“The last flight of the Belle of the East”
Chris Davies did some ‘digging’ into the past and using his experience as a traffic accident investigator has managed to reconstruct the last few minutes of “Belle of the east”.
Ernest Guyton was my maternal grandfather. He was a market gardener and lived in Waveney House, in the village of Belton which is about four miles Southwest of Great Yarmouth, in Norfolk. Each summer my father would drive us there from South Wales, first in a Ford Popular, and then in sheer luxury a Vauxhall velox! Yes in those days the summers really were long and blisteringly hot. Behind the house there was a large plum orchard and simply the biggest barn in the world, full of large wooden boxes which were supposed to contain tomatoes or chrysanthemums, but which I invariably turned into a wartime Bomber. This was because of the story which I had heard recounted many times of the WWII bomber which literally skidded over Waveney House before crashing and demolishing much of my grandfathers plum orchard. My wooden boxes became a bomber because of the altimeter and other bits and pieces of aircraft which I had collected during my wanderings around Angel of mercy who helped the American Airmen in 1944 the extensive grounds of the house.
The story of the crash was recounted by my grandfather. He told me that my mother Hazel, a red cross VAD nurseHazel Guyton angel of mercy who helped the American Airmen in 1944
was on leave at the time of the crash and had apparently dashed bravely and rather impulsively into the fuselage on a rescue mission. Grandfather thought she was quite mad as fuel was leaking everywhere. She found some of the crew not only alive but also very angry. This, they said, was because the pilots, navigators, bombardiers and flight engineer had bailed out without bothering to mention this little fact to the air – gunners. By the time they realised what was going on the aircraft was too low for them to bail out, so they had to ‘ride it in’ so to speak. Luckily there were no serious injuries and when the pilots later turned up in a jeep, it took all everyone could do to prevent the gunners forming a lynch mob there and then! But there was a happy transcript to the story in that a USAAF officer turned up and explained to my grandfather that they would have to billet two guards on the family as it was going to take some time to extricate the aircraft. “Would the family prefer food supplied for the guards or would they prefer to feed them and be reimbursed?” he enquired. Grandfather chose the former option and the two guards duly arrived in two GMC’s stuffed to the gunnels with gorgeous American rations which kept the whole family in tinned whole chicken, Spam and other delicacies for long after the two Yanks and the aircraft had left!
Pressing on with my life, I thought no more of the story until, many years late I was sent an article in the Yarmouth Mercury discussing an article in the Eastern Daily Press dated 19th April 1997. It was reprinted from the Daily Mail and was about a US airman named David Grinnell returning to Belton from his home in Washington DC to say ‘thank you’ to the villagers who pulled him from the wreck of his burning Liberator Bomber. I noted a small amount of ‘artistic licence’ in that the aircraft was certainly not ‘burning’ otherwise it would have ruined my summer holidays, being so close to Waveney House! So I wrote to the mail to put the records straight. My letter was read by Primrose Williams who had arranged David Grinnell’s visit and after an exchange of letters Mrs Williams put me in touch with Richard Lindsay a young airman from RAF Bruggen in Germany. Richard and I corresponded and it seems that we were both interested in aeronautical archaeology he went into research mode, which cumulated with a plague being placed on the wall of the “Tavern” near the crash site. It is dedicated to the aircraft itself, the crews that flew her and to the villagers of Belton. The publican has a folder containing a wealth of detail about the aircraft and the incident which he will be happy to show any of you who happen to be in the area. As traffic Accident Investigator I find the whole subject of crash investigation of interest so I am indebted to Richard Lindsay for the research papers enabling me to re – construct the air accident investigation for this article. In fact, Richard’s efforts as an amateur historian were so comprehensive that they were recognised by the award of the Air officer commanding’s Commendation in the 1999 Queen’s Birthday Honours List.
The research uncovered some very interesting aspects of the crash which I will summarise here. The aircraft was a B-24 H, AF number 41 – 29420 which was originally assigned to crew W – 40 at Wendover Field, Utah. Leaving in March 1944 it flew the South Atlantic route to England which including stop over’s, took 26 days or 73 hours 25 minutes flying time. On arrival it became part of the 791st Bombardment Squadron 467th Group 2nd Air division, 8th Air Force, flying from Station 145 Rackheath. This is about 4 miles Northeast of Norwich and 16 miles northwest of Belton as the Bomber flies. Six of the crew were from the Eastern side of America and this is why their aircraft came to be named “Belle of the East”.
Nine of the crew members pictured below were on its last mission;
2nd Lt.Craig W. Harrington (Pilot), F/O Gene R. McMahon (Co – pilot), 2nd Lt. Fredrick C. Sammetinger (Bombardier), 2nd Lt. John J. Boesen (Navigator), S/Sgt. Norval V. Cunningham (Engineer/top turret gunner), Sgt. Marvin R. Berman (radio operator), Sgt Charles F. Kordas (Tail – gunner), Sgt. Verner W. Gray & Charles D. Grinnell (Waist – gunners).
On the 25th of August 1944 the squadron assembled over ‘Splasher 5’ and took part in Group Mission Number 104, a daylight raid on the Norddeutsch Dornierwerke aviation factory, Lubeck, Germany. This was the Harrington crews 5th mission of their tour and they were
carrying ten 500lb GP bombs. The mission was successful for the ‘Belle’ and on reaching the Norfolk coast 2nd Lt. Harrington told the engineer, S/Sgt Cunningham to level the tanks and put them on ‘tank to engine.
On arrival above Rackheath, the 3rd Squadron flew a circle at 1500 to 2000 feet on a Northern heading which took them back over Gt. Yarmouth while the 1st and 2nd Squadrons were landing. Whilst doing this, the bombardier, 2nd Lt. Sammetinger was standing between the two pilots. Harrington first noticed the fuel pressure gauge on No.1 engine dropped to zero, even though he was told by the Engineer that about 125 gallons remained in each of the four engines tanks. No.1 engine started to cut out and suspecting lack of petrol in that tank, he ordered the Engineer to switch the fuel transfer levers to “Tank to engine to cross-feed”. This meant that any engine could be fed by any tank, including the auxiliary tanks, which is quite significant. The bombardier then saw the fuel pressure gauge on No. 3 engine also cut out. This gave a clear indication that they were in serious trouble and Harrington sounded the ‘Bale out’ bell telling everyone within earshot to “get the hell out”. The navigator clipped on his parachute and went aft to open the bomb bay doors. They were still at 2000 feet at this point. Harrington. In his subsequent statement says he rang the bell three times but also states “I did not use the interphone”. The remaining two engines were spluttering as first the Bombardier and then the Engineer jumped, closely followed by the Navigator. Then the Co – pilot jumped and by the time Harrington followed him, the “Belle” was down to just 900 feet. As they floated down they saw the right wing of the “belle” dip, even though it was now on auto – pilot. Still onboard were two the gunners, Sgt Gray and Sgt Grinnell and Radio operator Sgt Berman. The tail – gunner, Sgt Kordus, had become sick and had exchanged with a waist gunner. He “Heard the bells ring out but couldn’t understand why” but now he went aft for his ‘chute and on returning to the waist found gray and Grinnell arguing. They “Tried to convince each other to jump but didn’t, they thought the pilot was going to crash – land the ship and figured that had a better chance if they stayed with it.” Kordus was the last to leave the plane.
It glided soundlessly down with all four engines now stopped and, according to witnesses travelling east over Sandy Lane (insert map) (I used to buy my sweets from Grace Claxton’s mother who ran a small shop next to Waveney House and Grace used to stand outside and ‘watch them back’). The ‘Belle’ came “Over our back garden down by the dyke and hit a big oak tree before taking our pear tree down and veering a bit before going into the Guyton’s property”. The impact with the oak tree “took the wings off” Harry Botwright says.”We heard the engines stop and saw some of the crew bail – out over Burgh Castle. It struck an oak tree, ‘cause it disintegrated and the fuselage kept coming and the engines and wings came down were the oak tree was stood. It struck some of the pig – sties and the fuselage still kept coming.” Rosemary Gola says. “I was cycling down Sandy Lane to go to Mr Harry Sharman’s for my veg. order when I saw on my left some parachutes coming down in the sky next a ‘plane so low hitting a tree and straight across the road in-front of me, hitting some wires, pig – sties and sheds, no engine noise just gliding landing on the field, it then turned on its roof. I just stood there dazed. A second or two later I could have been hit maybe, guess I was a lucky”. Another witness, Ronnie Beare, was on the railway station and states that the Liberator “Flew from his right as one of the crew landed on the railway lines”.
Here I must bring in a note of controversy I believe that Richard Lindsay has based his easterly flight (direction A on the map) on the witness statements of Grace Claxton and Rosemary Gola, who talk of the Liberator passing over Sandy Lane and the bottom of the Claxton’s property before losing both wings and all engines on hitting an oak tree and Ronnie Beare who also claims it was travelling east. However, the ‘plane should have been coming from the north with the other aircraft of the 3rd Squadron. The majority of parachutes came down near Burgh Castle which is two miles due north of Belton and this is confirmed by an Ack – Ack battery stationed there. Rosemary Gola was cycling north along Sandy Lane so she couldn’t have seen the parachutes to her left. In addition Grace Claxton states that “The last ‘chute came down on Station Road North” which is to the north of Sandy Lane.
Also my mother, now a sprightly 82 year old with an excellent memory was on a footpath just east of All Saints Church near the compass on the map. She remembers the Liberator gliding south almost overhead. She cycled like mad because it was heading straight for Waveney House and saw it ‘flare up’ over the house. My grandfather was on the back step and was “Put in shadow” as he told me, the ‘plane passed overhead before crashing in to the orchard. I submit that this ‘Flare up’ could have been caused by the large amount of warm air rising from my grandfathers large greenhouses whish were just across Station Road from the house. When my mother arrived and went into the Liberator she tripped over the first aid box, which on US aircraft is usually above the door. The ‘plane was indeed upside down but one wing was still attached, with both engines intact, as there was a photograph taken of my mother standing on the wing. In addition, as will be shown by the crash report, the No.3 and 4 engines and fuel tanks on that wing were undamaged. This is contrary to Harry Botwright’s statement regarding both wings being torn off by an oak tree. As on the liberator the engines are numbered, 1, 2, 3 and 4from lefty to right, the port outer being No.1, it must have been the starboard or right wing which was still attached. In addition the ‘plane was laying with its nose to the west had it been travelling east at the time would have meant it going end over end as well as turning upside down. This configuration would certainly have caused considerable damage as opposed to the ‘plane simply turning over and sliding on its roof after skimming the oak tree. As the fuselage was hauled away virtually intact I would submit that the former crash configuration is rather unlikely. For the above reasons I believe that the Liberator was travelling south at the time of the crash (Direction B). However going back to Richard’s theory an engine was found ‘near Sandy Lane’ although we do not know exactly where Harrington saw the right wing dip as he floated down, so it is possible that the aircraft dipped right and then left performing a left – handed arc to come in from the east. Also, we do not all the witness reports as I know statements were taken from my grandfather and one of his workers who was near the greenhouses so the direction of travel is o[pen for debate. I must hasten to add though that direction B is my personal pet theory and is not attributable to Richard Lindsay. On landing by parachute, the engineer S/Sgt. Cunningham and the bombardier 2nd Lt. Sammetinger were quickly picked up by an officer from the Ack-Ack battery in burgh Castle and taken to the mess “for a bracer or two”. The three crew remaining in the aircraft were extremely lucky. They were thrown against some chaff boxes and suffered very little injury, except for the Radio operator, Sgt. Berman who was dazed with a slight head wound. Harry Botwright takes up the story when he says, “The pilots turned up about half an hour later and the three crew swore at him ‘cause they didn’t hear the bell”.
The rash was duly investigated and the report dated 29th August 1944, signed by Capt. Walter R. Giesecke, the Rackheath Station Engineer, stated that although the pilot believed that they were out of fuel “gasoline was found in #3 and #4 systems and it was impossible to whether fuel had been present at the time of the accident in the other two fuel systems. However, a considerable quantity of gasoline was found in ditches in the immediate vicinity of the wreckage, suggesting that fuel had been present in those systems.’ So in fact, there was at least 300 gallons on board, more than enough to safely land the aircraft. The report went on to say. ‘The selector valves were found in tank – engine – cross-feed position, the auxiliary fuel selector valves could have been on with booster pumps blowing air into the cross-feed manifold and the auxiliary selector valves could have been on with the fuel transfer pump also blowing air into the manifold.’ The report concludes that. ‘The auxiliary fuel tanks had no gasoline in them and the fuel transfer pump was pumping air out of those tanks into the cross-feed, allowing air to reach all engines through the fuel system.’. Hardly surprising that all four engines stopped!
Considering that there was a war on and that so many aircraft were being lost on a daily basis, I was amazed at the depth of the accident investigation. Among statements from USAAF personnel there is also one on the crash by Police Constable Mummery of Oulton Broad Police Station to Superintendent Clarke of East Suffolk Police and one from Police Sergeant Hallis at |Lowestoft suggesting that letters of appreciation be sent to the Belton Villagers who bravely entered the ‘belle’ to assist the crew. The statements taken from the crew contained some interesting facts. For example, the pilot Harrington said,”Lack of fuel seemed to be the only reason. The engineer just tells me how much gas we have then I check the consumption. I never use the fuel gauges till we start back.” In a motor car I keep a very close eye on the petrol gauge – and a car cannot fall out of the sky if I run out! The flight engineer, Cunningham had put the selector valves onto tank to engine as normal for landing after levelling the engine tanks and had just been to the waist to check everything was set right for landing. On returning he was instructed to alter the selector valves to tank to engine to cross-feed. He did so but “Thought it kind of peculiar and didn’t know the reason for it.” He is supposed to be the expert but he failed to question the order, which I find odd. Also he turned the booster pumps as normal when descending from 10,000ft yet they were found to be on, so if someone had put them on while he was away, it was a big mistake. He began to say something to the pilot about it when #3 engine cut out and it all started going wrong. Surly the engineer – who is also a gunner – should be at his panel at all times, especially during landing. The engineer stated, “I have been using this type of transfer system for six months. I think the ‘plane far out of gas. I did not check the consumption but was told by the crew chief that it was very conservative.” I think the engineer statement shows that he was not very confident with the fuel transfer system but that he also had not a clue as to the amount of fuel remaining in the tanks! But surely the most telling statement is that made by the, Co – pilot, Mc Mahan who was actually flying the ‘plane when the engines started to go out and Harrington took over. He says “I did not know the fuel transfer system very well. I never could get the hang of it.” Good grief!
In conclusion I know that it is to criticise after the event but it is important to remember that I am discussing the actions of very brave men just out of their teens and in charge of a very complicated flying machine in a foreign land and in a frightening total war situation. They were given great responsibility at far too young an age and as will be shown, the crash wasn’t totally down to them. The blame really lies with the United States army Air Force giving them insufficient training. Fortunately everyone got down safely with only minor injuries. But of equal importance in the saving of further lives, a much more extensive course was instituted in fuel transfer for pilots, Co – pilots and Flight Engineers. A complete fuel transfer mock up was constructed and sent to all B 24 Liberator Squadrons. Personnel were required to complete an exhaustive written test. Having passed that they were required to actually transfer fuel on the ground before being declared operational. So hopefully by losing the “Belle of the East”, her crew ensured that future crews were better trained and possibly lives were saved that would have been lost in similar air accidents.