Films highlighting Sudbury bomber pilot's tragic final flight go online to support Quay Theatre
It was just a shabby brown canvas bag that turned up for sale on eBay. But it was a discovery that shed new light on a wartime tragedy.
The US Army Air Force flight bag was stamped with the name of a bomber pilot who flew dozens of perilous missions during the Second World War.
When historian Anne Grimshaw was asked to find out more about him, it led her to the field in Lincolnshire where he died in a crash in 1945.
Clyde R Simmons was among those killed when a B-17 Flying Fortress on a training flight from Sudbury airfield dived into the ground after a mid-air collision.
The other plane, although badly damaged, limped back to its Suffolk base.
It was not the first time Anne has doggedly followed a trail of clues to solve a wartime mystery.
She made the news four years ago after tracking down a tail gunner who miraculously survived a collision between two B-17s over France. That time, the first clue was a pair of goggles.
Now both stories, narrated by Anne, are helping to raise money for Sudbury’s Quay Theatre, which, like all live venues, has seen its income slashed by Covid restrictions.
The Name on the Bag and Collision in the Clouds were filmed by Quay trustees chairman Paul Press, who also runs the charity Offshoot Films, and cameraman Dan Newman.
The videos can be viewed via the Quay’s website. “Anne’s very engaging. She’s a great presenter,” said Paul. “We hope very much that people who watch the films will then push the donate button.”
The zip-up flight bag was found on eBay by John Cashmore, a devotee of wartime history who also acts as a guide on walks around local USAAF airfields.
He bought it because its one-time owner had been stationed at Sudbury, then approached Anne to ask if she could discover more.
“The bag was stencilled with the name 2nd Lieutenant Clyde R Simmons and his service number. It would have been used to hold his uniform,” says Anne.
Clyde joined 486 Bomb Group in Sudbury late in the war after serving at another English US airbase and a spell as an instructor back in the States.
But before Anne could get further into his story, there were snags to overcome like typing errors in military documents.
“One of the things that led us astray was that other members of Clyde’s family were also in the military,” she said.
His father, who served in the First World War, was also Clyde R Simmons, and his brother was Claude B Simmons.
Fuzzy copies of records on carbon paper did not help, and mistakes in documents led to a misconception that Clyde had served in the Pacific.
“It took a bit of unravelling because, even on official documents, it was wrong. At first I doubted myself,” she said. “Then, when I realised half of the middle initials were wrong, I could get going.
“Unfortunately, all American personnel records from the Second World War were destroyed in a fire in the national archives in 1973.
“You have to try to find the information from other sources and piece it together and, inevitably, there are gaps.”
She knew from a book on the 486th that Clyde, in his early 20s when he died, was killed in a crash. She also managed, through Ancestry, to contact his family in America.
Getting hold of the air accident report was a vital step, but another typing error held her up until she worked out the error in the grid reference and pinpointed an area called Lutton Marsh in Lincolnshire.
“I found an email address for the MD of the farm group that owns the land,” she said. “He came back to me with contact details of a farmworker whose friend had seen the crash.
“The friend was with his father when they saw it happen. Bits were coming off the planes and they had to run for cover under a piece of farm machinery.
“He knew which field it was and, although he couldn’t get time off work to meet me, he went there the night before and marked it with a fertiliser bag on a stick.”
Clyde was not flying the doomed plane. He was one of three pilots on board as B-17 crews practised flying in tight formation in preparation for being sent to Asia, Anne discovered.
“He had survived about 30 active missions, then died on a training flight, which was tragic,” she said.
Paul said the original plan was to make a film for Clyde’s family, who, before Covid, were due to come to England for the 75th anniversary of VE Day, then use it for an educational project. They hope at some stage that will still be possible.
Anne’s interest in military history began in her teens when her father asked her to help put together a memoir of his time in the Army.
“He died before we even started, so I picked up the threads in the mid-1980s and did it solo,” she said.
She completed the biography and lent it to a friend who asked her to find out about a cousin who was in the RAF during the war.
“That resulted in a book and talk called The Last Flight of Lancaster LL919, which had been shot down in France in 1944,” said Anne.
“In 2016, I visited the village where the crew are buried, and a Frenchman gave me a pair of flying goggles and the name of a village nearby where they came from.”
The goggles set her on the trail of a devastating incident near that village, where two USAAF B-17s from Mendlesham in Suffolk collided in mid-air.
“I found air accident reports online for both planes,” she recalls. “There was the name Robert Koppen ... survivor. He was the only one.
“I researched the name and came up with someone born in 1925. Then I found a law firm with the same name, emailed them, and got a reply from his son.”
And Robert, known as Bob, was still very much alive. Anne heard first hand about his incredible escape, and still chats to him and his wife Betty on the phone.
“He was the tail gunner. In the collision, the tail of his plane – with him in it – was sliced off, but it glided for long enough for him to parachute out.”
Bob was taken in by a French farmer who contacted the Americans – who were, by this point in the war, already in France – and they picked him up.
“He can’t remember what happened to his flying goggles, but I’m 99 per cent certain that they were the ones I was given,” says Anne.
To see the full stories of both investigations, go to online.quaysudbury.com.