When we think of Stanwick Lakes today most of us value its natural beauty; the birds, animals, the trees and flowers and of course the lakes. But the new Heritage Trail is a great reminder that the site has always been a centre of human activity, a reminder that for many thousands of years men, women and children have lived, worked and played exactly where we walk and play today. If you’re interested in history and our shared heritage one of the best activities is to go on one of the Archaeology Walks led by Andy Chapman. It’s an excellent couple of hours spent with a great archaeologist and communicator who actually led a lot of the excavations on the site.
The archaeology walk covers everything from the Neolithic to the medieval, I’ve gone along three times and always learn something new. But it also made me realise that I knew more about the ancient history of the Lakes than I did about more recent events. I’ve been aware that there are things within living memory of which I know nothing except that “they happened”. In particular I became interested in a World War II incident involving an aircraft crash at Stanwick Lakes which several locals have mentioned over the last few years. So I’ve gathered together as much information as I could about the event; it’s not new but it may be the first time it’s all been brought together.
As World War II progressed local people were well used to aircraft activity over and around the area. There were many USAAF and RAF airfields in Northamptonshire and the surrounding counties. Bombing raids typically involved multiple squadrons of aircraft from different airfields that had to assemble in the air prior to setting off for their targets in Europe. But the morning of 22nd February 1944 was very different, shattered by the mid air collision of two B17 Flying Fortress aircraft. One aircraft was from 303rd Bombardment Group based at Molesworth, the other from 384th Bombardment group based at Grafton Underwood. They were assembling over what is now Stanwick Lakes for a bombing raid on a Junkers aircraft factory in Ascherleben, Germany.
At that time most night-time bombing missions were undertaken by the RAF and most day-time raids by the USAAF. The collision cut one of the aircraft more or less in half and both aircraft crashed. With the exception of the man in the front row, second from the right, they all perished. He didn’t fly that day and the man who replaced him managed to parachute to safety. Two men, the bombardier and the navigator, survived from the 384th Grafton Underwood crew. In all 18 crewmen died from the two aircraft.
Pat Houghton from Irthlingborough, a schoolboy at the time, vividly remembers the explosion, which really shook his school a mile or so away. He says that aircraft over the town were a routine sight but the explosion arising from this collision was enormous. He also recalls lots of activity over the site that evening and night as USAAF personnel went through the retrieval process, and lots of interest from locals who obviously wanted to know exactly what had happened. Debris from the collision was widely spread over what is now Stanwick Lakes and, children being children, souvenirs were widely sought; particularly pieces of Plexiglas, the new plastic from which cockpit and gun canopies were made.
Thousands of US airmen died flying from nearby bases. Chelveston for example, home of the 303rdBG, is just a couple of miles away. This particular tragic accident may be just a small part of that much bigger story but this event and these brave men are also a part of our heritage and our history and deserve to be honoured and remembered by us all.
– John Abbott
Many thanks to the members of the 303rd, 305th and 384th Bombardment Groups who helped tell this story and to Pat Houghton, Marc Pacan, Rob Hutchings, Alan Joseph Pack, Dave Rollings and Andrew Coghill who also helped to point me in the right direction. There’s a wealth of information out there and if you’re interested in learning more or can offer your views, please leave a comment.
Pictured, 303rd crew, led by Lt John W Stuermer, from the Molesworth base, reproduced by kind permission of, The 384th Bombardment Group Memorial window at St James the Apostle, Grafton Underwood