Sixty-five years ago last week, an American bomber crashed just down the road from here.
The bomber was a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress based out of England. It had a crew of nine, all of whom survived the crash. It hit between the villages of Heufurt (which is about 2km from here) and Nordheim (which is about 5 km further down the Streu).
In the last post, I noted that the valley of the Streu had very little military significance. This was a good thing for the crew, because -- other than sending their sons away, and rationing and the like -- the war had not much touched this region. No bombs had fallen on Nordheim or Heufurt or Fladungen. So the bomber crew were not killed on the spot by enraged civilians with clubs and pitchforks -- which was a thing that happened, some places, when a bomber went down too close to the people it had been bombing.
The bomber was part of the 96th Bombardment Group of the 8th US Air Force -- the "Snetterton Falcons", so called after the town nearest their base in Norfolk, England. The Falcons had been bombing an artificial petroleum factory a bit further north and east, in Thuringia.
The pilot of the B-17 seems to have pulled off one of those miracle landings that pepper the annals of WWII aviation. The plane crashed on a wooded hillside, but everyone walked away, and the plane itself was more or less intact.
Which leads to this fascinating digression:
During World War II, after crash-landing or being forced down, approximately 40 B-17s were captured and refurbished by the Luftwaffe with about a dozen put back into the air. Given German markings and codenamed "Dornier Do 200", the captured B-17s were used for clandestine spy and reconnaissance missions by the Luftwaffe, most often used by the Luftwaffe unit known as Kampfgeschwader 200...
Some B-17s kept their Allied markings and were used in attempts to infiltrate B-17 formations and report on their position and altitude. The practice was initially successful, but the Army Air Force combat aircrews quickly developed and established standard procedures to first warn off, and then fire upon any "stranger" trying to join a group's formation. Still other B-17s were used to determine the airplane's vulnerabilities and to train German interceptor pilots in tactics...
The Heufurt plane probably didn't go this route -- according to the locals, it was taken apart piece by piece over six months or so. Since the war only lasted another six months after the crash, I doubt the Luftwaffe was able to do anything with this particular wreck. Still: interesting, no?
Anyway. In the first few hours after the crash, the crew was rounded up and taken away, and the locals descended on the wreck to scavenge anything of value. Keep in mind that this was one of the poorest corners of Germany -- a sort of Bavarian Appalachia -- and that this was the final winter of the war, with almost every male between fifteen and forty off at the front, and belts getting very tight all around. So nobody hesitated to grab what they could before the authorities cordoned it off.
One bit of trivia: the villagers found a large emergency life raft made of... wait for it... rubber. At this point, nobody in the area had seen fresh new rubber in six years. The raft was meticulously, lovingly dissected, to be reborn as hundreds of of shoe soles and aprons. (Live on a farm? You're really going to want a rubber apron come pig-killing time.) A few of the latter were still around a generation later; Claudia's mother, who was born in 1944, can still remember seeing them as a girl.
An eleven-year-old boy found a stick of chocolate. He took it home to his mother: What's this, Mama? It looks, it looks like... food.
And the crew? Well, that's an interesting bit of trivia, too. The local polizei took them into custody, and then they were handed over to the military. When the locals stopped to think about it (which they didn't, much -- they had other problems) they generally assumed that the crew would be 'shot while trying to escape'. After all, nobody liked bomber crews. And the Reich had too many mouths to feed that winter already.
But as it turned out, not. Years later, that eleven-year-old boy who found the chocolate decided to look up the crash. After considerable rummaging, he found out that the entire crew survived; they were taken to a POW camp and got through the war intact. As of last week, one of them -- the navigator, now nearly 90 -- is still alive. He says he'd like to come for a visit.
One last bit of trivia: in my last post, I mentioned the Tower of the Ape here in Fladungen. Well, that's where the crew of the bomber spent the first few days after being captured: in the ancient stone cells of Fladungen's medieval jail. It makes sense, I guess -- there was no other good place to keep them, and the Tower had thick stone walls, narrow barred windows, and heavy old locks.
I suspect it wasn't too comfortable. The Tower isn't heated even today, and Fladungen in late November tends to be grey, chill and dank even when you're not in a dungeon. But on the other hand, things could have been much worse. They stayed there only a little while, nobody came in and shot them, and after a bit they were taken off to the POW camp. And a few of them left their names scratched on the walls of the tower cells, where they can still be seen today. [scroll down]
And that's it for Fladungen's Ape Tower for now.