On February 8th 1944 a badly damaged Flying Fortress bomber limped home from a raid on military installations in Germany and, with three of its four engines out of action, flew low over Brighton, its American crew desperately seeking a landing site away from densely-packed housing.
In his gripping account of these dangerous moments, David Rowland describes the skill of the pilot, Norman DeFrees, who managed to steer his
crippled plane under high-density power cables and inches from a tower in order to crash-land safely in a field at Patcham.
The story is told partly through the memories of the brave airmen themselves, all of whom were to spend months as prisoners-of-war after a
later mission went wrong, and from local people on the ground who witnessed the plane struggling home only a little way above their heads.
Illustrated in colour, the book includes chapters on the U.S. Air Force base at Grafton Underwood in Northamptonshire and Boeing's
development of the giant B-17 (Flying Fortress) bombers. It concludes with the testimony of Luther 'Smitty' Smith, the ball-turret gunner on
the Patcham plane and, at 89 years of age, the one survivor of its crew.
"It was a rare and beautiful day over Western Europe and very clear. We had assembled after the take-off at 28,000 feet, over southern Lincolnshire in a very strong westerly wind, making the assembly quite difficult. Once we had formed up into our correct positions, we headed off towards Germany. We arrived without incident, the flight taking a little over two hours, and when we were over our target and had checked all our instruments we then released our bombs, watching them fall. I remember that the visibility was so clear you could actually see the snow on the ground and the muzzle flash of the German anti-aircraft 88 guns on the ground."
"Ellis (Miller) shouted out "bombs away" and it was just after this that a huge blast of black flak appeared above our nose, a short distance ahead of our aircraft. I then noted the oil pressure start to fall on the left outboard engine and I quickly hit the 'feather' button. A few seconds later I noticed the same thing occurring to the right outboard engine and managed to get that feathered too. I knew we could get home on just two engines but we would lose a lot of our speed. Just then our nose dropped, and despite full throttle and a reading of just 45 of manifold pressure on the two inboard engines we started losing height at about 150ft a minute - as well as the speed dropping down to just 95mph. The rest of the bombers were just small dots and almost out of sight and making us a sitting duck. We all knew we were in a pretty bad position. No one spoke or even looked at each other: they didn't have to."
Editor's note: For his brilliant piece of flying and landing, Norman DeFrees was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC).
The last words go to ball-turret gunner Luther Smith: "Thinking about the landing at Patcham", he said, "we had a phrase that covered our thoughts after a rough mission: 'Good old terra ferma - the more firmer, the less terror'."
A note from the author: "Sadly this is the end of the road for me. This will be my 15th and final book: IT progress has beaten me, and the cost of producing these local history books has got to the stage that I can no longer afford to do them. However, I must offer my sincerest thanks to my loyal readers. I know of several people who have bought every book I have written, and to them in particular a very special thank-you. As this is the last book I shall write, I hope you will enjoy my swan song."