Margaret Bourke-White’s Photos of US Bombers

This collection of images come from a Life Magazine retrospective about Margaret Bourke-White’s photography and includes the following note:

“To photograph Bomber Command, Life sent photographer Margaret Bourke-White to the headquarters of Brigadier general Ira. C. Eaker, commander in chief of Bomber Command, and to one of the secret airfields from which the Flying Fortresses operate… Miss Bourke-White’s pictures arrived in the US just when the Bomber Command was making its biggest sorties. Flying Fortresses roared out over the Channel and attacked German industries in the Lille region. Another group of six Fortresses a few days before dropped 600lb. bombs directly on the German airfield at St. Omer, France. On the way home they were attached by 35 crack Nazi pursuits. When the brief fight was over, at least 13 Germans were plunging earthward and the six Fortresses were sailing on. Another time a Fortress came back to England with one motor shot away, one disabled, a third missing badly, and with 12 cannon holes and 2,000 machine-gun holes in the fuselage. Still other squadrons of Fortresses scored better than 70 percent hits in their first two weeks of bombing operations over Europe. “Fantastic accuracy,” said the British.

Bomber Command was ready. It was confident that although still small, it would grow and grow, and as it grew, the intensity and terribleness of the attack on Germany would grow with it, until he skies of Europe would be blacked and its earth furrowed with American bombs.”

Bourke-White, one of Life magazine’s original four staff photographers, was America’s first accredited woman photographer during WWII, and the first authorized to fly on a combat mission. For decades she covered conflicts, civil wars, humanitarian crises, and natural disasters. She documented segregation in the American South, was the last person to interview Gandhi before he was assassinated, was one of the first photographers to document the liberation of Nazi death camps and survived a torpedo attack while traveling by ship to North Africa in 1943 and was briefly married to the American writer Erskine Caldwell (God’s Little Acre, Tobacco Road). Widely recognized as one of the greatest photojournalists of the 20th century, she died in 1971. She was 67 years old.

I encourage you to explore more of her work.

Photographer Margaret Bourke-White with the US Bomber Command in England, 1942.

World War II in Color: American Bombers and Their Crews, 1942

Working on a bomber’s ball-turret during World War II, England, 1942.

American bomber crew member with stuffed good-luck charm during World War II, England, 1942.

Working on an American bomber, England, 1942.

American bomber crew member during World War II, England, 1942.

American bomber and crew during World War II, England, 1942.

American bomber and crew during World War II, England, 1942.

American bomber during World War II, England, 1942.

American bomber and crew during World War II, England, 1942.

American bomber and crew during World War II, England, 1942.

American bomber and crew during World War II, England, 1942.

American bomber and crew during World War II, England, 1942.

Loading bombs on an American bomber during World War II, England, 1942.

American bomber during World War II, England, 1942.

[Source and Images: Life Magazine.]

Re-Thinking the Battle of the Atlantic – Part 2

Part 1Part 2

At the Symbol Conference in Casablanca between January 14–24, 1943, with both Churchill and Roosevelt present, it was decided that the absolute first priority of the Allies was defeating the German U-Boats in the Battle of the Atlantic. But if it was the first priority, not many commanders seemed to pay any attention since they didn’t change allocations of men and material and ships and planes very quickly. All of this took time, I know. Immense forces were involved and just because a conference had been held and FDR and Churchill had agreed on something, it took the Allied military secretariat known as COSSAC, (Combined Chiefs of Staff), with its headquarters in Washington, to translate strategic decisions into specific orders for specific commands.

It wasn’t that the Allies lacked the equipment. It was prying it away from the different services and different commands. Sir Max Horton, Commander in Chief, Western Approaches, the largest operational command in the Royal Navy which was responsible for escorting North Atlantic convoys, repeatedly asked the Admiralty and the War Cabinet for some of the larger and newer destroyers assigned to the Home Fleet. Occasionally the fleet loaned him a few but not often. This could have changed with one order. Home Fleet had a lot of destroyers. And they spent a fair amount of time in port since Home Fleet was the last line of defense for Great Britain and it didn’t put to sea unless there was a specific reason, such as the breakout of the Bismarck. But Home Fleet didn’t like to let them go. This resulted in North Atlantic escorts often spending less than a day or two in port before being turned around and sent back out no matter if all their equipment was working or not. And usually it was not because of the storm damage caused to the ships in the Winter North Atlantic.

But it wasn’t just the Royal Navy which held back equipment from the U-Boat war. The US Navy had a large number of the specially built Very Long Range (VLR) four engine Liberator patrol bombers because of the extremely long distances planes had to fly in the Pacific Theater where the US Navy was primarily engaged. Yet statistics at that time showed that very few merchant ships were sunk in convoys with continuous air cover. But prying some of these VLR Liberators away from Ernie King finally took a direct order from Roosevelt at the Quadrant Conference in Quebec between August 17–24, 1943. Once these aircraft were made available, the “air gap” in the Atlantic was closed and German U-Boats no longer had any respite.

It is also worth noting that neither RAF Bomber Command under Arthur Harris or the USAAF Bomber under Hap Arnold, showed any interest in providing long range aircraft to either Western Approaches Command (although technically air units would actually be under 15 Group RAF Coastal Command) or US Navy 10th Fleet which was an administrative command coordinating all US anti-submarine efforts outside the Pacific theater.

There is no reason this did not happen excepting sheer inter-service rivalry and intense rivalry between commands in the same services. The very sad result of this squabbling was the needless deaths of thousands of men.

Lady Be Good

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:

B-24D Lady Be Good

The ill-fated crew of the Lady Be Good, from the left: 1Lt. W.J. Hatton, pilot; 2Lt. R.F. Toner, copilot; 2Lt. D.P. Hays, navigator; 2Lt. J.S. Woravka, bombardier; TSgt. H.J. Ripslinger, engineer; TSgt. R.E. LaMotte, radio operator; SSgt. G.E. Shelly, gunner; SSgt. V.L. Moore, gunner; and SSgt. S.E. Adams, gunner.

The Lady Be Good as it appeared when discovered from the air.

Aircraft parts were strewn by the Consolidated B-24D Lady Be Good as it skidded to a halt amid the otherwise emptiness of the desert.

Nose view of Consolidated B-24D Lady Be Good crash site.

Tail turret view at Consolidated B-24D Lady Be Good crash site.

Top turret and center fuselage wreckage of the Consolidated B-24D Lady Be Good

Interior view of the Consolidated B-24D Lady Be Good at the waist gunner positions.

Tail view of the crashed Consolidated B-24D Lady Be Good. Note the C-47 recovery aircraft parked in the background.

Side view of the crashed Consolidated B-24D Lady Be Good.

[Images courtesy of the National Museum of the US Air Force.]

Free Fall

Last week when I should have been working on the proposal for my second novel I surfed the net for a bit. OK, maybe longer than ‘a bit’. Perhaps ‘a spell’ or more accurately, perhaps several hours. Nonetheless, while aimlessly wandering around cyberspace I came upon one of those strange yet fascinating web sites which draw one’s attention.

This is the site: The Free Fall Research Page

It is a large collection of documented stories (no pun intended) of people who have fallen from a great height and survived. I wasn’t sure about this so I picked this one out and Googled and I’ll be damned if it didn’t turn out to be true.

Near the villages of Pradlo and Nepomuk, Czech Republic: In February of 1944, Ray Noury was a radio operator flying as a right waist gunner on a B-24 mission to Regensberg, Germany when the aircraft was hit by flak after the bomb run. Slowed by the damage, the B-24 was attacked by German fighters. The right outside engine was burning as Noury attempted to help the ball turret gunner out of his jammed turret. The aircraft exploded before Noury had a chance to fully attach his parachute. Noury fell an estimated 15,000 feet with a tattered and ineffective parachute, hit a ski slope, and slid about half a mile. A wedding party saw the incident and searched for survivors, but did not discover Noury until the following day. Everyone else on the crew died. After a short hospital stay Noury was sent to a prisoner of war camp.

The only thing Ray could hold onto while he was free-falling was his crucifix and held on he did. He thinks it was a miracle from the Almighty that saved his life. I would have to agree. I mean, he fell from fifteen-thousand feet and survived!

His hometown paper, The Pawtuckett Times, has an article about Ray and I’ve included a clip below from a Catholic TV show which recently interviewed him.