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Bomber almost destroys church

As we approach remembrance day for 2023 and cast our minds back those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in conflict we would like to share a story we came across involving a World War Two bomber and a church's lucky escape from 78 years ago.

St Georges Church, Anstey (Photo: Wikipedia)

Early on a cold Sunday morning in October 1944, pilot 2nd Lt. William Louis Meyran along with his crew boarded their unnamed Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress bomber readying themselves for another bombing mission over Germany. They were part of the 603rd Bombardment Squadron, one of four squadrons that made up the 398th Bombardment group of the United States Eighth Army Airforce flying from ‘station 131’ RAF Nuthampstead in Hertfordshire. Today their target would be Cologne, but Meyran’s thoughts were divided that day. Sunday 15th October, 1944 was also the officers 24th birthday. He had inherited a $100,000 from his grandfather's estate and the first $25,000 was payable on his 24th birthday. When he was woken up that day he had climbed from his bed and excitedly promised his buddies that there would be one heck of a party that night.

Pilot of the B-17 2nd Lt. William Louis Meyran

(Photo: Malcolm Osborn

(Left to Right)

US Eighth Army Airforce emblem, 398th Bomb Group and 603rd Bombardment Squadron patches.

Unknown to Meyran and his crew, not only would they not reach their target that day, but no such celebrations would ever be held. Shortly after taking off from runway 23 at RAF Nuthampstead, the plane piloted by Meyran and 2nd Lt. Charles Khourie suffered a power failure to all four of the 1,200 hp Wright R-1820-97 nine-cylinder engines.

The aircraft hit the top of the old moated medieval castle mound at Anstey, a small village situated less than a mile southwest of the end of the runway at RAF Nuthampstead, killing all of the ten crew members aboard. Fully loaded with high-octane fuel and with a full bomb load, the wreckage burned furiously and villagers were evacuated. Situated only thirty meters from the moat is St Georges Church.

2nd Lt. William Louis Meyran's grave in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Glendale, Los Angeles County, California, USA (Photo:

The crew killed aboard B-17 42-97746 were:

Pilot: 2nd Lt. William Louis Meyran

Co-pilot: 1st Lt. Charles Edward Khourie

Navigator: 1st Lt. William John Vanderlick

Bombardier: Capt. Carlton Curtis Moore

Flight engineer/top turret gunner: 1st Lt. John Baker

Radio Operator/Right waist gunner: T/Sgt. George Barton

Ball turret gunner: S/Sgt. Charles Kennedy

Left Waist gunner: Sgt. Victor C. Petrauskas

Engineer/Top turret gunner: T/SGT. William S. Till

Tail gunner: S/Sgt Melvin P. Brown

Radio Operator/Right waist gunner: T/Sgt. George Barton

(Photo: Malcolm Osborn

42-97746's take-off route and crash position from RAF Nuthampstead.

Photo showing the proximity of the B-17 crash location to St George's Church.

B-17G shown with the markings and tail code 'W in a triangle' of the 398th Bomb Group in 1944.

(Photo: Clavework Graphics)

RAF Nuthampstead aerial view taken in April 1945.

Note - The castle mound at Anstey can just been seen in the top left corner of the photograph

(Photo: Malcolm Osborn

St George's Church can be reached through a 15th century lychgate that incorporates a small lock-up, said to have been made in 1831 to punish drunkards. The building shows evidence of its Norman origins both at the crossing and in the extraordinary pillared font, with its frieze of four mermen clutching their tails. The upper part of the tower is 14th century and has a slender spire known as a 'Hertfordshire spike'.

(Left to right) St George's Church, World War One memorial inside the church and the 15th century lychgate with lock-up on the left hand side.

The small church escaped a fiery fate that day as luckily for the villagers of Anstey the twelve bombs loaded in the plane were submerged in the water of the moat and did not explode. Had the situation been different and the wreckage of the plane not landed in the moat, the ignition of its compliment of around 6000lbs worth of explosives would have reduced the village church, plus several near-by houses to mere dust & rubble. The bombs were later removed by the bomb dispersal team from the base after the moat had been drained and villagers were allowed to return home after two days on October 17, 1944.

Photo showing the moat looking towards St George's Church, Anstey

(Photo: Malcolm Osborn

Patrick Reyntiens 2000 memorial stained glass window in the church

(Photo: Malcolm Osborn

Close-ups of the B-17 crash depicted in the window. Names of the fallen from 398th can be seen on the wings of the butterflies. (Photo: Malcolm Osborn

The crash is vividly depicted by Patrick Reyntiens in a memorial stained-glass window in the church, which was dedicated in 2000. This window stands not just as a memorial to 2nd Lt. Meyran and his brave crew but also as a testament to all the men who gave their lives in the skies flying and fighting with the 398th bomb group during World War II. For if you venture close to the window upon the butterfly’s depicted within it are minutely etched all the names of the men lost from the 398th during their years of war in the skies over Europe. Lt. Meyran, along with the rest of the crew was interred at the U.S. Military Cemetery in Cambridge. After the war ended, his family had the body returned to California for burial. Three of his crew are still buried in Cambridge. In approximately 1971, 27 years after the crash, Lt. Meyran’s watch was found on the castle mound. Its current whereabouts are unknown.

That day would see not only the end of ten young American lives in Anstey but would also see the remaining planes who took-off successfully suffer casualties too on their bomb run to Germany. As the 398th flew towards its target that day, a tail gunner, Sergeant Leroy K Bayless, quietly died of anoxia in his lonely position. Another young American life lost. Later that same day, over the flak ridden skies of Cologne, George Abbott was killed instantly when the nose of his B-17G 43-38172 “Lovely Julie” was blown off whilst he was preparing to release its bomb load. Pilots Delancey and Stahlman would bring that ship back to Nuthampstead with a feat of airmanship that still amazes anybody who studies the photographs of that B-17G with most of its nose missing.

B-17 43-38172 “Lovely Julie” back at RAF Nuthampstead following the Cologne raid on October 15, 1944

(Photo: Malcolm Osborn

Bombardier S/Sgt George E. Abbott

(Photo: Malcolm Osborn

The heavily armed B-17 gained the reputation by those who flew them as a weapons platform that could sustain high amounts of damage and still be able to limp back over the English Channel. After completing their bombing missions they would return their crews to the relative safety of the English countryside.

The cost of vanquishing the Nazi menace was profound. Mighty Eighth airmen bore the heaviest casualties of any command in World War II, with 26,000 killed in action and another 28,000 becoming prisoners of war. Their unparalleled valour in the face of danger resulted in the awarding of 17 Medals of Honour, 220 Distinguished Flying Crosses and more than 420,000 Air Medals, a testament to the courage and sacrifice exhibited by these young men as they battled the enemy at 25,000 feet.

398th Bomb Group memorial situated near the now disused airbase

(Photo: Malcolm Osborn

(Above) B-17s ready for another mission lined up for take-off at RAF Nuthampstead

(Photo: Malcolm Osborn

B-17 'Ugly Duckling' on the ground at RAF Nuthampstead.

(Photo: Malcolm Osborn

Below we have included three video links from our friends over at the Churches Conservation Trust.

'Remembrance' is a short video discussing how historic churches provide a local opportunity for learning about Remembrance in the community.

The second video 'The Whole Armour of God' is a lecture by Dr Linda Parker on the subject of army chaplains in the First World War.

The third video ‘Memorials of These Dark Days’: Art and Crafts First World War memorials in the Cotswolds' looks at the topic of remembrance memorials in the Cotswolds from the aspect of design, architecture and art.

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