Story of heroism unearthed almost 80 years after tragic Norfolk plane crash
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
It's a story of bravery and sacrifice that saw three young men pay the ultimate price for saving a household in Wayland – now their story is being told as they are hailed heroes by a grateful village.
On collision course with a Norfolk house, the pilot of the stricken Bristol Blenheim took his chance to carry out one final act of bravery.
Inside the aircraft, his fellow airmen desperately tried to find a way to jettison themselves out of the plane before it nose-dived into a field, but it was too late: watching from the house that had been so narrowly missed, a young evacuee watched in open-mouthed horror.
The young girl powerlessly looked on as the plane smashed into the earth before bursting into a fireball with flames so fierce that her eyelashes and eyebrows were singed as she raced outside to save her pet rabbits.
It was a spectacular display of heroism from three young men, two a long way from their homes in Canada, all who gave their lives to protect those of others, both in their service to their country and by their actions on July 7 1942.
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Their selflessness saved a household including a young child and a heavily-pregnant woman who within days gave birth to a healthy son but their story became lost in time over the decades, their names joining a poignant list of airmen who died during the conflict.
Ann Cuthbert, who lives in the house which escaped destruction back in the summer of '42, is insistent that the names and the sacrifice of these brave young men is never forgotten in Wayland, where the crash happened and the men were based during World War Two.
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At the end of this month, she will welcome family members and representatives of the airmen to a series of commemorative events including a dinner, a visit to a surviving Blenheim at Duxford, presentations from historian Julian Horn and a service in Watton held by the Revd Geraldine Foster. There will also be the dedication of a new memorial, close to where the men died.
It was an ordinary day on July 7 1942 when the crew of a war-weary Bristol Blenheim V5851 of 21 Squadron took off from RAF Watton around three miles from Stow Bedon on what is thought to have been a routine training mission.
No one knows exactly what happened but at around 5pm as the Blenheim appeared to be making its way back to Watton, eye-witnesses saw it flying at a low level a few miles from the airfield at Stow Bedon, where the land forms a valley.
Here, it is said that the aircraft hit a tree and its tail was damaged, but others believe there was a structural failure which was to blame for the subsequent crash: whatever the reason, the plane began to plummet towards the ground and a house in the village.
An evacuee who was staying at the house later wrote that she saw the plane limping and flying very low after an accident at nearby Spinney Farm - with horror, she realised suddenly that the Blenheim was in direct line with exactly where she was standing.
Then, the pilot made a decision which saved the house and sealed the fate of those within the plane: he pointed the nose of the craft down and within seconds the plane was buried in Wayland mud.
She wrote: "But for the courage of these men, everyone in the cottage would have died. To my mind, no windows were broken, but the flames were so fierce that the trees burnt, the honeysuckle on the front porch was burnt up and the paint on that side of the cottage was blistered and peeled off.
"My eyelashes and eyebrows were singed when I went outside from the kitchen to go to the stable to let out our rabbits that were in hutches inside. I then ran to the Post Office to ask them to phone the police and my father, who was working in Attleborough.
"My sister was delivered of her baby a few days later and for years he used to cling and scream when he heard an aeroplane."
Pilot Sgt Frank Brown Graham Heron and Observer Flt Sgt George Douglas "Bucky" Maluish of the Royal Canadian Air Force and Air Gunner Sgt George Edward Step were killed in the terrible crash and now rest at St Mary's Church in Watton.
Frank and George were just 20-years-old when their lives were cut short, Bucky just 23, leaving their families devastated.
After joining up in March 1941 in Edmonton and training in High River, Frank - who had three brothers - was posted overseas in December 1941. When he died, his youngest brother Larry was aged just one and was told his brave older brother had a habit of always flying with a pair of his baby brother's booties under his flying helmet.
Bucky - always known by his nickname- Maluish has a surviving second cousin and was from Ontario in Canada. He had two brothers, Ted and Tom, and one sister, Evelyn and all the sons in the family served in the war.
His cousin tells a poignant story: "My mother once told me that the day the family was informed of Bucky's death, you could hear his mother screaming four blocks away at my Mom's house.
"Bucky was very handsome and a very good athlete and of course his death was a huge loss to his family. His father and my grandfather both served in WW1."
George was born in Ulverston in Lancashire but his grandmother was from Stiffkey and his father lived in Wells-next-the-Sea for a time - Ann would love to know more about him, and is hoping information will come to light.
Telling the story of the airmen who prevented a civilian disaster in Stow Bedon has become a labour of love for Ann, who has been helped by farm owner Robert Childerhouse, RAF Watton historian Julian Horn and Duxford Imperial War Museum.
"I have known a little bit about what happened in the field next to my garden for many years and have often stood looking at where it happened, silently thanking those men for what they did for us," she said
"I wanted to find out more. I wanted to know who these men were, what had happened and I wanted to make sure that they were remembered. It felt like they had been forgotten and I knew that couldn't happen.
"Of course the graves had been nearby all along and some of the families had been visiting them for years, so I am glad to say that they were definitely not forgotten but their story had been lost in the village."
"It felt like unfinished business. Sadly, these crashes weren't rare during this period of time and as a result, the details sometimes got blurred, but of course each man has their own story."
There will be four members of Bucky's family travelling from Canada for the events on the last weekend in September and five others will represent both Frank and George - representatives from RAF Marham and the Canadian High Commission plus villagers will also attend.
It will, said Ann, be the first time that the families have been together and she hopes that bonds will be made by virtue of their shared link to a tragic day almost 80 years ago.
"It has been an honour to find out about these young men and we are looking forward to a very special weekend," she added, "it is our way of saying thank you and to make sure these three men are never forgotten."
* Find out more about RAF Watton at www.rafwatton.info.