Guest Post: The Missing B17

A plexiglas fragment casing and possibly a handle from an escape hatchJulian Evan-Hart has provided us with another guest post – this time on a a Shepreth B17 Flying Fortress Mk1 and its crew. 

On the 9th January 1942 – a cloudy, rather drizzly day – the villagers living in and around Shepreth heard something strange in the skies above: a dull boom and sharp cracking sound. At first nothing could be seen at all. Then a smudge of smoke and flame appeared below the high cloud base, which made it clear that it was the sound of an aeroplane in trouble.

Possible escape hatch handle

13,000 feet above, a Shepreth B17 Flying Fortress Mk1 M for Mother coded AN536WP-M was in great difficulties. It seems that whilst on a training flight the aircraft had gone into a stall. Initially spinning, the aircraft then entered into a steep dive breaking through the cloud layer in a left hand spin. It flew straight into the ground and burst into flames. Small pieces from this B17 lay scattered all around the local fields. Sadly, its crew of six men were all killed, their bodies removed from the crash site still wearing parachutes. It would seem centrifugal forces had trapped them within the spinning aeroplane and they had been unable to escape.

Now this B17 is really a very interesting example of this kind of discovery. It was one of the first ever 20 B17s to be sent to Britain as part of the American Lend Lease policy. At that time the Americans felt that the B17 was not combat ready, but Britain was desperate for aircraft so anything would do. Therefore the B17 arrived at Polebrook on 29th July 1941 to serve with No. 90 Squadron. Wartime records state that the bulk of the crash site was near an old orchard and also by a small stream. I always assumed this was somewhere near to Shepreth. However a recent metal detecting trip in the area has cast a new light on this assumption.

Clear evidence of damage to nearby treesWhilst searching a local field in the area for Roman coins and artifacts, with my CTX3030 metal detector, I came across a few scraps of twisted aluminium. Nothing unusual there, as there are several ex-bomber and fighter airbases in the area. I just assumed this was another prang, belly landing or mishap due to take off or landing during the war. The fields around here were full of the remains of such events. However I also found an exploded 0.50 calibre bullet case, which was dated 1940. This is the earliest date I have ever seen on such a case, as most are dated 1943 or 1944, which of course coincides with the main American presence in Britain. I found another dated 1941 and some more dating 1940.

These dates can only mean that an early 0.50 calibre armed aeroplane came down here. The mass of burned globules and the number of casings indicates the aeroplane was of a substantial size. As a result of all this evidence, the crash site of M for Mother has been re-located and re-identified, which is very important for aviation history in Britain. Now, “Oh I heard it was a B17 down there” can be re-written into the fact that it wasn’t just any B17, but one with a significant historical past. For those who are curious about the site, amazingly some of the Ash trees in close proximity still bear the scars from the impact of over 72 years ago now.

0.50 Calibre machine gun bullet casings dated 1940 and 1941This aeroplane was the forerunner of the mighty American B17 F and G variants that just a year later would begin to fill the skies to bursting point directly over the place where a few splintered trees and pieces of metal was all that remained of M For Mother. One of the artifacts found lying on the surface in the clump of trees looks to be a possible entry/escape hatch handle. It is amazing to think that some of the crew actually touched this item for the very last time on that fateful flight now so long ago.

The crew on board this very early issue B17 were:-

Flight Lieutenant S.A.P. Fischer
John Henson
Peter Anthony Gibbs
Donald Wilcox
Robert Goold
Robert Millar

I found this crash site purely by accident and was able to interpret the few finds I made… but it should be noted prolific examination of such sites is subject to a licence pursuant to The Protection of Military Remains Act 1986.

About Julian Evan-Hart
Julian is from Hertfordshire, England and has always been interested in fossils and antiquities. Julian has written a number of books on metal detecting, and is an avid user of Minelab products.

8 Responses to Guest Post: The Missing B17

  1. My relative Robert Goold was one of those on the plane.
    Robert Wallis George Goold
    Born Newport Wales
    RAF Flight Sergent Royal Air Force (Auxiliary Air Force)
    died 9/1/42

    Member of 90 squadron
    Service number 818020

  2. Jean Woodcock says:

    Jack Henson was my uncle. I have visited Shepreth area but was unable to identify crash site. There is no stone marking the crash that I could find. I was so pleased to read your research forwarded by nsilverman. It was very sad to see the few bits of the plane. Your information is much more comprehensive than any I have. Flt/Sgt Henson was born in East Yorkshire, awarded the DFM in 1941 and is buried in Cottingham (E Yorks) I was born after he died so know little about his RAF career.
    Fischer, Gibbs and Wilcox are buried in Whittlesford Churchyard which I have visited together with RAF Polebroke where the fatal flight took off from.

    • Hi Jean,

      We’ve got in touch with Julian Evan-Hart (the author of the article) and asked him to get in touch with you to maybe answer any questions you have?

      Really hope this helps and thanks for getting in contact.

    • Julian Evan-Hart says:

      Dear Jean apologies for slow response to your post. It did make me really think when you said you were “sad to see pieces of the plane” such things always have an intense emotional gravity. I have been extensively involved in taking relatives of WW2 aircrash crews to the very sites of the crashes. It never ever ceases to impress me the emotions that such things can do…..Last year I took a B17`s Waist Gunner`s daughter to the exact spot where her Father had been killed…… I don’t know very much at all about Jack Henson`s RAF career as I have not researched it. However if you would ever like to visit the crash site I can take you there no problem. Sadly its not marked in anyway at all apart from the still damaged Ash trees. Kind regards and thank you for responsing initially……Jules.

      • Jean Woodcock says:

        Dear Jules
        Just found your reply to my post. Thank you for offering the chance to visit. Hopefully we may be down south in the summer and hope that it may be possible to arrange something. Thank you so much for your time. Jean.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: