By Haydon Luke, with additional material researched by Martin King – previously published in Pett Parish Monthly News
With the tide of the war turning, in the summer of 1943, the bombing campaign against Germany was at its height. It was a two-pronged assault. RAF Bomber Command flew missions at night and the 8th USAAF by day in a coordinated attempt to destroy the enemy’s industrial capability. On the allied side their industrial capacity had been harnessed into a formidable machine for manufacturing all sorts of weapons and war materials. Aircraft of increasing power and sophistication rolled off production lines in ever larger numbers. Losses however were enormous.
For the skies over Europe were still dominated by the Luftwaffe whose powerful aircraft and experienced pilots were determined that they would exact a high price from the USAAF for their attacks on German cities. Despite the big formations, defensive armaments and fighter escorts, the American bomber crews sustained heavy casualties. Losses of 30 or more aircraft [per mission flown]—300 men—were not uncommon throughout that summer. John Luckadoo, a pilot in the 100th Bomb Group recalled that he “calculated a 400 percent turnover in the first 90 days” of combat. In 1943, bomber crews were tasked with a 25-mission tour of duty. Most crews never made it past their fifth.”
Just how high that price was can be understood from these statistics. A total of 350,000 airmen served with the United States Eighth Air Force in England, and of this number, 26,000 were killed, or 7.42 percent. Compared to the percentages of other military branches – U.S. Marines 3.29%, U.S. Army 2.25%, and U.S. Navy 0.41% – the Air Corps sustained the heaviest losses.
The Coastal Defence Battery Command Post can still be seen at Toot Rock, Pett
The story of one aircraft, a B17 Flying Fortress, which crashed at Pett Level illustrates the reality and the horror behind those statistics. The conclusion of the incident, on 6th September 1943, was recorded in the War Diary of the Coast Defence Battery based on Toot Rock as follows:
“Two Flying Fortress Aircraft crashed in the vicinity of Pett Battery. One crashed in the marshes at 12.33 hrs. on a bearing of 035, range approx. 2000 yards. 9 men were observed to parachute from the plane and land safely. The pilot of the machine crash-landed his plane, was uninjured, and a rescue party was despatched. The second Fortress crashed in the Channel at 12.40 hrs. on a bearing of 110, range approx. 2500 yds. Three trawlers came to the rescue. No.1 Searchlight was exposed to assist in the rescue.”
This is the story of the first of those aircraft. The B17 which made it home was 42-2970, named Connecticut Yankee, led by Bill Pegram flying as part of the 324 Bomb Squadron in the 91st Bomb Group, USAAF, from Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire. She must have been a lucky aircraft because she had completed 25 missions by April of 1943. That made her a contender for a return to the USA and a triumphal tour of US cities to drum up support for War Bonds. But instead, she and her crew continued to fly in combat across the hostile European skies. The final trip which concluded in the mud of Romney Marsh was her 38th mission – a remarkable survival rate.
Connecticut Yankee’s luck ran out on the 6th of September on the ill-fated mission to Stuttgart. Ill-fated because almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong for the 181 aircraft from the first Bomb Wing flying from their bases in Cambridgeshire. For a start the primary target, the Bosch factories in Stuttgart, was at the limit of the maximum range for B17s. Ideally the raid would have been a quick ‘in and out’ to the target, drop bombs and return to base.
If that had been the case, relatively speaking, everything would have been fine but it was not to be. The weather intervened, with heavy cloud cover over most of NW France and Germany. The poor visibility interfered with the outward flight. The squadrons became disorganized and separated with many aircraft becoming detached from the main formations leaving them vulnerable to being picked off by German fighters. Thus the initial 181 aircraft were reduced to 151 and not all of those even found the primary target but were reduced to lone attacks on various ‘targets of opportunity’ as best they could before attempting the journey home, isolated and without escorts, to run the gauntlet of rampaging enemy fighters.
For the aircraft still together in the main force, things were no better. As usual, as the flying fortresses approached German territory, fighters attacked with their experienced pilots using well tried tactics. The assaults were violent, head-on passes that resulted in high casualties among the lead crews. Yet, despite the fierce opposition, the bombers continued toward the Bosch factory. Once over the target, however, the mission unravelled even further. A cloud front had unexpectedly moved in, obscuring any view of the target from the bombardiers perched in the noses of their B-17s 25,000 feet above the city.
General Robert Travis, aerial commander of the mission, made the fateful decision to circle the target and wait for the clouds to move. As the bomber formation circled the target, the tight combat boxes of B-17s became easy targets for enemy fighters. In all, three passes were made and still the clouds had not broken, whilst all the while precious fuel was being burned and B-17s were being picked off by fighters and anti-aircraft artillery.
The B-17s had been over the target for nearly thirty minutes when the bombs in the lead aircraft finally dropped. The bombs missed the target almost completely. Forty-five B-17s failed to return to England that night.
The obvious confusion in the air over Stuttgart and the heavy casualties sustained yet again caused many men to begin to doubt the leadership of the air campaign. A survivor of the Stuttgart mission recalled, “We began to wonder if they were trying to kill all of us. There were fewer and fewer guys returning every day.”
Among the aircraft that made it to the target was Connecticut Yankee. Piloted by 2nd Lt William G Pegram he and his crew were flying only their second mission in the aircraft, as No. 3 of the Lead Element of the Low Squadron. The aircraft took flak damage over the target, knocking out an inboard engine before the aircraft turned for home hoping to avoid further attention from enemy fighters.
The safety of the English coast was a long way away. Worse, fuel consumption was high in the remaining engines, causing two to run dry while over the Channel. Eventually Connecticut Yankee made landfall on one good engine but was losing altitude. As its tank emptied the final engine cut out. But, even though the Sussex coast was below, the drama of the flight was still playing out.
Since there was still enough altitude to do so, 2nd Lt Pegram ordered the crew to bail out. However, the chute of the navigator, 2nd Lt Robert S Cosgrove, would not open when he pulled the ripcord. He had to tear off the canvas cover as he fell through the air to get the canopy released. The chute of the left waist gunner, Sgt Frederick E Hutchinson, opened inside the fuselage as he jumped, leaving him dangling outside the plane. The ball turret gunner, S/Sgt Hans W Wobst, gathered up the chute and pushed it out, saving Sgt Hutchinson’s life. The rest of the crew, except for Lt. Pegram, bailed out safely.
In the final act of that eventful day Lt Pegram put Connecticut Yankee down in a wheels-up, dead-stick, belly landing in the partially flooded fields of Romney Marsh near Pett Level. Although the muddy soil acted like grease, allowing a relatively smooth landing, she was badly damaged structurally.
Because of the combined damage from flak and the rough landing, Connecticut Yankee was declared salvage and never flew again. Not so the crew. The pressure of active service in the USAAF was relentless. The surviving crew members returned to their base and within days they were back in combat. Sadly, Lt Pegram’s life had less than 3 weeks more to run. He was killed in action in another B17 on 27 September.
But what happened to the rest of the crew thereafter I cannot recount. In practice, tracing the subsequent service histories of the crew members from the aircraft is difficult. It is not even possible to say for sure who survived the war and who did not because 80% of the centralised US military personnel records from WW2 were destroyed by a fire in the 1970s. It is possible to pick up details of some individuals from unit history websites and from the War Cemetery records at Madingley (above) but it is something of a hit and miss process.
What is certain is that they were young men from all parts of the United States. They came, quite literally, ‘from sea to shining sea’ – from Massachusetts to California, from Montana to Florida. They were part of a massive air armada and flew, in daylight, in conditions of extreme peril and danger to help defeat Nazi Germany. Some, when the European war was winding down, were reassigned to the Far East putting their lives once more in jeopardy to help defeat Japan. They touched our part of Sussex briefly and were gone again almost in an instant.
But I hope this account of that brief acquaintance is in some measure an acknowledgement of the thanks we owe them, and many thousands like them, for their part in the final victory.
By Haydon Luke and additional material researched by Martin King