The Accident
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The 14th Fighter Group arrived at Atcham in Shropshire, England in late August 1942, having ferried from Windsor Locks, Connecticut via Canada, Greenland, Iceland, and Scotland as part of Operation Bolero. Assigned to the Eighth Air Force, the group participated in fighter sweeps – code-named “Wildflower” – along the Dutch and Belgian coasts of occupied Europe in mid-September. Later in the month, the 49th Squadron was sent to an RAF airfield on the Welsh coast for gunnery practice.

At 14:00 on September 27, 1942 Lt. Elliott departed base in 41-7677 on a tow target mission – that is, towing a “sleeve” target for his squadron mates to shoot at. As was standard procedure in the P-38, he took off using the reserve fuel tanks but he forgot to switch to the main tanks fifteen minutes after takeoff as called for in the Pilot’s Flight Operating Instructions. Fifty-five minutes into the mission, the left engine lost power. Lt. Elliot misidentified the problem as propeller trouble, “feathered” the prop (rotated the blades edgewise to the airflow to prevent wind-milling), and returned to the airfield intending to land. Coming up over the field at 1,000 feet, he dropped the tow target then flew out over the ocean, turned around, and began his landing approach. When he was two miles out and at 800 feet, the right engine quit. Unable to glide to the runway, he turned for the shore but did not quite reach the beach, landing in about two feet of water.

Lieutenant Elliott survived the crash unharmed. An Aircraft Accident Classification Committee of three officers found the cause of the mishap to be fuel exhaustion due to Lt. Elliott’s “carelessness.” The group’s commanding officer concurred and noted that “The necessary disciplinary action has been taken.” The squadron’s engineering officer reported that “The damage by crash landing and salt water was extensive and it will be necessary to salvage the plane.”[1]

At the end of October, the 14th Fighter Group left Atcham and headed to North Africa as part of the 12th Air Force to participate in Operation Torch. On December 5, 1942 Lt. Elliott was flying one of six P-38s that were attacked by ten to fifteen Luftwaffe Me-109s. Five of the six Lightnings, including Lt. Elliott’s, failed to return to their base from that engagement. He was listed Missing In Action. A year later his mother received notification that “an official determination has been made of the death of your son.”[2] No trace of Robert Elliott’s body or his aircraft has ever been found.

At the time of Lt. Elliott’s mishap in Wales, few civilians in the local area were aware of the accident because the beaches in the United Kingdom were closed to the public during World War II and the press was not allowed to print stories about Allied wrecks. After the war, recreational use of the beach resumed. The town was, and still is, a popular tourist destination, yet no post-war encounters with the wreck were reported.

The available evidence suggests that, in the years following the accident, the wreckage was covered over by the ever-shifting sands beneath the surf. There, it appears, the aircraft remained hidden until the sands shifted again in July of 2007 and exposed it for perhaps the first time in sixty-five years. The aircraft’s recent discoverer reports that he and his family have been coming to that particular spot on Harlech beach for twelve years and never had any idea the wreck was there.

Notes

1 War Department, Air Corps, Form 14, Technical Report of Airplane Accident Classification Committee dated October 2, 1942 and USAAF Technical Order No. 01-75F-1, Pilot’s Flight Operating Instructions, P-38F  p. 27.
2 Letter from Major General Barnie M. Giles, U.S. Army to Mrs. Bonus M. Elliott, dated December 17, 1943.

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