The Blakesley B-17s

October 11th 1944 dawned cloudy with intermittent drizzle and as the morning was progressing the weather deteriorated with patchy cloud up to 15,000 ft. The weather was setting the scene for the tragic events that were to unfold later in the morning. In mid-morning a formation of B17 Flying Fortresses took off from their base at Snetterton Heath in Norfolk, part of the 338th BS/96th Bombardier group for a training mission with a mock bombing run above Rugby. Over the village of Farthingstone, before their planned turn at Silverstone to return to base, tragically a formation of 3 aircraft were involved in a horrific mid-air collision at 15,000 ft after encountering severe turbulence and cloud. The accident was triggered when the pilot of B-17G 42-3510 pulled up and hit the nose of B-17G 43-37684 with its tail section. Just as 510 sheared in half the third B17 hit 684 with its rudder and also broke in two. Miraculously, Lt. Jack Core who was piloting 510 parachuted to safety, while his B17 and the other Flying Fortress plummeted to earth at Woodend west of Towcester, in four sections. Core's four crewmen were killed as was pilot Jorgenson and his six man crew. Although badly damaged 43-37684 was able to limp back to Snetterton Heath.

B-17s from Snetterton Heath

On this morning I was a young 5yr old playing in the paddock of 'The Gullet' (now known as The Four Winds) - our home, which was between Adstone and Canons Ashby when I heard the drone of one of the aircraft above cloud sounding like a wounded animal. My Mother came to call me in for lunch and remarked on the unusual sound of the aircraft and literally within a few seconds there was two deep thuds and a large pall of black smoke rose up in the sky about 2 miles away. At this moment our local baker Mr Billington came through the gate to deliver the bread and asked if we knew what was happening, he was deeply concerned because the crash appeared to be at Woodend where his wife and bakery were situated. We had no telephone or mobile phone in those days and he sped off in his van to a telephone box in Moreton Pinkney. Happily his bakery was undamaged but the crash site was only 700yds away.

Later that afternoon the skies had cleared and the sun was casting its shadows over the crash site I walked up to Adstone to play with the local children, the older ones had cycled over to the crash site and returned to the village with belts of live bullets strapped around their waists and big chunks of Perspex which were later made into cigarette lighters. No 'Health and Safety' in those days.

The clearing up of wreckage was the largest operation of its kind to take place in Northamptonshire during the Second World War, covering 170 fields stretching from Farthingstone to Woodend. Sadly, accidents like this were almost a daily occurrence over the county and in the chaos of war it was impossible to complete every search, and in this case Mr Howkins a local resident who was cutting kale on Mr Osborne's farm in December, two months later, found one of the crew lying where he had fallen, his parachute not having time to open.

Over the years the sad events of this October morning in 1944 have never left my memory, and in recent years I have visited the field each October to remember the crew who gave their lives for our freedom. In October 2007 it was a beautiful day just like that afternoon back in 1944 when I noticed some workmen with a JCB working in a cottage opposite the field.

The dig The dig

I wandered over to them and asked if they realised what had happened here some 60 years ago, and they replied that they had just dug up parts of an aircraft engine with their JCB in the garden. Having been introduced to the owner of the garden, Richard Lowens I suggested that the engine remains be given to a museum to which Richard readily agreed and they were moved to the Sywell Aviation Museum at Sywell Aerodrome in 2009. It was then that members of the museum suggested scanning the field for further aircraft artefacts to which Mr Frank Osborne, owner of the field, kindly agreed. A preliminary scan was carried out in 2009 and a full survey was completed in 2010 with some very strong readings. Following the preliminary scan in 2009 Mr Osborne agreed to an excavation at his field and the museum applied to the Ministry of Defence and the United States authorities for a licence to excavate the field under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. It took just over 12 months to establish where all the crew had been buried - initially, this had been at the American Memorial near Cambridge but some of the crew had been repatriated back to the United States in 1947. It was important that we established beyond doubt that the site was not a war grave to enable the licence to be granted.

Ceremony

The dig took place on the weekend of the 28/29th August with a small ceremony conducted on site. The dig has yielded many exciting finds. including ammunition, airframe parts and more. Perhaps the most poignant find is the silver identity bracelet of pilot Nicholas Jorgenson who perished that day. The Museum has been in contact already with his nephew in the USA who never knew what had happened to his uncle.

Bracelet Chin turret skin and armour plate

The artefacts will now be cleaned prior to display in the Museum at some stage in 2012.

Memorial unveiling Memorial unveiling

A memorial to the Blakesley B-17 Crash was formally opened on the 17th September 2011 - for the full story please see here.

A new exhibition on the crashes will open in the Museum in 2012.

Romer Adams, Sywell Aviation Museum

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B-17 Country

Northamptonshire and the bordering counties were the heart of 'Aircraft Carrier England' with numerous American bomber bases. Within just a short drive of Sywell you will find the airfields of Podington, Chelveston, Grafton Underwood, Spanhoe, Polebrook, Kings Cliffe and Molesworth. It was however from the further-flung base of Snetterton Heath that three ill-fated B-17s would depart on October 11th 1944...