Lassie almost made it home.

This is a story that I have already written about in the past, over two separate pieces and I thought it was about time to merge the two old posts together to tell the whole story in one. It’s a story that demands attention and it makes far more sense to be able to read it all in one sitting.

In the very 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 on the very fringes of the boundary it wasn’t always this quiet. Most of the roads adjoining Boundary Road were once connected directly to it, allowing for people to use it as a rat-run to avoid the increasing volumes of traffic building up on the increasingly-busy outer ring road. Soon these roads were deemed too unsafe for the local residents and it was decided that for everybody’s safety it would make sense to have them closed off. Because of these road closures the area now has a strangely quiet and closed-off feel, but with the unrelenting background drone of traffic. As annoying as that background droning may be to the visitors or new residents, the modern day residents of Spynke Road are probably more than happy for that to be the only drone they need to worry about, as will become apparent later on.

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 Kenner Boba Fett with a chewed right arm was being assigned a shallow grave, we found something metallic glinting in the soil. Something far, far more interesting than everybody’s favourite bounty hunter from a galaxy far, far away.

To our surprise we had dug up what looked like – to our untrained eyes – a very large bullet and it looked in fairly good condition. We scraped off all the muck and marvelled at our garden find, this was indeed a very big bullet. Excitedly, we went inside with our new ‘toy’ only to be told by my friend’s parents that we ought to take it for a stroll down to the Castle Museum and let them take a look at it, as it might be of interest to them. And that is exactly what we did, we headed straight towards the city centre clutching our new find. Back in the 1980’s you could go through the main entrance of the Castle, via a large wooden revolving door, turn immediately right and knock on a thick-looking wooden side door. After a few moments the door would creek open and 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 shell that had most likely come from the nearby Horsham St Faith Airfield (Now Norwich ‘International‘ Airport). She also told us that it would probably be wiser if we allowed them to keep hold of it, seeing at it was still a live round and quite a dangerous item for two 10 year old children to be playing with.

We agreed and handed it over and were just happy to have found something of interest to somebody important-looking from within the castle and we headed off home satisfied. We never really put too much thought into how this large, live round had made it’s way from Horsham St Faiths an into a back garden here in Mile Cross, over a mile away from the runway. “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. Oh to be 10 again…

Now, winding back the clock to January 14th, 1945. Four young children are playing in amongst some Raspberry Canes in the back garden of number 14 Spynke Road, which happens to back on to the very same garden my friend and I were playing in some 41 years later. These siblings and their cousin were playing only meters away from my then-future self, and like my friend and I they were innocently doing what kids do, until something unusual caught their attention; a drone. Not the drone of Vauxhall Chevettes and Ford Cortinas struggling up the Boundary that my friend and I were ignoring whilst burying our unwanted Star Wars figures, but the drone of something with a bit more power. What these five youngsters could hear was the unmistakable sound of three Pratt and Whitney radial engines droning away.

This sound wouldn’t have been completely unusual to these youngsters, as just over a mile away was the RAF Horsham St Faith airbase (opened in 1939) and they would have become more than used to the sounds of low-flying aircraft, especially when you know that these homes were directly in line with the final approaches to one of the runways. However, on this particular day something didn’t sound quite right to their young ears, that droning sound of three engines should have been the drone of four.

In 1942 the recently-built airbase just up the road from Mile Cross at 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 this airbase their new home. Part of that force was the 458th Heavy Bombardment Group made up of Consolidated B-24 Liberators which had travelled all the way over from Nevada to the ‘not-so-sleepy-any-more’ Norfolk countryside, just North of the Mile Cross Estate. As the war continued unabated, the people of North Norwich had become accustomed to the sights and sounds of countless RAF and USAAF aircraft circling the city as they left to take the war directly to the Germans and then returning again from their dangerous missions over the occupied continent of Europe. The ones that were lucky enough to make it back that is.

The crew of Lassie Come Home posing next to their war machine.

On January 14th, 1945 One of those American Bombers, a Consolidated Liberator B-24 named “Lassie Come Home” and its crew of nine insanely young Americans, had been one of the twenty-eight aircraft to leave Horsham St Faith that day and their mission was to bomb and destroy the Hermann Goering Works at Halle.

The young crew were; 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 flight was going to plan up until they were well over enemy territory and on approach to their target area when a burst of defensive ‘flak’ fired from the ground by a German Air Defence team caused significant 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 that engine to compensate for the damage. Shortly after, it was noted that engine number two was also beginning to smoke but was still usable. Undeterred, the crew decided to push on, managing to successfully drop their ordnance over the target area, before turning their ailing bomber around to make for their long and perilous journey home. The journey would be extra perilous for its crew now that their bomber was having to limp home with significant damage, engine number one now completely out of action and engine number two still smoking. The young pilot, Stanley Diehl and his crew were relieved to have accomplished their mission, but with their compromised aircraft 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 up there in the dangerous skies over Europe, having the company of no less than eight fighter escorts to fend off any unwanted attention from any Luftwaffe fighters who might be up for an easy kill. Being equidistant to the safety of Horsham St Faith and another safe runway in Belgium, the crew unanimously voted to head for England. At this rate and without any further issues, they’d be back in time for some well-earned tea.

At 1528 Lassie Come Home crossed over the sandy beaches of the Norfolk Coast and the crew must have been relieved to be flying over the friendly Norfolk fields and almost home to safety, despite having to struggle with a badly damaged aircraft. Because of the damage to their aircraft and the necessity for getting the crew safely back on the ground as quickly as possible, priority landing was granted to them and the pilot began to circle over the northern edges of the city so that he could line his bomber up for the final approach to the runway at Horsham, bringing the large silver bomber in low over Mile Cross.

It was during the final left turn that the already damaged engine number two (pictured above behind the crew) finally gave up the ghost and cut out completely at the most inopportune moment. With both engines on the banked wing suddenly out of action, the force of the two remaining engines on the opposite wing caused the plane to roll over in an instant, putting their crippled bomber into an uncontrollable and inverted dive at low altitude. The young pilot, Stanley Diehl would have had little time to react and his efforts would have been in vain, but what Stanley Diehl did manage to do in his final few moments and in the face of his inevitable death was to kill the engines to reduce the possibility of a fuel-explosion on impact with the ground and these were the final actions of a brave, young man with so much responsibility on his shoulders.

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 unusual drone I mentioned earlier, and it was obvious to these children that something wasn’t right. Richard looked up to see that the sky had suddenly darkened and that he was now in the shadow of the inverted bomber, silver and black, hurtling towards the children playing innocently in the back garden. He tried to make a run for it but had no time.

The wreckage of Lassie Come Home in the rear garden. Taken from a rear garden of Rye Avenue.

Richard came-to a few minutes later laying in a neighbours garden, two doors away from where they had been playing, surrounded by twisted pieces of wreckage, ammunition belts and flames. One of the neighbours came to his rescue, hurriedly carrying him back through the carnage, through the house and out into the street where he was put into an awaiting ambulance. Dick didn’t know it at the time, but not all of the children had survived this awful accident.

Dick’s cousin, Brian who was an unfortunate victim of the plane crash and another innocent casualty of war.

Richard’s sister, Mary and their cousin Brian (pictured above) were both killed instantly as the stricken bomber ploughed into that circle of gardens between Spynke Road, Bolingbroke Road and Rye Avenue, as were eight of the nine crew inside Lassie Come Home. In an instant ten young lives were taken in what was a truly tragic and unfortunate set circumstances. This is the price of War.

The bomber had been witnessed coming down by many people in the area, all of whom rushed to the scene to be met with a scene of tragic devastation. One of those people rushing to the scene of the accident was the father of the family who were living here at number 14. Little did he know what he was rushing home to and as a father myself, I can’t even begin to comprehend what he was met with when he arrived at the scene of devastation in the back garden of his home.

The scene of the accident in the back garden of Spynke Road. Rye Avenue and Boundary Road can be seen in the background.

Surprisingly, the Tail-Gunner; Norton ‘Foggy’ Lawson had survived the crash and was pulled from the wreckage in one piece. The tail section he was occupying being the only recognisable part of the aircraft after it had smashed into the ground. After a bit of rest and recuperation Norton 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, no doubt with many stories to tell.

Today the crash 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 missed 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.

The plaque, mounted to the wall of the house on Spynke Road.

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 whose lives had been so tragically turned upside down by that massive bomber falling into their garden, dug up something whilst gardening. It was a gold wedding ring from one of those poor crew members. She walked the ring up to the to the airbase to return it. Imagine the emotions that this must have stirred up for her and the agony she must have gone through during that long walk up Cromer Road.

I go back now to that warm summer’s day back in the 1980’s when my friend and I unearthed that live round in his back garden. Whilst doing my research for this tragic story it suddenly became obvious to me that this large bullet had also come from the wreckage of Lassie Come Home. It would have been one of the many rounds of ammunition for the thirteen .50 defensive machine guns located throughout the aircraft’s fuselage. When observing that image of the mangled wreckage scattered about the gardens behind Spynke Road I realised that my friend’s house and its back garden were in the photograph, directly behind the wreckage of Lassie Come 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. Once again these little pieces of our own local histories become entwined together in surprising ways.

After having a brief chat with the current occupant of number 14 – who kindly allowed me into his garden a year or so back – he told me that he still finds rounds of ammunition, bits of twisted aluminium and little pieces of that tragic story to this day, if he digs his garden too deeply, so he doesn’t dig too deeply any more.

After posting the first part of this story onto social media a few years back, one of the many people who commented on it was a chap named Dick Kemp. Dick (Richard) Kemp was the young lad whose garden the plane came down onto and it was his sister and cousin who were killed along with those American Airmen. I was gob-smacked. Shortly after, Dick sent me an email asking if I’d forward him the story so that he could share it with his extended family. Of course I obliged and emailed it over. It was another one of those fantastic moments where somebody who I’d been researching or photographing the history of had appeared to me in person, just like when the late David Jackson appeared at one of my photographic exhibitions a few years ago at Melton Constable.

Whilst I had Dick’s attention I thought I’d chance my arm and ask him if he’d mind sharing his thoughts and memories of that tragic incident from his childhood and luckily, for me (and you lot out there reading this) he was more than happy to tell us his side of the story (and a bit more). It’s a fascinating insight into life on the Estate during the War, including the day that tragedy that fell upon his family – literally – from the perspective of a Mile Cross child and I shall share it with you, below. Take a read and I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it’s a very touching and thought-provoking collection of memories:

A War Baby remembers!

Those of us born during World War Two had no knowledge of what life was like in peacetime, so when it was dusk it was normal to close the blackout blinds or curtains to stop the enemy planes from seeing our lights shining out through the window panes that had been criss-crossed with tape to stop the shattered glass fragments flying into the room when the blast from a nearby bomb hit them. Few people owned cars and those who did couldn’t use them because petrol was strictly rationed, so it was bikes or buses. Of course food was strictly rationed as well and we had never seen a banana, orange or grapes. Then there were the air raid alarms, when they wailed and whined we were dragged out of bed, the planes usually came at night in darkness. My Dad and Mum would wrap us in blankets and carry us down the stairs to the shelter. One night my half asleep Dad dropped me and broke my nose. The Anderson shelter was made of corrugated iron and half buried in the garden, with a narrow entrance covered with a blanket. Inside was a narrow bunk for us 4 kids and a bench for our parents. It was cold and damp and lit by a candle. When the siren stopped we waited, was it a false alarm or were they coming?

Some times they flew over Norwich to bomb Coventry or the Midlands and if they couldn’t find their targets they would dump their bombs on Norwich on their way back home. So we waited for the sound of the planes, some times we would here the boom of bombs in the distance and secretly think that’s good, they can’t drop those ones on us. I think there nearest bombs to fall near Spynke Road where we lived were around Bignold Road because I could see the shattered houses there on my way to the Norman Infant School.
Of course we saw a lot of bomb damage if we took the bus in to the City centre, there were masses of craters with a giant hole were Debenhams now is and all the buildings across from the Bell Hotel had been blasted.
My Dad would wait until he heard the planes on their way back to Germany, then he would go back to our house to make cocoa while we  called out ” Come back, Dad, come back to the shelter!”, scared he would get killed out of the shelter.
So Spynke Rd escaped any damage, although the V2 rocket that landed in Boundary Woods blew out some Windows. We were all sitting listening to the wireless when the was an enormous bang that shook the house and shook the Windows, Dad shouted “Lay on the floor”, we waited for more but that was it. Until the next day when Beryl who was 12 came home dragging a 6 foot length of V2 rocket, it was aluminium so she could!
The hole the rocket made in Boundary Woods was so deep and big we use to go sledging down it when there was snow which was every winter. We lived in Spynke Road because Dad was offered the house as an inducement to leave his employers in Suffolk, Richard Garrets of Leiston, who had made the steam engine powered dustcarts that Norwich Corporation had purchased, to move to Norwich to maintain them. Dad was appointed foreman of the Dustcart Maintenance Department in Fishergate.

Spynke Road was a rather “well to do” area with Councillor Cutbush, who was Lord Mayor twice I think lived at No.4. Dad was on duty as a Firewatchman at Fishergate on the Sunday it all happened.
It was January 1945, the war was nearly over with Allied troops approaching Germany but for my family the war was just about to start! We went to afternoon Sunday school regularly but we’d been to a friends party on Saturday and Mary, my twin, had been sick in the night so this was a good excuse to miss Sunday school. My cousin Brian Jones, who lived in Marshall road came to play with us. The Jones family had lived in Newmarket but had been bombed out there, his sister losing her arm and his mother peppered with shrapnel so they came back to Norwich.
It was a bright afternoon and my two older sisters, Beryl and Margaret were playing with us in the back garden. We heard a loud engine noise which got louder when suddenly a huge silver wall with small black holes appeared between the gap in the houses between No12 and No14. It looked just like the back wall of the Capitol cinema where I had been twice, the black holes reminding me of where the films were projected.
Our older sisters ran back to the house, toward it. Its wing hit the roof and bedrooms of No12 and we ran away from it, to where the plane hit the ground. Mary and Brian were killed along with all but one of the crew. I was blown clear and woke up several gardens away with a damaged face and leg, still got the scars. If I shut my eyes I can still see the string of machine gun bullets hanging off a fence wire just in front of me. I remember being carried past the wreckage, the engines standing on end on fire, I thought they were dustbins, up to our kitchen door but then to my surprise through the house and out to a khaki camouflaged ambulance.

When I got out of the Jenny Lind Children’s hospital and came home I was sleeping downstairs and for weeks looking out of the Windows could see the oval tail plane of the Liberator with its stripe. Sad to say many people came through the open doors of our house, to help, to carry out the dead, put out the fires and to steal the few valuable things that my parents kept upstairs.

The G.I.’s at Horsham St Faiths air base, upset that they’d lost their mates and distressed at what had happened to a local family, sort of adopted us and would bring us candy (Non-existent in the UK then) strange fruit, bananas, oranges and clearly, as young guys missing a family contact, became good friends. We kept in touch over many years when they went back home.
Looking back from a distance of 72 years I’m amazed how people coped and just got on with it. I wonder how they would survive now??

And there you have it, what a wonderful and tragic insight into the events that unfolded on that unfortunate January afternoon in Mile Cross, seven decades ago. Many thanks to Dick for writing all of those memories down for us, it must be a heavy thing to have lived with for all those years and for the younger generations we can only try and imagine how it must have been living under the cloud of war. Hopefully, it’s something that as a nation we’ll never have to suffer again. Stories like this really help to convey the hardships and the heartache of it all, even if it is only just scratching at the surface. Dick did say to me that he was relieved to unload those memories and he’s glad that he wrote them down for us.

Dick wasn’t the only person to have been a part of this story and to have read it and a week or so after releasing the second part of this story a few years back, I was contacted by one of the relatives of the only surviving airman from this tragic tale, the tail-gunner, Norton Lawson. His niece, Mary Lawson Spada wrote me a message to say that her uncle was still with us and that she would email the blog entry to Norton’s son so that he could show it to him, which I thought was a nice touch.

A year later, another chap named Kenneth Hyland got in touch to tell me that he was the nephew of Sgt. Vincent Hyland, who was one of those young Americans that sadly didn’t survive the crash. He told me that his Dad, Vincent’s brother, never got to know the full story of how his brother had died during the war and that he had died believing that his brother was lost when Lassie Come Home came down in the North Sea. He also told me that young Vincent was buried in the American Cemetery at Cambridge.

So thanks again to Dick Kemp and the relatives of those unlucky airmen for getting in touch to give this tale a personal touch, and thanks to you lot for taking the time to read these pieces, it means a lot. I’d also like to send thanks to Darin Scorza for kindly allowing me to use the images above. If you like a bit of USAAF history I fully recommend taking a look at his fascinating website dedicated to the 458th Bomber Group, honouring those who sacrificed so much in WW2: 458bg.com .

Stu

9 thoughts on “Lassie almost made it home.

  1. This is just plain bl..dy brilliant. As well as having a big connection with MX i have a small connection with Spynke Rd. My family lodged in Spynke Rd before moving to Tuckswood. My mum had been pregnant with me!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another great read. I only wish that I could share it with my late father who used to give talks to local groups about growing up in Mattishall during the war and his interactions with the local US servicemen.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful story. Richard is my uncle Dick. My mother Margaret has shared her memories of this event many times with me. To this day she hates the sound of sirens.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article! The V2 that landed in Boundary Woods buried the shelter containing my Grandmother & Uncle living in Hercules Road. They were dug out by the neighbours. One person was killed I believe. In later years my Uncle & his friends saw a man walking his dog in the woods who disappeared into thin air. They went to Mile Cross Police Station to report it. Apparently an apparition?
    My Grandmother and her neighbour were also fired at by a low flying enemy aircraft but luckily escaped injury.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s amazing story. I’m living in the US but This plane landed in my family’s garden. My grandmother Margret Kemp and uncle dick Kemp were there. My grandmother moved the the us when she was 17. This is the most wild family history. Both of them are still alive to this day.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Great piece of work. Such a sad story. My son wondered why it was not well known. I said it was probably lost in all the horrors of the war amongst the millions of lives ruined and changed forever.
    Very important tragedies like this are remembered.

    Like

  6. My grandfather, Dr Anthony O’Donovan, was a doctor who lived at Mile Cross House, 345 Aylsham Road, and he was one of the first on the scene. This is my mother’s (Mary Dorey’s) account:
    “I was 9 years old, living at Mile Cross House, Aylsham Road, in Norwich. I was helping my father wash the car outside the garage and a plane roared overhead, looking enormous. Then I realised it was far too low. I could see its underbelly. It had all happened too quickly for me to feel scared, but in hindsight there was a feeling of heaviness and oppression in the sky.
    My father must have realised there would be a crash, and sent me indoors, saying that he would be needed over the road. I heard the sound of the crash on my way into the house. My father was a doctor in the Home Guard and often had to get to the scenes of crashes or sites of bombings.
    He came back looking very serious, sat down at the breakfast room table and asked for a cup of tea. He talked to my mother about it in low tones, so I couldn’t hear the details. This has always stayed with me and was the worst event in my war”.

    Liked by 1 person

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