Flying Fortress B17G 44-8640
To commemorate the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe on 8 May 1945 we look at the very last craft of any kind to be lost off the coast of England.
The last few months of the war saw a significant decline in shipping and aircraft losses over the sea attributable to war causes. The last six weeks of the war saw 10 shipping casualties to war causes in English waters. Over the same period there were 6 aircraft lost to non-war causes (mechanical failure or accident, for example).
The seventh and last aircraft, and last loss of the war in English waters, was the exception, and a war loss, despite its peaceable mission – just one day before the celebration of Victory in Europe. And it is to events in Europe we must turn first of all to understand the mission of the last aircraft of the war to find a grave with most of its crew in England’s territorial sea.
As the end of the war approached, there was real desperation in the occupied Netherlands after the arduous Hongerwinter [“Hunger Winter”) of 1944-5, of whom one of the best-known survivors was the actress Audrey Hepburn, whose mother was Dutch and who grew up in the Netherlands.
The Hongerwinter arose from a terrible combination of circumstances, any one of which on its own would have been bad enough Although the Allies pushed ahead after breaking out from Normandy, the objective of Arnhem in the Netherlands in September 1944 during Operation Market Garden proved a ‘bridge too far’. Attempted strikes by Dutch railway personnel led to retaliation by the occupiers, preventing food supplies from getting through, and when this blockade was lifted, there were overwhelming obstacles to overseas relief efforts. Although the Allies had managed to capture Antwerp in September 1944, it was several weeks before the port could be used and, even if it had been in use earlier, the the occupied western provinces of the Netherlands with the greatest population density, and least agricultural land, including Amsterdam and Rotterdam, remained cut off. The canals and rivers froze early that winter and fuel for lorries was scarce. Limited relief supplies from neutral Sweden and Switzerland had helped a little but the situation remained dire. (1)
The relief effort:
Even as the Allies closed in on Berlin and the end of the war in Europe, they were able to refocus from a purely offensive approach towards a relief effort and the rebuilding of a new Europe. The Lancasters of the RAF and the B-17 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF based in England, which had so recently been deployed on bombing missions were perfectly suited to dropping food parcels to the Netherlands, and thus Operations Manna (RAF) and Chowhound (USAAF) were born.
It was a massive logistical effort which drew upon the resources of the Allied airfields of East Anglia at very short notice from mid-April 1945, with the situation becoming urgent against German resistance and the risk of further deliberate flooding both of agricultural fields and transport infrastructure a real possibility. There were no spare parachutes available, so safe conduct for low-level food drops was arranged, to begin in late April 1945.
Flying Fortress B17G 44-8640 of the 334th Bomber Squadron, 95th Bomb Group, set out from USAAF Horham in Suffolk on 7 May 1945, the day after the surrender of German forces in the Netherlands and the day before Victory in Europe day. Along with its precious cargo of food there were 13 on board, including observers from the station’s Photographic Section, all anticipating a routine mission.
Following a successful drop 44-8640 turned for home. There were still pockets of resistance from the occupation forces, which is believed to have had a bearing on subsequent events. No. 2 engine was reported as ‘running rough’, with smoke and oil, thought to originate from rogue flak fired by the occupation forces at the aircraft in the IJmuiden area. (2)
According to a crashed aircraft recovery specialist based at RAF Ford, Sussex, in 1944, crew would nurse their crippled aircraft, whether shot up, suffering mechanical failure, or simply running out of fuel, back from overseas missions to the English coastline, but would then often be forced to crash-land at or near the nearest available base, unable to make it back to their home bases. (3)
As the situation worsened, the crew of 44-8640 realised that reaching the coast was going to be impossible and, fearing an explosion, they baled out over the sea off Suffolk, in the vicinity of Benacre Ness or Southwold, with one survivor recalling that the engine dropped away in a ‘ball of flame’ as he got away. The aircraft then fell into the sea.
Two men were picked up alive by a Catalina flying boat after some time in the water, and it is their testimony that enables us to know what happened to 44-8640, but the remainder of the crew were killed, including the observers.
Those of the crew whose bodies were recovered were interred at the American Cemetery and Memorial, Coton, Cambridge, but others were never found and are presumed entombed with the aircraft on the seabed.
This, the final loss of any craft in English waters to war causes, was also one of the cruel tragedies of the war: to be shot at over the Netherlands and to keep the aircraft airborne so many miles only to lose the battle so close to the English coast, and all on a humanitarian mission. Somewhere off the coast lie its remains, which are yet to be discovered but which are automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.
Victory in Europe was, perhaps, a collective sigh of relief, but it was not the end of the war, which would only come in August 1945 with VJ Day. It was a victory achieved at a huge human cost which has left legible traces in the historic environment – the destruction of historic fabric from London to Coventry and beyond, the legible traces in standing buildings from the suburban semi to national museums, the construction of military installations that have since become ‘historic’ in themselves, the legacy of commemoration – and the remains of ships and aircraft on the seabed, lost to war causes over the years from 1939 to 1945.
(1) For more detail on this subject, see Sutch, A. 2016 “Manna from Heaven”, RAF Museum blog, online
(2) Onderwater, H. 1985 Operation Manna/Chowhound: the Allied food droppings April?may 1945 Netherlands: Unieboek
(3) Oral history testimony, Ronald Cant (RAF Corporal, 1942-1946) as told to his daughter in reminiscing over D-Day, 2019.