IAN Cheveralls, chairman of Battle Royal British Legion, reflects on the momentous day, 68 years ago last week, when an American bomber crashed near Battle on D Day, changing some people’s lives forever.
On June 6, 1944, D Day morning at approximately 5.30am. I was on duty at Warden’s Post on the Whatlington Level and our role was to attend to war incidents in the area.
The sky was overcast with few breaks in the clouds and the area was always busy with aircraft but on this early morning it was American bombers en route to Germany for daytime bombing.
Below were B26 bombers on their way to the French coast to bomb German emplacements and below support aircrafts with parachute troops. Of course, at the time, there were RAF bombers returning to base.
All our wardens were on duty out somewhere and some were out patrolling near the Warden Post opposite Barrack Cottages.
All of a sudden, a terrific aircraft sounding noise came from over Whatlington and became so loud we all fell to the ground.
We were outside a house called Long Branches on the Whatlington Level and the noise was so great it was as though the ground itself was vibrating.
This was followed by a deafening explosion. A B26 Maurauder aircraft had crashed about 250 yards behind the house called Long Branches on the Whatlington Level. Shortly after there was a second explosion which came from the crash in Ashburnham, Battle.
Within seconds full emergency services swung into action and tried to get close to the burning remains but they were warned that bombs could be on board.
Through a break in the clouds we suddenly saw a parachute descending and the Head Warden sent two of us to investigate.
It was the pilot of the crashed Marauder although he was in a state of shock he was calling for Johnny, his co-pilot.
He told us that bombs had been released and these all fell around the Ringletts Farm area, none of which exploded as the aircraft had been flying too low.
It appeared had gotten no response from the intercom and thought all had bailed out. The non-function of the system was caused by a collision with a second aircraft.
After the fire was extinguished other crew members were seen by the bomb bay doors which they had managed to hand operate to eject the 16 other bombs which were to be usedw to penetrate concrete gun emplacementsw on the French coast.
In the early part of the war I was a van boy on a lorry which collected food produced from surrounding areas and taken to London during the Blitz. The site of the bomb bay on the B26 Maurauder aircraft remained so vivid I could never get it out of my mind.
After I had been called up and had gone on to live in various parts of the world, I returned to live in Battle permanently about five years ago.
I re-visited the Whatlington Road site as I had read a report on air crashes locally and it didn’t ring true. This led me to investigate and my findings brought home just how lucky Battle was as that aircraft was on a direct route to Battle town centre, only one mile away.
Had those American airmen not stayed on the aircraft and manually opened the bomb bay doors the loaded aircraft could have caused considerable damage to Battle.
Throughout the last five years many stories of this incident came to light and I had the help of various records, American and British, and crash investigators. During this period it was discovered that there had been four aircraft involved, the Whatlington Road site, Ashburnham – which exploded on impact killing all six crew members, and two more at Gillingham, Kent.
All crashes were in a few minutes of each other. Both the Gillingham crashes exploded and lost all 12 crew members and four civilians lost their lives.
During my searches, my nephew Keith Cheveralls from Harvard, USA was visiting and became interested and on his return a colleague, Mary Elizabeth Arata in Massachusetts, published our searches in a national paper.
This in turn put us in contact with the B26 Maurauder Men, an organisation who kept contact with ex-USA airmen throughout the USA.
As a coincidence, at the time, looking for details of the Gillingham site, I gained contact with a person searching for one of her relatives who lost their life in the Firemen’s Disaster in 1929, when a demonstration went wrong resulting in the loss of nine Cadet boys and six firemen.
This lady, Lori Oschefski, from Canada was also looking into the 1944 Gillingham air crash and from then on started a joint effort that has provided much previously unknown information. Lori is also involved with research of the British Home Children who were sent to Canada.
With the net result of our research, it became clear that there had been no acknowledgement of the action of those B26 Maurauder crews, particularly the one at Whatlington Level. A memorial plaque was made to commemorate these US airmen who gave their lives and saved Battle from tragedy on D Day.
This was displayed at the Royal British Legion in the Memorial Hall in Battle. It has now been stored for safe keeping until another position has been found.
The object of this article is to let it be known that we have contacted many relatives of those US airmen who gave their lives for our freedom on June 6, 1944.
One lady who lost her brother and did not know anything about what had happened to him, wrote to me in 2010 saying: “Now after 75 years I can die in peace after finding out what happened to my brother.”
Donald Burger wrote after a visit with his daughter:
“I never knew my father as I was born after he left the USA for the UK. I took a trip with my daughter and was taken to the American cemetery in Cambridge and was so impressed and obtained previously unknown information. We travelled to Battle and enjoyed a great meal at The Royal Oak public house in Whatlington. Everyone was happy to meet us and we were treated as special guests rather than tourists.
“When I visited the crash site of my father I stood on the spot where the tree stood that prevented the airplane from crashing into houses. It was such a special moment for me, I cannot even begin to explain. My thanks to David and Joan Amos whose garden the tree once grew in. We had tea and chatted for two hours. Ian answered a question which my family did not know the answer to: was my father buried at the crash site? Ian said that according to research and records that, yes, at Brookwood Cemetery before being returned to the USA.
“I waited a few days to document this trip and to evaluate my feelings. It was an emotional experience and it took some time to put it into words. If someone had told me years ago that I would visit the site of my father’s death and meet the people who were there, I would never have believed them. I always felt my father was a hero and now I know he truly was. There is still an empty place in my heart for my father but knowing what I do now has given me peace. I can never express my gratitude for all the things Lori and Ian did for my family. Ian and Lori are truly honourary members of my family and all the families of the crews killed that day.”
While this write-up is only a small part of the investigation, it was done to help those whose descendants put their minds at rest over what happened to their loved ones but also to show how lucky the town of Battle was on that fateful morning.
There has been much more research done by myself and Lori in Canada and we shall continue to investigate further such as the stories behind the Gillingham and Ashburnham crashes.
As chairman of the Battle Royal British Legion I will continue to support all our members and extend that to all our comrades whatever part of the world they come from.
For my part to remember that morning in 1944, I visit the crash site at the same time (5.30am) on the same day (June 6) each year. I did so this year and as usual there is never a sound to be heard, not even a bird. How very different from 68 years ago.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.
For more information, please visit: http://gillinghambattleb26crash.weebly.com/an-eye-witness-account---by-ian-cheveralls.html.