Monday, April 26, 2010

Folded Wings - Westgate War Memorial Tomorrow

Preparation begins at 10:30 on Tuesday with the different veterans groups, Margate Charter Trustees and the Mayor of Margate arriving, together with an Honour Guard from USAF Mildenhall and the United States military attaché Lt Col Jeff Price.

The service will start at the war memorial at 11:00. We had hoped for a fly-past from USAF F15 fighters out of Lakenheath but I’ve just heard that the volcanic dust fiasco has put them behind in their operational training sorties and they are unable to oblige us. Instead as a small mark of respect from the air, I’ve asked ‘Capt Terry Brown’ to arrive at 10:50 with his vintage Stampe SV4 biplane, which will also help mark the spot.

The Honour Guard have been given approval by Kent police to fire a volley during the ceremony and a plaque, commeortating the events of 27th April 1944 is being erected on the clifftop near the Westgate pavilion, overlooking the crash site of one of the two Liberator bombers that came down that hour.

After the ceremony, invited guests will return to the Mayor’s parlour in Margate, where the dog tags of Lt Hafner, discovered on the beach at Foreness point, will be officially returned to the United States Air Force.

Below, you will find the story of what happened that day in 1944:

On the 27th April 1944, two mission-damaged B-24 Mark H Liberator aircraft of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) returning from different pre-D-Day raids over France, attempted to make emergency landings at RAF Manston but crashed as night fell along the Thanet coast in the same hour. This memorial tells the story of one of these aircraft and its crew and serves as a tribute to all the young men, allied pilots and crew, who gave their lives in the Second World War in the struggle against fascism.

The pilots of both aircraft were recognised for their bravery in skill in avoiding the towns, and while one aircraft, No. 41-29509 of the 578th Bombardment Squadron of the 392nd Bombardment Group (‘The Crusaders’) based at Wendling in Suffolk made a forced landing at 6:20 PM in shallow water at Westgate on Sea near this memorial, shortly afterwards the second aircraft, No. 41-29543, piloted by 1/Lt. Harold J. Larson from the 706th Bombardment Squardron of the 446th Bombardment Group (‘The Bungay Buckaroos’) based at Flixton, collided with the clifftop at Foreness Bay in Cliftonville and was totally destroyed on its ninth mission: there were only two survivors who managed to bail out on their pilot’s orders just before the crash, and they were plucked from the water by the Margate Lifeboat. Brave efforts made by the Margate Fire Brigade, Police and local people to save other members of the crew were in vain. Part of that aircraft, with two of its engines already on fire, reportedly broke over the top of the clifftop but then fell back onto the shoreline below and exploded.

Returning debriefings gave an account that the first aircraft, known as ‘The Knuckle Head’ and piloted 2/Lt. Jacob Weinheimer, had been hit by German anti-aircraft fire over Dunkerque. Several of the crew-members had been injured by the burst of flak which hit the left wing of the aircraft, and the Liberator rapidly lost altitude, while one crew-member, radio-operator, T/Sgt Parke V. Kent, parachuted to safety and capture. It is accepted that Sgt. Kent was the only man aboard with an undamaged parachute. Just three months earlier, however, as Annette Tison, a researcher for the 392nd Bombardment Group Association, remarked, ‘On 4 Jan 1944, his plane had been badly damaged during a mission and crashed at Sheringham, Norfolk. Five men were killed and Kent suffered a broken ankle and strained back. He returned to duty and flew missions on 23 March and 24 April before becoming a POW on 27 April.’

2/Lt. Weinheimer managed to regain control of the aircraft, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) but, badly damaged, the aircraft attempted to reach the relative safety of the English coast and finally crashed-landed at 8:10 PM, one hundred yards from the beach at West Bay (the crew had practiced beach landings as part of their training in Texas before going to England). This aircraft was completely destroyed by the impact, its undercarriage ripped apart on the chalky limestone shallows, just before sunset as the tide was ebbing, along a line that can still be seen at low tide. An official USAAF photo of the wreckage was taken on the following morning and is reproduced here. Five of the crew members were killed instantly by the force of the impact. Local people watching from the Swan Inn pub and soldiers waded out to help rescue the survivors, and the Margate Lifeboat, Lord Southborough, was launched, assisting two RAF Air/Sea Rescue launches in the rescue (and later, recovering alive the only two airmen who escaped from the other doomed B-24 which crashed at Foreness Point in darkness at 9:07 PM that night.

The rescuers found 2/Lt. Weinheimer pinned behind his control wheel. The only uninjured member of the Knuckle Head’s crew, the co-pilot, 2/Lt. George C. Marshall, heroically helped to free his three badly injured but surviving crewmates, the pilot, the navigator, 2/Lt. Marvin L. Gurwit, and tail gunner Sgt. Robert R. Duffy. Marshall suffered severe post-traumatic shock as a result of the incident but was given credit with having saved the day, and together with the crew’s highly decorated navigator, Marshall was also awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross.

A memorial plaque is being erected by the Margate Charter Trustees to coincide with a Service of Remembrance at the Westgate-on-Sea war memorial, on the morning of 27 April 2010, in the presence of Mark Jacob Weinheimer, Anne Keese, Joan Ries and Dona Cox, children of the pilot of the aircraft and in the presence of one of his father’s rescuers.

Later, the family of the pilot will join with others in a personal visit to the Allied Air Memorial Gardens next to the Spitfire & Hurricane Museum opposite the main entrance to RAF Manston. A large diecast model B-24 with the markings of the aircraft that crashed at Westgate has been prepared by the Margate Charter Trustees with detailed guidance from historians and technical experts across the world.

3 comments:

Tony Beachcomber said...

Simon, there is no need to show this comment, but the liberator crashed into the cliffs at palm bay not foreness point.

DrM. said...

Hi Tony and thanks
It has me confused somewhat because the official records I have say Foreness but you and I know where it was in Palm bay!

Either way, I think we all have an idea where it was.. near where the air show takes place I believe!

Tony Beachcomber said...

That is correct near the shelter on the cliff top, There is a crater in the chalk under the sand which one day will uncover again. Something to look forward to.