Overview

At approximately 4 a.m. local time on November 1st 1946, the flight of a B-17 “Flying Fortress” abruptly and catastrophically ended when it crashed into the 12,500 feet high Aiguille des Glaciers, on the south-west shoulder of Mont Blanc, practically on the French-Italian border. The impact was such that the aircraft completely disintegrated, scattering mechanical parts and the remains of its 8-man crew over a wide area on both sides of the border. The nearly-new B-17 model G, serial number 43-39338, was assigned to the USAAF’s European Air Transport Service (EATS), the 15th Troop Carrier Squadron of the 61st Troop Carrier Group, and had totalled less than 200 flight hours . It was en route from the Capodichino Air Base in Naples (Italy) to Bovingdon, a small town near Southampton in England. For an as-yet unexplained reason, at the moment of the crash, the aircraft was more than 90 miles east of its planned flight path.

As the morning of November 1 became afternoon with still no sign of the aircraft in Bovingdon, a series of requests for news from bases along its planned route were sent out but received only negative replies. The aircraft was declared to be “missing”. Search coordination began at once but despite intense international efforts involving more than 50 aircraft covering the route to a depth of 60 miles either side of the flight plan track, no trace of the lost B-17 could be found. The search was formally called off after 18 days and the disappearance of the aircraft with its entire crew seemed destined to become an unexplained mystery.

It was not until July 1947 that a French Alpine Patrol chanced on the impact site and found fragments of wreckage at around 12,000 feet, just below the summit of the Aiguille des Glaciers, part of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe. Despite the deep snow and treacherous conditions they managed to recover a number of human remains and documents. These were brought down to their base at Bourg Saint-Maurice for examination. The documents identified the aircraft as the missing B-17. The human remains, evidently those of the crew, were carefully conserved for consignment to the American authorities.

With most of the debris buried by the heavy snowfalls of the previous winter, little was recoverable, but a number of ascents were made by the French Alpine troops under increasingly dangerous conditions to recover fragments of the aircraft and equipment, clothing and, in particular, any other human remains. In a moving ceremony at Bourg Saint-Maurice, all body parts were formally consigned to the custody of the American military. They were later buried with honor under a common headstone at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

A USAAF Board of Enquiry was set up to examine all known evidence pertaining to the crash, concentrating heavily on the effect of the weather conditions along the route. Although the Board’s report hints at possible navigation difficulties, it does not seek to clarify why the aircraft was so far off course at the time of impact. Its direct result was, however, a ban on over-flying the Alps except in perfect visibility conditions and a requirement for all EATS pilots to attend a week-long flight planning course which stressed adherence to authorized procedures for flight in Europe.

Encapsulated in the ice of the glaciers, the shattered fragments of the B-17 began a long ride down the mountain, some appearing as early as 1957 according to press reports but mainly beginning to come to light in the 1970’s as the Estellette glacier, just above the “Elisabetta Soldini” Refuge on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, began to retreat. During the 1980’s, further parts began to emerge from the Glacier des Glaciers on the French side.

These first finds stimulated the curiosity of the local residents and a desire to better understand what had happened that stormy night in November 1946. Over the course of years as more artifacts reappeared, a group of people bound by this common interest began to form. This in turn led to the creation of the Committee for the Commemoration of the B-17 of the Aiguille des Glaciers. Its objective is to reconstruct the circumstances of the crash from official documents, promote the installation of commemorative plaques, and, in view of a formal inauguration ceremony scheduled for the first week of September 2011, to contact relatives of the aircraft’s crew in order to commemorate the untimely death of these unfortunate aviators.

 

Notes regarding the chronological reconstruction and the background documentation:

The Committee for the Commemoration of the B-17 of the Aiguille des Glaciers is independent of all official bodies and operates on its own initiative to research and reconstruct the history of the event exclusively through documentation available in the public domain.
These includes:

- The available military reports (American, French and Italian)
- Accounts by people who through the years, in various circumstances, have been involved, or are witnesses to the findings of objects related to the B-17 crash
- Newspaper articles dealing with the subject or the protagonists.

Although it is the Committee’s intent to faithfully and accurately collate and utilize such documentation, its members decline any responsibility for possible errors within the chronological reconstruction, given that much of the source data is in itself based on verbal testimony given in good faith, in different time frames, and much of it many years ago. Journalistic articles on the subject have been found to be rarely completely reliable, frequently containing errors and misunderstandings of known facts.
It is not our intention to furnish an answer to why the crash occurred, although we may offer hypotheses concerning various aspects which led up to it.

Copyright © 2018 Committee for the Commemoration of the B17 of the Aiguille des Glaciers. All Rights Reserved.
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