On Reigate Hill, a scenic spot close to where I live, lies a memorial to the nine airmen of the American 384th Bombardment Group who died in a crash on their way back from a bombing mission over Germany in the closing months of the Second World War. I must have passed it a hundred times over the year on weekend and Bank Holiday strolls but, while it was always a point of interest, I never really stopped to take in. It’s part of the scenery, like the trees, the bandstand and the car park. Finally, I stopped, reread the information plaque, and with a little bit of extra research, I found that this memorial represented truly dramatic vignette of the trials, strains and dangers that were a part of life during the war years.
It was shortly before 6pm on 19 March 1945, and, the crew of B17(G) ‘Flying Fortress’ Aircraft 43-39035, were on their way back their base from a bombing mission over Germany to their base in Grafton Underwood, Northamptonshire. Poor weather had prevented their attacking the primary target, an oil plant in Bohlen, Saxony, and it was still troubling them now. They had left formation and were flying low, at approximately 200ft, beneath the overcast. The accident report suggests that that drizzle on the windshield had cut “clear forward visibility” down to “practically zero,” and that Reigate Hill was shrouded in clouds making it invisible to the pilot. “Observers in the town of Reigate,” says the report “saw the aircraft flying very low and headed directly into the hill.”
The memorial is in a small clearing in the trees that was created by the crash. It consists of two benches, shaped like wingtips and placed exactly the distance apart that real B17(G) wingtips flew, one at one side of the clearing, one at the other. This, in itself, is elegant testimony to the violence of the high-speed crash: that clearing would not otherwise exist. The shock of the impact burst the petrol tank and started a fire which was swiftly attended to by the local fire service. “The scene the following morning,” reports a local newspaper, “was one of smouldering desolation. A torn parachute hung from a tree, bits of smashed engine were scattered over the ground, crumpled wings had been torn from the main body of the aircraft which had smashed in two and was partially melted into cold pools of light metal.” Personal equipment, chewing gum, shaving brushes, combs, towels, a half-finished pack of cigarettes and a wristwatch, stopped but unbroken, showing the time 5.42 lay about on the charred ground.
Nine lives were lost, the oldest of them three months short of his 25th birthday. They all had impressive service records and they were on their thirteenth mission together. They were, by any measure, doing one of the most dangerous jobs of the war, but this was not death in action over enemy territory. (Indeed on those terms, this had been a good mission, with only one of 52 aircraft lost.) This was an accident in poor weather, of a type which, in the cool judgement of the report, “can be avoided only through exercise of better judgement and headwork by the pilots concerned.” The crash was ascribed “100% to pilot error”. Quite probably this was a fair judgement, but reading these lines, I could not help but think of the times I have found myself driving to work on the nearby motorway, when, as with the plane that day, the rain and mist on the windscreen “cut forward visibility to practically zero” and the potential for an accident feels quite high.
There are locals still around who witnessed the crash and saw the fire that resulted, but, as so often, wartime censorship prevented the report getting into the paper. They had a full year to wait before they were finally able to learn the names of the dead and understand the story. These nine aircrewmen travelled far to protect the freedom that we enjoy today and they left their mark in a very visual way in the place where they died. Their remembrance, as remembrance should be, – is part of the day to day scenery but it behoves us, now and then, as we pass it to reflect upon its significance.
The nine aircrewmen who died in the crash on Reigate Hill, 5.42 pm, 19 March 1945.
- Robert Stanley Griffin
- Herbert Seymour Geller
- Royal A. Runyon
- Thomas J. Hickey
- Waist Gunner, and the most decorated of the crew having been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross
- Sergeant Donald W Jeffrey
- Sergeant Williams R Irons
- Ball Turret Gunner
- Sergeant Robert Marshall
- Tail Gunner
- Philip J Phillips Jr
- Radio Operator and Medic
- Robert F Marshall
- Flight Engineer and Top Turret Gunner.