry, William got the nickname ‘Square John‘, he took to fencing and riding, whilst enjoying ‘Breaded Veal chop’ and listening to Ernie Pyle, an American journalist who would become one of the most famous war correspondents of World War II. One of the rules as a Cavalry Cadet  was that you had to carry a ‘handkerchief’, this was used to fulfil the joyful operation of cleaning your horse’s rear, a very unpleasant but ‘necessary’ duty.

On graduating, William would be presented with a sabre from his class, fulfilling both roles of president of the Cavalry Officers’ Club and as a Cadet Major. The sabre would remain in the family home for many years after.

William 'Square John' Horse jumping,

William ‘Square John‘ Horse jumping,

It was at University, on April 29th 1939, that William met on a blind date, his wife to be, Dorothea Griffiths, the woman he later referred to as ‘Dee’. Even before meeting up, the two were destined to face problems, a faulty car doing its utmost to prevent William from getting to his destination on time. But as a lover of dancing, William charmed Dee with his dance floor moves, and they turned out to be the perfect match, Dee forgiving William’s lateness and agreeing to see him a second time.

The two became inseparable, and within a year they were married, on June 10th, 1940, when William was just one day over 20 years old. The ceremony took place at Clinton, Iowa, but it would be here that the second of their problems would arise. Angry at the marriage, William’s mother objected, stating that he was too young to be legally married. Successfully, and much to the anger of William and Dee, she had the marriage annulled. However, the two were not to going to accept that, they simply ran away to repeat the wedding and reinstate their marriage vows in a new ceremony – love had conquered all.

Second Marriage Certificate

William and Dee’s second Marriage Certificate

After leaving the Cavalry and returning to his studies, he graduated from the University of Illinois with a Bachelor of Science in Commerce and Law on June 9th, 1941.  William and  Dee then moved to 64 Sommers Lane, Staten Island, on the southern edge of New York, Dee’s home town. William managed to secure himself a job with the Bethlehem Steel Co.  a company that would become a major supplier of armour plate and ordnance to the U.S. armed forces. Here William worked in the accounts department, whilst all the time continuing to work for his law license with the New York State Bar.

University Certificate

William’s University Certificate

With the war in Europe escalating, William, being a reserve at this time, was called up under President Roosevelt’s Defence plan, in August 1941, and he was sent to the Maintenance Officer Company, 35th Armoured Regiment, Fourth Armoured Division Pine Camp, Watertown, New York. He served as a 1st Lt. Artillery Officer in Company ‘A’, 1st Battalion. It was here that the dedication and hard work that he had shown throughout his education would shine through yet again, quickly standing out from other cadets. William also stood out on the ranges, soon winning himself a medal for artillery and rifle shooting.

A heavily pregnant Dee joined William at Watertown not long after his call up, remaining at home as a ‘Housekeeper’ whilst William went about his duty. The love between them never faltering once. In an interview after his death, Dee described William as “Sweet” saying that “Even after we were married, he would telephone for a date and arrive home with flowers and candy.”

It was this love for each other that produced at 5:45pm on December 1st, 1941, the same month as the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, their first child, William Griffiths Rueckert (Little Bill). Bill being born in a small Catholic Hospital just outside the base at Watertown. In those first few years of his life, Bill would grow very fond of his father, a father who would sadly be taken away from him far too soon. William and Bill developing a mutual love for each other.

Four years after his military career had begun with the cavalry, and one year after leaving the Armoured Division at Pine Camp, William would make a big change in his career,  resigning his commission and  volunteering for the United States Air Corps. In Bill’s words referring to why his father left the Army he said:  “After four years of wiping his horse’s ass, and looking up at the new way to travel, he had the flying bug“.

William Rueckert’s life then changed forever. In 1942 as a 1st Lt. Trainee Pilot, he left New York, Dee and his son, and moved to the West Coast Training Centre whose headquarters and administration centre was at Santa Ana Airbase in California.

Early Flight Training.

William would have progressed through several stages of training, from primary to basic, then on to advanced flying and eventually to the heavy bombers. This would take him through many courses at several sites. After primary flight training, he would have gone onto basic flying. Here a nine week course of some 70 hours or so would have taught William more basic flying skills, including: instrument flying, aerial navigation, night flying, long distance flying, radio operations and etiquette, and finally formation flying.

One of these first stations would be Lemoore AAF in California. Whilst here, William would learn firsthand the perils of flying, when on May 20th, 1943 he was involved in a mid air collision with another aircraft piloted by Air Cadet Donald. W. Christensen (S/N: 39677502). Sadly, Christensen would die in the crash whilst William would suffer a wound to the forehead.

I have, since the original post, been able to establish beyond doubt that this is the accident that Dee refers to, although she would later retell the event believing it was a B-24 at a Biggs Field, El Paso, in Texas.

The Army Air Corps used a range of aircraft to train pilots in basic flying, one of the more powerful and complex models was the single engined aircraft the Vultee BT-13 (replaced by the Vultee BT-15). On that day (May 20th, 1943) William was flying solo in BT-15 #42-1957 at Lemoore AAF, and was approaching to land.

The official records (crash number 43-5-20-6)*8 held at the Air Force Historical Research Agency, states that:

At 17:02, May 20, 1943, while upon final approach at Lemoore Field at the termination of a routine training flight, Student Officer, 1st. Lt. W.G. Rueckert collided with A/C  D.W. Christedsen [sic].

Both airplanes were approaching the field in the usual manner. The wind was slightly from the right at 10 mph. Position of the approaching ships gave the control ship stationed on the south-west corner of the mat no cause for alarm. A/C Christensen in ship 32 was in front below and to the right of Lt. Rueckert in ship 12. Several hundred yards from the south-west edge of the mat. Lt. Rueckert noticeably dropped the nose of his ship which struck the A/C Christensen’s airplane behind the canopy. Both airplanes remained in contact and fell to the edge of the mat from a height of about 50 feet. A/C Christensen plane landed on its back, exploded and burned killing A/C Christensen immediately. Lt. Rueckert’s landed nose first, broke clear of the other plane and the pilot jumped out and attempted to extinguish the blaze with his fire extinguisher. He sustained a cut on his forehead and shock. The fire truck and ambulance arrived immediately afterward, put out the blaze and conveyed Lt. Rueckert to the hospital.

Lt. Rueckert stated that he never saw A/C Christensen’s plane in the traffic pattern.

It is probable that one or both pilots were making improper correction for wind drift although witnesses were located at angles which made it impossible to verify this fact.”

The enquiry that followed concluded:

Failure of pilot in airplane to look around. Poor correction for drift on the part of one or both pilots. Lack of control tower in the vicinity of mat. Present control tower is approximately four thousand feet from the scene of the accident.

Dee would later retell the story to Bill, describing how she went to the hospital and how she had to remove little splinters of the shatter windshield from William’s forehead for weeks after the crash. It had been a hard lesson learnt for William.

On completion of the basic course, he then transferred to the multi engined Advanced Flying Course at Stockton Field*4, California, the Air Force’s first west-coast Advanced Flying Field. Here William was enrolled in Class 43-H.

On the Advanced Flying Course at Stockton Field, William would have undertaken a further seventy hours of multi-engined flying, formation flying, night flying and instrument flying using standard training aircraft such as the: Curtiss AT-9, Beech AT-10 or the Cessna AT-17 / UC-78. Upon completion of this course, William would receive his wings and a Commission.

Whilst William was here at Stockton Field, his son Bill, would reach his first birthday and William would send a heartfelt letter home telling Bill how much he missed him, and looked forward to spending time with him again. In his opening paragraph William said to Bill: “This eventful year you have quickly grown from an infant, into one grand, little boy, and I’m certainly proud of you, Billy.

WIlliam's letter to Little Bill on his first birthday.

William’s letter to Little Bill on his first birthday

The course lasted well into 1943, and on August 30th, Lt. William G. Rueckert graduated received his wings and his commission – his dreams were slowly becoming a reality.

For his next posting, William would be transferred to Kirtland Field, New Mexico (formerly known as Albuquerque Army Air Base, being renamed Kirtland Field in 1942 after Colonel Roy C. Kirtland), which specialised in navigation and bombardier training. The aircraft used here were the twin-engined Beechcraft AT-11 or the Douglas B-18 Bolo aircraft. Although split into three specialist schools, it also trained entire crews ready for the heavy Bombers the B-17 and B-24. It would be here that William would have his first encounter with the B-24 ‘Liberator’.

On October 28th 1943, William passed his instrument flying test, and by the time he was finished at Kirtland Field, he was a qualified pilot instructor on B-24s. With this under his belt, William was now ready, his flying training completed, he would transfer again, this time to Biggs Field, El Paso, Texas.

It would be here at Biggs Field that the family would be reunited once again, Dee and Bill joining William on the base’s accommodation. It would also be here that Dianne, Bill’s sister, would be born. Dianne sadly passing away in 2007.

Little Bill in El Paso

Little Bill in El Paso. The boots, he tells me, he still owns today!

Dee’s account of the accident that is now believed to have been the Lemoore AAF collision was retold later to Bill. Her account of the day’s events being sketchy. I am continuing to search for evidence of this but it is unlikely that William was involved in an accident whilst here at El Paso.

Finally, the draw of the war led William to requesting a post overseas. But before departing, he would pick his own crew members,  Harold Emerson Roehrs – his co-pilot, and Jimmy Gardner – his navigator, both of whom he had become good friends with at El Paso.

Later in life, Harold Roehrs would write his own biographical account, “Harold’s Story“, in which he mentions William in a dedication. William being the one who taught Harold to fly a B-24, something Harold had to prove to his Commanding Officer Major (later Lt. Colonel) Thermand D. Brown. In doing so, Harold flew Major Brown around the skies of Hardwick until he was convinced, and convinced he was! In his book, Harold pays homage to William saying of him: “My pilot and friend who shared his knowledge and taught me how to fly a B-24 Liberator“.  William being one of those many people who helped shaped Harold’s life.

L to R: William, Jimmy and Harold at El Paso

Left to Right: William, Jimmy and Harold at El Paso

The three friends would all be posted together to RAF Hardwick, Norfolk, England to join the 409th BS, 93rd BG, 20th Combat Wing, Eighth Air Force, in April 1944. All three serving in the same crew.

The three left Biggs Field travelling to Forbes Field, Topeka, Kansas at the end of March 1944, where they would collect their B-24 to fly to England. The aircraft was loaded up and they took off heading over the southern route.

Off to War.

"Harold's story"

“Harold’s Story” is dedicated to many including William Rueckert.

Harold detailed the journey in his book “Harold’s Story”*3, shining an immense light on the enormity of the trip, one that was made by many crews transporting themselves and aircraft across the vast southern hemisphere to a war very far away.

The journey would be broken into stages, each covering many miles, with hours of flying over water. Much of the journey taking in hot humid days broken by the cold nights, the time when they would fly the most.

The first part of the journey took them from Topeka to West Palm Beach on Florida’s southern point, then via Aguadilla, Porto Rico, to Georgetown in British Guiana. The crew would then fly onto Belem in Brazil before arriving at Fortaleza, their last stop before the next leg and the Atlantic.

The crossing of the Atlantic, then took the crew from Fortaleza, across the monotonous waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean. They were aiming for Dakar on the Cape Verde Peninsula, Africa’s most westerly point. The 1,928 miles would take them exactly twelve hours and thirty-five minutes, and cross four time zones point to point.

After a nights rest, the crew then flew from Dakar to Marrakesh in Morocco, where they waited for five days until the notoriously poor British weather cleared sufficiently for them to proceed. Finally, they were given the go-ahead, and the last leg would take them around neutral Spain and Portugal, wide of the Bay of Biscay, arriving finally at the US Staging post RAF Valley in Wales.  (RAF Valley, had been designated a major staging post for US arrivals along with St. Mawgan in Cornwall and Prestwick in Scotland).

As in many cases, the aircraft flown over by the crews was not the aircraft they would keep as part of their operational unit. The new aircraft being taken and flown by ferry crews to other operational squadrons. From Valley, crews would make their way to Liverpool where they would then be transferred to their assigned squadrons, William, Jimmy and Harold making their way to Hardwick by train. The journey not being a direct one, would lead to them arriving at Hardwick (Station 104) on April 24th 1944.

Formed only two years earlier on 22nd April 1942, the 409th was to be William’s only operational squadron. Having won three D.U.C.s already for operations over Europe including, the raid on the Romanian oil fields at Polesti, and the enormous raids of February 1944 ‘Big Week’, the 93rd were already a battle hardened group.

https://i2.wp.com/media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib/rfc/FRE_003762.jpg

A B-24 Liberator (YM-H, serial number 42-95258) of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group (IWM FRE 3762)

Ted’s Flying Circus” as they were to be known, were very much in the front line of operations, taking part in the preparations for D-Day, completing much of their bombing missions over the Normandy area. Here they focused on cutting German supply lines and vital communication routes across France.

First and last Mission.

William’s first and only mission, was on May 1st 1944, one week after his arrival at the base. It was to be an early morning flight, take off at 05:00. Mission 332 was for more than 500 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bomb Divisions, to attack V- Weapons’ sites in northern France. These “Crossbow” operations were designed to destroy launching areas for the Nazi Terror weapons the V-1s that were targeting London and the South East. On that day William and Jimmy decided to volunteer to fill the vacant co-pilot and navigator spots in the crew of pilot Second Lieutenant Albert Schreiner (s/n: 0-805532) on B-24 ‘Joy Ride‘ #42-7621, leaving his other regular crewmen behind at Hardwick including Harold. William’s work ethics playing one last card as he wanted to get familiar with combat missions before taking his own crew out.

2nd Lt. Schreiner, a veteran pilot from Gloucester County, New Jersey had been along a similar path to  William’s, the ‘green’ newcomer. A Cavalry man he had enlisted in 1941, joining the National Guard before transferring across to the Air Corps.

On the night before the mission, William visited the local church at Topcroft, here he said his prayers in preparation for the following day’s flight. The church having strong links with the base, continues to honour the crews today.

The next morning, May Day 1944, two missions were planned, the first to the V Weapons site at Bonnieres, the second to a Brussels railway yard. About half the aircraft managed to get airborne for the first sortie, then it was the turn of ‘Joy Ride’.

The engines roared into life, 2nd Lt. Schreiner had signed the aircraft off fit for flight after a fuse for heating the suits had been replaced; the brakes were released and the aircraft began its roll along the perimeter track to the end of the runway where it sat waiting. After the signal to go was given, the engines were brought to full power, the brakes released and the aircraft shook and shuddered its way down runway 020 heading south. As it reached almost mid point it began to lift off, and when about 20 – 30 feet in the air, Schreiner gave the order to raise the undercarriage. S/Sgt. Monnie Bradshaw, the Top Turret Gunner / Flt. Engineer reported all instruments were well. He reached down to the undercarriage levers, when suddenly the aircraft hit the ground with an almighty sound.

A heavy landing tore off the left undercarriage leg and the nose wheel collapsed. Unable to gain any height, the aircraft crashed down and slid along the rest of runway 020 spinning round several times before ending up at the crossing with runway 032. Flames had by now engulfed the bomb bay and fuselage, Bradshaw pushed open the top hatch striking the Navigator 2nd Lt. James E. Gardner, on the head. Not seriously injured, both men escaped from the aircraft through the hatch, the top turret now resting on the nose of the stricken B-24, the fuselage engulfed in fire.

In the B-24 lined up behind William’s aircraft was Radio Operator Sgt. Cal Davidson who was stood between the pilot and co-pilot, a common practise on ‘night’ flights which allowed the pilot to focus on the instruments whilst the Radio operator watched the runway. Watching carefully between the rows of burning oil drums that lit the darkened runway, Davidson had a grandstand view of the incident that unfolded in horrifying detail in front of him. He described how he watched as William’s B-24 carrying a full load of fuel and bombs, took off from Hardwick’s north-south runway 020. In his diary that day, Sgt. Davidson wrote*5:

May 1 Blue Monday. No sleep last night as we were called for a mission, briefed at 2:00 and scheduled for a 4:00 take off flying the “War Goddess” to go on a practice mission before going to the actual target. As we sat on the runway next in line to take off, the plane ahead of us didn’t make it off crashing and exploding about 2/3rds of the way down the runway. Flames shot up and lit up the whole field. As I was standing between the Pilot and Co-pilot, the three of us watched stunned at what had just happened. Neast [The pilot: John K Neast] put his head down on the controls and said “O God why did this happen?”. He’d never taken off in the dark before and said he was all set until this happened.  The tower sent up red flares and told all remaining crews to get out of their planes. Once out of the plane with the engines quiet you could hear the 50 calibre bullets going off and the 500 lb bombs began exploding. Colonel Fiegel Base Commander and our Sq. C.O. Major Brown had tears in his eyes as he told us it was a 409th plane. Major Brown is one of the finest officers I have ever met.”

He then goes onto say:

One of those killed was a young French-Jewish boy from our barracks and had the bunk next to mine. We had nicknamed him ‘Frenchie’

‘Frenchie’ was Radio operator Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine, who claimed to be probably the only French-Jew in the Eighth Air Force, he shared a barrack hut with Davidson, having adjacent bunks. Davidson himself, cleared out Sheinfine’s belongings almost immediately, and his loss, and the loss of the crew, had a great impact of Davidson.

Sgt. Cal Davidson front

Sgt. Cal Davidson (laying down front)

Two nearby Groundcrew Sgt. Harry Kelleher*2 and Sgt. Johnny Findley also witnessed the crash. Sgt. Findley was closest and recalled how he heard “the squeaking sparks flying off, as the plane slid along the runway“. Then he watched as it “burst into flames as it continued down 020 north-south to 032  runway“. Findley ran over to one of the ejected crew members holding him until rescue crews arrived. Sgt. Kelleher leapt into a jeep and raced over to the crash site picking up a further two crewmen. “At that point” Kelleher said ,”the gas tanks exploded knocking over the jeep“. That was enough and they made a quick exit, in Kelleher’s words “they got the hell away.”

Standing on dispersal number 8, Engineering Officer Captain Thomas H. Jackson also saw the aircraft “crash and burn“, as it slid along the runway it “burst into flames“.

Another witness, ground crewman Corporal Johnny Fridell Jr*7, who was standing by runway 020 as the B-24 slid along on its belly, described sparks flying from the aircraft until it reached the crossing with 032, spinning around catching fire. Fridell then jumped into a shelter fearing what was about to happen. Over the next half an hour, seven of the 500 lb bombs on board the B-24 exploded, the full complement of fuel caught fire and the ten  ammunition boxes containing nine yards of .50 calibre bullets, began exploding too. It was a massive fireball from which it was unlikely anyone would survive.

Standing on the balcony of the control tower, the Commander Colonel Leland Gordon Fiegel, also watched as the lumbering B-24 came down onto the runway and caught fire. From where he stood, he didn’t think the damage was any more worse than “an ordinary belly landing“, but noted how “the fires increased rapidly in their intensity“.

B-24 "Joy Ride" Tail section

The tail section of B-24 “Joy Ride” after the crash.

Ground crewman Cpl. Johnny Fridell , along with rescue crews, then ran toward the fireball to try and help anyone they could. Miraculously, of the total number of crew, three were uninjured: Navigator 2nd Lt. James Gardner, Waist Gunners S/Sgt. Harold Loucks and T/Sgt. Kerry Belcher, mostly located within the rear of the aircraft between the bomb bay and the tail. Two further crewmen received injuries; Top Turret/ Flight Engineer S/Sgt. Monnie Bradshaw and  Tail Gunner Sgt. Anthony Constantine. The remaining five, including Rueckert, were killed: Pilot 2nd Lt. Albert Schreiner, Bombardier 2nd Lt. Paul Sabin, Radio Operator S/Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine and Nose Gunner Sgt. John Dalto. All of these were located in the front portion of the aircraft. The fire and explosions were so intense only a single thumb was found by rescuers.

The B-24 after the fireball

The remains of Reuckert’s B-24.

By 16:00 RAF Bomb Disposal crews had managed to remove and deal with the remaining bombs, it was thought at this stage the aircraft may have suffered from prop wash, a devastatingly dangerous effect caused by preceding aircraft creating turbulent air.

The explosion caused such damage that it created a huge crater closing the two main runways for five days. The mission was scrubbed (22 aircraft had already gotten airborne and carried on), red flares being fired into the night sky instructing crews to abandon their aircraft and return. For the next week all aircraft had to take off using the short runway and climb up over nearby woods approaching Topcroft village. As a result of the difficulty in doing so, there were subsequent crashes at Hardwick, with aircraft falling into the woods beyond the airfield. The crater and burnt debris of William’s B-24 leaving a stark reminder of the dangers of flying a heavy bomber laden with combustible and explosive materials.

Dee finds out!

For seventeen days Dee knew nothing of her husband’s fate. At home, she had been working on the new family flat at St. George, on the north-eastern corner of Staten Island, whilst living a few miles away with her family at Castleton Corners. Dee had been writing letters every day, in many cases two or three times a day, but unbeknown to her they were not reaching her husband very quickly – if at all.

To Dee, the old furniture with scratches and rips from the dogs they had owned held fond memories of their early days together. The many moves they had made as William had been posted from one training airfield to another, were emphatically etched in their structure.

Dee was at her mum’s house on May 18th when the buff telegram arrived. With ‘Western Union’ emblazoned across the top and two tell-tale red stars*6 in the bottom left corner, Dee knew exactly what it meant, she didn’t need to open it. As the tar stained hand of her father held it out to her, her life fell apart. The man she had adored for the last five years was gone, the moment she, and all serving personnel wives’ feared, had happened. She became ill and slid towards depression. Seeing the changes in her, Dee’s mother took charge, she gave up her own job and took Dee and the two children in. Encouraging Dee to go out and get a job, as she cared for Bill and Dianne and nursed Dee back to full strength.

Gradually, Dee recovered and got her life back on track. Small reminders would never be far away though, each one bringing William back to her thoughts. Not long after his death, flowers he had ordered only days before the accident, finally arrived on Dee’s doorstep.

The Telegram that brought the terrible news to Dee

The dreaded Telegram that brought the news of William’s death to Dee

Shortly after the 20th, a confirmation letter arrived from the War Department in Washington D.C. In three short paragraphs it confirmed that William had been “killed in action on 1 May 1944 over England.” It said nothing about the incident, as these are “prepared under battle conditions and the means of transmission are limited“. Signed by Brigadier General Robert H. Dunlop, it told Dee that William’s service had been “heroic“.

Back in the UK, those that had escaped, particularly William’s good friend James ‘Jimmy’ Gardner the Navigator, went into shock. He was sent to London to recuperate, before being sent home. In later years Bill tried to talk to him about the crash, but the shutters came down and Jimmy understandably turned away from Bill.  In June 1944, Harold, Bill’s other good friend from  their days at El Paso, would convince Col. Brown of his flying abilities, being approved as a pilot and then assigned another crew, he would go on to complete 37 missions with the 93rd at Hardwick.

In the official enquiry that followed the crash the engineer stated that all engines were running OK, each at 2,600 rpm with 49” M.P. (Manifold Pressure) in each one; recognised as sufficient power to achieve a good take off with the load being carried by the bomber. Schreiner’s training record was scrutinised and found to be in order. The pre-flight mechanic’s report was checked and several eye witness accounts were taken. After deliberations the committee apportioned 100% blame to the pilot Lt. Schreiner’s night take off technique, saying that he had allowed the aircraft to land again without realising what he had done. As a result, the committee recommended modified training for all crews to include further training in night take off and landings.

First page of the Crash Report

The first page of the accident report which blamed the pilot for his ‘take off technique’. Note the misspelling of William’s name.

Rueckert’s remains was initially buried at the Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial at Madingley, a few miles outside of Cambridge, along with the pilot 2nd Lt. Albert Schreiner. Later on, William’s mother asked Dee if his body could be returned to Illinois to be placed along side his father in the family plot in Moline. Dee, still angry at her attempts to stop the marriage, and knowing there was little more than bricks in the coffin, agreed to the move and the coffin was returned in 1952. Of the others, Bombardier 2nd Lt. Paul Sabin was buried in section 14 of the Mount Carmel Cemetery, Raytown, Jackson County, Missouri, and Radio Operator S/Sgt. Sheldon Sheinfine was buried at the Beth Israel Memorial Park, Woodbridge, Middlesex County, New Jersey. Sheinfine was only nineteen years of age. The last crewman to lose his life that day, was twenty-one year old Sgt. John Dalto, who was buried in the Long Island National Cemetery, East Farmingdale, Suffolk County, New York. The average age of the crew that day was only 20 years old.

At the end of the war, one of William’s original crewmen stopped off at Dee’s to explain that William had volunteered to fly in ‘Joyride‘ that fateful day, the purpose being to gain experience before taking his own crew into heavily defended enemy territory.

Since discovering a lot more about his father’s death, his son ‘Little Bill’, has repeatedly returned to Hardwick and has become very good friends with the site owner David Woodrow. William’s wings and wedding ring were never recovered from the crash site, and remain buried in Hardwick’s 032 runway, where the concrete patch stands today.

On the farm that now stands in the place of Hardwick airfield, is a small museum, maintained by a volunteer crew set up by both David Neale and David Woodrow. The farm also has a memorial to the 93rd BG and regularly honours those who served. During the time the airfield was open, a pond was located in this area, into this pond aircrew who had passed their statutory mission number were thrown, a right of passage that allowed them to go home. Many however didn’t, choosing to stay on and serve for longer.

Following the accident, 1st. Lt. Rueckert was awarded the Purple Heart, as was the pilot. His son Bill, has since donated a replica of the medal to the church at Topcroft, the church William visited the night before his death.

Purple Heart Certificate

William Rueckert’s certificate for his Purple Heart.

Inside the church, a plaque sits on the wall remembering the 668 men who never returned to Hardwick from missions. William’s name also appears in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, on page 365.

William G Rueckert was a brave young man who, like many others, went to fight a war a long way from home. Doing their duty came above all else, but like many others he longed to see his wife and family. Sadly, that day never came, and William lost his life serving the country and people he loved.

RAF Hardwick and the story of the 93rd BG whilst based here appears in Trail 12

William G Rueckert appears on the World War II Honours list of Dead and Missing, State of New York 1946 Page 136.

Sources, notes and further reading.

Much of the basic information used was supplied by William Rueckert (Little Bill) through emails, and all pictures (unless stated) were donated and used by kind permission from Bill to whom I am truly grateful.

*1 The Eastern Daily Press ‘Weekender’ was published on December 13th 2014.

*2 Sgt. Harry Kelleher went with the 39th BG when it took part in the Polesti raid. His rank was that of Non-flying Ordnance ground crew. However, it is believed he joined Captain Llewellyn L. Brown’s crew taking the position of Ball Turret Gunner on the B-24 #41-24298 ‘Queenie‘ which was hit by flak and diverted to Sicily. Harry had been denied the opportunity to fly in the bomber by his superiors, but went anyway. He is credited as Ball Turret Gunner on the ‘American Air Museum’ website having been awarded the Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. Harry had relayed the story to Little Bill before passing away, however, none of the crew have ever verified his claim and no other record seems to exist of it.

*3 Extracts from “Harold’s Story” written by Harold Emerson Roehrs, William’s best friend, were kindly given to me by Bill. The book I believe is now out of circulation.

*4 The History of Stockton Field can be found on the Military museum website, including images of Stockton Field taken during the war.

*5 Email from Cal Davidson to Bill Rueckert 25/8/04, courtesy of Bill Rueckert.

*6 One Red Star would signify Missing in Action or wounded, whereas two meant they were killed. Hence anyone seeing the telegram would know before even opening it what it meant. Dee’s father owned as company that repaired water tanks on top of the skyscrapers using tar, hence his hands were always covered with it.

*7 Corporal John L. Fridell Jr (s/n: 14077456) was one of the ground crew for ‘The Sleepy Time Girl‘ also referred to as “Sleepytime Gal‘ which completed 135 missions without returning once with mechanical problems.

*8 Accident number 43-5-20-6 Lemoore Army Air Field provided by the Air Force Historical Research Agency.

All quotes regarding the crash of the B-24 are from witness statements taken from the War Department Investigation, Report of Aircraft Accident Number 0000198.

USAAF Training Aircraft Fuselage Codes of WW II website

Abandoned and Little known Airfields website has a  very interesting collection of photographs and information on Lemoore AAF.

Kirtland Air Force Base Website

MyBaseGuide website

Aviation Archaeological Investigation & Research website.

El Paso Times Website.

2Lt. Thomas E. Cartmell Blog by Michael John Hughey, MD

My sincere thanks go to Bill for allowing me to publish his father’s story and to all those who have contributed comments, corrections and information about the accident. I am continuing to search for further information, if / when this arrives, I shall add it to the text.

RAF Rackheath – The 467th BG, the highest bombing accuracy (Pt1).

In Trail 58 we head to the east of Norwich into an area known as the Norfolk Broads; an area created through turf extraction in medieval times. The large, shear sided pits were later flooded giving more navigable inland waterways than both Venice and Amsterdam.

Today, it attracts a wide range of wildlife, and offers a range of boating, bird watching and fishing holidays. The shear size and scope of the Broads attracting some 7 million visitors per year to enjoy the rich nature and peace of the Broads.

But in this area during the Second World War, life was very different. Overhead, the drone of aircraft engines was a constant reminder of a war being fought both across the sea and here in East Anglia.

Between Norwich and the East Anglian coast we visit two airfields, one USAAF and one RAF, both now long closed, they each played a vital part in the destruction of the Nazi tyranny across the sea in Europe.

Our first stop is a former bomber base. Now a huge industrial estate where many of the original wartime buildings have been demolished. But some still remain, refurbished, re-clad and in many cases almost indistinguishable from their original design. A memorial, located in the heart of the estate, denotes the technical area of the former base, and a local church displays a collection of wartime photographs.

Our first stop on this trail is the former US bomber base RAF Rackheath (Station 145).

Rackheath (Station 145)

Rackheath airfield lies approximately 5 miles north-east of Norwich, bordered to the east by the  East Norfolk Railway Line, and to the west by the (modern) A1270.

RAF Rackheath

Rackheath village sign denotes its history and links to the base.

Built over the period 1942-43, it was built as a Class A airfield incorporating three runways: one of  2,000 yds and two of 1,400 yds in length, each 50 yds wide and each covered with concrete.

A large number of hardstands lined the perimeter track, some 50 altogether, all being of the spectacle type; with  a bomb store to the north of the main airfield site, sitting surprisingly close to the majority of the hardstands and nearby Rackheath village.

A wide range of technical buildings, supported by two T2 hangars for aircraft maintenance, allowed for repairs and crew preparation: crew rooms, parachute stores, dingy stores, armouries, photographic blocks and so on. The watch office (design 12779/41) stood proud of the technical area located to the south-west of the site. All personnel areas – eleven accommodation and three ancillary sites – lay to the west of the airfield, dispersed around Rackheath Hall, an early 19 Century listed building with its notable architectural features and its own turbulent history. These sites, hidden amongst the woodland, were both extensive and well serviced by concrete roads that led to the main airfield site.

Rackheath was initially designed as a bomber airfield, but during the construction phase, it was re-designated as a fighter airfield. However, delays in the construction process, led to it never being operated as a fighter station, instead it was manned by the Eighth Air Force’s 467th Bombardment Group (BG) and B-24 Liberators.

The 467th BG consisted of the 788th, 789th, 790th and 791st Bomb Squadrons (BS), each flying Consolidated’s heavy bomber the B-24 Liberator. The group’s long journey to Rackheath started on 19th May 1943 at Wendover Field in Utah. After being activated on August 1st, they moved to Mountain Home Army Airfield in Idaho, then back to Utah and Kearns, from there onto Wendover Field again where they remained for fifteen weeks undertaking intensive training. On 12th February the ground echelons made their way, by train, to Camp Shanks, New York where they boarded the US ship Frederick Lykes. Their Atlantic journey brought them, like so many before them, to Greenock, a major port on the Clyde on Scotland’s west coast. From here, they boarded trains and made their way to Rackheath.

The air echelon in the meantime flew the southern route, tragically en route, they lost one of their B-24s (#42-52554 “Rangoon Rambler“) with all its crew, over the Atlas mountains in North Africa. The remainder of the group finally arrived here at Rackheath combining with the ground echelons in late March 1944, where they began to prepare for their first operation on April 10th.

Operating initially within the 2nd Bombardment Division (later the 2nd Air Division) 96th Combat Wing (CBW), they flew Liberator ‘H’, ‘J’, ‘L’ and ‘M’ models under the command of Colonel Albert J. Shower, the only US group commander to have brought and remained with the same group until the end of hostilities.

The 467th’s first mission was to bomb Bourges airfield, a relatively light target in which 730 bombers pounded aviation targets across the low countries. On the next day, they formed part of a even larger force of over 900 heavies attacking aircraft production factories in Germany, their honeymoon was well and truly over in one fell swoop.

But the first major event of the war for the 467th was to occur shortly after this on April 22nd 1944, on a day that has since become infamous in American aviation history. Mission 311, was an attack by 803 heavy bombers of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Bombardment Divisions on targets at Hamm, Soest and Koblenz along with targets of opportunity. The Massed formation, escorted by 859 fighters, were led by the 445th BG, 2nd Air Division from Tibbenham. The 96th CBW portion was led  by the 458th BG from Horsham St Faith, with the 466th BG from Attlebridge on the low left, and the 467th ‘The Rackheath Aggies‘  on the high right.

As teleprinters rattled across the East Anglian area, B-24s were bombed up, fuelled and checked over by mechanics who meticulously prepared their machines for war. Maps were drawn up, meteorological reports were read out and orders were strict – ‘avoid the Ruhr!’

Once in the air, brightly coloured assembly ships gathered their flocks together in tight formations, and then it was time to set off for Germany. On route, technical problems dogged the lead plane, which led to inaccurate navigation, and ultimately brought the entire force into Ruhr Valley – exactly where they did not want to be.

Dividing up, the massed formations hit a range of targets, Hamm being the focus of the 467th. Surprisingly though, results were good, especially considering the many problems the formation had suffered flying over to Germany. Pleased with their results, the 467th set course for home, blissfully unaware of the dangers that were lurking not far away as they made the return leg of their journey.

The whole operation had been meticulously planned, but it meant that many of the bombers would be arriving home in the dark, an environment alien to many American crews. Experience had told them that Luftwaffe fighters lurked in the dark, unseen and dangerously accurate in their attacks.

When approaching from the east, Rackheath and Nearby Horsham St. Faith were the first two large airfields available, a distance of just some 4 miles separating them. With navigation lights and landing lights illuminating the aircraft, airfields were lit up like christmas trees, each one inviting their bombers home to safety. These lights were also a beacon for the as yet unknown, marauding Luftwaffe night fighters. As the first Rackheath Liberator approached, the air filled with requests for landing  permission, fuel now getting critically low and crews tired from the long flight. Gun places were vacated and crews began preparing to land, everyone was starting to relax – they were home.

It was this point that all hell was unleashed over Rackheath. Canon shells ripped in to the wings and fuselage of 1st Lt. Stalie Reid’s B-24 #42-52445, setting both starboard engines on fire.  The lead Luftwaffe pilot Staffelkapitaen Hauptmann Dieter Puttfarken of II/KG51, taking his companions, in their mix of night fighters, right into the heart of the flight path of the returning bombers. Here they waited, unseen, until the moment the bombers were at their most vulnerable.

RAF Rackheath

The former Watch Office has been refurbished and used as offices.

As the Liberator began to fall uncontrollably out of the sky, four of the crewmen manged to don their parachutes and escape, the remaining six failing to vacate the aircraft in time. All six were lost in the ensuing crash when the aircraft hit the Earth near to Barsham in Suffolk. For Sgt. Edward Hoke, one of those lucky enough to escape, his troubles were not yet over, for somehow, he was pulled from his parachute, and without a means to slow his descent, he too  fell to his death. It was only the third mission of the war for the crew.

Meanwhile, other aircraft began to line up desperate to land. Near misses were now becoming a risk, aircraft suddenly appearing out of the darkness within feet of each other. Then a second B-24 went down –  struck by the terror of the night. B-24 #42-52536 piloted by 2nd Lt. James A. Roden was hit by canon fire. So severe and so accurate were the strikes, that it severed the tail of the Liberator from the fuselage. Now split in two, the aircraft went into a spin and eventual fireball. The entire crew were lost that night.

Not content with picking aircraft off in the air, the Luftwaffe night fighters then began to attack, with bombs and guns, the main airfield site, strafing ground targets almost at will. By now crews were starting to panic, some withdrew from the landing pattern and headed off away from the airfield only to run the gauntlet of friendly Anti-Aircraft guns who were not expecting to see heavy American bombers at night.  By now it was becoming clear what had happened, and to protect the airfield all lights were extinguished. Aircraft were unable to see the runways, parts of which were now only illuminated by fires of wrecks and bombs. Waiting patiently, or diverting to other bases, B-24s light on fuel, circled frantically the field trying to find some sign that it lay below. The confusion that night, repeated across numerous US airbases, tore a hole in the hearts of the American flyers as numbers of those lost across East Anglia began to filter through.

April 22nd would go down in history as the worst loss in one night to intruders alone, made even worse by the fact that once over home territory, you consider yourself to be ‘safe’. Some American gunners were able to retaliate and there are records of intruders being shot down, but the statistics clearly fell heavily in favour of the intruders.

With that, the 467th had finally cut their teeth, their war was real, and it was having an effect.

On D-Day, the 467th were assigned to bombing shore installations and bridges near to Cherbourg, then as the allies progressed through France they supported them by attacking supply lines at Montreuil. A few days after the D-Day landings, a 467th BG Liberator became the first four engined bomber to land on a beach-head airstrip. The B-24 #42-95237, ‘Normandy Queen‘ piloted by 1st Lt. Charles Grace was hit by flak and badly damaged. Unable to make the crossing back home, he ordered the crew to bail out whilst he and his co-pilot brought the aircraft down onto an allied fighter airstrip, luckily without further mishap. All the crew that day survived to tell the tale.

B-24 Liberator (4Z-U, #42-95237) 791st BS, 467th BG parked on the grass in a field in Normandy – the first four engined heavy to do so. (IWM FRE 8431)

By now the allied onslaught of occupied Europe was well under way. Continual flying began to make its mark on both air and ground crews. The summer months seeing over 28,000 sorties being flown, meaning that many crews were reaching their quotas of missions in a very short space of time.

In early August a reshuffle of command within the Eighth saw several changes at the highest levels. Lower down, in the front line units, further reshuffles saw crews and squadrons move from one unit to another. The 788th BS, who had been taken to form the 801st Group to perform ‘Carpetbagger‘ operations in the lead up to D-Day, now rejoined their original Group back at Rackheath.

The long, cold winter of 1944-45 was known for its persistent fog, snow and ice that hampered air operations, and all just as the German army was about to make its one last push through the Ardennes forest. Christmas 1944 would be sombre time for the US forces, with the loss of both Brigadier General Frederick W. Castle and the fighter ace Major George Preddy who was inadvertently shot down by friendly fire and killed.

For the 467th BG it would also be a period of misery, a period that started with one of the most bizarre events in their history. We shall revisit Rackheath again in Part 2.

Lt. Col. Leon Vance 489th BG – Medal of Honour.

Leon vance.jpgThe story of Leon Vance is one of  the saddest stories to emerge from the Second World War. He was a young American, who through his bravery and dedication, saved the lives of his colleagues and prevented their heavily stricken aircraft from crashing into populated areas of southern England. Following a mission over France, his was very severely injured, but miraculously fought on.

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. known as ‘Bob’ to his family and friends, was born in Enid, Oklahoma, on August 11th, 1916. He graduated from high school in 1933 after receiving many honours and being singled out as a high performing athlete. He went on, after University, to the prestigious Training College at West Point in 1935, staying until his graduation four years later in 1939. It was here, at West Point, he would meet and marry his wife Georgette Brown. He and Georgette would later have a daughter, after whom Vance would name his own aircraft ‘The Sharon D’.

Vance would become an aircrew instructor, and would have various postings around the United States. He became great friends with a Texan, Lieutenant Horace S. Carswell, with whom he would leave the Air Corps training program to fly combat missions in B-24 Liberators. They became great friends but would go on to fight in different theatres.

Prior to receiving his posting, Vance undertook training on Consolidated B-24s. Then, in October 1943, as a Lieutenant Colonel, he was posted to Europe with the newly formed 489th Bombardment Group (Heavy), as the Deputy Group Commander. One of the last groups to be assigned to the European theatre, they formed part of the 95th Combat Bombardment Wing (2nd Bomb Division),  Eighth Air Force, and were sent to RAF Halesworth (RAF Holton) designated Station 365 by the USAAF.

The group left their initial base at Wendover Field, Utah in April / May 1944 and their first mission would be that same month on May 30th, 1944, as part of a combined attack on communication sites, rail yards and airfields. A total of 364 B-24s were to attack the Luftwaffe bases at Oldenburg, Rotenburg and Zwischenahn, along with other targets of opportunity far to the north in the German homeland. With only 1 aircraft lost and 38 damaged, it was considered a success and a good start to the 489th’s campaign.

As the build up to Normandy developed, Vance and the 489th would be assigned to bombing targets in northern France in support of the Normandy invasion about to take place further to the south. An area the unit would concentrate on, prior to the Allied beach invasion on June 6th that year.

The day before D-day, the 489th would fly to Wimereaux, in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France. This would be Leon Vance’s final mission.

File:846bs-b24-42-94860--halesworth.jpg

B-24H Liberator of the 489thBG, RAF Halesworth*2

The group, (Mission 392),  consisted of 423 B-17s and 203 B-24s and were to hit German coastal defences including: Le Havre, Caen, Boulogne and Cherbourg areas as  a precursor to the Normandy invasion. Some 127 P-47s and 245 P-51s would support the attacks. The 489th would assemble at 22,500 feet on the morning of June 5th, proceed to the south of Wimereaux, fly over dropping their payload, and then return to England. On the run in to the target, Vance was stationed behind the pilot and copilot.  The lead plane encountered a problem and bombs failed to jettison. Vance ordered a second run, and it was on this run that his plane, Missouri Sue, took several devastating hits.

Four of the crew members, including the pilot were killed and Vance himself was severely injured. His foot became lodged in the metal work behind the co-pilots seat. There were frantic calls over the intercom and the situation looked bad for those remaining on board. To further exacerbate the problems, one of the 500lb bombs had remained inside the bomb bay armed and in a deadly state, three of the four engines were disabled, and fuel spewed from ruptured lines inside the fuselage.

Losing height rapidly, the co-pilot put the aircraft into a dive to increase airspeed. The radio operator, placed a makeshift tourniquet around Vance’s leg, and the fourth engine was feathered.  They would then glide toward the English coast.

The aircraft was too damaged to control safely, so once over English soil, Vance ordered those who could, to bail out. He then turned the aircraft himself out to the English Channel to attempt a belly landing on the water. A dangerous operation in any aircraft, let alone a heavy bomber with an armed bomb and no power.

Still trapped by the remains of his foot, laying on the floor and using only aileron and elevators, he ensured the remaining crew left before the aircraft struck the sea. The impact caused the upper turret to collapse, effectively trapping Vance inside the cockpit. By sheer luck, an explosion occurred that threw Vance out of the sinking wreckage,  his foot now severed.  He remained in the sea searching for whom he believed to be the radio operator, until picked up by the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue units.

Vance was alive, but severely injured. He would spend a number of weeks, recuperating in hospital, writing home and gradually regaining his strength. Disappointed that his flying career was over, he looked forward to seeing his wife and young child once more. However, on a recuperation trip to London, Vance met a young boy, who innocently, and without thought, told him he wouldn’t miss his foot. The emotional, impact of this comment was devastating to Vance and he fell into depression. Then, news of his father’s death pushed him down even further.

Eventually, on July 26th, 1944 Vance was given the all clear to return home and he joined other wounded troops on-board a C-54, bound for the US. It was never to arrive there.

The aircraft disappeared somewhere between Iceland and Newfoundland. It has never been found nor has the body of Leon Vance or any of the others on board that day. Vance’s recommendations for the Medal of Honour came through in the following  January (4th), but at the request of his wife, was delayed until October 11th 1946, so his daughter could be presented the medal in her father’s name.

The citation for Leon Vance reads:

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty on 5 June 1944, when he led a Heavy Bombardment Group, in an attack against defended enemy coastal positions in the vicinity of Wimereaux, France. Approaching the target, his aircraft was hit repeatedly by antiaircraft fire which seriously crippled the ship, killed the pilot, and wounded several members of the crew, including Lt. Col. Vance, whose right foot was practically severed. In spite of his injury, and with 3 engines lost to the flak, he led his formation over the target, bombing it successfully. After applying a tourniquet to his leg with the aid of the radar operator, Lt. Col. Vance, realizing that the ship was approaching a stall altitude with the 1 remaining engine failing, struggled to a semi-upright position beside the copilot and took over control of the ship. Cutting the power and feathering the last engine he put the aircraft in glide sufficiently steep to maintain his airspeed. Gradually losing altitude, he at last reached the English coast, whereupon he ordered all members of the crew to bail out as he knew they would all safely make land. But he received a message over the interphone system which led him to believe 1 of the crew members was unable to jump due to injuries; so he made the decision to ditch the ship in the channel, thereby giving this man a chance for life. To add further to the danger of ditching the ship in his crippled condition, there was a 500-pound bomb hung up in the bomb bay. Unable to climb into the seat vacated by the copilot, since his foot, hanging on to his leg by a few tendons, had become lodged behind the copilot’s seat, he nevertheless made a successful ditching while lying on the floor using only aileron and elevators for control and the side window of the cockpit for visual reference. On coming to rest in the water the aircraft commenced to sink rapidly with Lt. Col. Vance pinned in the cockpit by the upper turret which had crashed in during the landing. As it was settling beneath the waves an explosion occurred which threw Lt. Col. Vance clear of the wreckage. After clinging to a piece of floating wreckage until he could muster enough strength to inflate his life vest he began searching for the crew member whom he believed to be aboard. Failing to find anyone he began swimming and was found approximately 50 minutes later by an Air-Sea Rescue craft. By his extraordinary flying skill and gallant leadership, despite his grave injury, Lt. Col. Vance led his formation to a successful bombing of the assigned target and returned the crew to a point where they could bail out with safety. His gallant and valorous decision to ditch the aircraft in order to give the crew member he believed to be aboard a chance for life exemplifies the highest traditions of the U.S. Armed Forces”*2

Leon Vance’s actions would be remembered. His local base in Oklahoma was renamed ‘Vance Air Force Base’ on July 9th, 1949. The gate at Tinker Air Force Base, Oklahoma was also later named after him on May 9th, 1997, and his name appears on the ‘Wall of the Missing’ at Madingley American War Cemetery in Cambridge, England.

DSC_0582

The American War Cemetery, Madingley. Leon Vance’s Name Appears on the wall of the missing (to the left of the picture).

Leon Robert Vance, Jr. (August 11th, 1916 – July 26th, 1944)

For other personal tales, see the Heroic Tales Page.

Sources.

* Photo public domain via Wikipedia

*1 “Medal of Honor recipients – website World War II”.

*2 Photo Public Domain via Wikipedia.

William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

This post has been updated since I was contacted by William’s son. Click on the title below for the full story.

1st. Lt. William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

rueckert

William Rueckert with his wife, Dee*1

William G. Rueckert (service Number: 0 -420521) was born September 9th 1920, in Moline, Illinois. At school, he became a model student, achieving high grades throughout his school life. Upon leaving, he won a place at Illinois University where he wanted to study Law. Rueckert had a passion for reading, particularly the classics like Shakespeare and Proust and was known for his hard work and dedication.

It was at University that he met, on a blind date, he wife to be, ‘Dee’. The meeting almost never took place due to a faulty car, but as a lover of dancing, they turned out to be the perfect match and his lateness was forgiven.

Inseparable as a couple, Rueckert and Dee were married only a year later, in 1940, when Rueckert was just 19 years old.

War came even closer, and Rueckert decided he had to do his part and joined up with the Army, on July 15th 1941. Based at Pine Camp, New York, he was part of the 4th Armoured Division, and his hard work and dedication was very quickly realised; he soon won himself an award on the firing range. Constant passionate letters home cemented the love between Rueckert and Dee, in one letter he said; “My life, my love and all my hope all lie in my wife Dee!”

Rueckert’s life then changed and he joined the USAAC. As a trainee pilot, he moved from New York, to California and then onto New Mexico where he gained the qualification of Pilot instructor on October 28th 1943.

Whilst flying here at New Mexico, the plane Rueckert was in, a B-24, collided with a small training aircraft killing its pilot. Rueckert managed to land his own B-24 and following his actions, was credited with saving the lives of the crewmen on board.

Finally, the draw of the war led Rueckert to requesting a post overseas. He was sent to RAF Hardwick, Norfolk to join the 409th BS, 93rd BG, 20th Combat Wing, Eighth Airforce, in April 1944. Formed only two years earlier on 22nd April 1942, the 409th was to be Rueckert’s only operational squadron. Having won three DUCs already for operations over Europe including; the raid on the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti, and the enormous raid of February 1944 ‘Big Week’, the 93rd were a battle hardened group.

“Ted’s Flying Circus” as they were to be known, took part in the preparations for D-Day, completing much of their bombing missions over the Normandy area, cutting supply lines and communication routes across France.

Rueckert’s first and only mission, was on May 1st 1944. It was to be a night flight. He joined his best friend along with his assigned pilot Second Lieutenant Albert Schreiner (0-805532) on B-24 ‘Joy Ride‘ #42-7621, leaving his regular crew behind at Hardwick.

The aircraft, began its roll down the runway, as it neared the take off point, it is thought the undercarriage collapsed causing a catastrophic crash in which seven bombs exploded. The aircraft was completely destroyed and five of the crew killed including the pilot and Lt. Rueckert. The crash was so intense, it closed one of the three enormous runways for five days.

Dee, Rueckert’s wife, found out by telegraph that her husband had been killed. She was understandably devastated as were the two young children, Billy and Dianne.

Rueckert’s body was initially buried at Madingley Cemetery, Cambridge, but later he was repatriated and buried in the family plot in Illinois. His purple Heart, awarded earlier, has since been donated by his son Billy, to the church at Topcroft, where Rueckert prayed the night before that fatal flight. A plaque also sits in the wall in remembrance of the 668 men who never returned to Hardwick. Rueckert’s name appears in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, on page 365.

Hardwick appears in Trail 12

https://i2.wp.com/media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib/rfc/FRE_003762.jpg

A B-24 Liberator (YM-H, serial number 42-95258) of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group (IWM FRE 3762)

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from The purpleheart.com author unknown.

This story recently appeared in the Eastern Daily Press, December 13th 2014, and contains more photos and personal details.

William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

This post has been updated since I was contacted by William’s son. Click on the title below for the full story.

1st. Lt. William G. Rueckert, 93BG, 409BS, RAF Hardwick

rueckert

William Rueckert with his wife, Dee*1

William G. Rueckert (service Number: 0 -420521) was born September 9th 1920, in Moline, Illinois. At school, he became a model student, achieving high grades throughout his school life. Upon leaving, he won a place at Illinois University where he wanted to study Law. Rueckert had a passion for reading, particularly the classics like Shakespeare and Proust and was known for his hard work and dedication.

It was at University that he met, on a blind date, he wife to be, ‘Dee’. The meeting almost never took place due to a faulty car, but as a lover of dancing, they turned out to be the perfect match and his lateness was forgiven.

Inseparable as a couple, Rueckert and Dee were married only a year later, in 1940, when Rueckert was just 19 years old.

War came even closer, and Rueckert decided he had to do his part and joined up with the Army, on July 15th 1941. Based at Pine Camp, New York, he was part of the 4th Armoured Division, and his hard work and dedication was very quickly realised; he soon won himself an award on the firing range. Constant passionate letters home cemented the love between Rueckert and Dee, in one letter he said; “My life, my love and all my hope all lie in my wife Dee!”

Rueckert’s life then changed and he joined the USAAC. As a trainee pilot, he moved from New York, to California and then onto New Mexico where he gained the qualification of Pilot instructor on October 28th 1943.

Whilst flying here at New Mexico, the plane Rueckert was in, a B-24, collided with a small training aircraft killing its pilot. Rueckert managed to land his own B-24 and following his actions, was credited with saving the lives of the crewmen on board.

Finally, the draw of the war led Rueckert to requesting a post overseas. He was sent to RAF Hardwick, Norfolk to join the 409th BS, 93rd BG, 20th Combat Wing, Eighth Airforce, in April 1944. Formed only two years earlier on 22nd April 1942, the 409th was to be Rueckert’s only operational squadron. Having won three DUCs already for operations over Europe including; the raid on the Romanian oil fields at Ploesti, and the enormous raid of February 1944 ‘Big Week’, the 93rd were a battle hardened group.

“Ted’s Flying Circus” as they were to be known, took part in the preparations for D-Day, completing much of their bombing missions over the Normandy area, cutting supply lines and communication routes across France.

Rueckert’s first and only mission, was on May 1st 1944. It was to be a night flight. He joined his best friend along with his assigned pilot Second Lieutenant Albert Schreiner (0-805532) on B-24 ‘Joy Ride‘ #42-7621, leaving his regular crew behind at Hardwick.

The aircraft, began its roll down the runway, as it neared the take off point, it is thought the undercarriage collapsed causing a catastrophic crash in which seven bombs exploded. The aircraft was completely destroyed and five of the crew killed including the pilot and Lt. Rueckert. The crash was so intense, it closed one of the three enormous runways for five days.

Dee, Rueckert’s wife, found out by telegraph that her husband had been killed. She was understandably devastated as were the two young children, Billy and Dianne.

Rueckert’s body was initially buried at Madingley Cemetery, Cambridge, but later he was repatriated and buried in the family plot in Illinois. His purple Heart, awarded earlier, has since been donated by his son Billy, to the church at Topcroft, where Rueckert prayed the night before that fatal flight. A plaque also sits in the wall in remembrance of the 668 men who never returned to Hardwick. Rueckert’s name appears in the St Paul’s Cathedral Roll of Honour, on page 365.

Hardwick appears in Trail 12

https://i2.wp.com/media.iwm.org.uk/iwm/mediaLib/rfc/FRE_003762.jpg

A B-24 Liberator (YM-H, serial number 42-95258) of the 409th Bomb Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group*2

Sources and further reading.

*1 Photo from The purpleheart.com author unknown.

*2 Photo The American Air Museum in Britain

This story recently appeared in the Eastern Daily Press, December 13th 2014, and contains more photos and personal details.

August 23, 1944 The worst aircraft accident in the UK during WW2.

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.

freckleton 28 Aug 1944 funeral procession Photo Ralph Scott

Crowds line the street as US Servicemen carry the many coffins at Freckleton (Photo Ralph Scott, BAD2)

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.

BAD2 Blog 

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.

RAF Shipdham – The 44th BG ‘The Jinx Squadron’ (Pt. 2)

In part 1 we left the “Eightballs” in the middle of a cold and icy winter, before which, a heavy toll had been paid. The January of 1944 would not prove to be any better for the men of the 44th BG, with both further losses and the high levels of stress playing their part in the coming months at RAF Shipdham.

On January 13th, a training mission was organised for a new crew, who had only joined the group on the Christmas Eve, and were barely three weeks into their war. On this day, B-24 #42-7551 of the 68th BS piloted by 2nd Lt. Glenn Hovey, would come in on approach to Shipdham, a landing in which one of the engines was feathered to simulate one engine out. With flaps and gear down, the pilot overshot, banking to the left striking a tree causing the aircraft to crash. The ensuing fireball killed nine men instantly, the tenth 2nd Lt. Richard Sowers being taken to hospital where he died shortly after. For a rookie crew this was perhaps the worst possible cause of death.

B-24 Liberators, including a B-24 (serial number 41-29153) nicknamed

Liberators, including a B-24 (#41-29153), ‘Greenwich’ of the 506th BS, 44th BG (pilot 1st Lt. Robert Marx) conducts a raid on a German airfield near Diepholz. February 21st 1944. This aircraft was subsequently lost on April 8th 1944, all the crew were taken prisoner. (Official U.S. Air Force Photo)

The extreme pressures placed of aircrew were beyond that imaginable, and for some, it was just too much. After having joined the 44th and flown since July 1943, for one pilot it all became too great, and on January 20th he sadly took his own life. Not a unique event by any means, but his death shows the great pressure that airmen were subjected to and for some it was simply a step too far.

The end of March and into April saw the poor weather continuing, with many missions being aborted. On April 1st, a mission to Grafenhausen was yet again cancelled, but B-24s of the 44th and 392nd did continue on. Unbeknown to them, they were way of course, and when they released their bombs it was the Swiss town of Schaffhausen that was beneath them, and not the Germany city. Ten aircraft were lost that day whilst Swiss papers reported the loss of thirty residents. The Nazi propaganda machine-made good use of this most unfortunate accident.

Only eight days later the ‘Eightballs’ would suffer their greatest loss of the war, April being the month that cost more in men and machines than any other month of the conflict. This was a month that put even Ploesti and Foggia in the dark. A mission to Brunswick was scrubbed as the town was shrouded in smoke, and so a secondary target was selected Langenhagen Aerodrome near Hanover in Germany.

Now for the first time, fitted with PFF, the B-24s flew toward the target. It was a cloudless and sunny day, an escort of P-51s were with the Liberators when suddenly, out of the sun, came a whole horde of enemy fighters. They struck from above and in front making a concentrated attack that took out eleven of the 44th’s group; forty-one airmen were killed that day with almost as many being taken prisoner.

For the remainder of the war the group attacked many high prestige targets, including airfields, oil refineries, railways, V-weapon sites, aided the Normandy landings and the breakout at St. Lo. They supported the ground forces in the Battle of the Bulge and attacked railway bridges, junctions and tunnels preventing German reinforcements arriving at the front.

With their last operational bombing sortie taking place on April 25th 1945, never again would they lose as many aircraft as they did during those three major raids. Bombing turned to food supplies and transit flights bringing home POWs from camps across Europe.

Then over May / June 1945, the various echelons began to depart Shipdham returning to the U.S., they had completed 343 missions using six different marks of B24. They had flown against submarine pens, industrial complexes, airfields, harbours and shipyards. Whilst in Africa they had flown in the Ploesti raid in Romania, the raid on Foggia and had helped in the invasion of Italy.

The Unit achieved one of the highest mission records of any B24 group for the loss of 153 aircraft, the highest loss of any B-24 group. They had taken the taunting of the B-17 crews, been called ‘Jinxed’ and had lost a lot of young men in the process. The 44th had paid the price, but they had earned two DUCs, a Purple Heart and numerous other medals for gallantry and bravery in the face of adversity.

The 44th and their home at Shipdham had well and truly written itself into the history books.

Following cessation of conflict the mighty 8th left Shipdham. The airfield became a POW camp closing in 1947, it then remained in care and maintenance until finally being sold off in 1963. Over the years it has been turned into agricultural premises with an industrial complex covering the technical area of the airfield. Fortunately, flying activity has managed to keep a small part of Shipdham alive with the Shipdham Aero Club utilising one of the remaining runways.

If you drive round the site to the industrial area, you  can clearly see the remaining two hangers through the fence. Behind these are a small selection of dilapidated buildings from what was the technical site, including the control tower and operations block.

RAF Shipdham

Shipdam’s runway used for storage.

The tower is now a mere shell and in danger of demolition. For those not tempted to venture further, views of these can be seen from across the fields on the aero club side of the site. Further views reveal one runway covered in farm storage units, but the runway they sit on, remains intact.

This is a large site, much of which is now either agriculture or industrial, with what is left is in desperate need of TLC. Whilst there is a small part of this airfield alive and kicking, the more physical features cling on by their finger nails desperate for the care and attention they wholeheartedly deserve.

The club house at the aero club houses a small museum in memory of those who flew from here, with many pictures and personal stories it is one to add to the list of places to go.

I found this rare original footage of the 44BG taken at Station 115 on ‘You Tube’.  This features a number of B-24s preparing for, and returning from, the November 18th Mission to Kjeller Airfield, Oslo (not the 19th as implied on the film). It also includes B24H #42-7535 ‘Peepsight‘ of the 506th crash landing after a mission.

The latter half of the film includes footage from 1944-45 noted by the change in the tail fin Bomb Group coding (Black stripe on white background as opposed to the black ‘A’ in a white circle). It would appear therefore to be a compilation of dates, but this aside, it is very much worth watching.

Shipdham was a relatively short-lived airfield, used by only one unit, the 44th Bomb Group, it saw many crews come and go and bore witness to some incredible actions. Whilst Shipdham lives on, the future of its buildings remain in doubt, the creeping industrial strong hold gaining in strength with each passing day. How long will it be before it sinks into obscurity and the brave actions of those who never returned are forgotten.

RAF Shipdham appears in Trail 10.

Sources and Further Reading.

Lundy, W., “44th Bomb Group Roll of Honor and Casualties“, 2005, Greenharbor.com  – a detailed account of the 44th’s missions, including personal accounts of each mission and details of the losses. (Twitter @44thbgROH)

Todd, C.T., “History of the 68th Bomb Squadron 44th Bomb Group – The Flying EIghtballs“. PDF document