Wartime Air Disaster on Reigate Hill

A Tragic Accident
on 19th March 1945 a number of aircraft of the US 384th Bomber Group stationed at station 1O6 Grafton-Underwood in Northamptonshire were returning from a bombing raid on Plauen, near the Czech border. For protection against enemy fighters the aircraft normally flew in formation but because of dense cloud the formation split up and Flying Fortress 43-39035 SO-F was making its own way home. Over the Weald cloud was solid at 800 feet and broken at 300 feet. Flying too low, the aircraft crashed into Reigate Hill at 1740 hrs.

 

The Flying Fortress that crashed into Reigate Hill.
(Painting by John Wincezten, reproduced courtesy of Daniel Hunt, Wing Museum.)

The Aircraft 
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.

Missions
The crew were on their 13th mission and the one that the they were returning from was their third in four days. They had flown over enemy territory to attack targets on Friday and Saturday, had had Sunday off and on Monday 19th March flown again on this, their final mission. This author has neither the knowledge nor the experience to be able to describe properly the conditions under which the crew operated but understands that the interior of the aircraft was extremely noisy; the temperature at 30,000 feet was -50 degrees, and they had to wear electrically heated suits; and that space was at a premium, with the men working in cramped conditions, some being them spending most of their time in vulnerable plexi-glass gun turrets. They had to face enemy fire, both from the ground and the air. What sort of emotional stress and strain they endured can only be guessed at. And they did it time and time again. And if that were not enough, at the time of the crash they had been doing it for nine hours that day.

The Crash
Why the crash occurred is not fully known, but an enquiry put the cause down to pilot error. This is possibly borne out by the presence in the 'plane of maps showing ground heights above sea level and no evidence of a serious malfunction, as well as other factors. One account of the incident said that the pilot tried unsuccessfully to get in at Gatwick, and failing that at Redhill (in spite of it being grass), but no evidence of attempted local landings has come to light. Pilot error or not, each and every one of the crew was a hero, and each and every one must have been operating at their limit. They would have awoken at 5 a.m. for breakfast and briefing. Then the aircraft had to be inspected, its functions, bomb and ammunition loads and a host of other points checked before take-off at 8.15 a.m. They did not fly at night for theirs were daylight operations. Flying in close formation as these aircraft did they would have been well aware of the losses they suffered every time they went out. Frequently when one of their fellow aircraft was lost they would seen it fall. They would count the parachutes. They would have messed and lived with the men who crewed those stricken aircraft. It was personal. And if it could happen to others it could happen to them.
And happen it did to the crew of the Flying Fortress that had no name, just a 12 foot high 'P' on its tail for identification. Some of the crew died instantly; for the others there was nothing that those first upon the scene could do and they died soon after. The reason for the deaths was the fact that the aircraft hit ground and trees at 160 mph and was brought to as stop within 200 yards.

 
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.
All of those who witnessed the scene after the crash speak of the utter devastation at the site. Broken and burnt trees, broken ground, and the tangled and spread-out ruin of the once proud Flying Fortress.

  
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
A memorial was finally provided in a moving ceremony on March 19th 2002, the fifty-seventh anniversary of the crash, when a seat was provided in memory of the nine airman at its scene. The prime mover for the memorial on this occasion was the Reigate Society, which was marking its 50th anniversary.

(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.
In Memorium 
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 info@wingsmuseum.co.uk. 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.
  
 CONTACT AUTHOR
 
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