Wartime Air Disaster on Reigate Hill
A Tragic Accident
The Flying Fortress that crashed into Reigate Hill.
|The B17 Flying Fortress was a formidable machine. Developed in the USA it first flew in 1935. At 109 feet long, 20 feet high, and with a wing area of 1400 square feet it could fly at 300 mph at an altitude of 5 miles. Because of its weight of around 20 tons unladen, and upwards of 30 tons laden, it could operate only from concrete runways. It originally carried a crew of 10 but it was found that it could be operated by 9. It could carry up to 13 machine guns, but there were fewer than this on the Reigate aircraft.|
|Nine airman lost their lives. They were: |
Pilot 2nd Lt Robert S.Griffin;
Co-pilot 2nd Lt Herbert S.Geller;
Navigator 2nd Lt Royal A.Runyan;
Togglier Sgt Donal W.Jeffrey;
Radio Operator Sgt Philip J.Phillips;
Engineer Sgt Robert F.Marshall;
Ball Turret Gunner Sgt William R.Irons;
Waist Gunner Sgt Thomas J.Hickey:
Tail Gunner S/Sgt Robert F.Manbeck
The crew of the Flying Fortress. They were on their thirteenth mission and the aircraft had flown 20 missions in the previous 38 days. (Picture courtesy Surrey Mirror)
|The Scene in 1945|
First on the scene was Dorothy Edwards. She was in uniform for she worked at Southern Command and was on her way back to her accommodation on Reigate Hill. Seeing the aircraft plunge into the side of the hill above her she scrambled up the slope and found the pilot. All she could do was hold the hand of a dying man. A local poacher checking his traps also arrived. The Reigate fire brigade attended to douse the fires and soon after a detachment of the RAF Regiment arrived to seal off the area.
A point worth noting here is that the aircraft had passed directly over Dorothy Edwards and something that was spraying out of it ruined the greatcoat she was wearing.
A number of other people saw or heard the 'plane go over. One of those was just arriving for duty at the ARP post under the Town Hall when it passed overhead. Others said that they saw the aircraft pass over Merstham High Street, but questions about how it then crashed on the southern slope of Reigate Hill may be answered by their sighting being of another aircraft from the dispersed formation.
|Early Proposals for a Memorial|
In 1949 there was a proposal to erect a monument to the American airmen. The prime-mover behind the scheme was wartime Mayor, Alderman Windsor-Spice. A Red Mansfield cross between two seats was to be provided by an anonymous donor and would have contained a suitable inscription and the names of the American airmen. The whole cost was no more than £250, to be raised by public subscription. An invitation was to be made to the United States Embassy in London for representatives to attend. Why the proposal did not come to fruition is unknown.
This photo by Windsor Spice of a drawing made by the Reigate Borough Surveyor's Department appeared in the Surrey Mirror in 1949. (Picture courtesy Surrey Mirror)
The Present Memorial
(Directions to the seat are at the foot of this page)
Seated far left is the widow of the pilot, aged 77 but only 20 when the news of her husband's death reached her. Mrs Edwards, in the red coat, was first on the scene and held the hand of the dying pilot. On the right is Lt Col Karl Dahlhauser, Assistant Air Attaché from the US Embassy.
|The son of the pilot plants a cross in remembrance and memoriam of a gallant pilot, father and crew.|
|The scene of the crash site in 2002 just before the memoriam ceremony began. The town of Reigate is spread out hundreds of feet below. For many years the gap left in the trees on the brow of Reigate Hill was a prominent feature of the landscape but the great storm of 1987 brought down many more of the adjacent trees and the location of the crash is not so easy to see from the south as it once was.|
|That the crash happened at all is a tragedy. That it took so long for a memorial to be raised is a shame. That it was eventually raised is a triumph. The people of the Borough of Reigate recognise that the men who died did so while fighting on their side against an enemy that threatened something that those of these isles had in common with their American brothers and had always held dear - freedom. Theirs was the spirit with which the war was waged and won. That spirit lives on in the memory of these and all those who lost their lives in a great and awful conflict. Let us make sure that the memory never dies.|
|The 60th anniverasary of the Crash|
|In the Surrey Mirror of March 10th 2005 it was announced that Joe Hickey, nephew of Sergeant Tom Hickey who died in the crash, will be flying from Colorado to see for the first time the spot where his uncle died. Nine white doves are to be released to mark the ocassion.||Waist gunner Sergeant Tom Hickey, who died in the crash. (picture courtesy Surrey Mirror)|
|Daniel and Kevin Hunt formed the East Surrey Aviation Group some years ago in order to gather and preserve military memorabilia so that future generations would be better able to remember and appreciate the trials and sacrifices made by members of the armed forces and public services, and by members of the public themselves, during WW1. They now run a World War Two Remembrance Mueam. It is Wings Museum at Unit 1, Bucklands Farm, Brantridge Lane (near Balcombe) West Sussex RH17 6JT. If anyone visiting this web site and viewing this page has any WW2 memorabilia, Daniel and Kevin would be pleased to hear from them. If it could be donated to their display they would be extremely happy to receive it. Contact may be made either with Daniel and Kevin at email@example.com. Their web site is www.wingsmuseum,co.uk.|
|Directions to the memorial seat|
|If you park in the car park at the top of Reigate Hill and Wray Lane you can walk across the bridge over the A217 road and along the main track leading west towards Colley Hill. You will pass some cottages on the left and come to the entrance to the 1890 Napoleonic fort on the left and the water tower with the two high masts alongside it on the right. The seat is in a clearing about 250 yards further on the left. The grid reference of the seat is TQ262523. The distance of the seat from the car park is half a mile. If you walk on after visiting the seat, the large open expanse of the downs is about another half a mile further on.|
|Email received from Martin Wilkie November 2009|
I was just finding some 'pub quiz' questions about Reigate when I stumbled upon your record of the B17 crash on the hill. My mother (Barbera Ayers / Wilkie / Chipstead Lane / Pigeonhouse Farm / born 1925 / deceased 2003) was an ARP helper and warden and remembered it well. She had a tiny (3"sq) piece of of fuselage kept in a desk drawer for ages.
Thanks, Martin. It must have been an event that stuck in the minds of all those who were there, and due to the security put in place after the crash they were probably not so many. AJM