On this day in 1944, the Freckleton Air Disaster occurs. It has been called the “single greatest civilian air disaster suffered by the Allies in World War II.” Sixty-one people were killed, including thirty-eight children.
And it all happened because a sudden thunderstorm took the United States Army Air Forces off guard.
At this point in the war, Americans had an air depot in the United Kingdom, near the small towns of Warton and Freckleton. The purpose of the depot (“BAD2”) was to maintain, modify, and repair aircraft that were fighting in the European Theater. By the spring of 1944, BAD2 housed so many American servicemen that the area came to be known as “Little America.”
These men were heroes, operating behind the scenes! Because of their work, Allied forces were able to maintain air superiority during many European conflicts.
Unfortunately, tragedy struck BAD2 and the community that had welcomed our servicemen. It did so in August 1944, just as the Allies were celebrating many important victories in Europe.
Nothing seemed unusual about the morning of August 23. First Lt. John Bloemendal was supposed to test a newly refurbished B-24 Liberator. The weather forecast wasn’t too threatening, merely predicting “some early sunshine and light clouds followed by rain showers later in the morning.” The flight was scheduled for 8:30.
If only the schedule had been kept! Instead, Bloemendal got a call just as he was preparing to depart. The flight was delayed while he took care of some items that were his responsibility as “Officer of the Day.”
The delay was relatively short, but it proved to be deadly.
When Bloemendal returned, it was cloudy and drizzling. The weather still didn’t seem too serious, though, and Bloemendal’s flight took off at 10:30. Another test pilot, Peter Manassero, took off at the same time in a different B-24.
Once in the air, the pilots could see that trouble was approaching. They spotted an ominous looking cloud formation, headed their way. Both aircraft were immediately recalled.
The weather deteriorated fast! As the pilots prepared to land, Manassero radioed to Bloemendal that “we had better head north and get out of the storm.” Bloemendal agreed. Manassero cleared the storm within a matter of minutes, but Bloemendal was already gone.
His plane had crashed into Freckleton.
To this day, no one knows exactly what happened. At least two witnesses think the B-24 was struck by lightning. Others say they saw the plane flying with its wings vertical. An intercepted transmission suggests that Bloemendal’s controls had gone haywire. Regardless of the cause, the plane tore through a local café, killing 18. Then it slid into the infants’ wing of a school. The whole area erupted in flames.
“There was such a loud crash,” one survivor later said. “Like all hell let loose. And I looked back and saw a young girl fall out of her desk, so I got under my desk.” Two men rescued the then-5-year-old Ruby Whittle (now Currell): her headmaster and an American serviceman.
Aren’t there always heroes in the midst of such tragedies? Many of our servicemen raced to the crash site to help. At one point, some of them climbed a school wall to get to stranded children. They handed kids over the wall to their colleagues on the other side. Their efforts were enough to save many of the older children, but almost everyone in the infants’ wing was lost.
It was a tragic day. Sadly, news of the disaster was largely lost. The world was instead focused on the Allied victories in Europe.