In June and July of 1944, an American bomber crew dubbed their B-17 Flying Fortress “Princess Elizabeth”, to honor King George VI’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, the future Queen of England. It seemed like a good idea until someone asked, “What if it gets shot down?”
One month after D-Day, the Allies were struggling to break out and liberate Paris. In England, the Royal Family was making visits to airbases to demonstrate support for the war effort. The King, Queen, and Princess met with American airmen and ground crews, shook their hands, and spoke appreciately of America’s assistance to Great Britain.
On hearing of an upcoming visit to the 306th Bombardment Group at Thurleigh (also known as Station 111), Capt. Perry Raster’s B-17 Flying Fortress crew with the 407th Bombardment Squadron (H) decided to do something special in return. They painted “Princess Elizabeth” on the nose of their B-17 Flying Fortress bomber to salute the future Queen of England.
The idea had been inspired by the plane’s crew chief, M/SGT Edward S. Gregory, who also wrote Princess Elizabeth a letter inviting her to come and christen the plane. He felt his bomber should have a bottle of champagne broken over its prow for good luck — exactly as done for battleships. When the Princess received his request, she recognized how much it meant to the men. However, the rest of the Royal Family, Bomber Command, and 8th Air Force advised strongly against it. Furthermore, they were shocked to hear that the plane was already flying with her name on it.
Their reasoning against the idea was sound. The odds of a bomber and its crew surviving a full tour of duty of twenty-five missions were exceedingly low. By the summer of 1944, the average loss rate on each mission was still between 3% and 5%. Statistically, more than half of all operational B-17s didn’t fly more than two dozen missions before getting shot down or written off. The biggest risk was that if the Germans recovered even a single twisted and burnt fragment with “Princess Elizabeth” written on it, they would score a major propaganda victory.
Yet Princess Elizabeth’s reasoning was equally sound, so she stood her ground. If the men were willing to risk their lives for the Allied cause then she felt the least she could do was to allow them use of her name on their plane. Unwavering, she wrote back that she would christen the plane during her upcoming visit to Thurleigh on Jul. 6, 1944.
After much argument, a compromise was finally proposed by her father, King George VI. The bomber would be renamed the “Rose of York”, a title that was hers and hers alone. In that way, even if the plane was lost, it would deny the Nazis as great a propaganda victory. The bomber’s crew readily agreed and hoped the christening would bring them more luck than the usual rabbit’s foot — after all, their lives were on the line and superstitions ran high.
On Jul. 6, the King, Queen, and Princess Elizabeth arrived by car to Thurleigh. Lt. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle personally lead the American welcoming delegation. A formation of 54 B-17 Flying Fortresses thundered overhead as a grand aerial salute. M/SGT Gregory personally gave the Princess a bouquet of 24 white roses to mark the occasion. Thereafter, she met with the aircrew and shook their hands, then smiled and waved at the hundreds of American personnel who crowded around a rope line ringing the plane, each hoping to catch a glimpse of England’s Royal Family.
A minor wrinkle to the plan was that nobody could find any champagne. In a pinch, a bottle of hard cider was purchased from the local pub, which seemed more fitting for the Americans anyway. It was suspended by rope in a cloth bag from the plane’s nose. To keep the bottle from denting the chin turret, a metal plate was mounted between the twin .50 caliber machine guns and painted with the name “Rose of York” and a white rose. That theme was repeated on both sides of the plane’s shining aluminum nose, a polish job done perfectly by M/Sgt Gregory and two of his ground crewmen.
As the press snapped photos, Princess Elizabeth drew the bottle back and cast it forward. Her aim was true and the cider splashed across the chin turret. Afterward, one photographer’s Kodachrome film captured a color image of the Princess in her stunning lavender dress and matching hat.
The Royal Family then shared a meal at the Officers’ Mess. Though surrounded by the top brass, the Princess, well aware that it was an enlisted man who had given her the honor, spent most of her time talking with M/SGT Edward Gregory instead. Later when they left, the kitchen crew gifted her a thermos of ice cream, a rare treat in wartime Britain.
The next day and in the weeks after, the “Rose of York” flew yet more missions. Beating the odds, the plane survived far longer than anyone ever thought possible. Its first crew, that of Capt Perry Raster, had already been nearing the end of their tour, having flown most of their missions in the plane — some of those while it was named “Princess Elizabeth”. When they rotated home, a second crew was assigned to the plane. They too completed their full tour. Then Lt. Vernor F. Daley, Jr., and his crew were next assigned. They flew 23 missions and nearly completed their tour as well. However, on the plane’s 63rd mission, luck finally ran out for the “Rose of York”.
That mission, on Feb. 3, 1945, was a major raid on Berlin. Resistance over Nazi Germany’s capital city was expected to be fierce, and the 407th Bomb Squadron launched nine aircraft. All of them reached the target and dropped their bombs. As the squadron turned toward England, however, a concentrated barrage of well-aimed flak hit three of the squadron’s planes. One lost a wing and spun down — only four parachutes were counted. A second, with two engines out, turned toward neutral Sweden and made it to Rinkaby where the plane and crew were impounded for the rest of the war. The “Rose of York” was hit too and lost an engine. It was trailing fuel as the crew headed toward England and home. Yet they lagged behind and ultimately disappeared from sight.
Three and a half hours later, the crew was heard on the radio saying that they were over the English Channel and expected to reach England. However, the “Rose of York” never arrived. No traces of the plane or its nine man crew were ever found. A tenth man was on board that day as well, the famed BBC photographer Guy Byam. All were declared “Missing in Action, presumed deceased”.
In its disappearance, the “Rose of York” had done one final duty for the Allied cause — with its loss it had denied the Germans any hope of a propaganda victory. The “Rose of York” had served the Allied cause for far longer than any had thought possible, much like Elizabeth herself would later serve longer than anyone expected as England’s most loved Queen.
Both did their duty to the end.