USAAF Liberator explodes in mid air over the Wirral

A USAAF Consolidated Liberator takes off in the early morning light from a bomber base 'somewhere in England'
A USAAF Consolidated Liberator takes off in the early morning light from a bomber base ‘somewhere in England’

On 18 October 1944 a USAAF B24H Liberator 42-50347, “F” from the 703rd Bomb Squadron, 445th Bomb Group based at Tibenham in Norfolk was on a familiarisation flight across Britain. On board were a total 24 U.S. servicemen, many of them “replacements” who had recently arrived in Britain. On the 27th September the 445th Bomb Group had suffered devastating losses when 30 out of 37 planes had failed to return from a raid on Kassel, Germany. In the middle of the afternoon, while the plane was over the Wirral, near Liverpool, the plane exploded in mid air killing all those on board. The cause was never officially established.

It was not an unusual occurrence. A large proportion of deaths and injuries in the wartime airforces were attributable to “accidents”. Nor was it an especially unusual event for those living in Britain. Earlier, during the blitz, people had been very familiar with aircraft crashes. Although casualties were unusually high due to the number of men on board, at least on this occasion nobody had been hurt on the ground. On the 23rd August 1944 another Liberator crash had killed 61 people, including just 3 crew, when it hit the village of Freckleton, not so far away. See the Freckleton Disaster for more.

A local resident was one of the eye witnesses:

About 3.45pm I was in the upstairs back bedroom of my house, which looks out towards Landican. I heard an aeroplane making a zooming noise close by and saw an aeroplane flying at an ordinary height towards Storeton village. When the plane got into line almost between Storeton and Landican village it turned to the right very suddenly. I had the bedroom window open by this time, but I did not hear the sound of the engine.

Almost immediately, I heard a noise similar to an engine back firing. At the same time, the plane seemed to hover in the air and immediately the wings fell apart from the plane together with numerous objects. The body of the plane at once fell flat to the ground and then there was a terrific explosion which sent up thick black clouds of smoke and flames.

Another eyewitness was a local Anti Aircraft artillery officer:

I heard almost overhead an explosion similar to a shell burst, and the sound of an aircraft as in a dive. I immediately left the Control Room to ascertain what the trouble was, and on my way out a further explosion took place.

I saw the plane, which was travelling in a westerly direction, and pieces were breaking away. The plane was flying at a height of approximately 1,000 feet and was roughly 300 yards away from me when I saw it. The most part of the starboard wing and also part of the port wing was broken. The fuselage appeared to be broken just behind the trailing edge of the wing.

It was impossible in the short space of time to identify the aircraft, except that its tail was similar in design to that of a Liberator. A limited amount of smoke was coming from the aircraft and the cause of it appeared to be the engines, only two of which could be clearly identified. The plane dived to the ground veering slightly to port all the time. Just before it hit the ground, a further explosion seemed to take place. This was not absolutely certain as the distance involved was then some 1,500 yards from my position of observation and this explosion may have taken place as the aircraft hit the ground

Crash sites and the collection of souvenirs were a particular fascination for schoolchildren.

Eileen Roberts was a ten year old schoolgirl:

On arriving at the scene we were stopped by men in uniform guarding the site. Not to be outdone, we walked into the adjoining field where my brother spotted an orange; we didn’t get many of them in wartime so he picked it up. But then he threw it down again right away. The orange was tightly held in a human hand! At that moment one of the guards came over and told us to ‘Get off home or else!’

We needed no second telling. It was two very subdued little children who trudged home. When we did get home, it was to find our mother in a panic looking for us. No, we didn’t get counselling, but I got a severe telling off, a smacked bottom and sent straight to bed – after all I was 10 years old and should have known better.

Bruce Tasker was an older schoolboy at the Wirral Grammar School:

The weather was rainy with lowering clouds. Being used to Liberators coming and going, we did not look up until we heard a dull boom, and saw a ball of smoke in the sky over the Storeton area, with bits and pieces of aircraft fluttering to the ground”.

As curious schoolboys we peddled to Landican Lane, negotiating the rough terrain, eventually coming upon bits of metal strewn everywhere, with an engine burning in a field on one side of the lane, and the white tail fins in a field on the other. Stopping at the railway bridge, we could see an entire gun turret lying to our right and parties of soldiers in football kit carrying stretchers looking for remains and placing them in a line under parachutes for concealment.

Several bodies were half embedded in the soft soil, having clearly fallen from a height. We left the scene quite soberly. Several days later the police visited our school and others in the area warning against possessing live ammunition. Apparently, every single dangerous round of half inch calibre ammunition had been removed from the gun turret, and it was believed that schoolchildren were responsible.

Another account suggests that a schoolboy had been accidentally shot in the leg while a group of them were trying remove the percussion caps from the machine gun bullets. It was this that prompted the police to call on schools warning boys against taking souvenirs from crash sites.

The cause of the crash was not established by the official investigation, although the possibility that it was struck by lightening was considered. The aircraft was considered to be in sound mechanical condition, although an officer who had recently flown the aircraft suggested this was incorrect. Ralph Stimmel felt that the aircraft suffered from an unusually strong smell of gasoline, apparently a fairly common problem on Liberators:

The item that bothers me most is the statement that the plane had no gas leaks. It most certainly did I am afraid that the investigating body put a bit of spin on the report.

For a complete account of the known facts see 39-45war.com, including a list of the casualties.

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds.
A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds.

3 thoughts on “USAAF Liberator explodes in mid air over the Wirral”

  1. This from my 1999 interview with George Noorigian, a bombardier on Jackson Mercer’s crew in the 445th who came close to being on that flight (the full interview is at kasselmission.org):

    George Noorigian: They had these old planes on the base. Finally, they said they were gonna take these old planes – three of them – up to Ireland. See, when you first went over, for one week before you went to your base, they had a training base in Ireland. These were fellows that had just finished combat, and they told you what to expect when you get into combat. In the States half of our missions were flown at night. In combat, daytime. If it was dark, you didn’t fly. See. They told us what to expect. And that was in above Belfast. So they told us, “Take three of the planes back,” to where they train, “and we’ll take one of our better planes.” There were six in each plane. And on the way back there would be 24; there would be enough room for 24 guys. So we were supposed to go on it – and this is after we finished our missions. See, when you finish your missions, that was it. You didn’t fly any more missions and you could do anything you wanted. You could go to Paris, anyplace you wanted, but you had to notify where you were gonna be, because all of a sudden your orders would come in. You never knew when your orders would come to go home. So they told us, “Make sure you tell us where you are.” So my co-pilot says, “George, come with us.”
    I said, “Paul…”
    He said, “Come with us. It’s a flight to Ireland. Maybe you could stay there overnight and see something.” Because we hadn’t done anything. I was just glad to be on the ground. I went to Norwich, and to London – we had been to London a number of times – but after a while, we were just tired. We wanted to get the hell back home.
    So, “All right, Paul,” I said, “I’ll go.”
    So we got ready to go on the mission.
    “I’m sorry, fellows, it’s canceled. The weather’s bad in Ireland.”
    The second time it happened, the same thing happened again. The weather’s bad in Ireland. So finally, they called us again. This is the third time. And that day they were supposed to have a regular mission over Germany. But the weather got bad over Germany, and they didn’t want the pilots to fly, because by the time they’d fly and come back it would be dark.
    The weather over Ireland was not bad, though, so they said “Get the fellows to take and get rid of the old planes.” So they were gonna call us early in the morning, because when you get ready for a mission you’re talking 2:30, 3 o’clock in the morning. That’s when I used to see Jimmy Stewart sitting close by, on those briefings, where they tell you what to expect. He would be there too. So we were ready to go. But at the last minute they told us, “Oh, you don’t have to go. We have someone else that’s taking your place.” One of the fellows in the squadron that we knew, he was supposed to fly that mission. They were all ready to go. They had their flight gear on, and they canceled the mission. So he found out about the trip to take the old planes to Ireland, and he said, “Let me take Mercer’s plane.” The one Mercer’s gonna fly. He says, “Hell. I’ve got nothing to do here, I’m all dressed up to fly. Let me take his plane and let the fellows sleep, don’t wake them up.”
    So he took our plane to Ireland. They went to Ireland, they had no trouble. So on the way back – in fact our flight commander was the co-pilot in that plane; it was a newer plane, so they all came back in that plane – over Liverpool, on the way back, the plane blew up in midair. They had just had gone over the Irish Sea, just over Liverpool and it blew up in midair and it killed the 24 guys on the plane. And we were supposed to be on that plane.
    There were 24 guys on that plane, and like I told you, you get some of these guys that smoked, and they didn’t give a damn where it was. And a lot of these planes, the gas tanks had small leaks, and you’d always have those gas fumes. With 24 guys in the plane, they were lined up in the bomb bays, in the back, in the front. So there probably was a guy right underneath one of those gas tanks, if I’m not mistaken, he took out a cigarette and he lit the goddamn match. Why should it blow up? They could never figure it out, but the guys at the base, we figured it out. Somebody lit a match with a leaky tank, and it blew the whole goddamn plane up. The flight surgeon said he went there to identify the bodies, and he said, “One of the fellows I identified, he was all dressed up in uniform. You thought he was sleeping on the ground. There wasn’t a sign on him.” But don’t forget, they fell from that height, and they had no chutes. And he was one of the fellows that had finished his missions. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine me, us, being on that plane and then telling my wife you’ve got nothing to worry about, we’re gonna be home, and then having, having the Air Force go to the house, knock on the door and tell her, “I’m sorry to tell you, your husband was killed in action.” Jesus, that was … oh, Jesus Christ.

  2. Some of the passengers on this ill-fated flight were replacements, some were coming back off leave and some were just trying to catch a ride back to their home station. The true cause of the crash may never really be known, but all of the men on board understood the dangers of military aviation.

    Please check out the 445th Bomb Group’s website at 445BG.org to learn more about the unit and the men who served either as air crew or ground echelon – they are all heroes!

  3. The Stimmel report is a very likely reason for this accident. Liberators were notorious for leaks in the fuel transfer system, and smoking was usually forbidden among crews. To make the situation even worse, transferring fuel creates static electricity, and sparks and fumes are unhealthy for aircraft and crews. Among many others, it is likely this reason which caused the loss of LT Joseph P. Kennedy USNR and his co-pilot.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.