This is the actual Liberator
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
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
If anybody has any information on this
particular crash I would be most grateful for news.
Contact Includes eye witness report by a 15 year old Ben
Written by Colin
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.
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
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.
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
Those killed in the incident
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
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
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.
My thanks to the knowledgeable people of
Wirral Military Memories on Facebook for putting me right about an
incorrect image (of Hudson bombers arriving in Liverpool) which Life
Magazine in 1939 described as Liberators. I failed to check!!