or When a Thunderbolt Hit
March 8th 1944 was a day to remember in Flordon and adjacent parishes. It was a dull winter's day with thick cloud, but everyone was used to the sound of planes going over whatever the weather - especially with the USAAAF just up the road at Hethel.
But today it was single-seater fighter planes - 16 well-armoured Thunderbolts (nick-named 'Flying Tanks') - see above - and 7 long-range Mustangs of the 352nd Fighter Group flying out of Bodney airfield to escort back more than 600 bombers that had been to Berlin to hit a ball-bearing factory amongst other targets. The unusual mix of planes flying in close formation was captured in a painting by Darrel Crosby entitled 'mixed Doubles' (below).
The weather may not have been too bad over Breckland, but by the time they reach Flordon area they were in thick cloud. To reduce the risk of detection, only the leading aircraft used instruments and radio contact - the other pilots had to keep an eye on the plane in front and to each side. Which meant that the thicker the cloud the closer they got together - and for some that was far too close today!
Six of them collided with neighbours - two managed to right themselves and returned to base; one managed to land at Hethel, more by luck than judgement, though his plane was a write-off. Two pilots managed to bail out and parachute to ground. Sadly, one ploughed into the edge of a wood near Mergate Hall, Bracon Ash, and the pilot (Lt. Earl H Bond) was killed instantly.
Rex Webster of Flordon Hall recalled the day: "I remember it being around lunch time and hearing what sounded like aircraft in the clouds fooling around, then some noise, followed by three aircraft diving out from the cloud in violent spins. Seconds later there were three separate explosions as they hit the ground, one on the boundary of my Father's land in Braconash."
And Philip Taylor added, "I had just returned from
dinner at about 1:30 and was muckspreading that afternoon on a horse drawn
wagon when the incident occurred. I could hear the noise of aircraft above, but
could not see them as they were flying in the clouds. Then all of a sudden
there was a sound like smashing crockery, and the planes came diving out of the
clouds. One crashed at Hapton up by the houses, another came down up near the
"Sheds" at the back of John Bett's Land in Braconash, and one landed
just across the field from me on Webster's Meadow. I think another came down on
the airfield at Hethel. I remember seeing the pilot floating down up there at
Hapton, he looked a bit like one of them Thistle down seeds. Now the pilot of
the one on the low meadow, I don't know where he came down, the wind must have
carried him away from the crash because I never saw him."
"Mike" Miklajcyk was piloting a borrowed plane (P-47D-10) which was crippled by a collision - realising how low he was he parachuted out and his big Thunderbolt ploughed into a hedge between Flordon and Wreningham, almost completely burying the aircraft. Marc Hamel reports:
A piece of "Mike's" aircraft landed just a few feet
from farm worker Philip Taylor from Flordon, "I was busy
muck-spreading some 500 yards away from the crash site, and the exploding shell
noise startled my horse. My brother Leslie was working in the field nearest the
crash and rushed to the scene. He was also scared by the exploding shells and
beat a hasty retreat. He then watched the fire burn up the plane from a safe
distance, but he did not know what happened to the pilot." Miklajcyk
soon landed safely in his parachute without any injuries, thus also joining the
"Caterpillar Club" [nickname for those who bailed out and landed by
parachute]. Upon hitting the ground and gathering up his parachute, he was
greeted by a forward young lad from Flordon who asked, "Can I have
your parachute mister?" (This is believed to be John Griffiths, of an
East London family of who had moved to Flordon to escape the Blitz of 1940).
(Above) Ground crew stand beside P-47 Thunderbolt (PZ-Y. serial number 42-76323), named "Sneezy". This aircraft was flown by Lieutenant Donald McKibben of the 486th Fighter Squadron, 352nd Fighter Group. Probably taken at Bodney air base. (photo from Roger Freeman Collection here )
Donald "Mac" McKibben was flying his Thunderbolt, "Sneezy"
(P-47D-15RE). He made a sharp manoeuvre in thick cloud to avoid a plane that
appeared in the 'soup' above and to his left and found himself hurtling towards
the ground. He got out onto the wing, tore off his oxygen mask and jumped. In
his own words:
'I tumbled through the air for a second and pulled the ripcord. It turns out that I was upside down when the chute opened. The opening shock dislodged my escape pack from the pocket inside my flight jacket. It came up and hit me in the face, resulting in a little 'shiner' later. I didn't have much time to look around as I floated down in my parachute, due to the low overcast bottom that day. I tugged the risers a little to maneuver into a plowed field instead of a road, and saw the flaming wreckage of my plane nearby. On the same side of the road as my plane crash was a little house and a nice lady came out and offered me some tea. On the other side of the road was a thatched roof house that had been set alight by the burning gasoline thrown from the wreckage, as well as some smoldering trees in a churchyard.'
Mac had landed in Hapton, as Mr & Mrs Lemon recall: "We heard a loud clattering noise, and then there was silence." Mr. Lemon adds, "I was working at Hapton Hall, heard the noise, and knew something was wrong. Seconds later a plane came hurtling earthwards, so I grabbed my bicycle and headed to the scene of the crash. A few moments later a pilot parachuted down and landed approximately 100 yards away from the wreck. Debris and burning fuel was flung towards a thatched cottage which eventually burned down, and the elderly lady owner Daisy Moss was trapped in the toilet outside by the propeller. My wife eventually removed it so she could escape. Ten or so fire engines from Hethel and Hardwick came to fight the fire, but a strawstack near the wreck also caught fire and eventually burnt out as well. A sycamore tree in the churchyard 250 yards away was also badly scorched."
Stan Miles was probably the luckiest. In thick cloud he was hit from beneath and behind and pushed into a dive. "My engine was knocked out and hydraulic fluid and oil came back all over the windscreen so I couldn't see in front of me. I pulled out of the dive right at the tree tops, and out of my side window I spotted a large base with a beautiful runway below. I dropped the gear, as it did not depend on the hydraulic system to be lowered, and landed on that base. I rolled to a stop and it turned out to be the bomber base at Hethel. It had an exceptionally long and wide runway, not like the grass field at Bodney. Fortunately I did not try to bail out, as when I got on the ground, I discovered the canopy was stuck shut from the mid-air collision... A lot of Hethel's personnel met my plane as I stopped. They got me out and took me to base operations. I waited there for a while until someone from Bodney came over and gave me a ride back."
That was the end of his "Bundle of Joy"!
(Above) Printed caption on reverse: '"Sneezy" poses for the camera with its crew chief Luman Morey and pilot Don McKibben on wing. Flight Leader Frank Greene strongly encouraged his flight to paint their Thunderbolts as Disney's Seven Dwarves to match his aircraft "Snow White". (From Roger Freeman Collection - here )
Attempts were made in the 1990s to find any remains of the crashed aircraft. An aileron trim tab, part of an engine, a propeller boss and other debris from Earl Bond's aircraft was recovered in Bracon Ash by metal detectorists in 1990. Miraculously, the nose art from "Sneezy" and a scattering of other objects were recovered in Hapton in 1992. And in 1999 Rex Webster of Flordon Hall was able to locate where "Mike" Miklajcyk's plane had crashed in a narrow water meadow and parts of the engine, spark plugs, a gun barrel and ammunition were recovered.
on Raining Thunderbolts by Marc L Hamel with Simon Dunnel, which can be
read in full here