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About A Week: Flying Fortress

That throbbing engine beat was unmistakable. A World War Two bomber. A Flying Fortress... Peter Hinchliffe tells of the war-time experiences of a Yorkshire Land Girl.

No mistaking the throbbing engine beat of a World War Two bomber. Audrey Burley recognised the sound and went outside to see an aircraft flying towards her West Yorkshire home.

The outline was familiar. A high tail fin… She was sure it was a B17, an American Flying Fortress, presumably travelling to or from an air display.

She waved as the plane went overhead, memories flooding back of a war-time day in Lincolnshire when a B17 broke apart.

Audrey was a Land Girl, working on farms in North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire. She was riddling potatoes when a B17 flew over.

There were dozens of military airfields in Lincolnshire during the war. The county was one big launching pad for raids on the enemy. The din of aero engines was all too familiar, but Audrey and other farm workers still looked up.

They saw the huge plane break in two. It had suffered heavy damage during a raid.

As Audrey watched in horror figures started to fall from the stricken aircraft. Some parachutes opened.

Audrey and the farmer, Noel Boor, started to run. One of the parachutists was landing nearby. It was the B17’s skipper. He broke a leg when he thumped into a furrow in a ploughed field.

As they bent to attend to him another American airman came bursting through a hedge, yelling wildly and waving his arms about. Overwhelmed by his ordeal he had momentarily lost control.

The skipper suggested dryly that Audrey should take a syringe from his pocket and use it to inject his agitated crewman. The bluff worked. The young man calmed down.

Four of the plane’s crew died when their chutes failed to open.

B17s, with their 10-man crews, went raiding on missions lasting up to eight hours, deep into enemy territory. The Boeing aircraft was named the Flying Fortress by a Seattle reporter who was impressed by its defensive firepower.

The Women’s Land Army, which Audrey served in for a number of years, was set up in 1939 so that Britain could be self-sufficient in food during the austere war years.

By 1943 there were 80,000 Land Girls, ploughing, hedging, turning hay, milking cows, lifting potatoes, threshing, lambing, looking after poultry. A thousand women were employed as rat catchers.

Women were persuaded to join up by an advertising slogan: “For a healthy, happy job join the Women’s Land Army.’’ The work was hard, the hours long, but most of the girls enjoyed it.

Audrey kept a vivid diary of her Land Army experiences. She remembers another grim Lincolnshire day, when a Lancaster bomber which had been on a mine-laying mission off the Danish coast crashed close to the hostel where she lived.

“It was Christmas-time,’’ she says. “The six-man crew were New Zealanders and they were all killed. Their average age was 21.’’

The bomber which flew over Audrey’s house on a recent Saturday afternoon returned to make a second pass.

She waved again.

The plane came around for a third time and she continued to wave.

“I think he saw me,’’ Audrey says. “I hope he did. I was saying a prayer for all those brave aircrew who risked their lives during the war. They should never be forgotten.’’

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