Raising the colours


The incredible complex plan for organising 2,000 blind flying bombers into a mission formation regardless of weather. (Source TBC)

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. 

Flying blind

Collisions were common. A bright flash and a rumble in the haze. 20 young lives.

Once they’d climbed through whatever cloud covered their airfields, 8th Air Force crews would assemble their formations for the day’s mission. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 5654)

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.

Every crew, every Squadron, and every Group had an assigned position in the giant mission formations. B-17 Flying Fortresses of the 91st Bomb Group in mission formation, with DF-F #42-97880 ‘Little Miss Mischief’ (originally a Lockheed Vega-built B-17G-35-VE) in the foreground. Look closer and you’ll see DF-F was so extensively repaired after a crash landing on 15 October 1944 that the natural metal bomber ended up with the olive drab tail section of a Boeing-built B-17. It reportedly took 40 days and parts from 13 other aircraft to get her flying again. The photo is by T.Sgt Dale J Darling, 91st BG. (IWM CC BY-NC 3.0 | FRE 5648)

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

A trio of 458th Bomb Group Liberators, based out of Horsham St. Faith including the Group’s flight assembly ship B-24H-10-DT “Spotted Ape” (or “Spotted Ass Ape”, depending who was asking) #41-28697. (IWM FRE 6711)

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)


Lil Cookie

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)


Lil Cookie

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) 


Silver Streak

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)


Checker Board

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.)


Barber Bob

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)


First Sergeant

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)


Spotted Cow

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)


Spotted Cow

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)

Want more?

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!

25 thoughts on “Raising the colours

  1. Really colourful post David, most enjoyable! Seriously though, one has to admire the sheer piloting skills needed to assemble such large formations of, as you say, otherwise unguided aircraft. It is a small wonder that collisions were not more frequent than they were!

    1. I agree. I know 600 collisions and 6,000 air crew is awful but, frankly, I was surprised it wasn’t much higher. When you look at that map of rallying points and remember it was all done on just clock and compass…

      1. Quite! I imagine it must have been very tense flying indeed, wondering if you were going to pop out of the cloud and into another aircraft, or vice versa! Nail biting stuff I should think!

      1. The paint schemes remind me of the bizarre “Dazzle Camouflage” that a lot of ships were given during WW1. The idea with the aircraft of course was to make them highly conspicuous, whereas the ships were supposed not to be!

        If you have ever seen anything about the making of the 1969 film THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN, their B 25 camera plane was painted very much the same way, for very much the same reason!

  2. Various crews described the terror and difficulty of assembling. Curtis LeMay mentions these collisions in his autobiography, and Phil Crosby describes the process in some detail in his book.

    What happened if you had to abort while assembling? (such as for engine trouble). If in a cloud, that must have been a roll of the dice.

    Finally, where is the 600 number from? “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.” I would like to use that number in a book I’m writing.

    1. I’m afraid my source is probably too apocryphal for a book: It was some click-bait web article about ’10 horrific Eighth Air Force statistics’ or something. However they counted everything and so I’m sure the real data is in an archive or report somewhere. I’ll have a more serious hunt for you.
      I also read (here: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/a-wwii-eighth-air-force-veteran.html) that B-24 pilots had to make an initial climb to 100 feet then lower the nose to pick up speed. After they’d reached a safe flying speed of 160mph at 100 feet AGL, they would start to climb at just 300 feet per minute. Imagine doing all that in zero visibility!

    2. Hi Roger,
      Just looking up that statistical source for you…
      One possibility is The Army Air Forces Statistical Digest, WWII prepared by the Office of Statistical Control, December 1945. Table 159 on page 255 covers Airplane losses on combat missions in ETO: Aug 1942 to May 1945.
      This reports 657 Heavy Bombers (just B-17s and B-24s) lost during combat missions to ‘Other Causes’ (i.e. not Enemy Aircraft or Anti-Aircraft). I’m struggling to think of many ‘other’ causes, although I’m not sure how they counted collisions at altitude if they were due to evasive manoeuvres or battle damage.
      By the way, the table also counts 192 Medium & Light Bombers and 1,184 Fighters lost to the same ‘Other Causes’.

  3. Hi Dave.
    It’s a while since I threw in a comment, but since you write this time on “my special subject” (the B-24, not the bleedin’ obvious) I figured I’d better add something.
    The B-24 you were uncertain of (maybe 41-23809 Checkerboard) is actually B-24H-15-CF 41-29489 which also must have been a ‘Monday build’ as it moved around a lot. Its first allocation was to 486BG named 2nd Avenue El but before flying any missions it passed to 458BG, then 492BG, then 448BG where it flew its last combat mission on 29SEP44, becoming the 448th’s 3rd assembly ship and known as Striped Ape II. Finally the right auxiliary wing spars were found to be buckled and it was salvaged at 3 SAD Watton between May 26-31 1945.

    1. Hi Bob. Yes, I knew I was wandering into your patch with this one, but I didn’t expect you to be on first-name terms with every B-24! 🙂
      Thanks for the correction. I’ll add a note in the text.

      1. I don’t “do” Facebook or Twitter or Instagram etc, but I do have 19,256 ‘friends’ – some information on every B-24 built! At least this one was instantly recognisable to me.

  4. Thanks Dave. Fascinating. I have never previously read about these “Assembly aircraft”, notwithstanding the logic behind their purpose. The RAF presumably never made use of such a system as their raids were at night?

    1. Not as far as I know, Nick. The RAF’s tactics were a good deal less orchestrated than the USAAF’s. The night bomber stream would be strewn out for hours, with each aircraft essentially making its own way to the designated target. And in the dark, as you mentioned. I’d say the British were more progressive with their use of Pathfinders and target marking though.

  5. Even with a quality navigator and pilot, the fact that they were maintaining those patterns in such close proximity using nothing more than a non directional beacon for positioning meant that the limitations of the equipment itself could lead to some pretty significant variances in their ground tracks. I’m sure it was all planned using varying altitudes and times, but the sheer numbers would have made collisions a near certainty from time to time. The slow speeds of these aircraft would have meant more susceptibility to winds aloft, and of course the English coast has never been known for great weather. The risk tolerance of the assembly operation says a lot about the high stakes of each and every mission.

    1. Thanks for your IFR-rated perspective, Ron.
      Admittedly that’s a very small map. I’m sure the whole plan looked marginally safer on the big board at High Wycombe.
      As you point out though, the limitations of the navaids, the vagaries of the weather and the sheer number of planes would all have eaten into any safety margins.
      I think “risk tolerance” says it all. Missions would be scrubbed for bad weather over the target, but not for bad weather over England.

  6. In British military slang the term “pom-pom” was used as a nickname for several different types of gun, including the “QF 2-pounder” used as an anti-aircraft gun by the Royal Navy. The name referred to the dull thud sound made by the gun when it fired. So, it’s possible that “Pom” in “The Pom Inspector” was being used as a general term for anti-aircraft fire. In that case, “Pom Inspector” was probably intended to mean something similar to “Flak Bait”, suggesting that the aircraft had been a frequent target of anti-aircraft fire.

    1. A good thought, Andrew, but the reality is more down to earth – it’s an acronym for “Preparation for Overseas Movement”. The POM inspector was the engineer/s who checked ex-combat aircraft for airworthiness prior to them being approved to return to the USA for further use – as trainers or hacks etc. Those that failed were scrapped (salvaged) in theatre.

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