Flak-Bait's D-Day Missions

Posted on Thu, June 6, 2019
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US Army Air Forces 1st Lt. James “Boss” Farrell was awake early on June 6, 1944. He and his crew, consisting of Flight Officer Thomas Hunt (co-pilot), 1st Lt. Owen J. Redmond (navigator/bombardier), Tech. Sgt. Donald L. Tyler (engineer/gunner), Staff Sgt. Joseph B. Manuel (radioman/gunner), and Sgt. Harold Brown (tail gunner) were scheduled to brief the first mission of the day at the unusually early hour of 1 am. Although their target was not yet known, it was common knowledge among the airmen that this was likely D-Day – the invasion of Nazi-occupied France by Allied forces. Members of the 449th Bomb Squadron (BS), Farrell and his crew would be manning their Martin B-26 Marauder, nicknamed Flak-Bait, in support of the landings in France on a tactical mission that was typical for the medium bomber squadrons of the Ninth Air Force. Ground crews had hurriedly painted the distinctive black and white invasion stripes for easy recognition of Allied aircraft by the ground forces, and now readied Flak-Bait, as well as the B-26s of the 322nd Bomb Group’s (BG) other three squadrons –  the 450th, 451st, and 452nd –  for the pre-dawn take-off.

Martin B-26 Marauders belonging to the 322nd Bomb Group’s four squadrons can be seen dispersed around Andrews Field near Great Saling, Essex, England.

On the morning of the 6th, IX Bomber Command of the Ninth Air Force ordered the 322nd BG to provide three boxes of aircraft, each attacking a separate target in support of the Normandy landings. A box consisted of 18 aircraft divided into three flights of six aircraft. Two of the boxes were assigned to targets in the French city of Ouistreham, which is on the east end of the easternmost invasion beach, codenamed Sword. The Orne River empties into the sea at Ouistreham, and in 1944 the city was a fortified part of the Germans’ Atlantic Wall defenses. First Lt. Farrell and his crew were assigned to the second box, made up of six B-26s from the 449th BS and nine from the 451st BS, whose assigned target was designated Ouistreham/74. Their target consisted of six 155 mm guns in bunkers threatening the British forces set to land at Sword Beach. The site also contained three light anti-aircraft guns that were a danger to Allied planes covering the landings. In addition, three more casemates were under construction nearby. Each B-26 carried two 2,000 lb. bombs to destroy these hardened positions.

An unidentified B-26 Marauder with distinctive “invasion stripes” flies over Sword Beach as landing craft make their way ashore below on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Flak-Bait’s first target, Ouistreham, is just to the left out of the frame.

Take-off was scheduled for 4 am. Originally scheduled for June 5, weather had delayed the invasion for a day but was still a factor on the 6th. Frontal weather in England caused clouds and rain at the 322nd BG base at Andrews Field. Forecasters predicted clouds from 3,000 -11,500 feet over Ouistreham, mostly obscuring the target. For this reason, each of the 322nd’s boxes included a B-26 from the 1st Pathfinder Squadron. A specially-trained crew flying a B-26 equipped with Oboe blind bombing equipment would find the target and the rest of the aircraft would drop their bombs on his command. After forming up, the second box flew south, passing to the east of London and over Worthing on the southern coast. They then headed to a point just off the coast of the western end of the invasion beaches near the Cotentin Peninsula and turned to attack the target from the west. The weather, however, caused seven of the 16 attacking B-26s to abort and return to base. The formation contracted and Flak-Bait moved from the rear of the formation to next to the leader. On the run to the target, the pathfinder B-26’s Oboe blind bombing equipment failed and the formation had to drop their bombs using their less-accurate GEE navigation radar to identify the target. The box dropped their bombs from 12,000 feet at 5:55 am. Expected flak was light and there were no casualties. The bombing results were not photographed due to the heavy cloud cover. The flight home took the B-26s across the Cotentin Peninsula to the west, avoiding the heavy flak areas around Caen and Bayeux, and then north back to base, with Flak-Bait landing at 7:55 am. One B-26 pilot remarked “  . . . it was like a glimpse of heaven over England, seeing the glorious sun break thru heavy overcast and dreary dark clouds that hung over us all across France."

German bunker at Ouistreham damaged by aerial attack on D-Day.

While aircrews rested, ground crews hurriedly readied aircraft for the next mission, scheduled to be briefed at noon. The afternoon mission would be an all-out Group effort consisting of 36 aircraft divided between two boxes attacking a single target. Each box was in turn made up of three flights of six aircraft who were ordered to release their bombs when their flight leader dropped. Twelve aircraft each from the 449th and 450th, and six aircraft each from the 451st and 452nd squadrons would all bomb a coastal battery at Gatteville, France, on the northeast of the Cotentin Peninsula. The battery consisted of six 155 mm guns and six shelters for 100-150 men. Flak-Bait would fly in the #2 position in the second flight of the second box for this mission. A new crew led by 1st Lt. Horace C. Rodgers (pilot) with 2nd Lt. Richard W. Page (co-pilot), 1st Lt. William F. Vaughan (navigator/bombardier), Staff Sgt. James E. Carliew (engineer/gunner), Staff Sgt. William Goetz, Jr. (radioman/gunner), and Sgt. John Palcich (tail gunner) would fly Flak-Bait on this second mission of the day. The Group took off at 12:30 pm and climbed to form up before heading south. The mission had proceeded so quickly that Lt. William Adams of the 451st BS had not been able to gather his full crew. He left with only three crew members in his aircraft, Pickled Dilly, with all doing double duty to complete the mission, and setting a record for least-crewed operational B-26! Despite being shorthanded, Lt. Adams remarked, “ . . . we dropped them right in [sic] the money.”

Gatteville is on the west end of the Normandy beaches overlooking Utah Beach, where the Americans had been advancing steadily since morning. The bomb run was a straight run from east to west with minimal time over the tip of the Cotentin Peninsula. The B-26 crews were warned to watch for enemy fighters and light and heavy flak guns, but as in the morning mission, the former were nowhere to be seen and the latter were ineffective. The weather also cooperated as there was a clear area over the peninsula. The 322nd BG suffered devastating losses when it tried low level bombing a year before, so B-26s mostly bombed at medium altitude. Today, however, the bombers bombed from a relatively low 7,000 feet. This and the weather combined to make this mission the most successful of the day. Bombing at 1:52 pm and spending only a minute over land near the target, the Group returned to base at 3:30 pm. Four aircraft aborted, leaving 32 aircraft, including Flak-Bait, to drop 61 2,000 lb. bombs and a leaflet canister on the target. Intelligence officers rated the results of this mission from good to excellent.

Lt. Farrell (front row, kneeling) and his crew pose on Flak-Bait shortly before the Normandy Invasion.

Flak-Bait’s third and last operation of the day began with a 6:45 pm pre-mission briefing. The target was to be Caen and it was another all-out effort for the 322nd BG, with the 449th again providing 12 aircraft. Caen was an important objective for the Allies in the Normandy area. About nine miles up the Orne River from Ouistreham, the city sat astride that river and the Caen canal, as well as the junctions of several roads and railroads. The British army was tasked with taking the city on the first day of the invasion, but stiff resistance from the Germans necessitated additional air attacks to try to break the defenders.

Flak-Bait was manned by a third crew on this mission. 1st Lt. Vaun N. Liniger (pilot), 2nd Lt. Henry "Hank" Bozarth (co-pilot), 1st Lt. Robert W. Fletcher (navigator/bombardier), Staff Sgt. John O. Mullen (engineer/gunner), Staff Sgt. Robert F. Stickney (radioman/gunner), and Sgt. Robert D. Stoddard (tail gunner) had flown the earlier mission to Ouistreham in 449th B-26 Ginger II but were called on to fly a second mission that day in Flak-Bait. A 7:40 pm take-off brought the two boxes of B-26s over the target at 9:06 pm. Clouds still shrouded the area from 7,000 feet up, but the B-26s were ordered to bomb from 5,000 - 6,000 feet to increase accuracy. They faced another obstacle, however, in that the previous attacks had left a thick layer of smoke and haze above the city. As one of the attacking pilots said, “. . . the whole town was on fire.” This was compounded by a planned westerly bomb run across the city – straight into the setting sun. Unable to clearly see the target, the first box dropped on the wrong spot missing the bridge by about 2.5 miles. The second box, including Flak-Bait in the second flight, dropped on a highway crossroads near a railway south of the target causing some damage to nearby roads. German resistance in Caen continued, and the city was not taken until a month later, after an intense bombing campaign nearly levelled the city. That was still in the future, as Flak-Bait returned with the rest of the 322nd landing at 10:11 pm, having fully played its part on this historic day.

Caen, France, June 7, 1944. The Orne River is center right and the Caen canal is just visible at the top right. Similar conditions obscured the 322nd Bomb Group’s targets the evening before.

Flak-Bait flew more than 100 missions before its three flights on June 6, 1944. It would go on to complete over 200 missions before the war in Europe ended in May 1945. Recognized as the U.S. aircraft with the most combat missions flown, Flak-Bait was crated and donated to the Smithsonian Institution after the war. As one of the National Air and Space Museum’s most historic and best-preserved artifacts, it is now undergoing a groundbreaking treatment program. Soon Flak-Bait will stand as a reminder of all who sacrificed for the liberation of Europe beginning on that June day.

The Museum's Martin B-26B-25-MA Marauder Flak-Bait is currently undergoing preservation in the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar.

 

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