The Life of William Ruskin Butterfield – Curator of Hastings Museum

by David EP Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF


This article is in draft form as I will be gathering more information about the life of Butterfield and his compatriots. I will also hopefully be interviewing the current curator of the Hastings Museum, which holds large boxes of old papers dating to before 1900 for the Hastings and East Sussex Natural History Society.

Draft Article

Queen Victoria was born on 24th May 1819. From 1822 onwards the bones of the dinosaur called Iguanodon were turning up in quarries and excavations in Sussex and Kent. In 1829 the first Neanderthal remains were found in Germany. Queen Victoria was crowned in Westminster Abbey on 28th June 1838 – the Victorian era had begun. She ruled the British Empire for 63 years and seven months and died 22 Jan 1901. During her reign people were waking up to nature. There was a huge movement of naturalists, amateur archaeologists and other lovers of nature all trying to be first to discover something new. Furthermore, the proof that something existed was best ensured if it was shot and stuffed.

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 and died in 1882, aged 73. During his life he changed the way we think about evolution. At the same time as Darwin was publishing Origin of the Species (1859)  and The Descent of Man from Apes (1871), an equally clever and observant man, Alfred Wallace (1823-1913), published his own evolutionary theory in a joint paper with Charles Darwin in 1858. These findings cause a ferment of argument and ridicule and even today in 2021, the mechanics of evolution are still being teased out.

Our hero, William Ruskin Butterfield was born in Bradford in 1872 and later trained and qualified as a schoolteacher. Considering the discoveries of the dinosaurs, the skulls of early human lineage and the amazing ideas behind evolution, he must have felt strongly that he was living through the most exciting age of discovery that Man had ever experienced. His character soon emerged as a young energetic idealist, full of hope and good intentions. He was keen to surround himself with the great and the good, not for fame for himself, but to ‘get things done.’ It was getting things done that eventually killed him.

In 1894 at the age of 22, he came to Hastings and took up residence at 4 Stanhope Place, St Leonards-on-Sea, near the sea front, not far from the Victoria Hotel and the writing room of novelist Rider Haggard. In 1895 there was a major Chess Tournament held at the Brassey Institute, said to have the ‘strongest chess field in history’. In Butterfield’s mind, maybe the elitist nature of Hastings made him feel he was in a hot spot of intellectual glory. Judging by the course of his life from then on, he was determined to be at the centre of all things clever.

The Brassey Institute, located in Trinity Passage in Hastings, was the idea of Earl and Lady Brassey. William Brassey MP for Hastings was knighted in 1881 and made an earl in 1886. So they too were keen to ‘get things done.’ They had sailed round the world between 1876 and 1877 on their yacht The Sunbeam, collecting items suitable for a natural history museum. This must have impressed Butterfield because he soon got to know them. The Brassey’s encouraged Butterfield.

Famous scientist and inventor of electric current generation, Michael Faraday had been to Hastings in 1831 and it is likely that he supported the foundation of The Hastings Literary and Scientific Institution formed in 183. However, rather than join this august society, Butterfield and others began a new one in 1893 – the Hastings Natural History Society (now the Hastings and East Sussex Natural History Society). Butterfield was a powerhouse of a man and a serious amateur field naturalist, but he could be easily fooled. His enthusiasm made him naïve.

By 1905, when he was 33 years old, he had proved his worth and had developed useful connections with Lady Brassey. He was appointed as the Curator of the Hastings Museum, at first located in the Brassey Institute building. Back in those days it was vital to get to know people – make good contacts – even better if they were upper class. In 1907 the remains of the early human pathway called Homo Heidelburgensis was discovered in Germany, making for more exciting reading by many naturalists.

In 1908 Butterfield was in direct contact with Lord Rothschild who had his own museum at Tring in Hertfordshire. In 1909 Butterfield became the librarian of Hastings Library also located in Lady Brassey’s building. The museum grew, mainly due to his hard work in developing a local interest across south-east Sussex in natural history, archaeology, and the arts.

He was deeply involved with the collection of birds’ eggs and the shooting and stuffing of birds from all over the world. The Victorians shot or trapped birds with a variety of weapons – for example. Punt guns, air guns and catapults and they put down traps, nets, and wire snares to catch their specimens. Some died naturally and were found after a ‘hard frost’ or having flown into telegraph wires.

Butterfield became an identifier and recorder of wildlife. Even before he came to Hastings, he had purchased a book (in my possession) titled The Sussex & Hants Naturalist – Volume 1 dated 1893. He signed his name inside the book, as did two other men who also owned this book – W. E. Helman Pidsley and Thomas Parkin – both avid collectors of birds’ eggs including the extinct Dodo and Great Auk. Pidsley was the author of The Birds of Devonshire dated 1891. Pidsley was also in correspondence with Lord Rothschild concerning the discovery of valuable birds’ eggs. In the Volume 1 I have here, are adverts for drills to extract the contents of bird’s eggs so that they can be added to collections. There are also excited comments in which hunters delighted in ‘Shooting a Sardinian Warbler near Hailsham.’ There are also pleas from collectors asking people anywhere in the world to shoot birds that were needed to fill gaps in otherwise comprehensive collections.

Parkin, who has his crested bookplate inside my bool, was the greatest collector of the three. He was born to the Reverend John Parkin, vicar of Halton, Hastings, and his wife. He tried to become a vicar, then tried barrister, yet did not succeed in either aim. However, as an ornithologist, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Historical Society in 1845. He was the co-founding president of the Hastings (and East Sussex) Natural History Society and he helped Butterfield to form the Hastings Museum. He had served in the Royal Cumberland Militia, held a Master of Arts degree and was a justice of peace but even so he found time to travel around the world, perhaps emulating Darwin, and Wallace. He sailed to Australia via the Cape of Good Hope in 1887, then on to New Zealand and Tasmania. Upon his return he visited Spain, North Africa, and France before settling back down in England and he died in 1932. The letters these men wrote to Lord Rothschild at Tring are preserved in the British National Archives.

Once again to consider our hero Butterfield. During this period before the First World War he had developed many contacts with a group of people who were trying to find out if England was the true birthplace of Man. Darwin had suggested that Man was descended from apes. Queen Victoria’s empire was so large that it is said the sun never set upon it. To have such a magnificent monarch and such an amazing empire, must mean that Britain was paramount and the humans who had developed in that great country must be the finest specimens of humanity – the peak of creation. It followed that the bones of the early wonders of Britain could be found – and what better place for human origins than Sussex?

In this group of friends of Butterfield were Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the Jesuit priest Teilhard du Chardin, and a solicitor from Lewes called Charles Dawson. Dawson was the founder member of the Hastings & St Leonards Museum Association and also had warden/conservator responsibilities at Barkham Manor. He had made many discoveries – thanks to some hard work digging at Piltdown in east Sussex, Dawson had discovered, so he said, the absolute proof that Man really was born in England – and most thankfully – in Sussex, not Germany! To paraphrase William Blake…and did those feet in ancient times…?

By 1929, John’s Place Mansion in Hastings was purchased by the Borough Council as the new home for Hastings Museum. The reference library was relocated to the old museum building and the town also now had a lending library thanks to Butterfield’s endless efforts.

Back in 1886 there had been a Colonial and Indian Exhibition and the artefacts from that great event had been obtained by Lord Brassey. When he died the bequeathed the items to the Hastings Museum and Butterfield worked unceasingly to develop what is now called The Durbar Hall. It was said of him that he was unable to delegate responsibility and this overdrive eventually killed him. First, he became exhausted and ill even though he was arranging an exhibition for Lord and Lady Brassey, called The Voyage of the Sunbeam. He died suddenly on March 24th 1935, at the age of sixty-two years.

The Damage to Butterfield’s Reputation

Because of his naivety and his passion for discovery come what may, Butterfield was an easy target for tricksters. Here are some examples of how he was too keen for his own good.

After Butterfield’s death, the Piltdown Skull was shown to be a fake, along with all the other discoveries that Charles Dawson had claimed. Scientists began to investigate the fake skull material – a mix of orang-utan and human bones with artificial age staining. Authors speculated about the case, wondering who else could be involved in a conspiracy to defraud.

In 1955, Francis Vere, who,  in his book, was trying to defend Charles Dawson, accused a male farm labourer – a Barkham Manor site worker with the unusual name of Venus Hargreaves, of being the culprit who had ‘salted’ the spoil heap of earth where the Piltdown bones were ‘discovered’, allegedly by Teilhard de Chardin who gave them to Dawson.

Later, another author, Professor Guy Van Esbroek of Gand University (Ghent in Belgium), suggested in his 1972 book, Pleine lumiere sur l’imposture de Piltdown, that Venus Hargreaves had been given the false mix of ape and human bones by Butterfield. He had then hidden them in a gravel bed spoil heap of excavated earth for Charles Dawson to find, thus undermining Dawson – because Dawson had previously slighted Butterfield. Certainly, Dawson and co-explorer Sir Arthur Woodward were paying Venus Hargreaves to dig for them. As work progressed so interested photographers of the time took shots of Hargreaves working on the site, together with a ‘ferocious goose’ that kept visitors at bay.

Van Esbroek’s rationale was that Dawson had found Iguanodon dinosaur bones in a Hastings quarry and had rapidly taken them to the Natural History Museum in London rather than giving them to his ‘good friend’ Butterfield for Hastings Museum, so Butterfield had paid him back for his ‘betrayal.’ How did Butterfield know that Dawson had found Iguanodon bones? Van Esbroek claimed that it was a chance remark by Teilhard de Chardin overheard by Butterfield that ‘gave the game away,’ showing Dawson up as being a traitor. This has been confirmed when, in 1965, letters were published showing that on 1st July 1909, Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin wrote to his parents about a trick played on Butterfield – un aventure assez comique.

After Butterfield died, Hastings Museum became tainted by all this, because when his rival Charles Dawson predeceased him, Dawson in his Will left a large number of items to Butterfield to curate in the Museum. Later when the Piltdown Hoax was discovered, all these items were the suspect and the same ‘Dawson infection’ trauma occurred at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London. Every item touched or donated by Dawson had to be re-checked.

Another incident in Butterfield’s life also highlights the problem of his character. My history teacher at Hastings Grammar School was Mainwaring-Baines who took over Hastings Museum as its next curator when Butterfield died. He was told upon appointment that Butterfield was ‘bizarre.’ In fact Butterfield was too keen to help naturalists, and insufficiently wary of the mendacity of others. This incident was called The Case of the Hastings Rarities.

The Hastings and East Sussex Naturalist Society, founded by Butterfield in1893, worked on the basis of publishing annually the ‘finds’ of dead birds and other creatures brought to them. Over the period of 1892 to 1930 a very large number of rare birds began to appear in the Hastings area, causing great excitement amongst naturalists. Why was Hastings so blessed with these amazing discoveries? What was happening to change nature so that flocks of rare birds were flying along the south coast from all over the world, only to be shot in this corner of Sussex? Within the Society, often it was Butterfield who recorded the birds and William Parkin who identified them – sometimes their roles were reversed with Butterfield doing the identification. Who brought these birds to Butterfield and Parkin is not always known but much later more than 500 birds identified or recorded by the Society were struck from the record as being false sightings – admittedly later some were reinstated because there were real new sightings of a few rare ones – but in the main, The Hastings Rarities were no more.

So what had been going on? It was simple. The local Hastings taxidermist was receiving birds from all over the world and stuffing them. They were passed to Butterfield to identify or record. He and Parkin did so by assuming that they really had been found in the Hastings area. That was what they were told by the taxidermist. If Butterfield and Parkin had taken the time to think – how is this possible? – then all the subsequent derision would have been avoided, but being Victorian Naturalists, ever-keen to discover something new and publish, they failed to spot a massive number of hoaxes.

When the Piltdown Hoax was discovered, this caused Dawson’s cousin A. P. Chamberlain to claim that Butterfield had been falsifying his Society’s bird records. To protect his cousin, Chamberlain reminded Dawson’s accusers ‘of recent press articles on suspected ornithological frauds on the Sussex coast about the same period’ – as Piltdown.

One final incident shows Butterfield’s naïve character in the full glare of sunlight. When Conan Doyle told Butterfield that an Iguanodon bone had been found in a quarry near Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s home in Crowborough, north Sussex, Butterfield jumped on his bicycle on 13th May1911 in St Leonards-on Sea and cycled up hill and down dale, all the way there to see the alleged bone – and then cycled back – a round trip on an early form of bicycle of 56 miles. But the whole trip was caused by not by a deliberate trick of Sherlock Holme’s creator but by the incessant desire of Butterfield to see unusual natural things – even if a mere rumour.


Butterfield’s over-enthusiastic and sometimes hot-headed character made it possible for him to get into trouble – but was he also guilty on one or more occasions of falsifying natural evidence?

Taking the case of the Piltdown Skull first of all, I do not think he was involved at all. If he had been the guilty party rather than Dawson, then he would probably not have advised Dawson to send his skull discoveries to the Natural History Museum for inspection. However, he did ask for a copy of the skull for Hastings Museum. On 20th December 1912, he wrote:

‘I am venturing to ask whether a plaster-cast of the skull and jaw discovered

in Sussex by Mr. Dawson could be made to the order of this Museum. The

discovery has interested me very much, and I am anxious to have here, if

possible, a cast of the specimen.’

Lastly, what about the Case of the Hastings Rarities? It seems that although Butterfield was accused of importing foreign birds and passing them off as local rarities, in fact people were killing birds in Europe and bringing them to Hastings in boxes of ice. They were then given to the taxidermist and gunsmith George Bristow who had a shop in St Leonards. He then ‘believed’ that they had been found in Hastings and Butterfield and Parkin had believed Bristow’s assurance and listed them as amazing rarities. This was discovered in the 1960s when the publication British Birds Edition 55 re-evaluated on pages 299 to 385 a collection of so-called rarities then in the collection of a man called Nichols. Five hundred and ninety-five records were deleted, and sixteen bird specimens were removed from the list of birds ever sighted in Britain. As mentioned above, a few of the sixteen were later accepted as true because these rare birds were turning up after all.

I do feel that despite his bizarre reputation, he was not dishonest but could be easily fooled due to his energetic determination to ‘get things done’ and that is what killed him.

American bomber crash – World War II heroes

The story behind the Bulverhythe Liberator Crash of December 1943

by David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF


After many hours of research I have found the crash site of the famous United States Army Air Force Liberator Bomber called ‘Unstable Mabel.

The town of St Leonards-on-Sea in Sussex, England, is located between the towns of Hastings and Bexhill. The road joining the two, is called Bexhill Road and has been given the road number A259. As the A259 goes past Glyne Gap, the entrance to the ancient harbour of Bulverhythe, it then passes the remains of the medieval chapel of St Mary’s at Abbey Drive and within a few yards comes to a road called Freshfields.

Stretching from Freshfields to the Combe Haven River (formerly the Asten) is a large area of open fields and marshes know as Combe Valley. In 1928, the local council decided to make a recreation ground at the backs of the houses on Bexhill Road. In early 1927, the field was bulldozed flat and became known as Bulverhythe Recreation Ground.

On the 6th April 1927, Edward, Prince of Wales (later to fall for Wallis Simpson, to shake hands with Adolf Hitler, to become King Edward VIII and finally to abdicate), came to Hastings to open the new White Rock Pavilion. He then witnessed the handing-over ceremony of the area called the Firehills (now Hastings Country Park) which the council had purchased to prevent housing development from spreading from Fairlight Cove.

Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson: Source: Wikimedia Commons

Prince Edward was then asked to travel from Hastings to Bulverhythe where he officially opened the long rectangle of the newly flattened recreation ground. It had two football pitches on its south side which had been provided for Hastings Rangers Football Club. The pitch to the west became the home for Hastings Rangers as they entered the County League. They moved their team HQ to the recreation ground in 1928.

To the north of Bulverhythe Recreation Ground (considered to be in the district of Pebsham), and now called Tier 1 in the Hastings Planning Department) was an extensive area of scrubland and marsh in the valley of the Combe Haven which had already been used to build a railway viaduct taking trains from Sidley, Bexhill’s second station – officially called Bexhill (West) to Crowhurst and on to London.

The viaduct – a low-level approach air hazard – especially at night.

Bluebell Railway Archive – John J Smith Collection

The immediate area of land to the north of the flattened recreation ground (now called Tier 2) was seen by air ace Sir Alan Cobham, a member of the Royal Flying Corps in World War I, who wrote to Hastings Council in 1930 suggesting that it be used as an airfield to convey fruit and vegetables from markets in France and to export English goods.

Instead of acting immediately, the council prevaricated and decided instead to use some of the waste ground by the river as an uncontrolled waste tip. In those days, councils were being advised by the government that they should find areas with cracked bedrock so that the leachate would flow away ‘harmlessly’ into local rivers. This was eventually stopped by the Sunday Times scoop revealing the damage to the environment and a new preventative Act of Parliament quickly followed.

Nevertheless, some ‘self-help’ air activity did begin in the 1930s on Tier 2. The area immediately to the north of Tier 2 (now called Tier 3) became a rubbish dump.

In early September 1939 the United Kingdom and France both declared war on Germany after the Nazis invaded Poland. The Second World War had begun.

Bexhill Road and Combe Valley 1940: Source Bexhill Musuem

An aerial photograph taken from an RAF bomber in 1940 shows Bulverhythe recreation ground (on front left) which by then also had a cricket pitch and a pavilion. The photo also shows that a fence line ran from north to south across Tier 2 which eventually became Pebsham aerodrome. This fence is significant to our story.

Air enthusiasts continued to push the council for an aerodrome. So the council kindly said that they would bulldoze the uncontrolled rubbish tip material so far accumulated, over the area of Tier 2 so that an aerodrome could be built on the flattened rubbish overlain with earth and concrete.

Remarkably, during the 1932 to 1934 period when bulldozing took place, a Norman Longboat with Dacian Wolfhead prow was unearthed. But the digger driver was instructed by Hastings Council managers, to quickly bury it again rather than delay the airfield’s completion. It is still there to this day.

Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry showing a Norman Longboat with Dacian Wolfshead Prow : Source Wikimedia Commons

The Pebsham aerodrome of the Hastings and East Sussex Air Service was eventually officially opened on 27th August 1948. It was rough and ready and looked like this in 1952:

Pebsham Aerodrome 1952: Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, during the Second World War, Tier 1 remained a sports ground and Tier 2 was only partly flat with a fence line across it. It was not yet an official landing strip specified for use in wartime.

On 7th December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour, thus bringing the United States of America into the war. US forces moved into England.

In 1942 an RAF Station was newly-built seven miles south-west of Norwich in Norfolk, England and given the number Station 114 (ICAO EGSK). It was handed over on completion to the United States Army Air Force (USAAF).

RAF Hethel: Source US Air Museum

As the war became a struggle for the survival of democratic civilisation, on 14th September 1943, RAF Hethel became the headquarters of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing of the 2nd Bombardment Division.

With the completion of the airfield facility, RAF Hethel was assigned to several Bomb Groups. The Group we are interested in is the 389th Bombardment Group (Heavy), known as the ‘Sky Scorpions’ arriving from Lowry AAF, Colorado on 11 June 1943. The 389th was assigned to the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing, and the group tail code was a “Circle-C”.

Its operational squadrons were:

564th Bombardment Squadron (YO)

565th Bombardment Squadron (EE)

566th Bombardment Squadron (RR)

567th Bombardment Squadron (HP)

The group flew Consolidated B-24 Liberators as part of the Eighth Air Force’s strategic bombing campaign. Because the aircraft were required to fly on long missions, their normal range of 800 miles was boosted to 2,000 miles by the additional fitting of extra aircraft fuel tanks, called Tokyo Tanks in July 1943. These extra fuel tanks did not have fuel gauges.

DAYTON, Ohio — Consolidated B-24D Liberator at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The group received a Distinguished Unit Citation for the detachment’s participation in the famed low-level attack against oil refineries at Ploesti on 1 August 1943.

The group was frequently detached overseas and took part in some remarkable attacks on the enemy. However, the group resumed operations from England in October 1943 concentrating primarily on strategic objectives in France, the Low Countries, and Germany.

Significantly, in October 1943, the 564th Bombardment Squadron (YO) squadron was assigned to very long-range strategic bombardment operations over Occupied Europe and Nazi Germany. Targets included industrial facilities, oil production facilities and refineries, rail and other transportation centres, enemy military airfields and garrisons.

Because of their outstanding bravery, their morale was high. Many Liberator bombers had images painted on their sides. The 564th Bomb Squadron aircraft we are most interested in, had this illustration – called ‘Unstable Mabel’, despite the aircraft really being called ‘John the Baptist’. Unstable Mabel was one of the famous aircraft paintings of women in a state of undress.

Unstable Mabel artwork: Source Imperial War Museum

It had the serial number B-24D/63957/YO:E. The full serial was 42-63957 with the year designator abbreviated on the airframe, resulting in 263957.

It was piloted by Captain Frank Wilby Ellis Jr. and had a crew of ten. It was fitted with long range Tokyo Tanks.

On the early morning of 31st December 1943, Captain Ellis, who had been commissioned on the 25th May 1938, (Service number 34843) – was tasked to fly Unstable Mabel on what might be called the Brandy and Cheese Run – with bomb load of between 5,000lbs (tactical) and 12,800lbs (max) to destroy a target somewhat north east of a line drawn between Cognac and Rochefort, south-western France. He was given the following attack co-ordinates:

45°53’59″N 0°27’27″W

His aircraft was fully fuelled to maintain a forward air speed of 220 mph using 200 US gallons per hour. He was to strike the target between 12.11 and 12.35 hours.

Cognac is in the Charente Department, Nouvelle Aquitaine, situated between Angouleme and Saintes – a very long way from RAF Hethel in East Anglia.

The specific target near Cognac was Saint-Jean d’Angély-Fontenet airfield (French: Aèrodrome Saint-Jean d’Angély-Fontenet) an airfield 390 kilometres southwest of Paris. See an article on this target here:

The airfield was built by the French Ministry of War in 1937. In 1939 the barrack buildings for radio-telegraphists were installed. In 1940 Jagdgeschwader 53 was stationed at the airfield. 

Jagdgeschwader 53 crews on standby: Source Wikimedia Commons

Through World War 2, the airfield served as a Luftwaffe fighter base, for which the Germans added dispersal areas, taxi tracks and asphalt roads. Just before the arrival of the Allies in 1944, the Germans destroyed their remaining equipment, which had already been hard hit because of Allied bombing.

Unstable Mabel was part of a huge bombing strategy in which 94 bombers were assigned to carry to multiple targets, some 181,850 tonnes of bombs (this works out to 3870lb or bombs per aircraft in short tonnes and 4333lb per aircraft in long tonnes.)

The normal mission profile would be to gain high altitude for a long-range mission. This used up fuel and further fuel was needed to maintain airspeed in the thin high atmosphere. You can imagine the roar of the engines and the shaking of the fuselage, as minute by tense minute these brave men pursued their mission.

B-24 airplane suitable for long, over-water missions: Source USAAF Air Museum

After perhaps five or six-hours flying time, Unstable Mabel reached the Cognac area, a journey of some 1,000 miles from RAF Hethel, and bombed its airfield target.

Having bombed his primary, then Captain Ellis decided to go for a target of opportunity – the Nazi submarine pens on the French coast at La Rochelle, some 50 miles to the north west of Cognac. La Rochelle is a major seaport and capital of Charente-Maritime and contained the la Pallice Nazi wolfpack submarine base in massive concrete housings.

La Pallice Wolfpack Installation La Rochelle: Source Wikimedia Commons

The aircraft turned, flew on for maybe 20 minutes and having dropped all its bombs near Cognac and La Rochelle, Unstable Mabel turned for home – yet taking a direct bearing on RAF Hethel would be a risky thing because of German air activity over France.

Unstable Mabel had to fly back for another five or six hours. But this time it was lighter with no bombs so made faster progress until it hit fuel problems.

Nevertheless, Unstable Mabel with her crew of ten made it to the edge of the English Channel, but either the fuel flow from the Tokyo Tanks became totally restricted or the whole fuel tanks system was almost empty. Then running out of fuel, not surprisingly, considering its massive mission, the aircraft descended and then – according to some eyewitnesses, burst into flames.

Captain Ellis gave the order to the crew to bale out over the coast of England at Pebsham (a parachute pack has been found on a house roof), but he heroically stayed with the aircraft.

Cockpit of the Consolidated B-24D Liberator “Strawberry Bitch.” (U.S. Air Force photo)

Coming much lower, he avoided striking the railway aqueduct. Then looking round over Pebsham, using only the light of the moon in its waxing crescent and the downward glare of the fire from his burning aircraft, he sought a possible landing ground – a dark patch of ground, maybe glistening with recent rain. He lined up parallel to the blacked-out houses of Bexhill Road. He could see that the Tier 2 fence line would impact with the aircraft if he chose the rough ground to the north of Bulverhythe Recreation Ground, so he alone put the aircraft down on the rain-soaked and frequently flooded Bulverhythe Recreation Ground, in the dark of the winter evening – the sun having set on 31st December at 16.02 hours.

The burning airframe slewed across the grass, struck the sports pavilion, totally destroying it down to the foundation brickwork, then shot across the drainage ditch at the back of the houses on Bexhill Road and landed up in the gardens of three houses, destroying some property including a greenhouse. Captain Ellis and his crew all survived. Unstable Mabel burned.

Then the bureaucracy of wartime Britain took over. The assessment of damage did not take place until 13th May 1944, some five months later – understandable in this dreadful war. D. W. Jackson of The Borough of Hastings, Town Clerk’s Department logged the damage in the Register of Damage to Property Directly Consequent upon Bombardment or Attack from the Air – Folder BDR 24 Report 117A states:

“31st December 1943 Bulverhythe Recreation Ground, Bexhill Road – USA Bomber Impact.”

It has not missed my notice that ‘Bulverhythe’ means ‘the landing place of the people’. It was once the harbour of the ancient Saxon settlement of Bullington, mentioned in the Domesday Book.


The 389th Bomb Group flew its last combat mission late in April 1945. It returned to Charleston AAF, South Carolina on 30 May 1945 and was inactivated on 13 September 1945.

Brave Liberator-24 pilot Frank Wilby Ellis Jr. earned many medals:

  • Air Force Longevity Service Award with 3 oak leaf clusters
  • Air Medal with 3 oak leaf clusters
  • American Campaign Medal
  • American Defence Medal
  • Distinguished Flying Cross with 1 oak leaf cluster
  • European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal
  • National Defence Service Medal
  • World War II Victory Medal

He was eventually promoted to Lieutenant Colonel.

In a deeply sad incident, he was killed in crash of TB-47B “Stratojet” #50-0076 on 18 December 1957 while serving as its pilot. Also killed were Maj. Thomas M. Esmond (Aircraft Commander) and Capt. Frank F. Harradine (Flight Surgeon).

The Stratojet pilot, Colonel Ellis was trying to land in thick fog at March Air Force Base near the Mount Palomar Giant Telescope in California. However, it veered and struck the mountain and exploded.

Stratojet using rocket assisted take-off: Source: USAF Air Library


In this Liberator-24 crash at Bulverhythe, it was a miracle that no-one was killed. The exceptional determination of Captain Ellis to save his crew and then to try and save his aircraft reveals exemplary courage.


The following aspects of this incident need to be resolved:

1. The bomb load and fuel upload are all estimates based on typical Liberator operations and need further clarification to ensure accurate historical records.

2. It is not clear if the submarine pens were a target of opportunity or a planned secondary target, so the logbook is needed. I have written to the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom to ask for help in finding the logbook.

3. Possible espionage. Although using Occam’s Razor, it would make sense to assume that there were 10 crew members, all of whom survived, some Liberators did have 11 crew spaces due to having 4 waist gunner spaces. Also some Liberators carried ‘Joe’ and ‘Jane’ spies to drop into France. There is a very outside chance that:

A spy who did not drop over France then was lost from the Liberator over Pebsham and the matter was covered up. However, the parachute pack was almost certainly ‘dumped’ to save weight in our opinion. Once again, the logbook would resolve this matter.

To learn about how the Liberator 24D bombers were used in espionage – go here:

4. What exactly did Captain Ellis write in his logbook to detail the remarkable escape he and his crew had in this crash?

5. Although we can see a note in the Liberator mission records saying ‘10RTD’ (ten returned to duty), because Bexhill Hospital wartime records are no longer extant, we cannot find out if any crew members were injured in the crash or if anyone died later from wounds. Help by US authorities is needed here to check with crew relatives.

6. How was the airframe removed from the crash site, was any of it preserved elsewhere, or were part of it recycled to other airframes?

7. Is part of the undercarriage still in the water-filled ditch? The crash site is on a flood plain in a naturally winter-flooded valley.

8. Was the waterlogged nature of the recreation ground so wet that the quarter moon reflection enabled the pilot to see the ground despite the national blackout regulations? The weather records for the area in 1943 show that it had rained several times in December 1943, including one day of 28mm on the 19th December. Since the water table rises in winter on this flood plain, the ground is often totally flooded or saturated.

9. How did the remaining 9 (or 10) crew get rescued after they para-dropped from the burning aircraft? Did they walk to a police station or were they found and helped by the local population and air raid wardens?

10. How (and when) did the crew get back to RAF Hethel?

11. Exact state of Bulverhythe Recreation Ground at the time of crash landing? Here are some photos showing photos of the varying water levels on this natural flood plain of the Combe Haven in a winter-flooded valley.

If you have any information about this air crash or the pilot, please email me at:


1. War diaries

2. Photographs:

Aerial 1940

My own crash site photos

Picture of the nose cone end of Unstable Mable with naked woman illustration.

3. Eyewitness accounts

Photo examples of Liberators.

4. The Hastings Borough Council signed damage report documents for the crash of an ‘American Bomber’ on Bulverhythe Recreation Ground on 31st December 1943.

5. Certification acceptance of the key facts and emails from and to:

Tom Fullam, Library and Information Assistant

Second Air Division Memorial Library

Tel: 01603 774747

Second Air Division Memorial Library, The Forum, Norwich, NR2 1AW

6. Email conversations with Imperial War Museum and Air Museum Duxford.

7. Advice on the law and preservation of air crash wrecks: Sussex Police PCSO Daryl Holter, Sussex Police Heritage Officer.

8. UK Ministry of Defence MOD War Detectives – the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre Commemorations Team: JCCC
Innsworth House
Imjin Barracks

Legal Aspects

The aircraft crashed at what is now part of Combe Valley Countryside Park, land owned by Hastings Borough Council, which they call ‘Tier 1’.

I have applied to MOD for permission to excavate the site because I think some parts of the airframe may be in a water-filled ditch which runs at the back of the three houses affected by the crash. Accordingly, the Ministry of Defence has specified me as the ‘named person’ for this crash excavation application in accordance with the Protection of Military Remains Act (1986). .

Key Importance of Conservation and Commemoration:

As English Heritage and Historic England both state: ‘The majority of aircraft losses in the 20th century have been related to military activity, and therefore they are automatically protected under the Protection of Military Remains Act (1986). Therefore, the records of aircraft crash sites across the Study Area are of interest; although the records appear to indicate Recorded Losses rather than known remains on the seabed, if these aircraft were to be found they would be of high importance.

Non-designated aircraft crash sites are also important, because they provide a tangible reminder of the development of the aviation industry in the UK throughout the 20th century. Because aircraft crash sites belong to recent history, they can also have significance; survivors and relatives may exist, and the sites can be important for remembrance and commemoration. Aircraft crash sites also have importance through their cultural value as historic artefacts and for the information they contain about the aircraft itself and its circumstances of loss (English Heritage 2002a; Wessex Archaeology 2008b). These can be considered important for remembrance and commemoration.’

You can also read about the importance of the site here

I am a Trustee of the national charity called Friends of Combe Valley and I am also fundraiser, historian and warden co-ordinator for Combe Valley.


I would like to acknowledge with thanks the great help of Alexis Markwick of Bexhill Museum support team, David Hatherell, air historian, Tom Fullam at the USAAF Air Library, Norwich and Sussex Police Heritage Officer Daryl Holter – and my dear wife Margaret (now sadly passed on 26th July 2021), for putting up with me while I researched it all. Love you forever.

David E P Dennis BA (Hons) FCIPD LCGI RAF

Copyright 2021 All photographs are mine except where stated under the image.

If any errors have been made in Copyright attribution, please let me know and they will be immediately corrected.