New Year’s Eve crash of a plane on Burnham-On-Sea beach

An American B17 Flying Fortress crash-landed on Burnham-On-Sea beach on December 31st, 1943.

The plane came down after being damaged during a bombing raid on German-held targets in France and, fortunately there were no fatalities.

Walt Skinner, a crewman onboard the plane, explained to local historian Iris Rowe what happened.

She said: “Walt was the flight engineer/top turret gunner and would have to stand throughout the mission. During take-off he stood behind and between the two pilots so that he could check the instruments. Once in the air, he took up his position as the top turret gunner, standing on a small piece of raised metal with his head into the perspex dome above the plane and armed with two .50 calibre machine guns to protect the plane from attacks from above.”

“If any of the crew was wounded it was his job to do what he could for them. To get to the back of the plane, where six airmen were positioned, he had to go through the bomb bay by means of a four inch walkway – no room for a parachute to be worn, and using a walk-around oxygen bottle. If a bomb got hung-up it was his job to try to kick it free, standing above the open bomb bay doors. One slip and he would be gone.”

“He and his crewmates were serving with the 351st Battle Group which had suffered many losses due to mid-air collisions. The December 31st mission was considered to be a milk-run as little or no opposition was expected and so they were to fly at a lower than normal altitude with several top brass flying the lead plane, checking on the formation flying.”

“It was anything but a milk run. It was the longest mission and most costly in men and planes throughout the war for the 351st Battle Group. A total of 296 planes headed for German-held targets in France.”

“The 351st and 401st Battle Groups flew towards their targets of Bordeaux/Cognac whilst the others flew south. As they approached Bordeaux they were attacked by a group of FW190s. Bordeaux was cloud covered and so the B-17s headed north to their secondary target of Cognac where they were attacked by guns from a train and from a ship. Four planes went down in the target area, one in the Atlantic and two in the English Channel.”

“Walt and his crew, with one engine smoking, survived a fighter attack over the Brest peninsular and, short of fuel and alone, desperately looked for some place to land. They were too low for the crew to bale out and, expecting the pilots to ditch the plane, all except the two pilots took up their crash positions.”

They managed to fly across the south west to the Burnham-On-Sea area and, flying over St Andrew’s church, the pilots saw the beach and made a successful wheels-up landing.

Iris added: “As Walt said, ‘we didn’t even get our feet wet’. Many people ran out to the plane as it skidded to a halt, with boys gathering as many souvenirs as they could. Bits of the plane ended up in sheds all over Burnham but a camera only came to light in recent years. Walt and his crew stayed together and carried out 26 more missions. For the remainder of their missions they flew in a B-17 named Black Magic. Several weeks after the plane was assigned to another crew it went down with the loss of the crew.”

The first and only time Walt came back to Burnham was in May 1995. The head teacher of St Andrew’s Junior School, Steve James, arranged a concert based on the war as tribute to Walt. Mayor, councillor Brenda Brown, gave him a civic reception and invited him and his family to the 50th anniversary ceremony in the Manor Gardens. It was a day Walt never forgot.

Walt passed away in 2013 in Delaware Veterans Home and was given full military honours.