The US Eighth Airforce was not the only contingent in the bombing campaign against the Axis powers in Europe. Starting in June 1942, the US Ninth Airforce deployed bombers to North Africa. Their initial mission included assisting the desert campaign of the British 8th Army against Erwin Rommel and the Afrika Korps, attacking Axis shipping in the Mediterranean, and bombing Axis occupied ports in North Africa. As the war progressed, their mission expanded to include attacking targets in Italy and the Balkans.
One famous aircraft from the Ninth is the Lady Be Good. On 4 April 1943, she left Soluch Field in Libya for a bombing raid on Naples (the plane and crew’s first mission) and never returned. She successfully bombed Italy during the raid and was assumed to have crashed at sea on the return flight. What made the Lady Be Good famous is that her wreckage was discovered in 1958, 440 miles Southeast of Soluch Field. Apparently, the automatic direction finder on the B-24 was not working properly and she missed the airfield in the darkness.
The case of the Lady Be Good highlights some of the major challenges facing bomber crews during this time – those of navigation, visibility, and coordination. The bombing raid on Naples was beset with problems from the beginning as high winds and low visibility kept the Lady Be Good from joining the main bombing formation. Bad visibility forced them to bomb the secondary target which separated them from the main bomber group.
Being separated from the main formation caused special difficulties in navigation because a group of very highly trained navigators were assigned to the lead planes and everyone else “followed the leader.” The lead aircraft were also equipped with ground radar which could “see” through the cloud cover. This enabled the lead navigators to get a very good outline of the ground below, particularly bodies of water, large cities, and other big features which assisted them in knowing their position.
The safety of a bomber flying alone was in the hands of its navigator. If, like Lady Be Good, the plane was flying at night, the navigator had to be skilled at celestial navigation. This is a hard skill to master. Think of being in a blacked out bomber which would be vibrating like hell from the four droning engines, trying to see through the night clouds to find a star. Then you had to identify which star it was, get a star sight with your sextant, and then, without a calculator, make a series of complex mathematical computations. It was very difficult to do and with one false step one could easily end up off course by 400 miles.
Here are a collection of photos from the Lady Be Good and her wreckage:
[Images courtesy of the National Museum of the US Air Force.]