Celebrated Norfolk bomber draws visitors from as far as America
- Credit: Archant
New research into one of the most celebrated bomber missions flown out of Norfolk during the Second World War sparked a sentimental trans-Atlantic journey. Steve Snelling charts a saga of great courage, miraculous good fortune and enduring remembrance
It is a scene starkly at odds with the past. From the crumbling remains of an airfield perimeter track, a field sown with crops stretches towards a hazy horizon shimmering in the sun’s sharp light.
Even the distant outline of a control tower, ungainly and unmistakable against an unruly tangle of undergrowth, is not enough to easily conjure an image of war from so peaceful a setting.
Jim Blakely closes his eyes and tries to picture a different scene in a different time, a scene tingling with tension and fraught with drama as to rival any of the most nerve-jangling of Hollywood climaxes.
In his mind’s eye, he imagines the fading light of an early autumn evening more than 75 years ago and the sight of his father at the controls of a crippled, shot-up Flying Fortress, its blood-spattered, bullet-torn fuselage resembling a colander as it labours ever closer towards these same few Norfolk acres.
It is a vision at once awe-inspiring and terrifying. Of the four engines only two are still functioning and the aircraft, operating barely above stalling speed, appears to be flying almost sideways as it drops lower and lower in the sky.
Improbably and incredibly, he succeeds in putting her down on the ground only to realise that miraculous salvation may be short-lived: ruptured hydraulics have rendered the brakes useless and the aircraft is careering straight for a large tree at about 50 miles per hour…
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That mission, that extraordinary return flight against th’’s culminating in that spectacular crash-landing at Ludham had contrived to make B-17 23393 Just-A-Snappin’ one of the most celebrated aircraft in the history of the United States’ Eighth Air Force.
Its incident-packed sortie to Bremen and back on October 8, 1943 was an epic on a par with the heroic saga of the Memphis Belle and the fictionalised exploits memorably portrayed in the movie Twelve O’Clock High.
At a time when losses among American bomber crews operating out of East Anglia were alarmingly high, the fate of Just-A-Snappin’ and the performance of her crew, led by 24-year-old Everett Blakely, acted as a timely tonic.
The Thorpe Abbotts-based ‘Fort’ was headline news on both sides of the Atlantic and, in the years since, has become the stuff of enduring legend that has served to inspire one last quest, a quixotic odyssey that would prompt Jim Blakely and his wife Mary to venture more than 4,700 miles from their home in Dallas, Texas.
What would prove a journey of discovery of the sometimes torturous kind began at the Norfolk control tower museum and spiritual home of the 100th Bomb Group late last summer with a throwaway line from curator Ron Batley.
As museum volunteer Brian Barden recalls: “We were just talking about Just-A-Snappin’ and Ron happened to say, ‘I wonder if the tree is still there’. Everything just snowballed from there…”
It marked the start of a full-scale project involving Brian, Ron, their wives Linda and Carol, fellow museum volunteers Richard Gibson, Richard Tallent and Chris Tennet, together with Ludham historian Bill Buck and local resident Mike Fuller.
Their attempt to pinpoint the precise location where one of the most famous of all ‘Bloody Hundredth’ bombers ended its distinguished career would be no simple task.
Despite a plethora of contemporary photographs, a series of site visits and help from the latest geo-fixing technology, they still found themselves, after months of investigation, quite literally barking up the wrong tree.
But, just like the aircrew who are their abiding inspiration, they refused to give in even as autumn turned to icy mid-winter. Theirs was a persistence born of dedication and determination to understand which it is necessary to go back to the story of B-17 23393 and a remarkable last sortie that would catapult Just-A-Snappin into the record books.
It is a tale of fortitude and formidable courage against the odds that is commemorated in words and pictures at Thorpe Abbotts Control Tower Museum, but which is best told in the words of the men who flew that most remarkable of missions and in the hand-me-down memories they passed on to another generation.
Mission 111, as it was officially styled, was designed to strike a devastating blow against the harbour installations, submarine pens and industrial targets in and around the north German port of Bremen in the manner of the July firestorm assault on Hamburg.
Nearly 400 bombers, comprising mostly of B-17 Flying Fortresses supported by a smaller force of B-24 Liberators flying in mass formation, were tasked with bombing in four waves with Just-A-Snappin’ at the head of the 60-odd aircraft from the Thirteenth Combat Wing in the third wave.
Riding alongside Everett Blakely as they climbed away from Thorpe Abbotts in the early afternoon of October 8, 1943 was Major John Kidd, wing leader and command pilot, with his usual partner, Lieutenant Charles A Via, acting as formation controller from the narrow confines of the tail turret.
Initial signs were promising. Take-off and formation was accomplished in record time and by 1.29pm the 100th BG with aircraft from two other groups had come together in what Blakely reckoned was “the best formation flown during our entire experience”.
Progress across the North Sea was hampered only by aborted bombers weaving their way back through the vast aerial armada. Visibility was good if a little hazy. They were on time and bang on course, but that was about it so far as positives were concerned.
From the moment, they began their approach to the target area it was going to be a rough ‘ride’. “We didn’t need our maps or our dead reckoning to tell us we were getting close. Nor to tell us that our arrival was expected,” recalled Blakely. “We could… see an immense black smoke-cloud hiding most of the business area of Bremen.
“What was worse, we could see a tremendous carpet of flak coming up to greet us. Not a few individual shots and some small black balls, but so much solid flak you could almost slice it like a cake.”
Moments later, they were inside the “oily cloud” at the mercy of a man-made storm. “We could actually feel the whole airplane being thrown bodily upwards as shells burst directly below us,” observed Kidd. “And we heard the accompanying rattle of steel splinters striking the fuselage.”
It sounded “just like rice being thrown over an automobile at a wedding”, though, as he later remarked, “I couldn’t help thinking how remote what was going on at that moment was from a wedding.”
Things now began to happen fast. As great “bunches” of flak burst all around, a German fighter was seen boring in on another B-17. Hit by a stream of bullets, it careered on to smash into the hapless bomber, reducing both to flaming wrecks.
The group’s lead ‘ship’, Picadilly Lily, suffered a direct hit, caught fire and fell away steeply before exploding. Others quickly followed as the sky became a hell of fire and flame that seemed to engulf the 100th Group’s formations.
Shot up by fighters, Our Baby, her controls ruptured and one engine knocked out, fell easy prey to a second attack. Phartzac was hit by flak, burst into flame and exploded. And then it was Just-A-Snappin’s turn to feel the full force of the enemy’s wrath.
The bomber had already suffered damage to its ball turret two minutes short of the target when, with barely 30 seconds to go to ‘bombs away’, another burst of flak struck the nose, shattering the Perspex window and spraying shards of shrapnel through the front of the aircraft.
Miraculously, the bombardier escaped unharmed, though his flying suit was torn, and he retained sufficient composure to release the bombs before Blakely took evasive action in an attempt to escape the deluge fire.
It was a vain effort. Moments later, Just-A-Snappin’ was bracketed yet again. Navigator Harry Crosby later wrote: “Our No 4 engine was destroyed… The control wires were shattered and the left elevator was ripped to shreds, plunging our plane into a sort of spinning dive, completely out of control…”
To horrified onlookers, Just-A-Snappin’ appeared doomed. Flames were gushing from one engine and the aircraft’s control surfaces were all “cut and torn” as she dived earthwards.
Natural survival instincts might have dictated a rush to bail out, but, incredibly, her pilots held their nerve, passing on command to their deputy even as they fought to regain control.
Theirs was a truly life-or-death struggle that, according to the usually loquacious Crosby, defied description. As Blakely later remarked, “You can lose altitude awfully fast when one engine and your controls get chewed into ribbons”.
In the course of their nightmare descent “most of the crew not strapped to their seats were thrown to the floor [and] shaken severely” but, thanks to a combination of handling skill and brute strength, Blakely and Kidd contrived to level out after a potentially disastrous fall of 3,000 feet.
For the moment, they were safe, but their ordeal was far from over. A swift survey revealed their parlous state. Crosby summed up: “We had lost all communication back of the top turret, so it was impossible to determine the extent of injury and damage. Our control wires were fraying as far back as the top turret operator could see. At least two of the crew had reported being hit immediately after we left the target. Our engine was in such bad condition that bits and finally the entire cowling was blasted off. We were losing altitude so rapidly probably because of the condition of the elevator that any but shortest way back was beyond contemplation.”
Their chances of making it looked bleak. They faced an unsupported flight of around 200 miles, much of it across enemy territory, in a “wounded” B-17 liable to catch fire at any moment, limping along at about 120 mph, just 20 mph above stalling speed, with the realistic possibility of being forced to ditch in the North Sea even if they made it that far.
And yet, according to Blakely, it took them “.0001 second flat” to reject the idea of a spell in captivity and to try for home.
What followed was a return flight of Homeric proportions as Just-A-Snappin’ and her gallant crew defied the odds to fight their way back across Germany and Holland in the face of a relentless series of attacks that began almost as soon as they’d made their decision.
Their survival was a scarcely credible feat that owed everything to the courage and skill of the aircraft’s gunners. Time after time they beat off enemy fighters as they swarmed in for the kill.
No fewer than three fell to the top turret guns operated by Technical Sergeant Monroe Thornton. Two more apiece were claimed by Staff Sergeant William McClelland in the defective ball-turret and stand-in gunner Charles Via, who was critically injured in the course of the fight, and another was shot down by Staff Sergeant Edward Yevich, despite wounds to an arm and leg.
But the most magnificent display of all came from waist-gunner Staff Sergeant Lester Saunders.
Wounded early on by a 20mm shell which tore into his chest and left a gaping wound in his back, he nevertheless stood firm, spreading his legs and bracing himself, before shooting down the aircraft that had hit him in what his captain called “a miracle of toughness and skill”.
All told, Just-A-Snappin’s gunners were credited with an unprecedented 10 enemy fighters destroyed at least two of which had just accounted for a couple of similarly vulnerable Fortresses which Blakely had seen go down in what he called “a flaming hell”.
Not until they reached the Dutch coast did the attacks cease and probably only then, Blakely surmised, because “they thought we were done for anyway”.
They were lower than 4,000 feet when the cockpit crew held a further “council of war” at which the possibility of a ‘ditching’ was briefly considered before being rendered impractical by the discovery that both of the aircraft’s rubber dinghies and three life-jackets had been “shot to pieces”.
Acknowledging that, in Blakely’s words, “there wasn’t a thing to do but stay with the ship - and hope we could make land”, those among the crew who weren’t either crippled or flying the plane busied themselves trying to improve their chances by lightening the load.
First to be hurled overboard were the guns that had saved them. They were followed by the remaining ammunition. Then the radio, a smashed camera and bomb-sight. Even empty thermos flasks and clothing were dumped.
It gained them a precious 300 feet and they needed all of it. “The plane was listing so badly,” recalled Blakely, “that our floating aperiodic compass stuck on the side.”
Guided the last leg of the journey by Crosby spotting where the sun “hit the pexiglass front of the plane”, they passed over the north Norfolk coast and almost immediately spotted an airfield which turned out to be an as yet non-operational RAF base at Ludham.
Yet as close to salvation as they were, their troubles were far from over. With only 10 gallons of fuel remaining and a rear wheel that stubbornly refused to drop down, Blakely realised with a sinking feeling that not only would they have to make a crash landing but they would only get one go at it with “no chance for a dress rehearsal”.
With already strained nerves tightening to breaking point, the pilots let down as best they could in a lopsided, barely controllable bomber.
With the rest of the crew crouched in crash positions, Just-A-Snappin’ slipped steadily lower in the sky until, in a squeal of rubber, she touched down at a deserted Ludham only for her pilots to discover one more unwelcome surprise: the aircraft’s brake cables had snapped on impact!
So near, yet so far - disaster loomed once again. Recalling that final twist to the drama, Blakely related: “Our elevator was useless. The plane wouldn’t taxi, wouldn’t steer. With the terrific momentum you can get at even 100 mph we ploughed down that vacant airport towards a huge tree. And no power on earth could stop us.”
Astonishingly, in a marvel of further good fortune, they were spared albeit by the narrowest of margins as
Just-A-Snappin’ struck the tree at a speed of roughly 50 mph at a point between the pilots’ compartment and No 2 engine. “Another three inches to the right and it would have crushed the pilot and co-pilot,” admitted Blakely.
The force of the collision swung the aircraft savagely round in a half loop, adding further destruction to a plane fit only for the scrap yard. When salvage crews eventually arrived Blakely reckoned they counted 800 shell and shrapnel holes “and then got tired of counting”.
More remarkably still, all but one of the men who emerged alive from the tree-enveloped wreckage of Just-A-Snappin’ lived to tell the extraordinary tale of their epic flight back to Bremen, the exception being the gallant Lester Saunders who succumbed to his grievous injuries before reaching the Norfolk & Norwich Hospital.
Fast forward more than seven decades and a number of landmarks stud what is left of Ludham’s long abandoned airfield, not least fragments of the old perimeter track and a graffiti-daubed control tower half-hidden by scrub.
But what of the tree, arguably the most celebrated tree in Eighth Air Force annals and the trigger for this latest historical quest?
Based on every last scrap of recorded and remembered detail about Just-A-Snappin’s shaky flight path, the team of aeronautical detectives from Thorpe Abbotts and Ludham placed it to the south of the airfield off the east-west runway. But where precisely?
Film of similar crash-landings were viewed with distances and timings noted. Photos, including some previously undiscovered prints, of the crash scene, were studied. The findings were then pieced together with a crucial account passed to Bill Buck by the daughter of a local man - Percy Hales - who had been carrying out maintenance work on the airfield that day.
Rushing to the crash scene, he assisted Everett Blakely out of the wreckage and then helped comfort the wounded till help arrived.
His story confirmed the researchers’ findings, placing the tree by Fritton road, on the south side of the airfield. But there the odyssey ended. For at some point during the intervening decades it was evidently removed with not a root remaining to indicate where it once stopped the progress of a battle-scarred Fortress.
Striding out across the airfield perimeter track Jim Blakely appears philosophical. Fixing his gaze onto the site where the tree once stood, the semi-retired radiologist muses instead on the Fates that ensured his father did not become another grim statistic in the litany of sacrifice endured by the 100th Group which lost 72 men that day.
“I only just learned from an older cousin a story about that trip to Bremen,” he says. “Apparently, my dad told him that just before the mission he’d asked his ground crew to remove the armour plating from his seat because he’d found it so uncomfortable.
“But when the salvage team took the aircraft apart they found it was still there only with a couple of big dents from flak in it. It turned out the ground crew hadn’t done what dad had asked them and he told my cousin, ‘that’s what saved my butt’!
“So, you see, I’m a lucky guy. I wasn’t born until 1948, so I wouldn’t be here but for the skill and accuracy of those gunners and the strength of that aircraft. I owe my life to them and to Boeing!”
As for the tree, he merely shrugs. “It’s a shame it’s gone, but what matters is that we remember what these men did all those years ago and that we have so many local people, all those volunteers who care for places like Thorpe Abbotts ControlMuseum and don’t get paid a dime, who have adopted the men of the Eighth Air Force and are keeping their memory alive.
“That’s really heart-warming.”