United States Air Force

This is copied from my WW2 web site


This is the actual Liberator

Liberator Explosion

On the 19th October 1944 a USAF B-24 Liberator was flying over the Wirral, west of Liverpool, when it inexplicably blew up killing all 24 on board. There is a plaque situated near Durley Industrial Estate, by Brook Road on the river Fender, which reads:

IN MEMORY OF THE 24 U.S. ARMY AIR FORCE WHO DIED WHEN THEIR AIRCRAFT EXPLODED IN MID AIR ABOVE THESE FIELDS ON 19th OCTOBER 1944

I have searched the net information on this incident. Local historian Colin Schroeder came to the rescue with the account as published below. The plaque also includes the names of the 24 and of the pilot who crashed his P-47 Thunderbolt see my page on the P-47 here. on my WW2 site.

If anybody has any information on this particular crash I would be most grateful for news. See site front page for email button. Includes eye witness report by a 15 year old Ben Jones.

Written by Colin Schroeder:

At 3.40pm on Wednesday 18th October, Merseyside’s worst air crash occurred at Landican on the outskirts of Birkenhead. A B24 Liberator disintegrated in mid-air, scattering wreckage across farmland and killing all 24 on board. The cause of the crash remained undetermined and is a mystery to this day. The aircraft serial numbered 42-50347, was a B24H built at Consolidated Aircraft’s Fort Worth Plant, Texas in 1942. Its individual aircraft letter code was “F” and it was assigned to the 703rd Bomb Squadron, 445th Bomb Group at Tibenham in Norfolk. It was evidently a veteran of many combat missions and was finished in the original olive drab with grey undersides, whereas most of its contemporaries were by now in natural metal finish. With 645 flying hours it was probable classified in the official terminology as ‘war weary’ and used for transport and other general duties. On the fateful day, the aircraft was acting as a “taxi”, returning to Tibenham with the crews of three other B24s that had been ferried to Greencastle in Northern Ireland from Tibenham. Ralph Stimmel, who was the test pilot for the 445th Bomb Group, had flown the aircraft to Greencastle. He handed the aircraft to Captain William Driscall, as he was to pick up a new plane for the group. As test pilot, he flew every new aircraft first. The flight plan gave a flight time of two hours with fuel for seven hours endurance. The flight was to be made at 2,000 feet crossing the coast at Rhyl 40 minutes after take off. The actual time of departure was 2.55pm. The aircraft flew through squally weather with fairly low ceilings. Over numerous witnesses had their attention drawn to the aircraft because they heard an explosion or an unusual sound from the engines, as they watched, the aircraft come apart in mid-air. The wreckage came down in Landican, mainly in two fields, known locally as “The Seven Oaks” farmed by Alexander Duncan and “Top sheep field” farmed by Kirk Okell. The crash had brought down power lines blacking out Barnston.

One of the first on the scene was Mr J.R. Humphrey’s, who had been enjoying a cup of tea with his father. When he arrived at the crash site he found one young man Clesen H. Tenney still alive with his parachute partly open. Unfortunately, he died a few minute later. The bodies of the airmen where found in and around the aircraft wreckage. Some bodies had hit the ground with such force, that they were badly disfigured and left small craters. Surprisingly the pilot and co-pilot looked as if they were asleep in the cockpit with no marks on them. As people arrived at the site the rain continued and it started to get dark. The police arrived and began to turn people away. Eight bodies were found in the nose section and four in the main portion of the rear fuselage, the remainder being in the immediate vicinity of the fuselage, with two bodies found in a field some distance away. Inspector Noble of the Birkenhead Police stated that only two bodies had chutes on. It believed that the occupants were wearing harnesses but were not able attach the packs in time to jump, since the plane appeared to be flying about 1,000 feet.

Ambulances tried to reach the site via the Landican to Storeton Lane but got bogged down. Mr Duncan from “Home Farm” sent his tractor to tow the vehicles out. It was suggested that they use the Storeton Station approach using the lane parallel to the railway line. The bodies were taken to the US-Army’s 157th General hospital at Clatterbridge in a fleet of US and Civil Defence ambulances (this hospital had been taken over by the Americans in expectation of heavy Normandy invasion casualties which would have been flown direct from the battle front to Hooton Park). Eventually all bodies were buried with full military honours at the American military cemetery Madingley, Cambridgeshire. To day only four remain, the rest have been reburied in America.  Major units of the aircraft were scattered over an area estimated to be half a mile in diameter, while small pieces of wreckage were scattered as far as three miles from the main wreckage (damage was reported in Victoria Mount, Oxton). It was evident from the location of the wreckage and from the absence of skid marks that the aircraft had disintegrated before crashing.

There was no evidence of fire in any portion of the wreckage except the wing centre section with the engines, which was consumed when the fuel tanks exploded. This section fell apart from the other wreckage Lack of burns on all the bodies indicates that there was no fire in the fuselage before the aircraft disintegrated.  All the engineering and historical record of the aircraft was sent to the 3rd Strategic Air Depot, RAF Watton in Norfolk who specialised in B24 maintenance. Examination of these records did not disclose any mechanical defects, gas leaks, electrical troubles, or records of battle damage, which might indicate possible causes for an explosion or structural failure. Number 4 engine had just been changed and the pilot who slow-timed the engine reported it to be in excellent mechanical condition.

Weather conditions

During the accident investigation, the Station Weather Office at Burtonwood provided a weather report for 1500 - 1600 hours Double Summer Time in the Birkenhead area as follows:

“Polar trough passed through during the period with strong gusty winds and light continuous rain. Ceiling lowered to 800-1200 feet in rain with tops of cumulous above 10,000 feet, 8/10-10/10. Visibility was 4-8 miles lowering to 2 miles in industrial areas. Freezing level was 4000-4500 feet with medium icing in cumulous above that elevation. The air was unstable and rough but no lightning was reported in the area during the period”.

The last remark does not accord with a mention in a contemporary Birkenhead News of two road menders sheltering from a thunderstorm in Landican Lane. Just to the north at Oxton, however, another witness gave the weather as “stormy with cloud base 600 feet and raining heavily”.

Accident report eyewitnesses statements

The USAAF Accident Report of the 11th November 1944, which ran to 18 pages contains a number of differing eyewitness accounts of the crash.

One of the nearest to the crash was a lady who lived in Prenton Dell Road, half a mile to the east: “About 3.45pm I was in the upstairs back bedroom of my house, which looks out towards Landican. I heard an aeroplane making a zooming noise close by and saw an aeroplane flying at an ordinary height towards Storeton village. When the plane got into line almost between Storeton and Landican village it turned to the right very suddenly. I had the bedroom window open by this time, but I did not hear the sound of the engine. Almost immediately, I heard a noise similar to an engine back firing. At the same time, the plane seemed to hover in the air and immediately the wings fell apart from the plane together with numerous objects. The body of the plane at once fell flat to the ground and then there was a terrific explosion which sent up thick black clouds of smoke and flames”.

Nearby, but further south was an army officer at the Stanley Avenue anti-aircraft site. “I was playing football in a field at the AA site when I heard the sound of a plane as if diving. I looked up and saw what I took at first to be a twin-engine fighter. It was coming straight down, but not on fire, as if dive-bombing the site for practice. It was then that I saw bits coming away from it, and I realised it was a plane obviously in trouble. I watched it come falling down, heard the explosion, and saw flames as it hit the ground several fields away. I looked for chutes but saw none”.

An artillery officer on duty in a control room at an unspecified location, possibly the AA site at Holm Lane Prenton said. “I heard almost overhead an explosion similar to a shell burst, and the sound of an aircraft as in a dive. I immediately left the Control Room to ascertain what the trouble was, and on my way out a further explosion took place. I saw the plane, which was travelling in a westerly direction, and pieces were breaking away. The plane was flying at a height of approximately 1,000 feet and was roughly 300 yards away from me when I saw it. The most part of the starboard wing and also part of the port wing was broken. The fuselage appeared to be broken just behind the trailing edge of the wing”.

“It was impossible in the short space of time to identify the aircraft, except that its tail was similar in design to that of a Liberator. A limited amount of smoke was coming from the aircraft and the cause of it appeared to be the engines, only two of which could be clearly identified. The plane dived to the ground veering slightly to port all the time. Just before it hit the ground, a further explosion seemed to take place. This was not absolutely certain as the distance involved was then some 1,500 yards from my position of observation and this explosion may have taken place as the aircraft hit the ground”.

Other witness statements

Doug Darroch was another witness. “I was working at the top of Oxton Road. Birkenhead, when I heard the familiar sound of a B-24. I remember that the engines were revving like hell when suddenly there was an explosion and seconds later the sound of wreckage hitting the ground. On that day, there had been no thunderstorms or lightning and only very light rain. Some time later a B-26 Marauder flew very low and directly overhead the point that I later ascertained was the B24 crash site”.

“I resolved to go and have a look at the site and arriving at the Woodchurch railway bridge, I attempted to walk along the track towards Barnston. Wreckage recovery was in progress under arc-lights A man coming in the opposite direction told me I was wasting my time going any further as the place was swarming with police, RAF servicemen (some from RAF West Kirby) and American‘s from Arrowe Park. So, I gave up but tried again the following night and did not see anyone. First, I examined the wreckage of the four engines and wing section and recovered a 3-foot long deflated weather balloon, a 0.5-inch gun sight, and a rocker arm from one of the engines. I walked into an adjoining field and saw the tail unit I walked about 200 yards further along the footpath towards Landican and found the nose section”.

“At the time of the crash my friend Teddy Bradley was standing outside the Co-op laundry on Woodchurch Road (now the ASDA supermarket) waiting for a friend. He recalls seeing the aircraft coming down from the direction of Upton, flying low and following the railway line. His recollection was that the aircraft just disintegrated and he did not remember any explosion. He and his friend ran across the fields and saw bodies everywhere. They reached the forward nose section of the aircraft in which there were seven or eight men crouched as if asleep. All were dead but did not appear to have suffered any injuries or burns”.

Eileen Roberts and her brother heard about the crash when were came out of school and decided, along with a few friends, to go and have a look at it. “On arriving at the scene we were stopped by men in uniform guarding the site. Not to be outdone, we walked into the adjoining field where my brother spotted an orange; we didn’t get many of them in wartime so he picked it up. But then he threw it down again right away. The orange was tightly held in a human hand! At that moment one of the guards came over and told us to ‘Get off home or else!’ We needed no second telling. It was two very subdued little children who trudged home. When we did get home, it was to find our mother in a panic looking for us. No, we didn’t get counselling, but I got a severe telling off, a smacked bottom and sent straight to bed - after all I was 10 years old and should have known better”! Her brother still remembers the orange, we were not traumatised, after all, this was wartime, and dreadful things happen in wars.

Bruce Tasker was in The Wirral Grammar School yard leaving for home with five others. “The weather was rainy with lowering clouds. Being used to Liberators coming and going, we did not look up until we heard a dull boom, and saw a ball of smoke in the sky over the Storeton area, with bits and pieces of aircraft fluttering to the ground”. “As curious schoolboys we peddled to Landican Lane, negotiating the rough terrain, eventually coming upon bits of metal strewn everywhere, with an engine burning in a field on one side of the lane, and the white tail fins in a field on the other. Stopping at the railway bridge, we could see an entire gun turret lying to our right and parties of soldiers in football kit carrying stretchers looking for remains and placing them in a line under parachutes for concealment. Several bodies were half embedded in the soft soil, having clearly fallen from a height. We left the scene quite soberly.  Several days later the police visited our school and others in the area warning against possessing live ammunition. Apparently, every single dangerous round of half inch calibre ammunition had been removed from the gun turret, and it was believed that schoolchildren were responsible”.

John Thurlow of Greasby recalls that he was playing rugby at Noctorum when he and his friends saw the crash. They cycled to Landican and picked up quite an amount of ammunition. John and his mates saw part of the bomb hoist in a pit. They waded in and dragged a five-foot length of aluminium channel bar out, then waited for dark. Under the cover of darkness, the lads carried their “souvenirs” across the fields and through Arrowe Park to a friend’s house in Brookdale Avenue South, Greasby. The lads began disarming machine-gun bullets by levering the percussion caps out with a screwdriver. One of the caps exploded and shot a lad in the leg. One thing led to another and the next day police toured the schools warning children that it was an offence to keep “souvenirs” from the crash. Guns and a large amount of ammunition were handed in by people of all ages. The father of John’s mate eventually hack sawed sections off the channel bar and used them as gutter brackets for his shed, which may still be standing in Greasby.

Unofficial theories

Ralph Stimmel, who died in 1998, was the pilot on the outward leg. He had been very uneasy about this aircraft prior to going to Greencastle because of the strong gasoline odours. The leak was not found. He cautioned that nobody should even think of lighting a cigarette. He passed this warning to the pilot bringing the aircraft back to Tibenham. It would be difficulty in preventing 24 American airmen from smoking on a two-hour routine flight, especially when 19 of them were idle passengers!

On reading, a copy of the Accident Report Ralph Stimmel commented. “That it confirms my belief that the plane exploded in flight. The item that bothers me most is the statement that the plane had no gas leaks. It most certainly did I am afraid that the investigating body put a bit of spin on the report”.  The fuel leakage problem, or rather the indication of leakage due to the presence of gasoline odours, was well known on the Liberator. When Liberators was parked on the tarmac, the bomb doors were often left slightly open to allow fuel fumes to be dispersed. The fuel transfer system was mounted on the forward bulkhead of the bomb bay along with the air heating system and main electrical switchgear, which would occasionally spark. It was known that quite a few Liberators just disappeared or blew up in mid air. It is suggested that some B24 groups of the 8th Air Force actually disconnected the heating system completely due to doubts over the safety of this system. One experienced RAF Liberator pilot mentions that the smell of gasoline being so strong during a transatlantic ferry flight that he refused to allow the radio and radar to be switched on, although subsequently no fault was found.

The evidence for a mid-air break-up is that the aircraft separated into the major assemblies joined together on the  production line. The plan of wreckage distribution shows a linear distance in the direction of flight of about 1,800 feet, with the main components included nose and flight deck, fuselage to rear of the bomb bay at the end of the trial of wreckage, with parts of the vertical stabilisers found at the beginning of the trail. The engines and wing centre-section burned out.

Thoroughness of the investigation

Only three weeks before, on September 27th, the 445th had suffered the highest group loss in 8th Air Force history. Out of 37 B24s dispatched on a mission to industrial targets at Kassel, no less than 30 were lost and only four made it all the way back to Tibenham. Through a navigational error, the 445th became separated from the bomber stream and friendly fighter cover and were singled out by waves of Fw190s and Me109s. A total of 236 men were reported missing and 112 of them were later confirmed as killed in action. The effect on morale must have been devastating but the following day the 445th contributed 10 aircraft to another raid on Kassel, this time without loss. With this background, perhaps a lesser disaster was not investigated as thoroughly as it should have been? There had also been, just 8 weeks earlier. Another Liberator crash 30 miles away at Freckleton, when 57 people had been killed, 35 of the British casualties, were children. Had this been in the minds of the investigators and, thus, the reason why, with all-American casualties, the incident was apparently, so perfunctorily investigated? Were they just relieved not to be looking at another ‘Freckleton’?

Present day

Doug Darroch never forgot the accident and was determined he would put up a memorial to the dead. Doug and his family organised a tribute. It is located at Junction 3 off the M53 Motorway on the North Cheshire Trading Estate, not far from the crash site. On this Estate, at the side of Brook Way is a two-ton granite stone, given free of charge by a North Wales quarry. In October 1996, Howard Mortimer organised the unveiling of the memorial by Mayor Myrra Lea and its dedication by Rev. Canon Alan Poulter Rural Dean of Birkenhead. It was witnessed by a small gathering, which included Lieutenant Colonel Patrick D. Mullan Assistant Air Attaché at the American Embassy and eyewitnesses of the crash. The inscription on the plaque reads: “In memory of the 24 American Servicemen of the U. S. Army Air Force who died when their aircraft exploded in mid air over these fields on 18 October1944”. During 2001 a plaque was added listing all the names, plus that of 2nd Lieutenant Jay F. Simpson killed in a P-47 Thunderbolt that crashed on a test flight from Burtonwood on 9th October 1944 a few miles away at Saughall Massie. Simpson’s name was placed on the plaque in error from a list provided by the American authorities of American airman killed in October 1944, but it seemed appropriate to leave it in situ.  

To day there is still a large depression, where the major portion of the fuselage fell and small waterlogged pit, presumably where the wing section was dug out and which seems to have been diligently avoided by the farmer ever since. The cornfield has a large area of distinct colouring where the engines fell and burned.

Final thought

Captain Driscoll’s crew were comparatively senior and probably operational veterans; however, the passenger crews consisted mainly of junior ranks recently arrived replacement crews, detailed for this duty to gain experience of flying in UK conditions. The debacle suffered by 445th Bomb Group would imply that Squadrons of that group would have received many replacement crews in early October. This born out by the history of one of the passengers 2nd Lieutenant Richard M. Blake aged 21, qualified as Aviation Cadet in July 1943, travelled to the UK on the 15th September 1944 to be killed just over a month later on this fateful flight.

The true facts will never be known, but it is worth bearing in mind that the plane was flying southeast over Oxton when the first ‘explosion’ occurred, possibly a lightning strike, causing minor damage and throwing out small bits of wreckage. The pilot realising that he was in trouble and, being over a built-up area, could have turned sharply right (south west) towards Storeton, Landican, and their open fields. Then, almost immediately the second massive explosion, probably a gas explosion, blew the plane apart with the result as graphically described. Had it crashed on a densely built-up area, with its large fuel load, the result could have been carnage. Thus, it could be that Captain William Driscoll may have saved many innocent residents of Bebington or Port Sunlight from a dreadful fate, just as schools were letting out.

This article was researched by and written by local avation historian © Colin Schroeder.


Jay Simpson is on this list, by error. see Thunderbolt. on my WW2 site

Those killed in the incident were:

DRISCOLL, William (nmi) - Pilot - Capt

OLSEN, Harold W. - 1st Lt. (Photo 2 below)

HENNESY, John P. - lst Lt.

PATTERSON, James E. T/Sgt

MARSHALL/Robert L. - T/Sgt

NAGY, Stephen J. - 2nd Lt.

MOSHER, Roland F. 2nd Lt.

TENNEY, Clesen H. . 2nd Lt.

SECHLOR, Roy W F/O

WILLS, Ralph G. 2nd Lt.

BLAKE, Richard M. 2nd Lt.

This officer was from Alabama buried in PRATVILLE, Al or else a memorial headstone is there.

BRICK, Edward F. 2nd Lt.

HAMILTON, Vincent P. lst Lt.

LEARY, George J. 2nd Lt

PRICE, William F. 1st Lt.

UMPLEBY, Loran A. 2nd Lt.

BOYD, Robert E. T/Sgt (Photo 3 below)

ENGASSER, Albert (nmi) Sgt

MOSS, George S. Sgt.

Relyea, Floyd K. T/Sgt (photo 1 below)

ARRIGOTTI, Joseph L. Sgt.

GEHMAN, Reginald H. lst Lt.

SMITH, Clarence K. Sgt.

The above person was not with this unit, he was just 'catching' a ride back to his station 114.
 
He was with the 565th Bomb SQ,329th Bomb GP.

 

Photo of my uncle and his B-24 crew taken in Idaho (during training) several months before the crash.  However, only two of those airmen were with my uncle in the England crash.  The three who perished. Steve Johnson. Thank you Steve.

Eye Witness Report by Ben Jones

 

In 1944 I was 15 years of age and a pupil at St. Anselm's college Prenton.

During the war years we did not have use of our school playing fields at Noctorum which were requisitioned for use by the Military and we were given permission by Oxton Cricket Club to use their outfield for rugby practice on Wednesdays and for matches against other schools on Saturdays.

Accordingly on the afternoon of Wednesday 18 October 1944 we were at Oxton practicing under the supervision of Br. Joseph Murray out Form Master at the time and responsible for rugby.

Approaching what I now know to be 1600 hrs we stopped playing to watch a 4 engined American bomber flying more or less directly overhead at what seemed to be a quite low height which I could not possibly estimate. 

I am not absolutely certain what happened next: I am not sure whether we continued watching the plane and saw the disintegration or whether we continued playing momentarily to have our attention brought back to the plane possibly by an explosion and then watched as huge parts of the plane fell to ground. To this day I have in my minds eye what I took to be an extended but unopened parachute descending upside down as though debris heavier than a man was caught up in the 'chute and pulling it down. 

It was a shocking experience for us whereas most would have seen enemy bombers being attacked by gunfire or by RAF fighters I personally do not think I ever saw one being hit let alone completely disintegrating before my eyes. I do not remember any ensuing conversation between us as we were all conscious that there must have been considerable loss of life not knowing just how many young men had been killed.

Br. Murray called us together told us to get changed and to go home. I never visited the crash site so cannot comment further except to mention the weather. I have read the various reports of squally conditions, heavy rain and thunder and lightning none of which I recognise. As I remember the afternoon it was a typical Merseyside day still,damp and drizzly.

To conclude, I scoured the local weekend paper to find news but there was no mention and although I have though of it from time to time over the years I have seen no mention of it until several months ago when I tried the Internet and came across the various reports. Full marks to those who organized and maintain the memorial as you have said to keep the memory alive.  As I have said I do not suppose this will add anything to what you already have but I have been pleased to give it to you. Best wishes. Ben


Taken from Life Magazine 18th September 1939. Liberator bombers being delivered in Liverpool Docks

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