Carpetbagger Aviation Museum

Harrington, Northamptonshire

The 801st / 492nd Bomb Group

The Carpetbaggers

by Ron Clarke

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Lt Col Clifford Heflin and the aircrews of 22nd Anti-Submarine Squadron had just arrived at the Devonshire Airfield at Dunkeswell. It was August 1943 and they, together with 4th AS Squadron were to work up to operational standard in England after months of training at Langley Field, Hampton, Virginia in the United States, and occasional patrols over the Western Atlantic. They were looking forward to tackling the much vaunted German U Boats which were wreaking havoc on Allied shipping in the Atlantic. After another period of training in ocean search and low level attacks, they were sent on operational patrols over the Bay of Biscay, where several crews, including those of Major Robert Fish and Major Rodman St Clair, were lucky to survive attacks by German fighters.

Heflin, Matt & Gans at Langley Field

After a few weeks all crews were summoned to a meeting in the Briefing Room. Everyone expected that they were to be given a pep talk by the Station Commanding Officer, instead they were told that a top level decision had been made to hand over all US maritime operations to Navy fliers. Their indubitable skills, they were told, were urgently needed in East Anglia, where their B-24s would join the day bombardment groups.

The next day, October 24th 1943, Heflin and his second in command, Major Bob Fish, together with three more 22 Squadron officers were detailed to attend a mysterious meeting at the US base at Bovingdon, Hertfordshire. After what seemed like over zealous security checks, they were shown into a room where a number of high ranking officers were already seated. They were told that the aircraft and crews of 22 Squadron had been chosen to form a special unit to fly agents and supplies to Resistance groups in Occupied Europe. The project was to be known as Operation Carpetbagger and they would be working in close liaison with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) organisation which, up until then, had been solely responsible for such operations,

The Combined Chiefs of Staff had decided that with the invasion of Europe getting closer, the range and frequency of covert supply sorties would have to be greatly increased. This was, in fact, not the only reason for the project, the American Military Intelligence Department, known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was keen to get involved in the European sector.

William Donovan

William Wild Bill Donovan, the department head, could see the political implications, however, his organisation was not as experienced as the British, who had undertaken the training of many OSS operatives. Lt Gen Jacob Devers, Commanding General US Army, European Theatre of Operations, suggested that one or more squadrons of B-24s should begin supply missions into Europe, and although there was to be close co-operation with the British organisation, the actual operations and target planning would be basically the responsibility of the OSS.

 

Among the officers present at the meeting were Colonels Williamson and Kirk of the 8th Bomber Command, Major Brooks of the OSS and Group Captain Edward Fielden of the RAF Special Unit (Tempsford). Col Heflin and his men were given a description of their future duties, which would be a radical departure from anything that they had envisaged. The project was top secret for obvious reasons, any security leak could jeopardise the operation.

Edward Fielden

In a few days a group of 22 Squadron officers and enlisted men were ordered to attend Tempsford. They were to observe and receive training in covert supply operations. Each pilot was to fly two missions as co-pilot with RAF crews on their nocturnal flights. On November 3rd, Captain James A. Estes, who was co-pilot in a Halifax DT 726, became the first American to be missing in action when the aircraft crashed into a mountain at Marcols-Les-Eaux (Ardeche), about 4 miles SE of Entraygues, after striking high ground fog on Operation JOHN 13 to the TEMPLE DZ, at Livron-sur-Drome, South of Valence, France. All of the crew except the rear gunner died in the crash

In November the 22nd and 4th Anti-Submarine Squadrons were deactivated and two new squadrons were formed. Col. Heflin assumed command of the 406th and Major Fish took over the 36th Squadron. These units were ordered to move to the then quite large and desolate airfield of Alconbury, quite close to Tempsford. The 482nd Bombardment (Pathfinder) Group were already in residence when the B-24s moved in. Heflin and Fish handed over control of the two squadrons on December 4th, when they were transferred to 482nd Headquarters to finalise plans for the Carpetbagger special project. Captains St Clair and Boone assumed command of the squadrons, and took charge of the working up of the air and ground echelons in preparation for the first supply missions.

Robert L. Boone Rodman A. St Clair

On January 2nd 1944, Colonel Heflin and Captain Edward Tresemer, the Group Navigation Officer, were told to report to Tempsford for "Temporary duty of approximately 30 days", with them went chosen crews of the 406th and 36th Squadrons. The first US Carpetbagger missions were to be flown from Tempsford, owing to lack of facilities at Alconbury. The British and American units developed a great deal of comradeship and mutual respect.

 

Edward C. Tresemer Jr and Clifford J. Heflin

 

On January 4th, two days after arriving at Tempsford, Lt Stapel flew co-pilot to Col Heflin on the first Carpetbagger mission from Tempsford: during the "moon period" of January, six missions were flown by 36th Squadron and nine by 406th Squadron.

Whilst the Americans were acquiring know-how from British airmen, RAF experts gave advice on the modifications necessary to the B-24 Liberators to be used. The B-24 was ideal for supply operations, the capacious fuselage and long range made it the envy of the RAF fliers. Nevertheless, many modifications were needed for its new task.

The ball turret was removed, and the resulting hole was lined with a smooth metal, providing the exit for agents and supplies not in containers. Plywood flooring was fitted, and a handrail fixed to the right side of the hole. The hole was 44 inches in diameter and was covered when not in use by a circular plywood door, divided and hinged in the middle. Two strong points for parachute static lines were fitted flush with the door aft of the hole, each could accommodate eight straps. In addition one static line fixing was fixed in the rear of each bomb bay. The bomb shackles were replaced by British pattern release units, this was necessary as the cylindrical parachute containers were designed for RAF type bomb shackles.

Exit of agents and supplies through the hole was controlled by the "dispatcher" - this crew member was usually an ex waist or ball gunner. He was provided with a moving roller clip for his safety belt, enabling him to move safely the full length of the fuselage without removing his belt.

 

One important lesson taught by the SOE staff was the need to memorise the route to the drop zone.

RAF pilots learned to literally map read their way by moonlight, memorising landmarks - the most successful pilot sometimes spent hours studying the route. However the B-24s were fitted with the best possible flying and navigational instruments. The most important flying instrument was a radio altimeter giving an accurate height readout on the low level flights. A Mark V drift sight was fitted in the navigators compartment which was moved into the forward section near to the nose.

The route to the drop zone was achieved by a team effort, the bombardier sat in the glazed nose on a swivel seat reading off landmarks to the navigator sitting at his table behind the blackout curtains. The pilot was provided with large blister windows giving a good downward view of the ground.

First radio navigation aid to be used on a mission was the Gee set, this recorded directional signals which were marked on a special chart - accurate within a quarter of a mile over England, but prone to jamming over enemy territory. The Rebecca / Eureka directional system consisted of a ground beacon (Eureka) set up on the drop zone, this was triggered by a signal from Rebecca set in the aircraft. Eureka then automatically sent out signals which were picked up by a calibrated receiver, this indicated the aircraft's position in relation to the drop zone.

B-24D 42-63775 at Harrington

 

When the aircraft reached a position a few miles from the drop zone, the 'S' Phone was used. This two way radio was invented by the SOE radio section and proved to be remarkably efficient - it gave a signal in the form of an upward cone and was virtually immune to enemy interception. The aircraft used by the Carpetbaggers at first were B-24Ds which had a glazed nose section, later B-24H and J models were used, these were fitted with glazed nose sections in place of the Emerson front gun turrets, this modification, together with other changes, being carried out at Burtonwood. In mid February the two squadrons were reassigned to the Eighth Air Force Composite Command, independent of the 482nd Group, and moved to Watton, Norfolk. This move proved to be disastrous, the heavy B-24s were incompatible with the grass runways and muddy hardstandings. Col. Heflin was forced to move back to Alconbury - however the base was becoming overcrowded and Tempsford could not be used indefinitely; an airfield would have to be found in the area which was fairly remote and capable of coping with the planned increase in their operations.

 

 

An ideal airfield in the depths of rural Northamptonshire, Harrington, had been built by US Army Engineers for a B17 Fortress Bomb Group, but this unit had been diverted to North Africa to support Operation Torch. The nearby RAF 84 Operational Training Unit at Desborough took over the field as a satellite for training crews of Bomber Command.

Harrington proved ideal for Carpetbagger operations, it was near enough to Tempsford for liaison, and not too far from the main supply bases at Cheddington and Holme. The advanced echelons of 36 and 406 Squadrons moved into Harrington on March 25th 1944. When the RAF moved out of Harrington the Author, Ron Clarke, witnessed one of the most hair raising displays of airmanship (or reckless flying). The instructors in Wellingtons and Masters were given a chance to let themselves go: it was more of an air attack than a flying display, finishing with hundreds of toilet rolls being jettisoned over the CO's quarters.

Col Heflin and his staff moved into the operations block and, with the help of his second in command Major Bob Fish, an operational schedule was worked out which was to remain largely unaltered through the short but very active life of the Carpetbaggers.

 

Robert W. Fish and Clifford J. Heflin

 

Secure communications were established with OSS HQ in London, and the Group OSS Liaison Officer, S2 Lt. Sullivan, set up his office in the operations block - covert operations were about to commence from Station 179, Harrington. The two Squadrons were to form a new Bomb Group to be known as the 801st Provisional Bomb Group (H).

Robert D Sullivan standing in front of the Operations Room map

 

Twenty four of the fat B-24s arrived and were soon squatting on the hardstandings round the perimeter. They were by no means all converted aircraft, some were still in green camouflage, but most had been painted gloss black and modified for their task.

B-24H 42-52749 'Scrappy' on dispersal at Harrington

 

On May 1st the Station was officially handed over to Lt Col Heflin by Sqdn Ldr E.D. King, RAF. The Americans were not at first very impressed with their new home: it seemed to rain continually and clogging mud made the dispersed Nissen hutted living sites into quagmires. However they soon discovered that the surrounding towns and villages were anything but hostile, local school children found the Yanks very generous - especially if you had a sister!

The first trucks loaded with parachute containers from Holme arrived, and were directed to the various hardstandings, where armourers supervised loading into the Liberators detailed for the first missions. Later in the month, two more Squadrons were attatched to the 801st Group, these were the 788th from Rackenheath, and the 850th from Eye.

Loading containers into the bomb bay of the B-24

 

On the night of May 11th, Major Jack M. Dickerson, CO of the 850th BS, flew as second pilot on a mission to France, and the rest of the newcomers soon became familiar with their new role.

Jack Dickerson

Each mission took place in a 36 hour cycle, which began at 17.00 hours, when the OSS in London gave Lt. Sullivan a list of approved targets for the following night. At 0900 hours the CO selected the night's targets according to priority of requests from the Resistance groups, reception record of the group, and availability of crews and aircraft. The lists were then given to OSS, who informed the reception teams on times and recognition codes.

Squadron Commanders and crew navigators were briefed at 1800 hours on all details, and weather to be expected en route to the drop zones. The S2 officer had meanwhile given the supply depot at Holme details of the arms or equipment to be loaded into containers. These were then loaded into sealed containers and driven to Harrington in trucks of the British Army Ordnance Corps.

Personnel to be dropped into enemy territory usually arrived in large American cars with curtained windows. The strictest security was observed during this period. They were taken to "dressing huts", where they were searched for any tell tale objects. They were then helped into large padded jump suits and rubber helmets. During this time no one except the OSS dressers were allowed to talk to them.

 

Agents being dressed in jump suits

 

Just before take off the agents, or Joes as they were known, were driven to the Liberator, which was waiting with engines ticking over. The aircraft made its slow progress to the runway and, on receiving a green from the tower, took off into the night sky.

The radio operator was soon busy with his signals, and once the enemy coast was reached the bombardier and navigator started their double act. The pilot usually flew at a height of 1,500 - 2,000 feet, giving known airfields and flak areas a wide berth; night fighters were always a hazard, but by flying at low altitudes, this threat was minimised. Missions mostly took place during moonlit periods and alert small calibre anti-aircraft batteries proved the biggest threat. The two turret gunners kept a constant lookout for predators, their guns were fitted with large anti flash discs to lessen the loss of night vision if they were fired.

As they neared the drop zone (DZ) the reception party heard the throb of engines and established contact by 'S' Phone. The recognition torches were placed in the prearranged pattern and the light codes were exchanged. The aircraft was most vulnerable over the DZ and the pilot wasted no time lining up the twinkling markers. He selected half flaps and made the run in at 135 mph - not much above stalling speed. He was guided by the bombardier, who released the containers over the DZ. Speed was all important on the ground - the man sized containers were quickly taken away into cover.

Meanwhile the aircraft circled low and lined up on the lights again. The agents had been prepared for their drop and awaited the green light. The first to go sat on the rim of the open Joe Hole and slipped away, his place being quickly taken by the next who followed him.

Agent goes through the Joe Hole

The rear gunners job was to note the accuracy of the drop, and once the last parachute snapped open, the pilot headed for England. When they were 30 miles from the DZ, several bundles of leaflets were dropped, the rear gunner saw the fluttering cloud of paper as the Liberator flew into the night. The mission could have lasted up to eight hours, and in that time the seat of a Martin gun turret could get very uncomfortable. When the engines were finally cut and the ears sang with relief, the crew just sat and waited for the crew wagon to take them off to debriefing by the S2 section under Lt Sullivan.

Robert Sullivan debriefs a crew

 

As the invasion plans neared D-Day, the Group were instructed to transport small commando units into France. The first was the Jedburgh consisting of three men, usually a French, American and Briton. The group was a self contained unit equipped with a radio and trained in covert warfare.

Operational group members in C-47 Dakota

 

The second type of team would be altogether a stronger force of 20 to 30 men, this was the Operational Group. These units were to be flown from Harrington in troop carrying C-47 Dakotas, which would land in occupied territory where they would reinforce direct action by the Resistance groups. The Dakotas bought back shot down aircrew and wounded Resistance people for consultation in London.

The Jedburghs began to arrive at Harrington in April 1944, they were dropped into Europe together with their new equipment in containers. Sometimes during bad weather, Jedburghs would be given practice drops over the airfield.

After the first Allied landings, operations worked up to a crescendo: some nights 50 B-24s would be on operations. The base strength rode to over 3,000 men and a large tented site was erected on the Harrington to Kelmarsh road. This notorious establishment became known as Tent City and was not renowned for comfort.

Tent City off the Harrington - Kelmarsh Road

Three Dakotas arrived a few days after D-Day, and Col Heflin flew the first of many Operational Groups into France. During this intense activity many Carpetbagger aircraft and crews were lost, some to enemy flak and fighters, others as a result of striking trees and high ground.

Although most of the Carpetbagger sorties took place from Harrington, the Group also carried out supply and agent dropping missions from other airfields. In April 1944 a detachment was dispatched to Leuchars in Scotland from where a totally different undercover operation took place.

This was Operation Sonnie, which was to fly back to the UK several thousand Norwegian aircrew trainees and American internees from Sweden. These trips were very hazardous and were usually undertaken when cloud cover was available. The B-24s used were ostensibly civilian aircraft with civilian markings, the crew wearing airline clothes. Sonnie B-24s flew to Bromma airport, Stockholm, and were serviced by American engineers living as civilians in Stockholm.

These personnel were under constant surveillance in Stockholm by German agents, who did their best to discover the route taken by the American aircraft. It was found that although some were daytime flights, they suffered no more interception than normal night supply missions.

The Group operated a supply and agent dropping operation from Leuchars - this was code named Operation Ball . Six B-24s flew these missions from July 1944. These trips were more hazardous than the European operations, several squadrons of Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters were always on hand to hammer the unwary. There were many more abortive sorties over the mountains and fjords of Norway. Out of 65 attempted drops only 37 were successful.

492nd Group Headquarters Officers in front of the Operations Room map

On August 13th the Carpetbaggers at Harrington were redesignated to the 492nd Bomb Group (H) and the four squadrons became the 856th, 857th, 858th and 859th Bomb Squadrons under Col. Heflin.

The Commanding Officer, Col Heflin, returned to America on August 26th 1944 handing over command to Lt Col Robert Fish. The change in command coincided with the Group being called on to prevent General Patton's armoured units grinding to a standstill. Patton had pushed round to the south and east thrusting towards Germany, but the speed of his progress had outstripped his fuel supply.

The situation was critical, and it was agreed that Carpetbagger Liberators should be used to fly gasoline directly to forward airfields. Harrington personnel worked non stop to convert the B-24s into flying fuel bowsers. Two 400 gallon tanks were fitted into the bomb bays and the auxiliary wing tank feed pipes were sealed off enabling them to be used (having first painted the filler caps white). Six P-51 Mustang belly tanks, each holding 100 gallons were installed in the fuselage, with three more fixed over the Joe Hole, all the tanks being vented outside.

Belly tanks that were installed in the B-24 fuselage

 

On September 21st, 25 aircraft, each carrying 2,000 gallons of fuel staggered off the main runway at Harrington and headed for an airfield just re-captured from the enemy. Each trip lasted five hours and in the following days 60 aircraft were airlifting fuel. When the operation was ended on September 30th, 822,791 gallons of 80 octane gasoline had been flown out to three separate airfields in France and Belgium.

As the Allied armies advanced towards Germany, Carpetbagger supply missions switched to Denmark, Belgium and beyond. In late September 8th Air Force High Command decided that as supply missions would inevitably gradually run down, the 492nd Group would prepare three squadrons for the night bombing role, leaving only one squadron, the 856th, to carry out supply missions.

 

492nd BG Squadron Commanders: Boone (858th), Dickerson (857th), McManus (859th), St Clair (856th)

 

The transition proved difficult, all oxygen equipment had been removed, bombsights and other essential bombing equipment had to be fitted and, for some reason, US bomb release shackles were in very short supply. The ground staff needed guidance in bombardment procedures and maintenance, but despite the many problems, the B-24s were gradually made ready for night bombing operations.

In late December convoys of trucks carrying 500 lb bombs were guided to the bomb dump area, where armourers stacked the bombs in neat rows ready for the first operation. Each squadron was to operate 18 B-24Hs and 24 combat crews. Waist guns were refitted, but the sub zero night temperatures made their use impossible; after the first mission the side hatches were closed.

The plan was to approach the target at 8,000 ft and clear of flak areas, when the target was reached they would climb to 10 - 12,000 ft and use large emergency oxygen bottles. Whatever other problems occurred, the expert Carpetbagger navigators could guarantee that no target would escape, even though it was planned to operate only in the dark periods of the moon.

On the night of Christmas Eve at 2300 hours, the first B-24s took off from Harrington to bomb coastal batteries at Coubrie Point in France. Due to various malfunctions, only 11 aircraft bombed the target, dropping 83 of the 500lb RDX filled bombs.

On December 17th, Col Hudson H. Upham had assumed command of the Group, and in the new year night bombing and supply dropping operations continued. One squadron, the 859th, was sent on detachment to Brindisi airbase in Italy, from where supply dropping operations commenced to patriot Resistance fighters in the Balkans, reinforcing the RAF operations in this area.

As the German army was pushed back, agents and Resistance groups found difficulty in communicating with London owing to enemy jamming and the longer distance involved. To overcome this difficulty, British De Havilland Mosquitoes were fitted with wire recording machines. A number of these aircraft were regularly operated by 492nd Group crews from Harrington to record radio messages from agents in Germany and Austria. These missions, code named Red Stocking, were flown at over 30,000 ft and proved to be the only reliable contact with agents in this area.

A26 Invader used for agent dropping

Another aircraft used in this period was the A-26B, Invader or Super Boston. Five specially modified A-26s were based at Harrington, these aircraft were fitted out to drop agents in Germany. On March 19th 1945 the first A-26 Invader sortie was flown to the Dummer Lake in Germany to deliver an agent. The aircraft did not return, it was later found on a moor near Bramsche in Germany, with the crew including the 492nd Group Navigator, Major Edward Tresemer, all killed. Five of the first nine A-26 missions were successfully completed.

The 492nd Group at Harrington continued supply dropping, Red Stocking, bombing and A-26 operations until May 7th 1945 when Germany finally surrendered.

In their short period of operation the Carpetbaggers had carried out their varied duties with remarkable success: 208 aircrew were lost in action, 556 agents were dropped and 4,511 tons of supplies delivered. In all over 3,000 missions were carried out including 21 night bombing sorties.

On July 7th 1945 the air echelon of the 492nd Bomb Group left Harrington for Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA, whilst the ground echelon crossed the Atlantic in the liner Queen Elizabeth. The ground echelon never made it to their intended destination at Sioux Falls as they were at sea when the first Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and when they landed they were dispersed back to their home for 30 days R&R. The Group was deactivated on October 17th 1945.

Forty two years later, on September 19th 1987, 50 ex Carpetbaggers returned to Harrington to dedicate a memorial to the aircrew lost in World War Two. It is placed in a position overlooking the airfield, where the B-24 carried out one of its most effective contributions to the Allied victory. The experience and techniques perfected during Carpetbagger operations were used when the US Central Intelligence Agency, (CIA) was developed into a worldwide organisation. For this reason many records of the 801st / 492nd Bomb Group remained restricted until the 1980s.

 

Memorial on the site of an aircraft dispersal at Harrington Airfield

 

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