Remains of Lt Montgomery killed when bomber crashed on farm discovered
Mystery of lost WW2 airman is finally solved after 79 years: Remains of Lieutenant William Montgomery, 24, who was killed when his bomber crashed on an English farm are discovered and formally identified
- Lt Montgomery has been missing since plane came down in West Sussex in 1944
- His great-niece Tracey Kirchhoff said family delighted and very happy about find
- Excavations in 2019 and 2021 found human remains likely to be Lt Montgomery’s
The mystery of a lost World War II airman has finally been solved after 79 years as the remains of Lieutenant William Montgomery, 24, who was killed when his bomber crashed on an English farm were discovered and formally identified.
Lieutenant Montgomery had been missing ever since his B-24 Liberator came down on land in West Sussex, in June 1944.
Amateur historian Andy Saunders looked into the fate of the bomber in the 1970s and pinpointed the most probable location was a farm in Arundel.
But nothing was done about it until 11 years ago when Mr Saunders mentioned his theory of where the wreckage was to a officer with the US Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) at a conference.
It prompted the Americans to do their own research, culminating in two excavations in 2019 and 2021 carried out with British historians, where a significant amount of human remains were found which were transported to America for DNA testing and it has now been confirmed the remains belonged to Lt Montgomery.
Lieutenant Montgomery (pictured) had been missing ever since his B-24 Liberator came down on land near Arundel, West Sussex, in June 1944
In two excavations in 2019 and 2021 a significant amount of human remains were found which were transported to America for DNA testing and it has now been confirmed the remains belonged to Lt Montgomery
He will be buried with full military honours at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.
The B-24 Liberator had been shot up by anti-aircraft flak during an attack on a German airfield in northern France. It limped across the English Channel before it began losing height off the Sussex coast.
Seven of the 10-man crew successfully bailed out while 24 year-old Lt Montgomery, co-pilot John Crowther and engineer, Sgt John Holoka remained on board to try and recover the situation.
The stricken plane crashed into a ball of flames minutes later.
The body of Sgt Crowther was recovered at the time but nothing was ever found of his two American colleagues, apart from an identity bracelet belonging to Montgomery.
Lt Montgomery’s family are said to be ‘absolutely delighted’ by the news that his remains have been identified.
Mr Saunders said it had been a privilege to have played a part in bringing a lost war hero home to his family.
He said: ‘His great-niece, Tracey Kirchhoff, has emailed me to say the family are absolutely delighted and very happy that he has been found.
Amateur historian Andy Saunders (pictured) looked into the fate of the bomber in the 1970s and pinpointed the most probable location was a farm in Arundel
He said: ‘His great-niece, Tracey Kirchhoff (pictured), has emailed me to say the family are absolutely delighted and very happy that he has been found’
‘His remains are already in America and he will be buried with full military honours.’
How Lt Montgomery’s remains were identified by the DPAA
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency said in a statement: ‘U.S. Army Air Forces 1st Lt. William B. Montgomery, 24, of Ford City, Pennsylvania, killed during World War II, was accounted for Jan 10, 2023.
‘A number of DPAA investigation and recovery efforts took place in 2017 and 2019, with a June 2021 recovery mission finding possible human remains and material evidence.
‘To identify Montgomery’s remains, scientists from DPAA used anthropological analysis as well as material evidence.
‘Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA analysis.’
He added: ‘I found the site in the 1970s when I spoke to an elderly local resident who remembered one of the crew was called Montgomery and he had found the bracelet with his name on and that unlocked the story.
‘I researched the crash, tied all the bits together and realised there were two missing airmen from the crash.
‘But nothing happened until I bumped into an American major with the US Department of Defence many years later and that sparked their interest.
‘It is hugely satisfying to have played a significant part in bringing somebody home to his family and knowing that William Montgomery would still be missing today had I not initiated it.’
British historian Mark Khan, who was part of the archaeological team, said he was ‘very pleased’ that Lt Montgomery was ‘no longer missing’.
He said: ‘Quite a lot of human remains were found at the digs in 2019 and 2021, and the DNA analysis took place in the US.
‘We are all very pleased at the outcome. It is what we set out to do in 2016 and we have got there in the end.
‘Lt Montgomery is no longer missing.’
Lt Montgomery and Sgt Holoka were part of 844 Squadron of the United States Air Force stationed in RAF Halesworth, Suffolk, during the war.
The squadron took part of strategic bombing missions of Normandy before, during and after D-Day.
On June 22, 1944 the ill-fated bomber took part in a raid on an airfield near Versailles when it was peppered by flak.
The B-24 Liberator had been shot up by anti-aircraft flak during an attack on a German airfield in northern France. It limped across the English Channel before it began losing height off the Sussex coast. Seven of the 10-man crew successfully bailed out while 24 year-old Lt Montgomery (front row second from right), co-pilot John Crowther (front row right) and engineer, Sgt John Holoka remained on board to try and recover the situation
A memorial tablet has been laid at the crash site on the farm in Arundel. It reads: ‘On the 22nd June 1944 USAF Liberator B24H Liberator crashed in front of this plaque. Three lives were lost’
British historian Mark Khan, who was part of the archaeological team (pictured during the excavation in 2019), said he was ‘very pleased’ that Lt Montgomery was ‘no longer missing’
Crew member Lt Demoyne Henderson later wrote in a statement: ‘Just a few seconds after bombs were away we were hit hard by flak. We managed to stay in the vicinity of he formation until the French coast was reached.
‘I went to the flight deck and only one rudder and one elevator was in working order. We were in the rear of the ship until almost at the English coast when the order came to bail out.
‘Just after my chute opened I heard the whine of the plane going down.
‘The first four of us landed about four miles out in the Channel and were rescued quickly. The navigator landed on the beach and the other two landed a mile inland.
‘We were not allowed to visit the plane but it was a total loss.’
A memorial tablet has been laid at the crash site. It reads: ‘On the 22nd June 1944 USAF Liberator B24H Liberator crashed in front of this plaque. Three lives were lost.
‘For our lost heroes, long gone but not forgotten. Your sacrifice ensured the freedom of the world.’
Miss Kirchhoff, from North Carolina, explained her grandfather, Tom, was fighting with the US Army in Europe at the time he was told his brother was missing in action.
She said: ‘He was just told that they thought he’d gone down in the English Channel. He never knew. That makes me so sad, because he died in 2010 – not knowing.
‘And knowing where he fell, and that somebody was looking for his brother, would have meant so much to him.’
The 489th Bomb Group and the ‘Arundel Bomber’ that crashed in a farmer’s field in Sussex – killing three on board – after taking flak from German anti-aircraft fire near Paris during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944
The 844th Bombardment Squadron flew strategic bombing missions to Germany in July, and primarily engaged in bombing strategic targets such as factories and oil refineries and airfields in Ludwigshafen, Magdeburg, Brunswick and Saarbrücken among other cities until November 1944.
The squadron dropped food to liberated French and to Allied forces in France during August and September, and carried food and ammunition to the Netherlands later in September.
A B-24 Liberator with that squadron dubbed ‘Johnny Reb’ was shot up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on a German airfield near Versailles on June 22, 1944, and managed to limp back across the English Channel before it started losing height off the Sussex coast.
Seven of the 10 crew on board managed to bail out of the plane on its journey back to England, but three – pilot Lieutenant William Montgomery, Sergeant John Crowther and engineer Sergeant John Holoka Jr – were killed as it crashed in a farmer’s field near Arundel Castle.
Lieutenant William Montgomery and Sergeant John Crowther were killed in a crash in a farmer’s field near Arundel Castle
Sergeant Crowther’s body was found and repatriated, but nothing was found of the two others apart from Lieutenant Montgomery’s identity bracelet. The crash site was largely forgotten about 2017, when farmer John Sellers – who witnessed the crash as a boy – contacted the authorities.
Speaking to authorities in June 2017, farmer John Sellers recounted the crash he witnessed as a schoolboy. He said: ‘At about 9pm I had started to get ready for bed when there was a thunderous scream of a plane in a power dive then bump of it hitting the ground.
‘About 15 minutes later I slipped out and went behind the farm buildings to where I could see the crash site (some 300 yards away). The fireball was long gone out, the only sign was the scorched area of ripening barley in the next field. There was little sign of debris in the grass field, only the dirt around five craters.
‘There was very little smoke coming from the craters by then. The following morning I walked down the lane past the site some 75 yards away and could hear the ammunition exploding underground. Later that day the farm dog came back in carrying a severed forearm on which was a bracelet, (not dog tags) with a name on.
‘My father retrieved the arm and removed the bracelet. He arranged for the bracelet to be given to the police. He then buried the arm in the hole where the rest of the remains were.
‘A guard was placed to keep people away whilst the ammunition was still going off from time to time. The holes smouldered for about 10 days before one last flare up and then going out. Once it was safe I took the first chance to inspect the crash site. I found that the plane had come down near vertically, the wings at about 45 degrees to the ditch and fence.
‘This was confirmed by the digger driver who excavated it in 1974. One wing hit the ground before the other as one side outer wing was crumpled in a slot in the ground, while the other had sheared off and shot some 40 yards across the neighbouring field. I found a piece of wing about 6’x2’, by far the biggest piece of debris on the whole site.
‘Also there was more small debris collected from the barley field than the grass filed where the plane landed. The pile of debris collected from the grass field grew by about three times when ‘all hands’ were set to clear the the barley field ready to harvest. I would estimate that 90 per cent of the plane ended up in the ground. My father told me at least three of the survivors did manage to get to see the site and speak to him.’
A B-24 Liberator with the 489th Bombardment Group was shot up by anti-aircraft fire during a bombing raid on a German airfield near Versailles on June 22, 1944, and managed to limp back across the English Channel before it started losing height off the Sussex coast
Mark Khan, a veteran who served in Northern Ireland, helped get the project off the ground after meeting military aviation researcher Andy Saunders at an archaeology conference in Dorking. They discussed the plane crash and as an Arundel resident, Mr Khan was keen to take it further, including extensive research.
He told the West Sussex County Times: ‘The farmer’s dad was a young lad at the time, living in the cottages nearby, so when it crashed he was quickly at the scene. He wrote a first-hand account and there has been extensive research.
‘It is a very evocative story. The bomber was based at Suffolk and was on a mission to Versailles. It was hit over the target and damaged by flak. They lost most of the flying controls but nursed it back in the bomber stream.
‘They followed a one-way system so they couldn’t go straight back to base. It was a tremendous feat of airmanship.
‘As it neared the English coastline, the pilot gave the order to bail out. As it flew on over Arundel, something happened that caused the aircraft to crash, we don’t know what, and the three remaining crew were killed.’
The 489th Bomb Group was a unit of the United States Air Force that flew tactical missions in support of Allied ground forces in northern France during the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944.
After training in the United States, the 489th was stationed at Halesworth, Suffolk between April and November 1944 and flew 106 operational missions in their B-24 Liberators. Twenty-six aircraft were lost in combat – including the so-called Arundel Bomber – and a number of aircrew became prisoners of war.
From its first combat mission was to Oldenburg, Germany on May 30, 1944, just prior to the D-Day landings, the crews of the 489th carried out saturation bombing of Nazi-occupied territories before the final Allied breakthrough in July 1944 – and dropped food and ammunition into France and Holland.
The 489th’s final mission was on November 10, 1944, when the group was then redeployed to the US for training for the Pacific theatre of the war with Japan. However, many of the aircraft and personnel were reassigned to other bombing groups in the 8th Air Force.
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