In Norwich, the history that surrounds you seems as apparent as it is ancient: the Norman castle, the thirty-two medieval churches, and the winding cobblestone streets. In a city like this, the trading estate on Barker Street might very well be the last place you would consider “historic”. Today, it is just a complex of car dealers and nondescript commercial warehouses. But in one abrupt instant seventy-two years ago, this unsuspecting location became etched into the story of the United States airmen stationed in East Anglia in the Second World War.
On 29th November, 1944, Mrs Inez Gorman of Brooklyn, New York, was sent a letter from a United States Air Force chaplain. It was about her son, Paul, who had been stationed in England only since August. The letter did not say how it happened or where, only that it was ‘sudden’. ‘Your son was a very excellent man’, the Chaplain wrote, ‘and I feel it was a pleasure to have known him’. The funeral had already taken place the previous day; it was held with full military honours at the American Military Cemetery in Cambridgeshire. He was twenty-three years old.
Paul Gorman had enlisted in the Signal Corps in October 1942, before requesting to join the Air Corps. He was made a 2nd Lieutenant in July 1944, becoming the navigator in a ten-man bombing crew led by pilot Ralph J. Dooley. The crew was part of the 458th Bombardment Group (H), a unit of large B-24 ‘Liberator’ aircraft assigned to RAF Horsham St Faith just north of Norwich.
Dooley’s crew completed a variety of missions. In September 1944, they flew exclusively to Lille, France, supplying fuel to General George Patton’s US Third Army: Allied Forces were establishing themselves in France after the Normandy Landings that year on 6th June. Throughout October and November, the Dooley crew flew B-24s from their Norwich airbase to bomb targets in Germany.
Paul Gorman and seven other members of Dooley’s crew (the remaining two were being rested) might have all felt relieved, then, on 24th November when their flight was just a practice mission, where they trained for flying in poor visibility. Just three days before, they were in enemy airspace to bomb Harburg, a borough of Hamburg. The 24th was foggy; visibility was just over 2 miles, and the thick clouds came as low as 400 feet from the ground. In such conditions, flares and beacons marked out the location of airfields. Flying a practice mission over Norwich in fog still must have felt much safer than operating over Nazi Germany or even carrying gallons of fuel into Allied-controlled France.
Around 5:30pm, Gorman and the crew were most likely squinting from their B-24 aircraft trying to spot the beacons in the fog. The crew had flown this plane, the ‘Lady Jane’, four times before, each of which were combat missions. On this occasion, they didn’t make it back to base. Dooley was flying south, approaching Horsham airfield to land. Ground crews fired flares to help the crew spot the runway, but Dooley overshot it. Abandoning the landing, the heavy B-24 bomber struggled to climb back into the sky quickly enough as the buildings of Norwich city centre loomed in its path.
Mrs Gorman would never find out why until the following summer. On 5th July 1945, she received this letter:
Dear Mrs Gorman,
Although it has been some months since you were notified of Paul’s death in England I feel sure you will be interested in any additional information I can furnish at this time.
I am the co-pilot of the crew as it went over and on the day of the fatal flight was at another base seeking information about my brother who was killed in action over Germany on Oct. seventh.
The crash came while trying to return to base under some very low clouds after a practice mission. The plane hit the steeple of St. Phillips church in Norwich, England and crashed on the edge of the city.
The letter concluded:
I felt the loss of the crew and your son quite deeply for we had worked together so long we were like members of the same family and close friends.
If I can furnish more details or help at any time please feel free to ask at any time.
Barton W. Wheeler
1st Lt. A. C.
Enclosed in the letter was this photograph of the crew, taken in Topeka, Kansas, shortly before they were deployed to England.
After the wing struck the church, one might expect that Dooley and his crew were feeling ever more helpless as the ‘Lady Jane’ slipped out of their control. Yet, in these moments when crashing was inevitable, the airmen were still determined to find a way to do service to their nation, the Allied Forces, and the people of Norwich. Instead of spending his last moments trying to gain the altitude he must have known would never come, Ralph Dooley chose to concentrate on piloting the ‘Lady Jane’ away from residential houses. He succeeded, crashing the plane into the uninhabited Barker Street depot with no loss of civilian life.
Mrs Gorman might very well not have learned of the local residents’ grateful admiration of the Dooley crew’s last acts until 8th November 1945, when she received a letter from the Lord Mayor of Norwich who expressed his ‘admiration of the gallant conduct of those who lost their lives’. Yet, the inhabitants of Heigham Street, which the ‘Lady Jane’ so narrowly avoided, had been sending their letters of condolence and appreciation of the crew to the Horsham St. Faith airbase within two days of the crash.
Today, there is a plaque commemorating the fallen crew of the ‘Lady Jane’ on a house on Heigham Street. Were it not for Dooley’s piloting, that house might very well not be standing today. RAF Horsham St. Faith is now Norwich Airport, and the Barker Street is home to such traders as Screwfix, Honda, and Skoda. Yet, as the story of the ‘Lady Jane’ exemplifies, the most prominent testament to the service and sacrifice of US airmen in Norwich during the Second World War is the city itself.
For the library’s papers relating to the crash of the ‘Lady Jane’, see catalogue ref: MC 371/406, USF 9/2
For the letters of condolence of local residents, see catalogue ref: MC 376/169, USF 9/4
To discover more stories about the American airmen who were stationed in East Anglia in the Second World War, explore the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library Digital Archive