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Remembering air crashes of the past

PUBLISHED: 22:12 15 January 2015 | UPDATED: 22:12 15 January 2015

NOSE ART: The distinctive painting on the Liberator.
Picture: SUBMITTED

NOSE ART: The distinctive painting on the Liberator. Picture: SUBMITTED

Archant Norfolk Photographic © 2006

CHOCKS away! And we take off on more flights over the Great Yarmouth and Gorleston area that did not go according to plan.

PAYING TRIBUTE: Belton villagers and others gather outside Waveney House in 2006, scene of a 1944 crash of an American bomber. They are at the naming ceremony of a new road, Belle of the East Way - the name given by the crew to their   doomed Liberator.
Picture: MERCURY LIBRARYPAYING TRIBUTE: Belton villagers and others gather outside Waveney House in 2006, scene of a 1944 crash of an American bomber. They are at the naming ceremony of a new road, Belle of the East Way - the name given by the crew to their doomed Liberator. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

Indeed, one had tragic consequences, as did that in 1962 when an Anglia Air Charter Auster on a pleasure trip from the Caister Road field fell into a garden in Elm Close, Gorleston, killing the pilot and his three passengers.

Recently I wrote about the 1964 drama when a United States Air Force jet fighter plunged into Darby’s Hard on the riverside at Gorleston after the pilot had safely ejected, with a follow-up column about the aircraft’s wing flap being dredged-up in 1998.

Colin Sharman, of Oxford Avenue, Gorleston, a crewman on that dredger, also recalled another military aircraft crashing in Gorleston but could remember no details.

In fact, it was 60 years ago, in February 1955, when the American pilot of a Thunderstreak war-plane was killed when it dived into a field at Gorleston, narrowly missing the extensive Magdalen housing estate.

COMMEMORATION: Primrose Williams (left) and Hazel Davies who officially unveiled the new road sign and plaque. 
Picture: MERCURY LIBRARYCOMMEMORATION: Primrose Williams (left) and Hazel Davies who officially unveiled the new road sign and plaque. Picture: MERCURY LIBRARY

Residents saw the aircraft losing height as it passed overhead. The crash site was west of Lowestoft Road and south of Queen’s Crescent. Wreckage was strewn as far as 200 yards from the deep crater made by the impact.

Police Constable Terence Bowles was on a corporation bus at Gorleston when he saw the aircraft lose height and crash.

He commandeered the bus, ordering the driver to take him to the nearest telephone box so he could dial 999 and alert the emergency services, then travelled in the vehicle as close as it could get to the crash site.

According to the Mercury: “PC Bowles ran to the smouldering aircraft. The pilot was dead in his ejector seat about 50 yards away.”

Mr L Girling, of Green Lane, Bradwell, told the Mercury: “I saw the aircraft diving and thought, ‘If you don’t pull out, you’ll have had it.’ Then it went into a dive and hit the ground with a noise like a bomb.”

From ex-Yarmouthian Danny Daniels, an octogenarian long resident in Canada, came an email saying: “As far as aeroplane crashes are concerned, the one I remember was that of the Fairey Battle fighter-bomber that came down intact on the North Beach at Yarmouth.

“It was quite a sight, sitting there in the sand with its propellers bent backwards as it had presumably come down with a dead engine.”

The Fairey Battle, a light bomber, landed on the water’s edge opposite Barnard Avenue in the summer of 1939.

According to the Mercury: “Relieved crowds on beach and parade saw the pilot, Sgt Cyril Henry Butcher, climb out unhurt.”

Eyewitness Mr E Grimmer said the pilot “made a fine landing. He came down very low and some people ducked. The machine bounced on the beach and then skidded to a standstill.

‘The pilot was unhurt when he climbed out. He seemed to have engine trouble.”

Those four dramas were all in peacetime whereas one over Belton happened during the war, in 1944.

The casualty was another American war-plane, a four-engined Liberator bomber circling in preparation for landing at its base at Rackheath 16 miles away after a successful daylight raid on a German aviation factory.

But suddenly the Belle of the East suffered catastrophic engine failure, lost height and hedge-hopped 
before crash-landing in the plum orchard of Waveney House, narrowly missing the residence which was the home of market gardener Ernest Guyton and his family.

As the bomber ploughed into the orchard, both wings were snapped off by an oak tree.

Four of the Liberator crew, including the pilot and his co-pilot, had successfully baled out – but their three colleagues still on board were allegedly unaware that they had been left alone in the stricken aircraft; they believed they were still about to land at Rackheath.

Remarkably, this crash did not result in any fatality; indeed, all seven crew were virtually unscathed.

Despite the danger posed by leaking fuel, villagers rushed to help extricate from the wreckage the three survivors who complained vehemently about their colleagues “hitting the silk” without telling all their crew.

Hazel Guyton, a 27-year-old nurse on leave at her parents’ home, Waveney House, recalled in 1997 that she saw airmen parachuting down and “their plane hedge-hopped over our house and crashed into our Victoria plum orchard at the back, making a proper mess of it”.

Ignoring her father’s warning that a bomb might still be on board, she dashed to pull the survivors from the wreckage of the Liberator.

Until the USAF could remove the wreckage, two guards were posted, billeted with the Guyton family.

The imposition was mitigated by the fact that guards brought with them a large amount of food, a welcome treat for their hosts in an era of stringent rationing.

The story was rekindled a half-century later when, in 1997, one of the three airmen who were still in the Liberator when it crashed made a sentimental journey to Belton and met some of those involved in his 1944 drama. David Grinnell, a 21-year-old gunner when the Liberator came down, enjoyed that visit.

But sadly, he was unable to travel from his home in Washington DC in 2006 when a special ceremony was held to name a Belton road next to the crash scene Belle of the East 
Way.

This last survivor sent a message read out at the naming ceremony that he was disappointed to have been unable to make his third visit to Belton - “the first being on August 25 1944...and unexpected!”

Mr Grinnell thought the village was doing something very special with the road naming, “putting the Belle of the East into the very fabric of your community”.

The actual naming was done by 1944 rescuer Hazel Davies (neé Guyton), then 89 and resident in Hampshire, and Primrose Williams, 76, of Coltishall, a wartime friend of American airman David Grinnell.

The prime mover was Richard Lindsay, a Belton and District Historical Society member who painstakingly researched the history of both the crew and aircraft, and was instrumental in getting the parish council to name the road Belle of the East Way.


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