Lady Jane

It was and a cold and miserable November day in Norwich during the later stages of World War Two (November the 24th, 1944). Clouds were hanging heavy and grey over Horsham St Faith’s Airfield and the European Air War had been put on hold – briefly – by this heavy cloud-cover which was stretching out far across the continent. Sitting patiently upon the airfield’s aprons were a collection of freshly-fuelled American B24 Liberators, waiting for the all-clear to head off up and into those murky skies above Norfolk. The young American airmen crammed into these large bombers must have been feeling fairly relaxed, for today they wouldn’t be putting their lives in danger by heading out across the North Sea and deep into enemy airspace; instead, they were about to take advantage of the bad weather and head off up into the low-hanging clouds above Norfolk for some much-needed low-visibility flight training.

A B24 Liberator going by the name of “Lady Jane” was one of the aircraft queuing up for the runway and today her crew was made up of a collection of young American men, all in their early twenties:

Ralph Dooley (Pilot), Arthur Akin (Co-Pilot), Paul Gorman (Navigator), Johnnie Jones (Engineer/Gunner), Oscar Nelson (Ball Turret Gunner), John Phillips (Engineer/Gunner), Don Quirk (Tail Gunner), Ralph Von Bergen (Waist Gunner) and Paul Wadsworth (Radio Operator).

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The Dooley crew, preparing for a Truckin’ mission. From L to R: Oscar Nelson, Burton Wheeler, Paul Wadsworth, Paul Gorman (with map), Don Quirk, Johnnie Jones, and Ralph Dooley. A Truckin’ mission was to load the plane with as much fuel as physically possible and deliver it to troops on the ground in Europe.

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The original Dooley Crew (Ralph is second from left, kneeling).

Normally the B24 required a crew of ten airmen but on this occasion there were only nine men on board. Two of the normal crew were unable to fly that day; the normal Co-Pilot, Burton Wheeler (bottom left) had just lost his brother (also an airman) on a flight out of Bury St Edmonds and was taking some compassionate leave, and John Kowalczuk (third along from left, kneeling) had been removed from the crew to undergo ‘Lead Bombardier training’ elsewhere. Seeing as today’s flight was a training mission, only the missing Co-Pilot needed to be replaced and his seat was taken up by the Pilot, Ralph Dooley’s close friend: Arthur Akin, a lead Pilot for another crew based here at Horsham. As his flight crew had not been selected for training on this dank and miserable day he jumped at the chance to go on the training mission and help out his good friend, Ralph.

Akin and his crew. Akin is the tallest chap, standing:

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The Bombe crews were finally given the green light to go and the Liberators ambled their way onto the runway, opened up their throttles and lumbered into the heavy skies above North Norwich, a sound that the residents of Mile Cross would have been more than used to hearing. The proximity of the airport to Mile Cross (and Norwich as a whole) meant that you could (and still can) hear aircraft moving about like it’s happening only a few streets away, particularly on a still day.

Back on that miserable day in November, 1944 these particular Liberators had climbed away from Horsham St Faith to carry out their training sorties in amongst the low-hanging clouds that had paused the war briefly for these young men. The flight training had passed without incident and they were all heading back to complete the final and most vital part of their training, an ‘instrument landing’ at Horsham before it got too dark. The weather had not improved and the cloud base height was ranging from 600-400 feet, but in some places it was as low as 200 feet, particularly over the valley of the Wensum. Visibility was down to two miles or less, not the best conditions for landing a large plane, or in this case multiple large planes.

Light was now beginning to fade fast and the already terrible conditions were gradually worsening, so flairs were lit to try and help these lumbering beasts locate the long, thin runway that was now partially-hidden in amongst the descending, thick grey soup of an overcast and drizzly November sky. A sky, that like these returning planes, was seemingly trying it’s best to make a connection with the damp Norfolk ground. The pilots of these returning bombers were increasingly having to rely on their instrumentation and flying skills to get their planes back down safely onto the runway, but this was partly the reason they were flying in these awful conditions in the first place.

The planes were directed by the control tower to land on the runway designated number 35/17 which was specifically set up for instrument landings. Runway 35 was pointing in a NNW direction meaning that the planes would have been approaching from the South, descending over Heigham and the Wensum Valley, across Mile Cross and then increasingly low over Hellesdon, roughly following the line of Aylsham and Cromer Road as it heads North out of the city.

As Dooley and his crew made their final approach it quickly became apparent that he had overshot his touchdown and needed to abort the landing and pull up for a Go-around (another attempt) which was not an uncommon occurrence. Dooley lifted his plane back away from the runway and climbed up to a safe altitude before banking away go around again. He would have to fly around Norwich on another circuit and once again through the worsening conditions – particularly in the low-lying groud by the river – to attempt once again to come in from the South to line up for his landing. This is where it all went wrong.

Dooley had made the returning loop and was now lined up for his second approach across the City, but for whatever reasons, most likely due to the appalling conditions, it appears that he was flying his aircraft far too low. As the Liberator headed in a Northerly direction, heading across Earlham Road and along Heigham Road, he would have been surprised to see the tall, Victorian tower of St Philips Church appear suddenly out of the low and murky sky.

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A George Plunkett image of St Philips, taken in 1969. This image helps us to see how low Lady Jane must have been, barely clearing the nearby roof-tops.

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The same spot today.

There was little time for Dooley to react and unfortunately he couldn’t avoid the tip of his right wing from clipping the top of the Tower, tearing off a large section of the wing, as well as part of the right rear stabiliser and rudder as it did. From here on in the plane and her crew were doomed. Ralph struggled with the controls to regain altitude and steered his stricken aircraft as best as he could towards the only part of the city that he could see in his path that was free of houses; the coal yards and sidings of Norwich City Station. It was this final act that no doubt saved countless civilian casualties.

As young Ralph approached the relatively clear ground of the railway sidings he could control his fatally-damaged bomber no more and the plane rolled away to it’s damaged right wing and hit the ground almost inverted, skimming the rooftops of the terraced-houses along Heigham Street as it rapidly lost what little altitude it had regained after clipping the church. The plane came down on the Barker Street Corporation (Norwich City Council) Siding and burst into flames.

The burnt-out wreckage of the ill-fated Lady Jane in its final resting place:

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The same spot in 2019. This part of Barker Street pretty much follows the siding:

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Seeing as this tragic accident happened during the daytime and in a busy City Centre, there were many eye-witness accounts of what happened, a lot of which contradicted one another – probably down to the lack of visibility – but we can try to work out what was happening in those last few moments by going on what was written about the incident by three separate USAF-employed witnesses in the area.

According to the closest of these witnesses, a 1Lt Cliff D. Gersbach it appeared that Lady Jane had made a very low and sharp turn, her wings almost pointing at the ground, directly above his head just over the bottom of Mill Hill Road at its junction with Earlham road. Lady Jane managed to level out just prior to clipping the church, he then watched as the plane climbed steeply before rolling away on her right wing and going down over City Station.

Another witness was a bit further up Mill Hill Road and witnessed the accident from a slightly higher view point. 1Lt Joseph S. Williams spotted an aircraft in a 90 degree left bank at an altitude of approximately 200 to 250 feet. He mentioned that the aircraft looked undamaged and in good shape with all engines running and with the landing gear up. The aircraft was losing altitude in the bank and that the turn appeared to have been a long one and not short or abrupt. He went on to mention that the mist and fog was very bad at the time and the ceiling was not more than 250 to 300 feet, with “clouds” of fog and mist rolling across the river toward Mill Hill Road.

The aircraft levelled out of the vertical bank and disappeared from view when he heard a crash. Seconds later he saw the aircraft (apparently under control) climbing gently with a slight incline to the right before suddenly banking right and crashing into the ground towards the river. His report then states that there was no obvious damage to the aircraft from his vantage point, although the fog and mist were quite heavy.

Joseph went to the scene of the first crash and heard and found that the aircraft had hit the steeple of the St Phillips Church. Here he found the upper panel of the right wing tip (about 10 to 15 feet long) and the right rudder. Some pieces of the plane’s wing were still on the church roof. It appeared that the aircraft wing had hit the church only about 4 to 5 feet from the top of the steeple, which was about 60 feet high.

Joseph then went on to the scene of the final crash site at City Station and noted that aircraft hit the ground in a vertical bank and had somehow managed to not damage any property on the nearby Heigham Street.

The third witness was Pilot, 2Lt Edwin J. Sealy who wrote:
“We had just broken into the clear after an instrument letdown and had circled the town of Norwich once when we saw an aircraft approximately two miles in front of us apparently flying straight and level. The plane started a steep bank to the left and continued the bank onto its back. Then it dived into the ground and exploded immediately. I learned later that this A/C was 113-K of my own base.”

All three accounts vary somewhat, but what is certain is that Lady Jane appeared to be in good working order but flying too low, probably due to the increasingly-bad weather and complications with visibilty. Ralph had dropped his aircraft too low and was unlucky enough to just clip the only tall building in the area. He then successfully and valiantly fought to steer the damaged aircraft away from homes and roads and into the only open area available, losing his life and the lives of his crew in the process.

The official accident report charges Dooley with the accident and simply recommended that “Pilots of this station be reminded of the necessity of their meeting satisfactory instrument flying qualifications“. It comes across as a bit cold, but aircraft losses were unfortunately all too common during the Second World War. Anybody who’s seen the glass memorial dedicated to these young American Airmen at Duxford and the number of aircraft that never made it back etched into its glass can attest to that.

There is a plaque close to where Lady Jane came down, dedicated to the crew and it can be found just off of Heigham Street, mounted to the wall of some later-added flats. It used to be mounted to one of the cottages on Heigham Street that were no doubt saved by the final actions of young Ralph Dooley, but they have since been demolished to make way for the City Trading Estate and the plaque is now on the opposite side of the road.

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It appears that the valiant efforts of Dooley and his crew to avoid crashing into a built-up area wasn’t lost upon the local populace and letters of condolence and appreciation written by the local residents who so narrowly missed disaster were flooding into Horsham St. Faiths just days after the accident. Almost a year later The Lord Mayor of Norwich also wrote a letter to one of the crew’s parents in admiration of the gallant conduct of the crew to avoid civilian casualties.

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This isn’t where this story ends though. Fast forward to fairly recently when my Norfolk Railway Heritage Group – with our ‘FONCS’ hat on – were doing another one of our popular “Walk And Talks” out of Norwich City Station, led by my good friend and fellow Mile Cross Man, John Batley. During these historical walks John likes to stop off at the Barker Street entrance to Marriott’s Way to recount the story of Lady Jane and then lay some flowers in memory of those young men who so tragically lost their lives on that fateful November day almost three quarters of a century ago. He delivers this part of the walk and talk with a lot of passion and I knew he had a great interest in the subject, so I made a mental note to talk to him about it after the history walk had finished. We agreed to meet up and chat about it at a later date and I finally got around to picking his brains about it after I started to write this piece. I was very conscious that I was in danger of just re-writing what had already been written about the Lady Jane accident and I was in need of a personal angle and/or something to make it relevant from a Mile Cross point of view. What I realised is that I had it right in front of me in my good buddy, John and that I should have spoken to him first!

It turns out that John’s father was one of the many people to be effected by the loss of Lady Jane and her crew on that cold and miserable day. John went on to explain it all to me in his own words:

My father was just about to go into the army and was working as an apprentice at Thompson’s on Rosary Road before his date for call up. Being high up you could see that area, and his family lived on Derby street. A friend had told dad that there was a large plume of smoke over that area, obviously being wartime dad thought a flying bomb had hit the area so he was given permission to ride home and check on his mum and dad. When he cycled up Heigham street he could see that it was not Derby street where the plume of smoke was coming from but the nearby Corporation Yard connected to Norwich City Station. As he got there he saw an off-duty US airman arguing with the depot gatekeeper to be let in, then he saw the Airman whack the gatekeeper (who was refusing to open the gates) and go in… dad went in too and could see people trying to scramble over the high piles of coal, but to no avail because of the height of the coal piles. The B24 had come down on the long curving 1932 siding between the piles of coal. I have had info stating that 3 of the crew were out in the open still alive, but tragically they burned to death. I know from talking to people that she struck the tower and lost 25 feet of starboard wing, Dooley tried to keep the plane level and headed for the yard to put it down away from a very highly populated area, knowing for certain that he and the crew had had it. By the time it crossed Heigham street it was almost on its side, one eyewitness said they could see a waist gunner looking out of his window (probably not entirely accurate as that model B24 had sealed waist windows). She came down as I can work out on her starboard side, possibly almost inverted.”

The fire engines came from Horsham St Faiths to try and put out any fires and assist with rescuing any of the crew but had come down Drayton Road, on the wrong side of the river. They needed the help of a young Mile Cross lad who hopped onto one of the engines and guided them to the site of the crash. By the time they got there it was too late…

John and I continued to chat about his personal connection to the crash when he revealed to me why it is that he was so interested and passionate about this particular subject:

I’ve researched this incident since 1995. Dad told me about it as a youngster… so as I got older I wanted to know more. I put an advert in the Evening News for more information about the crash and plenty of people contacted me. I remember going to various people’s houses to get eyewitness accounts. I had loads of notes and eyewitness accounts, so much so that I was going to write a book on it, but before I could collate all the info I had on it properly, Richard Clements beat me to it, so I binned the lot. I wasn’t happy at the time especially as it had taken me so long to collate it all… just bad luck… so after that I decided to try a new angle and research the crew and missions leading up to that fateful November morning. Then the internet turned up and all that hard work went down the toilet as well… I wish I hadn’t thrown all my research away but did it in a fit of temper…

I recall an old boy who had contacted me; he worked at Harmers on Heigham street (Now Desira) and was working on the top floor of the building. As he looked out of the window he spotted the Bomber, it was at his level crossing Heigham street… it’s stuff like that you can collate and help you to paint the picture of what happened“.

It had suddenly dawned on me that this story of a Bomber tragically crashing close to his parents’ home during the Second World War was to John what the Hellesdon Station story was to me; a deep-rooted and passionate interest in history, stemming from his childhood. It serves as a reminder that we need to keep passing this sort of information down to our kids, no matter how boring we might think it is to them now, as it’s these little nuggets of history that have the potential to inspire them into taking an interest in their past and their surroundings well into the future.

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John Batley, delivering another passionate description of the story of Lady Jane to an interested crowd during our most recent FONCS ‘Walk and Talk’.

I can only hope that all the work I’m putting into researching, saving, promoting and writing about the heritage of the area in which my kids are currently growing up will stay with them and inspire them in one way or another when they are old enough to take an interest in it themselves, either that or they might just think I’ve turned into a boring old fart! Time will tell.

Many thanks to John for opening up to me about his research and the subsequent disappointment, I hope this helps in some way, and thanks once again to Darin Scorza of the 458th Bomb Group website for kindly sending me photographs of the crew and the official accident report. His fantastic page can be found by clicking on the following link: 458th BG.

If the whole story wan’t tragic enough, Lady Jane wasn’t the first plane to crash on or close to Mile Cross and these two earlier blog entries tell the story of when ‘Lassie Come Home’ crashed into gardens on the northern fringes of the Mile Cross Estate:

Lassie Come Home

Dick’s Story: Lassie Come Home

Thanks again for reading,

Stu

9 thoughts on “Lady Jane

  1. Thanks Stu for a well written and informative post. As a very young lad living on Boundary Road at the time I heard reports of this crash from several relatives who lived on Heigham Street. They were extremely grateful for the actions of Ralf Dooley and his crew as they were aware that although the loss of that plane and its crew was a tragedy in its self just how catastrophic it could have been without the pilots sacrifice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for this detailed account of this tragedy. My uncle – Oscar B. Nelson – was the Ball Turret Gunner on the Lady Jane that day. I look forward to sharing your post with my family and, in particular, reading it to my father. -dawn nelson, Vashon Island, Washington

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dawn Nelson: Any chance of you passing this on to the families of other crew members? If you or any of your family visit Norwich in the future; there’s a special reading room in our main Millenial Library that is devoted to the USAAF and sponsored by them too. It was in the process of a major refurbishment when the Library closed, but am planning to visit the library today to see what progress was made. Perhaps there’s more about the Lady Jane tragedy. The original Lady Jady Gray was beheaded but for 9 days was treated as the unofficial Queen of England.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hello,

    My great uncle SSGT Johnie J. Jones was the flight engineer and turret gunner aboard Lady Jane that day. I hope to visit Norwich one day to pay respects and visit the memorial plaque. Thanks you for providing this information to those of us of his family who still remember his sacrifice.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Michael, My uncle Sargent Otto Nelson was a Ball Turret Gunner on the Lady Jane that day, too. What a dangerous job that was! He lived on Vashon Island, WA, as do I. Was your great uncle stationed in WA?

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      1. Dawn,

        my uncle grew up in Texas. I’m not sure where he took his training before being deployed. Yes, a dangerous assignment for sure. What is surprising is on that last flight, there were two full time lead pilots on board that day. The co-pilot of the Lady Jane was being reasigned and didnt make the flight so the pilots best friend who was also a lead pilot flew with them that day. Remarkable with all of that experience on board the accident occurred. Good to hear from you!

        Mike

        Like

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