Liberators in Europe I

‘The first of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator groups activated had been the 44th on 15 January 1941 at MacDill Field, Florida and the 93rd was created using personnel from the 44th. This Group also provided personnel for the 98th commanded by Colonel John Riley “Killer” Kane, the son of a Baptist preacher, from McGregor, Texas, which was dispatched to North Africa; and the 90th, which went to the South West Pacific. The 93rd would soon be commanded by Colonel Ted Timberlake, who “Tex” McCrary once described as a “broad-backed man who looked like a cross between Spencer Tracy and Bobby Jones”. Born at Ford Hood, Virginia, one of four sons of a career Army artillery officer, who all graduated from West Point (three becoming general officers), Colonel Ted would take his group to the ETO [European Theatre of Operations] and the group soon became known as “Ted’s Travelling Circus”. But this was all in the future. A nucleus of the original personnel in the 44th, which was broken up and pocketed around the world like a gigantic game of pool, called themselves the “Eightballs”.’

At noon on 17 May, the great sprawling French seaport of Bordeaux was relatively quiet. Far to the north, medium American bombers were slashing at the coast of Holland. Another 250 miles up the French coast, a furious air battle was raging between German fighters and strong formations of Fortresses, attacking their old objectives – submarines and installations – at Lorient. However, nothing was happening at Bordeaux. The Germans were not particularly vigilant. There were U-boats moored in the tideless basins and massive concrete shelters designed to protect them from air attack. Thirty or forty barrage balloons floated placidly in the air, a hazard for low-flying raiders. Bordeaux was a long way from England. American bombers had never attacked it. The fact that even at that moment they were hammering at Lorient made the German garrison at Bordeaux feel doubly secure. They had not even bothered to silence the German-controlled radio…

At 12.28 thirty-four Liberators – not a large force, but still the strongest Liberator formation yet seen in Western Europe – soared out of nowhere and dealt military targets in the harbour area of Bordeaux one of the most precise and devastating aerial blows of the war.

Actually, the Libs appeared out of the Bay of Biscay, where for hours they had been sweeping in a great 700-mile semicircle that had carried them far out into the Atlantic. Their landfall, timed to a matter of seconds, was a masterpiece of navigation. As the lead navigator, reserving most of his enthusiasm for the work of a fellow crew member, later described it,

Suddenly through haze and mist we saw a break in the coastline. Although it wasn’t very plain, it stood out well enough to be recognized as the estuary that curves crazily from the Bay of Biscay to Bordeaux, some thirty miles inland. When we reached our IP (initial point) on the bombing run a few minutes later, it was the bombardier’s baby. He took over. It was the finest piece of precision bombing I ever hope to see. The locks collapsed, water gushed out of the basin into the river; there were hits on the bottleneck of the railroad yards, strikes on the aero-engine factory. It was beautiful!

The crews of the Libs had a right to be pleased. For the first time in seven months of sporadic operations in the ETO in 1942 they had been given an assignment that called upon all their speed, range, and bomb-carrying capacity. They had carried it out successfully – and alone.

At 0900 hours that morning, two Groups of B-24s had assembled at 2,500 feet near Land’s End. Four aircraft turned back with mechanical failures during the long overwater flight, and just before reaching the target one Liberator left formation with engine trouble and struggled to a crash-landing in Spain. This was the only bomber lost in the attack. Its crew was unhurt.

During the climb to altitude that began while the formations were still far out to sea, one Group began to lag behind because of lack of power in the lead ship. By deviating slightly from the prescribed course, the navigator managed to bring the Group to a landfall almost exactly at the ETA (estimated time of arrival).

A few flak bursts appeared over the target, but not enough to distract the bombardiers. Only one enemy fighter made a determined attack, and at 300 yards, under direct fire from three .50-calibre machine guns, he broke off and went down in a tight spin, with smoke pouring from his engine. He was claimed as a probable.

Two Americans were slightly wounded and one was lost in an accident so freakish that it was hard to believe. A waist gunner standing beside his open window somehow pulled the ripcord of his parachute. The billowing silk caught in the rush of wind, and snatched him out like a gigantic hand. Man and chute hit the tail assembly and disappeared over the Bay of Biscay. The parachute was observed to be badly torn…

Another 22,000 feet below, the harbour of Bordeaux was in confusion. Direct hits burst the great lock gates that kept the water level in Basin No. 1 from being affected by the rise and fall of tides in the river. Water gushed out in a colossal stream. A 480-yard pier, used exclusively by submarines, collapsed completely. Two U-boats, spotted there at the start of the attack, had vanished six hours later when the photo-reconnaissance plane flew over and took pictures. At least eight direct hits blasted the Matford aero-engine factory. Chemical works and railroad yards were hit. Damage to residential areas was negligible.

It was a sweet job and the crews of the Liberators were jubilant. They attributed much of the success of the mission to the use of only one type of bomber instead of the mixed formations in which the B-24s had usually flown at that time.

The fact that the two basic American heavy bombers performed better separately than together reflected discredit on neither ship. It was simply a matter of different speeds at different altitudes, causing certain obvious tactical difficulties. Most reasonable airmen were prepared to admit that there was not much that a Lib could do that a Fort was not capable of doing and vice versa. The main difference was one of appearance. Discrepancies in bomb load, range and armament were growing smaller as new bombers of both types incorporated various improvements that brought their performances closer together.

Nevertheless there still was, and always would be, an undeniable esprit de corps that set Fortress and Liberator men apart. Up to 17 May the sleek Fortresses had tended to overshadow their less photogenic sisters. This was inevitable in view of the disparity in numbers, and the Liberator crews wasted no time brooding about it. Still, they found particular satisfaction that day in doing a Liberator version of the American plan of high-altitude precision bombing, and doing it in so spectacular a fashion.

For seven months the Liberators of the 8th Bomber Command had been doing a variety of jobs, both odd and ordinary. Their debut over Lille on 9 October was not particularly brilliant. The abortive rate was high. However, they stood their baptism of fire well and to the people of Occupied France the name of the newcomer – an RAF idea – must have had a special significance.

For the next two months the Libs joined in the milk run down to the U-boat pens. There weren’t many of them and, like their Fortress sisters, they were sorely pressed for replacements. They came back with the same battle damage from flak and fighters; their crews had equally harrowing combat stories to tell.

On 18 November 1942 over Lorient, a bullet from a Ju-88 entered the cockpit of a Liberator, smashing the pilot’s arm and ricocheting off the control column in to the co-pilot’s leg. At the same time the tunnel gunner was twice hit in the stomach; one bullet that had passed entirely through his body was found protruding from his hip by the navigator, who administered first aid. The gunner took the bloodstained bit of metal that was handed to him and put it in to his pocket, remarking that it would make a good souvenir.

The pilot, clinging to the controls with one hand despite the pain of his shattered arm, was lifted out of the cockpit and placed on the flight deck. The bombardier, who had had some flight training but had never been at the controls of a four-engined ship, took his place. He and the wounded co-pilot took turns flying the ship.

Near the English coast, visibility began to grow bad. The navigator took an Aldis lamp and flashed word to the other ships that they intended to land their wounded at the first available airdrome. Shortly afterward they left formation, climbed above the overcast and started hunting for a break in the clouds. The bombardier’s flat, unemotional report told the rest of the story:

At about 6,000 feet we came into the clear over the overcast. I asked the engineer how much gasoline we had. He checked and said we had about an hour’s supply. We decided to fly along for about forty-five minutes and look for an opening. We flew on a 65-degree heading that the navigator gave us. Just about the time this period was up we found an opening, came through and sighted the runways of an airdrome.

We had discussed the matter of landing while flying along. The co-pilot could not use the rudders and on the landing we were both on the wheel. I was using the rudders and working the brakes. We made a fast landing. I turned off the runway to the right as we came to the end of it. After landing we immediately called for an ambulance and rushed the three wounded to the hospital. The plane was not damaged on landing…

In October two squadrons of Liberators were sent to the south of England to work with British Coastal Command on anti-submarine patrol. By November, huge convoys were streaming south to supply the African armies. The 8th Bomber Command was already harassing the U-boats ‘in the nest’. The Liberator squadrons were charged with responsibility for the second phase of the anti-U-boat campaign – killing them at sea.

In the harsh winter weather, the Libs went out on patrols that sometimes lasted nine or ten hours and covered hundreds of miles of steel-grey sea. Eyes grew weary searching for the telltale feather of a periscope or the shadowy outline of a U-boat hull. It was like looking for a pin in an acre of iron filings. The Liberator crews, stiff and cold, found consolation in the knowledge that they were a vital part of an immense net flung across the Bay of Biscay and half of the Atlantic, a net that was making efficient U-boat operations a mathematical impossibility.

Patrols were not always dull. One B-24 tangled with five Ju-88s far out in the bay, shot down two of them for certain, damaged one other and sailed home intact. Said the pilot happily, ‘The Jerries must’ve thought we were one of those old British Liberators armed with .30-caliber machine guns, Brother, they were a surprised lot of Heinies!’

This was only the first odd job that the Liberators were called upon to do. In December, three squadrons of them were ordered to Africa, for a ‘ten-day’ period. Actually the ten days stretched out to three months, during which they lived in the desert on Spam and dehydrated cabbage, harassed Rommel’s retreating rearguards, struck across the Mediterranean at Naples and the Sicilian airdromes, and made some good friends in the Ninth and Twelfth Air Forces.

The Liberators left behind in England struggled along with a force so attenuated that it was hardly visible to the naked eye. There were times when barely a dozen could be put in to the air. At one point they had to commandeer replacement crews intended for Fortresses. A fine large Briefing Room at one station – once the Group Intelligence Officer’s pride and joy because it was so roomy – became a positive menace as the circle of chairs grew smaller and the unoccupied area increased.

When the wanderers returned from Africa in March, full of tall tales and with the Libyan sand still gritty on the floors of their ships, the confidence of the Liberator Wing soared again.

They went out with the Fortresses in what was – for them – considerable strength: eighteen, twenty, twenty-two planes. At Vegesack on 18 March they shared credit with the Forts for smashing the submarine-building yards. Only one Liberator was lost.

The Libs did not always get off so lightly. At Kiel on 14 May, flying lower than the Fortress formations and carrying incendiaries for the first time, they were singled out by enemy fighters for concentrated attack. Five B-24s out of seventeen were lost, the survivors destroying twenty-one German aircraft. The ferocity of the fighter attack and the violence of the evasive action taken by the big bombers are reflected in one pilot’s account of the engagement:

Then things began to happen. Three of them started at us. Our top turret gunner picked out the leader and let him have about fifty rounds from each gun. The co-pilot saw black smoke pour from the nacelle and the plane go into a spin.

Despite the temperature of 20 degrees below zero Centigrade I was sweating like mad. I had on a pair of winter flying boots and nothing else except regular dress, which was wringing wet.

Two more fighters came in from the nose. I could see them firing their cannons, so I pushed forward on the stick with all my might. We went down like a streamlined brick and they whizzed past us, barely missing the top of our wing, One of them took along several of our slugs with him, because our tracers were seen to go through his fuselage. When I pulled out of that dive, our top turret gunner was thrown from his turret, as was the tail gunner. All the other members of the crew were thrown about a bit: But the Jerries had missed us and that was the important thing.

Just as we were approaching the target, four more fighters attacked us from dead ahead. One of their cannon shells hit our left wing. A moment later the co-pilot announced that the No. 3 engine was out.

 ‘Want to feather it?’ he asked.

 ‘Hell, no!’ I yelled.

Feathering a propeller over enemy territory is like writing the boys at the mortuary for space on their slab. All of the fighters see that you are crippled and immediately set upon you for the kill.

We had only three halfhearted attacks from then on to the coast and those pilots must have been very green, or else I had become hardened to it all by that time. Off to our left, I saw one Me-109 do a slow roll and then head for home. His manoeuvre meant, ‘Well, boys, it’s all over for this time. See you soon.’

During the spring the Liberators began training for night operations. Personnel were sent to the RAF Operational Training Units to study the methods and technique of night flying. The American crews were not unfamiliar with night flying, but much had to be learned about differences in signal procedure, the tactics of night bombing and so forth. Again, the Liberators were being used experimentally. Whether those experiments would prove much or little, time and the course of the war would tell.