The Freckleton Air Disaster
“Suddenly the sky went dark. So dark, the lights in school had to be put on. It started to rain heavily and then the most violent storm started – that in itself was frightening enough but what was about to happen was a terrifying experience.” Ruby Currell recalled the moments before Classy Chassis II, a B-24H Liberator from BAD-2, tragically fell out of the sky into the heart of Freckleton village. 61 people would lose their lives, 38 of which were children from the local school, on a day which will be remembered for generations.
The morning of Wednesday August 23rd, 1944, had begun like many others at BAD-2. Night shifts changed over with the day cover, and flight control prepared for the day of flying ahead. 1944 was the busiest year at BAD-2, with August seeing roughly 80 flight movements a day. 627 of these flights were local clearances, predominately test flights from the air base taking place before the aircraft ferried to their respective units. At 10:30am B-24H Liberator “Classy Chassis II” “42-50291” was cleared for take-off for her test flight, at the controls was 1st Lieutenant John A Bloemendal, with Technical Sergeant James M Parr as co-pilot and Sergeant Gordon W Kinney in the Flight Engineer’s seat. Not far behind Classy Chassis II was B-24 Liberator “42-1353” flown by 1st Lieutenant Pete Manassero, with his crew of Lawrence Smith and Dick Pew. Both aircraft received their clearances and took off from Warton, heading for their flights over Lancashire
Soon after take-off Bloemendal radioed Manassero, drawing his attention to a heavy cloud formation to their South-East. Less than five minutes after the aircraft had left BAD-2, a telephone call reached the base from General Ott at BAD-1 Burtonwood, warning of a violent storm approaching the area. At approximately 10:40am, Flight control ordered the pair of Liberators to return to Warton, clearing them for landing on runway 08.
As the Liberators arrived overhead, the storm was at its most fierce. Witnesses recall seeing waterspouts in the Ribble estuary and up-rooted trees. The skies turned dark. As lights flicked on indoors the only thing illuminating the streets of Freckleton were the streaks of lightning tearing through the sky. Witnesses recall sheltering from the storm, unable to see much further than a few feet ahead of them. The aircraft lowered their landing gear and turned to line up for BAD-2’s runway 08, flying 100 yards apart. At an altitude of 500ft, the bombers encountered driving rain and strong gusts of wind. Soon, the aircraft would lose visibility of each other on their approach.
Although the official report states that no further radio contact was made by Bloemendal with Control, radio conversations monitored by Warton’s tower indicated that the two B-24 pilots had abandoned their attempts to land and were heading North to hold clear until the storm abated. Manassero retracted his landing gear and climbed out of his approach, he took a heading which flew him and his crew clear of the storm. As soon as he cleared the storm, Manassero radioed Bloemendal to no reply. Radio transmission attempts from both Manassero’s Liberator and BAD-2’s flight control continued with no response from Bloemendal’s aircraft.
Eight year old Eric Greenwood witnessed the ill-fated aircraft as it came to earth. “I saw the Liberator and heard its roar right over the house. It was flying very low and I saw the right wing go down as the left came up. It seemed to be swaying in the air. I saw no flames. A moment afterwards I heard a crash.” Classy Chassis II came in low, its wings near vertical as it ripped the top off a tree and struck the corner of a building. After losing a wingtip, it began to tear through the ground. The aircraft, laden with thousands of gallons of fuel on board, cartwheeled through two houses and the Sad Sack snack bar; the wreckage then slid across Lytham Road into the infant’s wing of Freckleton Holy Trinity School. The entire area burst into flames as the fuel from the aircraft engulfed the scene.
The sound of the crash brought a rush of soldiers, police and villagers. Calls were sent out to the depot fire-station and the local stations of the National Fire Service. The storm raged on as rescue attempts began. Servicemen and villagers fought the fire with what they could to no avail, the intense heat from the inferno holding them back. Crews from BAD-2’s fire service arrived at the scene at 10:48am to utter devastation; it would be 20 minutes before the first National Fire Service crews would arrive. For those 20 minutes four pieces of BAD-2 fire apparatus fought back the flames, as off duty crews were rushed in to assist. The storm then quickly subsided, the rescue efforts soon became a search for those they knew could not have been saved. Fire crews remained on duty until 7pm “when the fire had been extinguished and all hope of further resources from the wreckage was abandoned”. The rescue work carried on into the night, with the aid of searchlights previously positioned around BAD-2.
What remained could only be described as devastation. Only three children escaped the infant’s wing of the school alive, leaving behind 35 children and two teachers. The Sad Sack snack bar took the full force of the crash, leaving several civilians, six USAAF, and four RAF personnel amongst the casualties. All three crew members of Classy Chassis II lost their lives on impact. Several of the more seriously injured victims died during the following week and when the formal inquest into the tragedy opened on September 8th 1944, the total death toll was 61.
The funeral service took place in Freckleton on August 26th. The majority of the child victims along with Miss Jenny Hall, a teacher and local girl who had arrived at the Freckleton School only the day before the accident, as well as a number of civilians killed in “The Sad Sack” Snack Bar, were buried in a communal grave in the village’s Holy Trinity Churchyard. The streets of the village were lined with mourners, often standing six deep, as the procession passed. Personnel from BAD-2 carried the caskets to their final resting place, whilst more USAAF G.I’s assisted with the burial. Hundreds of floral tributes surrounded the grave site. The three airmen from the Liberator were buried in a United States cemetery in the South of England, before being later returned to their home states in the U.S. at the request of their next of kin.
A memorial fund was set up by the USAAF at BAD-2. Personnel from the air base soon began work transforming an area of land nearby into a memorial garden and children’s playground. The US servicemen raised the money for the equipment on the playground, which was dedicated in August 1945, with a stone tablet bearing the inscription: “This playground presented to the children of Freckleton by their neighbours of Base Air Depot No. 2 USAAF in recognition and remembrance of their common loss in the disaster of August 23rd 1944”
The official report into the crash summarised that the exact cause was unknown, though it was the opinion of the Investigating committee that the pilot made an error in his judgment of the violence of the storm. They concluded that Lt. Bloemendal had not fully realised the danger until he made his approach to land, by which time he had insufficient altitude and speed to manoeuvre given the violent winds and downdrafts he must have encountered during his attempt to withdraw from the area.
The disaster was one of the worst air accidents in Britain during World War II, with the one of the largest civilian casualty counts outside of the German bombings. USAAF airmen would go on to be trained about the dangers of British thunderstorms before heading over the Atlantic, and further measures were introduced at BAD-2 to help prevent anything like this happening again. Further memorials to the disaster have since been erected in the village, and memories of the crash still resonate amongst the community.
This piece would not have been possible without the hard work of the Lancashire Aircraft Investigation team. For more information visit: http://laituk.org/B-24%2042-50291.htm
PUBLISHED BY BAD-2 UK