By Staff Sgt. Brian Stives, 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
/ Published November 06, 2013
HELMDON, United Kingdom -- November 30, 1943, started out as a typical English day in Helmdon, United Kingdom - dark, damp, cloudy and the sun was just starting to break over the horizon - but all of that changed at 8:19 a.m.
"My father left our cottage, at Astwell Castle Farm, after breakfast to continue the day's work," said Derek Ratledge, who was 8 years old in 1943. "As he left, he heard the not uncommon roar of a low flying formation of B-17 bombers and shouted back to the cottage, 'They are off again' then he said, 'there's one in trouble - it's on fire!'"
Everybody on the ground could only watch in horror as the tragic event unfolded before them as the plane was heading directly for the cottages, farmhouse and farm buildings at Astwell Castle Farm (located about one mile east of the village of Helmdon), surely to demolish all of them.
"At the last minute, it banked at almost 45 degrees away from the houses and crashed beyond the farm buildings in a huge explosion. My father watched it all and to his dying days he swore that it was going to crash into the buildings. I think, those men that crashed saved all of our lives," said Ratledge as tears began filling his eyes.
Ratledge's father and his neighbors rushed through the farm to the crash site to see what they could do to help. Once on the site, they saw the mass of tangled, burning wreckage that was once an airplane, exploding ammunition and small bombs. Ratledge said they could see there was little chance of anyone surviving the inferno, so his father and neighbors left the site - most of them in tears.
"I remember a few hours later avoiding the guards and going onto the crash field and seeing the wreckage," said Ratledge as the tears began welling up even bigger in eyes. "I saw smoke and burning wreckage - the worst of it had been removed. It was a mess and you couldn't recognize it as an airplane."
For many years, Ratledge's mother searched for the names and information about the men on board the plane, without success. Then in late 2007, Ratledge posted a comment on a U.S. veteran's website. At the same time, Beth Pugh was searching the internet for details about her Great Uncle Richard, who had died in the crash. Pugh had obtained the official crash report and the name of Astwell Castle Farms was recorded in it. After typing in Astwell she found and read Ratledge's post and responded to it. Ratledge finally had the answers his family had been searching almost 65 years for. What he found out were that the B-17s were from the 327th Bombardment Squadron, VIII Bomber Command, from RAF Poddington, located east of Northampton, and heading on a bombing mission to Germany and the report also included the names of all 10 men on board.
"I felt like I needed to find out about the people that were killed that day because I figured their family would like to know where those boys had died," said Ratledge.
Almost 70 years after the crash, the 422nd Air Base Group from RAF Croughton, United Kingdom, and local community gathered in the Parish Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Helmdon to remember those lost so long ago.
"At 8:19 a.m. on Nov. 30, 1943, the Sharon Belle, a B-17 bomber piloted by (1st Lt.) Billy Holland, crashed at Astwell Castle Farm, and all of the crew was killed," said Col. Charles Hamilton, 422nd ABG commander. "We know the exact time because the watches worn by Flight Officer Leighton Paterson, the navigator, and Holland stopped exactly at that time."
"For me, the journey still goes on," said Ratledge. "I have now contacted nine of the families of the descendants of the crew. Many of them have vowed to visit Helmdon."
A plaque inside the church in memorial to the crews reads:
"In the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them
Capt. Richard W. Pugh, copilot
1st Lt. William M. Holland, pilot
F/O Leighton D. Paterson, navigator
2nd Lt. William S. Munro, bombardier
T/Sgt. Thomas D. Glaspel, engineer
T/Sgt. Billy B. Freeman, radio operator
S/Sgt. Dean Landfear, waist gunner
S/Sgt. Charles E. Slayton, waist gunner
S/Sgt. Harry A. Scott, ball turret gunner
S/Sgt. Henry P. Brannon, tail gunner
These American Airmen were the crew members of B17 bomber 42-30408 they died at 08:19 on 30th November 1943 at Astwell Castle Farm"