Piper Cub crash at Dartmouth

The port of Dartmouth lies on the S.Devon coast, between Torbay and the US Army training area around Slapton. The town has a long Royal Navy heritage, being home to the Royal Navy College.

In April 1944 a light Piper Cub L-4 communications aircraft crashed into the river at Dartmouth. Historian Ken Wakefield tells the story; an extract from his book ‘The Fighting Grashoppers’…….

A tough old bird

The Piper Cub was an easy to repair aircraft, even after sustaining serious damage; and this was proved beyond any doubt by one particular L-4. This aircraft, an early production L-4B with the USAAF serial number 43-607, was one of the first Cubs to arrive in the UK, but over a short period time it was involved in two accidents.

On each occasion it was badly damaged, but repairs were successfully carried out and 43-607 returned to service. After the second incident this was to the 153rd Liaison Squadron, a Ninth US Air Force unit based at New Zealand Farm airfield, near Erlestoke in Wiltshire.

The 153rd had been assigned to IX Fighter Command of the Ninth Air Force on December 12, 1943, but on February 4,1944, it was attached to Headquarters First US Army, then at Bristol. From March 15 the squadron carried out daily courier runs, carrying priority mail and top ranking officers (including General Bradley, the Army Commander) between the Headquarters and various Command Posts.

Preparations for D-Day
By April 1944 preparations were well advanced for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Europe, with units of the First Army busily engaged in practice amphibious landings and other exercises. Several of these rehearsals for D-Day took place in South Devon, with troops coming ashore from landing craft at Slapton Sands.

It was here, during the night of April 27, 1944, that approximately 950 American servicemen were to lose their lives when German E-boats attacked and sank several landing craft during Exercise Tiger, the final rehearsal for the D-Day landings.

In advance of this exercise, Staff Sergeant Francis A Bush of the 153rd Liaison Squadron was required to take L-4B 43-607 from New Zealand Farm to airstrip Y670 at Paignton. This was followed on April 8 by an administrative mission to strip Y821 at Slapton Sands, in the course of which S/Sgt Bush had a remarkable escape.

Poor weather mission
The weather was poor when he took off from Paignton, with one mile visibility and a cloud base of 1,000 ft, and on approaching the River Dart at 1445 hours conditions worsened.

The barrage balloons protecting Dartmouth were hidden in cloud, so as he neared the town Bush made a 45 degree turn to avoid the area. As he did so the Cub hit one of the unseen mooring cables and with one wing sheared off went into an uncontrollable spiral and crashed into the waters of Dartmouth Harbour. Miraculously its pilot survived with only minor injuries.

A ‘Cat 5’ crash
S/Sgt Bush spent the next eleven days in hospital, under observation for possible internal injuries. Fortunately he was assessed fit to resume flying duty. However, the same could not be said for 43-607, which was recovered from the water and classified completely wrecked with Category M5 damage to its airframe, engine and propeller.

The appropriate entry in its USAAF Individual Aircraft Record Card reads “con sal NBD”; meaning “condemned to salvage with non battle damage”. Nevertheless, and unbelievable as it might seem, this was not the end of 43-607.

Returned to the States
Following this damage assessment it went to an Air Depot of the Eighth Air Force to be salvaged, but in fact it was repaired yet again. The unit with which it then served is not known, but 43-607 eventually became one of the comparatively few L-4s to be shipped back to the USA after the war.

It arrived at Oakland, California, on October 25, 1945, and moved on to Independence, Missouri, on November 25, 1946.

This is where it appears to have ended its days. Unlike so many other L-4s, 43-607 did not eventually become a civil aircraft, but nothing further is known about it. Like the old soldiers in a popular song of yesteryear, this Cub did not die, it simply faded away………

Ken Wakefield