By Haydon Luke, with additional material researched by Martin King – previously published in The Pett Parish Monthly News
In 1943 the bombing campaign against Germany was at its height with RAF Bomber Command flying missions at night and the 8th USAAF by day in an attempt to destroy the enemy’s industrial capability. Losses were enormous.
The Coastal Defence Battery Command Post can still be seen at Toot Rock, Pett Level
Earlier in the year we told the story of one of those aircraft, the USAAF B17 Flying Fortress Connecticut Yankee which crash landed on the marsh within sight of the Command Post at Toot Rock on 6th September 1943. But she was not the only Flying Fortress to end up in our parish that fateful late summer day.
This is the story of the second of those two aircraft both of which had been involved in a mission to attack the Bosch engineering works at Stuttgart, an operation which went badly wrong.
B17 similar to Shooting Star on the runway at an East Anglian airbase in 1943. (Images from website of the National Museum of the Mighty Eighth Airforce, Georgia, USA)
The name given by the crew to that second aircraft (42-29540) was Shooting Star. She was part of the same 91st Bomb Group (The Ragged Irregulars) based at Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire, and involved in the same disastrous raid on Stuttgart. The images show the Bomb Group and Squadron logos.
This mission was planned as massive attack of 338 B-17s on the industrial areas of Stuttgart, supported by a formation of 69 B-24s flying a diversion. The bomber formations would be escorted as far as possible by 176 P-47 fighters.
As an operation it was very ambitious. The round-trip distance from the East Anglian bases of the 8th Air Force to Stuttgart would be approaching to 1,300 miles – close to the maximum range for those B-17s that had not been equipped with the long-range fuel tanks. This fact would have disastrous consequences for the mission. It was a dangerous gamble.
The map below shows the route the force would have followed, taking the short sea route across the English Channel to minimise time spent over enemy territory.
The first element from 1st Bomb Wing was a formation of 181 B-17s from various Bomb Groups). This was the force of which Shooting Star was a part and, as indicated earlier, the aircraft in this formation would be “pushing” their maximum range and requiring all to go smoothly if problems were to be avoided.
But that is not how matters played out. The major problem was heavy cloud cover over most of NW France and Germany that day. The formation became disorganized and separated and the 151 that did manage to reach the target area never actually made it to Stuttgart and so were forced to bomb various ‘Targets of Opportunity’ wherever they could find them. This made them extremely vulnerable to fighter attack and difficult for the P-47s to cover.
In the event, 27 aircraft were lost from this formation; 20 because they ran out of fuel on the return and were forced (as Shooting Star was) to ditch in the English Channel or make forced landings in the fields of England; 3 others managed to make it to Switzerland and were interned with their crews. Out of those crews 16 men were killed in action, 64 became Prisoners of War, 44 evaded capture, 116 returned to duty (many of whom, as was the case with some of Shooting Star’s crew, were rescued from the Channel by Air-Sea Rescue – a magnificent accomplishment), 30 were interned. 13 airmen were Wounded in Action and 47 aircraft were damaged. The mission was a fiasco. Losses from the other elements of the attack were equally heavy.
The official de-briefing Missing Air Crew Report of Shooting Star’s last moments is detailed and painful.
“A/C 29540 ditched in ocean off Hastings at 12.45 hours, due to lack of fuel. A/C had all four engines going after leaving French Coast, but lack of fuel in two engines caused A/C to land in sea. Crew was unable to get dinghies from A/C before it went down and floated in sea for 20 minutes before being picked up by Air-Sea Rescue Service. Two men got out of A/C, but soon afterwards the crew became separated due to high waves. When crew were picked up 3 men were missing and their whereabouts remains unknown. One man, S/Sgt E J Minehan, seemed to be dazed by ditching, and was helped from A/C. Pilot saw T/Sgt W F Migut and spoke to him but [he] wasn’t seen again. S/Sgt B D Ray was not seen again after ditching, though crew members insist 10 men were counted after crew got out of A/C which sank in about 45 seconds.” So near and yet so far.
It is particularly tragic that, having virtually reached the safety of the English coast and having exited the stricken plane, three crew members nevertheless perished within sight of the shore. Their bodies were later recovered.
The pressure of active service in the USAAF was relentless. The seven surviving crew members returned to their base and were soon in the air again in other B17s.
What happened to them? How many survived the war? In practice, tracing the subsequent service histories of the aircrew members 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, near Cambridge, but it is something of a hit and miss process.
What is certain is that the 10 men comprising the crew of Shooting Star were young men from all parts of the United States. 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 we hope that our account of that fatal mission is in some measure an acknowledgement of their courage and the thanks we owe them, and many thousands like them, for their part in the final victory.
By Haydon Luke with additional material researched by Martin King