The Kennedy curse: Tragedy in the skies over Suffolk
- Credit: Archant
Suffolk has a tragic link with the Kennedy clan – a fireball in the skies above the county probably even triggering JFK’s entry into politics. His brother Joseph – born in 1915, a couple of years earlier than John – was a volunteer US Navy pilot during the Second World War. The son of the former American ambassador to the UK flew Mariner flying boats in Puerto Rico before switching to the B24 Liberator.
Joe served in Britain – he was based in Devon – and in the winter of 1943-44 flew many anti-submarine assignments. He did enough to qualify to go home, but volunteered for another 10.
One of these was incredibly dangerous – and fated.
The mission was part of an operation called Project Anvil, targeting Mimoyecques in France. The site, south-west of Calais, was being developed as an underground complex for the Nazis’ V-3 supergun.
The plan was to attack the complex with a radio-controlled Liberator packed with explosive – about 21,170 lb of it.
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Lt Kennedy and co-pilot Lt Wilford John Willy, an electronics expert, would take off in the plane. Once radio control had been established by a Lockheed Ventura aircraft, the two airmen would parachute to safety and leave their airborne bomb heading for France.
The mission was part of the wider Operation Aphrodite, designed to fly explosive-laden drone aircraft at key Nazi targets. RAF Woodbridge was earmarked as its base, but in the event the remote airfield at Fersfield – north-west of Diss and close to the Norfolk-Suffolk border – was chosen.
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Lt Kennedy took off from Fersfield at teatime on August 12. The 374 boxes of Torpex explosive were spread around the Liberator: on the flight and command decks, in the nose-wheel bay, and in the bomb bays.
Over Halesworth, the plane became part of a formation that included two Venturas and a number of Mustang escorts. As it flew on, one of the Venturas took control. Lt Kennedy, essentially a passenger by this stage, transmitted a coded phrase (zoot suit) to signal that everything was going as planned, and Lt Willy turned on a camera in the Liberator’s nose that would guide the plane to its target in France.
Sadly, the aircraft exploded just a couple of minutes later, at 6.20pm. It was about 2,000 feet over New Delight Woods, a few miles south of Blythburgh and on the edge of Dunwich Forest.
Wreckage was scattered over an area about three miles long and two miles wide, with about three square miles of heathland set on fire. Hundreds of trees were destroyed and at least 147 properties, some 16 miles away, were damaged in some way.
Amazingly, it’s understood there were no casualties on the ground. The remains of lieutenants Kennedy and Willy were never found.
Experts later suggested the disaster was caused by the lack of electrical shielding material on the camera. This, it’s thought, allowed electromagnetic emissions to open a relay solenoid, which in turn set off a detonator and thus the explosives.
Kennedy was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. His Navy Cross citation stated: “For extraordinary heroism and courage in aerial flight as pilot of a United States Liberator bomber on August 12, 1944. Well knowing the extreme dangers involved and totally unconcerned for his own safety, Kennedy unhesitatingly volunteered to conduct an exceptionally hazardous and special operational mission. Intrepid and daring in his tactics and with unwavering confidence in the vital importance of his task, he willingly risked his life in the supreme measure of service and, by his great personal valor and fortitude in carrying out a perilous undertaking, sustained and enhanced the finest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Joe, the oldest of the nine children born to Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. and wife Rose Fitzgerald, had been earmarked for greatness by his ambitious father. As a young boy, Joe junior had proclaimed his goal to be the nation’s first Irish Catholic president.
Few would have bet against it.
The Shapell Manuscript Foundation, an educational organisation in America that collects historical documents, says brother John F. Kennedy did not want to go into politics but never really had a choice.
A year later, “Jack” was in Boston, introducing himself to voters, and his life in politics – which would lead to The White House and further tragedy for the family – had begun.
In 2004, Mick Muttitt told Archant reporter Dave Lennard how he’d witnessed the 1944 air tragedy when he was only nine.
He and brother Peter were in the garden of their home at Darsham and watched a formation of aircraft, headed by a Liberator, flying overhead during the early evening.
“Our attention was drawn because it was quite a large formation, and included a number of different aircraft. All of a sudden, there was a tremendous explosion and the Liberator aircraft was blown apart, with pieces falling in all directions over New Delight Wood, at Blythburgh,” he said.
For a long time, however, he had no idea of the significance of what he had seen.
“About 16 years later, I read an account about the Kennedy family, stating that Joe had been killed when his bomber exploded in mid-air while on a top-secret mission,” he explained.
“This was too much of a coincidence and, over the years, it has been confirmed that the aircraft that crashed at Blythburgh was piloted by Joe Kennedy.”
Parts of the aircraft were recovered from the crash site over the years, and Mr Muttitt understood that John F Kennedy had actually visited Blythburgh to see for himself where his brother died.