• W.S. Petty

B17G Crash over the Thames

By W.S. Petty 22nd May 2020

With a growing number of American followers on Twitter, many of whom are connected to the military in some way, I thought I’d write an article which they might find interesting. A small piece of my local history entwined in the greater scheme of World War II.

This is the tale of two United States Army Air Force B17G Flying Fortresses which collided over the River Thames in The United Kingdom, on 19th June 1944.

I’ve fond childhood memories of playing on the sand and in the mud around the shores of Canvey Island, in the Estuary of the River Thames. If the tide was out, as a family, we’d watch the annual Southend Air Show from ‘the Point’. The Point is an area which afforded us a fantastic view, putting us directly under the flight path and turning arc of the aircraft as they made their display [1]. The air show used to be held over two days each summer, sadly it no longer takes place [2]. Most years, we’d spend one day at Southend and on the other day we’d watch from closer to home on Canvey.

Canvey’s Point is rich in history, among other things it is the location of a Roman Red Hill [3]. Red Hills are formed as a result of generations of salt making, deriving their colour from the rubble of clay structures used in the salt-making process, along with debris from the pottery synonymous with the Iron age and Roman eras. Indeed, to this day fragments of Roman pottery along with other artefacts can still be discovered by walking out on the wrong side of the sea defences. The area was also used extensively by Danish Viking raiders. In the History of Canvey Island by Augustus Daley, written in 1901 [4] Daley describes “the Danish rover and chieftain, Hæston, in the year A.D. 893, had the audacity to build a castle or fortress hereabouts. So, you can imagine the treasures I, as a young lad, would search for out on the mud at low tide!

On one of many visits to the point with my late Maternal Grandfather, Albert, we were looking for artefacts and treasures when we came across some bits of twisted aluminium. Grandad then told me the tale of how two American bombers crashed into one another while returning from a bombing mission during the second world war. This was the 1980’s so many of the details of the crash were still unknown to the general public, other than assumptions. In fact, these assumptions had grown into somewhat of a folk tale by the time I was born. A tale of desperate heroism by the pilot of one of the stricken B17G Flying Fortresses, Heavenly Body II.

The story that I was told and indeed the story that many people of Canvey Island believed until very recently was as follows: On the 19th June 1944, after a mid-air collision by two American B17G Flying Fortresses, one of the planes exploded and fell from the sky. The other, Heavenly Body II, critically damaged, was in a shallow dive and heading for the houses of Canvey. The surviving crew had bailed out, but the pilot had stayed with the aircraft to ensure it didn’t crash into the nearby oil refinery or the houses. Grandad, who would have been 14 years old at the time of the crash, recounted that the aircraft was seen to be turned by the brave pilot as it made its way towards the residential areas. In a controlled crash, it impacted the mud around where we were standing at that time. I’d grown up hearing that story from a number of local people too. The pilot is to this day revered as a local hero.

Stan Pierce, who witnessed the crash as a young boy on Canvey told The Canvey Community Archive: “As I stood gazing, right above my head, one bomber fell on top of another. There was no explosive sound, but a crunch and a screeching, tearing noise. I was stunned, a wing floated away. There was a lot of black smoke. One plane fell away, and bits fell off. I have no further memory of it, but the other plane had a more lasting effect. It tipped over, and the nose was looking at me.” [5]. The first plane crashed into the Thames on the Kent side of the river, near Allhallows, while the other B17, Heavenly Body II, crashed near Canvey Point.

In recent years, as more details have come to light, a number of memorials have been dedicated to the crews of Heavenly Body II and the other aircraft 44/6133, of which 11 Airmen in total lost their lives. The aircraft, part of the 379th Bombardment Group were returning to their base at USAFF Station 117, RAF Kimbolton [6]. While the crew of Heavenly Body II were a veteran crew of 29 missions, the crew of the 44/6133 were returning from their first combat mission over enemy territory. As such they hadn’t had time to name their aircraft, nor had they had their official crew picture taken before eight of them were tragically killed. Their mission had been to attack the V1 rocket sites at Zudausques in France. During the mission, the formation of bombers had been shot at by German anti-aircraft guns whose flak had taken a devastating toll on 44/6133. The aircraft lost one engine and took damage to their port and starboard elevators. It was amazing that they were able to remain airborne for as long as they did. They were nursing their B17G, still in formation, back to their base when they lost altitude and crunched into Heavenly Body II.

In researching this blog I’ve come across an account of what happened by an aviation expert and historian, Mitch Peeke. His account can be found on the Aviation Trails website [7]. The piece is titled, A Long Way From Home. The article is a must read if you want a detailed description of the events of that day.

As it turns out, the pilot who was actually flying Heavenly Body II at the time of the impact was the co-pilot, 2nd Lieutenant Fred Kauffman. It seems that Kauffman was killed instantly by the propeller of 44/6133. The manoeuvres the aircraft were seen to make by the eyewitnesses on the ground were likely to have been random and it was more to luck than bravery that Heavenly Body II impacted the mud where it did, rather than strike the houses.

For me, and many other residence of Canvey Island, knowing this takes nothing away from Fred Kauffman and the ten others who lost their lives in this tragic accident. Hero’s one and all. As Stan Pierce said, the other aircraft did indeed crash near Kent, just off of Allhallows. There was just one survivor of that B17G, the bombardier 2nd Lt Theodore Chronopolis, who fell unconscious, waking outside the aircraft in time to pull his parachute.

This post is a dedication to the crew of the two aircraft and especially the men who lost their lives in this tragic accident, fighting a war ‘a long way from home.’ For our tomorrow, they gave their today.

44/6133 - Pilot: Second Lieutenant Armand Ramacitti, Co-pilot: Second Lieutenant William ‘Bill’ Hager, Navigator: First Lieutenant Donald ‘Don’ Watson, Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Staff Sergeant Cecil Tognazzini, Radio Operator: Sergeant Richard ‘Dick’ Ritter, Ball turret gunner: Staff Sergeant John Burke, Waist gunner: Corporal Paul Haynes, Tail gunner: Sergeant Warren Oaks (his second mission) Bombardier: Second Lieutenant Theodore Chronopolis (the sole survivor of 44/6133) 42/97942 Heavenly Body II - Pilot: First Lieutenant Lloyd Burns (just 19 years of age), Bombardier: Second Lieutenant Jack Gray, Flight engineer/top turret gunner: Technical Sergeant Leonard Gibbs, Radio Operator: Technical Sergeant Leroy Monk, Ball turret gunner: Staff Sergeant William ‘Bill’ Farmer, Waist gunner: Staff Sergeant Richard ‘Dick’ Andrews, Co-pilot: Second Lieutenant Fred Kauffman, Navigator: Flight Officer Edward Sadler, Tail gunner: Staff Sergeant Louis Schulte

Cover image courtesy of Pixabay user mturner3

[1] Canvey Point

[2] Southend Air Show

[3] Red Hills

[4] History of Canvey Island

[5] Stan Pierce Memories

[6] RAF Kimbolton

[7] A Long Way From Home

Crew of Heavenly Body II
Crew of Heavenly Body II

Sea Wall Murial 2020
Canvey Island Sea Wall Murial 2020

Canvey Island B17 Memorial Ground
Canvey Island B17 Memorial Ground

B17 Memorial - Canvey
B17 Memorial - Canvey

Canvey B17 Memorial
Memorial details with stones painted and left by local children

Heavenly Body II Crash Site 2020
Heavenly Body II Crash Site 2020

Andy Laing Flickr Images: Click Here

146 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All