The flight of USAAF “Liberator” Heavy-Duty Bomber 42-50688 6XM.
It was mid-afternoon on Monday, 19 February 1945 when 6XM left its base at North Pickenham in Norfolk.
Aboard were a crew of five and a further six USAAF personnel returning to Burtonwood airbase in Cheshire.
Once above the low winter cloud cover, the short trip across country would have been a relatively easy one for a crew battle hardened by bombing missions over Nazi Germany.
The unit to which 6XM belonged would be based in Norfolk until the end of the war in 1945.
As they cruised above the clouds with a motion peculiar to the B 24’s which was described as being like a, “duck waddling to a pond,” they would head across the Midlands towards the Lancashire coast, perhaps oblivious to the fact that thousands of miles away in the Pacific, American service men had just begun the battle for Iwo Jima.
But they would probably be more aware that five days ago their Royal Air Force allies, bombing at night, had obliterated Dresden.
For today at least, the crew and passengers of 6XM could be pretty sure that they wouldn’t be involved in any enemy action. Goering’s Luftwaffe had been withdrawn from the skies above Britain and was used to defend German cities.
It is perhaps difficult to understand, given the smoothness of modern passenger jets, what it was like to fly in a plane like the B24.
During flight, the un-heated, unpressurised plane rattled and vibrated violently, under assault from its four huge piston engines with their giant propeller blades.
It was the kind of vibration that hammered the temples, shook the teeth, and rattled the spine.
Once above 10,000 feet, oxygen masks were mandatory. They felt cold and clammy, smelling of rubber and sweat.
Speech, other than through the headsets, was well-nigh impossible as the wind blew like a gale throughout the plane; especially from the waist gunners open windows on each side of the planes middle.
Forward visibility for the pilots was extremely limited, especially in poor conditions. There were no windscreen wipers and although a primitive form of ground radar had begun to be fitted, most planes had to manage without it.
The clouds could seem unending with the added danger of flying into ice clouds. There was no way of knowing whether they were there; you just had to fly into the clouds with your fingers crossed, and all the time, the cold which felt as though it were chilling the aeroplane to its marrow.
Navigating involved using a few simple instruments and the use of some elementary mathematics.
There was an aerial compass that differed little from the one on board a ship. Trainee navigators learned how to use a drift meter, essentially a tube through which one looked down at some crosshairs. These would be lined up with objects on the ground (provided you could see the ground) giving the navigator, “a relative wind,” compared with the compass course.
The navigator’s only electronic aid was a radio compass, which gave a bearing on a broadcast signal, an unreliable instrument, except near a strong station.
Navigation was sometimes more a question of defining large areas of sky with a sextant in which the plane’s position was tentatively guessed at until a visual fix could be made by the pilots on a ground object and then the navigator relating that to what was on his map.
Instrument flying, which requires you to trust your instruments and ignore your senses, made flying in B 24 a potentially precarious business.
It is comparable to floating in a void and, of course, it was infinitely worse at night.
It has been suggested that because the USAAF navigators took their training in the wide open and clear skies of Texas and New Mexico, where cities were far between and there were few clouds to content with, it took some time for the young inexperienced navigators to gain any ability at flying over Europe, especially when it involved the added strain of combat.
In reality, many of the young crews flew combat missions with very little training or experience so badly were pilots and flight crews needed in the war.
Many never did learn to navigate well and midair miscalculations were par for the course.
As 6XM flew across the Midlands and approached Liverpool, the weather, already poor on takeoff, began to deteriorate, with a low cloud ceiling estimated at below 1000 feet.
One can imagine how difficult the navigator and pilot found these conditions, the ground being completely obscured by the low cloud, rain and fog.
Certainly, visual sightings must have been very difficult, making an exact assessment of the planes wind drift almost impossible.
Their estimate must have been that they were approaching Liverpool when they would then alter course for Burtonwood a short distance away, near Warrington.
Lt Goeking eventually spotted a gap in the cloud cover and descended through it to gain a visual sighting.
Breaking through the clouds at under 1000 feet, he glimpsed a built-up area that he assumed must be Liverpool.
It was a miscalculation.
His navigator had been unable to acquire accurate ground sightings in order to correct for wind drift and what lay below were the towns of Accrington and Burnley some 50 miles further north-east.
The huge, noisy planes low position, not all that far above the Mill town’s chimneys startled people in the streets below.
As the plane began to climb, it adjusted its course by 90° towards the area where they mistakenly thought Burtonwood air base would be.
Re-entering the cloud at about 900 feet, Goeking, his crew and passengers were heading, not to the safety of Burtonwood, but on a direct collision course for Black Hameldon, one of the grim moorland hills or flat ridges that surround Burnley, two miles in length and rising up to 1571 feet at its summit.
What happened next would have happened very quickly.
From the plane’s position over the centre of Burnley it is about 3 miles in a straight line to Black Hameldon.
It is impossible to know the speed at which 6XM was travelling at this point but one may perhaps put it at 200 miles per hour.
At that sort of speed it would have taken about a minute from the moment the astonished Burnley folk on the ground heard or saw the bomber until, still attempting to climb at around 1000 ft./m, it ploughed into the wet clay and shale surface of Black Hameldon at 4:25 PM.
At that speed it is unlikely that Lt Goeking would have had time to take any evasive action, who knows?
The plane hit the hillside tail first and under full power (which could be up to 278 miles per hour) probably because the plane was still trying to gain altitude.
Only startled birds would have heard the loud bang as 38,000 pounds of aeroplane hit the ground, the impact ripping open the fuselage and severing the tail section in a shower of yellow sparks and flashes, killing its occupants instantly.
Those of a non-squeamish disposition can trawl the Internet to find out what happens to the human body in those situations. Suffice to say, that when the plane hit the ground at over 250 miles per, the humans in it continued to travel at the same speed.
The rest of the aircraft, the front section with the wings, ploughed on up the hillside, the propellers gouging out huge divots of moorland soil, to the sound of metal ripping itself into pieces.
When the plane finally came to a halt one would have heard the creaks and cracks of the bent metal settling down and been aware of the smell of oil and scorching.
Mercifully, although there were small fires that set off some of the planes’ ammunition, it didn’t totally catch fire, owing to the wings, where the high-octane fuel storage tanks were, remaining relatively intact.
In the cold fading light of the Pennine winter, the aftermath of the last flight of Liberator, 6XM would produce its own statistics, not all grim.
Of the 11 young Americans on board, five were killed, “instantly”, three later died of their appalling injuries, including Technical Sgt Howard E Denham Jr who had volunteered for the flight owing to another crew member’s illness.
Three of the dead are buried in the United States war cemetery in Cambridge where simple white crosses stand over them.
The plane’s commander, Lt Charles A. Goeking survived the crash by being thrown through the thick Perspex cockpit windows and finding himself lying on the wet moorland.
The survivors probably owe their lives to the sound of the ammunition igniting, the popping noise alerting a group of workmen working on a nearby reservoir. The workmen might well have been on their way home but were waiting for transport. If it had arrived earlier the badly injured crew would have been left to endure the rigours of a cold and misty February night on Black Hameldon when no doubt, more of them would have succumbed to their injuries.
Lt Goeking took two years to recover and in 1972, still limping from his injuries, he returned to visit the site of the crash.
He died in 1989.
Very little evidence remains of the crash.
The USAAF set fire to the wreck a couple of weeks after the event and over the years scavengers for souvenirs and scrap metal removed most of it.
Thanks to sensitive local enthusiasts and organisations like the Lancashire Aircraft Investigation Team, some artefacts found their way into Newark Air Museum and the Burtonwood Heritage Centre.
On fine days in summer, one can see young families and their dogs enjoying themselves on the open moorland near to the site, perhaps with a grandparent to tell them about a February night in 1945 and a group of young men from small-town America who ended their lives on a bleak Lancashire hillside.
Over the years, local people have been kind enough to erect a simple limestone cairn topped with part of the Liberators’ undercarriage as a memorial.
At their former base in North Pickenham, one can still see where they left from on their, “Milk Run,” to Burtonwood.
Best to ignore the Bernard Matthews turkey sheds that now stands on the runways.
Better to retire to the warmth and hospitality of the Blue Lion in “North Pick” and raise a glass of warm English bitter to the memory of the airmen who flew on dangerous missions from which they never returned and to B-24 J “Liberator” 42-50668 6XM of the 854th Bombardment Group, 8th USAAF and those who lost their lives on Black Hameldon on 19 February 1945.
The war ended on May 7th 1945.
The late Kevin Mount, whose book, “Wartime Pendle” contains the background to this story.
My friend, Eddy Rawlinson.
Nick Wotherspoon for his help and his books, “North West Aircraft Wrecks” and “Aircraft Wrecks: The Walkers Guide,” with Alan Clarke and Mark Sheldon.
The Lancashire Aircraft Investigation Team (LAIT)
Their work is invaluable.
Readers will appreciate that my contribution is a work of, “faction,” some of it speculation. It’s not written as a technical tract nor for aviation historians but penned for the general reader new to the subject. I hope they’ll enjoy my retelling of the event. I’ve tried to stick as closely to the real facts as possible. If any expert readers feel I’ve made serious errors or omissions, I would be quite happy to make amends.
What I’ve tried to write is an imaginative work of homage.
Given the life experiences of the men involved, it can only be inadequate.