Riding a Norseman into Posterity

Major Glenn Miller, USAAF

Major Glenn Miller, USAAF (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Last Friday, 15th December, was the anniversary of the 1944 disappearance of Major Glenn Miller, Lieutenant Colonel Norman Baessell, and pilot Flight Officer John Morgan, on board a UC-64A Norseman, AAF serial 44-70285. The aircraft departed from RAF Twinwood Farm near Bedford (England) en route for Paris (France – one article mentions a Ninth Air Force airfield at Vélizy-Villacoublay) but disappeared presumably while flying over the English Channel. No wreckage or bodies were ever found.

Conspiracy theories abounded through the years, many of them stretching the reader’s indulgence beyond endurance.

A 2014 article in the Chicago Tribune (actually reviewing an episode of the PBS  series “History Detectives”) reported that despite the many theories that had been proposed, Miller’s plane probably crashed because of icing in the carburettor. The Pratt & Whitney R-1340 Wasp used a two-barrel Stromberg that was prone to icing, and carburettor heating sought to rectify this.

Glenn Miller Declassified - Book Cover

Dennis M Spragg “Glenn Miller Declassified” Potomac Books (September 1, 2017)

The key person in the Tribune article, the PBS show, and most of the other articles I’m going to cite is Dennis M. Spragg. Spragg is Senior Consultant at the Glenn Miller Archive in the American Music Research Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He’s just published a book entitled “Glenn Miller Declassified” (Potomac Books, September 2017) which, according to the Amazon reviews is a tad dry, but which has a lot of documentary detail.

I must get hold of a copy of this book, since it piques my librarian, historian, airplane nut and Glenn Miller fan interests simultaneously – a rare enough event.

According to the various reports in news articles and interested websites, Spragg’s book answers a few questions and advances my personal favourite theory of history – that the most mundane explanation is probably the most likely to be true.

The conspiracy theorists will be left grinding their teeth. Glenn Miller was not on a secret mission under orders from Eisenhower. His body was not dumped outside a Paris brothel following his capture by German special forces. He was not blackmailed or repatriated to the USA under arrest and tried for black market activities, racketeering, or anything else. Miller’s Norseman was not struck by bombs jettisoned from a returning force of RAF Lancasters following a cancelled raid. The mundane explanation, an iced carburettor, and a crash in the English Channel, is Spragg’s proposed solution.

One of the conspiracy theory books I read years ago stated that Miller’s plane couldn’t possibly have left from Twinwood Farm because the airfield was closed for flying on 15th December.  Morgan was apparently denied permission to undertake the flight due to the appalling weather and low cloud. Miller had been delayed for two days already.  Spragg apparently says Baessell simply overruled Morgan on his own authority and ordered him to proceed, despite the fact that Morgan (who was not an experienced B-24 pilot with a completed tour of operations behind him, as one theory states) was not qualified for instrument flying.  Baessell seemed to have been able to authorize his own flights before and did it again, either disregarding or not being aware that his authorization was not valid in these circumstances.millermap

Spragg’s evidence includes the handwritten log of of a plane-spotter named Richard Anderton (now sadly deceased) who was living in or around Maidenhead at the time and who observed “1 Norseman going ESE” on the afternoon of 15th December 1944. Continuing to head ESE from Maidenhead would, in my estimation,  make the Norseman cross the coast somewhere around Folkestone or Dover and give the pilot the shortest possible channel crossing.  Obviously we have no way of knowing what course Morgan may have taken after overflying Maidenhead.

If Richard Anderton had spotted Miller’s Norseman flying ESE, and had it stayed on that course  – Anti-Aircraft defences notwithstanding,  it would tend to discount the theory that the Norseman was struck by a bomb or bombs jettisoned by RAF Lancasters of 149 Squadron returning from an aborted bombing raid on railway yards at Siegen, Germany.

The “Lancaster” theory says that Morgan would have flown south-south east or south from Maidenhead (avoiding London) to leave the English coast at Beachy Head in order to avoid the heavy Anti-Aircraft defences on the south coast of England. The attraction of this theory is that a straight line from Maidenhead to Paris passes over Beachy Head and into or close to what was known as the Southern Jettison Area.

The Southern Jettison Area used by 149 Squadron that day,  was located at 50º 15’N 0º 15′ E.  One of the 149 Squadron crewmen said in a 1985 interview that it was “near” Beachy Head,  but actually the zone is midway between Beachy Head and Le Havre).  The Air Historical Branch of the Ministry of Defence record that the raid on Siegen took off at 12 noon.  Miller’s plane took off from Twinwood Farm at 1.55pm and was spotted by Richard Anderton before 3pm. The AHB said in the 1985 article that Miller’s Norseman and the Lancasters may have been “many miles apart.” It would be informative to know when 149 Squadron were recalled and what course they took to the Jettison Area.

It’s entirely possible that the returning Lancasters may have hit a low-flying aircraft when they jettisoned their bombs. There may be no record another light aircraft incident on December 15th, but there appears to be no official record of Baessell’s unauthorized flight with Morgan and Miller either. This, says Spragg, is part of the reason why the USAAF was so slow in announcing Miller’s death. They couldn’t believe they had simply lost someone like Glenn Miller. Until someone hauls up an identifiable piece of wreckage from the English Channel we will never know.

As you can imagine,  no photographs exist of 44-70285,  leading to some speculation as to how it might have looked on the day Miller, Baessell and Morgan took their fateful flight. Opinion is split on whether the Norseman was in an Olive Drab / Neutral Gray scheme or whether it was unpainted. Modellers have built their own versions of Miller’s Norseman both ways and differing interpretations of 44-70285 are visible on the Web. Needless to say some aircraft spotters and modellers will always associate the Norseman as being the aircraft on which Glenn Miller was lost.

Noorduyn UC-64 Norseman

Noorduyn UC-64 Norseman – Olive Drab with AEAF “Invasion Stripes” painted out in the upper fuselage and lower wings, indicating a photograph taken in late 1944 or early 1945 (Public Domain)


Noorduyn UC-64 Norseman.

Noorduyn UC-64 Norseman. Silver finish with AEAF “Invasion stripes” on all lower surfaces possibly indicating a photo taken in Summer or Autumn 1944. (Public Domain via 33 PRS)

It would be remiss of me not mention Miller’s musical legacy and to feature a YouTube clip of Miller and the AAF band performing, although many people have done it a lot more capably than me.  This number caught my attention when researching the story of Miller’s disappearance.  “Jeep Jockey Jump” was restored by Mike Zirpolo in his review of Spragg’s book.   See the Bibliography for a longer list of sources I consulted.

Combat Veteran Lancaster not saved

Lancaster KB882

In a previous blog post I reported that combat veteran Lancaster KB882 was about to move from Edmunston, NB to Edmonton, AB for restoration.  One of my colleagues showed me a note today which reported two significant facts.  First, that the gofundme campaign had failed to meet its goal by a wide margin. As a result the move to Alberta is canceled.   Secondly, an Australian warbird enthusiast and entrepreneur is seeking to ship the Lancaster from Canada to Australia for restoration.  The theme he is adopting is that KB882 has been neglected and ignored by the Canadian government and is about to fall apart.

There is a little bit of wheeler dealing going on here since in one breath the Australian group are saying that KB882 is falling apart and in another they say it’s a viable project for return to flight status.   Whatever the reality is, it’s clear that the warbird community world-wide will be sitting up and taking notice of this.

I didn’t mention this before, but latest reports say KB882 flew 11 sorties with 428 (Ghost) Squadron RCAF from RAF Middleton St. George, County Durham.  Middleton St. George  is now Teeside International Airport.

Saving a Combat Veteran Lancaster

My wife re-tweeted an article about Lancaster KB882 finding a new home and being relocated from Edmunston, New Brunswick to Edmonton, Alberta.  I had a look at the news items the other day and I was interested to note that KB882 was in fact a combat veteran, having flown at least six bombing missions with 428 Squadron RCAF in 1945.  I’m very happy to see an aircraft with some historical significance brought indoors and I commend the various parties for coming to this decision. It must have been hard for the good people of Edmunston to part with ‘their’ bomber but I’m glad that the Alberta Aviation Museum will be able to give it the shelter it needs.

Here is a link to an article on the CBC news website Which contains the photograph below (It’s linked, I haven’t copied it).

Lancaster KB882 at Edmunston, NB, Canada - (City of Edmundston photograph via CBC) )
Lancaster KB882 at Edmunston, NB, Canada – (City of Edmundston photograph via CBC)

From the website of the Alberta Aviation Museum in Edmonton comes the picture below of KB882 just as it completed its service in Europe. AAM have a gofundme campaign or donors are  encouraged to use the museum’s regular donation page.

KB882’s Flight Crew, June 1945

RAF Bomber Command Stories

There are several excellent personal recollections of what individuals went through in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War. I have read many, and would like to get hold of a few which have passed through my hands over the years.  I would also be interested to hear from anyone who may have recommendations.

Three books which remain on my shelves and which get hauled out every so often are:

  • Charlwood, Donald. No Moon Tonight. (London: Angus & Robertson, 1956)
  • Tripp, Miles. The Eighth Passenger. London: Heinemann, 1969.
  • Yates, Harry. Luck and a Lancaster. Shrewsbury: Airlife, 1999.

Don Charlwood’s and Miles Tripp’s books caused sensations when they were first published, giving a personal and very direct view of what life was like in Bomber Command at different times in the war.  Yates’ book came out somewhat later, but was, and is, remarkable for a first book written at the age of 77.  All of them give a personal sample of opinions and attitudes among the aircrews; the lives they lived on the squadrons, the  stress of operational flying, the constant threat of death, and the simple urge to survive.

Aircraft ‘Q’

With the increasing use of the Internet as a research tool many websites and blogs have arisen. One in particular that grabbed my attention was the simple but well researched and eloquent “Aircraft Q failed to return.” (http://rafww2butler.wordpress.com/)  This site is dedicated to the memory of Sgt. Cecil Arthur “Butch” Butler (1913-1945), Flight Engineer on Lancaster ME334 “TL-Q” of 35 Squadron. Butler and the rest of the Johnson crew were killed on their 31st operation on 4th February, 1945 when their Lancaster was shot down on the outskirts of Bonn.  The normal Bomber Command tour of duty was 30 operations (see below for a different perspective), but since 35 Squadron was part of 8 Group PFF (Pathfinder force) they would have been required to complete a tour of 45 operations.

The Eighth Passenger Revisited.

I was re-reading The Eighth Passenger  recently and wondered if any more information could be found on the Web about the crew. I’d known about Miles Tripp’s career as a thriller writer from the time I started working in a Library, but I’d never seen or read  his first novel (Faith is a Windsock, 1952)  or had any idea of his wartime service in 218 Squadron.  The Eighth Passenger had the same effect on me as it must have on so many people when it was first published in 1969, it was a fascinating, amusing, and occasionally shocking revelation.   Tripp and his crew (led by Flight Lieutenant George Frederick “Dig” Klenner, DFC, RAAF)  were probably the only members of 3 Group Bomber Command to complete a tour of 40 operations when the operational tour limit was briefly increased in 1944/5.
Most readers of The Eighth Passenger will be familiar with this picture of the Klenner crew on completion of their last operational flight on March 11th, 1945.

Klenner Crew, 218 Squadron,March 1945
Klenner crew, 218 Squadron, on completing their operational tour, 11 March 1945.
From L-R Miles “Mike” Tripp (Bomb Aimer), Ray Parke (Flight Engineer), George Bell, (Navigator),
George “Dig” Klenner (Pilot, RAAF), Paul Songest (M/U Gunner),
Les Walker (Wireless Op), Harry McCalla (Rear Gunner)

I assumed that other pictures of the crew might have been taken at the time but I hadn’t seen any of them until a couple of days ago when I saw this on a 218 Squadron website:

George “Dig” Klenner and crew, 218 Squadron, 11 March, 1945.

I had wondered why  “Mike” Tripp’s fellow crew members commented in The Eighth Passenger about his non-military hairstyle and how far ahead of its time it was. From this angle one can almost see how his hairstyle would be adopted with some enthusiasm by the mods, nearly 20 years later!