23 January 1945

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23 January 1945

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The weather during December 1944 was pretty rugged but things only got worse in January 1945. There was more of the usual snow, wind and ice. On top of that, it was very cold. Takeoffs from snow slicked runways were the norm. Returning from missions, the pilots could expect poor visible when it was time to land. It was a full time job to keep the runways clear of snow. Maintenance and ground crews, working mostly in the open, were exhausted by the bad weather.

For the first two weeks of January 1945, the surprise German offensive through the Ardennes (more commonly known as the Battle of the Bulge) had given the Allied Army a bit of a scare but ended up a disaster for the Wehrmacht. People began to suspect that it was Hitler’s last hurrah. The end of the war seemed like it might be in sight.

On the morning of 23 January 1945, it was snowing lightly at Kimbolton. The runways had been cleared by snowplows and all airfield lights were on. There was an 8-mph wind out of the East-North-East. In the predawn twilight, visibility was estimated at 800 - 1000 yards.

The ground crews who had been up the night before preparing the aircraft for the mission were headed for their bunks, a warm place away from the bitter cold. Others were having breakfast in the mess hall and would soon begin their day’s work.

The target for the 379th BG that day were the Railroad Marshalling Yards at Neuss in Germany. Thirty-nine aircraft were scheduled to take off. The first planes were off in the dark. Low visibility takeoff conditions were in effect.

By 0825, thirty-five planes had departed, but takeoffs were running late. Four planes remained to go, the mission spares. Boeing B-17G No. 42-31592 from the 527th BS taxied up just short of Kimbolton runway 33. Although the plane was a veteran of many combat missions, this would be its first mission in several days. Some thought it would be taken off combat duty soon. It was fueled with 2400 gallons of gasoline and armed with eight high explosive 500-pound bombs. There was no time to replace the bad limit switch that allowed the flaps to function normally going down but required them to be hand cranked back up afterwards. The pilot paused to run up all four engines. He then "washed out" his control surfaces alternately wagging the rudder, elevator and ailerons. Flaps were up. Everything seemed normal. From the control tower a green light was flashed to clear the plane for takeoff.

In the cockpit a normal takeoff began. Engine manifold pressure checked, showing 25 inches. Brakes released. The throttles are pushed wide open and the plane begins to roll down the runway. Slightly right of runway centerline. Power setting 46 inches and 2500 rpm. Blue flames pushed out from the engine superchargers visible in the twilight. The plane’s navigation lights are shining brightly. At the end of the runway, sodium flares shown brightly to mark the end. Auto pilot in the off position; master switch checked twice. Between 110 and 120 mph, the plane’s weight is coming off the tires. The pilot feels the plane bumping and eases back on stick. Vibration increasing. Not from the control surfaces but as if the wings themselves are shaking. Almost as if the plane was not aerodynamically sound. More vibration. Check the engines…..all four are pulling evenly. Starting to drift left. Controls feel normal. Trim feels normal. Halfway down the runway now. Are we airborne or still on the runway? The crew in the back of the airplane feel the tail beginning to shake and slew about. The pilot feeds in right rudder to try and hold the nose. No effect. The plane is flying and the co-pilot selects the landing gear to "up." 1500 yards to runway end. Still the nose drifts left. Full right rudder. Full right aileron. Checked the auto pilot off again. The pilot tries to climb but there is no authority in the elevators. The plane is out of control. Altitude maybe 25 feet. The plane continues to turn left. Trees appear ahead. From the ground the plane seemed to be banking 40 to 45 degrees left. The plane is going to crash. The pilot chops the throttles for the two engines on the right wing, no. 3 and no.4 in a final attempt to straighten out the plane before it hits. No use. The plane tears through telephone wires and power lines. Trees tear off the left wingtip outboard of the no.1 engine. The fuel tanks in the wing ruptures. Flames erupt on the plane. One thousand yards from the runway is the communal living area for the 525th Bomber Squadron….barracks, mess hall and administrative buildings. Without warning to those on the ground and with no time to sound alarm, the fully loaded bomber crashes directly into 525th’s Orderly Building.

There were several hundred men in the living site that morning. Some were asleep and some were awake. The fuel tanks exploded more or less on impact. Thick black smoke billowed from the crash site. Most men, startled awake by the blast, streamed away from the inferno half-dressed and shoe-less in the snow. From across the field, ambulances and fire crews could be heard on the way. The plane burned furiously; flames reached into the cockpit. Ammunition from the guns cooked off in the fire spraying rounds indiscriminately.

When the plane came to a stop; the cockpit was partially ripped open. The co-pilot was temporarily knocked out but then regained consciousness. Men from the site came to the aid of those still trapped in the burning wreckage. Of the nine men aboard, five got out. All injured, the pilot and co-pilot among them.

A few minutes after the crash, the flames reached the bomb bay. It is well known that when a bomb is exposed to high temperature it will explode, i.e. "cook off". Less well understood is that the blast effect is greatly reduced in comparison under these circumstances to the explosion that would normally occur when a bomb is dropped. The effect is still devastating. The first bomb that cooked off killed a total of nine men and left many more wounded. Four of the dead were from the aircrew but the remainder were would be rescuers.

Several other bombs later exploded also leaving every building in the site destroyed or damaged. Many men lost all their clothing and personal items. Later other unexploded bombs were found and made safe by Bomb Disposal Crews.

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