At 20.30 hours on the evening of 27 May 1943, USAAF ground personnel were arming B-17 Flying Fortresses when a 500lb bomb detonated on the flight line at RAF Alconbury. The explosion set off several other bombs. As debris from the blast rained down, the shockwaves travelled hundreds of feet in every direction. In an instant, death and destruction was wrought across the Cambridgeshire airfield.
On the evening of Thursday, 27 May 1943, after delivering some supplies to the maintenance hangars, Ted Penn stood around talking with the men in the dispersal area who were loading 500lb bombs into the B-17 Flying Fortresses of the Unites States Army Air Force’s 95th Bombardment Group (Heavy). The 95th was, at the time, based at Alconbury Airfield in Cambridgeshire, designated USAAF Station 102.
The 95th was formed in late August 1942 at Geiger Field in Washington. After final training had been completed at Rapid City Army Air Base in South Dakota, the group flew to Britain along the southern route via Florida, Trinidad, Brazil, Dakar and Marrakesh. The aircraft arrived in the UK in early April 1943. The ground crew sailed on RMS Queen Elizabeth which docked at Greenock on 11 May.
In April 1943 the 95th began arriving at Alconbury, joining the Flying Fortress-equipped 92nd Bombardment Group (Heavy). For the next six weeks the airfield at Alconbury was crowded with the largest number of B-17s ever based there.
After a period of practice and familiarisation, the 95th, part of the Fourth Combat Wing, began operations on 13 May 1943. The target that day was the Luftwaffe airfield at St. Omer. The mission was, recalled Leonard Herman, «short and simple». Lasting four hours and fifteen minutes, mission No.1 encountered almost no opposition: «There was very little flak,» recounted Herman. «There were no fighters at all.»
The second operation came the following day, when the 95th’s B-17s were despatched to bomb targets at Antwerp.
It was on this raid that the unit lost its first aircraft. Less than twenty-four hours later it was the turn of Emden, a mission that was achieved without loss.
The same could not be said of Mission No.4, which was to Lorient. This resulted in the loss of the second 95th Bomb Group Flying Fortress, which crashed on landing. It was for just such missions that the B-17s were being prepared for on 23 May, being loaded up with 500lb bombs. Rather than arming the bombs after they had been loaded, the men fuzed the bombs on the ground where they could be more easily reached. This method was faster and more efficient, if potentially more dangerous.
As the loaders had nearly finished their job, they told Penn to set off for dinner and they would join him shortly. «One of the guys, I didn’t know his name, told me to get on my bike down to the mess tent so I could be first in line,» remembered Penn. «Halfway down the hill, I heard a terrific explosion and the force rocked me on my bike. I hopped off and saw a tremendous fire.»
The time was around 20.30 hours.
«The fellows I had been talking to had all gone,» added Penn,
«and I could just as well have been killed if they hadn’t told me to go ahead. Nothing was left of their ‘plane but a big crater.»
The effects of the blast were devastating. Eyewitnesses later reported seeing an engine from the exploding bomber fly through the air, punch through another B-17 and finally come to rest wedged beneath a third parked over 600 feet away.
Lieutenant Gale House, the pilot of B-17 42-29808, recalled the moment that tragedy struck. «My crew was sitting on blankets and the gunners were cleaning their guns. Frank Metzger, my navigator, and I were sitting on a separate blanket.
I was leaning over close to the ground, blowing into the ear of a small Chihuahua dog my radio operator had traded a flashlight in for in Belem, Brazil, in a somewhat teasing manner.
«The explosion took place in the B-17 about seventy feet away from us while we were only a few feet from the rear entrance of our ship. Metzger was killed instantly. I suffered a bomb fragment that went into the pleural cavity. Members of my crew were all injured in some manner or other.
«We tried to get up and run away from the site at the instant of the explosion, but heavy clods of dirt kept pounding us to the ground. It completely destroyed the B-17, blowing a hole in the ground about 6 feet deep and 30 feet in diameter.
«My ship suffered a glancing blow from an engine from the exploded airplane just forward of the rear exit and the fuselage was punctured with holes throughout.
Sgt. Cords had been in our airplane when the explosion took place and came out of the ship with multiple bleeding wounds and was a yellow ghost. Apparently a fragment had disintegrated a package of sea marker that was always carried on the ships and this powdered dye had him completely covered.» It was, concluded Lieutenant House, «a rough beginning for the group».
For the 95th Bomb Group’s Communications Officer Frank Knox, as for many others, this was the first experience of the horrors of war, and of the destruction a bomb could do.
«I was in the operations headquarters, the operations building, when the explosion occurred. Of course everyone immediately responded, went to see what it was all about.
«I remember walking round the operations building, the outside of the building, heading straight toward the scene of the accident. As I came around the corner of the operation building, well,
I might say, it was like seeing a rattlesnake in front of me, and taking an extra big step in order not to step on him. What I was doing at that point was to step over a ribcage by itself there on the ground. And I thought, oh, you know, didn’t know first of all how to react. But I decided, well, this is wartime, and I might see much more of this. So roll with the punches. But that was my experience.
«As group communications officer I lost at least three radio maintenance crewmen who were in that ‘plane setting up the radio equipment for the mission. And at the same time that the armament crew was there loading bombs into the bomb bay. That’s about as much as I am aware of.»
As Captain Clifford Cole later observed, many of the victims had simply died from «the grim caprice» of concussion. «Without warning the bomb load on ship No.229685 exploded with a horrifying blast. The ‘plane, as such, literally disappeared, taking its ground crew with it.
«The sky rained debris from the blast. The shock waves travelled hundreds of feet in every direction … GIs picked up an Ordnance Officer some distance away. He was dead, unmarked by so much as a piece of flying metal. An engineer, standing among other men at a point on the field dropped to the ground, apparently in a faint. Men ran to aid him. He was gone. Others, a few feet away from him were untouched.
«One combat crew was lounging in the afternoon sun near their ‘plane. Nine of the crew members were lying flat on the ground. The navigator Frank Metzger, was sitting upright. The nine men were not physically hurt; Lieutenant Metzger was killed by concussion. Their ‘plane was broken in the centre with the two sections completely separated.»
Leonard Herman was actually off duty at the time of the explosion:
«One afternoon, pilot Johnny Johnson, navigator Tommy Lees and I were sitting in the balcony of a movie house in the town of Alconbury. The shock wave of a giant explosion reached us. We jumped out of our seats and ran out of the film house. We caught the first Army transportation back to Alconbury air base.
«When we got there the base was in turmoil. There was a big hole in the ground. As we walked across the field, every once in a while you stubbed your toe or you tripped against a piece of human anatomy. Mostly it was elbows, or arms or part of a leg. It really was an absolute disaster.»
The disaster resulted in four B-17s being destroyed, «crumpled like old paper». Eleven others were written off, the damage so severe that they would not be fully repaired for many months. Nineteen men were killed (sixteen from the 412th Bomb Squadron, two from the 334th Bomb Squadron and one from the 335th Bomb Squadron) and twenty-one others were wounded -almost all of whom were ground crew. An engine from one of the B-17s, 42-29685, left a trail of destruction, smashing its way through the fuselage of 42-29808 before coming to rest against wing/fuselage joint of 42-29706; those from the other destroyed aircraft were thrust, badly damaged, several feet into the ground.
«Here, in one second,» remarked Clifford Cole, «went the lives, the effort, and the careful schooling of some of the Air Corps’ most vital assets, the men on the line. They could get more ‘planes, but dedicated, trained maintenance personnel were irreplaceable.»
Vital lessons were learnt. «We were loading fuzed bombs into our B-17s,» noted Harry Conley, «which was our procedure then because it was fast and easy to fuze the bombs on the ground where we could readily reach them … This was the last time we loaded fuzed bombs.» It had been, he concluded, «a very tragic and expensive lesson».
The 95th Bomb Group went on to fly a further 321 combat missions without a comparable loss on the ground.
Despite the disaster at Alconbury, the 95th would go on to become the only American Eighth Air Force group to be awarded three Distinguished Unit Citations and the first USAAF group to bomb Berlin. The 95th also claimed the most enemy aircraft destroyed — 425 in total — of all the Eighth Air Force Bomb Groups.
Though Clifford Cole would remark after the explosion that the men «were to take their share of good and bad fortune in the air», no-one present with the bomb group on 27 May 1943, though, would ever forget the explosion at Alconbury.