On Tuesday, 4 January 1944, 1 was working in a field about a mile from Norfolk coast, near Sheringham golf course. At that time I was 28 years old and employed by Mr. Upcher, a local north Norfolk farmer and landowner.
At about 2:30 p.m. I heard the sound of an aircraft and then saw a B24 Liberator approaching low over the sea. The bomber was very obviously in trouble, with al least two of its four engines out of action. As it cleared the cliff top and began flying inland, it veered to the left, almost as if the pilot was trying to turn hack and crash land in the sea, close to shore. However, during the turn, the crippled bomber lost height and its right wing struck trees at the edge of a wood on rising ground, an area known locally as Pretty Corner.
I watched, horror-stricken, as the B-24 plowed into the trees with a terrifying crash, only 300 or 400 yards from where I stood.
I was in a field at Malthouse Farm, West Beckham, near Sheringham. The B-24 was camouflaged and olive drab green color and, as the aircraft turned, I could see daylight through both wings. The bomber had sustained severe damage and most probably crew casualties. There was a mighty roar as its two remaining engines were put on full throttle attempting to avert a stall, but she tragically lost height and crashed into rising ground on the Sheringham side of Pretty Corner.
It was a bitterly cold day, a freezing northeasterly wind blowing with flurries of snow. I was always ready, when not at sea, to take a walk up into the woods and I always took my first grandson with me, but on this particular day as it was snowing and very cold. I left him at home with his mother and Granny and went alone, taking my little barrow and sack to get some firewood that might be lying about. It was very handy when the weather looked like staying severe.
While I was gathering up some branches I got a sudden shock, as there was one of these American bombers came crashing through the trees. Great bits of trees were flying about, some over my head, and then the plane hit a bank in the woods. I was quite staggered by the noise.
I really didn't know what to do when I got to the plane until one of the men who had got clear told me it was all right, so I got to the nose of the plane. I shall never forget the sight of them poor chaps, trapped all on top of each other. I tried to get one out, but could not. At last I saw a young chap coming across the field from Upper Sheringham.
I immediately started running towards the wreckage, discarding my heavy overcoat as I ran. Arriving breathlessly at the crash site, I found total devastation - smashed trees along the edge of the wood where the bomber's scything had left a chaotic trail of broken, twisted metal, tree branches, confusion, and death.... The severely damaged nose section had crashed up against the trees which bordered the corner of the field, with the main fuselage and tail section appearing to be less badly damaged. To my surprise, two apparently uninjured crew members were running around outside the wreckage, quite obviously in a state of shock, shouting at me, "GET HELP!!.... GET HELP!!" I assumed both airmen were gunners and had luckily survived the crash in the rear of the bomber.
I climbed up into the damaged nose section and found four airmen slumped over the instrument panel in the cockpit. Their very obvious injuries indicated that all four had been killed instantly upon impact. My third unforgettable memory was to discover another crew member actually sitting on a small, backless stool behind the two pilot's seats and apparently uninjured. I offered to assist him out of the wreckage, but he replied, "See to the others first.... "
When the young chap reached me, we got three out but one was dead. We carried the other two out of the wood to a safer place.
1 assisted with the removal of the dead airmen and those who had survived. I also remember there was some concern regarding the recovery of documents from the wrecked B-24.
Some of my colleagues who went to the crash site recalled seeing some of the few survivors sitting on the grass hank smoking cigarettes while they waited to be taken to Cromer Hospital by ambulance. I recall that there were unconfirmed reports that come of the B-24's casualties had resulted from enemy action prior to the crash landing.
Mrs. May Ayers:
When my father, the late Henry West, came home later that afternoon he said he'd helped to lay the dead and injured from the crashed bomber onto the bank with the help of someone who had arrived shortly after him. He'd then lit cigarettes for the injured and covered two of them with his overcoat. After the ambulance had arrived he came home.
My mother and I then went to the crash site. The field was to the east of the lane adjoining the wood, which consisted mostly of fir and pine trees. The bomber had, I think, been attempting a landing with severe damage to its engines and possibly the wind, which was quite strong, had blown it onto the wood where it hit the trees, clipping the tops as it plunged to the corner of the field. On reaching the field, along with other local people, we saw debris everywhere, bits and pieces of plane both large and small, remnants of leather flying jackets, maps of Germany, flying helmets, fur-lined gloves, electrical wiring, papers, etc.
When I returned to work the following day I found my overcoat where I'd hastily thrown it. During the next few days, the wreckage of the crashed Liberator was removed to a salvage depot.
In retrospect, there is a distinct possibility that the Liberator's pilot could well have been heading for the Royal Air Force airfield at Matlaske [Typhoon fighter-bombers] just a few miles from the coast. If so, immediately on his flight path, after crossing the coast near Sheringham golf course, was the radar station at RAF West Beckham with its four 240foothigh wooden masts and four 360-foot steel towers. eight formidable obstacles which the pilot almost certainly would have seen.
It was a desperate situation for the crippled bomber's crew, flying on only two engines, at an altitude of about 200 feet when I first saw it. Perhaps that chain of circumstances accounted for the B-24's abrupt turn to the left, with the subsequent loss of height and resultant crash. This possible sequence of events is, of course, pure conjecture. Alternatively, could this theory be what actually happened? We shall never know.
Mrs. May Ayers concludes:
A large crane pulled the remains of the big bomber from the corner of the field and hoisted the wreckage on to low-load transporters. I'll never forget the noise as the mass of crumpled metal, embedded in the ground, was being extricated and taken away. We never knew the ultimate fate of the survivors or where they were taken. It was all very sad. For many years afterwards one could clearly see the path of the bomber as it sliced through the broken trees. In addition, for many years afterwards, a wreath was hung in a tree at the crash site on the anniversary of the crash. But we never saw, or knew, who put the wreath there.... *Anthologist's notes: Permission to quote from the late Henry West's personal diary kindly given by Mrs. Ayers.
The records reveal that B-24H, serial number42-7485, "Alfred, " was returning from a mission to Kiel, northwest Germany. Five crew members were killed and five injured in the crash landing near Sheringham.
Due to enemy flak and heavy fighter opposition, a total of six Liberators were lost during this, the Group's costliest mission to date.
Douglas Willies, Sheringham researcher:
The ultimate fate of the crew of "Alfred" was as follows:
Colby A. Waugh, pilot, (home state Maine). KIA 4 January 1944.
James W. Barton, copilot (Missouri). Severely wounded and taken to Cromer Hospital, Norfolk, 4 January 1944. Subsequently returned to America. Died 9 June 1990.
Arthur L. Cound, navigator (Texas). KIA 4 January 1944.
Virgil E. Thompson, bombardier (Alabama). KIA 4 January 1944.
Lester L. Wagner, flight engineer (Pennsylvania). Severely wounded and taken to Cromer Hospital 4 January 1944. Subsequently transferred to 389th Bombardment Group at Hethel, Norfolk, as a ground mechanic for the remainder of the war. Returned to America after V-E in 1945. Moved to Florida in 1986 and died 17 June 1992.
Parke V. Kent, radio operator (Vermont). Survived the crash of 4 January 1944 and flew on subsequent missions. Made a prisoner of war 27 April 1944 after being the only crew member to bail out from another stricken B-24. (Details below). Died post-war.
Don C. Beldon, gunner (Nebraska). KIA 4 January 1944. Edward R. Murphy, gunner (Pennsylvania). KIA 4 January 1944.
Earl J. Johnson, gunner. Survived the crash on 4 January 1944. Honorably discharged 2 October 1945. Died 13 September 1972. No other details available.
Henry Wilk, gunner. Survived the crash 4 January 1944. Lives in Florida.