The Freckleton Disaster - B-24  42-50291 

23rd August 1944

Last updated 11.11.2011

NOTE: Due to the nature of this incident and the considerable in-depth research we have carried out over the years into ascertaining the true facts behind it, this page is, by necessity, longer than we would normally place on this site and to reduce download time, thumbnail illustrations have been used which may be clicked on to view larger copies of the images and more detailed captions. However, this incident continues to arouse much feeling locally and since we set up this website, we have had a number of email enquiries concerning it from further afield. We therefore felt it appropriate to include much of the original source material in the text, in order that readers might better understand the sequence of events on that terrible day in the summer of 1944. 

PLEASE NOTE: It has been brought to our attention that others have copied and used this article's material for commercial publication without asking - normally we are always willing to share our research, but we would like to remind readers that this page and all the material on this site is copyright and the result of much hard work - therefore we require consultation if you wish to use any of this material.

Type Unit Base Duty Crew
B-24H

ex 490th Bombardment Group, US 8th AAF

BAD 2, Warton Test Flight

3

The Roll of Honour of Civilian War Dead in Westminster Abbey records the names of 45 men, women, and children killed when a B-24 Liberator bomber fell on the village of Freckleton during August 1944, demolishing a number of buildings, including part of the school. However, the true toll, including British and American airforce personnel caught up in the destruction, was that a total of 61 people in fact perished in this incident which ranks as probably the worst air accident in Britain during the Second World War.

Before the disaster: Left, Holy Trinity School and centre + right, Whittle's "Sad Sack" Snack Bar.

At 10.30 hours on the morning of Wednesday August 23rd, 1944 B-24 Liberator H-20 42-50291was cleared for take-off from Warton's runway 08. 291', an ex-490th Bomb Group machine, "CLASSY CHASSIS II" had been brought to the U.S.A.A.F.'s huge Base Air Depot 2 for refurbishment prior to being allocated to the 2nd Combat Division. On this day, she was being test-flown before resuming service and this task fell to 1st Lieutenant John Bloemendal, one of BAD 2's regular test pilots, with T/Sgt Jimmie Parr as co-pilot and Sgt Gordon Kinney as flight engineer. The take-off was uneventful and the B-24 headed out over the Lancashire countryside, accompanied by a second B-24, 42-1353 being test flown by 1st Lieutenant Pete Manassero . Over the radio, Bloemendal called Manassero's attention to the cloud formation towards the South-South- East. It was a very impressive sight and looked like a "thunderhead" according to Manassero.

"Classy Chassis II"

Bloemendal & Parr (to the left)

1st Lt. John Bloemendal

Sgt Gordon W. Kinney

Less than five minutes after the B-24 left Warton a telephone call reached the base from BAD 1, Burtonwood, warning of a violent storm approaching the Preston area and immediately an order was issued recalling both Bloemendal's aircraft and that being flown by 1st Lieutenant Pete Manassero.

Control Tower - "Hello Gorgeous John and Gorgeous Peter, this is [Faram] control, are you receiving. Over".

Answer - "Hello [Faram] control. This is Gorgeous John - Over".

Control Tower - "Hello Gorgeous John and Gorgeous Peter, this is [Faram] control. You are to land immediately. Over",

Answer - "Hello [Faram] control. This is Gorgeous John. Can you give the reason? Is it the weather?"

Control Tower - "Roger Gorgeous John, that is correct. Ceiling and visibility decreasing rapidly. You are clear and No.1 to land on Runway 08."

Answer - "Gorgeous John. Roger, [Faram] control. - END -

By the time the two B-24's arrived back over Warton, the storm was at its height. Witnesses relate the rain was so heavy that it was impossible to see across the road. The storm assumed proportions of an almost supernatural quality; thunder and lightning rolled across the sky and the wind was of such ferocity as to uproot trees and smash hen cabins on a nearby farm. The sky turned an ominous black, and the whole district was plunged into darkness even though it was a midsummer's day, making it impossible to see indoors without the aid of artificial light. A contemporary local newspaper reported a trail of destruction across the North-West; Hutton Meteorological Station, which was fairly clear of the storm on the other side of the river, recorded wind velocity of nearly 60 m.p.h., with water spouts being observed in the Ribble estuary, and flash flooding in Southport and Blackpool. 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:

At this point Flying Control at Warton tower records sending out a general call instructing all aircraft to steer North of the field and await a recall notification after the storm had passed. Lt. Manassero is recorded as having verified this call, but no reply was received from Lt. Bloemendal - almost certainly it was already too late.

Photos taken in the initial aftermath of the crash clearly show the scale of the disaster on the village, as rescuers search amongst the wreckage and rubble for survivors.

Eyewitness accounts from the recently released U.S.A.A.F. Aircraft Mishap Reports - taken over the two days following the crash - illustrate the last moments of the B-24. Like almost everyone else in Freckleton, they were all watching the storm:

Initial point of impact & damage along the path
taken by the stricken B-24 from the official enquiry

The B-24's fate was sealed; already flying low to the ground with it's wings now near vertical, the B-24 ripped the top off a tree, shed it's right wingtip as it chopped off the corner of a building, leaving the rest of the wing ploughing along the ground through a hedge. The 25-ton bomber carried on, partly demolishing three houses and the "The Sad Sack" Snack Bar, it's momentum continuing, taking it across Lytham Road and finally ending as it disintegrated in the crash. Part of the plane destroyed the infants wing of Freckleton Holy Trinity School and the whole area erupted into a sea of flames as the fuel from the ruptured tanks ignited. The clock in one classroom stopped at 10.47 a.m.

Fires fed by the plane's fuel burned long after the crash as the rescue effort turned into a search for victims bodies.

Back at Warton Control tower a C-47 parked in area "#6" of the airfield radioed in a report of a column of black smoke visible to the North east. In the village rescuers soon converged on the scene from every direction; mostly Americans from the adjoining Base Air Depot but also the National Fire Service and stunned Freckleton villagers. Predictably there was much confusion initially as they were confronted by a scene of utter devastation, rubble from demolished buildings together with shattered sections of the stricken aircraft and burning fuel running down Lytham Road.

The Aftermath: left and centre, the school and right, the Snack Bar.

Just as suddenly as it began, the severest thunderstorm the Base - and many of the villagers - had ever experienced, was gone. From the smouldering remains of the infants classroom only three youngsters emerged alive, 35 children and two teachers having died. Those sheltering from the storm in the "Sad Sack Snack Bar" stood no chance as the building took the full force of the impact and rescuers found the bodies of six U.S.A.A.F. and four R.A.F. personnel along with several civilians amongst the debris. 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.

Sgt. (Pilot) W.W. Cannell

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 American authorities bearing the cost of the mass burial and Brigadier General Isaac W. Ott, commander of BAD 2 Warton, was ordered to represent the U.S.A.A.F. at the elaborate funeral ceremony. Almost immediately a memorial fund was set up with the intention of building a memorial hall to commemorate the victims of the catastrophe. The three U.S. aircrew killed in the B-24 were buried in a U.S. Cemetery in the South of England; after the war, their remains were returned for reburial in their home states in the USA at the request of their next of kin.

The funeral and the scale of the tragedy becomes apparent.

Casualty List:

Name Location/Position Status
1st Lt. John A. Bloemendal, B-24, 42-5029/Pilot K.
T/Sgt James M. Parr B-24, 42-5029/Co-Pilot K.
Sgt Gordon W. Kinney B-24, 42-5029/Flight Engineer K.
4 RAF Personnel "Sad Sack" Snack Bar/Customers K.
7 USAAF Personnel "Sad Sack" Snack Bar/Customers K.
7 Civilians "Sad Sack" Snack Bar/Staff & Customers

K.

2 Adults Holy Trinity School/Teachers K.
38 Children Holy Trinity School/Pupils K.

Note: For a full listing of all the names of those who lost their lives Click Here.

 

Memorial garden and playground.

From the start the memorial fund set up by the village Parish council ran into controversy, a situation which sadly continued for many years, though here is not the place to dwell on such matters. Suffice to say that the proposed memorial hall was finally built and opened in September 1977. The American servicemen from BAD 2 also sought to place a fitting memorial in the village and set to work transforming an area of land, which had been purchased by the town council in 1927 and was close to the school, into a memorial garden and appropriately a 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"

Map drawn up by local police constable for the board of inquiry showing path taken by the B-24 with accompanying photo looking back along the same, with the broken tree [arrowed] showing first point of impact.

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. It was also thought possible that structural failure may have occurred in the extreme conditions, though it was noted that the aircraft was so completely destroyed as to make any such investigation impossible. Finally it was recommended that pilots trained in the United States and then being sent to England, should be emphatically warned about the dangers of British thunderstorms. It was noted that many such pilots believed that British storms were little more than showers compared to those encountered in the Southern United States and saw no danger in them, whereas they could be every bit as dangerous though much less frequent.

Freckleton village today: Left, the site of the school and right, looking across Lytham road to the site of the Snack Bar. 

The photographs accompanying this feature need few captions; the pictures speak for themselves. Though much of this account was compiled using an official wartime USAAF document, the personal loss suffered by so many in the village is still apparent. Yet other details not mentioned further compounded the loss suffered by some - one Freckleton woman, who suffered the loss of her daughter, received a telegram only six days later informing her that her husband had been killed serving with the East Lancashire regiment in France, having arrived there shortly after D-Day - he would have been thirty years old on the day his daughter was killed. The village policeman, P.C. Robert Nelson, knew most of the children personally - he was asked to cut off locks of hair from some of the victims, for parents to keep as mementoes - it affected him deeply and he was never the same man afterwards. The older children who were fortunate to be in another part of the school when the disaster struck, were also deeply shocked and found it difficult to return to school - for some it was to be months before they felt able to cope with returning to their lessons. It is hard to comprehend, today in another century, how such appalling tragedy and suffering could happen in a small Lancashire village - For the rest of the country it had been a day of rejoicing - Paris had been liberated, and the much longed for victory was finally in sight.


The communal grave in Holy Trinity Churchyard today


The original school date stone. Preserved at the new School.

Postscript: As readers may appreciate this web page generates much correspondence and if new snippets of first-hand information or photographs come to light we always try to incorporate them. In 2007 we received a request from the BBC to assist in the production of a short documentary for their Inside Out - North West program and as such recognition of the disaster was, we felt long overdue, we agreed to participate.  The piece was aired on  Friday January 26, 2007 and also involved Ruby Currell, one of only three children to survive from the infants classroom and local man Harry Latham who was in a different classroom on that day and now tends the communal grave in Holy Trinity churchyard. The documentary was well received, if perhaps a little short considering the subject matter, though it was very well put together and certainly got the message across despite this.  However, one comment that arose during filming was that there was nothing today to mark the actual site of the tragedy and the residents of Freckleton very quickly picked up on this, resulting only a few months later in the unveiling, on Monday 30th April 2007, of the bronze plaque below.

Author's Note: Over the years there has been much conjecture as to the causes of this disaster, with differing versions of events becoming established, some perhaps based on recollections passed on secondhand or dimmed by the years. No doubt the dreadful confusion immediately following the crash gave rise to many of  those who were present forming strong beliefs as to what had happened from what they saw. Other evidence, such as claimed mysterious radio transmissions from the stricken plane (which are not recorded in any official report), are more difficult to explain/substantiate and have been left out. We have tried as far as possible to stick to the known facts using primary source material for this account and apologise for any inaccuracies or omissions which may have crept in - Please feel free to email any comments to the address below.


Acknowledgements: Russell Brown, the late David G. Mayor, BAD 2 Association, Peter Moran, Wally Foreman, Liberator Association, the late Edward A.Cannell, Barbara Kinney, Craig Fuller, Paul Lomax, Phil Kaufmann, Frank Nunez.

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This page Copyright Russell Brown & Nick Wotherspoon 2007