The Forgotten Fortress - a Christmas catastrophe
On December 23rd 1944, the villagers of Great Rollright, Oxfordshire experienced the most devastating event of their entire war. At 6.15 in the evening, just before Christmas Eve, the peace of this tiny community was shattered by the sound of an American bomber crashing just outside their village.
Earlier that day the aircraft, a B-17G Flying Fortress serial number
43-38812, had taken off from RAF Portreath in Cornwall and was heading for its base at RAF Glatton near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. It was from the 749th Squadron of the 457th Bombardment Group.
The ‘812’ complete with correct serial numbers and colour designation. It flew with a crew of 9 at this stage in the air war over the Reich. It had 12 × .50 caliber M2 Browning machine guns in 8 turrets. Two were either side at the waist positions (the gunner would operate both). There were two single machine guns in "cheek" positions for use by the Navigator and twin machine guns in the remote controlled Chin Turret used by the Bombardier. Above the pilots sat the Top Turret with Twin Machine guns. Defending the aircraft from beneath were the twin machine guns in the Ball Turret and at the rear were twin machine guns operated by the Tail Gunner. The weight of so much defensive power meant that on long range missions the B-17G could only carry up to 8,000lbs of bombs – about the same as a de Havilland Mosquito made out of wood.
On board the 812 was Aircraft Engineer & Top Turret Tech Sgt.George H. Bruer (married) of Saint Augustine, Florida; Radio Operator Tech Sgt.Robert H. Riedel of Cleveland, Ohio; Ball Turret Gunner Sgt.George B. Hawley of Pine Lawn, Missouri; Waist Gunner Staff Sgt.Edmund T. Fitzgerald of Taunton, Mass., Tail Gunner Sgt.Clifford A. Heinrich of Chicago, Illinois. Pilot 2nd Lt. Walter B.Graves of Seymour, Tennessee;, Navigator Flying Officer Joseph L. Kilmer (married with daughter) of Mexico, New York, Bombardier & Chin Turret Gunner Flying Officer David E. Williams of South Orange, New Jersey
A few days earlier, on December 19th, the bomber had been diverted to RAF Portreath, due to bad weather at their home base, after a chaff-dropping mission to Gemund, Germany.
On 16th December the Germans, well aware that the forecast of heavy snowfall and freezing conditions in the Ardennes region would render allied air supremacy impotent, had launched their major offensive, which came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.
The Gemund raid of 19 December was the first time the allies had been able to get any planes in the air for four crucial days, during which time the Americans in particular were taking a beating in the Ardennes Forests. The 19th December raid was important even though the 8AAF only managed to commit 350 bombers. After 19th December the Germans could no longer rely on surprise and zero air cover from the bombers, ground attack Thunderbolts and Mustangs. Gemund was an important railway centre and the means by which the German offensive maintained supply and reinforcements.
After the raid, all 8th Army Air Force planes had to navigate back to airbases all over southwest England because their home bases in East Anglia and Cambridgeshire were frozen in and closed.
Veteran Will Fluman of the 457 BG, also on his first mission, described how B-17’s descended on RAF Portreath in Cornwall where planes were parked and crammed into every available space. The Operations Record Book for RAF Portreath mentions hundreds of B-17s coming in to land. US airmen took every seat in the mess and drunk gallons of tea, ate tons of food and cleaned out the locality of cigarettes during their 4 day weather internment at Portreath. The Officers Mess was overcrowded and the bar bill must have been huge. The airmen stayed on the base, as they could not walk into the nearby town. It was impossible to walk in the heavy insulated flying boots that were their only footwear and they had no access to note paper to write home on.
The Royal Air Force took good care of their unexpected guests and put on entertainment for them. We know that Santa Claus arrived in a light aircraft to distribute presents at the children’s party held at the base. There was also a dance band – Eddie Farge an American was booked by ENSA and large numbers of young ladies were brought to RAF Portreath from the surrounding towns including Truro. There were two showings of The Fighting Sullivan’s on the Friday night, 22nd December – the tragic true story of five brothers all killed in action during the war in the Pacific. We believe this is how the crew of the 812 spent their last evening.
The 812 with it’s completely rookie crew was led by Clark Gable look-alike 1st Lt Clifford Hendrickson. On December 23rd a window opened in the weather and all aircraft was summoned back to their respective bases mainly in East Anglia. For security reasons, none of the crews were ever told what was scheduled for the following day in terms of missions. On 24th December 1944, the 8thAAF launched the largest raid to Germany of WWII, committing over 2,500 aircraft in a massive Gotterdammerung demonstration of overwhelming air power. It was designed to buckle the knees of the German offensive and open up the advance to the Rhine.
Cliff Hendrickson (above). He was often mistaken for Clark Gable and sent young women wild when he was prompted to say, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”. “Vom Winde Verweht” (Gone with the Wind) was a huge commercial success in pre- war Germany and Clark Gable was Hitler’s favourite Hollywood actor. He offered a reward to any Luftwaffe pilot who could force down Gable’s B-17 and bring him in alive. A threat of death also hung over any pilot who killed or harmed Clark Gable. Hendrickson was a former Mustang pilot and flew with the Canadian Air Force having learned to fly with the Polish Military Mission in Canada.
For those stuck at RAF Portreath, take off was determined by where their plane was parked and when they originally landed. Other planes from other bomb groups also found their way to the Cornish base. Although the homebase of Glatton was only a couple of hours away, the late Will Fluman believes that the 812 took off at about 4.30 PM as dusk began to fall. One Fortress stayed behind with engine trouble.
Cliff Hendrickson had 42.5 hours flying experience on the B-17, almost all of which he'd done in the previous 90 days and on 18 combat missions as co-pilot before being asked to form a new crew. It was normal procedure for a brand new rookie crew to have an experienced pilot veteran to take them on their first mission. Hendrickson was that safe pair of hands and he would have taken good care of these new boys who had only arrived on the base about three weeks previously.
He flew 10 hours on instruments in the previous 6 months, of which 8 were in the previous 30 days and only 4 were at night in the previous 30 days. Although this might not seem a great deal of experience, it was very much the norm within the 8th AAF at the time.
Clifford Hendrickson was recommended for promotion to 1st Lieutenant as he was now a lead pilot and this was approved on Christmas Day, 1944, two days after he was killed. He was posthumously awarded his promotion, but would never wear the new insignia.
The 812 would have been directed onto the runway and prepared for take off with many planes behind them in a long queue. It was just a matter of bad luck that he took off at that time. Had he taken off amongst the first, he might have made it in daylight and better weather.
The 812 was heading for Glatton from Portreath when it got a code red message that Glatton was once again closed. With night falling and visibility becoming very difficult due to low cloud, fog and very low temperatures, plus the additional hazard of potential wing icing, the 812 would have needed to land at an alternative airfield.
We believe that the 812 may have been dipping below the cloud layer to try and find visual references as per their navigation maps. The rookie navigator Joe Kilmer would have had the responsibility of calculating that the momentary descent through cloud was safe and avoided high ground. They had already successfully flown over the high points of Exmoor, Dartmoor and the Mendip Hills on their way back.
We believe that the planes taking off from Portreath would have had enough fuel to reach their home bases only, rather than the maximum load, so the 812 may have been running low and needed to land.
Great Rollright stands at 225 meters (738 feet) above sea level, and is one of the highest hills in the area. By comparison, RAF Moreton in Marsh is 130 meters (426 feet) above sea level.
Approaching from the South (see map), the aircraft flew into newly planted trees alongside the road before skidding across a field, crashing through dry stone walls bordering another road, before finally coming to rest.
We know that Nursing Sister Eluned Megan Lewis of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps at nearby Chipping Norton, who was staying at Rollright Manor for Christmas, did what she could for the crew of “812‟ and administered morphine. She was an immensely brave woman. The 812 flew so close to the house and the impact made her think that a German V2 rocket had come in.
She grabbed her medical bag, raised the alarm, jumped in a car and drove off to find what had happened. In the darkness and fog and driving a car with tiny slits for headlights meant it took her about 10 minutes to find it. She discovered the plane blocking the road. There was no fire and she actually crawled inside the wrecked bomber fuselage to get to the injured. She could not have known that residual fuel would not ignite and that there were no bombs on board. She pulled several of the crew clear of the plane. We know that she heard the last words of co-pilot Walter Graves who murmured that the altimeter was out. She was with both airmen during their last moments.
Frank Tanner and Catherine Day of Great Rollright also assisted in trying to rescue the men, four of whom died in the field at Great Rollright and the remainder in the Banbury Hospital EMS over the course of the following day.
Sister Lewis was later commended for her brave conduct and apparently received a medal from General James Doolittle, Head of the 8th Army Air Force.
The Royal Observer Corps post near the Rollright Stones, situated half a mile away, heard the crash and alerted RAF Moreton in Marsh and RAF Chipping Norton who dispatched emergency fire crews.
There was only one survivor, the Tail Gunner Sgt Clifford A. Heinrich. We recently found him alive and well and living in Missouri. He was 19 when it happened. He has no memory of the crash and said that God was with him on that day. He woke in hospital to find the wife of King George VI – the future Queen Mother standing at the end of his bed.
In daylight the next day, Sunday 24th – Christmas Eve, onlookers gathered to view the shattered and scattered remains of the 20-ton bomber lying in the field. Among them were Derek Harris and Trevor Gaddes, two schoolboys from nearby Hook Norton, looking around for souvenirs, particularly “aeroplane glass‟ and possibly empty .50 caliber brass cases which normally littered the floor of a B-17 from the waist guns, depending on the enemy action encountered during the mission.
The boys found a camera and somehow they managed to take it away from the wreck site, but were spotted by Home Guards and later that day the local Policeman - PC Wright knocked on their door in the village and demanded it back. This was one Christmas present they were not going to keep. We know that these two lads are no longer living.
Another 14-year-old souvenir hunter, Derek Watts of Long Compton, living just half a mile away, found a length of parachute cord, which he used as a dog lead for many years. Derek Watts kindly agreed to accompany the writer in March 2012 to the exact spot where he found the length of parachute cord, which he described as no thicker than a pencil, but so strong you could tow a car with it. Derek said that the cord could have been from a deployed parachute
Derek says there was nobody guarding the wreckage at that time in the early morning of Christmas Eve when he pedaled up from Long Compton. He also says that he had no recollection of the giant tail of the B-17 with the highly visible blue stripe of the 457BG attached to the wrecked fuselage.
When the 812 hit the dry stone walls, the impact would have shattered the aircraft and pieces would have been scattered over a wide area. It would have taken many days to remove the wreckage and it may have stayed in the field, the main section covered in a tarpaulin, during the Christmas period.
The subsequent accident report shows that the accident was “attributed to the fact that the pilot was lost and let down in an area 500 feet more above sea level than the field of intended landing”. There is much conjecture about what this actually means. How did the investigators know the plane was ‘lost’? Does this indicate that the pilot was “intending” to land, and if so where?
The report attributed 75% responsibility to pilot error and the remaining 25% to the weather. 43-38812 was declared as “salvage‟ on December 26th meaning it had been scrapped. The normal routine was that an 8th Air Force team would remove any re- usable items such as guns, ammunition, instruments and then supervise the removal of the remaining wreckage to a site of disposal where it would be melted down – aluminum was vital for the war effort. In the case of “812‟ it was most likely taken to nearby Cowley near Oxford, where the Morris Garage company used the metal to repair aircraft. The Morris Group also made Spitfires at Castle Bromwich near Birmingham.
Great Rollright Manor (pictured) is at the bottom extreme right hand corner of the map detail left. Nurse Lewis, possibly wrapping Christmas presents 200 meters away would have heard the fast approach of the low flying bomber. The inevitable impact tremor rattled the windows and shook the decorations on her Christmas tree. She thought a V2 bomb had impacted.
The crew of the 812 were so new to their base in Glatton that they had not had the opportunity to build friendships or even to open a bar tab at the local pub – The Admiral Wells. Although the enlisted men would have occupied the same cold, drafty Nissen hut on the base, they were hardly missed when they failed to return. Being a new crew, there would have been scope to name their plane, although the ultimate decision would have rested with the pilot who was destined to be Walter Graves.
They were a band of brothers who all went through training together as a unified team. They had each other. But just because this crew was new, does not diminish the equal commitment and the ultimate sacrifice they made. These crewmen were coming back from their first mission for which they had been vetted, selected and trained for almost two years.
They were ambitious and brave young men from Missouri, Indiana, Florida, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Illinois and Massachusetts who knew the risks. Their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and two wives would have received home the remains of their loved one’s and been devastated at the enormity of the loss.
The incident does not even feature in the official Unit History of the 457th Bombardment Group as held by the Department of the Air Force, in Maxwell AFB, Alabama. The Oxfordshire Coroner has no record of 8 men dying in a foreign field and no other record exists.
Recent declassified documents obtained from the Department of the Air Force also reveal that Mrs Ann Bruer, wife of Aircraft Engineer and Top Turret Gunner T/Sgt George H. Bruer, asked her Senator Claude Pepper in February 1945 to find out what happened to her husband. She was given a curt and brief explanation as to why she had become a widow. Ann Bruer would not have known the half of what we now know, almost 68 years later. She died in 2003, having never remarried and never having had children.
Even in the Oxfordshire countryside where these eight men died, in a country so far from their own that they came to fight for; there is no memorial and no record of their sacrifice.
There are so few villagers left in Great Rollright who remember the events of 23rd December 1944. Prayers would have been said in the local church of St. Andrews, Great Rollright. As Christmas Eve dawned, the only crewmen still clinging to life in the nearby Banbury Hospital were Co-pilot Walter Graves and Ball Turret Gunner Edmund Fitzgerald. They both died later on that day, slipping away in a haze of merciful morphine.
The Forgotten Fortress came to rest on a small country road, which marks the line of an ancient Bronze Age trailway. The military observer post, which heard the crash and raised the alarm, also lies on the same road. Their installation was located just yards from the Rollright Stones, from which the village of Great Rollright takes its name.
This ancient stone circle has mounted a vigil over the valley and village of Long Compton and is almost 3,500 years old. The high ground on which it stands marks the beginning of the Cotswold escarpment. The monument consists of local limestone found in abundance in this area and which has been used to build homes, barns and dry stone walls as field boundaries for hundreds of years.
It is from this local stone that a monument to the Forgotten Fortress will eventually be fashioned and placed in the exact spot where the 812 came to rest. A committee of local people has been formed in order pursue this project. Family descendants of these crewmen will finally have an accurately positioned marker in the place where their sons and husbands died on that cold Christmas time in 1944.
Dedicated to the memory of Will Fluman - pilot with the 457 BG, 8th Army Air Force, who was trapped in Cornwall by bad weather in December 1944 along with the crew of the 812. Will Fluman generously contributed eyewitness material to this article just three days before his death on 23rd February 2012.