Disaster in the Hills January 1945, Burn Fell

Farm workers near Slaidburn heard the roar of an aircraft's engines on the afternoon of January 2nd 1945. This in itself wasn't unusual as nearby were the airfields of Warton, Squire's Gate and Samlesbury, aircraft regularly flew over the fells.

As the aircraft came nearer, a few heads were raised, it was low -too low! Ahead lay the rolling hills of the Trough of Bowland, shrouded in mist. Still visible below the cloud it passed overhead, the four Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasps of the B-24 Liberator hummed in harmony. Seconds later the engines screamed in a vain attempt to evade the looming mass of Burn Fell. In the carnage that followed, amazingly only 4 were killed. The aircraft was ripped open as it slid up the hillside and the lucky ones were thrown clear before the wreckage burst into flames.

To obtain a clear picture of the incident, we must go back a few hours earlier to that Tuesday morning. Lt. Courtland Crandall and Lt. Alan Carey were relaxing in the officer's club at the USAAF Base at Seething in East Anglia. They had just returned from a 48 hour pass to London and were still in their dress uniforms. An orderly informed them that they had been drafted to take a 'war weary' aircraft to Warton. On his way to the aircraft Crandall stopped to pick up a paperback that he had been reading. As the pilot and co-pilot arrived at the hard-standing, they found navigator Marshal Dan, radio operator Oscar Olson and their flight engineer Donald Zeldin waiting for them.

Their aircraft was a B-24J Liberator, 42-100322 of the 714th Bomber Squadron, from the 448th Bomber Group. The aircraft was quite old and still carried an olive drab coat of paint. It had scan1062cbeen on many missions as indicated by the painted bombs on the cockpit side. After its flight to Warton, it was due to return to the States. Accompanying them on the flight was a second crew that was to ferry another Liberator back to Seething. In addition, a number of personnel that were due some leave hitched a ride, their destination being Blackpool. The pilot of the relief crew was Lt Holt and he asked Lt Crandall if he could fly the aircraft on its outward leg. This Crandall agreed to as it would give him some time to complete his paperwork.

 

By the time the aircraft was airborne it was turned 1300hrs and the weather was typically British, low cluds and poor visibility. The aircraft climbed straight ahead to 1000ft and set course for Peterborough. On reaching Leicester, a new course was passed to the pilot, a heading of 330 degrees. Shortly after this, a low bank of cloud was encountered and so Holt climbed to clear it, breaking at 3,500ft.

When the flight had reached Lancashire, the weather had not improved and the cloud base was 2,000ft with the base lowering to 1,000ft in the vicinity of the hills. The visibility was 6 miles at Blackpool but likely to have been less inward. Winds in the area were westerly and 19-24 mph in strength. Before the estimated time of arrival of 1445hrs given by the navigator Marshal Dan, Holt saw saw some breaks in the clouds at about 1,000 feet, the time being 1430hrs. At this point Lt Crandall was distracted from his reading by something flickering past outside. Looking out, he could see that the aircraft was weaving through the hills, still in low visibility and low cloud. He tapped Holt on the shoulder and suggested that they should gain some height and so they climbed back to 3,500ft where the air was clearer. After a brief chatter on the intercom, Holt announced that the navigator's "Gee" ( a WW2 navigation aid) box was giving trouble and he was going to descend again to fix his position. A fix was eventually obtained but later it was to prove to have been inaccurate.

Once more the aircraft was descending into cloud and incredibly they missed hitting any high ground. Lt Holt was now flying below cloud, looking for a checkpoint when without warning, visibility dropped to zero! He pulled back on the stick, attempting to climb away once more on instruments. At that time the aircraft hit Burn Fell. As the nose had been pulled up in order to climb above the hill, the aircraft hit belly first and began bouncing and tumbling up the hillside. Within seconds, the fuel tanks were ruptured and the aircraft was ablaze. Something caused the aircraft to slew around and a lot then backed into a 5ft high boundary wall on top of the fell. The lucky were thrown clear. Crandall put his hands up to protect his head but then the thought of being trapped in a blazing aircraft caused him to lower them again, ready to await his fate and as the aircraft lurched to an abrupt halt he was flung off his feet.

He came to, lying on the grass within flaming wreckage all around him and found his radio operator Olson, fully conscious alongside him. They spotted an opening and crawled out of the flaming wreckage, keeping their heads down as machine-gun bullets were going off everywhere. The unlucky ones, that were killed were all in the rear of the aircraft but by a miracle, 15 survived the crash and they gathered together on the bleak summit. A drizzle was falling and the hillside was covered in mist but help was already on the way. Within 20 minutes of the crash, several local folk were on hand at the crash site to assist the injured. One of the first to arrive at the crash-site was a local farmer called Jim Braken, together with his sister who lived at a farm nearest to the scene. They were quickly joined by others including Dr Beasdell, who supervised the removal of the injured men. Only one stretcher was available and it was on this that the worst cases were carried down the fell-side to a large farm called Burn House, the home of Mr and Mrs Howard. Some of the injured crew managed to walk down the fell-side, unaided whilst others were carried down "piggy-back" style by the farmers and their men. One member of the crew didn't find his way down to the Howard's home however. He had been thrown clear of the aircraft and continued away from the crash-site, finally descending to Beatrix Farm on the opposite side of the fell.

Meanwhile within Burn House, Mrs Howard was preparing gallons of hot drinks for the injured and rescuers alike and the scene inside the farmhouse was more cheerful than could be imagined. At one point, Mrs Howard counted no less than 54 people in her living room and kitchen. Lt Carey received the Soldier's Medal for repeatedly returning to the burning wreckage to pull men out and to carry them to safety. Many of the crew were hospitalised, mostly for only a short time. When Lt Crandall was finally released from hospital, the squadron Commander, Mayen Stroud came over to collect him, acting as a co-pilot for a new flyer just over from the States. On their way back to Seething they detoured and flew over the crash-site, looking down at the burnt-out shell of the managled Liberator below. Lt Crandall's first flight following the crash was to end dramatically.

Those men who died-

1st Lt J. E. Fields

2nd Lt O.O. Casto.

Sgt. E.E,Lyon.

T/Sergeant P. Massagatti.

Rest in Peace.

After an uneventful return leg under the cloud base of 1500ft, the aircraft started to approach into Seething. In front of them another Liberator suddenly descended from the cloud and a collision was narrowly avoided by some violent gyrations of the controls. Upon landing, the unnerved pilot let the B-24 drift off the runway and damaging the aircraft.

Graham F CutlerThis account of what happened is from Graham F Cutler and I am indebted to him for this information. We had a run out the other day for me to locate the area as it is my intention to send the Duke of Edinburg group up the hill to view this crash scene and to collect any further updated information from the site and to meet local farmers. Graham states that the last time he was up there (several years ago) little remained to remind anyone of the tragic scenes witnessed on January 2nd 1945. Immediatley behind the Trig-point the wall has been repaired and a small crater still remained where the aircraft burned out. On the north side of the wall, all three of the undercarriage legs still remained and he took the front disc brake pads, a piece of reinforced laminated glass and some broken aluminium airframe parts home with him. The laminated glass was only used in one part of the B-24, the bomb-aimers window right at the front.

These parts Graham donated to the museum at Seething dedicated to the USAF 448 Bomber Group along with a copy of this information.

 

For further information on crash sites please look at the following links-

The Lancashire Aircraft Investigation Team

http://www.peakdistrictaircrashes.co.uk/pages/projectbook.htm.