Ten Horsepower remembered 80 years on

The act of heroism and bravery of the RAF Polebrook-based crew resulted in them becoming the most decorated crew in the Eighth Air Force

An event to commemorate the 80th anniversary of an act of valour and heroism took place in Stilton, Cambridgeshire – that of the ditching of an RAF Polebrook-based Boeing B-17G ‘Ten Horsepower’ – an event that claimed the lives of four of the crew.

The story of the incident would become folkloric, with two of the crew posthumously receiving the Medal of Honour, and seven Purple Hearts being awarded also. The crew became the most decorated crew in the entire Eighth Air Force. Between the crew of ten, 11 awards were handed out.

From L-R: Flt Lt Clark, Lt Col Little, Don Darke and Keith Morris
From L-R: Flt Lt Clark, Lt Col Little, Don Darke and Keith Morris Key-Dominic Ward

Organised by Keith Morris, a local enthusiast and metal detectorist, along with help from Stilton Parish Council and other locals, the packed-out event was held in Stilton’s Community Pavilion. He said: “I started this project in October last year. I felt I needed to do this to honour the young men that perished on [Denton Hill].”

Don Darke, founder of a local steelworks business, was nine years old when the incident happened but recalled it vividly: “I was on the site very shortly after it happened. My family has lived here since 1944. The crash actually happened before I got here, but it didn’t really matter because I was just a kid at the time. I found out within hours of living in Stilton that this crash had happened, so I was on the site very quickly.

“From nine years old I can still remember it and being puzzled as to why the field was marked and scarred. There was all manner of stuff laying around. I soon found out, obviously, and I’ve lived with the story ever since.”

The event was attended by representatives from both the RAF and the USAF, in the shape of Flight Lieutenant Pete Clark from RAF Cranwell and Lieutenant Colonel Allen W. Little, Deputy Commander of the 423rd Air Base Group at RAF Alconbury.

Keith Morris presents Lt Col Little with artefacts of Ten Horsepower
Keith Morris presents Lt Col Little with artefacts of Ten Horsepower Key-Dominic Ward

Speaking at the event, Lt Col Little said: “As an airman, I learn a lot of stories of heroism. People did some amazing things that are somewhat irrational.

“These were men who were just average people who came from various backgrounds. They had passions, families, girlfriends – they had people they loved who cared for them.

“The most important part of the story is that they formed a family. As a former air commander myself I used to fly from 2010-2013, I really understand what that’s like.”

Lt Col Little addresses the packed community centre in Stilton, Cambridgeshire
Lt Col Little addresses the packed community centre in Stilton, Cambridgeshire Key-Dominic Ward

Flt Lt Clark added: “I’ve been lucky enough and privileged enough to attend a number of unveilings and commemorations during my seven years NATO service in Italy, Germany and the Netherlands – but it’s quite melancholy to be here in the UK to honour a crew, something I never thought I’d have the honour to do.

“The fact that two non-pilots and the others who helped managed to get an aircraft – damaged potentially to what extent who knows – and then to make two attempts at landing.

“It’s a big ungainly lump of metal these gentlemen were trying to get back on terra firma, and it’s nothing short of miraculous that they a) got home and b) had a couple of attempts to get there.

“It’s just a tragedy the valiant efforts weren’t met with the success it deserved.”

Flt Lt Clark spoke of the heroism displayed, and said it was “melancholy” to be in the UK commemorating a crew
Flt Lt Clark spoke of the heroism displayed, and said it was “melancholy” to be in the UK commemorating a crew Key-Dominic Ward

The events also featured a service of remembrance, led my village layperson Nigel Smith, whilst the GB Home Guard Band played period music.

On February 20, 1944, Ten Horsepower and its ten-man crew found themselves on a bombing raid over Leipzig, Germany. The crew consisted of:

·       Lieutenant Clarence R. Nelson (pilot)

·       Flight Officer Ronald E. Bartley (copilot)

·       Lieutenant Joseph R. Martin (bombardier)

·       Lieutenant Walter E. Truemper (navigator)

·       Sargeant Carl W. Moore (top turret gunner)

·       Sargeant Joseph F. Rex (radio operator)

·       Sargeant Archibald E. Mathies (ball turret gunner)

·       Sargeant Russell R. Robinson (right waist gunner)

·       Sargeant Thomas R. Sowell (left waist gunner)

·       Sargeant Magnus A. Hagbo (tail gunner)

Over Germany, just 20 minutes from the run at the Initial Point northeast of Leipzig, and Ten Horsepower was set upon.

Shells ripped through the aircraft, killing Bartley, and hitting Nelson in the face, rendering him unconscious.

It was now down to the remainder of the crew to get the stricken aircraft home. Moore managed to get the aircraft out of its dive, before handing the controls over to Truemper who was later joined by Mathies.

The duo attempted to get the aircraft back to the UK. Eventually, having found land and found a way home, Ten Horsepower made a series of unsuccessful landings at RAF Polebrook and nearby RAF Moleworth. A couple of the crew bailed out over RAF Polebrook, and the aircraft lined up for a final run – this time, its last.

It impacted Denton Hill at high speed, and in the process it claimed the lives of Truemper and Mathies.

Nelson succumbed to his injuries days later in hospital.

A service of remembrance was held, which included two minutes of silence – both well observed 
A service of remembrance was held, which included two minutes of silence – both well observed  Key-Dominic Ward

For their bravery, Nelson, Truemper, Bartley and Mathies were posthumously awarded Purple Hearts – with both Truemper and Mathies also receiving Medals of Honor.

Sowell and Robinson also received Purple Hearts, whilst Rex received a Purple Heart and a Silver Star.

Moore received the Distinguished Service Cross.

80 years on, and the bravery of the crew of Ten Horsepower will forevermore be remembered.

For more on Ten Horsepower, look out for to FlyPast’s May edition