Prelude to a Mission
by John Archer

Many stories have been written about the bomber aircraft and their crews, their experiences, and the historic, brave, or unfortunate episodes of WWII. One subject not dealt with in any great detail in the aftermath of the War is the trial of the bomber crew leading up to the climax of a mission. The following description is based upon an account of the life and times of a unit of the 8th Air Force. The 446th Bomb Group (H), a BN-24 Liberator unit, was flying missions out of Flixton Airfield in Suffolk in 1943 to 1945. It was a typical heavy bomb group in East Anglia, and its airmen experienced many of the feelings common to other crews throughout the War.

Usually if there was to be a mission on the next day, the crews would have the word by mid-afternoon. This sort of took the joy out of the rest of the day, but it was not as bad as those days when no decision was made either way until late in the evening. Then it seemed impossible to go to sleep even though wake-up time might be as early as 2:00 a.m.

Over the officers club bar at Flixton there were three green lights. Red indicated that a mission was “on”; green indicated no mission, and amber implied no decision had been made yet. Worse, no liquor could be dispensed at the bar until the green light came on. On the days when the amber light stayed on until after the evening meal, all would sit around the club waiting it out. If and when it turned to green every man rose and walked to the bar. Here the barman poured Scotch steadily until it was finished. Scotch was limited, and without a lost motion he would switch to gin. They drank it all; the day’s ration was not large.

There was no demonstration of exuberance at the green light. All would, for a time, be quiet. It was a powerful feeling – there was at least one more day to live, guaranteed. At the same time it did not bring joy to the flyers; each knew that so many more missions remained to be completed, and putting it off one day didn’t gain anything. And even though postponed, it was not possible to sleep well.

When the red light came on – the mission light – all the crewmen retired as early as they felt possible. At the appointed hour, the watch officer awakened each man individually, called his name and made certain he was fully awake, and was the right man. The only information he could tell them was the gas load – nothing else. If 2,300 gallons, it was good – a short mission. If 2,700, that was bad – it meant deep penetration into Germany. At 2,500 gallons, though halfway between, there was some slight relief.

The aircrew walked or rode bicycles to breakfast, consisting of the inevitable dried eggs, marmalade, and coffee. Diet was watched to avoid foods that caused distension at high altitudes. Then things began to run on a schedule of sorts. Trucks whisked them off to the briefing, where the job of putting on flight gear began. Once dressed, and with every item carefully checked, it was on into the briefing room. Once in, nobody was allowed out until the briefing was completed.

Dominating the briefing room was the great map board, possibly four meters square. This included all of the territory within possible range of the Group. It was covered by a curtain until the last man arrived and was checked off. The incoming crews always looked at the size of the ball of string unused and hanging behind the board. The larger the ball, the shorter the mission. At the spot on the map indicating their own field, Flixton, a red string was pulled through a hole and strung around pins stuck in the map to define the full flight path of the mission.

Briefing began with uncovering the map. Sometimes this was a very bad moment. All the areas on the map where heavy flak was anticipated were overlaid with red cellophane. Sometimes it appeared that the string did not miss any of those areas. Actually, however, the indication of a large flak area did not mean inevitable destruction – heavy concentrations of flak were scary as hell, but the box-barrage or the sky-filling smoke puffs were not as dangerous as one very eager four-gun battery.

Briefing took a long time; there was a lot of information to be disseminated. Nature of the primary and secondary targets….The targets of opportunity…The weights and types of bombs. (Bad to carry the incendiary clusters; big G.P.’s were safest)…The fighter cover…Where to rendezvous…Altitudes for each unit…Radio call signs and procedures. Each of the special officers would present his information. Finally, what to do if damaged; if there was a possibility to make neutral Sweden or Switzerland, all this was covered.

The number of wings, groups, or squadrons attacking a target, if several, was all to be understood. There were probably two hundred or more important little details to each mission and knowing but one might save the crew from disaster.

After the general briefing of the officers and men, the pilots, bombardiers, navigators and radio operators
were given short, special briefings by the strike echelon or intelligence section. All others went to their waiting airplanes and began checking over everything, even though the ground crew had gone over them previously. Eventually all of the airmen would arrive at their assigned bombers and, if all had gone well to that point, the control tower would fire a flare at the scheduled time to start engines.

There were often delays. Sometimes there would be a delay after engines had been started and burned a considerable amount of fuel. On occasion it had been known for a mission to be scrubbed even as the first bomber was on his takeoff run. A scrubbed mission was a disappointment; even if it was a bad target it was still resented. A lot of the sweating occurs before being airborne, and anyway, it would likely be the same target a day or so later.

Takeoff would be in squadron order, lead crew first. A pilot’s position in the formation had already been allocated during the briefing. The climb to the assembly position was always difficult, especially in the winter months. Lifting off at thirty second intervals a thirty-six plane formation would take eighteen minutes to get off the ground. With an overcast, and it was often there, the group would fly on instruments to reach the tops of the clouds. The higher the tops the worse the formatting would be.

One time, due to the tops of the clouds being very high, the Group assembled at 17,000 feet. At this altitude, fully loaded, it was very easy to stall a B-24 on the inside of a formation turn. At times, one or more of the big bombers would abruptly depart downwards, disappear into the clouds and not show up again for half an hour.

Flying a “racetrack” pattern within close range of the home base for two hours was not uncommon, or conducive to relaxing tension. There were many airfields situated in the area of 446th B.G. and when arriving on top one could see airplanes everywhere, with many groups forming up at the same time in an area twenty or thirty miles square. This was especially so if one was in the last airplane off the runway. It was very easy, in the beginning, to mistake one’s group leader. The group leader would fire flares of a certain color and the squadron leaders would fire different colors. By this method some particular leader could be singled out. Often, in the confusion, some bombers would wind up in the neighboring group.

As formation began to appear complete the Group took its position in the Wing formation and this in turn in the Division. Such a bomber stream would take half an hour to cross a point on the coast.

The ordinary GP (general purpose) bomb was the most desirable to carry since it was fairly safe against explosion in the bomb bay. One pin in each bomb was pulled by the radio operator shortly before the beginning of the run over the target. Another pin, attached to the arming wire, was fastened to the rack so it would be pulled when the bomb left the airplane. In addition, a small propeller on the nose fuse must revolve a couple hundred times in the air stream until it was duly armed. Lastly, the bomb must strike something very hard. Thus, in spite of the fact that the arming propellers would revolve as soon as the doors opened (and probably had their work done well before release) the GP bomb was not likely to “go.” It was a worrying experience, nevertheless, coupled with the assumption that the impact resulting from a bomb striking a bomb-bay door would set it off.

The small incendiary bombs were a different story. A piece of flak could set them off, and a drop could not always be accomplished in time. Further, a bomb hung-up in the shackles was a nightmare. Once in a great while this would happen; the shackle would not release. If all efforts to release failed one had the choice of bailing out, hopefully near home, or gambling on a safe landing. A rough landing might lose the bomb, which then followed the bomber down the runway doing football-type bounces, and creating considerable nervousness for everyone in the vicinity. This happened once in the 446th B.G., but no one was hurt except a couple of airmen who jumped off the control tower observation deck as the bomb came hopping down the field.

Many crew members became very superstitious in these times, and grasped at all sorts of psychological straws to bolster courage. Serious afterthought has led to the conclusion that fear was the driving force which made it possible to go willingly—apparently – to risk their lives on repeated missions. The fear of being regarded as a coward by one’s fellow men, whom they scarcely knew, was truly greater than the fear of death; and this was neither reasonable nor ennobling.

Men who have never had the experience have wondered if they could do such things, but only those who actually went out on the missions ever found out.

Reprinted with permission of the American Aviation Historical Society
AAHS Journal Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall 1973

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