The 91st Bomb Group, 323rd Bomb Squadron of the Eighth Air Force was based at Station 121, Bassingbourn, England. Bassingbourn was located in a wide shallow valley about 3½ miles north of Royston. In October 1942, the 91st Bomb Group was moved to Bassingbourn from Kimbolton because the runways were in need of repair and extension. Legend has it that the 91st was never ordered to make the move but that its commander, the colorful Colonel Stanley Wray, took one look at Bassingbourn’s permanent brick buildings with their central heating and quickly whisked his men away from the damp Nissen huts at Kimbolton. It was also stated that when his superior finally located the missing group, Wray pleaded the misunderstanding of an order. They remained at Bassingbourn till the end of the war.
The mission for 20 February 1945 was to be the railway shops at Nurnberg, Germany. Twelve aircraft from the squadron participated in the mission. 1st Lt. Eddie McKnight was the pilot of the B-17G-50-BO Flying Fortress 42-102490 “Wicked Witch” which had identification markings of OR-V on the side and the “Triangle A” on the tail. Defensive flak over the target that day was said to be meager, but the crew of “Wicked Witch”, on their eleventh mission, received a direct hit. The flak hit just below the pilot’s compartment and an explosion ripped through the aircraft. A fire started and was streaming from the cockpit’s right side. A brilliant flash was seen within the plane’s bomb bay as it fell away from the formation just prior to bomb away. An eyewitness account of the explosion was reported in Missing Air Crew Report 12556:
Approximately thirty (30) seconds prior to bombs away I observed an explosion in aircraft B-17-G, 42-102490. Flames came out of the bomb-bay and the top turret. Black smoke issued from the aircraft for a few moments and a few seconds later the bombs were salvoed. The aircraft appeared to turn black from about the radio room to the escape hatch in the nose, but appeared to be under control and gradually began to lose altitude. The top turret gunner of our crew reported that there was a hole in the fuselage of aircraft (490) behind and to the side of the top turret in the forward part of the bomb-bays. I believe that it was quite possibly and oxygen explosion. I observed no crew members leave the aircraft or parachutes open and the tail gunner of our ship also reported that he saw no one leave the aircraft.
However the co-pilot, navigator and tail gunner were all blown out of the aircraft and parachuted to the ground before being captured by the Germans. The rest of the crew were killed.
Sgt. Elmer B. Russell (36308383) was the tail gunner. He was born on 13 September 1917 in Ithaca, MI, son of Elmer B. and Emma Russell of Gratiot County, MI. He married Gladys Russell who lived in Boyrill, MI in 1945. He worked as a service repairman for Sears. Russell died on 24 December 1980 in Longview, WA.