Fatal wartime flightrecalled in new work

THE astonishing thing is that only three people died on a grim day which could have been so much worse.

Wednesday, 24th November 2010, 10:48 am
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 3:22 am

It was May 11 1944 and a stricken American bomber was heading back to Britain - a fatal journey which saw it crash and explode in Chichester, sending debris everywhere and shooting flames several hundred feet high.

Another 50 yards, and the chances are that none of the 50-60 workers in city’s electric laundry would have survived - a remarkable story which Chichester historian Ken Green retells in a new publication.

The Day That The Liberator Crashed On Chichester has been produced by the Chichester Local History Society. The hope is that it will be the first of many in a new series of Chichester history papers.

Ken was just 11 years old at the time and in his last year at the Central Boys School in New Park Road.

“I was in the recreation ground, on my way home when there was a loud explosion. This was followed by a mountain of flame rising from behind the cottages in St Pancras.

“I rushed home to Green Lane, where we lived; my mother had anxiously come to meet me.

“A column of black smoke had now replaced the flames. Later that day we heard that an American Liberator, B24, bomber had crashed on the allotments and the laundry in Velyn Avenue, behind Kenneth Long and Company’s timber yard.”

The plane had set off from Lavant for a bombing raid over France where it was badly shot up.

“They couldn’t get rid of the bombs stuck in the bomb bay. They wanted to drop them over the Channel. They flew back over Selsey Bill and the captain ordered the others to bale out. He turned the plane round (to go back out to sea), and he baled out himself, only to see the engine fail on one side.”

Pilotless, the plane turned and circled back toward Chichester where it crashed into the amphitheatre site. The explosion was enormous.

“There were about 50 women in the electric laundry there, and only one died. She went back in to get her handbag. She had a son who was one of the dam busters who had been shot down himself and was in a prisoner-of-war camp.

“If the plane had gone on another 50 yards into the laundry, there would have been massive deaths. In the event, it crashed on the lawns and the allotments where the amphitheatre is and slid into the back of the laundry building.”

All tales Ken has now brought together.

“This paper started as a project to explore how much information could be gleaned from the internet. I could never have expected, 66 years after the event, to be in contact with both the plane’s captain and its nose gunner, such is the potential of the worldwide web.”

“In the event it has been a rewarding experience. I have made contact with many friendly and helpful people.

“The overriding reaction that emerges from exploring the events of May 11 1944 is an appreciation of the bravery of the American aircrews involved.”

In fact, Ken dedicates the publication to all the many US airmen who came to our country and exhibited “amazing courage in risking their lives, flying out over enemy occupied territory, seeing comrades being shot down, and yet, day after day, going out again”.

“Fighting at 25,000 feet in thin, freezing air that no warriors had ever encountered before, bomber crews battled new kinds of assaults on body and mind. Air combat was deadly but intermittent: periods of inactivity and anxiety were followed by short bursts of fire and fear.

“In 1943, an American bomber crewman stood only a one-in-five chance of surviving his tour of duty, twenty-five missions.

“Theirs was a unique form of gallantry that should have been rewarded with the highest honours. No praise is high enough.”

n The book is available at £3.25 from the Hornet newsagents and from Longstone Promotions, 31a Whyke Lane, Chichester.