Swan Dive

Death of an Airman in Berkhamsted, 23 September 1942

Schoolboy David Russell of Castle Hill Avenue was in his garden when he saw, through his telescope, the fighter plane ‘either a Tomahawk or a Mustang’ approaching. It seemed slow for a fighter and fairly high up. It did two rolls as it crossed over the town where it lost speed and turned on its back. He saw smoke coming from the plane. It righted itself but was at an odd angle with its nose at 45 degrees. It began to spin and David could not keep the telescope on it. It levelled out briefly before crashing behind trees on the far side of the station.

In April that year, J. Kemp McLaughlin was just 23 years old when he joined the 92nd Bomb Group at Tampa, Florida and was assigned to the 407th Bomb Squad under Capt. William M. Reid. Here he learned to fly B-17s. Training continued at Sarasota and was soon interspersed with submarine patrol duty: a ‘boring and hopeless’ occupation, he thought. A move to Springfield, Massachusetts meant boredom could be relieved by occasionally buzzing the Empire State Building, but sadly there were more anti-submarine flights east of Boston. They saw one submarine during this period and luckily identified it as one of their own. They raked another with machine-gun fire – until it exhaled and broke the surface with the rest of its pod.

This has the sound of old soldier’s yarns but that’s OK: McLaughlin, a retired brigadier general, recounted plenty of both sorts of memories in his memoir, The Mighty Eighth, published in 2000. He is entitled to remember the good as well as the bad. One of the best memories was the friendship he struck up with one of the flight leaders in his squadron, Captain William L. Knowles. Knowles was an affable 32-year-old from Pasadena: ‘Billy’ to his friends. He had been an accomplished swimmer and diver and narrowly missed being selected for the 1932 Olympic Games. Later he had, according to McLaughlin, been a performer in Billy Rose’s Aquacade at the 1939 World’s Fair. This was the era when swimmers were treated like film stars: sometimes were film stars.

Whilst most of McLaughlin’s colleagues were confined to the base, Captain Knowles had enough seniority to borrow an aeroplane to go to New York City at weekends. Naturally, the young airman was delighted when he was invited along as a copilot.

Their first visit was particularly memorable. They caught a cab directly to Radio City Music Hall. Billy led his friend straight in via the stage door. It turned out that he was best friends with the leader of the Rockettes – the in-house dance troupe. Between them, it seemed to McLaughlin, Billy and his friend knew just about ‘every entertainer, band leader, and maitre d’ in the city’. The two flyers were in uniform and entertained royally wherever they went. They ended up eating dinner on the roof terrace of the Astor Hotel listening to the Harry James Band. 

When they escorted their companions home, the cab fare was 40 cents. They hadn’t had to pay for anything all evening and Billy optimistically asked the cabby to waive the fare as they were going overseas to fight the Germans. The cabby replied, “I don’t give a damn if you’re going to hell. I want my 40 cents.” 

40 cents was still an inexpensive weekend, McLaughlin reflected, with a super nice officer. McLaughlin would live to be 101 (he died in December 2019): not an outcome you would have put a bet on in the autumn of 1942.

TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN:

1. At approximately 16:15 on Wednesday, September 23, 1942, I was standing at the North entrance to hangar number four (4) on Bovingdon Airdrome. I happened to look upward toward the Northwest and saw a single-seater pursuit aircraft. This aircraft was about three miles from the airdrome and just South of the town of Berkhampstead. Altitude at the time of first observation was estimated twenty-five hundred feet, and the aircraft was in what appeared to be an inverted spin. Partial recovery was made from this spin at just under an estimated one thousand feet and the aircraft continued Northward still in an inverted position and diving at an angle of about thirty (30) degrees until it disappeared behind a hill on the outskirts of Berkhampstead. A moment later a large cloud of black smoke appeared over the hill.

WILLIAM M. REID

Lt. Col., Air Corps

In the second half of  August 1942, the 407th flew from Gander, Newfoundland to Prestwick, Scotland. The journey was uneventful except for a few rain showers and the Northern Lights – ‘an unusual and beautiful sight.’ The last bit of their flight took them over County Galway: a place McLaughlin would revisit in rather more anxious circumstances later in the war. The following day they flew into Bovingdon.

Bovingdon Airfield 2021

As it turned out, the squadron would only fly a few combat missions from Bovingdon before the base became a school to provide orientation for new crews: 1/11th Combat Crew Replacement Center. Long enough to lose two crews in combat, as well as a crew member from McLaughlin’s plane.

HEADQUARTERS VIII BOMBER COMMAND ETOUSA A.P.O.634

24 September 1942

SUBJECT: Preliminary Report

Captain Knowles took off in P.40E at 1550 hours, 23 September from Bovingdon to simulate attack on B-17; at 1608 hrs. he crashed in railroad yards 400 yds. east of station before simulated attack was made, and plane burst into flames. Cause of crash apparently mechanical, but committee is now investigating.

Randolph Hawthorne

Lt Col Reid, who saw the stricken plane from outside Hangar No 4, was the best flyer J. Kemp McLaughlin had ever met. He survived the war and was decorated twice. He died in a plane crash in New Orleans in the 1950s. 

On 23 September 1942, he couldn’t see an obvious cause for the fighter plane’s difficulties. The key to solving the mystery came from a nurse/housekeeper at the Foundling Hospital just under a mile from the site of the crash. She told Police Sergeant Cross and Pilot Officer Watts (RAF) who was there to oversee the removal of the wreckage, that she had seen something fall from the plane as it pulled out of the initial dive. After a search, the right elevator was found. 

To Captain Mason, it appeared that the pilot was attempting to crash in fields beyond the town. He managed to clear the houses but crashed at high speed into the deep railway cut next to Ellesmere Road. The impact twisted rails and the resultant explosion sent part of the undercarriage through twenty telegraph and phone wires by the side of the track. Eyewitnesses reported ammunition, ignited by the heat, exploding between the steep banks of the cut. 

The entry for 23 September 1942 in the record book of the MU71 Maintenance Unit based at Slough showed that at 12.00 the NAAFI District Manager had called to discuss extending the service to cover hot meals. At 14.15 all personnel attended a talk on ‘security and loose talk’. At 16.57 they received a telephone message that a Kittyhawk had crashed on the mainline at Berkhamsted. At 18.30 another report ‘that our salvage gang had cleared the wreckage.’

The newspapers reported that a ‘British’ Plane had crashed. Local people knew that wasn’t the whole story of course, as Jennifer Sherwood’s research in the town archive has shown, but over time the precision of memory was lost and the crash became shrouded in mystery. Captain Knowles was the first officer of J. Kemp McLaughlin’s squadron to be killed after they arrived in England. ‘The story of making wonderful acquaintances, getting to know truly special fellows, only to have them killed suddenly in the skies, would repeat itself all too often in the months to come.’ He is buried at the American Cemetery near Cambridge.

Capt William L. Knowles (1910-1942)

‘Attention is invited to paragraph 2, with the thought that possibly the pilot might be due some recognition for his efforts in avoiding the town.’ Herbert M. Mason, Captain, Air Corps, Base Engineering Officer.

Richard Shepherd (c) 2021

Notes:

1) Curtiss P-40 Warhawk was the official name of the plane in the USAAF. Tomahawk and Kittyhawk were British/Soviet names for variants of the same basic plane, a single-engined, single-seat fighter that first flew in 1938. 

2) The operations record book of Royal Air Force Station, Bovingdon begins on 12 May 1942 with an entry recording a small opening up party reporting for duty. On 9 June 1942, they are informed that the station is to be transferred to the United States Army Air Force. The first USAAF contingent – 27 officers and 261 men under Major G.Grubb arrives just two days later. By 3 August 1942, the record book shows that the base is to be a Combat Crew Replacement Centre to familiarise B-17 crews arriving from the United States. Its transformation to a training centre runs in tandem with taking part in the bombing campaign until the end of October 1942 when the base settles into its new role as a school. On 31 October 1942,  the RAF had 9 officers and 156 airmen at the base. The USAAF had 308 officers and 1780 enlisted men.

3) According to McLaughlin, the flyers called Capt. Knowles ‘Pappy’. This gives a good indication of the difference in age between the 32-year-old and the majority of his colleagues but I worry about its use –  especially in the context of a segregated airforce – the squadron commander, Lt. Col. William M. Reid was ‘Darky’ according to McLaughlin, which is even more problematic from a 2021 perspective. Black USAAF servicemen at Bovingdon had their own regiment: The 746th Quartermaster Truck Company which consisted of 3 officers and ’96 Enlisted Men (coloured.)’ according to the station record.


A Sunnyside Mystery’, Jennifer Sherwood, The Chronicle Volume XVII, March 2020, Berkhamsted Local History and Museum Society.

War-Torn Skies, Great Britain, Hertfordshire, Julian Evan-Hart, Red Kite, 2007.

Accident report #43-09-23-503, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell AFB AL 36112 USA.

Operations Record Books, Royal Air Force Stations: Bovingdon,  National Archives ref: AIR 28/104

Operations Record Books, 71 Maintenance Unit, National Archives ref: AIR 29/1022

The Mighty Eighth in WWII: A Memoir. J. Kemp McLaughlin, University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

‘Captain William L. Knowles’, Obituary, Magazine of Sigma Chi, Volume 61, Issue 5 1942, p21. 

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