Speed Ball and Piccadilly Commando

31st December 1943

On New Year’s Eve 1943, the main target scheduled to feel the wrath of the American Eighth Air Force was Merignac airfield near Bordeaux from where German long-range aircraft harassed Allied convoys carrying vital war supplies to beleagured Britain. (Other targets included the blockade runner, Orsono, in the Gironde river, the airfields at St. Jean d’Angely and Cognac, and industrial plant at Ivry, Paris). The American bomber force detailed to attack Merignac consisted of some 175 Flying Fortresses drawn from seven Groups and formed three Combat Wings. This force was to be led by the 351st Bomb Group (Heavy) stationed at Polebrook in Northants and commanded by Col. W. Hatcher who, with Major John Blaylock, would fly on the mission in Fortress 42-37731.

At Polebrook preparations were well in hand for the traditional party celebrating the end of the old year and the birth of the new. The bar was well stocked, the girls invited and a B-17 with ample supplies of ice-cream was standing by to take off and fly at altitude to act as an airborne freezer! It promised to be quite a party.

Although a long flight it was not considered a hazardous one as most of the time would be spent over the sea and therefore away from Flak and fighter opposition, and most crews looked upon it as an easy mission – a “milk run”. Much different from the previous day’s operation when they had to fight their way to Ludwigshafen and back again. Each Fortress with its ten man crew would require maximum fuel for the long flight and, because of the range limitations of the version then in use by the 351st BG, auxiliary fuel tanks were fitted in the bomb bay. Known as ‘Tokyo Tanks’ they held an additional 800 U.S. gallons of petrol thus providing the bomber with valuable extra range and flying time.

At about 07.30 hrs aircraft began taking off from their various bases; the machines heavily laden with fuel, 500lb bombs and ammunition needed every ounce of power their four Wright Cyclone engines could develop to get airborne plus the combined strength of both pilots to haul the 30 ton Fortresses off the runways. Once safely aloft they began the exacting task of slotting into their appointed places within the formation and then forming into the Combat Wings. This was commenced over Deenthorpe and then on a line to Grantham and on to Nottingham at an altitude of 8,000 ft. At this point the formation then swung southwards adding more Combat Wings until the entire 1st Bombardment Division was assembled. Over Trowbridge it again altered course and , climbing to 10 ,000 ft , passed out over Portland Bill at approximately 09.45 hrs on a track that took it to the west of the Channel Islands.

At about 10.10 hrs the force was abeam the Islands, its passage being witnessed by many local people – Stanley Grant recorded seeing “52 bombers in one formation”, while Leslie Gardiner saw “16 single engined fighters passing over Guernsey at 10.05 hrs and a further 8 flying over at 10.15 hrs , all heading south” . On both occasions Flak opened fire. These fighters were from three Thunderbolt units detailed to escort the bombers as they crossed the Brest Peninsula. Further fighter protection would be provided by two Groups of long-range P-38 Lightnings in the target area and a single Group of P-51 Mustangs would give close support to the bombers as they withdrew. P-47 Thunderbolts would again meet the bombers and shepherd them across the Brest Peninsula at about 15.00 hrs. The R.A.F. would also sweep this area with Spitfires and Typhoons ahead of the force, both on its outward and return journeys.

Flying in the low box of the lead formation of the 94th Combat Wing was a Fortress named Speed Ball. Built by Boeing in 1942 she was one of the original 40 B-17Fs assigned to the 351st BG in March 1943 during their training at Pueblo, California. Camouflaged drab olive green on her top surfaces and grey underneath , she carried the letters DS-X on her fuselage indicating that she belonged to the 511th Bomb Squadron. The 1st Bombardment Division’s symbol , a triangle , appeared in light grey on her tall tail-fin within which was the letter J, in black, denoting the 351st Bomb Group. Below this, in yellow, was painted her serial number 229877 and underneath this her individual letter – X.

She first saw action on 14 May 1943 when she bombed Courtrai in Belgium, other missions quickly following: Emden, Wilhelmshaven, Hannover, Hamburg, Schweinfurt. Today, with Lt. Albert E. Jones and Lt. Kenneth L. Vaughn at the controls , this veteran was on her 25th mission. Two new faces amongst Speed Ball’s crew were those of Charles Bronako and Alfred Dearborn , both of whom were on temporary postings, whilst the regular bombardier and navigator underwent a special training course.

Another veteran Fortress flying with the 351st BG that day was Piccadilly Commando. Arriving in Britain in March 1943, she was assigned to the 509th Bomb Squadron on 27 May as a replacement aircraft. Bearing this unit’s code letters RQ, her serial number was 42-29630 and individual letter S. Like Speed Ball, she too had seen a lot of action , her first mission being to Huls, in Germany on 22 June rapidly followed by visits to Nordenheim, Le Mans, Villacoublay, Hannover and Schweinfurt. Flown mostly by Lt. Leimbeck, she had recently passed to George Songer who had flown her to Ludwigshafen the previous day – today he would be rested.

On at least one previous occasion Piccadilly Commando had flown through Channel Islands’ airspace having participated in an attack on the port area of Nantes on 23 September. German records state that Flak on Guernsey opened fire on a force of some 30 enemy aircraft between 08.40-50 hrs, claiming to have shot down an escorting Thunderbolt fighter. Guernseymen Stanley Grant and Leslie Gardiner both witnessed and recorded in their diaries the passage of this force heading south, the latter sighting “3 or 4 Thunderbolts passing over Guernsey”, and counting “19 Flying Fortresses in a formation off the west coast with other groups of bombers further out over the sea”.

Piccadilly Commando also had some new faces amongst her crew that day. Clarence Begin in the ball turret below was, at 19 years of age, the youngest flyer aboard, whilst Norman St. Pierre manning the .5in Browning at the right waist gun position was a veteran of 24 missions. He usually flew in the Happy Warrior, but having missed one mission because of ear trouble this was to be the last of his tour before returning to the U.S. for some well-earned leave. The third new face belonged to Alton Walker who had the task of taking the all important strike photos of the target. His camera equipment had been installed in the radio compartment, a position he would share with radio operator Stephen Bodnar for this mission.

The bombers crossed the Brittany coast near Treguier at about 10.15 hrs and reported some enemy fighter opposition, but this was effectively countered by the escorts. Still going south, the force passed west of Lorient before heading out into the Bay of Biscay at about 10.35 hrs, shortly afterwards climbing to 18,000 ft. and altering course south-eastwards on a track that would lead it to the target area. Just before midday, the French coast was again crossed to the south of Bordeaux before the Combat Wing turned northwards towards Merignac airfield. The target was reached at 12.30 hrs but was found to be covered by thick cloud, so the decision was taken to attack the secondary objective – the airfield at Chateau-Bernard, two miles south of the town of Cognac. An important airfield, it was still under construction at the start of the German occupation and was later developed as an alternative base for the Luftwaffe’s long-range Focke Wulf 200 maritime bombers. Since 1942, however, it had been used chiefly as a bomber training school where anti-shipping tactics and night flying were taught.

Intelligence reports indicated that very little opposition could be expected from this target, but tragically for the 351st BG events were to prove otherwise. Unknown to the Americans, a Luftwaffe Flak unit had just completed their training at a gunnery school at St. Nazaire and were being transported to their new assignments . They, along with their guns, were on railway trucks close to the airfield, the gunners watching in amazement as the U.S. bombers headed towards them following the railway lines! Added to this was the fact that because of the supposed weak opposition expected , the bomber force had descended to a lower altitude to ensure pin-point accuracy with their bombing, thus presenting the Germans with a target they just could not fail to miss.

On a heading of 20 degrees (magnetic) the 351st BG headed over the target and immediately came under intense and deadly accurate anti-aircraft fire . Col. Hatcher’s Fortress was heavily damaged, having two engines knocked out, but continued to hold its course releasing its bomb load at 12.50 hrs , the rest of the lead box bombing at the same time – a total of 168 x 500lb bombs falling into the target area with good results. The low box dropped 174 x 500lb bombs at 12.53 hrs and the high box 204 at 12.52 hrs.

The stricken Fortress then fell out of formation, Col. Hatcher and other crew members bailing out of the doomed bomber; he was captured soon after landing, but sadly, Major Blaylock’s parachute failed to open. Several other aircraft were badly hit and the formation broke up somewhat, with crippled bombers desperately trying to get away from the Flak barrage. Having cleared the target area the surviving Fortresses headed west, encountering some more Flak from barges moored in the Gironde estuary, but by 13.30 hrs they were well clear of the coast and once more over Biscay and on their way home.

By 14.35 hrs the 94th Combat Wing was beginning its return flight across the Brest Peninsula and again came under attack, this time from German fighters. For the second time that day P-47 Thunderbolts were in the Channel Islands area affording protection to the force. At 13.05 hrs the 56th Fighter Group were at 31,000 ft heading south when, having just passed Jersey, Thunderbolt 41-6337 flown by Lt. William A. Marangello from New Jersey, suddenly pulled up out of formation, rolled over and dived towards the sea. Other pilots called repeatedly to him over the radio, but there was no response and the fighter plummeted into the sea north of Les Minquiers. It was thought that the pilot had passed out due to oxygen failure. Lt. Marangello was the holder of the Air Medal plus three Oak Leaf Clusters – his name is recorded on the Wall of the Missing in Brittany Cemetery.

Speed Ball appears to have escaped serious battle damage and to have left the target area with the main force. German fighters again attacked the B-17s as they recrossed the Brest Peninsula and indeed some persisted in these actions to within 30 miles of the English coast. The loss of Speedball, as quoted by Charles Bronako, was “specifically due to German fighters; one engine being lost and serious loss of power being incurred in another”. During these attacks Raymond Bittner, the tail gunner, was severely wounded and never regained consciousness. Pilot Albert Jones was forced to ditch his crippled aircraft at approximately 14.30 hrs some 12 miles north of Guernsey, the nine surviving crew members taking to the dinghies. Charles Bronako recalled a British fighter circling their ditched craft shortly before she sank beneath the waves and spirits rose in the belief that rescue would soon arrive. Sadly this was not to be and, as the short winter daylight drew to a close, the crew in their now saturated clothing huddled together for warmth against the bitter cold of the winter’s night.

Piccadilly Commando also flew into the hell which exploded above Cognac, but the crew pressed home their attack and achieved a reasonable drop with their bomb load. With Flak bursting all around them sending deadly slivers of steel into men and machines, Stephen Bodnar recalls the photographer, Alton Walker, drawing his attention to a large piece of jagged shrapnel embedded in the rubber sole of his flying boot. Soon after ‘bombs away’ the Fortress shuddered as a heavy calibre shell burst close by, knocking out one of the engines and damaging the oxygen and electrical systems , causing loss of airspeed and altitude; miraculously none of the crew was injured.

Willis Smith headed the bomber out into the Bay of Biscay along with the rest of the formation but, because of the battle damage sustained , she steadily fell behind along with the rest of the stragglers. Inevitably, the German fighters began attacking the damaged aircraft as they struggled northwards on the long flight back to their bases. Without the concentrated fire-power of the formation to help protect them , several of the bombers fell victim to their onslaughts and the crew of Piccadilly Commando knew it was only a matter of time before the fighters turned their attention to them. By now Norman St. Pierre was feeling more than a little concerned about his chances of completing his 25th mission and enjoying that longed-for leave back in his homeland , and consequently was keeping his eyes peeled for the attackers.

They were not to be kept waiting long, but if the Luftwaffe pilots had thought it was going to be an easy kill then they were in for a surprise. Piccadilly Commando and her crew still had a great deal of fight left in them and , although repeated attacks were made on the aircraft it was at least two of their number which went down in flames and not the battle scarred bomber. For the second time that day the crew emerged unscathed. She had, however, received many more hits which resulted in the loss of a second engine , thereby further reducing her airspeed and , consequently , she continued to lose altitude at a steady rate. The strong headwinds too were having a serious effect on her performance , and , as they passed over the North Brittany coast , it became all too obvious that she would not have sufficient fuel left to complete the Channel crossing.

As they headed out over the cold grey waters , Willis Smith gave the order to lighten ship and soon the crew were busy throwing out everything which was detachable such as machine-guns, radio tuning units , frequency meters and flak suits. From his radio room, Stephen Bodnar observed Carl Lindblad throwing his .5 Browning machine-gun out of the left waist window and watching to see how big a splash it made when it hit the sea, but when he mentioned this to Carllater he had no recollection of this action. The nine men then assembled in the radio room whilst Stephen Bodnar pounded out an SOS together with the aircraft’s position on his morse key. He managed to get a feeble reading on the output meter but could not be certain if the Allied aircraft they saw later had responded to his call or to that of some other bomber in difficulties.

PC & SB mapIn the cockpit, Willis Smith , with the aid of Harlan Bixby the co-pilot, concentrated on the task of setting the big bomber safely down on the water. Coming up to starboard he could see the island of Guernsey , and decided to put down as close as possible to the shore to afford his crew the best chance of being rescued albeit by the enemy. Piccadilly Commando was now down to a few hundred feet above the waves as she flew slowing towards the west coast of the island , when suddenly a new hazard faced the crew. German radar had been tracking the bomber and having passed on the information , the coastal defences as well as the Luftwaffe light and medium Flak and the 2cm guns at Batterie Steinbruch at Les Vardes , opened fire on the dying aircraft and subjected her to an intense barrage as she sank slowly towards the sea. Yet again their luck held and , although it seems certain the machine must have been hit , incredibly her crew once again escaped serious injury.

When the alarm bell was sounded the nine men took up their ditching positions and waited. The first impact was very gentle, little more than a slight drag , but the second was heavier followed by rapid deceleration; seconds later the cold salt water was flooding in and the airmen began to evacuate through the hatch in the roof of the radio compartment. Willis Smith and Harlan Bixby seem to have experienced considerable difficulty in exiting through the cockpit windows, but eventually joined the rest of the crew in the sea.

Only one of the life-rafts seems to have inflated , the other perhaps having been damaged by the various attacks inflicted upon the bomber. The non-swimmers were placed on the raft while the others hung on to the side ropes. One of the last to leave the sinking aircraft was Norman St. Pierre, who ran the length of the wing before diving into the sea and joining his companions. Sadly, they watched Piccadilly Commando settle lower in the choppy water, then amid the noise of snapping control cables she broke in half and slid under the waves to her last resting place many fathoms below. Willis Smith had done a magnificent job in the face of appalling difficulties in successfully ditching his severely damaged bomber which, at the last moment had lost all power, in a choppy sea and under an intense barrage of gunfire. The time of this action as recorded in German naval records is quoted as between 15.37 and 15.46 hrs, the 2cm guns at Steinbruch firing a total of 212 rounds at the bomber.

A combination of wind and tide drove the life-raft towards the dangerous rocky coast and it was not long before it grounded upon a reef of rocks some 300 metres off shore. Here the men landed and climbed up out of reach of the waves; once there they tried to attract the attention of some troops nearby with their shouts and by firing flares. Shortly afterwards they became aware of automatic and small arms fire being directed towards the reef and quickly took cover believing that it was being aimed at them. Later they realised the target was an Allied fighter aircraft which was circling the reef, presumabJy assaying their situation.

After a long wait on their cold and windy ledge , they sighted a small patrol boat heading in their direction which eventually hove to a short distance away. A dinghy was then launched from it and paddled to the reef from where it conveyed two men per trip to the waiting boat. The rescue completed , the vessel then set a course which took it around the northern tip of Guernsey, down the east coast , and into the safety of St. Peter Port Harbour. Darkness had fallen by the time the airmen came ashore. They were met, Stephen Bodnar recalls, by a German officer dressed in a long, black leather coat who, after some discussion , informed the men that they would be taken to the Happy Landings Hotel – one can only imagine the crew’s thoughts at this information!

The tired, exhausted men were then loaded into a large open backed lorry and driven inland to the above mentioned establishment which is situated near the airport and was , at that time, used by the Luftwaffe. Here, as they stood shivering in their soaking wet flying gear, they were briefly interrogated by an air force officer who, in William White’s opinion, seemed to want confirmation of their nationality and verification that the German gunners on the island had been responsible for the destruction of the Fortress. This over, they were imprisoned two to a room on the first floor of the building and so began 15 long months as prisoners-of-war.

Throughout the night of 31 December/l January the nine survivors of Speed Ball’s crew struggled against the elements in an open dinghy on the bitterly cold sea. Sometime between 22.00 hrs and midnight, Alfred Dearborn the navigator, succumbed to exposure , his body being gently committed to the deep with all the dignity possible under the circumstances by his fellow airmen. During this time the tide turned , and by the early hours of the morning the dinghies were being carried towards the north-west corner of Guernsey, close in fact to where Willis Smith and his crew had landed some hours previously.

The life-rafts grounded on an exposed reef, said to have been the Saut Rocher, and here the drenched airmen thankfully climbed upon the rocks and tried to attract the attention of the Germans by firing flares at half-hourly intervals. Little seems to have been done to effect the rescue of the stranded men by the occupying forces who could not have failed to have seen the flares; they were certainly observed by many local people and also by Willis Smith and William White from the window of their prison room.

Guernseyman Mr Francis Falla, of La Passee, who lived close by the coast road and opposite the reef, grew so incensed by the fact that no rescue attempt was being made and realising the danger the men would be in as the tide rose decided to take what action he could. Pulling on warm clothing and ignoring the strict curfew regulations , he made his way to a coastal gunsite where he made his views known in no uncertain manner to the officer in charge. He was assured that the navy would send a boat to pick up the airmen, but feels certain they were in fact left to their fate. Luckily for Mr Falla no action was taken regarding his infringement of the curfew or of the more serious charge of entering a military area and , whilst there, of insulting a German officer.

By 06.30 hrs the rapidly rising tide began washing over the reef. Carl Bekken, the ball-turret gunner who had taken off his life jacket to use as a pillow on the rocks , was swept away at 06.50 hrs, followed shortly afterwards by the rest of the men. Now, weakened by exposure, they became the playthings of the waves. Only Kenneth Vaughn the co-pilot, and Charles Bronako survived to be washed ashore by the surf where they were found by servicemen. Following treatment, they too were taken to the Happy Landings Hotel, now called the Forest Hotel.

The Royal Air Force, who had answered many SOS calls from battle damaged survivors of the mission during the previous afternoon, continued the search the following morning. FIt. Sgt. T. F. Winter, of No. 276 (Air-Sea Rescue) Squadron, took off at 08.50 hrs in Anson 499 and headed south from Portland to an area north of Guernsey to look for the crew of a Fortress believed ditched in that location. Accompanied by Fig. Off. R. Munton, Fig. Off. J. Esthop and W. Off. J. Richie , they carried out a strip search of the area covering 10 square miles but without success, the aircraft landing back at base at 10.55 hrs. Although not certain , it seems probable that the search for crew could have been that of the ill-fated Speed Ball, as Spitfires of No. 616 Sqdn. FAR had reported a dinghy in that area at approximately 17.00 hrs on the 31st December.

On Sunday, 2 January 1944, Mr Sidney Ogier of Grandes Rocques telephoned the Guernsey Police to advise them that he had seen a body on the beach at La Saline Bay. Consequently at 09.30 hrs, Police Constable Le Cocq with members of the St. John Ambulance Brigade, proceeded to the bay where they recovered the body of William Brennan, the radio operator from Speedball, and conveyed it to the Town Hospital mortuary. At 13.00 hrs , members of the Luftwaffe brought another body to the mortuary. It had been found by German forces in a coastal defence area at Chouet, and was identified as that of Michael Morey, the right waist gunner. The thirteen POWs were told that the bodies had been found and immediately requested permission to attend the funeral , but their request was denied. Both airmen were interred on Wednesday, S January, at the Military Cemetery,Fort George.

News of the airmen’s rescue rapidly spread amongst the islanders, many having witnessed the bombers’ final minutes and they were greatly relieved to learn that the crew was safe. No doubt because of the fact that the 13 prisoners were the largest number of Allied airmen to be so far captured in the Channel Islands, Sdfr. Krefft at the Feldkommandantur submitted a somewhat garbled account of the incident for publication in the ‘Guernsey Star’ newspaper of Monday, 3 January. Headlined , ‘Thirteen Canadian Airmen Saved Off Guernsey’, the report ended by stating that the bodies of two further airmen had been washed ashore. Mr Frank Falla, then a young reporter on the staff of the newspaper added , “They have been identified as William J. Brennan and Michael T. Morey”, a fact he knew to be correct as he had seen the bodies at the mortuary. The censor returned the proof page with his two lines heavily marked for deletion!

It has not been possible to establish accurately how long the airmen were kept in the island. Opinions seem to vary on this point, but the St. Peter Port harbour log shows that La France , a former passenger ship, sailed for St. Malo on 9 January. What is certain however, is that all 13 airmen were taken to the harbour late one afternoon and, after a somewhat uncomfortable passage , arrived in the French port of St. Malo the following morning. Having disembarked , they were taken to a makeshift jail where they were joined by some American fighter pilots and later that day marched through the streets to the railway station. Bill White remembers that they whistled the ‘Marseillaise’ during their trek through the town , which brought smiles from the French and angry retorts from the guards. They travelled thence to Paris on a regular civilian train and sometime during the early morning, as they approached the capital at low speed , Charles Bronako managed to get into the toilet. Once there , and having locked the door, he took no time in kicking out the window and jumping out. Having made good his escape, he was on the run for five months before being recaptured near the Spanish border.

The sea was to relent once more for , during the late afternoon of 26 February, Police Sergeant G. Dyson received a telephone call from Kapt. Obermayer, the Harbour Commandant, who informed him that a body had been found at Fort Houmet on the west coast. The sergeant with members of the German marines drove to the spot and there recovered the mortal remains of an airman. A quick examination of his clothing revealed that he was probably an American, but they could find no identification. It was removed to the naval mortuary in St. Peter Port and later interred at Fort George , the cross bearing the simple inscription ‘Unknown American Airman’.

In early June 1946, all three airmen were disinterred and shipped to Jersey on board the S.S. Brittany . From there , along with other U.S. war dead from that island , they were conveyed to Cherbourg aboard the French destroyer Alcyon. Examination of captured German military documents revealed the identity of the unknown airman from Guernsey as Sgt. Carl Bekken, the ball-turret gunner of Speedball. Today the remains of Sgt. Bekken lie at rest in his native Wisconsin and those of Sgt . Brennan in Rhode Island. Sgt. Morey rests along with so many of his fellow countrymen who made the final sacrifice in the American Cemetery at St. Laurent-sur-Mer in Normandy. For the remainder of Speedball’s crew, whose only grave is the restless sea, their names live forever on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery in Cambridge.

There are still many Guernseymen who, having lived through the dark days of the German Occupation, recall with admiration and gratitude the young men who came from the New World to help fight and win a war in the Old. For it was by their many sacrifices and devotion to duty that they helped assure the ultimate victory which resulted in the liberation of the Channel Islands and the restoration of freedom to their peoples.