Second World War plane crash which almost wiped out village

Crew members of the B17 which crashed near Deenethorpe on December 5, 1943. Back row, L-R: C Floto, J King, W Hammond, W Keith. Front row, L-R: B Besselieu, H Kelson, R Kerr, W Cohen, B Musser, W Woodward
Crew members of the B17 which crashed near Deenethorpe on December 5, 1943. Back row, L-R: C Floto, J King, W Hammond, W Keith. Front row, L-R: B Besselieu, H Kelson, R Kerr, W Cohen, B Musser, W Woodward
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A service last weekend marked the 70th anniversary of the crash of a Lancaster bomber which killed three young airmen.

RAF men Sergeant Thomas Higgins, 23, and 19-year-old Sergeant George Clark O’Neill, as well as 20-year-old Flight Sergeant Cecil Ernest Ryall of the Royal Australian Air Force, died when their aircraft crashed near Brigstock on December 22, 1943.

Kettering and District RAF Association members gather at Welland Gliding Club, near Brigstock to remember the 70th anniversary of the crash of a Lancaster bomber.

Kettering and District RAF Association members gather at Welland Gliding Club, near Brigstock to remember the 70th anniversary of the crash of a Lancaster bomber.

A fire had broken out in its engine, and the three men were trapped by a jammed rear door.

The British airmen were both from Scotland while Fl Sgt Ryall grew up in Bondi, New South Wales.

The rest of the crew of the plane, which had taken off from RAF Spilsby in Lincolnshire and which had previously been involved in bombing raids over Germany, were able to bale out of the stricken aircraft.

However, at least three of the survivors are known to have been killed in action the following year.

Just a month before the crash, the aeroplane had collided with another Lancaster over Germany in which it sustained severe damage to its nose.

It was nursed back to Britain by Pilot Officer Bill Baker, who suffered severe frostbite in his hands as a result of the cold air which rushed in through the holes in the plane’s body.

Baker, who received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his efforts, never flew again.

A service led by the Rev Graham Bell and held near the crash site at Welland Gliding Club on December 21 marked the anniversary.

Paul Knight – who organised the ceremony and who also first suggested a memorial, which was built 15 years ago – gave a reading, as did Reg Payne, of Kettering.

Mr Payne himself had to bale out of a Lancaster during the Second World War.

Mr Knight arranged for the memorial to be erected in 1998, and the orginal unveiling was marked with a flypast by a Lancaster, a Hurricane and a Spitfire run by the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

This month also marks the 70th anniversary of a separate plane crash which almost wiped out a village near Corby.

On December 5, 1943, an American B17 Flying Fortress came down in Deenethorpe.

The day after the incident, the Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph reported that the village had “escaped obliteration on Sunday morning by nothing short of a miracle”.

After the plane came down, the airmen – conscious the plane was likely to explode within minutes – rushed to tell villagers to clear the area.

The Telegraph’s report continued: “Out into the fields they [residents] hurried, some to lie flat, some to shelter behind haystacks and others to crouch fearfully, behind mangold clamps.

“There they waited, breathless, gazing with apprehension at the clustered village homes in which they had lived for many years.

“Slowly the minutes passed and at the end of about 10 – BOOMPH! – the bomb-load was detonated by the heat from the flames enveloping the burning machine.”

The only thing killed by the subsequent explosion was a calf, and a service was held the following week to offer thanks for the fact nobody was killed or injured.

Paul Knight also witnessed the aftermath of the B17 crash.

He was 14 at the time, and decided to cycle from his home in Brigstock to the crash site after hearing the explosion.

He subsequently became friends with the flight’s radio operator, Staff Sergeant Benjamin Musser, later holidaying with him in Arizona.

Mr Knight, who still lives in Brigstock, said: “It was a Sunday morning, about a quarter to nine.

“My parents kept a shop and I got up to get them a cup of tea.

“Then this thing blew up. All these things on a shelf danced up and down for what seemed like ages but was only a matter of seconds.

“I thought ‘that was one that had crashed’.

“As the day wore on I couldn’t resist the temptation to go and have a look.

“I got on my bicycle. My parents weren’t very keen on me going.

“I was cycling along the road between Weldon and the Stamford Road.

“As I got near to Deenethorpe I could see smoke still rising – this was mid-afternoon.

“I could see the majority of the buildings had some sort of damage, some worse than others.

“There was certainly a lot of broken glass and there were rescue vehicles about.”

Mr Knight said he was stopped by a policeman as he approached the village.

“To my astonishment he said the crew all got out,” Mr Knight remembered.

“I told him I wanted to go to Upper Benefield [as an excuse] and he said ‘OK, but you are not to touch any of the wreckage’.”

“A lot of crashes happened in the area during the war.”

He said he was eventually able to get in touch with Musser, who told him what had happened.

“They were taking off as normal,” Mr Knight said.

“Then the wing tip dug into the runway. They knew they were in trouble.

“It crashed into an empty cottage, came to a halt and caught fire.

“The two men in the front were trapped but the others got out.

“The rest of the crew told villagers to get out of their houses because it would most certainly blow.”

The aeroplane was carrying 2,000 gallons of fuel and 6,000 pounds of bombs, and its explosion could be felt as far away as Kettering.

And Mr Knight said the airmen’s warnings ensured there were no civilian casualties.

He added: “There was nobody injured. It was incredible really.

“It was so close to the centre [of the village] it’s a wonder anyone got out.

“It was quite frightening for everyone living around here.”