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Hellesdon war tragedy remembered

PUBLISHED: 12:20 06 April 2011

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Derek James speaks to Derek Palmer, who remembers a tragic day in Hellesdon’s history.

It’s Christmas in war-torn Norwich of 1944, but the faces tell a story of sadness and heartache at the tragedy of war.

This picture was sent in by Derek Palmer, the little boy standing on the right. His mother, May, has her hands resting on his shoulders.

They were lucky to be alive.

It is believed the photo was taken at a party organised by the Americans for people living around Hastings Avenue in Hellesdon following a Liberator crash in September of 1944.

My story about a new book, Liberators Over Norwich, and a photograph of the awful scene brought back painful memories for Derek, whose home was destroyed in the disaster which killed their neighbour Ethel Smith.

On that fateful day – September 20, 1944 – a veteran Liberator, named Gator, attempted to take off from Horsham St Faith – now Norwich Airport – but was carrying too much fuel.

The plane blew up and formed a fiery coffin for its six crew. They were all killed along with Ethel Smith who lived at 12 Hastings Avenue.

Norwich author and historian Mike Bailey wrote in his book: “This is the fiery aftermath of Gator’s take-off crash with nothing to indicate the recent existence of a multi-ton bomber. Directly above the charred lengths is what looks like a ‘devil’s face’ within the black pall of smoke.”

The story prompted Derek, who lives at The Ridgeway in Norwich, to tell me: “I was born in January 1940 and lived with my mum, dad and sister at 10 Hastings Avenue, Our neighbour Ethel Smith was killed that day.”

He recalled that on the day of the crash he was at his grandmother’s house on Reepham Road, playing with his cousin Tony, while his mum and dad and sister went shopping.

“I was used to the loud noises of aircraft on the airfield nearby, but still remember the extra loud noise that day, which was followed by a tremendous crashing sound. Gran took us to see what had happened and all we could see was flames and I remember the intense heat,” said Derek.

“We later learned our home had been destroyed and our neighbour killed. I remember going back with my dad and searching the rubble for anything that may have survived, but there was nothing.

“We also looked for Tiddles, our cat, who was seen after the crash but never returned back to the family,” he added.

“I remember the Salvation Army was very kind to us and gave us clothes and we moved in with my gran until the council found us a new house. I also lost my toy panda and a wooden train my father had made for me,” said Derek.

This photograph was taken after the crash as Christmas approached.

“I am the boy standing on the right with my mother, May Palmer, next to my father Harry with my sister Valerie in his arms.

“I am told this was taken at a party the Americans held for those involved, but I do not know any of the other people pictured, perhaps someone else may know more,” said Derek

However, there is one thing he remembers about the party – having ice cream for the very first time.

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