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 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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.