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Bomb Group: The Eighth Air Force's 381st and the Allied Air Offensive over Europe

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The Ridgewell Airfield Commemorative Museum was created in 2000 as a means to protect and preserve the legacy of the men who lived, worked, and flew from Ridgewell. 532nd Bomb Squadron crew members. [Courtesy: Ridgewell Airfield Commemorative Museum] Most certainly the First and Second World Wars. Almost every British family had some connection to those two events. Whether it be the social changes that took place, or the hardships that people suffered, some aspect of each war should be on every school curriculum. There would be so many – Eric “Winkle” Brown, Winston Churchill, Douglas Bader, to name but a few. If it had to be only one, I would have to say James Good Brown. Not a household name, but one I’ve come to respect and admire. As chaplain of the 381st Bomb Group (and author of The Mighty Men of the 381st: Heroes All) he has become something of a hero of mine. Bomb Group leans heavily on his book, which was largely written as a diary during the Second World War. Evocative, inspiring and touching in equal measure, the character of the man shines through in his words. When I was there, Paul Bingley and I found where Andy lived, and when I walked by there, I got goosebumps and started to cry,” Madar said. “It hit me. It was his last residence, where he would last have a smile. The other significant thing for me was the morgue, as morbid as that sounds, as that was the last place they were before their bodies were shipped to Cambridge.”

While flight crews were rotated home after a set number of missions—at first it was 25, then it was raised to 35 missions—there was no such rule for ground crews, Madar said, although as the war in Europe was starting to wind down, duty schedules relaxed a bit. B-17 Stage Door Canteen christening by Mary Churchill. [Courtesy: Ridgewell Airfield Commemorative Museum] Many of the people who drive or walk across the airfield have no idea of what went on under their feet,” said Sarah Allen, one of the volunteers at the museum. My uncle was the only son of six children. He’d been sending his money home and he bought his parents a house,” he said. “They had a room waiting for him.” An intimate history of a B-17 Bomb Group at the heart of the US Eighth Air Force's daylight bombing offensive against Hitler's Germany.Bingley was surprised. At the time, he was living just a few miles from Ridgewell, “Yet I knew nothing of the base or the 381st. It was the start of a long journey of discovery. The more I discovered, the more I wanted to know,” he said. Piter arrived at Ridgewell on June 23, 1943. “That day, improperly loaded bombs on the B-17 #42-30024 Caroline exploded, killing 23 people including a civilian. I have my uncle’s notes on the accident,” Madar said. His uncle was not injured in the explosion—he would spend more than a year more at Ridgewell. Paul’s first book, US Air Force Bases in the UK, retraced the concrete paths of 50 of the UK’s past and present American air force bases. The book examines how the so-called “special relationship” has helped shape the land we see today. Obviously the internet has allowed access to archives across the world. While it doesn’t beat holding an original document in your hands, it has made researching a much easier task. The advent of social media has also helped. There are specialised Facebook ‘groups’ that are now proving invaluable in accessing information or individuals. Most visitors—they get about 100 a day when they are open—do some research before they come to Ridgewell. Sometimes the visitors surprise the volunteers with what they bring.

On April 23, 1945, a B-17G, 43-38856, flown by a two-pilot crew was transporting 29 servicemen. Many of the men had been at Ridgewell since the 381st arrived in June 1943. Keep in mind the usual crew complement of a B-17 was 10 men.

Books

At the heart of the Eighth Air Force were its bombardment groups, each equipped with scores of heavily armed, four-engine bombers. These Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators were soon punching through the enemy's defences to bomb targets vital to its war effort. They were crewed by thousands of young American airmen, most of whom were volunteers. In 2021, we were sent an entire collection of uniforms, medals, and personal items from the U.S. by the son of a 381st tailgunner,” he said. “His father survived 30 missions before being transferred to the Pacific, which he also survived. It’s an awesome collection, which includes his secret combat diary, sunglasses, and ‘short snorter.’” According to Paul Bingley, the chairman of the museum, it was the life’s work of Tony Ince, who had been a local schoolboy during the war. Paul has described writing Bomb Group as “penance” for not knowing he lived just nine miles from the former Eighth Air Force base at Ridgewell – the Essex home of the 381st Bomb Group. For a self-confessed aviation geek, it was an awkward discovery. Probably not advice, more an observation: researching is much easier than writing. Anyone can be a detective, piecing stories together like a jigsaw puzzle, but actually forming it into a coherent narrative is much harder to do. Don’t expect to become rich, either. If I was to calculate my hourly pay for writing my most recent book, there wouldn’t be a calculator capable of recording all the zeros after the first zero and decimal point. Having said that, the reward comes from knowing you’ve told a story that many didn’t know before.

His next book, Essex: A Hidden Aviation History, uncovered the many forgotten (and oft-ignored) tales behind the county’s many memorials, museums and markers. From Essex’s links to the origins of the Supermarine company, to the UK’s largest known surviving group of Royal Flying Corps buildings on a former First World War aerodrome; Essex: A Hidden Aviation History is the perfect pointer.

Biography

Are there any historians who helped shaped your career? Similarly, can you recommend three history books which budding historians should read? They really are walking in the footsteps of their fathers and grandfathers.” Sarah Allen, Ridgewell Airfield Commemorative Museum volunteer Bomb Group follows the 381st's path from its formation in the Texan desert, to its 297th and final bombing mission deep into the heart of Hitler's Third Reich. It is the remarkable story of one group and the part it played in the strategic bombing campaign of "The Mighty Eighth."

The death of Andy Piter, especially so close to the end of the war, had a profound impact on the family, Madar said. The men of RAF Bomber Command were only given their own memorial 10 years ago,” he said. “Winston Churchill didn’t help by failing to mention them in his victory speech, as he had done with ‘The Few.’ Museums like Ridgewell help to tell the story of those bomber boys who answered the call of duty—most of them volunteering, before serving thousands and thousands of miles away from their friends and families,” he said.During the course of researching Bomb Group, I discovered that Ridgewell was the temporary home of 90 Squadron – an RAF Short Stirling unit. The interesting thing about 90 Squadron is that it had previously been the first outfit to take the B-17 Flying Fortress over Germany. During the summer of 1941, 20 B-17s were transferred to the British as part of the US Lend-Lease programme. The RAF reactivated a dormant 90 Squadron to operate the bombers. I’m now working on a project to tell the stories of those 20 B-17s and the crews who flew them. We wanted to go for the 75th anniversary, but the pandemic got in the way,” he said. 1st Lt. John A. Silvernale and crew after completing their tour in March 1944. [Courtesy: Ridgewell Airfield Commemorative Museum] Remembering the Bomber Boys The aircraft took off at 8 a.m. and headed north. The flight was supposed to take about two hours. At approximately 10:15 a.m., the B-17 was on the northeast coast of the Isle of Man at an altitude of approximately 500 feet. My uncle was one of 31 men killed just 15 days before the end of the war in an airplane crash on the Isle of Man. They were heading to Northern Ireland for a week’s leave.” Deadliest Crash on the Isle of Man

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