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Bullets are reminder of WWII pilot's death

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: August 31, 2012

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LIVE ammunition found at a Devon beauty spot is thought to have come from a Second World War American fighter bomber that crashed, killing the pilot.

The ammunition, a cluster of .303 bullets, was discovered on the National Trust-run Knightshayes Court estate, near Tiverton.

During the war the house and grounds were used by convalescing American Air Force pilots, and served as an airfield for two small military spotter planes attached to the army artillery unit whose staff headquarters were also at Knightshayes.

On May 1, 1945, just three days before the end of the Second World War, a brave American Air Force pilot, Lieutenant Albin Zychowski, who had just enjoyed 10 days' rest after 32 flying missions, died when he crashed his P47 Thunderbolt aircraft at Knightshayes Court.

The explosion was particularly traumatic for a fellow airman in the house who was already suffering from the effects of a similar explosion in battle.

The pilot's mission had been to fly over Knightshayes, in Bolham, and tip the wing of his Republic P-47 Thunderbolt in tribute to the doctors and nurses who had helped him during an earlier stay.

While completing the salute over Knighthayes, as part of an 18-strong plane formation, the doomed pilot's Thunderbolt clipped a tall pine tree in the court's grounds.

The fully-armed plane crashed and exploded near the waterworks at Chettiscombe, killing the pilot and scattering metal and ammunition everywhere.

One eye-witness was Tiverton resident Dennis Forward. He was 14 at the time and was in Tiverton Grammar School's playing fields, from where he and his classmates had a clear view of the crash.

Dennis said: "I remember there being a tremendous ball of fire when the plane hit the ground.

"Everyone knew the war was coming to an end so we were spending the afternoon in the school field playing games.

"About 18 Thunderbolts went overhead but one of them could not climb quickly enough and hit a tree."

A hedge at Chettiscombe still bears a gaping hole where the plane smashed through.

The fatal crash was a stark reminder of how cruel the war could be, occurring on the pilots' last flight less than a week before VE Day. Dennis said: "The parents of the pilot who died sent some roses to be planted at the base of the tree he hit, in his memory. They are probably still there."

The part of Knightshayes' grounds known as the 'garden in the wood' was inspired by those roses and developed around them.

Edward Skinner, the garden's and parks manager, said: "The discovery of the bullets was both incredibly exciting and a little saddening.

"It was amazing to be part of find which so tangibly links the garden to something that happened more than 60 years ago."

He said it had been pure chance that the bullets had been found at all, but said the team would now be keen to hear from any metal detecting enthusiasts who might be prepared to give their time to survey the sight and see if any other aviation debris was located in the Sir John Woods area.

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