At the age of 26, I took my first trip to the Southwark Local History library on Borough High Street. One photo I looked at was of a plane called “Rotherhithe’s Revenge” that was in WW2. The Southwark Local History Library is one of the most fascinating places to visit, that is where I first met Mr Stephen Humphrey who I had been told wrote the book I read some years before called 'The Story of Rotherhithe'. Although I knew he was working when I met him, I couldn’t help feeling like I had just met a celebrity.
A few years later, around 2009, I was reading another book by Stephen Humphrey called 'Bermondsey & Rotherhithe Remembered' and in the book I saw two photos of the plane - one of them was the same picture I got my hands on when I first saw it at the library. In the book, Stephen explained that in the P.L.A. Monthly, the magazine of the Port of London Authority, it reported that Rotherhithe’s Revenge had been the latest addition to three other planes that was part of the U.S Eighth Army Air Force Bomber station. The other three were named Bermondsey Battler, London Avenger and Bermondsey Special. The four planes were nicknamed by the local community as the Bermondsey War Loan Fleet of American Bombers all this got me thinking about Rotherhithe’s Revenge.
Did the plane survive, is the plane in a museum, is the plane in one piece - where do I begin? These questions started a journey for answers, where else to start than on the Internet.
I started cruising the search engine with an open mind, but hoping it may still be around, I typed Rotherhithe’s Revenge in the search bar and to my astonishment and excitement a search result appeared, the page was titled “1942 U.S.A.A.F Serial Numbers” and I spent about three quarters of an hour scrolling through inch by inch, then I found the name of the plane and serial number, the only bit of writing was 31761 (381st BG, 533rd BS, “Rotherhithe’s Revenge”) returned to USA Jun 1945. I was bowled over and then the quest grew stronger, so the next step was to Google search 381st BG and then I found a website dedicated to the ex - service personnel of the 381st BG and that opened the doors for more information. Once I found to a forum called Army Air Forces (now closed), which was an online meeting place for American ex-service personnel from WW2, so as a guest to the forum I asked the dreaded question the one question I was open minded about but hopeful since I had read such positive reports would be positive answer, is the B-17 Rotherhithe’s Revenge still around or has it been scrapped?
It sat unanswered for what seemed an eternity and I was waiting and checking back for my question to be answered; eventually the answer had been given:
"Michael, She was scrapped in Kingman Arizona on November 28th, 1945. Our crew, the Goldin crew, flew her several times including our 2nd mission to the heavily defended Cologne, Germany. She was really beat up from battle damage but very tough, which made her a good representative of the tough Brits living in London at that time. As I remember her she was usually lagging the rest of the formation due to her slowness caused by so many patches and repairs.
Bob Gilbert S/Sgt, 35 missions Ball Turret Gunner, Goldin crew 381st Bomb Gp., 533rd Bomb Sq.
US 8th Air Force"
I was devastated but not really surprised, this B-17 Flying Fortress named after the area I grew up.
The 381st ran several parties for the children during the war from nearby Haverhill and other local villages, it was part of the First Air Division It had two planes which successfully completed over 100 missions 'Rotherhithe’s Revenge' and 'Stage Door Canteen'. The 381st had its worst losses (11 Aircraft) on the raid on Schweinfurt on 17th August 1943.
The group was awarded two Distinguished Unit Citations which are awarded to units of the armed services of the United States, for extraordinary heroism in action against an armed enemy, the first Distinguished Unit Citation was awarded for Bremen on 8th October 1943 and its second for the 1st Air Division operations on the 11th January 1944.
I couldn’t believe I had found a website talking about the plane that I had a picture of, it went on to say "297 missions were flown up to the 25th April 1945 and 133 B17’s were lost in action, the 381st returned to the U.S.A in June 1945, leaving Ridgewell to the RAF Maintenance Command."
Rotherhithe’s Revenge: - flew 122 successful missions.
Stage Door Canteen: - flew 105 successful missions.
Later on I was very humbled and privileged to be sent this video clip by a cousin of one of the Crew members of "Fort Worth Gal" making their way back to Ridgewell following a mission which shows some brief but brilliant footage of the crew of Rotherhithe's Revenge after landing:
Over time I was still thinking what a shame that Rotherhithe’s Revenge had been scrapped and that got me thinking of a new journey; I decided to commission a professional model of Rotherhithe’s Revenge and with the help of my new found friend Mr Bob Gilbert, together with his memories, and experience along with my admiration of the plane and a lot of emails back and forth I now have my very own model of Rotherhithe's Revenge.
Bob sent me a poem which was written by a lady called Kate Kirkum, the author lived next to the Horham air base in England where the 95th Bomb Group (H) flew combat missions during WW2:
The Old Airfield
Strolling through these fields so green
Where once a throng of life has been
A feeling so invoked of me
Of sadness amidst tranquillity
For beneath where now grows golden corn
Bonds as strong as steel were born
Laughter, tears and stories shared
Amongst the comrades of the air
And as on concrete strips I tread
The backbone from whence missions led
I can almost hear the roar
As engines to the heavens soar
“We count them out, we count them in”
Through the ever ascending din
This, by those who watched and cared
For men whose lives might not be spared
Day after day, night after night
Into another enduring flight
The hard core now so cracked and worn
Each tell a story for those who mourn
Yet now looking up to the clear night sky
Over the airfield on stars on high
I feel sure that in this patchwork of land
Our faithful friends stretch out their hands
This land which now yields sheaves of gold
Will forever breathe a life of old
Never forget they came, they went
And for you and me their lives were spent
©2004, Kate Kirkum
I would like to give my sincere thanks to Bob Gilbert. Without him and his patience, this project and research would not have come to its final conclusion. He published a book "The View from the Bottom up"; he had been working on the book for sometime which he was enthusiastic about - I was lucky enough to have it signed and sent over to me,
the day he emailed me the answers to my questions was the beginning of a brief but honourable friendship.
Sadly Bob Gilbert passed away on the 2nd of May 2013, but I will be forever grateful for the help, enthusiasm and friendship he showed me.
Finally, a big thank you to Stephen Humphrey. If it was not for him publishing his book Rotherhithe and Bermondsey Remembered, I would never have had a place to begin.