Six minutes of slaughter... the story of the doomed Norfolk bomber raid

One of the only four aircrew to make it back to Tibenham.

One of the only four aircrew to make it back to Tibenham. - Credit: Eric Ratcliffe

Of the 35 aircraft which flew out from a Norfolk airbase to attack a target in Germany in September 1944, only four were to return. SARAH HUSSAIN tells the gripping story of one of the most disastrous aerial battles of the Second World War
 

A few hours after taking off from a Norfolk airbase in the early morning of September 27, 1944, dozens of B-24 Liberator bombers - with hundreds of tense young men huddled aboard – altered their flight path over occupied Europe.

The change of direction was meant to align them with their target: military factories in Kassel, a city as close to the centre of Germany as it is possible to get.

But it was to have terrible consequences.

A navigational error meant the planes were not only flying away from their intended objective but also away from their fighter escort and straight into an intense concentration of enemy fighters.

Work being carried out on a B-24 on Tibenham airfield.

Work being carried out on a B-24 on Tibenham airfield. - Credit: Eric Ratcliffe

Their mission was about to turn into one of the greatest military disasters of the Second World War.

In the space of just six minutes of slaughter, more than 100 young American men aboard the bombers were to lose their lives. It was the largest loss suffered by the United States Army Air Force from a single airfield in its history.

The fateful events of that day – on what is known as the Kassel Raid – has now been pieced together by Norfolk author Eric Ratcliffe.

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Mr Ratcliffe developed an interest in the mission from his involvement with the Norfolk Gliding Club, of which he is the current chairman.

The club operates out of Tibenham airfield and uses the same runways down which those Liberators thundered, most of them for the final time, on the morning of September 27, 1944.

Baynham crew shot down in B-24 'King Kong'.

Baynham crew shot down in B-24 'King Kong'. - Credit: Eric Ratcliffe

The aircraft were from the 445th Bombardment Group (BG), which had been based at Tibenham, just north of Diss, since November 1943.

Since 1941, the base had been transformed into a key part of the Allied bombing campaign against Nazi Germany.

While RAF aircraft attacked targets in the Third Reich at night American crews took part in daytime raids, in a combined effort to gradually grind down the German war effort.

On that day in September 1944, the target was the engineering works of Henschel & Sohn, a company which built armoured vehicles, including the Tiger and Panther tanks.

A total of 39 Liberators took off from Tibenham, with 336 men aboard.

In the air, they joined up in formation with American aircraft from other bases to create a huge force of 283 Liberators, accompanied by an escort of 198 P-51 Mustang fighters.

Tibenham airfield

Tibenham airfield. - Credit: Eric Ratcliffe

This vast armada headed over the East Anglian coast and across the North Sea.

On the way, some aircraft turned back with technical problems. Four of the Tibenham Liberators headed for home as their comrades flew on.

It was then that the fatal mistake that helped doom the group was made.

In thick cloud, the navigator aboard the lead 445th Liberator made a slight error.

Instead of directing the aircraft east, he set it on an east-south-east course.

The rest of the Tibenham aircraft followed and the Norfolk contingent drifted off from the main force.

They bypassed Kassel and, realising their error, decided instead to bomb railway facilities in the town of Göttingen, some 35 miles from the original target. 

Their luck did not improve however. Their bombs missed the marshalling yard and repair shop and fell on the village of Rosdorf on the outskirts.

Memorial to the 445th Bomber Group at Tibenham airfield for the 554 aircrew who lost their lives flying from Tibenham.

Memorial to the 445th Bomber Group at Tibenham airfield for the 554 aircrew who lost their lives flying from Tibenham. - Credit: Eric Ratcliffe

At around 11am they completed their bomb run and were flying over an area of woodland called the Seulingswald forest.

They were without fighter escort, in broad daylight, above enemy territory and hundreds of miles from home.

Almost immediately, the group was attacked from the rear by a force estimated at 150 German planes.

The Luftwaffe unit was a Sturmgruppe, a special group created to attack bombers by flying in tight formations. This was intended to break the bomber formation at a single pass. The aircraft had been specially adapted and equipped with extra armour and cannon. 

The encounter that followed was short, brutal and uneven.

The Germans did not emerge unscathed - they lost 29 fighters and 18 pilots killed.

But the Americans fared worse. Some 25 of the Tibenham bombers were shot down in a 15-mile radius of the Seulingswald. More would have followed, but for the late arrival of American fighters.

Another six bombers failed to make it home. Two crashed in France and one in Belgium. The other three made it across the Channel but could not reach Tibenham. Two landed at RAF Manston, in Kent, while one got as far as the airfield at Old Buckenham.

Only four of the group got back to Tibenham. Just one was fit to fly the next day.

In total, 117 men from the Norfolk base lost their lives that day and a further 121 became prisoners of war.
 

Eric Ratcliffe with his book The Kassel Raid.

Eric Ratcliffe with his book The Kassel Raid. - Credit: Eric Ratcliffe

In the days after the battle, USAAF aircraft dropped leaflets over the suspected landing zones to try and protect crews that had parachuted to safety from being lynched. It was a genuine threat. It is thought 11 Americans were killed after parachuting safely to the ground.

The story does not quite end there though. Despite the losses suffered, men from the 445th were sent out to Kassel the following day to attack the same target. This time their mission was a success.

Since the war ended, Tibenham airfield has become a site of pilgrimage for veterans and the families of many Americans who served there.

It was from talking to some of them while they were on a visit to the site in 1975 while he was gliding there, that Mr Ratcliffe - author of ‘The Kassel Raid, 27 September 1944’ - developed his interest in the history of the base.

“In 1975 the airfield itself was still more or less complete,” he said. “With the runways, perimeter tracks, hard standings and control tower all there to be explored.

“During this period I became interested in the history of the place and spent the hours when not flying exploring the various areas and amassing a collection of bits of aircraft and artefacts left behind by the Americans 30 years earlier.

“As the years went by, I met lots of American veterans returning either as groups for their UK reunions, or individually, usually showing families their old base and local haunts.”

Memorial in Germany on site of the 445th Lead crew Capt John Chilton’s crash site. 

Memorial in Germany on site of the 445th Lead crew Capt John Chilton’s crash site. Picture taken on 75th anniversary of the raid. - Credit: Eric Ratcliffe

The local historian said at one of the reunions he met Reg Miner, a former 445th pilot and survivor who was shot down on the Kassel Raid, and others from his crew, who recounted their tales.

“I was amazed, almost spellbound, and from there the seeds of this book were sown. Listening for hours to the guys I had met over the years made me open the laptop and start to type.

“What stands out is the impact not only on the guys who got shot down and wound up in the PoW camps, but also the impact on the local populace that were around at the time.

“The kids sitting on the doorstep of their huts crying because ‘their crews’ had disappeared and they weren’t getting the sweets or the candy anymore, that sort of thing.

“And the ladies left with loads of washing to be collected, that never got collected.”

There is now a memorial at Tibenham to the 445th and another, unveiled in 1990, at the crash site of the lead bomber in the Seulingswald. The book will provide another way in which the men who died will not be forgotten.

But the airbase itself - and its continued use - also serves as monument to the 445th.

Mr Ratcliffe said while Tibenham survived the “onslaught of the concrete crushers” it lost most of the buildings including the control tower, nearly all of the hardstands, the peri-track and the end of one runway.

In 1987, the gliding club bought part of the runways to operate from and with help from some Americans, club members and some grant aid it managed to acquire the remainder a few years later.

“Our greatest assets are the three large runways – but this brings with it a cost.

“The asphalt is mainly more than 75 years old and it’s starting to show its age, weeds abound on the areas that are little used and potholes appear regularly.

“So, for every copy of this book sold, a donation will go towards runway maintenance as a living memorial to those 554 airmen who took off from them but never landed on them again.”

The book which is published by Pen & Sword Books Ltd is available to purchase on Amazon

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