Consolidated B-24 Liberator in RAF service

Used as an electronic warfare aircraft, this Liberator B. Mk IV flew with No. 223 Sqn, RAF. Flying in ahead of bombing formations, these aircraft jammed German ground and night fighter radars.


Although the B-24 Liberator shared the honours with the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress of being the principal American heavy bomber of World War II, it was a much later design, being orginally built to meet a U.S. Army Air Corps requirement outlined to Consolidated early in 1939. The requirement was, in fact, for a heavy bomber of better performance than the B-17 then in production, a range of 3,000 miles being specified, together with a speed of more than 300 m.p.h. and a ceiling of 35,000 ft. The prototype, designated the XB-24 (39-680), first flew in December 1939 and incorporated several unusual design features, including the Davis patent wing of very thin section and high aspect ratio, and bomb-doors which rolled up like the top of a roll-top desk.

Production models were eventually released for export to Britain and France, initial deliveries to Britain-including some machines originally intended for France-being made in the spring of 1941. These machines were of the Liberator I type which had no turrets. Some, designated LB-30A, were used as transports on the Atlantic Return Ferry Service, whilst a larger number of armed aircraft went to Coastal Command for anti-submarine duties.

Next R.A.F. version-and the first one to be used as a bomber-was the Liberator II, which had no US.A.A.F. counterpart. It differed from the Mk. I in having a lengthened nose, and most of the 139 examples which reached the Service were fitted with four-gun Boulton-Paul power-operated turrets, one in the tail and another in a dorsal position. Next mark of R.A.F. Liberator to be used as a bomber was the Mk. III, British version of the B-24D. It too had four-gun Boulton-Paul dorsal and tail turrets, but the dorsal turret was further forward than that of the Mk. II. Final R.A.F. bomber marks were the Liberator RVI and RVIII-mostly B-52J and L models delivery of which began during the latter half of 1944. Both marks had nose turrets and usually ventral ball turrets, although these latter were sometimes removed in service.

To return to the Liberator II. Some of the armed Mk. IIs went to Coastal Command but others became the first R.A.F. Liberators to be used in the heavy bomber role. These aircraft were flown by Nos. 159 and 160 Squadrons, which formed in January 1942 at Molesworth (Hunts.) and Thurleigh (Beds.), and were detained in the Middle East in June in 1942, whilst en route to India. They appear to have arrived in the Middle East about the same time as an important British convoy was taking supplies from Alexandria to beleaguered Malta, and their first task was to help provide it with air cover. No. 159 Squadron (Middle East Detachment), as it was known, operated under the control of No. 160 Squadron, and the Liberators were at first based in the Suez Canal Zone, together with the first US.A.A.F. unit to operate in the Middle East-a formation of Liberators known as the Halverston Detachment.

Soon, however, Rommel’s advance eastwards to Alamein forced all the Liberators (which incidentally were now supplemented by a squadron of Halifaxes from Britain) to withdraw to Palestine, their place in the Canal Zone being taken by the medium Wellington bombers formerly based in the desert. The Wellingtons, even though they used advanced bases for refuelling, could not only reach as far as Tobruk, but the Liberators-and also the Halifaxes-were able to range as far as Benghazi. The C.-in-C. of No. 205 Group, which operated the bombers, issued an order: ‘Tobruk and Benghazi harbours are the front and back doors through which the enemy is getting his supplies. The front door is slowly being closed to him. There must be no back door.’ During July the front door of Tobruk was attacked in force thirty-three times, mostly at night but sometimes by day; the back door at Benghazi was attacked by heavy-bomber formations seven times during daylight. During August the Allied bombers continued to hammer Tobruk, making more than thirty-one big raids. On three occasions the Liberators made dusk attacks, appearing over the town while there was still sufficient light to see the shipping in the harbour. Each time they scored direct hits on large ships. These dusk attacks were made from a great height, the crews using oxygen and fighting intense cold. The oxygen mask of a gunner in one Liberator-whether R.A.F. or US.A.A.F. is not known-actually froze while the aircraft was approaching the target. He fell unconscious to the floor and the mask was torn from his face, but nobody at that height had sufficient strength to move him into reach of it again. While the bombing run was in progress the navigator filled his mouth with pure oxygen from an emergency bottle, put his lips to those of the unconscious gunner and blew the oxygen into his lungs in time with the rhythm of his faint breathing. As the bombs fell, the man’s life was saved.

All these raids had the cumulative effect of practically closing the enemy’s front door of Tobruk and compelled him to divert most of his supply columns to Benghazi, whence they had to travel hundreds of miles over the desert by truck to Alamein. Benghazi was beyond the range of the Canal Zone-based Wellingtons, though they could still reach it from Malta. The heaviest blows were struck by a number of daylight-to-dusk attacks by the Liberators and Halifaxes, the targets being ships and harbour installations. Outstanding among the many raids made by R.A.F. and U.S.A.A.F. Libs. on Benghazi were a series of three made on September 16 and 22. On the morning of the first raid the Liberators set off from near Cairo and flew in close formation on their 600-mile journey to the target.

At midday, still flying in perfect formation, they sailed out of the sun across Benghazi harbour, where a number of sizeable ships were off-loading on to ‘George’, ‘Harry’, and ‘Johnny’, wrecks which had been concreted in and had long served as the main unloading jetties. The Liberators pattern-bombed; several vessels received direct hits and burned, and the bomber crews as they left the scene saw one vessel suddenly explode with great force, flinging debris high above the harbour. All the Liberators returned safely.

The raid was repeated near dusk on September 22 and again in darkness six hours later. After the dusk raid the gunners saw a vivid flash of orange against the sky as a ship blew up violently. The night-bombers guided themselves to the target from a distance of eighty miles by the glow of a burning merchant-vessel.

Even the official report on the photographs taken during the three raids described the damage as ‘spectacular’. During the first a supply ship of 6,500 tons, which had been off-loading on to ‘George’, was hit and set on ‘fire. It had to be towed towards the outer mole where it burned itself out. In the second raid-the dusk one-the bombers hit a merchantman which lay alongside ‘Harry’. It was apparently unloading either petrol or ammunition, for when it was hit it blew up and disintegrated with its battered stern flung right up on top of the mole.

The force of that explosion broke ‘Harry’, concrete and all, from the Cathedral mole and sank its stern; it overturned ‘Johnny’ on to its port side, leaving only the starboard rail awash; it sank two smaller merchantmen; it sank a smaller concreted wreck known to the bomber boys as ‘Ink’; it burned out yet another merchantman that lay on the far side of the Cathedral mole; and finally it picked up a large iron barge and left it poised several feet above the water on top of another wreck. The third raid, at night, completed the destruction of all this valuable shipping and offloading space. ‘It is probably an under-estimate’, said the Short Official History of the R.A.F. in the Middle East, ‘to say that those three raids, besides destroying so much valuable material and shipping, halved the value of Benghazi as the back door to Cyrenaica for the supplies the enemy needed so urgently after the disastrous failure of his September attack.’

The bombing of Tobruk and Benghazi was only part of the work performed by the R.A.F. Liberators during the latter part of 1942. They bombed many other targets in the Mediterranean theatre and sometimes ranged as far afield as the Corinth Canal (which they mined), Naples, and Tripoli.
In January 1943 No. 160 Squadron (which had already absorbed the aircrew of No. 159 Squadron) merged with associated elements of Nos. 159 and 147 Squadrons to form No. 178 Liberator Squadron, whose role was also heavy bombing. Based in Egypt, then in Libya, and finally in Italy, No. 178 continued with Liberators for the rest of the war, although at one time it also flew Halifaxes. It flew Liberator IIs at first, then began to receive Mk. IIIs and VIs in the latter part of 1943, and in 1944 gradually changed over completely to Mk. VIs. Its activities with Liberators included bombing attacks on targets in North Africa, Sicily, Crete, the Aegean Islands, Italy, and the Balkans (including the Ploesti oil refinery in Rumania), minelaying (notably in that key supply route the River Danube), and supply-dropping to the Polish Home Army in Warsaw during the ill-fated rebellion of August and September 1944. For part of its early history the squadron was under the control of the U.S. Ninth Bomber Command, afterwards rejoining 205 Group.

Liberators formed the equipment of five more R.A.F. bomber squadrons which operated with 205 Group from Italy during the final months of the war. These were Nos. 37, 40, 70, and 104 Squadrons, all of which flew the Liberator VI, having previously flown the Wellington; and No. 614 (pathfinder) Squadron, which flew the Liberator B.VIII, which in this case replaced the Halifax.

Although their principal role was strategic bombing, these Liberator squadrons scored their greatest triumph when, early in April 1945, 205 Group switched over to tactical targets in close support of the 8th Army, which was about to make its final push. They bombed by night only 2,000 yards ahead of our own troops and greatly facilitated the latter’s swift breakthrough on the Santerno River Line; this fine performance drew a congratulatory message from General McCreery, G.O.C. 8th Army.
Another theatre of war in which R.A.F. Liberator bomber squadrons fought was the Burma theatre. Six of them eventually served there, and these were Nos. 99, 159, 215, 355, 356, and 358 Squadrons, although the last-named only flew but one bombing mission, afterwards becoming a ‘special duties’ squadron. Together with some U.S.A.A.F. Liberator squadrons, the R.A.F. squadrons formed the Strategic Air Force of Eastern Air Command, and all were based for most, if not all, of the time in Eastern India. A few of these units-the longest-established-operated Liberator Mk. IIIs initially, but the Liberator RVI and, to a lesser extent, the RVIII were the types that were used most.

First squadron to serve in the Burma theatre was No. 159, whose Middle East detachment was mentioned earlier. This squadron began operations in November 1942 and eventually became the most famous R.A.F. Liberator bomber squadron of all irrespective of operational theatre. Its main claim to fame was that it, or more specifically W/Cdr J. Blackburn, who was C.O. from July to December 1944, was responsible for greatly increasing the Liberator’s striking-power. Here it is necessary to explain that one of the main tasks of Strategic Air Force’s Liberators was the interdiction of the enemy’s supply lines far beyond the battlefront-and notably the infamous Siam-Burma railway. Built by Allied prisoners-of-war under such appalling conditions that 24,000 of them lost their lives, this line was of the utmost importance to the Japanese. It ran for 244 miles through jungle and mountainous country, and along its length, spanning the succession of rivers and ravines, were nearly 700 bridges. The railway was bombed continually, sometimes by night but mostly by day, the Liberators concentrating on destroying bridges and obliterating tracks. Their greatest obstacle was neither enemy fighters nor flak, but the vast distances they had to fly.

However, by adjusting the American-built aircraft, W/Cdr Blackburn more than doubled the normal load. At the time he took command of 159 Squadron a flight to Bangkok, lying 1,100 miles from the Strategic Air Force bases, was considered about the limit for a loaded Liberator. On such sorties the Liberators had to carry extra petrol-tanks which restricted the bomb load to 3,000 lb. Blackburn experimented with fuel consumption and, after demonstrating how it could be done, enabled his squadron to reach Bangkok with each aircraft carrying 8,000 lb. of bombs, or nearly three times what had been originally carried. The vast improvement in efficiency was commended by the Americans and the example followed throughout Strategic Air Force.

Long-range bombers had already flown from Bengal south to Rangoon, 1,600 miles there and back; and beyond Moulmein, 1,800 miles the return journey; now they reached Bangkok with four short tons of bombs, 2,200 miles, they went to the Kra Isthmus, 2,300 miles; finally a port on the east coast of the Malay Peninsula was put out of action by bombs from aircraft making a round trip of 2,800 miles, and Penang harbour was mined in a sortie of more than 3,000 miles.

By the beginning of 1945 both the R.A.F. and the U.S.A.A.F. elements, comprising a total of nine squadrons, were doing brilliant work flying Liberators farther than they had ever been flown before, carrying a greater payload over a greater distance.

The attack on the Siam-Burma railway was never neglected, and despite the ant-like activities of the Japanese whose methods of constructing reserve bridges was remarkable (at some points they threw as many as four across a particularly important ravine), Eastern Air Command succeeded in having an average of nine bridges constantly down between Bangkok and Burma, from January to April 1945. The broad ‘result of these long-range attacks was to reduce traffic along the railway from 750 to 150 tons a day, a satisfactory result with a considerable influence on the land battle.

In the same way as 614 Squadron was chosen for the pathfinder role in the Mediterranean theatre, so was 159 Squadron selected to lead its contemporaries in the Burma theatre. This was in April 1945, and for its new role 159 was strengthened with picked crews from other Liberator units. By then it had already chalked up a long list of very notable missions, and soon afterwards it won further laurels by finally destroying with bombs a 10,000-ton Japanese tanker in the Gulf of Siam, shortly after the vessel had been bombed and set on fire by Liberators of 356 Squadron. This was the biggest shipping prize of the war in South-East Asia.

The work of the Liberators not only included strategic bombing and mine-laying but also leaflet dropping and, on occasion-and particularly in final stages of the campaign-tactical bombing in close support of our ground forces. An instance of a successful attack in this sphere was the Strategic Air Force’s assault, on January 13 1945, on Mandalay, the heart of the enemy’s defence in central Burma-now threatened by the Fourteenth Army. Preceded by fighter sweeps over the flak sites and the airfields, the Liberators attacked the Japanese quarter, levelling seventy major buildings and killing about 1,000 of the enemy.

In February 1945 two-thirds of the Liberator’s entire effort was against targets requested by the Army in or near the battle-front, including garrison zones, and undoubtedly these had great effect. ‘We got a great kick out of helping the Army right on the spot’, said one crew member of a 99 Squadron Liberator. ‘Much of our work took us right into Siam, hitting at Japanese communications, but it had not the same thrill as we experienced in close support.’ Although Strategic Air Force’s Liberator crews never encountered enemy opposition on a scale approaching that which the men of Bomber Command met over Europe, the Japanese did manage to make the going unduly rough at times. One such occasion was on February 1 1945, when 215 Squadron’s Liberator ‘H-Harry’, captained by S/Ldr C. V. Beadon, was taking part in a daylight attack on locomotives and trains at Shipyit, on the Burma-Siam railway. While over the target the bomber received a direct hit from an anti-aircraft shell. The rear gunner was killed and the aircraft’s fuselage seriously damaged and set on fire. The Liberator was 1,000 miles from base, but although the fire continued for three hours before being finally extinguished, the bomber limped home safely. Another hair-raising episode was that involving F/O ‘Johnny’ Haycock, a New Zealand pilot of either a 99 or 159 Squadron Liberator, during a daylight raid against Rangoon. Caught in a cone of intense flak, his aircraft was repeatedly hit; rudder and elevator controls were badly damaged and the reargunner seriously wounded. Pulling out of the resulting dive, Haycock managed to retain control while his flight engineer repaired the damaged cables with cord. When he landed back at base four hours later, over 150 holes were counted in the Liberator. It did not fly again.

It was during another raid on the Rangoon area on enemy gun-positions on May 2 1945-that W/Cdr J. B. Nicolson, R.A.F. Fighter Command’s first (and only) V.C. winner of the war, lost his life. He was flying as a passenger in a Liberator of 355 Squadron, captained by one of the squadron’s flight commanders. One of the engines caught fire, and being unable to maintain height and speed the bomber was ditched, only two of the crew surviving. The Liberators of Strategic Air Force continued to operate almost right up to VJ-Day, their final bombing missions being flown on August 6 and 71945.

Liberator B.VI: Crew 8; power plant four 1,200 h.p. Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasp R-1830-56 or ’90; span 110 ft.; length 67 ft. 2 in.; wing area 1,048 sq. ft.; empty weight 36,500 lb.; loaded weight 56,000 lb.; normal bomb load 5,000 lb. (max. bomb load of 12,800 lb. could be carried for short distances utilising wing racks); max. speed 300 m.p.h. at 30,000 ft.; usual combat operating speed range 180-215 m.p.h. between 10,000 and 25,000 ft.; service ceiling 32,000 ft.; range 2,290 miles with 4,000-lb. bomb load, 990 miles with 12,800-lb. bomb load; armament twin .50 in. m.g. in nose, dorsal and tail turrets, plus one .50-in. gun in ventral turret and at each waist position (ventral turrets often deleted in Far East theatre).