It’s time to pay our respects to US airmen who died in Daventry

Low cloud and drizzle hung over Daventry on December 15 1944 when two USAAF B-17 bombers flew over at around 500ft.

Seconds later one of the planes had crashed, killing all on board.

It is a piece of Daventry’s history not many are familiar with.

Now efforts are being made to tell the tale of that flight and the men aboard it, and to ensure they are not forgotten with a new memorial to them to be installed in Daventry.

The B-17 Flying Fortress was a four-engine heavy bomber, usually carried a crew of 10, and had a cruising speed of 182 mph.

Back in 1944 the two American bombers were returning from a successful raid on Kassel in Germany, where 334 planes had been targeting the town’s railway marshalling yards and tank factory. As they dropped in height to land back at Chelveston Air Field, east of Rushden, they found their vision limited by the low clouds and were attempting a landing using radio beacons.

As they passed over Borough Hill they collided with the wires of a radio mast on the northern end of the hill, close to edge of the modern golf course. One plane flew on through the wires and aerials, landing back at base but with bits of the wires still attached.

The other plane’s wing reportedly struck the wires, and it crashed on the northern tip of Borough Hill, killing all of the crew on board – Finis Harris, John Griffin, R.L. Mason, Laverne Ridge, Herschel McCoy, Cliff Melton, Robert L. Burry, Willie Barnes, and Chas Nordland.

The 500ft mast they struck was part of the Allies’ Gee Network, a system of radio beacons that were used by pilots to navigate over Germany. A system set up to save lives and aid the bombers and fighters in finding their targets.

The Gee mast on Borough Hill was controlled from brick buildings that still stand near the golf course. Due to its importance to the war effort, Borough Hill not only faced a blackout of its masts’ warning lights, but also the access and other roads were camouflaged making it impossible to see in the low cloud. As a result of the crash the mast was out of operation for 24 hours.

The memorial to the airmen is being worked on by Daventry Town Council and will be erected near the town’s existing war memorial in Abbey Street.

Lynn Scott from the town council said: “It all started when Tony Jackson contacted the council. He was investigating the crash and he thought it was time to give these men a memorial in the town. Everybody here agreed that it was a good idea and an important thing to do. This year is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War so it’s quite a significant date.

“The memorial is being worked on as we speak by a stonemason. It’s going to be granite, and it will sit one tier down from the war memorial in the gardens there. It’s a suitable place to put the memorial as from that site you can see Borough Hill. It also means they will be remembered along with all others on the war memorial every Remembrance Sunday.

“A short while ago an organised dig found pieces from the plane. They were taken to Sywell Museum and are on display there.

“Apparently a man from Daventry, when he was a young boy and a pupil at the Grammar School, went up Borough Hill shortly after the crash.

“Although it was guarded by police and military he got pretty close and could see the navigator’s cap lying in the wreckage. One of the people guarding the site said to him ‘You might as well have it; its owner doesn’t need it any more.’ He kept the cap for years, but then gave it to Sywell Museum.

“We’re also in touch with relatives of Robert Burry. He was the father of Peter Searle and grandfather of Rebecca Saywell who now live in March in Cambridgeshire and have been helping us with background information.

“Peter’s mother was pregnant with him at the time of the crash. They have done lots of research into the crash and have been very helpful.”

Once completed the new memorial will be installed, and a dedication ceremony is being planned.

Lynn said: “The date for the unveiling is likely to be August 23.

“We’re hoping to have a service of dedication, and a bit of a ceremony at the War Memorial with a short reception at the town council offices afterwards for the family and those involved in the planning of the memorial.”