During WWII, navigational technology was still at an unsophisticated level, especially when it came to airplanes, and many practical solutions prevailed when it came to organizing large groups of bombers so that none of them would get separated and lost.
So forget about satellite-guided aircraft reaching their goal with total precision while remaining in a perfect flying formation, and behold the “Assembly Ships” of the U.S. Air Force, leading the way into battle, their bright and shiny paintwork flashing across the night skies of Europe.
Their high-contrast color scheme made the planes highly visible from a great distance. Their role was to serve as leading rams, guiding the herd that formed behind them, taking up formations such as the combat box or combat wing, while on their way to wreak havoc to the industrial core of the Third Reich.
The Assembly Ships were usually B24 Liberator bombers that had been rendered unfit for combat in previous missions but were still airworthy. The use of such aircraft first came in February 1944 and was authorized by the Air Force’s 2nd Division. These bombers were stripped of their weaponry and were given their distinctive color scheme, together with lights and an arsenal of pyrotechnics intended for signaling the others once airborne.
Usually, they were painted with patterns of stripes, checkers or polka dots in order to render them easily recognizable to the bombers that followed them.
Apart from not carrying bombs, these birds also had their armor and secondary armament removed, in many cases this even included the tail turret. The plan was for them to stick around only until the battle formation and course were set up, but if an enemy fighter vanguard was to appear in mid-flight, these flyboys were sitting ducks.
But such attacks never happened. There was more danger aboard the aircraft itself, as incidents such as the accidental discharge of flare guns inside rear fuselages occurred multiple times. Because of this, an improvement was applied, fixing the pyrotechnic guns through the fuselage sides.
Since their role demanded them to return to base as soon as the formation was established, only a skeleton crew operated the Assembly Ships, including one or two flare discharge operators.
Sometimes an observer officer would join in to monitor the formation before they were met with a salvo of AA guns and enemy fighters.
As they abandoned the formation before a battle, the Assembly Ships were grimly nicknamed by their fighting counterpart crews as Judas Goats.
Spotted Cow lifts off from RAF Grafton Underwood.
Spotted Ass Ape leads Liberators of the 458th Bombardment Group.
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
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
Spotted Cow lifts off from RAF Grafton Underwood.
B-24D Liberator Green Dragon in the sun at RAF Hethel, shortly after her new paint scheme was applied.
The red and white stripes of Boeing B-17E (USAAC Serial No. 41-9100) Birmingham Blitzkrieg
Pete the Pom Inspector, a B-24D (USAAC Serial No. 42-40370) that once belonged to the 44th Bombardment Group
A close-up of the nose art of Pete the Pom Inspector 2nd.
Green Dragon in flight over England, leading the 389th Bombardment Group
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
A close-up of Pete the Pom Inspector’s nose art combined with its assembly ship polka dots.
You Cawn’t Miss It was quite literally something you could not miss
A rare colour photograph shows off the giant red-outlined orange polka dots of the striking paint scheme of Pete The Pom Inspector.
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
Lead Assembly Ship of 448th Bombardment Group, operated by the 712th Bombardment Squadron at RAF Seething, Norfolk in 1944.
Lucky Gordon, with the 703rd Bombardment Squadron, helped to assemble formations for the 445th Bombardment Group, flying from RAF Tibenham in Norfolk.
. Despite her outrageously obvious paint scheme, Wham Bam was hit by another Liberator who didn’t see her and got too close.
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,
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
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 Shipdam, Norfolk, England
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
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.
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
Minerva’s paint scheme likely came from the USAAC’s experiments with “disruptive” paint schemes
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
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
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,
Markings on the port side indicate 45 combat missions
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 – just like the D-Day stripes
B-24D Barber Bob
Silver Streak, the assembly ship for the Liberator crews of the 466th Bombardment Group, based at RAF Attlebridge.
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–Fauvill
Liberator Spotted Ass Ape leads her group over the English countryside.
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.
An Army photographer in 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”.
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.
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.