Briefly during 1943 the Eighth operated a force of medium bombers – Martin B-26 Marauders. The aircraft had first appeared in November 1940 in response to a specification for a fast and heavily armed medium bomber. It had sharp clean lines and was very streamlined, which led the press to name the aircraft ‘the flying torpedo’. The AAC had been so impressed by the design specification that they ordered 1,100 directly from the drawing board, then a unique departure. The B-26 was a rather difficult aircraft to handle with its high landing and take-off speeds, and early into the training programme an alarming number of accidents occurred. As the accident rate rose steadily the aircraft gained the name of ‘widow maker’ or the ‘Baltimore Whore’ (Glenn Martin’s plant was at Baltimore). The position became so grave that the AAC set up a Board of Enquiry to investigate the design, and production of the aircraft was halted. However, the Service retained its faith in the aircraft and with a number of design modifications, production was resumed.
When the first B-26Bs arrived in England in March 1943 they had already seen action in the Pacific and North Africa. They were powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-43 Double Wasp engines, producing a maximum speed of some 280 mph, and a cruising rate of 195 mph. The bomb load had been increased to 4,000 pounds and its total armament to twelve .50 inch guns, although later this was reduced. Despite its early grim reputation the B-26 proved to be a most successful medium bomber with an amazingly low loss rate, and perhaps the aircraft never received the renown that it deserved.
The Eighth Air Force and disaster over IJmuiden
Four B-26 groups were destined to join the Eighth Air Force in East Anglia under the control of the 3rd BW (Bombardment Wing) with its HQ at Elveden Hall. The first B-26 unit to arrive was the 319th BG, however, their stay was short and the group was transferred to North Africa in early November 1942.
By early December 1942, a second group, the 322nd BG, began to arrive. Ground personnel made Rattlesden and Bury St Edmunds their home and it was not until 7 March 1943 that the first B-26s arrived from the 450th BS. One month later, the 452nd BS followed and the 322nd BG began training for a method of flying that was alien to the Eighth Air Force.
The RAF had been flying low-level attacks throughout the war, while the philosophy of the Eighth Air Force was to maintain a high-altitude offensive. This offensive was flown by B-17s and B-24s, but having a medium bomber on the inventory opened up new possibilities. The RAF made good use of the Mosquito and Boston at low level while the medium Ventura and Mitchells were used against heavily defended targets at between 10,000 and 15,000ft. The Eighth Air Force was not enthusiastic but was prepared to look at using the B-26 for low-level operations where surprise and a good turn of speed were essential. The sight of B-26s thundering low over the East Anglian countryside brought some locals out of the houses, while others shook their fists as they dived for cover in open fields. Brushes with trees and cables became commonplace and this was not helped by the control response of the B-26 which lagged an agonizing split-second behind the control input.
By mid-1943, the 322nd BG was deemed fit for operations and a `baptism of fire’ target was chosen, for a daylight attack on 14 May. Despite being located on the Dutch coast, the power station at IJmuiden, 10 miles north-west of Amsterdam, was by no means a cosy target. The RAF, having already attacked the plant on two previous occasions, had experienced a very warm reception from flak, thanks to an E-Boat station also being based there. It was now the turn of the USAAF, which detailed 12 B-26s, each carrying four 500lb delayed-fuse bombs, to attack the plant.
At 0950hrs on 14 May, the first B-26, flown by Maj O. Turner, CO (Commanding Officer) of the 450th BS, took off from Bury St Edmunds and set course for the Dutch coast, settling only a few feet above the waves to avoid German radar. Behind the formation, but still below radar, another B-26 with the 3rd BW commander, Brig Gen Brady and the group CO, Col Stillman of the 322nd BG, followed behind. Land was reached at Leiden, 20 miles south of the target, and a very alert gun crew quickly opened fire, damaging Lt R. C. Fry’s aircraft, Too Much of Texas. The flak knocked out the port engine and removed a large portion of the rudder as Fry turned his bomber away from the formation to jettison his bombs into the sea. Fry then settled down to concentrate on flying his damaged bomber more than 120 miles back to base on one engine.
The remaining bombers turned north followed a canal and railway track to IJmuiden where the air-raid siren went off at 1057hrs. Three minutes later, the formation was over the target and turning west for home after stirring up a hornet’s nest of anti-aircraft fire. Meanwhile, Lt Fry managed to safely land at Great Ashfield while the mauled formation followed not long after. One B-26 put down at Honington while Lt J. J. Howell ordered his crew to bail out near Bury St Edmunds, leaving it to crash near Rougham. After regaining Bury St Edmunds, Maj G. C. Ceilo, the 452nd BS’s commander, could not lower one of the undercarriage legs due to an enemy round. Ceilo circled the airfield for 80 minutes to build the hydraulic pressure back up before landing safely. Over 300 bullet holes were later recorded in Ceilo’s B-26, but only one of his crew was wounded – he was one of just seven airmen injured on the whole raid, including Maj Turner himself.
Everyone who took part in the raid felt that they had done a good job but were not enthusiastic about repeating the exercise. The crews must have been stunned when, two days later, Col Stillman returned from a meeting at Elveden Hall, after being told that all of the bombs dropped on 14 May had missed their target. Stillman also received orders to attack the power station again on 17 May. Despite his protestations that it was too soon to fly another high-risk mission on the same target, he was overruled by Command, who stated that the operation was an integral part of operations all over Europe and it was too late to alter the target.
Late on 16 May, the order came through from Command for another 12 B-26s with the same bomb load. On this occasion, the force was to split into two on reaching the Dutch coast, with one group attacking another power station near Haarlem while the other would return to IJmuiden. With many aircraft still being patched up from the first raid, only 11 B-26s were declared serviceable for the mission which, this time, was led by Col Stillman.
From 1056hrs, the B-26s set course in bright sunshine again for the Dutch coast with all taking part, well aware that they would be pushing their luck to get home safely this time. Just over an hour later, a single B-26 returned early after being forced to turn back 30 miles from the enemy coast with a double generator failure. ETA for the remaining B-26s to land back at base was 1250hrs, but as this time came and went all those waiting at Bury, including Brig Gen Brady, were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the potential outcome that no bombers would return that day. Once the `all fuel exhausted’ point had also passed, the optimists amongst the 322nd BG were hoping that their crews had diverted to airfields elsewhere in East Anglia. Unfortunately, this final hope was dashed when Command declared that the B-26s were listed as `Missing in Action, cause unknown.
A photo-reconnaissance sortie was flown that afternoon, which revealed that there was no evidence of bomb damage on either target. As the post mortem of the operation progressed, back at Bury St Edmunds it was discovered that the aborted B-26 might have been instrumental in the failure of the whole mission. Following the generator failure, the B-26 climbed to 1,000ft, which was standard operating procedure. However, in doing so the bomber had shown itself on RAF radar, which would mean that it had also appeared on German radar screens. Being 30 miles off the coast, this would have given the German defences plenty of time to prepare for the arrival of the 322nd BG. The story began to unfold further when a Royal Navy destroyer found two tired airmen in a dinghy several miles off the Suffolk coast. S/Sgt J. Lewis and S/Sgt G. Williams, rear and top turret gunners, were the only survivors of a B-26 that came down in the sea while attempting to get home.
Out of the 62 airmen who were forced down in enemy territory, 20 of them survived to become prisoners of war. Lt Col Purinton, who was the group executive officer and leader for the Haarlem attack, was rescued with his crew by a German boat. Incredibly, Col Stillman and two of his gunners were dragged from the remains of their B-26, alive but seriously injured.
In the meantime, a second unit, 323rd BG, had arrived at Horham on 12 May, destined to move to Earls Colne a month later. The 386th and 387th BGs arrived in June, settling at Boxted and Chipping Ongar respectively, giving the Eighth over 250 medium bombers at their disposal. Despite the mechanical problems that had been occurring, the 322nd BG’s accident rate was no worse than that of any other groups. Another positive was that the last squadrons of the group to arrive and any subsequent groups were equipped with later production models with the bigger wing, larger tail surfaces, more fuel and many more improvements.
The Eighth Air Force commander, Gen I. C. Eaker, decided that the B-26s could add little weight to the USAAF’s strategic bombing campaign in the ETO. All of the Marauder groups were placed under the Eighth Air Support Command (ASC), which was established to support ground forces – classed as a low-priority task within the Eighth Air Force. Reading between the lines, this may have been a subtle way of telling Washington that the B-26 was not cut out for operations in the ETO.
Turning it Around
Taking note of how the Twelfth Air Force had been employing their B-26s in North Africa, the Eighth ASC considered the same tactic. The RAF was brought in to provide fighter cover with the B-26s flying tight formations of up to 18 aircraft at a height of 12,000ft, thus avoiding light flak. While the other groups continued to train at low levels, only Col Thatcher’s 323rd BG were instructed to begin practicing the medium-level tactics. The D-8 bombsights slowly began to be replaced, and strike cameras and .50in machine guns firing downward from the ventral rear hatches were also fitted. Another two months had passed before the 323rd BG was ready for its first mediumlevel operation on 16 July 1943. The target was the marshalling yards at Abbeville. There were 18 aircraft that took part with a squadron of RAF Spitfires flying as escort. In all, 16 B-26s managed to drop their bombs while the formation endured heavy flak and the Spitfires drove off several enemy aircraft. The bombing was poor but all returned safely to Earls Colne. The decision had already been made to re-train the other three groups in the medium-level role.
A week later, the target was the Ghent coke ovens in Belgium, which escaped untouched but, on 26 July the airfield at St Omer/Longuenesse took a pasting. The bombardiers were now getting the hang of their role, their accuracy was increasing and their escorts were enjoying high kill rates. The following day, during a raid on the airfield at Tricqueville, the Spitfires brought down nine Fw 190s for the loss of one aircraft, whose pilot was later rescued from the sea. Incredibly, the 323rd BG had flown nearly 100 sorties in five consecutive days over enemy territory without losing a single aircraft. The honeymoon period could not last, but it did show that the B-26 could survive operations when employed at the right height and with an escort.
During these early missions, the 322nd and 386th BGs had been flying diversions but from the end of July they also joined the fray. Neither had the same luck as the 323rd BG, especially on 30 July when, out of 21 aircraft dispatched to Woensdrecht airfield, only 11 managed to bomb and one 553rd BS B-26 was shot down. The 322nd was back in action on 31 July against Tricqueville. This time, rather than being nearly wiped out, one gunner, S/Sgt C. S. Maddox, claimed a Fw 190 shot down, which was confirmed by an escorting Spitfire pilot.
The bombing at this level, up to 3 August, had produced some indifferent results. On this day, the target was the Trait shipyards and 33 B-26s of the 322nd BG were dispatched. The raid went without a hitch, but the crews were unaware just how good it really was until strike photos were analyzed two days later. The shipyards were heavily damaged, and with the exception of just a few bombs, all had fallen within an area measuring 350x650yd. These results were not only encouraging for the crews but also for the senior staff who had their doubts about the B-26 even being in service, let alone becoming an effective combat aircraft. By the end of August, the B-26s had achieved the lowest loss-per-sortie rate of the entire Eighth Air Force. Having been the butt of many jokes, especially from B-17 crews, since their arrival, the B-26 had finally appeared to have silenced its critics.
Throughout September and early October, the Marauder groups had been successful against the airfield targets allocated to them and equally successful against enemy fighters. Using cloud to avoid the Spitfire escorts, the Luftwaffe struggled to knock the sturdy B-26s out of the sky and, during their Eighth Air Force service, 13 enemy fighters were claimed shot down by Marauder gunners. On 9 October, 1943, the 323rd and 387th BGs flew the last B-26 operation with the Eighth. In just three months, the reputation of this bomber was completely turned around and, after 90 medium-level raids made up of 4,000 sorties, only 13 B-26s were lost. Only one of these was brought down by an enemy fighter, which equated to a loss rate of just 0.3 per cent. On 16 October 1943, the four B-26 groups were transferred to the newly formed Ninth Air Force where they would go from strength to strength.