Bomber Crash at St Margaret’s Common, Christmas Day 1944
Bold Venture’s Last Flight
Christmas Day 1944, the sixth Christmas of the war and the third at RAF Madley since its opening, in August 1941, as a Flying Radio School for the training of Navigators and Radio Operators for aircrew duties. Some officers and men had managed to get a few days leave and the unlucky Duty Officer had hoped for a quiet time. It was not to be. At a quarter to three in the afternoon a message came in that a large aircraft had crashed on St.Margarets Common. Wartime crashes were fairly common occurrence and the procedure standard. A crash crew were dispatched from the nearest RAF Station to take charge at the scene and to assist with the clearing up. It was not a popular duty, always sad, it could be hazardous and often messy and gory.
The wreckage proved to be that of a B24 Liberator four engine bomber of the United States Army Air Force. It was strewn over a large area of the Common and the fuselage rested on the track way to Lower House Farm. The nose section carried the customary painted artwork and the name Bold Venture III. A search for the crew, both in the wreckage and in the surrounding area proved fruitless. What had happened proved to be one of those strange stories, stranger than fiction, which came out of the war.
Early on that Christmas morning Bold Venture III was one of seven Liberators of 788 Squadron to take off with a crew of 10 and to join 23 other aircraft all from 467 Group at Rackheath in Norfolk for a bombing mission. The target was the railway marshalling yards at Musch in Germany. The Pilot and aircraft commander was Lt. Paul Ehrlich from Beverley Hills, California.
The bombing run was made with the aircraft flying in formation just before noon and with Bold Ventura leading the second set of three. What happened next is described in the subsequent action report given by 2nd Lt John Beyer the Bombardier. “The mission was uneventful until about halfway down the bomb run, when the ship sustained flak damage on the tail section. The pilots then complained that the rudder control was stiff and later from their conversation I gathered that they had no rudder control. The bomb run was successfully completed and the rally was under way when enemy fighters (Folke-Wulf 190’s and Messerschmitt 109’s) attacked our squadron. Almost immediately number 2 propeller ‘ran away’ and there was a series of short rings on the alarm bell. The Navigator and I removed our flak suits and put on our chest pack parachutes. In doing so our inter-phone connections were severed for several minutes. In the meantime number 2 engine had been feathered and the ship was flying along normally. However we helped the Pilotage Navigator out of the nose turret and helped him remove his flak suit and adjust his chute. Noticing that we had left the formation the navigator gave the pilots a heading to fly. It was then that we learned that the pilots had bailed out. We went up to the flight deck and discovered that the pilot, co-pilot, radio operator and engineer had bailed out through the bomb bays, which were still open. The ship was flying on auto-pilot and making a slow circle to the left and at the time was heading back to Germany. The navigator set the auto-pilot to a heading of 270 degrees. We contacted the gunners in the waist who had not heard the alarm bell and told them what the situation was, we intended to fly into France and bail out when we were certain that we were far from the battle lines. After flying for about 30 minutes the navigator said we were deep enough into friendly territory to bail out. Six of us bailed out and landed several miles South of Valencennes. To the best of my knowledge the pilot, co-pilot, radio operator and engineer had bailed out approximately 10 miles North of St. Vith."
Some years ago a local air enthusiast traced the pilot Paul Ehrlich to an address in Los Angeles and contacted him. He replied with the following account. “… I was co-pilot on another crew when we arrived in England. We departed the States from Florida; flew to Trinidad, then Belem, Brazil then Natal, Brazil, then across the Atlantic Ocean to Dakar West Africa. We then flew to Marrakech (I believe in French Morocco) and then out over the ocean, and north to England, The long way around.
We landed in Blackpool, where we delivered the B-24 to be modified for combat. We were sent to an air base in Ireland, which served as a replacement depot to place new aircrews with Bomb Groups that had suffered losses.
Our station assignment was the 492nd Bomb Group in North Pickenham which was located on the “Wash” (the east coast of England). We flew approximately 15 missions with the 492nd. The group was then broken up because of sever losses, and our squadron was sent to the 467th Bomb Group.
It was there that I became first pilot flew approximately 10 missions with my own crew in “Bold Venture III.”
On that fateful December 25, 1944 we were briefed to bomb a railroad crossing in Gerolstein, Germany. The briefing officer had told us that we would encounter light anti-aircraft shelling and that no fighter aircraft would be despatched against us. Well the intelligence information was totally incorrect. On the way to the target, we were hit by a lot of flak (88mm) and I lost my rudder control, presumably because of a severed control cable. Then the German fighters hit us, and I was wounded, the worst was in the chin. I was semi-conscious and deemed it best to evacuate the aircraft. I rang the alarm bell for the crew, engaged the auto-pilot and left by the bomb bay. I became a POW and sat out the remaining months as a ‘guest of the German government”.
So the empty aircraft under the control of its auto-pilot had flown over Belgium, the Channel and the full width of England before running out of fuel and crashing on our Common at St.Margarets. All the crew survived the incident. Some became prisoners of war and two suffered minor injuries when making a heavy parachute landing in Belgium.
Small fragments of Bold Ventura III can still be found on the Common. Cadets from the Abergavenny Company of the Air Training Corps have visited the site and made a collection. These along with other aircraft relicts are on display at their Museum in Abergavenny
For more details about the aircraft, click here
For images of the USAF combat reports, click here
For details of the USAF organisation and Base at Rackheath, Norfolk, click here
For the memories of Trevor Powell of the crash, click here
For images of a magazine article about the incident, click here