It was 80 years ago when two American Flying Fortress bombers collided over the marshes at Reedham and the crews on both aircraft lost their lives.

On the exact date, February 21, people will be gathering for a moving and important ceremony, Reedham Remembers, at the war memorial in the village.

The US 8th Air Force 385th Bomb Group was stationed at, and flew B-17’s from Great Ashfield in Suffolk, from June 1943-August 1945.

On February 21 1944 aircraft from the 549th and 550th Bomb Squadrons were taking part in day two of an operation later known as the “Big Week.” A series of missions to bomb airfields and aviation industrial targets in Germany.

Eastern Daily Press: An image from the Lowestoft Journal (January 1964) showing cadets of 469 (Lowestoft) Squadron Air

The two planes did not make it back to base but crashed in a tragic accident over the marshes at Reedham. Twenty-one young men perished in as many seconds.

Witness Bob Goldsmith saw debris and bodies blown into the sky but no parachutes as the shattered remnants of both bombers plunged to earth.

The Hard Life Herald newsletter of the 385th Bombardment Group Association reported on the military career of pilot Captain John Hutchinson. This was had been his 25th mission. He and his crew would have returned home after it had been completed.

These missions were part of the “Big Week” operations when the RAF and USAAF combined in a series of round-the-clock raids on the German aircraft industry.

It was intended they would reduce the Luftwaffe’s strength during Operation Overlord (D-Day) in June. Opposition was light and severe damage was inflicted on the aircraft park.

But during the return journey adverse weather forced the bombers north of their planned route. They crossed the coast just north of Great Yarmouth at 8,000 feet at 15.37 hours.

Eastern Daily Press: The young men who died and who will be remembered on February 21

As they were prepared to land at Great Ashfield in cloudy skies the plane piloted by Lt Warren J Pease collided with the one Captain Hutchinson was flying causing both to crash into the marshes.

Norfolk author, historian and aviation archaeologist Ian McLachlin spent many years investigating what happened on that fateful day and we have much to thank him for.

His work resulted in the memorial being established at Reedham to  remember these airmen. Ian said it had fulfilled a dream that the men should be honoured as it was impossible during the war.

Eastern Daily Press: We will remember them. Names on the memorial at Reedham

The ceremony was attended by family members, surviving veterans from the 385th Bomb Group, a colour guard from Mildenhall and veterans from branches of the Royal British Legion.

Channel Four’s Time Team also visited the site in 1999 to help shed light on the history of the crash with most recovered wreckage placed in storage. This can be viewed on Time Team SO6EPO8 Reedham Marshes Norfolk – YouTube.

Eastern Daily Press: Filming the Time Team programme forFilming the Time Team programme for Channel 4 in 1998

Now, to mark the 80th anniversary of the tragic event Mark Smith and Reedham Parish Council are arranging a service at the war memorial at The Hill & Riverside, Reedham, at 11am on Wednesday February 21. A road closure will be in force between 10am and 1pm.

It will be conducted by the Rev Martin Greenland and attended by the President of the 385th Bomb Group Association in the USA, Shannon Muchow whose grandfather was a pilot in the 385th Bomb Group.

We should thank Ian, Mark Smith and Reedham Parish Council for making sure there will be a fitting tribute to the airmen who lost their lives and all others who died fighting for our freedom in the Second World War. We will remember them.

For more information read Ian McLachlan’s  compelling books Final Flights and Eighth Air Force Bomber Stories – A New Selection.

Eastern Daily Press: A look back at a previous memorial service

Eastern Daily Press: A propeller being recovered during the final excavation at Reedham Marshes in 2000.