18 December 1944, 0630 hrs
The second turning point was rapidly approaching. One half of the planes would turn to the north in a move that was intended to fool the enemy and the other half would head directly for Duisburg. This was a difficult manoeuvre considering the number of planes in the air, their close proximity to one another and the possible error in the position of each aircraft. Planes were stacked on three levels between 17,000 ft. and 21,000 ft. and separated from those ahead and behind by what was thought to be a workable margin but it was far from safe considering the they carried no identification lights. It was wartime and risks that would never have been accepted in peacetime were considered acceptable in an attempt to end a war that had already consumed millions of lives.
Suddenly Bert Brown saw the Navigator in the compartment ahead of him jump to his feet and fold his seat back. Because he was listening in on the Group Broadcast at that moment, Bert was not able to hear the intercom conversation between the other crew members on the plane. Perhaps if he had heard the pilot he would have known what caused Harry to jump up but his immediate reaction was that something terrible was about to happen. Instinct made him rip off his helmet and reach for his parachute to clip it on. As he did this the nose of the aircraft pitched violently upwards and then the whole plane rolled over on one wing. From this point on Bert had no recollection of what happened until he regained his senses while falling freely through the cold early morning air. His head was cut and bleeding and his chute was only clipped on one side. He struggled to hook up the other side and then pulled the ripcord and lost consciousness again.
What exactly happened to the plane will probably never be known but there are several possibilities. The most likely scenario is that a mid-air collision occurred between this plane and the plane just ahead of it in the group. The violent nose-up was a common evasive move to prevent imminent collision. What caused the two planes to be so close is entirely speculative as either one could have been in the “wrong” place for any number of reasons. Lending strength to this theory is the fact that another plane went down in the same area. A Halifax from 51 Squadron piloted by F/O B. M. Twilly crashed into the woods near Hainant with no survivors.
Another possibility was that WL-U, the plane piloted by Jim Parrott, was struck by another plane, or something else that fell from above. This theory is reinforced by the knowledge that a verified collision took place between two other planes at roughly the same location. F/O M. Krakowsky, piloting a Halifax from 432 Squadron, code named QO-O was involved in a mid air collision with LV-810 from 10 Squadron (R.A.F.) The only survivor of this accident was the pilot Krakowsky while 13 others perished. It may have been possible that a plane or part of a plane falling uncontrolled from above may have collided with this plane flying at a lower elevation and caused it serious damage.
The only other possibility is that a severe failure of the airframe of NR- 118 occurred without any contact with another plane. The plane was damaged earlier in its flying history and it is an outside possibility that some unidentified weakness caused the plane to break up in the air over Belgium as a result of the combination of stresses it was exposed to. It was not unheard of for this to happen to a heavy bomber but it would have to be considered a slim possibility.
Witnesses on the ground near the town of Couvin, Belgium saw a burning plane falling through the morning sky. Messieur Bodart, a teenager at the time, was sitting at the breakfast table in the family farm house. He heard the scream of a plane descending very close by and rushed outside to see what was happening. Despite the war going on it was seldom they ever got to see any planes at close range. He was in time to see the plane explode just before hitting the ground. The low angle of descent hurtled pieces of the plane for a great distance across the ground and into an adjacent stand of trees. It was a violent and horrific scene that he would never forget. One wing landed several hundred meters from the main crash site and the engines of the plane were buried in the ground in separate locations. Most tragic of all, six bodies lay strewn across what had moments before been a peaceful, idyllic farm field.
The American Army occupied the south part of Belgium at that time. The area to the north and east of Couvin was the main site of the Battle of the Bulge and as a result there was a large build-up of troops in the area. The Americans were very quick to arrive on the scene of the crash to recover the bodies of the aircrew and any material from the plane that would have been dangerous to the public or needed to be recovered for security reasons. The plane was carrying a full load of bombs and in excess of 20,000 rounds of ammunition when it crashed. There would also have been code books, maps, bomb sites and electronic navigational equipment that would have been useful if they had fallen into German hands. The bodies were recovered along with any personal artefacts and taken immediately to a cemetery that had been opened for American Army casualties located in Fosses-La-Ville, a town 40 kilometres north of Couvin.
Meanwhile Bert Brown fell silently and swiftly to earth beneath his parachute. This was not the sport parachute that one is accustomed to today. During the war, military parachutes assured a very rapid descent. The landing was at the threshold of what a person could reasonable sustain without breaking bones. The person hanging in a parachute was an ideal target for ground fire or air gunners and the intention was to get him to the ground as quickly as possible. A tree arrested Bert’s fall as he thudded to the ground. After wandering around for some time trying to get his bearings and unsure of whether he was in enemy territory, he met some Belgian farmers who did what they could to treat his head injuries and then helped him to the American troops. He was first taken to an American field hospital and then to a hospital in Paris. From there he was flown to England where he continued to convalesce in a rest home. When sufficiently recuperated Bert was repatriated to Canada.
What happened to the plane was severe and sudden. From Bert’s account it was apparent that he was thrown from the plane, probably through a fracture in the fuselage. If he had been able to make his was to the emergency hatch under the navigator’s seat it would seem probable that at least one of the others would have made it free of the plane as well. If there was contact with another plane a number of the crew might have been severely injured as a result of the impact and consequently were unable to make their way free. It would be almost a certainty that the plane would have been on fire and wildly out of control as it descended. The violent spinning of the plane may have prevented anyone else from making his way out of the plane. It would have been a horrific and frantic time for any of the crew who were conscious, as the fall from 17,000 feet would have taken far too long.