By Dave O'Malley
Somewhere over Southern England, the crew of a fully bombed-up, four-engined Consolidated B-24J Liberator by the name of You Can’t Take it With You beats its way through low clouds on a hot hazy day. They are bound for the railroad marshalling yards outside Munich. The day is steamy; the visibility is low and grey. The wings flex. The pilots repeatedly lift from their seats, to the limits of their seat belts. The noise in the cockpit is thunderous, the heat is almost liquid. It smells of gas and sweat and Bakelite. Fear rises from their guts, dries their mouths, and increases their heart rates. It’s midsummer of 1944; 20 July to be exact.
The pilots lean forward, toward the windscreen, craning in the haze, looking for aircraft of their unit, looking to coalesce into a solid box formation which will enable them to cover each other in the coming battle. Soon, they will be raked by German fighters en route. Many will fall. Many will die. There will be a trail of smoking pyres the length of their route to Germany.
To the left and right now, rising up from behind, they see other Liberators working their way up to join them. Many are worn and tired looking, though most rolled out of the factories in Texas and California just the previous year. Paint is stained with oil and exhaust soot, flaking from every edge that is exposed to the slipstream. On their sides, they carry outrageous and sometimes puerile artwork and names like Arise My Love and Come With Me, Squat ’n Drop it, S.O.L., Time’s a Wastin’ and Big Chief Little Beaver. They are drawn up closer, closer, like moths to a flame. Below them, between the layers of heavy cloud, they glimpse the green farmlands of the English countryside and many more Liberators, sliding across their track, moving together toward their destiny.
In front now, they see the one Liberator they have been looking for. Actually they can’t miss her. She slides and bucks on invisible currents, lit by the late afternoon sun which flashes on her white wings. She climbs, beckoning to them to join her. She fires flares from her flanks, flashes lights on her side—everything to make herself visible to the other aircraft of her Group—the 458th. She maintains a steady climb, a steady rate of knots, and a steady predictable course. She is a beacon to all her mates, calling out for them to join her. Once You Can’t Take it With You and the others are with her, she turns toward the English Channel, dragging her Group behind her like an deathly cappa magna.
As the pilot brings You Can’t Take it With You close to the lead ship, he and his co-pilot smile and even make a few tasteless jokes. The aircraft they are following, the one they have been looking for, is not like the others in the group. She wears a paint scheme any other Liberator would think humiliating—white from chin turret to trailing edge, covered in a pox of bright red and blue polka dots about 18 inches in diameter. Aft of the trailing wing edge, she is army green, but the pox extends down her flanks in garish red and yellow dots. And she has a face... perhaps it was meant to be that of a shark, but it grins like a dim-witted dachshund. It seems to pant in the heat of the turbulent air. The spotted markings make her look like a massive flying bag of Wonderbread. The only marking she shares with the other aircraft of the group is the red paint and white diagonal slash of her barn door-sized tails.
She is also in terrible shape. Dirt streams over her wings from the exhaust stacks. Her sides are dented and scraped. She does not carry her old name on her sides anymore. Her guns have been removed; she carries a light load of fuel for she is not going on to the target with her charges. Once, she was Dixie Bell II, a combat veteran. But she was deemed “troublesome”, perhaps beset by gremlins. The pilots who are following her now call her Spotted Ass Ape, Spotted Ape or even Wonderbread.
While the descriptions of You Can’t Take It With You’s last mission are written as a word painting to set the scene, certain things are true—she was lost on a bombing mission to Munich’s marshalling yards on 20 July 1944. Photo via Mark Neilans
Spotted Ass Ape leads Liberators of the 458th Bombardment Group. Photo: USAAF
Spotted Ass Ape, in all her spotted and clown-like glory, is an “assembly ship”, an aircraft whose job it is to assemble and lead other aircraft of her Group on the proper track for the target. These aircraft are usually war weary and veteran airframes no longer suited to the rigours of combat flying. Most are stripped of their guns, for when their job is done and the aircraft have been assembled and pointed in the right direction, they turn for home. They are also known ironically as Judas Goat aircraft—a term based on the goatherd’s lead goat, trained to lead his flock to the slaughter.
Forming up a massive bomber stream of hundreds of heavy bombed-up aircraft in a small geographical area is a recipe for disaster. The weather is often very poor, the crews fresh from training stateside. Hundreds of aircraft in numerous groups rise from dozens of airfields in several counties. Ships join with the wrong groups, aircraft collide in broad daylight. Confusion reigns.
In 1943, someone came up with the idea of selecting a war weary bomber from each group and providing it with the means of clear identification—additional navigation lights, pyrotechnics, and a wild unmistakable group-specific paint scheme. Signal lighting systems vary from group to group, but generally consist of white flashing navigation lamps on both sides of the fuselage in the form of the identification letter of the group. All armament and armour has been removed. These ships will not go all the way to the target, so they carry minimal fuel and a skeleton crew of two pilots, navigator, radio operator and one or two flare discharge men. A few groups require an observer to fly in the tail position to monitor the formation. They are the first from each group to take off and they orbit the assembly point, flashing their lights and firing off coded flares until all their charges can find them and form up on them. Then they turn towards the target and join the other groups on the mass raid. Usually, at this point, the assembly ships will then return to their home airfield, but Spotted Ass Ape is known to have joined its fellow crews all the way to the target in Germany on at least one occasion.
The paint schemes of these aircraft are far from tactical or warrior-like, but their war weary history and their pivotal role in assembling their groups make them some of the unsung heroes of the Mighty Eighth. I liken them to rodeo clowns, those veteran rodeo cowboys who dress up in laughable clown costumes and use their hard won knowledge of the rodeo ring to help cowboys survive a raging bull who has just thrown them or who will risk their lives to save that of a cowboy whose boot is caught in the stirrup of an angry bucking bronc. The rodeo clown may look ridiculous, but there is a reason, even a tradition. And they have the complete respect and love of the men they work with, for they have paid the price too.
Somewhere past the English Coast, the clouds begin to thin. The air still churns. The fear intensifies. The pilots of You Can’t Take it With You can see on both sides an armada of Liberators, level after level, stretching away behind them. Hundreds of Liberators rise and fall like fish in a sluggish stream. They are now well formed up and on their way. Soon it is time for the Judas Goat to leave the formation. She flashes her lights and begins a long climbing turn that will take her home. The other crews look longingly at her as she carves a course for home and for safety. You Can’t Take it With You thunders towards her destiny, surrounded by her group. She would never return.
Here, for your edification, is an assembly of photographs and histories of many of the Judas Ghost assembly aircraft of the United States Army Air Force’s 8th Air Force.
Lead Assembly Ship First Sergeant (Formerly Thar She Blows Again and Bucket of Bolts)
The first Lead Assembly Ship of the 458th Bombardment Group was a clapped out B-24D Liberator (USAAC Serial No. 42-40127) by the name of First Sergeant. Here we see First Sergeant on the apron at the group’s base at RAF Horsham St Faith. Originally, this old warhorse was nicknamed Thar She Blows Again and was a veteran of operations from Algeria against the Romanian oil refineries at Ploesti, operated by the 93rd Bombardment Group, 329th Bombardment Squadron. On this, perhaps the most famous raid using Liberators, Thar She Blows Again was damaged by flak. Her crew, led by pilot Lieutenant Charles Merrill, returned safely. She was re-crewed and renamed as Bucket of Bolts when she was first transferred to the 458th in England. Later, as the Group’s first Lead Assembly Ship, she would get another name—First Sergeant, and a garish new paint scheme of red, blue and yellow polka dots. First Sergeant’s job would be to take off before the other combat aircraft, and then lead them into a combat formation which would provide maximum coverage for each ship. She was crewed in rotation, normally with pilots or aircrew who had suffered combat fatigue or were in need of flight time. On 27 May 1944, First Sergeant was the victim of a misfired flare. During the loading of the aircraft’s Very signal pistol, the gun discharged and lit other stored flares, resulting in the old warhorse burning to the ground. The crew was not hurt. Retouched photo via ar15.com
B-24D Bucket of Bolts (formerly Thar She Blows Again) undergoes repair, removal of her guns and painting to become First Sergeant at RAF Horsham St Faith. Photo via b24bestweb.com
First Sergeant sits on a dispersal stand at RAF Horsham St Faith. It appears that this photograph was likely taken within minutes of the previous colour-tinted photo. Only the front half of First Sergeant was white, with the polka dots changing from red and blue on white at the front to red and yellow on army green aft. Photo via ww2db.com
An Army photographer aboard First Sergeant snaps a photo of a B-24J Liberator of the 458th Bombardment Group climbing out of England and crossing the coast of the English Channel. One look at the dirt and soot on the wing of First Sergeant, and you know she has done her part in the war against the Nazis. Note the waist gunner in the side of Liberator “V”. Photo: USAAC via 458bg.com
Lead Assembly Ship Spotted Ass Ape (Formerly Dixie Belle II)
One of the best known of the assembly ships, a B-24H (USAAC Serial No. 41-28697) named Spotted Ass Ape, leads a formation of B-24J Liberators from the 458th Bombardment Group. Spotted Ass Ape was actually the replacement ship for the Group’s former assembly ship First Sergeant. We can also see that her defensive guns have been removed, as she would return after assembly, still well beyond the reach of enemy fighters. The J-model “Libs” in this photograph are all AZON aircraft—bombers equipped with a remotely controlled 1,000 pound dumb bomb. The AZON bomb was a general purpose munition with a special controllable tailfin assembly that allowed some degree of directional control. The AZON was the grandfather of the modern “smart” munition. The term “spotted ass ape” was a colloquialism of the time, referring to a fictitious animal used as a descriptor of comparison to relate the speed or velocity of another object—as in “That Liberator was faster than a spotted ass ape.” Photo: USAAC
One of Spotted Ass Ape’s pilots, Major John A. Hensler, a squadron commander in the Group, walks past the nose of the wildly painted aircraft. Prior to it being selected as the group’s replacement assembly ship, it carried a different name—Dixie Bell II. As Dixie Bell II, she flew eight combat missions with the 754th Bombardment Squadron, three of them to Berlin. Her early missions were noted as “troublesome”, possibly due to mechanical issues or gremlins. As an assembly ship, Spotted Ass Ape flew more than 60 missions, assembling her group’s aircraft. On 6 December 1944, she even flew a combat mission with her group to Bielefeld, Germany. On some of the assembly missions she also doubled as the group weather ship. Photo: USAAC via 458bg.com
A profile of Spotted Ass Ape (sometimes called simply Spotted Ape) shows the formation lights in the letter “I” on her flanks and the red circle rimmed with lights—used for formation assembly when the weather or lighting conditions were poor. Profile by M. David Howley via Scale Aircraft Modelling Magazine and Wings Palette
Spotted Ass Ape on the ground in England, and looking pretty freshly painted with guns removed. Photo: Imperial War Museum
One of the other nicknames for B-24H Liberator 41-28697 was Wonderbread, no doubt because of the similarity of her paint scheme to the packaging of a loaf of Wonderbread. Photo via 458bg.com
With her freshly painted polka dots and her new name, Spotted Ass Ape assembled her group’s aircraft on 12 July 1944 for a raid on the big Luftwaffe fighter base at Évreux–Fauville—one of her first assembly missions. By mid-July, the airfield was essentially put out of commission by the Mighty Eighth. Photo via 458bg.com
Liberator Spotted Ass Ape leads her group over the English countryside. Spotted Ass Ape had a large red circle on her fuselage with the letter “I” in black, edged in white. Here we can also see that her tail guns and dorsal turret guns are removed. Photo: George Reynolds via 458bg.com
On 9 March 1945, after more than 60 missions wrangling her Group for raids over France and Germany, Spotted Ass Ape packed it in when her landing gear collapsed after a rough landing upon return to their home base at RAF Horsham St Faith. She skidded off the runway and was damaged beyond repair. One look at this photograph and we can see how war weary she really was after 60+ missions with dirty and tired paint. Photo via ww2db.com
A photo taken at a different time during the salvage as her starboard wing is high in this photograph, but low in the previous shot. At the time of the gear collapse, Spotted Ass Ape was in the command of Lieutenant William B. Cheney. His post-incident report, as reported in the 458th Group website is worth a read: “I returned to the field in the assembly ship on 9th March 1945 and entered a normal traffic pattern at 1400 feet, airspeed 150. Turned on approach and started descent. Touched down near end of runway and ballooned slightly. Last airspeed that I heard engineer call out was 125. When the plane settled to the ground there was about 5 degrees crab to the left. The plane was edging near the side of the R/W. I tried to kick out crab with rudder without success. I applied right brake and the brake pedal snapped off. My right foot slipped up and over the pedal. I yelled to Lt. Gilbert to get on the brake because mine was broken. At first he did not understand what was wrong. By the time he applied brakes we were well off the R/W headed about 10 degrees from R/W 05. Marks in the dirt show that right brake was applied about 100 feet before the left brake. Marks showed that both wheels were locked and sliding on damp grass. The track of the nose wheel was in the center of the [main] wheels when the plane left R/W, but as the plane moved on the nose wheel track came closer to left wheel track. The course of the plane was in a straight line from the R/W to an old dispersal area 150 feet from where the airplane came to rest. When the plane’s left wheel hit the pavement of the dispersal area the course of the plane was altered due to the increased friction on the left side. The plane turned sideways and both main gear snapped off.” Photo: Mike Bailey via 458bg.com
A nice colour photo of the partially salvaged fuselage of Spotted Ass Ape. Photo via Brenden Wood at b24bestweb.com
Lead Assembly Ship Silver Streak
A nice colour shot (possibly tinted in Photoshop) of a worn B-24D (USAAC Serial No. 41-24109) by the name of Silver Streak, the assembly ship for the Liberator crews of the 466th Bombardment Group, based at RAF Attlebridge. The 466th Bombardment Group was first formed at Alamogordo, New Mexico in September 1943 and flew its first European combat mission in March of 1944, just six months later. The Group was nicknamed “The Flying Deck”, with each of its four constituent squadrons called after suits in a deck of playing cards—Clubs (784 BS), Diamonds (785 BS), Hearts (786 BS) and Spades (787 BS). Silver Streak was also known as simply “109” after the last three digits of her serial number. Photo via aviacaoemfloripa.blogspot.ca
A close-up of the side of Silver Streak demonstrates that though these paint schemes may look crisp from a distance and in die-cast model recreations, they were indeed crudely applied—with a brush and no masking! It is also interesting to note that the letters WW, appearing after Silver Streak’s serial number mean that she is “War Weary”, and not meant for combat. The letters WW appear on other assembly ships like Rage in Heaven. On 18 August 1944, Silver Streak led a flight of B-24 Liberators which collected American big band leader Glenn Miller and his orchestra from RAF Twinwood Farm and flew them to RAF Steeple Morden near Royston, Cambridgeshire. There, Glenn gave a concert for the members of the 8th Air Force based nearby. Afterwards the band loaded their instruments, music stands, etc. on board the B-24s which flew back to their home base at RAF Attlebridge. Many of Miller’s hits would be the names of 8th Air Force bombers such as In the Mood, Moonlight Serenade, and Chattanooga Choo Choo. Photo via Warbirdinformationexchange.org
Despite the mass of the B-24 Liberator, pilots did not benefit from large windows. Markings on the port side indicate 45 combat missions completed, whereas the previous photograph shows not much more than half that number. The combat missions were with her first unit, the 93rd Bombardment Group, including the Ploesti raid known as Operation Tidalwave. The mission markings on the starboard side are not as numerous, and possibly these are for her assembly missions. Photo via Warbirdinformationexchange.org
Lead Assembly Ship Ball of Fire (AKA Barber Bob)
Consolidated B-24D Liberator wears a red, blue and white striped paint scheme that likely resulted in its second nickname—Barber Bob. Barber Bob, more commonly referred to by its combat name, Ball of Fire, was the assembly ship for the 93rd Bombardment Group, 328th Bombardment Squadron, based at RAF Hardwick in Norfolk County. The 328th BS initially was deployed to England, but then, 2 months later, was sent to Libya to support attacks on Italy and the oil fields of Ploesti, Romania. She returned to England to resume long-range strategic bombing raids on Occupied Europe and Nazi Germany, attacking enemy military and industrial targets as part of the United States’ air offensive. The squadron was one of the most highly decorated units in the Eighth Air Force, continuing offensive attacks until the German capitulation in May 1945. Photo via ww2db.com
B-24D Barber Bob (USAAC Serial No. 41-23667) was originally called Ball of Fire while in service with the 328th in North Africa. She participated in the famous raids on the Romanian oil refinery facilities at Ploesti. Ball of Fire, AKA Barber Bob, had alternating red, white and pale blue stripes. Photo via aviacaoemfloripa.blogspot.ca
A digital skin for a flight-sim game does a fair rendition of Ball of Fire’s dramatic full-body paint scheme. The sim only supports a J-Model Liberator, so the nose turret is incorrect, but the work shows us how she would have looked. JaRink, the skin maker, has done an amazing job of creating digital versions of many of the B-24 and B-17 assembly ships. Click here to see his superb work in capturing these historic aircraft. Illustration via JaRink at forums.ubi.com
Lead Assembly Ship Li'l Cookie
The 489th Bomb Group's lead assembly ship was Li'l Cookie, a B-24H-1-FO Liberator painted overall in 12-inch diameter yellow polka dots over her army green. She is seen here getting a tire change at her home base at RAF Halesworth in Suffolk, England. Previous to her work as an assembly aircraft, her combat career was with the 44th Bomb Group. Photo via WorldWarPhotos.info
Li'l Cookie carried an array of signaling lights for low light conditions, including five lights in the form of a cross in the faired-over tail where the tail gunner once sat. These lights would likely have flashed on and off for better visibility and give new meaning to the 489th's moto—“Out of Darkness, the Light of Truth”! Photo via WorldWarPhotos.info
Lead Assembly Ship Minerva
Perhaps the most artistic of all the assembly ships was the B-24D of 392nd Bombardment Group, 579th Bombardment Squadron, known as Minerva (USAAC Serial No. 41-23689). A veteran of the Ploesti oil refinery raids, she originally served with the 44th Bombardment Group. Minerva’s assembly ship paint scheme may not have been as garish as others, but surrealist artist René Magritte, whose work is known for challenging observers’ preconditioned perceptions of reality, would have been proud of Minerva’s optical illusion. Photo via ww2db.com
Minerva is seen parked, likely at RAF Wending, the home field of the 579th Bombardment Squadron. Someone at the 392nd Bombardment Group was definitely more creative than your average guy. Minerva certainly had the best executed scheme of all the assembly ships. Photo via ww2db.com
Most assembly ships divested themselves of their defensive weapons, but Minerva (41-23689) was one of the early examples and retained machine guns in its upper and tail turrets. Minerva was badly damaged in 1944, but was salvaged by the 93rd Bombardment Group in October of 1944. At the end of the war Minerva, a long-standing veteran, was part of one final experiment to test the viability of carrying troops back home in bombers. She successfully jammed an astonishing 52 soldiers on board and flew them... but the idea was dropped. Perhaps this was foreshadowing of today’s low cost airlines. Photo via forum.armyairforces.com
A die-cast model of assembly ship Minerva by Hong Kong–based Hobbymaster depicts accurately the unique paint scheme and shows how the white topside would be a strong visual for assembly... if you were above. Photo: Hobbymaster
The idea for Minerva’s paint scheme likely came from the USAAC’s experiments with “disruptive” paint schemes such as this experimental scheme featuring three additional B-24s on the fuselage and even extra engines painted on the nacelles. This photo originally appeared in Popular Mechanics in 1945.
Lead Assembly Ship The Little Gramper
The Little Gramper, a B-24D, was the first Lead Assembly Ship of 491st Bombardment Group. She wore one of the brightest and most visible schemes of all the assembly ships. Photo via ww2db.com
A fabulously-lit painting of The Little Gramper, leading aircraft of the 491st “Ringmasters” over England, adorns the box cover of Hasegawa’s fine plastic model kit of the ship. The Little Gramper is also available as a die-cast model from the Franklin Mint as well as a paper cut-out model. Image via ww2db.com
The Little Gramper had a stellar combat career with 49 combat missions with the 8th, 9th and the 12th Air Forces. She was transferred to the 491st and flew her first mission as their assembly ship on 12 June 1944. She flew in her new yellow paint only for a few months however, as she was truly worn out. She failed inspection, was replaced as Lead Assembly Ship in September and finally struck off charge and scrapped. Photo via ww2db.com
Lead Assembly Ship Rage in Heaven
Rage in Heaven (USAAC Serial No. 44-40165), a later model B-24J Liberator, was Lead Assembly Ship for 491st Bombardment Group, operated by the 852nd Bombardment Squadron, and replacing The Little Gramper. It crashed, exploded and burned on 5 January 1945 after taking off in a blinding snowstorm to lead the assembly of the group. A second B-24 crashed minutes later because of the icy conditions and the mission was cancelled. Note the letters “WW” for “War Weary” which follow her serial number on the inside of her starboard tail. Photo via ww2db.com
Rage in Heaven was a combat veteran aircraft with the 852nd Bombardment Squadron of the 491st Bombardment Group, but she is best known for her bright green and yellow stripes as an assembly aircraft. In her original scheme above, it appears she had dark green stripes over bare metal, but in this later photograph she sports her better known yellow and green stripes (and more stripes too!) Photo via ww2db.com
The unique paint schemes of assembly ships have long been of great interest to markings aficionados, collectors and model makers. Here, an MPC plastic kit pays homage to Rage in Heaven.
Lead Assembly Ship Tubarao
A B-24J Liberator Tubarao (USAAC Serial No. 44-40101) was the third Lead Assembly Ship of the 491st Bombardment Group but with the 855th Bombardment Squadron and based at RAF North Pickenham. Her name is the Portuguese word for “Shark”, derived no doubt from her original nose art. Many assembly ships would get a new name (Silver Flash, Striped Ape, Barber Bob, etc.) derived from their new paint schemes, but it seems the two 491 BG assembly ships, Rage in Heaven and Tubarao, retained their original combat names. Tubarao also retained her nose turret guns. Photo via ww2db.com
A terrific close-up of Tubarao on the grass at North Pickenham, Norfolk with the follow-me jeep parked next to her for extra crazy markings.
Click here for a great computer animation of Tubarao taxiing, taking off and flying from RAF Pickenham. It gives you a good sense of the visibility of these assembly ships. Video by gamingallsorts on YouTube
Lead Assembly Ship Lemon Drop
An airman poses with Consolidated B-24D Liberator Lemon Drop (USAAC Serial No. 41-23699), an assembly ship of 44th Bombardment Group, 68th Squadron at RAF Shipdham, Norfolk, England. Photo: D.B. Miller via intscalemodeller.com
Lemon Drop was one of nine aircraft flown to England by the 68th BS. She was a veteran of Operation Tidalwave, the August 1943 low-level mission to bomb the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania. After returning to England, she was declared “War Weary” and converted for use as the Group’s formation assembly ship until scrapped in June 1945. Photo via ww2db.com
Websites for model builders are often one of the best resources for finding esoteric and contemporary photos of Second World War aircraft. The site of International Scale Modeller had this photograph of Lemon Drop posted by D. B. Miller. It shows Lemon Drop sitting in uncut grass, likely at RAF Shipdham. In this view we can see clearly the haphazard application of paint for the black stripes. While one of the simplest of paint schemes, not much care was taken in its application... something about a war going on! In most of the photos of these Liberators sitting on the ground, we note that their bomb doors are opened. This was to prevent a buildup of explosive gas vapour. Photo: D.B. Miller via intscalemodeller.com
Lemon Drop’s paint scheme was simple but effective, as any pilot of a British Commonwealth Air Training Plan target tug will tell you. Target tugs in Canada, whether Lysanders or Fairey Battles, wore a similar scheme which was dubbed the “Oxydol” scheme for its resemblance to the packaging of that brand of laundry soap. Illustration: © M. David Howley, Source: SAM – Scale Aircraft Modelling Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 6, August 1999; Published by Guideline Publications and printed by Regal Litho Ltd. ISSN 0956-1420, via Wings Palette
Lead Assembly Ship You Cawn’t Miss It (Formerly Hellsadroppin’ II)
Another simple yet effective scheme was the yellow and black checkerboard colours of B-24D Liberator You Cawn’t Miss It (USAAC Serial No. 41-23809) Lead Assembly Ship of 448th Bombardment Group, operated by the 712th Bombardment Squadron at RAF Seething, Norfolk in 1944. Like most wildly coloured assembly ships, You Cawn’t Miss It started her combat career with another unit and under another name—in this case she was called Hellsadroppin’ II). Photo via ww2db.com
The new nickname for Hellsadroppin’ II clearly stemmed from her assembly ship paint scheme as well as some squadron joke relating the getting directions from an Englishman. You Cawn’t Miss It was quite literally something you could not miss. Photo via ww2aircraft.net
Another great shot of You Cawn't Miss It
A colour profile by the prolific illustrator M. David Howley for an issue of Scale Aircraft Modelling Magazine back in 1999. The magazine has excellent detailed information on esoteric paint schemes for modellers. Source: SAM – Scale Aircraft Modelling Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 6, August 1999; Published by Guideline Publications and printed by Regal Litho Ltd. ISSN 0956-1420, via Wings Palette
Lead Assembly Ship Lucky Gordon
By the standards set by assembly ships like Minerva and Spotted Ass Ape, the big-stripe scheme of B-24D Liberator Lucky Gordon (USAAC Serial no. 41-24215) was rather tame. Lucky Gordon, with the 703rd Bombardment Squadron, helped to assemble formations for the 445th Bombardment Group, flying from RAF Tibenham in Norfolk. The large letter “F” on her fuselage, the Group’s call letter, contained bright navigation lights for dim lighting conditions. When Lucky Gordon’s 703rd first began training on the B-24 at Utah’s Wendover Army Air Field, their commander was none other than actor Jimmy Stewart. Lucky Gordon, sometimes called just Lucky, was originally an aircraft of the 93rd Bombardment Group. Finnish model maker Yrjo Knuuttila has done a magnificent job of depicting Lucky Gordon in 1/48th scale—click here to view. Photo via ww2db.com
Although the gamer who built this digital skin of Lucky Gordon was forced to use a later J-model Lib for the underlying structure and not a D-model like the real Lucky Gordon, this image gives one a sense of the colours of the 445 BG assembly ship. JaRink, the skin maker, has done an amazing job of creating digital versions of many of the B-24 and B-17 assembly ships. Click here to see his superb work in capturing these historic aircraft. Illustration via JaRink at forums.ubi.com
Lead Assembly Ship Wham Bam
Black and white photographs can never really do justice to the impact of assembly ship paint schemes. Here, a B-24D Liberator by the name of Wham Bam sits on the grass in England, likely at RAF Old Buckenham, the home base of the 453rd Bombardment Group. Photo: Imperial War Museum
Wham Bam (USAAC Serial No. 41-23738) was originally assigned to the 93rd BG /330th BS. But early in 1944, she was transferred to 453rd Bombardment Group to become an assembly ship for her new unit. Worn out, she was scrapped on 11 May 1945. Photo via ww2db.com
Even if you headed for home before the shooting started, that didn’t mean the job of an assembly ship was not dangerous. Despite her outrageously obvious paint scheme, Wham Bam was hit by another Liberator who didn’t see her and got too close. Photo via worldwarphotos.info
A colour profile of Wham Bam shows that, unlike You Cawn’t Miss It (above), she was not yellow and black, but rather was yellow over the original base dark green camouflage. Photographs also show that she had two different tail markings during her career—one with a diagonal white band and then later a white circle, displaying the Group’s code letter “J”. Illustration: © M. David Howley, Source: SAM – Scale Aircraft Modelling Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 6, August 1999; Published by Guideline Publications and printed by Regal Litho Ltd. ISSN 0956-1420, via Wings Palette
A topside view of Wham Bam shows that pains were taken by units to make the aircraft visible from all angles. Photo via ww2db.com
Lead Assembly Ship Pete The Pom Inspector (I and II)
One of the more creative names for a Liberator of the 8th Air Force was Pete the Pom Inspector, a B-24D (USAAC Serial No. 42-40370) that once belonged to the 44th Bombardment Group and flew under the name Heaven Can Wait. Heaven Can Wait was supposed to take part in the 1 August 1943 Ploesti mission with the 44th, flying with the 506th Bombardment Squadron. She aborted before getting to the target and made an emergency landing on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. It was abandoned by the 44th at Deversoir, Egypt in October. The Liberator was then transferred to the 389th Bombardment Group (566th Bombardment Squadron) in November 1943, and flew regular combat operations through to 26 March 1944 and then was transferred to the 467th Bombardment Group and became the first assembly aircraft of the Group—known after that as Pete The Pom Inspector. The aircraft was damaged at RAF Rackheath following a landing rollout accident when the nose wheel retracted. It was subsequently scrapped at Rackheath. In this photo we can see the “W” after the serial number on her tail, denoting that she is “War Weary”. Photo via warbirdinformationexchange.org
A close-up of Pete the Pom Inspector’s nose art combined with its assembly ship polka dots. The term Pom, as used by the Allies in the Second World War, is an abbreviation of the full term “Passed for Overseas Movement”, which was stamped on the aeroplane’s final inspection documents. The character of a pilot with a telescope is part of the unit crest of the 791st Bombardment Squadron of the Group. Photo via warbirdinformationexchange.org
A rare colour photograph shows off the giant red-outlined orange polka dots of the striking paint scheme of Pete The Pom Inspector. Photo via b24bestweb.com
A later version of Pete The Pom Inspector’s scheme included massive letter “P” on her tails. The 467th Bombardment Group set unsurpassed records for bombing skill on 15 April 1945, holding the record for bombing accuracy in the Eighth Air Force. They destroyed a German battery at Pointe de Grave, on the west coast of France and scored a 100 per cent strike. The group commander, Colonel Albert J. Shower, was the only group commander to stay with the same group from beginning to the end of the war. Photo via warbirdinformationexchange.org
After the demise of Pete The Pom Inspector at Rackheath, the group acquired Shoo Shoo Baby, another clapped out Liberator, a B-24H (USAAC Serial No. 41-29393), and renamed her Pete the Pom Inspector 2nd and gave her an identical paint scheme and nose art. After minor battle damage during combat, the nose of Shoo Shoo Baby was modified to resemble a “D” model and it became the Group’s second assembly ship. Photo via warbirdinformationexchange.org
A close-up of the nose art of Pete the Pom Inspector 2nd. Photo via warbirdinformationexchange.org
Lead Assembly Ships Green Dragon and Green Dragon II
B-24D Liberator Green Dragon (USAAC Serial No. 41-23683) was the first Lead Assembly Ship of the 389th Bombardment Group. She was lost when she was heavily damaged in a taxiing accident at RAF Manston on 25 July 1944. Her paint scheme was decidedly simpler and easier to apply than that of her successor, Green Dragon II. Illustration: © M. David Howley, Source: SAM – Scale Aircraft Modelling Magazine, Vol. 21, No. 6, August 1999; Published by Guideline Publications and printed by Regal Litho Ltd. ISSN 0956-1420, via Wings Palette
B-24D Liberator Green Dragon in the sun at RAF Hethel, shortly after her new paint scheme was applied. Like a number of the 8th Air Force’s assembly ships, she started her career with the 93rd Bombardment Group and was involved in the Ploesti Raids. Photo: USAAF
Green Dragon in flight over England, leading the 389th Bombardment Group. Photo via Pinterest.com
B-24J Liberator Green Dragon II (USAAC Serial No. 42-99972) was the second Lead Assembly Ship of the 389th Bombardment Group, 567th Bombardment Squadron, based at RAF Hethel, Norfolk. Her dizzying paint scheme was made of green and yellow zigzags. Later, she would acquire a mouth and eyes similar to Spotted Ass Ape. Green Dragon II would survive the war and make it back to the USA where she would be later scrapped. Photo via ww2db.com
Lead Assembly Ship Striped Ape
B-24 Liberator Striped Ape (USAAC Serial No. 42-63981) first arrived in England with the 448th Bombardment Group; she was transferred to the 93rd for 7 missions, and then returned. She was first used as an assembly ship in June or July 1944 and was scrapped as war weary at RAF Seething in February 1945. Photo via ww2db.com
B-24H Liberator Striped Ape II (USAAC Serial No. 41-29489), Lead Assembly Ship for the 448th Bombardment Group, 712th Bombardment Squadron, was based at RAF Seething, Norfolk. Her paint scheme was wide burgundy stripes with black trim over bare metal fuselage. We see her in the snow in the winter of 1944–45, shortly after her predecessor Striped Ape was scrapped. Photo via ww2db.com
Lead Assembly Ships with B-17 Flying Fortress Units
The red and white stripes of Boeing B-17E (USAAC Serial No. 41-9100) Birmingham Blitzkrieg were horizontal, and somehow gave her the look of someone wearing pyjamas. She was the Lead Assembly Ship of the 379th Bombardment Group, flying with the 525th Bombardment Squadron from that group. Photo: USAAF
A great shot of the tail of Birmingham Blitzkrieg showing her turrets and tail guns removed. This aircraft was flown by the 379th Bombardment Group as an assembly ship and did double duty as a target tug. It was originally used by the 97th Bombardment Group during some of the first Eighth Air Force bombing missions in 1942. Photo: USAAF
A nicely Photoshopped rendering of the previous photo shows us her true colours. Birmingham Blitzkrieg flew in the 97th Bombardment Group’s first operational combat mission over Europe. The lead aircraft on that mission was a B-17 called Butcher Shop, flown by Major Paul W. Tibbets, who later became the pilot of the B-29 Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Photo: USAAF, colourization unknown
I found this exquisitely illustrated profile of Birmingham Blitzkrieg on the Swiss modellers’ site called ScaleMates. As far as colour profiles go, it doesn’t get much better than this. Illustration via ScaleMates.com
B-17F Flying Fortress aircraft Spotted Cow, was the Lead Assembly Ship of 384th Bombardment Group, flying with the 547th Bombardment Squadron, and based at RAF Grafton Underwood, in Northamptonshire. This particular ship flew 61 combat missions as Patches II before being retired. Though Patches may have been a good name for her with these polka dots, she soon earned two new names—Spotted Cow and Speckled Hen. Photo via mission4today.com
Spotted Cow lifts off from RAF Grafton Underwood. Photo: USAAF