Eighth Bomber Command launched 969 missions between August 1942 and May 1945 and, as the force built up, over 2,000 fully loaded four-engine bombers would be swirling upwards through the fog and cloud above their bases in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex.
That’s 2,000 unguided aircraft in an area about the size of Greater New York City or the Blue Mountains in NSW. A churning maelstrom of aluminium, men, high-octane fuel and even-higher explosive.
Collisions were common. A bright flash and a rumble in the haze. 20 young lives.
Reportedly some 600 aircraft and their 6,000 crewmen never made it as far as their Bomb Group’s formation point for the day’s raid. That’s roughly one collision out of every two missions. And it didn’t matter how precisely you were flying your designated path if another pilot – novice, confused or simply distracted – didn’t fly theirs… A plane took off from every base, every 30 seconds.
Each would head to their Group’s radio beacon and climb in a racetrack pattern through the murk.
Incredibly, from our comfortable perspective, most pilots did manage to grope their way safely upward until the light whitened, flashed blue and then broke into blinding high altitude sunlight. All around them, other bombers would be popping out of the cloud like pub crawlers bumbling into a well-lit bar.
Raising the colours
Organising the 100-mile-long bomber stream into its essential defensive formation would take around two hours from when the first aircraft launched. And key to it all were the brightly coloured assembly ships.
While nose art gave the crews a degree of personal expression, it seems the chance to paint bomber as garishly as they wanted was an opportunity too good to miss. The practical benefits of high visibility were an added bonus.
The assembly ships were stripped of their guns and any other extra weight to maximize endurance, then fitted with a special ‘follow me’ light array in the rear turret.
The assembly ships
In theory, they were war weary, although exactly what constituted ‘war weary’ was an open question. Aircraft like #42-97880 Lil Miss Mischief (above) were repaired and kept on strength against almost any odds. Conversely, Spotted Ass Ape (at right) had only flown seven operational missions – but had such a hard-luck reputation that nobody wanted to take it on another one.
Still, many of the B-24s were veterans of the Eighth’s temporary duty in North Africa – surviving the fateful first raid against Ploesti Oilfields of 1 August 1943, plus numerous other missions before and since. Lead Assembly Ship was their last dance before being scrapped.
They were just machines, after all. But they certainly did their share for the war effort.
This is one their few memorials:
The Little Gramper
Originally olive drab, B-24D-90-CO ‘The Little Gramper’ (#42-40722) flew with the 566th BS, 389th BG, including the 1 August 1943 raid on Ploesti. She was transferred to 491st BG on May 15th, 1944 as war weary, and elaborately repainted as their assembly ship. Pictured at Metford in the summer of 1944, the old bomber soldiered on for another year, but was finally condemned on May 31st, 1945 (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 6864)
Field maintenance on #42-7552 – a war weary B-24H-1-FO from Ford Willow Run – that was glammed up and named ‘Lil Cookie’ by the 489th Bomb Group at Halesworth, Sussex from May until November 1944. I believe she had served with the 44th BG, including the infamous first Ploesti Raid and support for the invasion of Sicily, before that. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 6778)
A less flattering view of ‘Lil Cookie’, but note the assembly lights where the tail turret had been – and the mud immediately off the hardstand. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 6782)
Photographed in 1944, the inimitable ‘Silver Streak’ – candy striped assembly ship for the 466th Bomber Group, at RAF Attlebridge, Norfolk, England. Formerly dubbed ‘Ready and Willing’, the B24D-20-CO was a 93rd BG veteran of the 1 August 1943 raid on Ploesti before she was declared war weary and assigned to the 466th. (LoC P&P 13550u)
The gaudy yellow-and-black ‘Checker Board’ (B-24D-5-CO, #41-23809) of the 448th BG based at Seething, Norfolk. She was another war weary 93rd BG veteran from the MTO and ETO, previously known to her crews as ‘HellsaDroppin II’, ‘Painted Virgin’, and ‘You Cawn’t Miss It’. She performed assembly ship duties from late 1943 until June 1944, she was condemned and salvaged on January 15th, 1945. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0| FRE 1781)
You Cawn’t Miss It
This one is a bit of a mystery ship. The IWM caption only says it’s a 448th BG Assembly Aircraft. So, despite the scratched out serial number, I’m fairly sure it’s actually #41-23809 in her role as ‘You Cawn’t Miss It’, before being repainted as ‘Checker Board’. (IWM CC-BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 1780)
Update: Oops! Turns out I was completely wrong. It turns out this is B-24H-15-CF #41-29489 which served with the 448th BG as Striped Ape II. (See the comment from Bob Livingstone below for more info.)
A true legend, the 93rd BGs assembly ship was B-24D-1-CO ‘Barber Bob’. Built as #41-23667 by Consolidated in San Diego and taken on by the 330th BS as ‘Ball of Fire’, her crew claimed the 8th Air Force’s first ever combat kill – an Fw.190 on the 9 October 1942 mission to Lille. She was condemned for salvage on May 5th, 1945. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 0780)
The incredible B-24D-30-CO #42-40127 in her third life as the 458th BG’s assembly ship at Horsham St. Faith. She had, as ‘Thar She Blows Again’ suffered substantial flak damage with the 329th BS, 93rd BG during the 1 August 1943 raid on Ploesti and survived a direct 88mm hit on another mission; then flew in the ETO as ‘Bucket of Bolts’ with a new crew, before being declared war weary. She was destroyed by an accidental fire on the ground on May 27th, 1944. (USAF Photo | 050602-F-1234P-004)
Another plane spotter’s dream (Sorry, couldn’t help it!) Douglas-built B-17F-60-DL #42-3441 as the 384th BG’s assembly ship ‘The Spotted Cow’. Operating from Grafton Underwood, the Fortress was painted white with sky blue dots. She served out the war and was shipped back the US to be sold for scrap in December 1945. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 14465)
A second look – ‘The Spotted Cow’ heads to work. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | UPL 7547)
Spotted Ass Ape
Meanwhile the 458th Bomb Group had their ‘Spotted Ass Ape’, a somewhat jinxed B-24H-10-DT that only flew seven troublesome missions with the 754th BS as ‘Z5-P’ before being given over to assembly ship duties as ‘Z5-Z’. She lasted from May 1944 until March 9th 1945 when an undercarriage leg collapsed during landing and she was written off. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 1924)
Spotted Ass Ape
Apparently better-loved in her role as assembly ship than hard-luck squadron member, Spotted Ass Ape is admired by an airman. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 6740)
Pete The Pom Inspector
Yet another hard-fighting Liberator put out to pasture as an assembly ship. B-24D-53-CO (#42-40370) ‘Pete the Pom Inspector’ had flown with the 506th BS, 44th BG as ‘Heaven Can Wait’, then the 566th BS, 389th BG from November 1943, flying more combat operations until March 26th, 1944, when she was declared war weary and transferred to the 467th BG at Rackheath, in Norfolk. She was badly damaged when the nose wheel retracted during the landing roll on October 27th, 1944 and cannibalised before being scrapped. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 8426)
Pete The Pom Inspector
And finally, nose art from ‘Pete The Pom Inspector’. I’m not sure what ‘Pom’ meant in the USAAF. Down here, it means an Englishman, so maybe the 467th had an Australian in their number, who appreciated that the aircraft would only be flying over England from now on. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 6745)
Just as I finished this post I found a similar – but much better – article by Dave O’Malley at Vintage Wings of Canada. So if you’d like to see more images of more Lead Assembly Ships, click the link and see how the professionals do it. Chapeau!