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B17 wartime plane crash on Reigate Hill

A view over rolling green hills, wooded hillsides and fields at Reigate Hill and Gatton Park in Surrey
Views of Colley Hill at Reigate Hill and Gatton Park in Surrey | © National Trust Images/A Wright

In a clearing in the trees on Reigate Hill is a memorial dedicated to nine USAAF airmen who were tragically killed when their plane, a B-17(G) Flying Fortress, crashed into the hill on the evening of Monday 19 March 1945. The crew, from the 384th Bombardment Group, were returning to their base at Grafton Underwood in Northamptonshire after an operation near the German-Czech border.

The tragic crash

Cloud had dogged the crew following take-off some nine hours earlier. Returning from their mission with battle damage, they entered another cloud bank near Reigate. Moments later, their aircraft crashed into Reigate Hill killing all those on board.

This was the crew’s 13th mission together and – as far as can be determined – their first in this aircraft.

The memorial

A clearing in the woodland on Reigate Hill marks the spot where the plane crashed. The memorial sculpture, created by Surrey artist Roger Day was unveiled on the 70th anniversary of the crash.

Carved from ancient Surrey oak, the two pieces of the sculpture are placed the same distance apart as the aircraft's wingtips and made to the exact dimensions. Buried inside the sculpture, forming part of it, is metal recovered from the crash site.

View of the North Downs from Reigate Hill, Surrey
View of the North Downs from Reigate Hill | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The men we commemorate

There were three officers – all Army Air Corps second lieutenants – and six other airmen on board the bomber when it crashed.

Second Lieutenant Robert S Griffin

Pilot Robert S Griffin was from Glendale, California. Just three months shy of 25, Griffin was the oldest officer on board.

Second Lieutenant Herbert S Geller

Co-pilot Herbert S Geller from Wayne County, Michigan, was a university student who had enlisted in the army on 21 November 1942.

Second Lieutenant Royal A Runyon

Royal A Runyon, from Hancock County, Illinois, was the aircraft’s navigator. Records show he was married with a son.

Staff Sergeant Robert Manbeck  

Robert Manbeck was the tail gunner. Two years after joining the army in November 1942, Staff Sergeant Manbeck had completed more than 50 missions and volunteered for a second tour.  

Sergeant Donald W Jeffrey

Donald W Jeffrey was the aircraft's togglier, responsible for releasing the five-hundred-pound bombs deployed by the B-17.  

Sergeant Philip J Phillips Jr

Radio operator Philip J Phillips Jr was living in Nassau County, New York, on Long Island when he decided to enlist. He was also trained as the aircraft's medic.  

Sergeant Robert F Marshall

Flight engineer and top turret gunner Robert F Marshall had enlisted in Milwaukee where he was a factory foreman. In the event of an emergency, he would have used his basic flying skills to pilot the aircraft.  

Sergeant William R Irons

William R Irons came from Massachusetts. He manned the cramped machine-gun ball turret on the outside of the aircraft.  

Sergeant Thomas J Hickey

Waist gunner Thomas J Hickey was the most highly decorated of the crew, having been awarded the distinguished Flying Cross. He lived in King's County, New York City, and had been an office messenger before joining up.

A view over rolling green hills, wooded hillsides and fields at Reigate Hill and Gatton Park in Surrey

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