The first B-24 Liberators in the Desert

In two prior posts (at this link and this link), I had provided some information on the B-17 bombers employed by the RAF in the Middle East. Going through my files, I noted that the end of January and early February also saw what looks like one of the first operational uses of B-24 Liberators in the Middle East, on bombing runs to Tripoli. I have now gone and purchased the Squadron record books on the National Archives website, to investigate this further, and further reviewed a few other documents. As a bonus, you can find the report of the first operational sortie on 11 January 1942 below.

The Consolidated B-24 Liberator

The Liberator was a four-engined bomber, and the other mainstay of the US Army Air Force heavy bomber force, together with the B-17 Flying Fortress, which it outperformed in terms of bombload, range, and design, featuring a tricycle design with a frontwheel. It also saw heavy use by RAF Coastal Command, where it performed well in shipping protection. The version delivered to RAF Middle East was called LB-30 in the period documentation, but may actually have been a B-24B, the first combat version of the Liberator. Over 18,000 Liberators of all marks were built by 1945.

Background

The US Army Air Force in the Middle East history has some info on how they came to be there. Following a presidential authorization on 29 October 1941, it became possible for the Army Air Corps Ferrying Command to ferry planes to any point in Africa. Until then, a complicated arrangement involving Pan American Airlines Africa had been used to maintain neutrality provisions. This only covered civilian types, such as Lockheed Lodestars or Douglas DC-2/-3, which were then employed as transports. The presidential authorisation, and a subsequent arrangement between the Ferry Corps and PAA Africa allowed the sending of heavy planes for the first time, with PAA Africa returning the crews. (Footnote 43 of the history)

So on 21 November the first Liberator of a group of five left for Cairo. This one crashed four days later at El Obeid in Sudan. All that was salvageable was sent to Egypt. The last one left on 6 December 41, by which time four had been received. The crews, bar the navigators, were to stay in Egypt to act as instructors, and additional technical staff was also sent. (Footnote 44 of the history). The Liberators arriving this time came without gun turrets, or indeed guns, and this created quite a bit of trouble and delayed operations considerably.

Earlier on the RAF had already received early-production Liberators, but these were seen as unsuitable for combat, and served in RAF Ferry Command, crossing the Atlantic. Nevertheless, the improved version that was received in No. 108 Squadron still required substantial work, which included attempts to fit gun turrets from Wellingtons to the rear of the planes, before they were seen fit to engage the enemy. They were also fitted with the Wellington bomb-sight, since the US Sperry sight was seen as unsuitable for night attacks due to its limited field of vision.

The new aircraft were placed on arrival with No. 108 Squadron, which operated Wellingtons at the time, also on missions to Tripoli and Benghazi, as well as in tactical support. This squadron was partially disbanded at the end of December 41, with a cadre of two flights remaining and continuing to operate the Liberators and some Wellingtons. The intent at the time was to convert the whole squadron to Liberators, but this never happened. But during December and January, both flights were trained on the Liberator, and early in January the Squadron Commander, Wing Commander Wells, flew the first operational sortie to Tripoli.

The Squadron Commander was very pleased with the plane, its range meant that it was possible to fly base-to-base even on sorties to Tripoli, which was a great advance in operations. One Liberator, AL574, was sent to India with spares for No. 84 Squadron. It became the first RAF aircraft to carry out a non-stop flight from Egypt to India, using only two stages on the total, 6,000 mile trip, which it completed with no technical issues.


The crew of Consolidated Liberator Mark II, AL511 ‘A’, of No. 108 Squadron RAF walk from their aircraft at Fayid, Egypt. Note the “Dumbo” motif painted on the nose. AL511 failed to return from a bombing sortie over Tripoli on 3 May 1942. (IWM)

Operational Use

It appears that no USAAF personnel flew operational sorties, but they supported the training including bomb range flights.

Only a few operational sorties were carried out in January. These were mixes of one or two Liberators with Wellingtons. Bad weather led to a few cancelled raids.

On 22 February, one aircraft crashed on take-off at Faiyid, because of too early retraction of the landing gear (see here). This was AL574, shown in the picture below, which places the picture fairly squarely into the CRUSADER period. Of interest, the crane used to bomb up the plane. Very well equipped as a station. As the picture above states, AL511, likely the other of the two planes used operationally, was lost in early May.


Armourers hauling a trolley of 500-lb Gp bombs towards Consoldiated Liberator Mark II, AL574 ‘O’, of No. 108 Squadron RAF, at Fayid, Egypt. As far as is known only two Liberators were employed operationally on long-range bombing sorties by the Squadron. (IWM)

Of note in the picture above is that this early version did not have a rear-facing ball turret, for enhanced self-defense, unlike other versions of the plane, and this was seen as a great drawback.

Raids

The first Liberator to participate in a raid did so on 11 January 1942. Below is the report:

Six Wellingtons and one Liberator were ordered to attack Tripoli Harbour. The Captains were (“P” – Liberator) W/Cdr. Wells DFC., (“B”) F/Lt. Bagnall, (“L”) P/O Hill, (“G”) P/O Waddington, (“H”) P/O McDonald, (“M”) P/O Anderson DFC., and (“F”) P/O Smith. This is the first operational flight of Liberator aircraft – this was more of a nature of a test flight for the purpose of getting accurate petrol consumption and the clearing-up of operational snags which would become apparent on a raid. The Liberator proceeded to Advance Base L.G. 09, where it refuelled and bombed-up. At 2340 hours the aircraft left for Tripoli encountering a 35m.p.h. head wind which slowed the outward journey. The target was reached at 0445 – no snags were found on the way out to the target. The lighting navigating facilities which had been re-designed proved quite satisfactory. The bombing was marred by three hang-ups, which subsequently proved to be electric failures. A total of twelve 500lb G.P. were dropped. The return trip from Tripoli to base was uneventful. Total distance covered – 2240 miles. Time taken – 1025 hrs. Petrol consumption – 154 gallons per hour. Average oil consumption per engine – 3 pints per hour. Average ground speed – 213.5 m.p.h. Of the Wellington aircraft, “L” attacked a destroyer entering the Harbour – one near miss was observed. “H” did not attack Tripoli owning to heavy oil consumption – the secondary target (Buerat El Haun) could not be found owing to ground haze, and this aircraft eventually dropped its bombs on lights on road between Buerat el Haun and Sirte. No results were seen. Aircraft “F” also suffered engine trouble whilst over the target area – four 500 lb. G.P. were jettisoned five miles along road to Sirte – no results observed. On the way home the aircraft was still losing height, and so two beam guns, 2,500 rounds ammunition, all flares and pyrotechnics except verey cartridges, were also jettisoned. “G” attacked two large and several small buildings five miles west of Sirte, just south of the road – bombs fell east of target, and bursts were seen surrounded by small flashes, probably ammunition boxes exploding. Aircraft “B” bombed the Spanish Mole aiming across the base, but no results were seen. This aircraft was caught in searchlights and took evasive action. A total of thirty-two 500lb. G.P. bombs were dropped. All aircraft returned safely to base.

The war diary of the naval liason officer with the German Army in North Africa simply notes 0330 to 0725 ‘air attack’, but does not mention any damage, while the war diary of the German naval station places the attack to the time 0400 – 0745 am, with no military damage.

On 5 February, two Liberators are reported to have operated from Fayid airfield, 65 miles south of Port Said, to Tripoli for an attack on the harbour, dropping over 7 tons of bombs. One of the two aircraft completed the return flight without landing, covering a distance of 2,300 miles (3,700km) in the process, in what must have been the longest operational attack sortie in history at that time. The bombs were claimed to have burst on Spanish Quay in the harbour, but no results were observed. I cannot find any mention of damage in the German war diaries that are relevant, but that does not tell us much, other than that there would have been no damage to German personnel or equipment. The war diary of the naval station notes one bomb hitting the Cagni mole, but it failed to explode.

A bombload of more than 7 tons to be delivered by 2 planes was a very substantial improvement over the Wellingtons, as can be seen in the report above, which has the Liberator carry 15 500lb. bombs, while the Wellingtons acompanying it managed just four. In other words, it took almost four Wellingtons to deliver the load of one Liberator!

This discrepancy was due to the distance involved and the far superior range of Liberator, which could also choose whether to bomb up further, by using a staging post in the Western Desert in order to reach Tripoli with a heavy load, or to bomb up less (but still carry more than a Wellington that uses a staging post), and to a base-to-base attack. This considerably reduced time and stress for the crews, and eliminated the risk that the staging airfield might not be available due to weather, which was a serious concern in the desert winter.

Performance

At this time, when many US planes delivered to Egypt had serious trouble with unsatisfactory quality control at the factor, parts missing, or parts being faulty, and when this lead to serious delays in putting them into service (Kittyhawk fighters), or even to them being temporarily withdrawn from service (Douglas Boston light bombers), the sterling performance of the Liberator must have been impressive indeed. The Squadron Commander was enthusiastic, stating that this was the ideal bomber for long-range bombing of the enemy.

Links

There are two websites focused on the B-24 in RAF service, but unfortunately neither of them has much on No.108 Squadron or operations of RAF Liberators in the Middle East during CRUSADER. I hope this blog entry closes this gap:

http://www.rquirk.com/

http://www.rafb24.com