USAAF B17 42-31581 at Edgworth, Lancashire

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USAAF B17 42-31581 at Edgworth, Lancashire

There are no visible remains at this crash site near Edgworth, North West of Bury in Lancashire. What interested me about this crash site was the story of pilot Second Lieutenant Del Harris, one of two (out of 6 on board) to survive the crash on January 13 1944. Following this crash, the remainder of the war for Second Lieutenant Harris reads like a Boy’s Own tale.

The aircraft was a B17 Flying Fortress. This particular B17 was brand new, and 24 year old Second Lieutenant Harris was taking the plane out for a test flight from the American airbase at Burtonwood before delivery to a bomber squadron. Joining him, though not necessarily known to him, were a co-pilot Lieutenant MacDonald, the chief ground engineer, two other servicemen and one civilian along for the ride.

The details of the crash are all too familiar. Second Lieutenant Harris gently descended through cloud expecting there to be a good 1000 feet between him and the ground. However the plane had drifted east towards the Pennines, and at the last instant he suddenly saw green grass instead of grey cloud, desperately tried to lift the B17, but too late. The impact killed four men on board, and the airplane disintegrated as it ploughed through two fields destroying dry stone walls as it went. In the photo above, the B17 was flying Northwards, thus came down from the left through these fields.

Photo of 2 Lt. Del Harris in a P47, Summer 1944, courtesy of Del Harris via Dave Earl.

Researching this story for his book HELL ON HIGH GROUND – VOLUME 2 (1999) aviation historian David W Earl was in contact with Del Harris. Mr Harris provided a very detailed – and therefore harrowing – account of the crash itself, which can be found in the book.

Dazed, Second Lieutenant Harris managed to crawl out from the wreck, and dragged the unconscious co-pilot Lt Macdonald clear, fearful that the plane would explode and not realising that had already happened.
Lt Macdonald was treated for severe injuries at Bolton Royal Infirmary. He remained disabled for the rest of his life.

Second Lieutenant Harris refused to fly passengers or crew ever again. He was granted a transfer and trained to fly fighters (P51s and P47s). That Summer he flew 35 combat missions before being shot down over Le Mans, France. Captured by the Germans, he was a POW in the British Compound of Stalag Luft III (setting for the movie The Great Escape). 2 Lt Del Harris managed to escape his captors in 1945 on a march towards Munich. He survived 17 days, hiding in the woods before making contact with advancing US tank crews near Ingolstadt, Germany.

After the war, 2 Lt Harris continued as a test pilot. In 1950 he left the air force, and set up an engineering and construction business in California. He also spent some years teaching before retiring in Grants Pass, Oregon.

Lt Elmer* MacDonald (Co-pilot)
T/Sgt LB Woodall (Engineer)
1Lt Laurence E Tracy (passenger)
S/Sgt Thomas Kristin (passenger)
Mr William H Killough (Civilian, passenger)

*possibly the first name of the co-pilot, not confirmed.

Photo of the wreck of the B17 the day after the crash, courtesy of Del Harris via Dave Earl

Info presented here is from that page and also HELL ON HIGH GROUND – VOLUME 2 (1999) by David W Earl.

37 comments on “USAAF B17 42-31581 at Edgworth, Lancashire
  1. Tech Owl says:

    Such detail, such history, wonderful image – thanks Ian

  2. Neal. says:

    Heck, how did anyone get out alive? you would think the pilot would be one of the least likely.

  3. Ian D B says:

    That was quick! Thanks guys.

    Three of the four that died were in the nose turret.

  4. felixspencer2 says:

    Thank you for taking the time to share the story

  5. Keartona says:

    You are going into this in such detail.
    I’ve only ever found a couple of these sites. Not that I’ve actively looked.

  6. ​favourite waste of time​ says:

    gorgeous shot — lovely place and amazing tale of mr "lucky" Del Harris.

  7. redrocker_9 says:

    The history with your images is just wonderful!

  8. het broertje van.. says:

    Wow Ian…………………………this is wonderful man!!!
    Superb info.

  9. Rosie_Thorn says:

    Great photo – looks even better viewed on black. Interesting history too!

  10. sophizz says:

    great history, details, and pic…amazing

  11. Pleasureprinciple2012 says:

    So many similar stories of wartime aircraft crashes all over Britain during the Second World War, the information given with these help bring some personalisation to these sites and make us think that it was not all about aluminium, squadron numbers and serial plates.
    The photo goes very well with this tale and is a super landscape.

  12. Steve P.Kane (S.P.K.Photography) off & On says:

    this is very nice my friend

  13. Steve P.Kane (S.P.K.Photography) off & On says:

    this is very nice my friend

  14. richardr says:

    Poor Harris. It can’t be easy to recover from something like that.

    1-2-3 History

  15. Ian D B says:

    Thank you for your interest and comments and faves. It’s very much appreciated.

  16. Kingsdude/Dave says:

    Great photo Ian – and fantastic historical detail on the crash – look forward to more of the same ?

  17. andyholmfirth says:

    What a cracking photo and story Ian ! Compelling stuff and at such a young age.

  18. jr55 (John Richardson) says:

    Amazing picture and story as usual, regards, John.

  19. Corwin's Trumps says:

    Such a beautiful scene for such a tragic incident.

    (Seen on ~1-2-3 History (post 1, comment on 2, view 3)~.)

  20. greg75uk says:

    very interesting story and a super landscape shot
    thanks for sharing this.

  21. Tony-H says:

    An amazing story. I live just a few miles from this location, but had no idea of the event.

  22. Billy Currie says:

    Very interesting, a great shot as well

  23. paul g* says:

    Great capture and very interesting history on this and the other crash sites you have photographed!

  24. edgworthric says:

    very very interesting

  25. pasujoba says:

    How did I miss this one …a terrific sunset over a great location

  26. cgullz says:

    such tales, must have been fairly commonplace back then – but so much more laden with emotion. i couldn’t imagine how he must have felt, being the pilot that lives when others die, a massive burden to bear. i’m glad they gave him fighters, for his own healing and way of helping him through it. he sounds a man of great conviction to go through what he did.

  27. Beverly Eastham says:

    My dad and his brothers lived near to the crash site and the day after went to look at it, they went inside the aircraft and found teeth, pieces of flesh and even a jaw bone and lots of blood.

  28. Harfi says:

    my parents own the farm that this plane crashed in, my gramps remembered the day the accident happened

  29. Ronald Albery says:

    I was an eleven-year old at the time of this accident. I lived in the orphanage at Edgworth and was in our school playground when the accident happened. I remember that it was very foggy that day and when the plane came over us I knew that it was too low for safety. When we heard the impact we realised that it was close by and we all wanted to run to see if we could help. The bigger boys kept us out of the way and several ran up the road to find the plane. They all thought that is was a
    Wellington bomber, (which has a very tall tail fin), but later it was found to be a B17 bomber from a local airbase. Surprisingly, I don’t remember the matter being mentioned in class at school, so I assume the incident was being kept secret.

    • Ian D B says:

      Interesting recollection of events there Ronald, thank you for adding to this narrative. In 1953, two Gloster Meteor jets also crashed not far from this place at Scholes Height. And in 1944 at Red Earth Farm a V1 missile came down in a field.

      Meteors WH383 and WH384, Edgworth


  30. Carol Smith says:

    I have been looking for info on this crash. My dad was in an orphanage nearby and it was the staff and children who went to help. My dad said he and other children helped get them out and carry them on a stretcher (dead & alive), something he has never forgotten, he is now 91 and though his short term memory isn’t very good he can still remember this and always wondered what had happened to the ones still alive. He recalls the base sent them sweeties afterwards. What a shame they were never brought into the history of this incident.

    • Ian D B says:

      Hi Carol, thank you for your comment providing further information about this crash.

      The main source of info for this write up was David W Earl’s book Hell on High Ground Volume 2 (1999). The author did refer to the orphanage, he quoted pilot Second Lieutenant Del Harris who, immediately after the crash, was lying in the mud with the aircraft burning beside him when he heard the voices of two small boys who “…arrived on the scene and approached us cautiously. I rose up slowly, my face and clothes covered in mud and blood, and I asked “Am I hurt badly?” They came a little closer to get a good look, then turned and ran. I thought, I must be a right mess! A short while later several men ran up to us and helped me down to the road, to where the first driver to arrive refused to let the men load me into his car because of the mud, oil and blood. Fortunately, the next car loaded me up and took me to a nearby orphanage on a hill close by. Here, I was treated by a nurse who bathed my face and visible wounds, which were only superficial and turned out to be my only injuries.”

      So it seems that Second Lieutenant Del Harris was the first to be helped off and managed to walk from the crash site. The others, he would not have known about so it is very good that you are able to provide this extra detail.

      Please give your dad my best wishes!


  31. James Devine says:

    Thank you for a very detailed and interesting story, I live in Edgworth and have found the Gloucester two meteor crash details but not this. 👍

    • Ian D B says:

      Thanks James, I don’t imagine there would be any debris in the farmer’s field now, but have you visited the crash site of the Meteors? Last time I was up there, a number of fragments from the crash remained, though one large and heavy piece I had found previously had been removed by someone.

      Also do you know of the V1 impact site nearby? I matched the location against a 1983 photograph of the crater in Peter J C Smith’s book ‘Flying Bombs Over The Pennines’ and the farm owners agreed it was the correct spot, though a few years ago someone commented on the page that the location was incorrect. I’ll stick with Smith though, my photo lined up with the view in his photo which clearly shows a crater typical of the sort made by a V1.


      • James says:

        Hi Ian sorry no I didn’t have any knowledge of it. If I find anything out I will let you know. I originally looked for the meteors as I visit friends and a meteor crashed into their village.

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