Captain James Stewart, at the controls of a B-24 liberator bomber, arrived here at Tibenham airfield, England on the afternoon of November 25th, 1943. The overseas flight had taken a little more than two weeks having flown the southern route from the USA to avoid the worst of the weather over the North Atlantic. Stewart and First Lieutenant Lloyd Sharrard, chief of the Sharrard crew (the crew's name was taken from the pilot's surname), shared the pilot’s left seat all the way over in their aircraft. Sharrard was a crack pilot of the 703rd Squadron and had checked Stewart out on the Liberator when he first arrived at Sioux City. Stewart wanted to fly overseas with a sure, dependable flying officer who would share first pilot chores and still allow him time for his duties as squadron commander.
Tibenham was to be the base of the 445th Bomb Group for the duration of the war. The ground crews were already there on Stewart’s arrival, getting the widely dispersed base ready for the incoming combat crews – that is to say, as much as the constant rain, cold, fog and mud allowed. The mud was slippery, deep, and everywhere.
Life for the crews was lived in Nissan huts with a pot-bellied stove inside for heating by solid fuel, steel beds and a good supply of blankets. Behind the hut was the latrine. Two enlisted combat crews, six men in each, were assigned to a hut. Nearby, similar accommodation, the crew’s officers were billeted, eight men to a hut.
The B24 Liberator went to war in the eighth air force with a crew of ten men, four officers and six enlisted men. For the most part, the crews were put together in the military manner, by the numbers, after individual specialised training. Usually crews evolved into finely tuned teams or crews – professionally and personally. A crew was always named after the pilot’s late name, such as the Miller crew, the Thompson crew, and the Newton crew. So it was with the Wright crew, flying their B24 ‘Tennessee Dottie’.
Training missions were started upon arrival with Jimmy Stewart flying with many of the crews to test their readiness. Slightly more than two weeks after arrival, on December 13th, Stewart lead the 445th Bomb Group on its first bombing mission against Nazi Germany. It was against the naval docks at Kiel, they flew high into the target at 27,000ft with good results and no losses. On Bremen a few days later and the mission to the Calais coast of France on Christmas Eve, Stewart turned in steady, capable, and conscientious performances that reflected a high degree of training and leadership ability.
Stewart spent much of his time at Tibenham briefing crews before each mission though he did fly on a number of them himself; such was his appetite to play his part.
As one of the squadron’s flight crew members said: “Somehow he always made me feel that he was my friend. I knew when I had ten missions; Jimmy Stewart had flown five of them alongside or near me. He had a great feeling for all of us. You felt it when you were around him. Even when he was trying to give you hell for something you deserved, he got his point over without hurting you deep inside”.