‘Vivacious Vera’s’ luck runs out and it’s a fight to rescue pilot from blazing cockpit

Wartime crash of a Lightning on the village of Ludham

Wartime crash of a Lightning on the village of Ludham - Credit: Archant

Three weeks after marking another Friday the 13th off the calendar a Martham aviation historian has revealed an escape from death by a wartime American pilot based in Norfolk.

Wartime crash of a Lightning on the village of Ludham

Wartime crash of a Lightning on the village of Ludham - Credit: Archant

Friday, December 13 1943 was much like any other day in wartime Ludham with people going about their daily business. Russell Brooks was working in his garage, Cyril Thrower was tending to his shop and his wife was nursing her baby in the house.

Historian William Buck said: “All that was about to change though because in the sky above the village a young American pilot was trying desperately to land his damaged aircraft at Ludham airfield.”

In a matter of minutes villagers found themselves at the centre of a battle to rescue the trapped pilot from his blazing aircraft, and save their own homes and businesses in a scene of devastation.

The P38 Lightning was being piloted by 22 year old 1st Lt Hugh James “Jim” Goudelock from the 55th Fighter Group based at Nuthampstead, Hertfordshire.

Hugh "Jim" Goudelock who was trapped in the burning cockpit of "Vivacious Vera" when it crashed in t

Hugh "Jim" Goudelock who was trapped in the burning cockpit of "Vivacious Vera" when it crashed in the village of Ludham, Norfolk. - Credit: Archant

The Lockheed Lightning P38-H had been passed on to the US Army Air Force from the manufacturer only four months earlier but in that short space of time it had seen its fair share of action and worry for her pilots.

Several times an engine had developed problems in the air and been repaired.

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The Lightning was allocated to Lt James Gilbride and he named her “Vivacious Vera” after his wife.

On November 13, 1943 the Eighth Air Force carried out a raid to Bremen with 45 aircraft from the 55th escorting B17 and B24 bombers however seven of those aircraft were lost to enemy action.

Jim Gilbride lost an engine but “Vera” got him safely back to base.

Lt Hiner was to fly “Vera” 13 days later providing escort cover for another raid on Bremen but while over the Zuider Zee he also experienced engine problems but again “Vera” made it back to base.

Late November there was another raid on Bremen with Jim Gilbride taking part but “Vera” was unserviceable so he had to take another aircraft. The good luck Gilbride had had with “Vera” was missing and he was shot down into the sea and was killed.

A now repaired “Vera” took part in a raid on Solingen but while flying over the Ruhr suffered another engine failure but yet again the pilot managed to nurse her home.

On December 12 1943 “Vera” was allocated to 1st Lt Hugh James “Jim” Goudelock who decided to keep the name “Vivacious Vera” and a day later the 55th escorted B17s and B24s on a raid to Kiel.

Over the target the flak was heavy and accurate.

Mr Buck said: “Suddenly, ‘Vera’ spun out of control and whether hit by flak or a mechanical problem the aircraft suffered a port engine failure. Jim Goudelock believes his aircraft was hit by flak.

“After a few terrifying minutes he managed to get her under control and decided he had two options: bail out and end up a prisoner of war, or try and get back to England – and he decided on the latter.”

Goudelock knew “Vera’s” history and the fact she had returned three other pilots safely back after similar situations, so he saw her as lucky and after making sure everything was okay he started his 375-mile return trip with one engine.

Three other aircraft formatted on Goudelock to help shepherd him back but the situation worsened when his radio failed. He had no way of communicating with anyone.

He headed on across the North Sea and eventually saw landfall and an airfield in the distance. It was RAF Ludham

Goudelock didn’t know it’s name but it was an airfield and he needed to make an emergency landing quickly.

He couldn’t tell them … but one of his fellow pilots radioed the airfield for permission to land.

Goudelock decided he had to take a chance but on his first attempt to bring his aircraft down he was flying too fast. The second time it looked better but just before he made his final turn to line up the runway his starboard engine cut.

Just seconds away from a safe landing on an airfield was now impossible and he had to get “Vera” down quickly.

The village of Ludham was below and Goudelock could see no clear space but he spotted a large tree and decided to hit the top of the tree as it might slow him down enough to land without killing himself.

The plan worked. Well, it got him down, and “Vera” was brought abruptly to earth in the yard of butcher W K England, crashing through an outbuilding before screeching to a stop in a cloud of red brick dust. Several other buildings were also demolished.

William explained: “That wasn’t all. Other wreckage from the aircraft caused more damage with one of the engines going through the wall of Mr Thrower’s garage and out the doors the other end, the tail falling on the shop roof and one wheel bounced across the street ending up in a garden several yards away.”

The main part of the aircraft fuselage was in a passageway between the grocers and the butchers and flames were beginning to lick at the cockpit where the pilot was trapped.

Villagers Russell Brooks and Cyril Thrower rushed to the burning wreckage and tried to release him from the cockpit but his foot was trapped by the control column and no amount of pulling seemed able to free him. Russell sped off and fetched tools as the flames and heat were starting to become more intense, creeping nearer and nearer towards Goudelock.

The deperate American was pleading for them to get him out and Russell again sped off - this time to the butchers for a meat cleaver thinking that rather than let him burn they would knock him out and chop off his trapped left foot.

Russell had now been joined by Robert Utting for one last attempt. They frantically pushed and pulled the control column with the pilot also wriggling and pushing – and he was free and manhandled from the now burning cockpit.

However, the flames were now threatening Cyril Thrower’s house and villagers and soldiers billeted kept it as under control as possible until the fire service arrived to take over.

Thrower’s home and shop survived and no one else was injured. Jim Goudelock was taken to Russell Brooks’ garage where his injuries were dealt with.

His fellow pilots had landed at the airfield and ran into the village and were surprised to find him merely dazed by the experience, injured but miraculously in one piece.

Goudelock was taken by ambulance to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and made a full recovery.

Villagers Russell Brooks, Iris Kemp, Clifford Lamble, Stephen Maylan, Alfred Osborne, James Russell, Cyril Thrower, Robert Wilson Utting and Ena Wise all received a commendation from King George VI for their courage in rescuing the pilot from the burning wreckage of his aircraft.

Jim Goudelock returned, this time a little less spectacularly, in January 1944 to thank the people of Ludham for their bravery in saving his life.

He returned a number of times during his wartime service in the UK and afterwards, with the final visit in July 1982 accompanied by his wife Sybil.

Hugh James “Jim” Goudelock died in 2006 at the age of 85.

Throwers shop still has the scars today left by “Vera” after her final flight – when she made her unexpected “visit” to Ludham in December 1943.

William Buck said: “I would like to thank Ian McLachlan for his help in putting this story together because without his help it would not have been possible.”