On 26th May 1944, the B17 Miss Lollipop, so named because one of the manufactures employee’s felt she would be a ‘good ship’, had just received her new American crew of 10. They were based at Thorpe Abbotts, Norfolk, with the 349th Bombardment Squadron of the 100th Bombardment Group. Being part of the 8th Air Force they were nick-named the ‘Bloody Hundredth’. Their losses were high and in 1943 the average life expectancy of an air crew was 11 missions.
Although the bombers were encountering less enemy engagements over occupied territory their day flights always attracted some resistance. Early on the morning of the 12th June, 1944, saw a major bombing run into Northern France. The D-Day invasion was six days old and their mission was to destroy the enemy’s rail and communication network.
Miss Lollipop, was in formation with a large flight of other Flying Fortresses, and was leaving a vapour trail at 26,000 feet. The raid had been successfully accomplished; however, the B17’s bomb doors would not close. Undeterred they flew on. As they approached the Channel they met up with a heavy flak barrage from the Calais coastal defences.
In less than a minute Miss Lollipop received a hit on number four engine. In the turmoil the waist gunner hollered through the intercom that the engine was on fire. Flak was bursting all around them and the shuddering aircraft received another hit on her underbelly, wounding the ball turret gunner. Miss Lollipop’s number three engine caught alight and the radio operator dragged the gunner to safety and attended to his wounds. The starboard waist gunner screamed to the pilot that the fire was spreading and smoke curled up in the vortex and entered the open bomb bay.
The pilot quickly switched on the fire extinguishers and feathered number three and four propellers. When he saw that it had no effect he put the B17 into a juddering dive, trying to extinguish the flames, but as he levelled up the fire caught again.
By now they were out of the flak field and were almost upon the English coastline. Miss lollipop’s number two engine started to sound irregular and became another problem for the stressed pilot to attend to. She was flying at 2,500 feet along the Kent coast with fire and smoke streaming from her wing and the pilot fighting with her controls. This naturally attracted the attention of the Ramsgate and Dover air sea rescue craft that set off in anticipation of the crash which was about to happen. Activated by this emergency the Walmer lifeboat prepared to launch, her crewmen looking skywards for parachutes.
The B17’s pilot was now having difficulty keeping his ship airborne and ordered his crew to bail out. Below him he could see three minesweepers and he managed to coax the battered plane towards them.
As the hatch door was opened in the waist of the aircraft a rush of air entered which was full of smoke. The roar of the flames and struggling engines unnerved the crew. Nevertheless, they knew their lives were hanging by a thread. Their captain shouted at them that he could not hold on for much longer. First to leave was the tail gunner. Then with a look of horror, the port waist gunner saw his companion fall to his death – the parachute did not open. He stood there, frozen with fear. The starboard waist gunner took control and pushed him through the opening. Mesmerised, he watched the man hurtle down towards the sea – his parachute also failed to open. Quickly he looked around and, seeing nobody, he leapt from the aperture in the fuselage.
From the front of the plane the engineer made his way to the open bomb bay doors. Out of them he noted the starboard waist gunner floating down under the canopy of his chute and towards the waiting minesweepers. In an instant he dropped through the gaping hole and away from the blazing plane.
Setting the steering of his shaking wreck on to automatic, the pilot was the last man alive to leave. The dying Miss Lollipop had dropped to 800 feet when the man bailed out. It was not high enough and the pilot’s parachute only partially opened before he hit the sea.
At a quarter past nine on that June morning Miss Lollipop dived into the sea off St Margaret’s Bay, south of Deal. Aluminium was stripped away from her flak splattered body and the weight of her engines quickened her descent in 60 feet of water. The flames were extinguished and only a layer of aviation fuel settled on the surface to display where this fighting machine had once been.
Walmer lifeboat had launched at twenty minutes past nine, after they saw the pilot baling out of his flaming aircraft. When they found him two-and-a-half miles south of their station, the westerly wind had just enough strength to make some chop on the sea. The pilot’s condition was serious and the coxswain, of the Chares Dibden Civil Service No 4 lifeboat, immediately headed back to shore. Once the poor man had been taken from them they returned to search for any other survivors. The brave pilot, Lt McKeague, was later to die of his injuries.
Searching east of the Goodwin Sands, a minesweeper picked up the starboard waist gunner and the engineer from the choppy sea, 25 minutes after they had landed. The air-sea rescue craft steered an easterly course from the crash area towards the minesweepers and came across the dead body of the aircraft’s bombardier. The rest of Miss Lollipop’s crew were listed as missing in action.