A Long Way From Home.

A guest post from Mitch Peeke.

June 19th, 1944: Just thirteen days after the Allied D Day Invasion. The weather that day was dry, but the late afternoon sunshine over Kent in Southern England was hazy. A formation of around 30 American B17 “Flying Fortress” bombers from the 379th BG, part of “The Mighty Eighth”, were returning home across the Kent countryside, heading due North, toward their base at Kimbolton, in Huntingdonshire. They were returning from a raid on the V1 launching site at Zudausques in Northern France.

The raiders had taken some Flak, but thankfully, no German fighters had found them. They were doubtlessly busy elsewhere, trying to stem the Allied advances. But the Flak they had encountered had been accurate and had exacted a price from the 379th for their raid. Many of those B17’s were now badly damaged and flying home on three engines rather than four. More of them than not, now had “extra ventilation”, courtesy of the German Flak Gunners, and were trailing heavy smoke from those engines that remained running. However, the B17 was known to be “a good ship”. Inherently stable, it was a remarkable aircraft for its size, able to withstand a hell of a lot of battle damage and still be capable of flying. Many a pilot had been able to “nurse” one home, despite the odds. The crews all had faith in their aircraft. It was a faith that was born from hard experience in hostile skies.

The formation crossed the South coast of England at 21,000 feet. Leading the No. 2 Section was B17 Heavenly Body II, of the 525th Squadron, Captained by 1st Lieutenant Lloyd Burns. A veteran crew, this had been their 29th mission over enemy territory. Just one more mission and the crew would have completed their tour and then they’d be going home, Stateside. The D Day Invasion had of course been keeping them busy. This mission to the V1 site at Zudausques had been their second mission of the day.

Lloyd Burns was an exceptional pilot with an enviable reputation for pulling off the smoothest of landings under any circumstances. The original Heavenly Body had been written off quite recently when the brakes failed on landing. Not even Burns could prevent that aircraft from being a runaway and as the heavy B17 simply ran out of airfield space, she rolled off the end of the runway, down a small hill and straight into a pile of scrap concrete rubble. Miraculously, Burns and his entire crew walked away from that landing. They got a new aircraft and quickly named her Heavenly Body II. (In fact, there were at least 4 other US aircraft named Heavenly Body. Two B29’s, another B17 of the 401st Squadron and at least one B25, all of which had a pin-up girl as nose art). This was now their third mission in the replacement aircraft and although they’d not yet had the time to paint the name and art on the bomber’s nose, the crew had happily settled in to their new ship.

Just after the formation crossed the South coast, Lloyd Burns swapped seats with his co-pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Fred Kauffman. Fred was hoping to get a ship of his own after they completed their tour and had asked Lloyd if he could take over for the descent and landing, as he wanted more 1st pilot experience. Lloyd saw no reason not to. Now as the formation was beginning the let down toward Kimbolton, they gradually lost their height over Kent.

At nearly 18:15, the formation was almost over Allhallows and down to 17,000 feet. Ahead of them, left to right, was the Thames Estuary; even busier than usual, with all sorts of shipping, due in no small part to the D Day invasion traffic.

At 17,000 feet, the haze grew thicker. Fred Kauffman was beginning to work hard for his 1st pilot experience. He was having to fly more by instruments as the visibility forwards was down to about 1,000 yards and the horizon was beginning to disappear into the miasma, though to the airmen flying through it, it didn’t seem to be too bad at that moment.

Flying above and slightly behind Burns’ aircraft, was his Port Side Wingman. This B17  bore the serial number 44-6133, but  no name. The pilot was 2nd Lieutenant Armand Ramacitti and he was in trouble. This was his first combat mission and his B17 had been very badly damaged by the German Flak. He’d been nursing her along since leaving France behind. He’d already lost one engine, his Port elevator and a fair piece of the Starboard one had also been blown away and he had another engine on the Port side smoking heavily and running rough. Now, that engine was making an unbearably loud whining noise, looking and sounding as if it was about to seize up too. Jockeying the throttles on his remaining engines, Ramacitti was trying to compensate for the dropping power, but the flight controls were growing sloppy and with the Port elevator gone, maintaining the crippled bomber’s height was getting harder by the minute. She was beginning to give up the unequal struggle to stay in the air.

Ramacitti’s Bombardier, 2nd Lieutenant Theodore Chronopolos, saw that having surged slightly ahead of their leader, they were now dropping back, out of formation. He called Ramacitti on the intercom, warning him to pull up, as they were now dropping very close to Heavenly Body II. Ramacitti was desperately wrestling with the dying bomber’s controls, trying to claw back some height, but it was a losing battle. Without warning, 6133 side-slipped sickeningly to Starboard, literally dropping out of Ramacitti’s hands. Chronopolos frantically buckled on his parachute, as did the Navigator, for both men now knew with absolute certainty, what was coming next.

6133’s side-slip cut across the top of Burns’ aircraft at an angle of about 35 degrees. Engine bellowing, the Starboard outer prop cut into the top of Heavenly Body II‘s flight deck, right behind the Pilot’s window, killing Fred Kauffman instantly. The two aircraft momentarily locked together in a deadly embrace.

Theo Chronopolos knew they’d hit Burns’ aircraft. All he’d heard was a very loud, sharp bang and a terrible rending sound, as the two aircraft collided. He and the Navigator went straight for the nearest escape hatch. The Flight Engineer and a couple of the Gunners were already there, but the hatch was totally jammed. Just then, 6133 rolled off Heavenly Body II‘s back and inverted. Thrown about inside the aircraft like a small toy, Theo didn’t know what happened next. He recalled hearing another big bang, then he blacked out.

The momentum of 6133’s continuing side-slip had separated the two planes. As 6133 rolled off Heavenly Body II‘s back and then inverted, her Flak-battered Port wing now sheared off completely, which was probably the second bang that Theo Chronopolos had heard. As the wing came off, 6133 started to spin, pointing her nose straight down and plunging headlong toward the muddy waters of the Thames Estuary below.

When Theo came to, he was free-falling outside of the aircraft. Instinctively, he pulled the ripcord on his parachute, which thankfully deployed. As his descent rapidly slowed, he saw a B17 going down below him, its death-plunge marked by a thick trail of black smoke. Then shock set in and he blacked out again. Unbeknown to Theo, he was the only one who’d got out of 6133 alive.

Literally moments before, on Heavenly Body II, Lloyd Burns suddenly realised that something was horribly wrong. He was about to reach over behind Fred to pull back the curtain. He wanted to see if their rookie wingman, Ramacitti, was keeping with them, when a terrible grinding noise to his left made him duck down instinctively. The daylight through the left side windows was blocked momentarily and he felt the aircraft shudder viciously. He realised in that instant that they’d been hit by another B17, which seemed to him, to be on top of them. Then as 6133 slid off the top, he looked over at Fred. Lloyd was in no doubt at all that Fred was now dead. The first thing Lloyd tried to do was to somehow stabilise the aircraft. Grabbing the controls, he found  the ailerons completely unresponsive and he got next to no feedback from the elevators. This was not surprising as the B17’s control cables ran centrally along the top of the fuselage. 6133’s prop had undoubtedly chopped through them. Heavenly Body II was still flying as she’d been trimmed, just; but for how much longer was the question.

Lloyd noticed that the Flight Engineer was at the escape hatch, trying to open it. Realising that he’d no hope of flying the plane, Lloyd quickly reached for where his parachute was stowed, but couldn’t find it. As he climbed off the flight deck, one of the crew thrust a chute into his hands and he hurriedly strapped it on; only partially as it turned out. He assisted the Engineer in forcing the escape hatch open then literally shoved him through it, as he immediately followed the Engineer himself. As his parachute opened, Lloyd realised he was only half in the harness. Hanging on for dear life, he saw a B17 going down in a steep turn with one engine smoking badly, but was unsure which of the two aircraft it was.

The Bombardier on Burns’ aircraft, Jack Gray, later recalled that the bomber’s Plexiglas nose had been all but severed and he suddenly found himself seemingly more outside of the aircraft than inside it. Jack pulled himself back in and went for his parachute.

Heavenly Body II continued flying, though steadily losing height, even though there was only the dead co-pilot at the now useless controls. Six of her crew managed to safely escape. The Ball Turret Gunner, S/Sgt William Farmer, was one of the last to leave, noting that the aircraft looked like it was coming apart. He needed no second telling to get out and fast.

The six crew members that managed to escape were: Pilot Lloyd Burns, Bombardier Jack Gray, Top Turret Gunner Leonard Gibbs, Ball Turret Gunner William Farmer, Tail Gunner Richard Andrews and Radio Operator/Gunner Leroy Monk. All but one of those six landed in the water and were rescued by fishing boats. Tail Gunner Richard Andrews came down on dry land at Canvey. The three men who didn’t make it were: Co-pilot Fred Kauffman, Navigator Edward  Sadler and Gunner Louis Schulte.

6133 meanwhile, had gone straight down and crashed in twenty feet of water, in what was then a minefield, about half a mile or so off the west beach at Allhallows. The Estuary bottom was and still is, soft Thames mud and the main part of the wreck undoubtedly buried itself to some extent in the mud. (What remained of the wreckage was later salvaged, probably when the minefield was cleared). She had taken most of her crew with her, trapped inside.

Sole survivor Theo Chronopolos, landed safely by parachute. He was fished out of the water by a passing  boat. The eight men of 6133’s crew who died that day were: Pilot 2nd Lt. Armand Ramacitti, Co-pilot 2nd Lt. William Hager, Navigator 2nd Lt. Donald Watson, Gunner S/Sgt. Richard Ritter, Gunner S/Sgt. Cecil Tognazzini, Gunner S/Sgt. John  Burke, Gunner Sgt. Warren Oaks and Gunner Cpl. Paul Haynes.

Meanwhile, having been abandoned by her crew, Heavenly Body II continued flying, somewhat erratically and losing height all the time. At first, she’d turned west and seemed to be heading directly toward the oil storage tanks at ShellHaven on Canvey Island. To those watching on the ground, a disaster seemed inevitable, then; still losing height, she miraculously turned east, away from the refinery, over the town, toward Canvey Point and the mudflats. It seemed as though the pilot was still trying to find somewhere safe to put her down. She then circled once over Canvey Point before she  finally nose-dived onto the mudflats, throwing an engine forward as she crashed.

To this day, those who can remember the event have always held the pilot of that aircraft in high esteem. Trouble was, the pilot was at that moment, just landing in the water off Canvey Island by parachute! Did Fred Kauffman not die in the collision after all? Had he somehow survived his injuries, regained consciousness and taken control of the shattered aircraft? Unlikely. Burns had tried to take control just after the collision and found the controls unresponsive. It is also extremely unlikely that Fred could have come round from such traumatic head injuries as he’d received when 6133’s Starboard outer prop cut through the roof and side of the Flight deck.

The answer probably has more to do with the B17’s inherent stability. With the nose section totally open and the escape hatches gone, the sheer force of the through-rushing air was probably responsible for the apparent “steering” of the aircraft. Also of course is the fact that, though a stable design, the aircraft was literally coming apart in flight. Who knows precisely how the aerodynamics were working, but one thing is certain, she was not being actively piloted.

The semi-submerged wreckage of Heavenly Body II remained on the mudflats for decades. Every so often, the tides would uncover more of it and bury other sections. The wreck was easily accessible and so subjected to many souveniring expeditions. A local historical society salvaged some of it and put it on display in a museum, until it closed. The thrown engine was salvaged fairly recently and together with some other artefacts, is now on display at another local museum. There is also a storyboard on the seafront close to the crash site at Canvey Point and a memorial plaque, dedicated to the memory of both crews. Sadly, there is nothing of the kind at Allhallows, where 6133 crashed.

Most of the bodies, including Ramacitti’s, were recovered; some at the time, some a little later, and are interred in the American Cemetery at Madingley, Cambridge; a long way from home. One body was later sent home. The body of Gunner Louis Schulte from 6133 now rests at home in a cemetery in St. Louis. Only two are still unaccounted for: Fred Kauffman, Co-pilot of Heavenly Body II and Gunner Cecil Tognazzini from 6133, both of whom are listed on the tablets of the missing at Madingley. Their last resting places are very probably in the soft Thames mud that their aircraft crashed in. They too, are a long way from home.

The US Military Authorities naturally held an inquiry into the crashes. It was chaired by  Lieutenant-Colonel Robert S Kittel of the United States Army Air Corps. The Pilots and Co-pilots of both aircraft were charged to account. At the end of the inquiry, the official findings were that 2nd Lieutenant Armand J Ramacitti had failed to keep proper position within the formation. In trying to correct this, he had over-controlled, slid into and collided with, aircraft 42-97942 (Heavenly Body II) which was leading the second section of the formation. It was further stated that “No pecuniary or disciplinary action is contemplated”.

Comment from Mitch.

Personally, I cannot help but feel that this was a “cop out” and an extremely harsh outcome for the enquiry to have reached, to say the least.  Given the actual circumstances involved, simply blaming the collision on Pilot error seems to me to be grossly unjust. Some of the deceased crew members were awarded posthumous decorations, as indeed was Ramacitti. In my opinion though, Armand Ramacitti deserved far better than the enquiry board’s sanctimonious posthumous censure, their apparent “favour”of no official punishment and the award of what certainly looks to me to have been a “token” Purple Heart. He’d given his young life, on his first combat mission, desperately trying to get his Flak-blasted aircraft back to base; as had seven others of his equally meritorious crew, all of whom will remain forever, a long way from home.

My thanks go to Mitch for allowing me to post his write-up, it was a tragic accident that may or may not have been avoidable. Whatever the cause, I personally feel that the pilot was struggling with an aircraft that was unstable, difficult to control and likely to fall out of the sky at any moment. The fact that the aircraft had gotten as far as it had was a miracle in itself and those who lost their lives should be remembered for what they did and the sacrifice they made. To even consider that the pilot(s) were to blame for what happened to me is a travesty, they were young men fighting a war that was taking the lives of thousands.

Mitch is currently trying to have a memorial or plaque raised as close to the crash site as possible, I sincerely hope he achieves that aim and that these men are remembered in perpetuity.

Post Script.

B-17  #44-6133 was a Douglas/Long Beach B-17G-45-DL Flying Fortress delivered to Tulsa airbase, Oklahoma, May 10th, 1944. It was transferred to Hunter airbase, Savannah, Georgia, on May 19th, 1944, and then onto Dow Field on May 29th, 1944. She was assigned to the 525th BS, 379th BG as ‘FR-Y’at Kimbolton Jun 8th, 1944. The crew of #44-6133 were:

Pilot: Second Lieutenant Armand Ramacitti
Co-pilot: Second Lieutenant William ‘Bill’ Hager
Navigator: First Lieutenant Donald ‘Don’ Watson
Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini
Radio Operator: Sergeant Richard ‘Dick’ Ritter
Ball turret gunner: Staff Sergeant John Burke
Waist gunner: Corporal Paul Haynes
Tail gunner: Sergeant Warren Oaks (his second mission)
Bombardier: Second Lieutenant Theo Chronopolos

#42-97942 was a Lockheed/Vega B-17G-40-VE Flying Fortress delivered to Denver on April 11th, 1944. She then went onto Kearney air base in Nebraska on May 4th, 1944, before transferring also to Dow Field May 23rd, 1944. She was then assigned to 525th BS,  379th BG at Kimbolton as ‘FR-K’. The crew of #42-97942 were:

Pilot: First Lieutenant Lloyd Burns (just 19 years of age)
Bombardier: Second Lieutenant Jack Gray
Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Technical Sergeant Leonard Gibbs
Radio Operator: Technical Sergeant Leroy Monk
Ball turret gunner: Staff Sergeant William ‘Bill’ Farmer
Waist gunner: Staff Sergeant Richard ‘Dick’ Andrews
Co-pilot: Second Lieutenant Fred Kauffman
Navigator: Flight Officer Edward Sadler
Tail gunner: Staff Sergeant Louis Schulte

Mitch is the author of a number of books including “1940 – The Battle to Stop Hitler“the proceeds of which go to help the preservation of the Medway Queen a ‘little ship’ used in the Dunkirk evacuations.

Further reading and sources:

www.canveyisland.org

www.379thbga.org

www.americanairmuseum.com

www.8thafhs.com

MACR 6984

MACR 6983

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Chivalry Amongst Enemies

On December 20th 1943, high above war-torn Europe, the lives of a Luftwaffe fighter pilot and the crew of an American B-17 would collide in an event that has become famous around the aviation world.

On that day, a B-17, “Ye Olde Pub“, of the 379th BG based at RAF Kimbolton (USAAF Station 117) , would be so severely damaged it would defy the laws of gravity and somehow remain airborne as it departed Bremen, Germany, having valiantly carried out its mission. In the skies over the freezing waters of the North Sea, the bomber hanging by a thread, with two engines out, all but one of its guns but the top turret empty or frozen, its rudder and left horizontal stabiliser torn to pieces, a dead crew member and several others wounded;  “The Pub”, as its crew affectionately nicknamed her, seemed destined to fall from the skies. Just then, the pilot and co-pilot watched helplessly as bullets ripped through the cockpit ceiling, wounding the pilot, and causing the oxygen system to malfunction, leaving the desperate crew destined to succumb to anoxia in mere moments. It was then that the bomber fell into a slow upside-down flat spin. It did not take long before the pilot saw his co-pilot, eyes closed due to lack of oxygen, that he too, slowly lost consciousness as he watched the farmlands of Germany far beneath them, grow closer with each passing moment. The fate appeared sealed for the badly beaten bomber and the lives of her remaining crew. “The Pub” would be easy prey for the hunters of the Luftwaffe. At that precise moment, and with hundreds of miles still to get home, a lone Bf 109 would see the stricken bomber, take off and prepare to shoot it down. The German pilot was an ace, and  his plane had 22 victory marks, and he only needed to shoot down one more bomber to earn the long coveted Knight’s Cross.

However, the loaded guns of the 109 did not rain down its fire of death upon the bomber. Instead – and against all that was meant to happen in war – they stayed silent. The 109 cautiously approached the B-17, its pilot carefully manoeuvred around the aircraft watching for any sign from the gun crews that might suggest they were about to fire.  Inside, he saw its pilot who sat stunned in disbelief at the sight before him, and from the outside of the bomber, he knew whatever crew remained were likely desperately fighting to save their wounded comrades and themselves. (As the B-17 lost altitude, the remaining crew, including the pilot and co-pilot regained consciousness, and somehow managed to right the plane and set her on a course for home.)

In the B-17, pilot 2nd Lieutenant Charlie Brown watched in amazement as the 109 piloted by 2nd Lieutenant Franz Stigler formed up against it, perhaps teasing the crew before delivering the final and devastating blow. Stigler however, a sworn enemy of the Eighth Air Force, instead of firing, gestured to the crewmen to fly to Sweden and safety. But Brown, stubborn in his determination to get his crew home, didn’t understand, and carried on flying straight and level toward the North Sea and home. Stigler flew alongside, fearing the bomber would never make it and crash into the sea, so he continued to gesture to the crew. Steadfast, they carried onward, watching the 109, waiting for him to attack the defenceless bomber. Finally, fearing he may be shot down himself, Stigler saluted the crew and departed, leaving the bomber to fly safely back to England.

The story of this brief encounter remained unknown for many years – Stigler sworn to secrecy for fear of his own life, and Brown for fear of complacency in the Air Force, were both unable to openly talk about the experience. Then, after many years and through extensive research and letter-writing, the two pilots finally met up in a meeting that was so charged with emotion that it reduced both men to tears.

Immortalised in John Shaw’s painting* and Adam Mako’s book, “A Higher Call” is the dramatic story of this strange and heartfelt encounter.

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John Shaws’ painting of the two aircraft flying together.

This is not a book about one meeting though. This is a book  about two men, the people behind the guns, the characters, their experiences and their lives. It tells the story of Franz Stigler, how he, as a natural pacifist, was drawn into a vulgar fight waged by madmen and tyrants thirsty for revenge. The story is told as he progressed from flying school then onto Egypt and Sicily and eventually back to defend his homeland against the continued onslaught of heavy bomber formations reigning death and destruction upon a foe so evil, it led to the slaughter of millions of innocent people.

But why did Stigler let the bomber crew live? The book reveals his character, his determination to carry out his duty to defend his homeland, the honour that existed between friend and foe, the unwritten rules of warfare, and the distaste he had for all that Nazism stood for. When these worlds collided, he had to make a decision. His finger poised over the trigger, to squeeze it or not? That… That was the moment when Franz Stigler realized if he DID shoot, it would be no ‘victory’ for him. With that, his desire to earn the Knight’s Cross disappeared. He knew that there were more important aspirations for him.

In this well written book , Mako reveals the man behind the gesture. Through research and interviews with both crewmen, he lays out the story of Stigler delving into his character, digging deep into the memories of that night and the events that led up to and after it. He explores the events that created the man, the decisions that made him the person he was. A man to whom medals and numbers were not important, a man who would risk his own life to ensure the safety of others.

It would look at how the people of post war Germany, would turn against him and his kind, laying the blame for defeat firmly at the feet of the fighter pilot. How a once hero of the Reich would become the villain, be despised by those he protected even though he disagreed with what they stood for.

This is a fascinating and compelling book, detailed in every aspect – it is difficult to put down. It provides a fascinating insight into the man and his machine, the tragedies and traumas of war. Supplemented by original letters and photographs, this book is a fascinating read into the story behind the picture, and the events that occurred on that day, December 20th 1943.

A Higher Call is written by Adam Makos and Larry Alexander is published by Atlantic Books.

* The original painting was created by Robert Harper, the Assistant Intelligence Officer of the 448th BG at RAF Seething where Brown’s B-17 landed.

American Ghosts – RAF Kimbolton an Airfield with a Remarkable History.

Kimbolton was home to the American USAAF, it also housed one of the RAF’s rarest Wellington Bombers of the Second World War. The 379th BG were the main residents achieving a number of records whilst bombing heavily defended targets in occupied Europe. We go back to see what is left today.

RAF Kimbolton. (Station 117)

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Looking across Kimbolton today.

We arrive not far from the busy A14 to the south-west of Graffham Water. Perched on top of the hill, as many of these sites are, is Station 117 – Kimbolton. Having a short life, it was home to the 379th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force, flying some 330 missions in B-17s. The site is split in two by the main road which uses part of the original perimeter track for it’s base. To one side is where the runways and dispersal pens would have been, to the other side the main hangers, admin blocks, fuel storage and squadron quarters. The former is now open fields used for agriculture and the later a well-kept and busy industrial site. What was the main runway is crossed by this road where there is now a kart track.

Kimbolton Airfield in 1945, taken by 541 Sqn RAF. (English Heritage RAF Photography – RAF_106G_UK_635_RP_3217)

Kimbolton was designed with three concrete runways, the main running north-west / south-east, (2154 yds); the second and third running slightly off north-south (1545 yds) and east-west (1407 yds), it also had two T2 hangars with a proposed third, along with 20 ‘loop’ style hardstands and 31 ‘frying pan’ hardstands around its perimeter.

The local railway line formed the northern boundary,  the bomb store was to the south-west, the technical and administrative site to the south-east and beyond that the accommodation sites. To house the huge numbers staff to be located at Kimbolton, there were two communal sites; a WAAF site; sick quarters; two sewage sites; two officers quarters, an airmen’s quarters; a sergeants site and two further sites with ablutions and latrines. These were all spread to the south-eastern corner of the airfield,

Originally built in 1941 as a  satellite for RAF Molesworth, it was initially used by the RAF’s Wellington IVs, a rare breed where only 220 airframes were built. 460 Sqn were formed out of ‘C’ flight 458 Sqn at Molesworth and used the Wellingtons until August 1942 when they replaced them with the Halifax II. Staying only until January 1942, their departure saw the handing over of both Molesworth and Kimbolton to the USAAF Eighth Air Force and the heavier B-17s. During this time, the airfield was still under construction, and although the majority of the infrastructure was already in place, the perimeter was yet to be completed.

First to arrive was the 91stBG, who only stayed for a month, before moving on to Bassingbourn.  A short stay by ground forces preceded extensions to the runways, accommodation and improved facilities. Now Kimbolton was truly ready for a Heavy Bomb Group.

Soon to arrive, was the 379th BG, 41st CW, flying B-17Fs. Activated in November 1942 they arrived at Kimbolton via Scotland, ground forces sailing from New York whilst the crews flew their aircraft from Maine to Prestwick via the northern supply route.

Arriving in April / May, their first mission would be that same month. The 379th would attack prestige targets such as industrial sites, oil refineries, submarine pens and other targets stretching from France and the lowlands to Norway and onto Poland. Targets famed for heavy defences and bitter fighting, they would often see themselves over, Ludwigshafen, Brunswick, Schweinfurt, Leipzig, Meresberg and Gelsenkirchen. They would receive two DUCs for action over Europe including, raids without fighter escort over central Germany on January 11th 1944. They assisted with the allied invasion, the breakout at St. Lo and attacked communication lines at the Battle of the Bulge. They  would operate from Kimbolton until after the war’s end, when on 12th June 1945, they began their departure to Casablanca.

Life at Kimbolton was not to be easy and initiation into the war would be harsh. On the first operation, four aircraft were lost, three over the target and one further crashing on return. Three of the crews were to die; a stark warning as to what would come. Their second mission would fair little better. An attack on Wilhelmshaven, saw a further six aircraft lost and heavy casualties amongst the survivors. Things were not going well for the 379th and with further losses, this was to be one of the bloodiest entries into the war for any Eight Air Force Group.

A B-17 Flying Fortress (FR-C, serial number 42-38183) nicknamed

B-17 Flying Fortress (‘FR-C’, 42-38183) “The Lost Angel” of the 379th BG sliding on grass after crash landing, flown by Lieutenant Edmund H Lutz at Kimbolton. (Roger Freeman Collection)

As the air battle progressed, further losses would be the pay off for accurate and determined bombing by the 379th. Flying in close formation as they did, accidents often occurred. On January 30th 1944, 42-3325 “Paddy Gremlin” was hit by bombs from above. Then again, on September 16th 1943, two further aircraft were downed by falling bombs, close formation flying certainly had its dangers.

Some 1 in 6 losses of the USAAF were due to accidents of one form or another. Collisions were another inevitable part of the close formation flying. A number of memorials around the country remember crews who lost their lives whilst flying in close formation. Kimbolton and the 379th were to be no different. On June 19th 1944, two B-17Gs 44-6133 (unnamed) and 42-97942 “Heavenly Body II” crashed over Canvey Island killing all but one of 44-6133 and three of Heavenly Body II. The official verdict stated that the second pilot failed to maintain the correct position whilst in poor visibility, a remarkable feat in any condition let alone poor visibility whilst possibly on instruments alone. (See full details of the terrible accident).

However, not all was bad for the 379th though. Luck was on the side of B-17F, 42-3167, “Ye Olde Pub“, when on December 20th 1943, anti-aircraft fire badly damaged the aircraft whilst over Bremen. The aircraft limping for home, was discovered by Lt. Franz Stigler of JG 27/6. On seeing the aircraft, Stigler escorted the B-17 over the North Sea, whereupon he saluted and departed allowing the B-17 safe passage home where it landed and was scrapped.

A number of prestige visitors were seen at Kimbolton. These included King George VI, Queen Elizabeth, Princess Elizabeth and General Doolittle. One particular and rather rare visitor arrived at Kimbolton on January 8th 1944. A rebuilt Messerschmitt BF-109 stayed here whilst on a familiarisation tour for crews. Shot down over Kent it was rebuilt to flying condition and flown around the country.

8th 1944.

Seen in front of a B-17, Messerschmitt BF-109 runs up her engine at Kimbolton, January 8th 1944. (Roger Freeman Collection FRE 4775)

All in all the 379th had a turbulent time. By the time they had left Kimbolton, they had lost a great many crews, but their record was second to none. They flew more sorties than any other Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force – in excess of 10,000 in 330 missions; dropped around 24,000 tons of ordnance, equating to 2.3 tons per aircraft; pioneered the 12 ship formation that became standard practice in 1944 and had the lowest abortive rate of any group from 1943. Kimbolton was visited by Lieutenant General James Doolittle, and two B-17s held the record of that time “Ol Gappy” and “Birmingham Jewel“, for the most missions at the end of their service. They also had overall, one of the lowest loss rates of all Eighth AF Groups largely due to the high mission rates.

With their departure to Casablanca, the 379th would be the last operational unit to reside at Kimbolton. Post war it was retained by the RAF until sold off in the 1960s, it was returned to agriculture, the many buildings torn down, the runways dug up and crops planted where B-17s once flew.

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The old perimeter track exists for farm machinery and forms part of the main road.

Kimbolton today is little more than a small industrial estate and farmland. At the main entrance to the industrial site, is a well-kept memorial. Two flags representing our two nations, stand aside a plaque showing the layout of the field as was, with airfield detail added.  Behind this, and almost un-noticeable, is a neat wooden box with a visitors book and a file documenting all those who left from here never to return. There are a considerable number of pages full of names and personal detail – a moving document. One of the B-17 pilots, Lt. Kermit D. Wooldridge, of the 525th Bomb Squadron, 379th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force kept a diary of his 25 raids, and many of the crew members mentioned in the memorial book appear in his diaries. These are currently being published by his daughter, and can be seen at https://sites.google.com/site/ww2pilotsdiary/  They tell of the raids, the crews and detailed events that took place over the skies of occupied Europe from June 29th 1943. I highly recommend reading it.

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Memorial book listing those that never came home.

This is a lovely place to sit (benches are there) and contemplate what must have been a magnificent sight all those years ago. It made me think of the part in the film ‘Memphis Belle’, where the crew were sitting listening to the poetry just prior to departure, how many young men also stood here ‘listening to poetry’. The control tower would have stood almost opposite where you are now, with views across an enormous expanse. Here they would have stood ‘counting them back’. Like everything else, it has gone and the site is now ‘peaceful’.

Kimbolton saw great deal of action in its short life. But if determination and grit were words to associate with any flying unit of the war, the 379th would be high on that list.

From Kimbolton we head off to another American Ghost, one that holds its own record and a beautiful stained glass window. We go to the American base at RAF Grafton Underwood.

Kimbolton was originally visited a couple of years ago, this is an update of that trail and it appears in Trail 6 – ‘American Ghosts’.