War hero who crash-landed near RAF Wing is remembered in Stewkley woodland

American pilot Manny Klette and all his crew survived crash-landing in treetops after running out of fuel

Wednesday, 29th September 2021, 5:06 pm
Updated Wednesday, 29th September 2021, 5:08 pm

A remembrance plaque to a Second World War hero has been unveiled in woodland near Stewkley.

The plaque commemorates an American pilot, Immanuel ’Manny’ Klette, whose aircraft crash-landed close to the RAF Wing wartime airfield.

On the evening of September 23, 1943, an American B-17 Flying Fortress bomber, was returning to its home base of Thurleigh in Bedfordshire badly damaged from a mission to bomb Nantes harbour in France with an injured pilot - Klette - when it crash-landed in treetops in Kemsall Wood, just yards short of the RAF Wing runways.

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A plaque has been installed in the woodlands where the crash happened

His crew were injured and Manny had multiple fractures of his legs and hip, as well as a broken shin from battle damage.

Helped by RAF Wing personnel, they crawled out of the wreckage and were taken to RAF Halton hospital near Wendover.

There, Manny had to relearn how to walk, before going on to become a ruthless and determined fighter against the Nazi war machine.

Now a famous and revered war hero, buried in Arlington Cemetery in the USA and awarded the highest military and civilian decorations including the Croix De Guerre, Manny Klette flew more bombing missions than any other pilot in American Air Force history, and flew the last mission of the Second World War.

At the crash site

Thanks to co-founder of the RAF Wing memorial Nick Ellins, and Stewkley farmer Henry Hunt, who owns Kemsall Wood, a plaque has now been erected in the woods near the site of the historic event.

The tribute is part of the commemorations for the RAF Wing memorial, which was unveiled in June, opposite the old main runway.

A total of 2,500 men and women served and were housed at RAF Wing, with 53 bombers under No.26 Operational Training Unit and carried out many combat missions, despite it being a training base for frontline operations.

About Manny Klette

The scene of the crash

A first-generation American, the son of a Lutheran minister who emigrated from Germany to the Midwest, Manny was passionately against the Nazi regime and doctrine.

His 28th mission was leading an evening raid to bomb submarine supply ships in Nantes harbour, France, when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire, smashing the bomb doors and holing the aircraft's petrol tanks. A splinter of shrapnel badly damaged Manny’s shin.

On the return trip, Manny shut down two of the aircraft's four engines to save fuel, and a third engine once over England, so the 20-ton bomber was by now flying on one engine.

As they were still losing height rapidly and it became clear they would not make their home base at Thurleigh in Bedfordshire, the RAF directed them to emergency land at RAF Wing.

Manny Klette

After flying over the village of Wing and the nearby hamlet of Burcott at low height with full landing lights on, Manny hit low cloud and lost sight of the ground until aircraft was at just 100ft.

Rather than hit ground hard, Manny chose to drop the B-17 into the treetops of a wood just short of the runways, where an oak tree severed the left wing, broke the fuselage in half, crushed the cockpit and severed the engines from the aircraft.

Lack of fuel prevented more than a small fire in one engine, but fire crews from Aylesbury, Linslade and Leighton Buzzard reached the site within 12 minutes of the crash.

Manny sustained multiple leg and pelvis fractures in addition to the shin injury sustained in battle, and his navigator, Lt Madden, was badly injured with eight fractures. The rest of the crew escaped with minor injuries.

RAF Wing personnel got the aircrew to safety and to RAF Halton Hospital, near Wendover.

Though the medical team believed Manny’s injuries would end his war, Manny refused to give in, and endured a long and painful recuperation.

He went on to complete 91 combat missions - more than any other USAAF bomber pilot in the Second World War - and flew the last USAAF bombing mission of the war.

In an environment where American airmen died quickly, his record saw him dubbed a “living legend” by the replacement airmen.

Manny died two days before his 69th birthday, in 1988. He was buried with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia.

He was decorated by the President for his war bravery and accumulated an Air Medal, Air Medal with 13 oak leaf clusters (2 silver, 3 bronze), Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters, Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart, Croix de Guerre (French), Air Force Commendation Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one bronze star and European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with one silver star and one bronze star.