In the northern corner of the estate and just behind the Boundary Pub is a quiet little cul-de-sac named Spynke Road. Like a lot of the roads up there it didn’t start off this way and used to share a junction with Boundary road. It has since been closed off to stop people rat-running through the estate and to reduce accidents along the now insanely busy Boundary Road. Because of these road closures the area now has a strangely quiet and closed-off feel but with the unrelenting background drone of of traffic.
During the 1980’s and when I was attending the Mile Cross Middle School I used to have a friend who lived towards the northern end of Rye Avenue and on one summer’s afternoon we found something rather surprising whilst playing in his back garden. Like eighties kids did; we were digging holes, burying (now valuable) Star Wars figures, throwing ‘muck bombs’ and generally getting ourselves grubby. As the humble Boba Fett was being assigned a shallow grave we found something metallic glinting in the soil.
To our surprise we had dug up a large bullet and in fairly good condition. Excitedly, we went inside with our new ‘toy’ only to be told by a parent that we ought to take it for a stroll down to the Castle Museum and let them take a look at it, and that is exactly what we did. Back in the 1980’s you could go through the main entrance of the Castle and knock on a little wooden side door where out of the dark and mysterious looking passageway would emerge a willing employee ready to inspect your finds.
The lady who came out to see us was very impressed with our find and said that it was a WW2-era bullet, most likely from the nearby Horsham St Faith Airfield (Now Norwich ‘International‘ Airport) and that it would probably be wise if they kept it, seeing at it was still live and quite a dangerous item for two 10 year old children to be playing with.
We agreed and handed it over, we were just happy that we had found something of interest to somebody and headed off home, never really putting too much thought into how this live round had made it’s way from Horsham St Faiths to Mile Cross over a mile away. “Perhaps it fell out of the window when they did a loop-the-loop” one of us mused on our way back to the estate.
Now we wind back the clock to January 14th 1945 and five children are playing in amongst some Raspberry Canes in the back garden of number 14 Spynke Road. These gardens happen to back on to the garden where my friend and I were playing 41 years later. Four siblings and their cousin were playing only meters away from my future self, and like my friend and I they were innocently doing what kids do until something caught their attention; a drone. Not the drone of Vauxhall Chevettes and Ford Cortinas struggling up the Boundary, but the drone of something with a bit more power; the unmistakable sound of four Pratt and Whitney radial engines droning away. This sound wouldn’t have been unusual to these youngsters as just over a mile away was the RAF Horsham St Faith airbase (opened in 1939) but on this particular day something didn’t sound quite right.
In 1942 RAF Horsham St Faith was to become a lot busier. The United States of America had recently joined the war effort and the USAAF and their Eighth Air Force had made the airbase their new home. Part of that force was 458th Heavy Bombardment Group and it was made up of Consolidated B-24 Liberators that had come all the way over from Nevada to the ‘not-so-sleepy-any-more’ Norfolk countryside, just North of Mile Cross. The people of North Norwich had since become accustomed to the sights and sounds of countless RAF and USAAF aircraft circling the city as they returned from their missions over the continent.
Back to that January day in 1945 and a B-24 named ‘Lassie Come Home’ and its crew of nine insanely young Americans were one of 28 bombers to leave Horsham St Faith on a mission to bomb the Hermann Goering Works at Halle. On their approach to the target area a burst of flack caused severe damage to Lassie Come Home’s number one engine, located on its left wing. Luckily, having four engines meant that the plane could continue on its bomb run although the pilot had to feather the engine to compensate for the damage. Shortly after, it was noted that engine number 2 had also begun to smoke but was still usable. The crew decided to push on and managed to drop their ordnance over the target area before turning their ailing bomber around to make for their long and arduous journey home. The young pilot, Stanley Diehl and his crew were relieved to have accomplished their mission, but with two damaged engines they would have to fall back from the rest of the formation to ensure that their aircraft could make it back safely. Luckily for them they weren’t alone and had the company of no less than 8 fighter escorts to fend of any unwanted attention from any Luftwaffe fighters after an easy kill. Being equidistant to the safety of Horsham St Faith or another safe runway in Belgium, the crew unanimously voted to head for England and at this rate they’d be back in time for some well-earned tea. At 1528 they crossed over the Norfolk Coast and must have been relieved to be have made it back to the UK safely despite having a badly damaged aircraft. Priority landing was granted and the plane circled round the airport and over Mile Cross to line up for their final approach.
Unfortunately and during the final left turn engine number 2 (pictured above behind the crew) gave up the ghost and cut out completely at the most inopportune moment. With the two engines on banked wing suddenly out of action the force of the two remaining engines made the plane go inverted in an instant and put the plane into an uncontrollable inverted dive. Stanley Diehl would have little time to react and besides which at such a low altitude his efforts would have been in vain. What Stanley Diehl did in his final few moments is astounding, he killed the engines to negate the possibility of a fuel-explosion on impact.
Back on the ground, a young Richard Kemp is playing in his garden along with his two older sisters, his twin sister Mary Kemp (5) and their cousin Brian Jones (9) when something caught their attention. A drone; the drone I mentioned earlier. Something wasn’t right. Richard looked up to see that the sky had suddenly darkened and that he was in the shadow of an inverted bomber, silver and black hurtling towards them. He tried to make a run for it but had no time. He came to in a neighbours garden surrounded by twisted wreckage, ammunition belts and flames before being hurriedly carried away to an ambulance by another neighbour.
Young Richard’s sister Mary and cousin Brian (pictured above) were both killed as the stricken bomber ploughed into the circle of gardens between Spynke Road, Bolingbroke Road and Rye Avenue along with 8 members of the 9 man crew inside Lassie Come Home. 10 young lives taken in an instant under a truly tragic set circumstances. The price of War.
The Crew: Stanley E Diehl (Pilot), Leo Hecht (Co-Pilot), John J Clayborn (Navigator), Rollin Chapman (Radio Operator), Walter Denton (Flight Engineer), Vincent Hyland (Nose Turret Gunner), John McNeely (Waist Gunner), Frederick Wiehage (Top Turret Gunner) and Norton Lawson (Tail Gunner).
The plane was witnessed coming down by many people in the area all of whom rushed to the scene to be met with tragedy and devastation, one of those was the father of the family at number 14, little did he know what he was rushing home to. As a father myself I can’t even begin to comprehend what he was met with when he arrived home.
Surprisingly, the Tail-Gunner; Norton ‘Foggy’ Lawson had survived the crash and was pulled from the wreckage in one piece. After a bit of rest and recuperation he managed to get back into a plane to carry on flying which must have taken some real courage. Amazingly he managed to survive the War and made it back to his home in the USA.
Today the site is marked by a memorial plaque dedicated to those 10 youngsters who so tragically lost their lives on that fateful day and it can be found mounted to the front wall of the house on Spynke Road that stood witness to the drama and so narrowly being destroyed itself. The death toll could have been a lot worse had the plane had come down a few meters shorter and onto the houses. If you were to take a look into those gardens today you wouldn’t have a clue as to what happened on that January afternoon back in 1945, unless you started to dig that is. A few years after the crash the mother of the family who’s lives had been turned upside down by that plane falling onto their garden dug up a wedding ring from one of the poor crew members in the garden and walked up to the to the airbase to return it. Imagine the emotions she must have gone through on that long walk. I go back now to that warm summers day in the 1980’s when my friend and I unearthed that live round in his back garden, it undoubtedly came from the wreckage of Lassie Come Home and it wasn’t until I first see that photograph of the mangled wreckage sitting in the gardens that I realised my friend’s house was directly behind the remains of Lassie Came Home, and the penny finally dropped. It only took the best part of 30 years for me to realise what we had found, but when I did I can tell you that it took my breath away for a bit.
After having a brief chat with the occupant of number 14 – who kindly allowed me into his garden a year or so back – he told me that he still finds ammunition and bits of twisted aluminium if he digs his garden too deeply.
Many thanks to Darin Scorza for kindly allowing me to use the images above. Take a look at his fascinating website dedicated to the 458th Bomber Group, honouring those who sacrificed so much in WW2: www.458bg.com
Thanks once again for reading,