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The Mission to England

#45 In The Water

41-11591 landing in "Lake Manduria".
Photo courtesy of 1st CCU

Taken by , J. Byron Newton, Atlanta Georgia. He just got his Golden Wings. He will be missed.

LIBERATOR 41-11591
Although not built as a bomber station, RAF Fairwood Common did have the runway capacity to accept the bigger aircraft of the Air Force during the 1939-45 period. Two notable incidents involving heavy bombers occurred within two weeks of each other in the spring of 1944.

From Left to Right : Julian D. Fleming, Harvey Helmberger, Harry Feltenstein, Sgt. Walsh, Heddleman, Joe Darby.

The 29th of March 1944 was a very foggy day over western Britain. At midnight on the 28th, an American B-24 Liberator, #41-11591, had left Casablanca in North Africa, on the second leg of a flight from Manduria, Italy to RAF St. Mawgan in Cornwall. Its mission was to collect some radar bombing equipment and return to base. Due to the nature of the mission, the aircraft was stripped of its armament and carried a skeleton crew of five. Also onboard for the trip was a Red Cross field representative, who was traveling from Italy to the U.K.. Unable to locate St. Mawgan airfield due to the fog, the Liberator was diverted to Fairwood Common in the hope that the weather would be clearer further north; unfortunately this was not the case. Having been guided into the circuit at Fairwood by the flying Control Officer, the Liberator circled in vain above the overcast; the countryside below was completely blotted out by cloud.

After numberous attempts to land, the aircraft's two starboard engines cut out from a lack of fuel. The Liberator's pilot, Lt. Harvey Helmberger, then gave the order to bale out through the bomb bay doors. Three of the crew and the Red Cross rep. did so immediately, all landed safely near the junction of the North and South Gower Roads; their parachutes opening only yards above the ground. They had infact baled out at an altitude of only 500 feet!

Back onboard the Liberator, Sgt. Walsh, the flight engineer, refused to jump; possibly due to the aircraft's low altitude. Lt. Helmberger had no option but to climb back into his seat and try to crash-land the Liberator. With Sgt. Walsh now sitting in the co-pilot's seat, the aircraft passed over the airfield, it lost height, smashed through a wooden guard hut and came to rest with its nose embedded in the hedgebank which runs along Kittle Lane. Lt. Helmberger survived the crash, but sgt. Walsh who, in the heat of the moment, had forgotten to fasten himself into the co-pilot's seat, was thrown through the aircraft's windscreen on impact. He died as a result of his injuries three days later.

This tag was recovered from the crash site in 2006

Today a dogleg in the hedge at Kittle Lane, about 150 yards from its junction with the South Gower Road, marks the spot where the Liberator came to rest.

Submitted by: Steve Jones

Helmberger surveys the damage

Conversation Log between aircraft and control tower, Fairwood Common


Aircraft No:  1592 Liberator


Pilot:  Lt. Helmberger and crew of 5.


Crashed at Fairwood Common on 29th March at 10:22 hours


            I, F/O Graham, was Duty Flying Control Officer. The aircraft was handed over to control at 09:57 hours listening out on World Guard. The following is a copy of the R/T log.




09:57              RW to Y:  Steer 027 and transmit


                        Y to RW:  027 Roger. This is a Liberator; we'll need a pretty big field.


                        RW to Y:  Runway 1620 yards. You'll be all right – steer 030 – What are your angels?


                        Y to RW:  Say again.


09:58              RW to Y:  What height are you?


                        Y to RW:  Altitude 2700 feet.


                        RW to Y:  Remain at that altitude.


                        Y to RW:  Roger.  We are partly in soup now. Reducing to get out of soup.


                        RW to Y:  You should be O.K. on present vector; do not reduce below .8-800 ft.


                        Y to RW:  We would rather stay up in case we have to bale out.


                        RW to Y:  Roger. Steer 030.


09: 59             Y to RW:  Are we over land?


                        RW to Y:  You are not over land now.


                        Y to RW:  Let us know when over land.


10:00              RW to Y:  Long voice transmission for homing – continue on 030.


10:02              RW to Y:  Transmit for homing – continue on 030.


                        Y to RW:  Roger. How many more minutes?


                        RW to Y:  Cannot tell you at present moment. Will tell you shortly. You have only a mile or                                       two to go; will call you over base.


                        Y to RW:  Say again.


                        RW to Y:  Orbit to port.


                        Y to RW:  Cannot understand message.


                        RW to Y:  I say again; you are over base, orbit to port.


                        Y to RW:  Coming over land, it that right?


                        RW to Y:  That is correct. Go round in circles – I want you to keep orbiting.


                        Y to RW:  Circling at 3600. Have to be quick – petrol getting low.


                        RW to Y:  Are you at 2700 feet?


                        RW to Y:  Keep orbiting and will give you instructions.



            In the meantime aircraft had passed over base and could not be heard.



10:04              RW to Y:  Continue to circle 3600. Give long voice transmission for homing…Reduce height,                                  you are over base. Orbit to port. You are right over base now. Orbit to port and                                   reduce angels. I want you to reduce height.


                        Y to RW:  We are reducing our altitude.


                        RW to Y:  What is your endurance?


10:07              Y to RW:  About 5 minutes.


                        RW to Y:  You had better come in quickly; we are firing lights. You can come down to 500                                                ft.


                        Y to RW:  Roger.


                        RW to Y:  Runway in use is 05; if you can come in on that.


                        Y to RW:  We will do our best.


                        RW to Y:  Can you see lights?


                        Y to RW:  Cannot see a thing; going into soup. We are at 1600 ft.


                        RW to Y:  Reduce, but keep orbiting.


                        Y to RW:  Orbiting field; orbiting at 1300 ft. now.


                        RW to Y:  You will have to come lower than that. Reduce to 600 ft.


                        Y to RW:  We are dropping fast now 1200 ft.


                        RW to Y:  Keep on turning. Tell me each hundred feet as you come down.


10:09              Y to RW:  1,000 ft., 800 ft., still in soup. 700 ft., 600 ft. We are in the clear.


                        RW to Y:  Can you see lights.


                        Y to RW:  Not yet. At 500 ft. now.


                        RW to Y:  At 500 ft. steer 210., steer 210., steer 210 for 2 minutes.


                        Y to RW:  Do you want us to turn on 210.


                        RW to Y: Yes


10:11              Y to RW:  Roger. We are over little lakes of water. Does that help you?


                        RW to Y:  Yes. Keep going that way; it might help us later.


                        RW to Y:  Q.F.E. 099.9.


                        Y to RW:  Roger. At 300 ft., heading on 210, banking over buildings; looks like coal mines.


                        RW to Y: Can you see lights?


                        Y to RW:  Going up over ridge.


                        RW to Y: Ridge might be hill. I am trying to avoid; climb to 700 ft.


10:12              Y to RW:  Roger. I hope so….staying on 210.


                        RW to Y:  Steer 110.


                        Y to RW:  Roger 110. Coming up to 700 ft. On 110.  Pretty high peak ahead, ahead to right.


                        RW to Y:  Roger. We are firing lights. You should see us. 


10:13              RW to Y:  Steer 090 and call if you see lights.


                        Y to RW:  Steering 090.


                        RW to Y:  You are in circuit. Keep orbiting. Can you see us? Turn port quickly.


I saw the aircraft for the first time near the South barrier of the camp.


                        Y to RW:  We are banking, turning to the left. Cannot see runway.


                        RW to Y:  Keep over to port. We are firing lights.


                        Y to RW:  We see lights. Have to come up to 050 for runway.


                        RW to Y:  You are coming down Runway now. Wheels down. Keep out to starboard – turn                                    port quickly.

                        Y to RW:  We are doing that.


                        RW to Y:  Turn port now. Keep turning port now.


10:14              Y to RW:  Fire flares.


                        RW to Y:  We are firing; try and keep lined up with runway. You are on wrong runway.


                        Y to RW:  We have found it – keep firing flares towards the end of runway.


                        RW to Y:  Keep going round; firing lights from end of runway.


                        Y to RW:  Save your flares; think we can make it.


                        RW to Y:  We have run out of flares; you are coming in on wrong runway – it is much too                                      short.  You are now across runway in use.


                        Y to RW:  See end of runway now.


                        RW to Y:  Keep your eye on it. Do you think you can make it?


                        Y to RW:  Engines cutting.


                        RW to Y:  Do not bother firing of red lights; they are being fired for your assistance.  Try                                                and come in on any runway.  Turn sharply port, try and come in on runway 2300.


                        Y to RW:  Making height and baling out.




            Two money flares were lit at the down wind end of 05 runway. The Outer Circle, leading in funnel and Fog funnel and flarepath were switched on in the hope that they would prove of assistance to the Pilot in making his approach.

            On numerous occasions I asked the Pilot to make tighter turns but he could not risk doing that due to the shortage of petrol and the risk of starving the engines by such action. Due to the exceptionally flat turns made by the Pilot, he was unable to line up either with the long runway or any other runway in order to land or pancake with any reasonable degree of safety.

            I was not aware that the aircraft had set out from an overseas base and would not be familiar with normal code words used in this country, other wise I would not have used certain words such as "orbit" and "angels".

            Regarding the remark "We have run out of flares" made at approximately 10:17 hours; up to that time we had fixed 40 verey lights from the Control Tower and the stock was being replaced. In the meantime we informed the aircraft that red verey lights would be fired not to prevent him coming in but for his assistance. We also fired six Mortar bombs. When the aircraft was approaching 050 runway, verey lights were fired only from the chequered van at the end of the runway.

            The weather at 10:00 hours on 29th March according to Fairwood Common Meteorological Office was cloud base 700 feet, visibility 1800 yards. I consider the cloud base was 5/10ths at 500 feet, 5/10ths 700 feet, 10/10ths total, as the weather deteriorated between 10:00 and 11:00 hours.

            The machine crashed at 10:22 hours, after four of the crew had bailed out and landed safely. Full crash procedure was instituted at once. The ambulance was standing by at the Control Tower and proceeded at once to the scene of the crash.


                                                                                                            G. B. Graham, F/O

29th March 1944                                                                   Duty Flying Control Officer.



            This is the signed copy of report by the duty Air Traffic Controller at R.A.F. Fairwood Common which I, as Station Commander, called for immediately after the incident involving USAAC B24 on 29th March 1944.


                                                                                    Sandy Johnstone

                                                                               Air Vice Marshal, RAF


19th April 1983

Log provided by Bruce Barker

Excerpt from "Adventures in the Sky" by RAF Sandy Johnstone

            Chapter "What Goes Up" pages 164 – 166


            "Humbug Master, Humbug Master. We have a distress call from a Liberator which has got lost and is running short of fuel. I'm trying to bring him in, but am having difficulty getting a fix. Will you change over to World Guard and I'll try to vector you on to him. Over."

            Having changed radio frequencies and made new contact with the Fairwood tower, I could now listen to the anxious voice of the Liberator pilot crackling through a lot of background interference. He was on the point of acknowledging an instruction from the controller.

            "Roger Control. We are in the soup now. Reducing to get below cloud."

            "You should be OK on present vector: Do not come below eight hundred feet: There is a hill between you and me."

            "The port inner has just stopped. We will stay up in case we have to bail out."

            "OK. Steer zero three zero and give me a long transmission for fix."

            "Say again – I do not understand your message."

            "I say again – give me a long transmission and I will try to fix your position."

            It appeared the crippled bomber was still to the south of the airfield and I flew in that direction, nipping in and out of rain-filled clouds whose base was never more than six hundred feet. The controller now had me in radio contact but was still having trouble making the American understand his instructions. I decided to call the bomber myself.

            "Hello Yankee Yoke. Hello Yankee Yoke. This is Humbug Master. I am in a Spitfire and will try to make contact with you to lead you down. Please give a long transmission so that Control can fix your position."

            "Roger Spitfire. Wilco. I've just seen some little lakes underneath. Does that help you? Aw hell, the port outer's quit on us now. We are running out of juice. Please hurry!"

            The controller's voice broke into the conversation.

            "OK Yankee Yoke. Start circling and let down below cloud. We can hear you overhead. We are firing lights. Keep turning to port."

            "We are turning to port. Yeah, we see the lights and turning on to runway. Am putting down the landing gear."

            Streaking across Caeffyn Bryn I was just in time to catch sight of the massive bulk of the American bomber breaking through the clouds, but clearly not lining up with either runway. In fact, the aircraft was over the airfield and turning towards the east.

            "Hell, I've lost you again, Control. Where are your lights?"

            "Keep turning. You have just passed overhead. Turn hard to port and come in on runway zero five. We are still firing flares."

            I opened up and made towards the field but, before reaching it, the bomber had climbed back into the clouds and disappeared from sight.

            "Mayday! Mayday! Engines cutting. Am making height and bailing out!"


            Those watching in the tower stood transfixed as the large aircraft reappeared not more than three hundred feet above their heads, when four figures hurtled from the fuselage and dropped from their view behind the hangars without any sign of their parachutes having opened. The Liberator continued to bank steeply and appeared to be trying to line itself up with the shorter of the two runways. But it was in a hopeless position for landing and after bouncing heavily near the end of the runway, it careened through a fence and on into a deep ditch bordered by a heavy thicket hedge. It was not till then the controller realized there was someone still at the controls.

            "My God! Get the ambulance over there quickly. Leave the others for the time being. They're probably beyond medical care anyway, for none of the parachutes opened."

            The ambulance had been summoned to the tower as soon as the emergency began and took no time to reach the crashed bomber, arriving just as the captain was helping an injured colleague to crawl through the battered nose of the aircraft. Fortunately the empty fuel tanks cut down the risk of fire.

            Meanwhile Stan Davies had driven off in the direction he had watched the bodies falling, although he was apprehensive about what he might find when he got there. He slowed down to turn on to the road across the Common and was surprised to see the YMCA wagon parked at the side of the road with four fellows alongside it, each clutching  a mug in his hand and apparently chatting up the girls inside. As he climbed out of the car, he noticed a number of sodden parachute canopies lying out on the heath. The tallest of the four turned as he approached, a wide grin spreading across his features.

            "Gee Bud, this is mighty fine tea you guys have over here!"

            Megan and Bridget were smiling as well.

            Lieutenant Helmberger was clearly a shaken man, but the third large scotch was beginning to take effect.

            "Say Commander, I want to thank your guys for trying to help us down. It wasn't their fault we missed the runway, but I couldn't turn quickly enough – the gas drained from the engines every time I put a wing over. We were clean out of fuel, ah guess. And, gee, weren't these other guys lucky that their chutes opened just before they hit the deck!"

            Our American colleagues had had a narrow escape and everyone was relieved the outcome had not been more serious, although the injured crew member eventually died from his injuries the following day. In the meantime, however, they were enjoying our hospitality, which we were equally pleased to dispense. Indeed, we were always happy to entertain visitors to Fairwood Common although, in the case of the last plane load, we may have appreciated their company even more if they had only taken the trouble to arrive in a more orthodox manner!!

Above story taken from "Adventure in the Sky" by Sandy Johnstone.
Published by William Kimber and Co. Limited,
Godolphin House, 22a Queen Annes' Gate, London SW1H 9AE

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