Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Cramsie Day 2012

Bill Cramsie and 43-9699 continue to make news as we mark today the 67th Anniversary of the day that he and his gunners Charles Henshaw and Jack Steward disappeared without a trace.  Those who are familiar with the story will know that Bill has not rested in peace during that time.  In fact, he has pulled, pushed, cajoled and clawed his way into the hearts and minds of scores of people from California to the U.K.  The search for Bill Cramsie began seven years ago.  It should have begun sixty years earlier, but a tiny human foible precluded that.

Readers of this blog will know about "First to Fall" and about Ross Stewart.  Some will know that Ross discovered an anomaly in the records that may well lead to closure on this search.  As Lt. Cramsie was flying alone at 400 feet above Bradwell Bay, he made a call for a bearing to the RAF base there.  His hope was to make an emergency landing before the overburdened left engine of his A-20 Havoc failed completely.  He had lost the other engine much earlier due to intense flak over France. 

The call was heard by his friend, classmate and fellow pilot Marion S. (Scotty) Street, who was also flying on one engine and could see Cramsie below him.  Street was within sight of the main flight as they crossed the English Channel and entered Bradwell Bay.  They were on a direct course from just east of Dunkirk to their home station at Wethersfield.  The call for a bearing was heard and acknowledged by the ground station and a determination of Cramsie's position was made by triangulation of the radio signal.  That location was logged at latitude and longitude coordinates that placed Cramsie at 40 miles east of the station at Bradwell Bay and actually in the North Sea.  The Missing Air Crew Report includes a map with that location marked by an "X" and an arrow showing the coordinate he was advised to follow.

This reported location has always been at odds with common sense and the official reports of pilots who saw Cramsie's plane below them on the return from France to England.  Ross Stewart astutely realized that the reported longitude must contain a number inversion.  Plotting the corrected coordinates put this position precisely on the line and at the proper distance from land that all contemporary reports of pilot would suggest.  Ross also discovered through an internet charting resource that there is an unidentified aircraft wreck at this very spot, which happens to be a large sand bank that is partially exposed at the lowest tides.  He then located a 35-year-old British aerial survey photo that showed a twin-engined aircraft at that spot.  The photo was taken from 26,000 feet and detail was insufficient for positive identification, but it looked very much like the profile of an A-20 Havoc.

As Ross expanded his search for information to local divers and fishermen, he met Roger Gaspar an expert in these waters and a man with extraordinary background and skills.  On Easter Sunday morning, the two of them coordinated a trip to the site with the help of Alan Bird, an Oyster boat's captain, to determine if that wreck was still to be found.  Why on Easter?  It has to do with the Spring tides being at their lowest point of the year for a couple days and that bad weather was forecast for the following days.  These intrepid explorers boarded the waiting craft at 4:00 AM and anchored off the sand bank in the early AM, approaching it with a dinghy as the tide receded.  Their effort was well rewarded.  At precisely the coordinates expected, they did find the wreckage of an aircraft and some indications that it may be an A-20.  Further examination of the wreckage is presently underway and it is hopeful that a solid identification will soon be possible.

The main part of the aircraft which was visible in the 1970s aerial survey is apparently now covered with sand, but is likely in the immediate vicinity of the tail sections and main landing gear shown in the photos above.

The story of Bill Cramsie and "9699" has always seemed to write itself and to lead people to the place they need to go.  I feel comforted in the fact that it happens to others, not just to me.  There are a lot of people with the desire to see closure on this long episode and obviously a lot of will to prevail in that quest.