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The B24 that flew home for Christmas

B-24J Liberator Bold Venture III
Serial: 42-0675
467th Bombardment Group
Pilot: 1st Lt Paul Ehrlich
Date: 25th December 1944
Place: Vowchurch, Herefordshire, UK

On the afternoon of December 25th 1944, Ivor Davies and his family at Lower House Farm, Vowchurch, Herefordshire, had just finished Christmas lunch. Tuning the wireless for the King’s speech, they were interrupted by a strange noise. Herefordshire was blanketed in thick fog, so when Ivor went out to investigate, twenty yards visibility made it difficult to see anything at all.  An hour and a half’s fruitless search for what he had now heard was a plane crash led him in a wide circle around his land. It was only when following the road back to the farm that he stumbled into the smashed remains of a huge bomber blocking his drive, only a few yards from his house. The authorities were already on the scene, and despite flying boots and pieces of personal kit being found in the fuselage, there was no sign of the crew.

Five hundred miles away, The German offensive in the Ardennes had taken the Allies by surprise, and terrible winter weather had prevented application of their total air superiority. This changed over Christmas, and on the morning of Christmas day, 1944, B-24 Liberators of the 788th Bombardment Squadron, 467th Bomb Group set off from their base at Rackheath, Norfolk, bound for German transport links at Müsch.

Amongst them was Liberator 42-50675, named Boldventure III by her crew. Her pilot, 1st Lt Paul Ehrlich, takes up the story:

On that fateful December 25, 1944 we were briefed to bomb a railroad crossing in Gerolstein, Germany. The briefing officer had told us that we would encounter light anti-aircraft shelling and that no fighter aircraft would be despatched against us. Well the intelligence information was totally incorrect. On the way to the target, we were hit by a lot of flak (88mm) and I lost my rudder control, presumably because of a severed control cable. Then the German fighters hit us, and I was wounded, the worst was in the chin. I was semi-conscious and deemed it best to evacuate the aircraft. I rang the alarm bell for the crew, engaged the auto-pilot and left by the bomb bay. I became a POW and sat out the remaining months as a ‘guest of the German government”.

Unfortunately, only the flight deck crew heard the bail out order. The rest of the crew, front and rear, carried on with the mission, unaware they were in a pilotless plane. Gunner Staff Sergeant Feeney saw two chutes below him, but didn’t realise they were his pilots:

“…we were attacked by fighters. Just after this I saw two chutes about a thousand feet below and back of us. At about that time the plane lurched up and to the left and I called to the pilot to get us back into formation. I did not pay much attention to it when he did not answer because everything seemed to be under control.”

 Report given by 2nd Lt John Beyer, Bombardier.

“The mission was uneventful until about halfway down the bomb run, when the ship sustained flak damage on the tail section. The pilots then complained that the rudder control was stiff and later from their conversation I gathered that they had no rudder control. The bomb run was successfully completed and the rally was under way when enemy fighters (Folke-Wulf 190s and Messerschmitt 109s) attacked our squadron. Almost immediately number 2 propeller ‘ran away’ and there was a series of short rings on the alarm bell. The Navigator and I removed our flak suits and put on our chest pack parachutes. In doing so our inter-phone connections were severed for several minutes. In the meantime number 2 engine had been feathered and the ship was flying along normally. However we helped the Pilotage Navigator out of the nose turret and helped him remove his flak suit and adjust his chute. Noticing that we had left the formation the navigator gave the pilots a heading to fly. It was then that we learned that the pilots had bailed out. We went up to the flight deck and discovered that the pilot, co-pilot, radio operator and engineer had bailed out through the bomb bays, which were still open. The ship was flying on auto-pilot and making a slow circle to the left and at the time was heading back to Germany. The navigator set the auto-pilot to a heading of 270 degrees. We contacted the gunners in the waist who had not heard the alarm bell and told them what the situation was, we intended to fly into France and bail out when we were certain that we were far from the battle lines.  After flying for about 30 minutes the navigator said we were deep enough into friendly territory to bail out. Six of us bailed out and landed several miles South of Valencennes. To the best of my knowledge the pilot, co-pilot, radio operator and engineer had bailed out approximately 10 miles North of St. Vith.”

Bold Venture III, true to it’s name, flew on across France, over the Channel and across the whole width of England, before interrupting the King’s speech with her arrival on Vowchurch Common.

The crash caused a sensation in the rural Vale of Ewyas, Ivor describing how people he had never seen before came to gawp, hundreds of them! The recovery crew were billeted at the farm, and let Ivor sit in the remains of the flight deck “Just fancying I was flying him like.” He admitted in later years that he had liberated a few .5 machine gun rounds from the wreck. They were a bit small for his shotgun, so he wrapped one in rag so it fitted the barrel. He tried firing it once, but never again! He also picked up a flak helmet, which finished it’s days rusting on a scarecrow’s head.

Vowchurch Common was a pleasant place to spend an afternoon metal detecting, and fifty years after the crash, there were still parts to be found under the turf, tracing the path Bold Venture took across a smallholding and the common. Fired .5 cases from the combat over Germany, one leg of the navigator’s dividers, marked ‘Charvos, USA’ and a label from the prop feathering pump, last used in 1944. Years later, a chance visit to Lower House Farm turned up a much larger relic. Ivor had been doing some fencing work on the edge of the common. Wedged against the base of a post was a Pratt and Whitney cylinder head from one of Bold Venture III’s engines. A tangible piece of an incredible story. More recently, new residents at the small holding, have turned up more pieces of Bold Venture III, when digging their garden.

Simon Parry films for a future documentary. Bold Venture III slid to halt behind him in 1944, blocking the farm track.

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