Martin B-26 Marauder & Douglas A-26 Invader in Combat over Europe

Martin B-26 Marauder & Douglas A-26 Invader in Combat over Europe

The Martin B-26 Marauder had a long and troubled introduction to combat service. On four successive occasions various investigation boards recommended that production of the design should be cancelled due to its high rate of training accidents.

Indeed, the B-26 was deemed difficult to handle, mainly because of its relatively small wing area. The resulting high wing loading dictated an unusually long take-off run and high landing speed. The Marauder touched down at about 115 mph – which was higher than the landing speed of any contemporary fighter. Its high stalling speed only made matters worse.

b-26-SMI-final


Despite its terrible reputation for being a ‘widow maker’, the Marauder eventually proved its worth. By 1944, the B-26s of the U.S. 9th Air Force had recorded the lowest loss rate of any American aircraft in the ETO performing operational missions, at less than one half of one percent. Over Europe the B-26 was the workhorse of the USAAF medium bomber force. It was sparsely employed in other theatres of operations, notably in the Pacific – not that it was unwanted there. Gen. George Kenney, the commanding general of the U.S. 5th Air Force, wrote as follows to the USAAF Headquarters in Washington, D.C.:

A Marauder of 575th BS / 391st BG moments after bombing a railway bridge over Weser at Bad Öynhausen, 40 miles southwest of Hannover, on 21st February 1945. [NARA]


“I know you have set me up for the B-25s but the B-26 is a much better combat job. While the B-26 may be frowned upon in some circles at home, the boys here prefer it to the B-25 every time. The B-26 has a better bomb load, more range, is faster, more manoeuvrable and stands up much better in a crack-up. We will take all you have. In peacetime the boys would probably prefer the B-25, as it is considerably easier to fly, but when they’re shooting for keeps, the B-26 takes care of itself and comes home” (quoted after: Kenneth T. Brown, Marauder Man, New York 2001).

Design Development
In July 1939 the U.S. Army Air Corps was presented with a project for a new, high-speed medium bomber, designed by the Glenn L. Martin company of Middle River (near Baltimore), Maryland. The USAAC was impressed by the expected performance and ordered the aircraft ‘straight off the drawing board’ (there was no prototype). The first B-26 (s/n 40-1361) took off on its maiden flight on 25th November 1940. It was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-5 Double Wasp radial engines, rated at 1850 hp each, which were the most powerful engines available at the time. The first B-26s were accepted by the USAAC in February 1941. They were issued to 22nd BG (Bombardment Group) stationed at Langley Field, Virginia. In October 1941 the Martin production line shifted over to the B-26A, which introduced additional armour plating and self-sealing fuel tanks, among other features. Reportedly around that time the aircraft was assigned the name ‘Marauder’.

 This B-26B-55 (s/n 42-96165) coded ‘6B-T’, better known as the Big Hairy Bird, initially served with 599th BS / 397th BG. At the war’s end it was transferred to 387th BG, where it carried ‘KX-T’ code letters.  [NARA]


The B-26B appeared in May 1942, and it became the most numerous version of the Marauder. The alarming rate of training accidents made it necessary to increase the wing area of the design in order to lower its wing loading and reduce the takeoff and landing speeds. A new wing was introduced on the B-26B-10 production block, which first appeared in early 1943. The wingspan was increased from 65 to 71 feet and the wing area increased from 602 to 658 square feet. A taller fin and rudder was introduced to maintain stability with the larger wing. The advantages of the reduced wing loading were offset by an increase in the aircraft’s overall weight, since in the meantime the B-26 had been upgunned to carry a total of twelve 0.50-inch machine guns. On the B-26B-20 and later blocks, the hand-held twin tail guns were replaced by a power-operated turret. Additional armour was introduced on the B-26B-30. Early models of the B-26 had two separate bomb bays. After a pair of flexible 0.50-inch machine guns had been installed in the waist window area, the space formerly occupied by the rear bomb bay was used for storing ammunition boxes. Hence, from the B-26B-45 onwards the aft bomb bay was sealed shut. The application of camouflage paint was discontinued during the production run of the B-26B-55 version. The last of 1,883 B-26Bs was delivered in February 1944.

The B-26C was the designation given to the B-26Bs manufactured at a new plant constructed at Omaha, Nebraska (it was essentially identical to the Baltimore-built B-26B). The first B-26C was completed in August 1942. The last B-26C (a B-26C-45-MO) was delivered in April 1944. There was only one XB-26D and a single XB-26E, both used as test-beds for various equipment. The next production version of the Marauder was the B-26F, which featured an increased angle of incidence for the wing (by 3.5 degrees). This latest modification was expected to shorten the takeoff run and to lower the landing speed. However, it also resulted in a reduction of the aircraft’s maximum speed (to 277 mph), and somewhat inferior handling. The first B-26F was manufactured in February 1944; only three hundred were built (of which two thirds were handed over to the RAF). The final production version of the Marauder was the B-26G. It was externally similar to the B-26F, but had universal Army-Navy equipment, including a larger life raft compartment, installed in the top section of the forward fuselage. The Baltimore plant delivered the last B-26G in April 1945. A total of 5,157 B-26 Marauders were built.
The B-26 had a crew of seven (two pilots, a bombardier, a navigator/radio operator, and three gunners). The final version – the B-26G – had a maximum speed of 274 mph (441 kph) at 15,000 feet (4,500 m), a service ceiling of 19,800 ft (6,000 m), and could carry up to 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) of ordnance.

Marauders of 440th BS / 319th BG bomb a German fuel dump at Collecchio in northern Italy.  [NARA]

 

Operational Service
The B-26 first entered combat in early April 1942, when the 22nd BG targeted Japanese facilities at Rabaul, on the island of New Britain. During the subsequent campaigns in the South Pacific most of the available airstrips proved too short for the B-26, hence the predilection for the B-25 Mitchell in that theatre.
As recorded before, Western Europe became the major operational area for the Marauder. The first B-26s slated for the ETO arrived in the U.K. with the 322nd BG, in March 1943. The group was initially subordinated to the U.S. 8th Air Force. The Marauder’s debut over occupied Europe came on 14th May 1943, when the 322nd BG bombed a powerplant at Ijmuiden in the Netherlands. Subsequent raids demonstrated that the B-26 (or any medium bomber, for that matter) was totally unsuited for performing low-level operations over the Continent, where enemy aerial defences were very effective. The B-26 returned to action over Europe in mid-July 1943, this time being deployed in its designed role of level medium bomber. Around that time three more B-26 groups (the 323rd, the 386th and the 387th BGs) arrived in the U.K. Their operations during that period were frequently coordinated with those of the heavy bombers – in such cases the Marauders’ task was to lure the Luftwaffe’s fighters away from the main formations by attacking their bases in northern France and the Low Countries. The B-26s were also active against V-weapon sites and coastal defences.
In October 1943, all four available B-26 groups were transferred to the U.S. 9th Air Force, which was gearing up for its tactical support role during the forthcoming invasion of the Continent. By April 1944 the 9th AF had four more Marauder groups on strength (the 391st, the 344th, the 394th and the 397th BGs), for a total of eight, divided between the 98th and 99th Bomb Wings. During the battle for Normandy and the ensuing drive towards the Reich Marauders excelled at performing interdiction missions, hitting marshalling yards, rail and road bridges, fuel depots, ammunition dumps and the like. In August and September 1944 the B-26 outfits were transferred to advanced landing grounds in France.

Nose-art on B-26C-10 (s/n 41-34895) Twin Engine Queenie of 440th BS / 319th BG on 11th March 1944.  [NARA]


The Marauders of the 9th AF were heavily engaged during the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ in the Ardennes, suffering dearly at the hands of the Luftwaffe (35 aircraft were shot down on a single day, 23rd December 1944). In spring 1945 they again came to blows with the Luftwaffe, this time having to fend off German jet fighters over Bavaria. By that time their operational area was being overlapped by Marauders based in the MTO – after the success of the Mediterranean campaign the MTO units had arrived at the threshold of Germany. After VE-Day three youngest Marauder groups of the 9th AF – the 344th, the 394th and the 397th BGs – remained in Germany for some time as part of the U.S. Occupation Forces. The surplus B-26s were unceremoniously scrapped.
The Marauder’s debut against the European Axis powers had taken place elsewhere – in North Africa. The first B-26 group to cross the Atlantic was the 319th BG, which arrived in the U.K. in September 1942. The following month, with the start of Operation ‘Torch’, it moved to Algeria, where the 17th BG soon joined it. The third and last Marauder group of the U.S. 12th Air Force – the 320th BG – entered combat in April 1943. B-26 units in the Mediterranean were mostly used to carry out interdictory operations, devastating marshalling yards, bridges, viaducts, airfields, harbours, fuel dumps and enemy fortified positions. In November 1944 the needs of the southern sector of the front in Europe led to the formation of the 1st Tactical Air Force, a Franco-American air arm created provisionally in the field. It absorbed the 17th and 320th BGs, whilst the 319th BG remained in Italy and converted to Mitchells. The Free French Air Corps fielded six B-26 units: GB I/22 Maroc, GB II/20 Bretagne, GB I/19 Gascogne, GB II/52 Franche-Comté, GB II/63 Sénégal, and BG I/32 Bourgogne.

The Successor – Douglas A-26 Invader
From the very beginning the A-26 was intended to be the future common successor to the Douglas A-20, Martin B-26, and North American B-25 bombers. In June 1941 the War Department authorized the construction of two prototypes under the designation A-26 (A for Attack). However, it was not until July 1942 that the first flight of the XA-26 (s/n 41-19504) took place. The aircraft was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-27 radials, each rated at 2,000 hp, driving three-bladed propellers. The planned A-26A night fighter never reached production status. Hence, the first Invader off the production line was the A-26B, a solid-nosed attack version, which appeared in September 1943. It had a crew of three (pilot, gun loader/navigator, and a rear gunner). Initially, A-26s were manufactured at the Douglas plant in Long Beach, California. From January 1944, Invaders began to roll off a parallel production line established at Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Invaders of 416th BG bomb marshalling yards at Gerolstein on 25th December 1944.  [NARA]


The first A-26Bs were armed with a 75 mm cannon and two 0.50-inch machine guns in the nose. After much experimentation (which included trials of single and twin 37 mm cannons), the most generally effective forward-firing nose armament was determined to be six 0.50-inch machine guns (though this figure was later revised to eight). Eight more guns of the same calibre could be mounted in underwing pods (two pods per wing, each carrying two guns). For self-defence, the A-26 was equipped with two remote-controlled turrets, each armed with twin 0.50-inch machine guns; the top turret could be traversed forward to augment the aircraft’s forward firepower. As production progressed, numerous improvements were introduced – a clamshell canopy, water-injected engines, increased fuel tank capacity, and provision for carrying underwing HVAR rockets. A total of 1,150 A-26Bs were built at Long Beach, and a further 205 at Tulsa. The A-26C was a light bomber version equipped with a transparent nose for a bombardier (who also doubled as the navigator). A total of 1091 A-26Cs were built, with all but the first five being produced at the Tulsa plant.
The Invader underwent its first combat trials in spring 1944 with the 3rd BG, in the Southwest Pacific. Its debut ETO mission was carried out by one of the squadrons of the 386th BG, in September 1944. The first A-26 outfit of the 9th AF to be declared fully operational was the 416th BG, which had converted from A-20 Havocs in November 1944. By the end of the year the 409th BG had also re-equipped with A-26s. In early 1945 Invaders were issued to two former Marauder units: the 386th and 391st BGs (in February and April, respectively). By the end of the war in Europe, the 397th BG and the 410th BG were in the process of changing over to A-26s. In the MTO, Invaders had been delivered to the 47th BG, a former A-20 Havoc group. The last combat mission of the war in Europe was flown by Invaders of the 391st BG, against a munitions factory at Stod in Czechoslovakia, on 3rd May 1945.

B-26B-45-MA (s/n 42-95752) “Wine, Women & Song” of 442nd BS / 320th BG.  [Painted by Andrzej Sadło]


The A-26 Invader had a maximum speed of 355 mph (570 km/h) at 15,000 feet (4,500 m), a service ceiling of 22,000 ft (6,700 m), and could carry up to 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) of ordnance in its bomb bay, together with another 2,000 lb (910 kg) on underwing racks.

 

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