Christchurch Mayor visits the FONFA Museum

The Museum Open Day on Sunday 14th October was a ‘Red Letter’ Day. when the FONFA Trustees welcomed Councillor Lesley Dedman, the Mayor of Christchurch, on an official Mayoral visit to the New Forest Airfields Museum at Bransgore.                                                  She has family Service connections and has held a longstanding interest in local education, so as keen to see what we are able to offer young people, through the various exhibits, models, memorabilia and limited edition prints housed in the Museum.                              The Mayor spent almost two hours on a guided Museum tour, accompanied by Dr. Henry Goodall, FONFA Chair of Trustees, and met long serving Trustees John Brooks and Lynn Corbin, who were also in attendance.                                                                                                  
We hope that this visit will promote new contacts with more local schools, through her personal interest and recommendations, and that this will in turn lead to us being able to expand our outreach to the local community, with greater publicity and community involvement in the work of our Heritage Charity, going forward.                                                  Our aim thereby is to tell the story and spread the knowledge of our local WWII aviation heritage far and wide, to all young people in the New Forest area, by informing and educating them about the dedication and heroism of past generations, without whose sacrifices, they would not enjoy the freedoms that they do, today.

 

 

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New Memorial to Stoney Cross pilots unveiled in France.

Many of you familiar with our website will have read Olivier Le Floch’s Newsletters, chronicling the life and times of the American 367th Fighter Group, in WWII, who were based at Stoney Cross and Ibsley, between April and July 1944. Olivier is active in searching out information and crash sites in France and in making contact with living relatives of the Group’s pilots in the USA. He has kindly sent us the report below, about a recent ceremony in France honouring the pilots, held in July. (His report is supplemented by details from the Group’s history, ‘The Dynamite Gang’ by Richard Groh – ed. Henry Goodall)On June 17, 1944, the US 9th Air Force’s 367th Fighter Group launched aircraft from all three squadrons of single seat, twin engined, twin tailed fighter-bomber P-38J Lightning, a few minutes apart, from their Stoney Cross base in the Southampton area, in the south of England. The stakes were high, when all three squadrons were assigned to the same mission. Fifty-two pilots left to bomb different targets in the area of Dreux, Evreux and Epernon. The targets are railway lines, railway bridges and yards. Since the Allied landings in Normandy had commenced only 11 days earlier, the attack on these targets was part of the plan to prevent German reinforcements and equipment from being sent to the front.

However, the mission was unsuccessful, as the Group’s history, ‘The Dynamite Gang’, records, and many aircraft failed to reach their objectives. Flying beneath a 3000 foot overcast, the airmen of the 367th Fighter Group were suddenly attacked by eight German Messerschmitt bf109  fighters in the vicinity of Châteauneuf-en-Thymerais, Maillebois and Dampierre-sur-Blevy, 55 miles west south west of Paris.  The experienced Germans made one pass before climbing into the cloud to repeat their attack. In the confusion, the inexperienced American pilots jettisoned their bombs and some broke away from the formation.

Leading the 393rd Fighter Squadron, Captain Joe Griffin engaged in a wild chase with a bf109 at tree top height, eventually driving the German into an even tighter turn, in which he stalled and spun in. Joe made a pass over the crashed bf109 but saw no signs of life. He had not fired a shot at his adversary, but had simply outflown him. In the ensuing mêlée, Lieutenant Earl Peters of 393rd Fighter Squadron managed to shot down one of the enemy fighters. Unfortunately, he was himself shot down a short time later, having been seen by the other pilots with an engine streaming smoke. His plane crashed landed on the town of Maillebois. Another pilot of the same squadron, Lieutenant George White, was also shot down in flames towards Dampierre-sur-Avre.

In his attempts to support the pilots already engaged in this dogfight, Lieutenant Henry Gillespie of the 392nd Fighter Squadron, who had been flying as top cover for the Group, led his flight down and dived into the battle, but was swiftly shot down. He crashed landed with his Lightning in the town of Dampierre-sur-Blevy, but was killed in the impact. The Americans shot down two other German fighters before the end of the fight. The final score was ‘a score draw’, three planes lost on each side.

This dogfight was the first true aerial combat for the 367th Fighter Group. The Americans considered that the loss of three of theirs for three Germans was a terrible price to pay. However, the engagement showed that the Group could hold their own in combat with the much more experienced Luftwaffe airmen, but that there was a lot of room for improvement.  It is sobering to recall that the Group lost a further nine pilots over the next five days, all but one on June 22nd, due to ground fire. This amounted to ten per cent of the ninety lost in total, during the whole of the Group’s year in Europe.

Having bombed the Cherbourg area with relative impunity between June 17th and 22nd, when the worst summer storm in 40 years lashed the Normandy coast, destroying the American ‘Mulberry’ harbour beyond repair, Colonel Charles Young led the Group at low level into the same area on 22nd June. The defenders threw up a devastating wall of flak.

Out of the seventeen 392nd Fighter Squadron aircraft led by Major ‘Buck’ Rogers on the mission, only seven emerged undamaged. Lieutenant Delbert Smith’s aircraft was badly hit; he managed to make it back to one of the Allied Advanced Landing Grounds, recently established near the Normandy coast. Twisting and turning at very low level, to avoid the flak, Lieutenant Eugene Fleming “flew full bore into a tree”. With both engine intakes clogged with leaves and branches, he was forced to fly home on alternate engines, turning them on and off to avoid overheating.  A long lonely flight across the Channel, after which he landed back successfully at Stoney Cross.

Lieutenants Earl Peters and Henry Gillespie were subsequently buried next to each other in the local cemetery of Dampierre-sur-Blevy on June 21st, 1944. Their bodies were relocated in 1946 to the Blosville Provisional US Military Cemetery near Carentan in Normandy before being finally buried in the American Cemetery of Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer, which is today the permanent American Battle Monuments Commission Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, which lies on the bluffs above the WWII D-Day Omaha Beach landing site. Lieutenant Earl Peters was from San Diego and Lieutenant Henry Gillespie was from El Paso, Texas.

Lieutenant George White’s body was moved to the temporary cemetery of Saint-André de l’Eure before being buried in the Saint-Laurent-sur-Mer cemetery. Lieutenant White was from Philadelphia. In June 2004, the French ‘Forced Landing’ association helped to organise a ceremony in honour of Lieutenant George White. A plaque in his honour was inaugurated by his wife, Mickey.

This year, on July 7th 2018, the French ‘Forced Landing’ Association also helped to organise a ceremony to honour Lieutenants Earl Peters and Henry Gillespie. A plaque was also inaugurated. It was unveiled by Earl Peters, the nephew of Lieutenant Peters. Earl and his wife Karen made the trip from northern California to attend the dedication. The French veterans of the area attended the ceremony, holding the French flag.

After the ceremony Earl and Karen were taken to the cemetery where the two pilots were initially buried and next to Lieutenant Peters’ crash site.Credit: Olivier Le Floch, with additional information from ‘The Dynamite Gang’ – Richard Groh ISBN 0-8168-9770-0. Pictures: Earl and Karen Peters during the ceremony, the Veterans during the speeches, Earl and Karen Peters with the plaque inaugurated on July 7th 2018.

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The Olivier Le Floch Newsletters – Issue No. 14

This month’s Issue is Number 14 in the series. Those of you who read Olivier’s ‘Issue 13’ will be familiar with the level of detail and intimate descriptions of life for members of the US 367th Fighter Group, during and immediately after their transition from the relative calm and safety of the New Forest airfields, to the more uncertain and demanding existence on the hastily prepared front line Advanced Landing Grounds, among the age old hedges and banks of the ancient Normandy ‘Bocage’ countryside.

Issue 14 contains more personal stories and some rare colour photographs, never before published outside of the Group members and their families, and we are truly privileged to host these unique recollections on the FONFA website.  A few of the photos have found their way onto the Internet, but many will be new to our readers and to the wider world.

It is not widely appreciated nowadays that colour film (early Kodachrome) was not generally available outside of official Signal Corps channels, even in the American forces, so these colour photos are of great significance, even if the colour balance is not up to modern standards. Very few press reporters were ever flown on a bombing raid, especially in a P-38, so these photos are unique, in more ways than one.

The Issue ends with 1944 Christmas Menus and a very personal message to the 392nd Fighter Squadron personnel, a kaleidoscopic sequence of snapshot memories of the nine months past, for reflection, and to give thanks, for their survival.

The western end of the runway at A-10 Carentan (392nd Fighter Squadron’s first base in July 1944) was submerged decades ago, under the new N13 Cherbourg to Bayeux route, (on the right in the photo below, which was taken standing on the centre line of the WWII and present grass runway, looking east), but most of it survives today as a grass airstrip for light aircraft, alongside the new Normandy Victory Museum, which is well worth a visit, to see its life size dioramas and many well displayed documents, depicting both military and civilian life and experiences, in those dark days of 1944.The original wooden village sign still welcomes visitors to the airfield site, alongside the approach road!Finally, the YouTube links are well worth viewing, especially the sequences, shot by two separate photographers, showing Generals Eisenhower and Quesada arriving at A-2 Criqueville, in a converted P-51B Mustang. They didn’t seem to worry much about smoking restrictions around fuelled aircraft, in those days!

Note also the dust, the basic living conditions, the impromptu rodeo with local horses, the camouflaged aircraft dispersals, the medal ceremony conducted in a small field and the young pilots, all around twenty years old. The exuberance of the young P-51 pilots is wholly understandable, ‘beating up’ the airstrip at Criqueville, when they were being given the equivalent of today’s Formula 1 racing cars to play with, even if their lives were on the line daily, for months on end.

Newsletter 367th Fighter Group_issue14

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FONFA Museum Open Days – Sunday 14th October

On Sunday 14th October, the FONFA Museum at Bransgore BH23 8AU will have an Open Day from 10 am to 4 pm. Light refreshments are available for visitors, on Open Days. Free Parking for visitors is available adjacent to the Museum. N.B. New Members joining in October will receive Membership for the whole of 2019 included.

Entry is either free, on production of your FONFA Membership Card, or via a donation for non-Members of a minimum of £7.50 for adults and £3 for 10 -16 year olds (Entry is Free to ‘under 10s’). Service Veterans (having served before 1961) are admitted on a concessionary rate of £3, on production of their Service ID.                                                                                                                Please be prepared to make your donation in cash, as we have no credit card facilities, being only a small Charity. Thank you. 

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Unusual Find at WWII Holmsley South Airfield – Donated to FONFA

Last week, while carrying out a ‘litter pick’ in some undergrowth and cleaning up the Holmsley Camp Site, the Site staff came across an interesting unknown object in good condition. It was a standard Nissen Hut light shade fitting, many tens of thousands of which were manufactured for use in Service premises and on RAF airfields, during World War II. They were normally suspended from the ceiling, to give light over a wide area.  The dark green gloss paint is mostly in good condition after 60+ years in the undergrowth. The electric shroud fitting is corroded and the white inside and edge is stained with some rust but, given that it has spent the interim in the open, it is in remarkable condition. They were used everywhere, from offices to radio sites; parachute packing blocks to latrines. In order that the largest number of people can view this artefact, the Holmsley Camp Site has kindly donated it to FONFA, for display in the Museum. We are grateful to them and in particular appreciate the support of Lou Barry, who alerted us to the find.                      We will display it with photographs of how the fittings were used; yet another important original piece of local history to add to our growing collection of WWII memorabilia.

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The Olivier LeFloch Newsletters – Issue No. 13

This month’s 367th Fighter Group Newsletter contains descriptions of the various movements of the American Group’s units, from leaving their English base at Ibsley and making their different journeys across the English Channel. This was done by various means, as the three Squadrons were split up initially, on their arrival in Normandy, going to three different newly built airstrips (Advanced Landing Grounds). The ‘hurry up and wait’ of service life is amply illustrated, thanks to personal recollections and the photos of the late Clyde Deavers. The second part of this description will be published in Newsletter Number 14, in two months’ time.

Next, a section on investigating a crash site in France, with photographs. This is followed by some typed menus and messages from the Thanksgiving Meals that the Group had in November 1944, courtesy of Vern Truemper, a former pilot with the 367th FG.                  The Newsletter continues with a tribute to 2nd Lt James Parker, 394th Fighter Squadron.

Finally there is a link to the US Ninth Air Force Engineer Command, who built airfields in France, for the Group and many others, which you may wish to follow, to learn about these unsung heroes, who often worked close to the front line, within shell range of enemy artillery, whose sole mission was to make their lives hell. Make sure you check out the link http://www.ixengineercommand.com/video/index.php

Click on ‘Videos’ on the list at the left hand side of the page. Scroll down to ‘Transportable Runway’ for a description of how to build a Pierced Steel Plank (PSP) runway for an Advanced Landing Ground.

However, above this clip, make sure you play the clip headed  “I’ve been working on an airfield” to learn something I don’t expect you ever expected to see or hear. Don’t miss it!

Newsletter 367th Fighter Group_issue13

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Harley Davidson Riders’ Visit to FONFA Museum – 17th June 2018

On Sunday 17th June – Father’s Day -the UK Harley Davidson Riders visited the FONFA Museum at Bransgore, on one of their scheduled weekend runs. Twenty one riders brought their varied motorcycles to the Museum and enjoyed a couple of hours, being shown the Museum exhibits by John Brooks, Trustee and former Chairman of FONFA.

We have a shared interest in quality engineering and history, so the Trustees hope that this will become an annual event, to be enjoyed by all.

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