“No fighters, no flak, a milk run.”
On Monday February 19,1945, toward the end of World War 2, an American B-24J Heavy-Duty bomber, a veteran of 26 bombing missions over Nazi occupied Europe, left its airbase outside the village of North Pickenham in Norfolk to fly to Burtonwood, the United States Army Air Force base (USAAF) in Cheshire known as BAD1.
It was a, “Milk Run,” Air Force slang for a safe flight with no flak and no fighters to contend with, a “piece of cake.”
The small, Norfolk village of North Pickenham sits on flat fertile farmland, under wide skies, accessed by narrow, country lanes whose hedgerows are, in summer, hosts to an abundance of wild flowers.
Anglo-Saxon invaders founded the two Pickenhams, north and south and they enjoyed possession of their bucolic charms until the Normans arrived in 1066.
By 1944 the area had become preoccupied with the threat other invaders from the mainland of Europe and like much of Norfolk found themselves hosting a military airbase.
North Pickenham was originally a Royal Air Force Base but opened for American long-range heavy bombers in 1944 when it became known as USAAF Station 143, known by its trans-Atlantic occupants, (who had grown to like the flat, warm English beer in the Blue Lion pub) as, “North Pick.”
The young American crews, many of them farm boys from the Midwest barely past their 21st birthdays, were equally well liked by the locals, except on the odd occasion when they’d been known to drink the pub dry.
The 491st Heavy Bombardment Group, a wing of the 8th USAAF, arrived at North Pick in August 1944, flying in on waves of what was to become one of World War 2’s iconic aeroplanes, the B-24 Heavy Bomber known as, “ The Liberator.”
The B-24’s were one of the USAAF’s WW2 workhorse bombers.
By the time the last of these aeroplanes rolled off the Consolidated Aircraft Company production line in San Diego, America on May 31, 1945, 18,479 of the aircraft had been built and they had operated more missions and dropped more bombs than any other single Allied World War II design.
When an American dollar was worth about £0.63p, each plane would have cost about £ 187,000, at today’s prices, perhaps £ 3 million each.
The 491st had completed their training in the wide clear skies of El Paso, Texas before leaving Morrison field in Florida under sealed orders, singly and at night. An hour after takeoff each commander opened his secret orders and only then were they sure that they were headed to England and the war in Europe.
Their long flight across the Atlantic, with stops, would take them via Trinidad, Natal and Dakar, over the Moroccan Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh, then on through the night, under combat conditions for the first time, to a welcome breakfast at Lands’ End in Cornwall.
The 491st would be based at North Pickenham until the end of the war in May 1945.
It would be overstating the case to say that the B 24 won the war for the Allies but it’s probably fair to speculate that they might not have won the war without it.
The aeroplane in this story was built in San Diego.
Her official name was:
B 24 J (“Liberator”), Serial Number: 42-50668, Coded 6 XM.
For the sake of brevity, we shall call her 6XM.
The Liberator was a long-range heavy bomber designed to carry a bomb load of 8000 pounds and a crew of 10. By the standards of its day, it was an extremely large machine weighing 38,000 pounds (over 17 metric tonnes) empty, with a wingspan of 110 feet.
It was 66 feet long and nearly 18 feet in height; its power provided by four 1200 hp Pratt and Whitney, turbocharged piston engines that, at 25,000 feet enabled it to sustain a cruising speed of 215 mph.
On the ground it looked huge, with its four mighty engines and their six-foot, three-bladed propellers. Its slab sided construction earning it its nickname, “The Flying Boxcar.”
When it moved along the ground it could be seen to “waddle” on its tricycle undercarriage, its light aluminium body panels so thin, they could be cut with a knife.
It might have looked pedestrian on the ground but it was a complicated and advanced machine, very demanding to fly, requiring prolonged flight training.
In spite of which, in 1943, eight hundred and fifty trainee aircrew members died in two hundred and ninety B-24 training accidents in the United States, a state of affairs that left many of the young recruits scared of the aeroplanes.
Probably to combat this, a USAAF training film of the period declares sonorously in a voice over worthy of John Wayne.
“It is a large aircraft but that doesn’t mean that it’s difficult or tricky to fly.”
It says a lot about the young recruit’s bravery or perhaps their naïvety that they were all volunteers.
After 1942, the USAAF didn’t force anyone to fly.
It was the recruits’ own choice.
Many pilots would agree with that but one at least one couldn’t remember anyone who would actually have chosen to fly in a Liberator, which was considered to be an unforgiving aeroplane that required almost superhuman strength to operate.
It was a sluggish, cumbersome plane with marginal flight stability that had a reputation for taking its own good time to do whatever it wanted to do.
Its heavy controls, operated by a wheel as big as that on a large truck, had a notorious stiffness and needed physical stamina allied to skill and concentration to operate. Muscle power was the order of the day, one pilot claiming that he won more arm wrestling contests the more he flew.
More worrying was the plane’s tendency to break apart on ditching or belly landing, with its consequent fire risk, especially when fully loaded with high-octane fuel, bombs and ammunition for its machine guns.
No space was wasted inside the narrow aeroplane to allow for any crew comfort and all of them were cramped into the smallest possible positions, the bomb racks also limited movement within the fuselage, giving its oily, smelly interior a claustrophobic feel.
There was no internal aisle to walk down, only an 8 inch wide metal catwalk, difficult to negotiate at the best of times but particularly in a badly lit, pitching and yawing, plane wearing flying boots.
Moving about could be a perilous business because the flimsy bomb doors that lay below the catwalk had only a 100-pound weight carrying capacity, making it easily possible to break through them if you lost your footing on the narrow catwalk
One crew member miraculously survived just such an incident at high altitude.
Saved only by one of his large, flying booted feet lodging in an obstacle inside the plane, resulting in him hanging upside down in space. He was eventually hauled out of the freezing slipstream and back into the aeroplane by a quick thinking and brave crew member.
6XM had been used to bomb weapons factories, railways, airfields, and oil refineries throughout Germany since her arrival at North Pick.
She was a survivor. Many Liberators weren’t.
Following their arrival in England, the 491’s Liberators had flown 134 missions, losing 43 aircraft and many crew members in the process.
Some managed to survive by bailing out or even crash landing. Many went down with their planes, the difficulty of exiting from one, especially for the pilots, earning them another nickname, “The Flying Coffin.”
6XM’s last mission over Germany was on 6 February 1945 when she took part in an attack on the railway marshalling yards at Magdeburg.
Now fitted with two new engines, she was to fly from North Pick to BAD1 (Burtonwood), a relatively short trip of about 150 miles, possibly to be replaced with a newer model, a 1000lb lighter B-24L.
Burtonwood, 2 miles north-west of Warrington in Cheshire was the largest airfield in Europe in World War II, staffed by 18,000 servicemen and the centre for overhaul and repair of all USAAF radial engine aircraft.
The commanding pilot for this, “Milk Run” was First Lieutenant Charles Albert Groeking who had just arrived back at North Pick following leave but too late to take part in a raid on Germany’s Siegen marshalling yards planned for the same day.
A raid with added piquancy in that the town of Siegen had, as an Honorary Citizen, the German Reich Chancellor, Adolf Hitler.
Lt Goeking’s crew for the late afternoon’s flight north included:
Co-pilot, Second Lieutenant George H Smith Jnr.
Navigator: First Lt Frank E Bock.
Flight Engineer: Technical Sgt Howard E Denham.
Radio Operator: Technical Sgt Leslie E Johnson.
Travelling with them were six “passengers” en route for Burtonwood.
Pilot and Second Lieutenant, Joseph B Walker III.
Bombardier and Second Lieutenant: Elmer R Brater.
Navigator and Flight Officer: Gerald Procita.
Co-pilot and Flight Officer: David A Robinson Jnr.
Rear Gunner: Sgt Randolph R Muhlenrich Jnr.
Engineer: Sgt Robert D Hyett.
Standing in the overcast, gloomy light of the Norfolk February afternoon, the plane would have been well prepared by her ground crew even for a short flight as Lt Goeking, his crew and passengers approached it on its hard stand.
The ground mechanics devotion to the flight crews and care for their aircraft was much admired.
One pilot recalls that, “I never went out to the flight line at any hour of the day or night when the mechanics were not out there working. They were the most dedicated people ever saw. I’ve seen them break down and cry when their plane went down. It always seemed there was something else they could have done to make the plane more airworthy.”
Fitted out in warm clothing, the pilots would have walked to the aircraft with their parachute backpacks already on, the other crew members and the passengers having picked up their parachutes in chest packs which they carried to the plane by hand and would only snap them on if needed.
The parachute packers invariable joke, on handing them out being, “If it doesn’t work, bring it back and I’ll give you another.”
The winter weather was poor all over England that Monday afternoon but certainly not bad enough to ground the plane. The crew and passengers could expect a cold and windy flight. Once in flight, air would blow noisily throughout the Spartan plane, especially through the waist gunners open windows. Compared to what the rest of the squadron would certainly experience on the Siegen raid, they would have had every reason to feel grateful for the short hop to Burtonwood.
The chief of the ground crew would have walked round the huge box sided plane with the co-pilots, checking it physically before flicking the small hydraulic lever that opened up the bomb doors in the plane’s belly which slide upwards into the fuselage on each side like two sections of a roll topped desk.
No bombs in the two bomb bays for today’s, “milk run,” But the plane was carrying ammunition for its machine guns.
The crew and their passengers will have climbed onto the narrow central catwalk, some to the forward positions, others like the passengers, towards the rear.
Climbing into the plane was a cumbersome business and it was always difficult for crew members to get themselves adjusted into their cramped and uncomfortable positions.
Lt Goeking and his co-pilot, George Smith would have then settled into their seats, their parachutes serving as a sort of backrest.
Their seats were encased underneath in cast iron that came up to the knees, then under the seat and up its back.
It wouldn’t be needed on this flight but in combat it was there in the event of metal flak hitting the thinly clad plane on the underside and penetrating the cockpit resulting in either or both pilots being killed or badly injured, at which point the plane would almost certainly go down.
For the same reason many pilots took to flying in combat with a large piece of metal in front of their chest.
From the moment the pilot connected his headset he was in total command of his officers and sergeants.
Pilots were, in fact, referred to as, “Aircraft Commanders.” On today’s assignment sheet this would be “Lt Goeking’s Flight.”
He had help, of course, from his co-pilot, navigator, bombardier, radio operator and the flight engineers but he would only ask for their help. Goeking was the only man with his hands on the controls and it was only he who would determine the direction and progress of the flight.
Having adjusted their seats, Goeking and his co-pilot would begin the long list of pre-flight procedures.
The plane had to be flown intelligently, “ by the book,” the pre-flight routines gone through meticulously, beginning with checks of the rudder and elevator controls, followed by preparations to start the first of the huge engines, number three, followed by numbers four and two until finally number one would roar into life, belching black smoke and emitting a deep, throaty roar.
With all engines running, Goeking, along with his co-pilot, would have begun to do their, “Run-Up,” the last checks before taxiing, checking on each engine’s performance, checking fuel, oil and brake systems.
A thumbs-up to the ground crew from the open cockpit window would see the wheel blocks removed and Goeking would begin to taxi the ungainly plane, looking for all the world like an elephant getting ready for a circus parade, away towards the end of the runway, a crew member closing the bomb doors as the plane bounced gently across the tarmac to the incongruous sound of a herd of sheep bleating in a nearby field as a farmer began to fill their troughs with winter feed.
Goeking approached the end of the runway in a broad, sweeping turn, using the brakes gently and turning by using his outboard engines before wallowing to a stop in his takeoff position and applying the parking brakes.
He then starts his final checks before takeoff.
Exercising the spinning propellers to their full range of operation, setting elevator tabs, aileron and rudder settings, followed by many other essential readings before finally opening number three engine to 2000 revolutions a minute and advancing its turbocharger.
He now sets the wing flaps to their take off positions and brings the other three engines up to speed, gunning each one slightly.
A pair of Heron’s, disturbed by the sound, rise into the air and head off in the afternoon gloom towards a distant stream.
The roar of the engines is almost deafening.
The plane vibrates as every nut and bolt, every rivet, rattles and shakes.
Finally, just before takeoff, the plane’s altimeter is set to the airport reading, followed by setting of the artificial horizon.
Ready for takeoff, Groeking gets an okay from the control tower, releases the brakes and heads down the runway into the face of the bleak Norfolk wind.
Feeling their vibration he opens the throttle levers slowly against their stop positions and his co-pilot holds them there against any tendency for them to creep closed, adjusting the turbocharger at the same time, as the lumbering plane accelerates down the runway, engulfed in an ear shattering cocoon of noise, the roaring engines thirstily gulping fuel, the forward motion sending a fierce slipstream through the open waist gunner’s stations and over the horizontal and vertical tail surfaces at the rear of the plane. If you were close enough you’d see the code letters, 6X on the fuselage and M on the tail fins, shaking with the vibration.
They are rolling.
All four giant Pratt and Whitney engines are now running at high power on 2700 revolutions per minute and the plane, bouncing on the uneven runway surface, moves through 90 mph as Groeking prepares to wrestle with the control yoke as over 38,000 pounds of metal, high-octane fuel and men gain ground speed.
The engine is now burning 637 gallons an hour of fuel as they approach takeoff speed at 160 mph.
As the plane almost reaches the end of the runway, Groeking pulls back on the controls and the blunt, Perspex nose of the plane, begins almost imperceptibly to leave the ground.
One pilot described every takeoff as an adventure.
Once a giant B-24 started its roll forward, seemingly reluctant to pick up speed, it often felt to those inside as though it would never get airborne, particularly when it was fully laden with a payload of bombs.
Even though they were used to it, Goeking’s experienced crew and passengers would feel that they might never leave the ground as the plane skimmed across it before barely clearing the trees on the airfield’s perimeter and slowly gaining altitude.
Down below, wading in their icy stream, the two herons might have been aware of a large dim shadow passing over them.
Once airborne, the co-pilot raises the landing gear and brings up the flaps.
Only then, when the plane has more speed and less drag will she finally start to slowly climb.
6-XM is finally free of gravity and she spirals upwards towards the dark clouds that lower over the damp, Norfolk countryside.
As Goeking eases back on the throttles to save fuel, her course set for Burtonwood, less than an hour away. Now in her true element, the clumsy plane banks gently, almost gracefully, towards the Northwest.
Down below the diminishing figure of the farmer, looking up into the sky, raises an arm and waves a slow farewell.
End of part one…..