Thursday, 19 March marks the 70th Anniversary of the fatal WW2 American plane crash on Reigate Hill. Tragedy struck the 384th Bomb Group when one of their planes, a B-17(G) with the flight number 43-39035 crashed into the side of Reigate Hill at 17:42hrs on 19 March 1945. All the American crew died at the scene. To commemorate this tragic event a dedication service and memorial unveiling took place on 19 March at Reigate Hill with representatives of those who died in attendance.
This event has been the culmination of two years of work by some of Surrey’s leading conservation organisations to reveal and tell the stories of Reigate Hill’s military history. The Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) Board, the National Trust, Gatton Trust and Surrey County Council have worked in partnership to bring the project known as Front Line Surrey Hills to life. An exciting programme of educational and research events have taken place including garrison days at Reigate Fort, living history events and a series of walks and talks. The project was made possible by a grant of £54,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).
Mark Richards, National Trust project manager comments;
“The Front Line Surrey Hills project has brought to the fore some remarkable war-time and military stories associated with Reigate Hill. We’ve had hundreds of school children on site learning about Reigate Fort, archaeologists conducting standing building surveys of unidentified military structures, and our dedicated researcher has delved deep into the national archives to find out information about the tragic crash of the B-17(G) which collided into the hill. One of the abiding legacies of this project is the memorial to the fallen crew at the site of the crash; it’s beauty and poignancy striking in what is now known as the ‘memorial glade’.”
The crew of the flight were on their 13th mission together and their target for 19 March 1945 was to be the oil facilities at Bohlen, Germany. They took off and encountered almost solid cloud for the nine hour round-trip, visibility was so bad they couldn’t attack the primary targets and so bombed the secondary ones, 60 miles south of Bohlen. On the way back the aircraft became lost in the cloud, dropping back and fuel visibility became a problem. At 17:42hrs, the aircraft crashed into Reigate Hill; a huge explosion and ball of flame. The clearing seen today at the crash site was created by the force of the aircraft crashing into the beech trees.
On board the flight that day were; Pilot Robert Stanley Griffin, Co-pilot Herbert Seymour Geller and Navigator Royal A. Runyon. The remainder of the crew included; Staff Sergeant Robert Manbeck, Sergeant Donald W. Jeffrey, Sergeant Philip J. Phillips JR, Sergeant Robert F. Marshall, Sergeant William R. Irons and Sergeant Thomas J. Hickey.
Joe Hickey, nephew of Sergeant Thomas J Hickey, Waist Gunner comments;
“Myself, my wife and all of my family would like to send a heartfelt thanks to all who are involved in this ceremony. Thanks must go to the National Trust and the people of Reigate who have never forgotten these brave young men. Personal thanks must go to Daniel Hunt, Curator at Wings Museum. It was through Daniel’s report of the air disaster that our family finally discovered what happened to Sgt Thomas J Hickey and the rest of the crew. The memories of those who gave their lives are not forgotten. Here on Reigate Hill the brave crew of the B-17(G) are immortalized for all time. They did not die in vain, they died for all of us, they died for freedom. God bless their Souls.”
To leave a lasting legacy to the victims of the crash, a sculpture has been positioned at the site of the accident, known as memorial glade on Reigate Hill. Two wing tips, made to replicate the size and shape of a B-17(G)’s have been carved by sculptor Roger Day and been spaced apart according to the dimensions of the aircraft. Molten fuselage aluminium, recovered from the crash site, has also been incorporated into the sculpture.
Roger Day, Sculptor comments;
“The use of this Surrey Hills tree reflects the history of this local landscape, that so many brave men fought to protect. With absolute respect I hope it provides a fitting and long lasting memorial to the lives of the airmen who tragically died, and on a larger scale allows us to connect deeply with the privilege we have in this beautiful space.”
Matt Smith, UK Liaison for the 384th Historical Society comments;
“I’d like to say how pleased I am to see one of our crews is remembered by the Reigate community; so often speaking to surviving veterans they play down their own experiences but often I sense they fear that their friends & colleagues who died will be lost to history. Memorials such as this ensure these nine men will not suffer that fate.”
Cllr David Pay, Mayor of Reigate & Banstead comments:
“I’m honoured to take part in this commemoration. Seventy years on it’s as important as ever to hear about the human stories from World War II. It helps all of us, but particularly our young people, to imagine the impact of both the first and second world wars on everyday life in and around Reigate and Redhill and to understand the role that the towns had in the wars.”
For further information on the project visit http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/wra-1356318377784/