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Recovery Party Account – Warning; disturbing reading.
The image above is a 1948 photo of the tail of ‘Over Exposed!’ layered over a photo of the crash site taken in 2008. It isn’t an accurate then and now composite. Same with the tail photo below. The other photos were taken by me in 2008.
Below is an account by a serviceman from RAF Harpur Hill near Buxton, who was with the party which cleared the site of human remains and effects the day after the crash.
The author’s name appears to be Allsopp. It is taken from a photocopied report provided by UK Air Crash Site Coordinates (formerly Peak Wreck Hunters) and which may have come originally from Ron Collier. I have typed it up from the copied pages, filling in some of the gaps on the original copy where possible (the bits in brackets are words I have guessed at where the text was illegible).
All 13 US airmen were killed when the Boeing RB29 crashed on Bleaklow. They were flying from RAF Scampton in Lincolnshire to the American depot at Burtonwood, carrying the wages for the base. The men on board were due to return home within days of arriving there. Their recovered bodies were taken to Burtonwood.
The RB designation is because this B-29 bomber was a photo-recon version. I’ve been told the aircraft was named ‘Over Exposed!” after it flew too close to the flash during the nuclear bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in 1946.
In the late afternoon on the 3rd November 1948 the camp was buzzing about an aircraft crash on the moors with a lot of dead personnel. Civilian or military we did not know. The dread was it was civilian and that would involve women and children. The rumours became fact when volunteers were asked for to augment the Mountain Rescue Team. When assembled we were briefed and led by our adjutant Flt Lt E.E ‘Buster’ Allen DFC, a former Battle of Britain pilot.
We set off in the early hours of the 4th to arrive at the assembly point on the Snake Pass before dawn. The Americans were there in force including a group of Military Police in white helmets, webbing, pistols, the lot! The officer in charge had a tailored uniform and half coat with a beaver fur on his shoulders and down his back and when this was gathered and zipped up it became a parka hood. Such quality for military clothing we had never seen before. They all appeared to have an unlimited supply of fags which we took with great alacrity as pay day was due and we had about three woodbines and two dog ends between us.
The American officer was on the radio most of the time trying to persuade some higher authority that he wanted a fleet of helicopters sending in to fetch the bodies. He kept saying “What fucking low cloud? Jesus Christ I can see for miles!” I gathered that the authority did not think that was correct. We could not see the top of the hill above us. At that time helicopters were a rare sight and not very large at that.
He then tried another tack and wanted to know where the nearest US Army heavy construction unit was, to drive a rough road up and across the moor to the crash site to get “some goddam fucking trucks up there and get these poor fucking guys down, there is no way up there for Jesus Christ.”
Well whether or not Jesus Christ could have got up there I do not know but ‘Buster’ Allen was certain we could and he had us off our backside each carrying a stretcher, and off we went into the gloom, up the sodden hillside.
At the top it was like a nightmare assault course, first you were tripping over tufts of grass and heather or sinking into the soggy peat, jumping or going through miniature ravines full of water, or walking miles around the large ones. All the time it was wet. Wet above you and wet below. The stretcher began to weigh a ton and we were sweating so much that we were wet inside our clothing. The walking and stumbling appeared to go on forever in the darkness, you just got to the point of making sure you kept up to the man in front and wondering what lay ahead of us. I had never seen a person that had suffered a violent death.
The light had gradually improved from black to grey and as the mist swirled clear I looked up from the feet in front of me and suddenly I saw it. The huge B-29 tail fin rearing across the desolate moor up into the sky as if a huge gravestone had already been planted in commemoration.
About a quarter of a mile from the bulk of the wreck I began to see huge pieces of metal, equipment and papers scattered around and then I arrived at the rim of the crash centre. The rim had been created by the B-29 ploughing into the moor as if it had tried to bury itself to hide the shame of not being able to fly.
The American Military Police had been placed around the rim of the area and took no part in the recovery operation.
Irregular mounds of white metal from the aircraft as it melted were everywhere, as if a foundry man had gone berserk and using the earth as his moulds had cast these useless shapes all over the site. The centre was a tangled mess of the fuselage with shapes bearing no relation to anything you had ever seen, masses of cable, metal, instruments, seats, equipment of every description, paper everywhere and the bodies of the airmen strewn around as they had been thrown clear of the aircraft on impact in grotesque positions. The four huge engines were flung around, one of them was nearly one hundred feet from the main wreck.
There was also a lingering, smouldering smell everywhere around, slightly sweet, or was it a sickly smell? It appeared and then was gone, a smell you knew but then you could not place it, like a memory of cooked meat but then it was not. It was elusive but persistent all the time I was there.
I remarked on this at a later date and one of the old hands told me what it was; it was the smell of burning human flesh. In later years I have occasionally smelled that same smell for no apparent reason, for a brief moment, then it has gone and in an instant the brain rolls away the years and connects the senses with the memory and that is a scene I shall never forget.
Dominating over all that terrible place was the enormous tail fin of the dead B29, towering twenty five feet high, stark and foreign on that moor against the grey November morning but the only part of the aircraft recognisable.
In what had been the main body, a tangled mass, were two objects that had a different outline to their surroundings, smooth, almost human in shape. Two black plastic window dummies came to mind, an odd thing to be in such an appalling place. I concentrated on these things and slowly realised they were the remains of two men that had been burnt black. One had what appeared to be a square stomach and chest. I was just about to decide that I wanted to run away from this nightmare in front of me when I received a push or maybe a boot at the rear and the voice of Fl Lt Allen bellowing in my ear “Allsopp what the hell are you standing there for… (illegible) Get your finger out and move man…”(illegible)
Training and discipline took control. I ran and joined the others in extracting these ‘things’ from the tangled mass of debris.
The one with the square chest had some aircraft equipment impacted into him at the moment of the crash and it had been fused there by the intense heat of the fire which had consumed his flesh. From then on you just kept busy working, searching, concentrating on just that moment, that task, to stop yourself thinking what you were handling, what ‘it’ had been.
Putting out of your mind that this had been part of a human being, a person who a few short hours previously was walking like you and could have spoken to you. He had been a man with hopes, dreams, wife, children… Just do it, don’t think.
So it went on. I helped to release a body from a chair it was strapped to, maybe 120ft from the main crash. He had not a mark on his body, apart from a broken neck. Others had torn clothing, the flesh pink, dirty, often torn with blood congealed black/brown. Excrement was everywhere around the bodies, often baked hard by the heat. One had the skull split open with the brain half out. Limbs were not in the shapes or positions that they should be and many were missing.
Just keep on, don’t think, pick up wallets, photographs, personal documents, bank notes, most were partly burned, coins, keys, crucifix, lighters and cigarette cases and all the everyday things we all carry. A flying boot that was amazingly heavy when I picked it up; part of the limb had been retained in it.
You worked automatically, there were things to be moved together, bodies ‘Parts Of’ over there, wallets in that box, identity tabs if loose there, watches and jewellery here, so on and so on. We continually went around looking, poking, searching an area again if a body had been there to make sure everything was retrieved for identification and to send back to their next of kin. So it went on until there appeared to be some kind of distorted order and tidiness about the site.
One or two of the team were now within the main air frame where the fire had been intense. Suddenly one of the men shouted something. He shouted again to anyone who might listen, an excited urgent call. We all stopped what we were doing, some started towards him. “Look at this!” He held a cotton bag in one hand and in the other his fist clutched a bundle of what appeared to be bank notes. They were American Dollars.
Instantly the American Military Police descended from the rim and and grabbed the money and the bag and the American officers ran across. The airman was quickly released and after a further examination by the police in the area that it had been found, followed by a consultation with their officers, they left the crash site with the cash.
There was 7,400 Dollars in that bag, the payroll for the Burtonwood base. Not a note was burnt or even singed. Thirteen men had died.
Our stretchers were not needed as the Americans had brought a lot of what they called Body Bags. They were new to us but a very useful piece of equipment. They were probably six or seven foot in length, of a plastic type canvas with handles sewn on and the bodies were put into these and zipped up. We made sure that there was a torso, four limbs and a head in each one.
We eventually got organised and set off down to the Snake. This was not any kinder going down as it was coming up and this time we had the additional task of carrying the bodies in the body bags. One man at each corner, we carried until our arms and fingers became numb. We slithered, stumbled over the rough peat and dragged the bags in and out of water filled ravines, the sides of which were (illegible) that was soft and slimy that clung to you, reluctant to let you go and when your foot was in deep it needed a great effort to release it.
We changed positions often to rest an aching shoulder or a (bloody) hand, and the bags got heavier and heavier. We dragged, pushed, (lifted) and tugged them in and out of water and bog to get them off the moor with little respect or thought of the contents. I learnt what a dead weight was that day.
We eventually reached our base and laid out the burden in rows. We were exhausted and hungry. The team leaders started to get wood and produced a huge kettle from the ambulance and prepared to make (illegible). Vegetables also appeared to be prepared for cooking. How long this would have taken was anyone’s guess but this task was quickly abandoned when we were introduced to an American truck in which had been installed large vacuum containers out of which was dispensed hot thick beef and vegetable stew and black hot coffee. One thing the Americans have is plenty of equipment for the comfort of its troops.
Strict food rationing was in place in England at this time and the meat in each billy would have fed a family of four civilians for a week or more. We ate as quickly as the hot beef stew would allow us whilst watching the medics open each body bag in turn and examine the contents in detail. I remember watching as a shilling piece and a penny were removed from being embedded in the split skull of one of the airmen.
By the time we had consumed several helpings of that manna from America, the kettle was on the boil and hands full of tea were liberally inserted. The Yanks were amazed when the full mugs of coffee was rapidly rejected for this delicious very dark amber liquid, laced with Nestlé’s condensed milk. The Americans will never understand the Englishman’s love affair with old Rosy Lee.
I do not recall the journey back to camp. I probably slept but I do recall the bliss of a hot, deep bath where my limbs lost their tremendous weight. Looking lazily at my legs, pink, soft, healthy, I recalled those white burnt and mutilated ones I had handled only a few hours earlier. I wondered what those lads were like and what had they thought about before they died and what was happening at their homes in America that night, who were their next of kin, what did they do for a living? But soon blessed sleep blotted everything out and the days that followed you began to wonder if it had really happened.
Return to aircrashsites.co.uk ‘Over Exposed!” main page for more photos of the crash site, directions, history etc.
Photoset of RAF Harper Hill Mountain Rescue Team which includes contemporary photos of the crash and some of the RAF Mountain Rescue Team members who were first on the scene.
The crash site on