The Flare Path: Sings The Unsung

Once I’ve typed up this sortie summary, Infinite Horace II, my latest B-17: Queen of the Skies hope chalice, will be setting off on his sixth combat mission. Unlike the original Infinite Horace, a B-17 Flying Fortress based in England and crewed by RPS writers, Infinite Horace II is a B-24 Liberator based in Southern Italy and crewed – with one exception – by foolhardy fearless Flare Path readers.

The steed change was partially motivated by curiosity (I was keen to try Preston McMurray’s rigorously researched B-24 rules variant) and partially by a desire to sing the unsung. Despite being more numerous than their Boeing-designed brothers-in-arms and in many ways (range, ceiling, speed, bomb load…) more capable, Flying Boxcars have always played second fiddle to Flying Fortresses in the popular imagination.

Key differences between the two types are reflected in a clutch of carefully thought-out B17QotS rule changes. The Liberator’s retracting rolltop desk-style bomb bay doors bestow benefits during bombing runs but make ditching and wheels-up landings more perilous. Weaker wings and higher stick forces mean wing root hits are more dangerous and autopilot damage is potentially more serious. The USAAF’s tendency to overburden the bomber translates into dicier take-offs. Thanks to our higher cruise speed, Shiloh, our tail-end Charlie, has an increased chance of hitting tailgaters, and because of our exceptional range, fuel leaks are slightly less worrying.

In later B-24s the bombardier-manned nose gun was replaced by a turret with its own gunner

The ten souls cocooned within B-24J Infinite Horace II as he droned towards the oil refineries of Fiume (Rijeka) on his maiden op were…

JFS – nose turret gunner
Eightball – bombardier
phuzz – navigator
Yours Truly – pilot
JB – co-pilot
bsplines – engineer
unacom – radio operator/waist gunner*
Lord Byte – ball gunner
Rorschach617 – waist gunner
Shiloh – tail gunner

(Gothnak, Leafy Twigs, and Rituro are on stand-by)

*Though the B-24J had two waist gun positions, only one of these was manned full-time. In the event of an attack the radio operator was expected to hurry aft and occupy the vacant position.

It was a four-zone mission and trouble arrived early in the form of a determined Fw 190 attack in zone 2. Three bandits managed to slip through both our fighter picket and the fiery ticker tape parade organised by Horace’s Browning brandishers. Fortunately, apart from a nibbled port rudder and a fuel tank hit that instantly self-sealed, the Focke-Wulfs only managed to cause superficial damage.

The escorts performed better when another schwarm of Fw 190s tried their luck in zone 3, but they couldn’t stop a climbing Me 109 from drilling Horace’s belly as we neared the target. Though the Axis ascender only scored one significant hit, that hit was to our bomb bay door mechanism. When Eightball attempted to open the doors at the start of the bomb run, he found they wouldn’t budge.

I think it would be fair to describe the journey back to Foggia as ‘tense’. Harassed by Me 109s over the Adriatic (Shiloh came very close to opening his account. Ball gunner Lord Byte escaped death by inches when his turret was trashed) the collective sigh of relief that was let out when Infinite Horace II, still heavy with HE, touched down safely at Cerignola could have been heard in Rome.

Compared to the Rijeka run, Mission 2 was a cakewalk. We watched several blazing Liberators dash themselves against the Apennines during the five-zone trip to Verona, but nestled in the middle of the formation, had a quiet time ourselves. Part of the high group, even the flak batteries ringing the cratered marshalling yard that was our target posed little danger. In the circumstances, the fact that only 20% of our payload fell where it was meant to fall, was more than a little disappointing.

The bright spot of the mission occurred as we turned for home. A Zerstörer approaching from 10.30 low, danced through the twining tracer streams of JFS, Lord Byte, and Rorschach617, missed us with its own emissions, then fell to Shiloh’s Ma Deuces moments after streaking past Horace’s tail. We’d only been back a few minutes when Technical Sergeant Someoldguy set up his stepladder and began painting a small black Me 110 outline on the side of the cockpit.

The Infinite Horace II story almost ended a couple of minutes into Mission 3. A post-modifier ‘1’ on table G8 sent heavily-laden Horace careering off the end of the runway at Cerignola, the lucky – bearing in mind all that fuel and HE aboard – survivor of a potentially catastrophic take-off accident. Unexpected loss of engine power? Elevator malfunction? Forgotten four-leaf clover? Flight deck wasp? The tables refused to say.

Repairs were completed in time for us to join the air armada heading Rome-ward on May 3. In theory a relatively easy two-zone outing, the sky above The Eternal City was alive with Augsburg eagles by the time we turned up. Four Me 109s decided to have a shy at Horace and one attacking from 6 high had the satisfaction of seeing his shells strike aluminium. Controls cables in the tail were chafed and radio operator unacom arrived in the waist to find it pierced by unfamiliar shafts of sunlight. The excitement passed as quickly as it had come and an uneventful return leg gave Eightball and me plenty of time to reflect on another mediocre bombing display (Only 40% of our bombs were on target).

Mission 5. Belgrade. Infinite Horace II is eastbound midway between Mostar and the Yugoslavian capital. His fuselage is bullet-gouged in numerous places but his crew are quietly jubilant. The reason for the high morale and the majority of the holes is the pair of crooked smoke pillars behind us. The pillars mark the terminal trajectories of two Fw 190s that underestimated the prowess of nose gunner JFS and ball gunner Lord Byte. I let the mood percolate for a few minutes before announcing over the intercom that we will be descending to 10,000 feet in order to prevent Rorschach617 from losing his extremities to frostbite (the waist heater was shot out during the attack). Everyone knows what the altitude change means. We’ll be in the flak zone come Belgrade.

Cantering Mustangs do their best to keep the bandits away on the approach to the target. I’m dimly aware of discouraged Me 109s and thickening flak as we line up for the run. For a horrible moment the insanity of what we’re doing tunnels my vision and stops my breath then something, training perhaps or a sense of responsibility, kicks in and I recover.

Press on.

Follow Eightball’s instructions.

It can’t be long now.

The next few minutes are a blur. Did the flak burst hit us a split-second before Eightball released our earth shakers or a split-second after? When the unburdened Horace began rising like an elevator was Engine 3 already riddled with shrapnel and screaming? I can see JB shutting down the runaway and feathering the prop while engineer bsplines calmly assists. I can hear myself asking every member of the crew in turn for injury and damage reports. I can remember listening to the string of ‘OKs’ with mingled relief and disbelief (Shiloh doesn’t admit to his lacerated shoulder until we are halfway home).

Apart from that trashed engine all of Horace’s injuries are relatively minor. Flying slivers of steel have bodkinned the nacelles of Engines 2 and 4 here and there, but bsplines can see no signs of deeper issues. Shiloh traces a new tail turret draft to a small jagged hole in the tailplane root, and Rorschach doesn’t like the look of one of the control cable conduits in the waist, but, fingers-crossed, none of these flesh wounds will prevent us getting home.

Concerned P-51s watch over us as we flee Serbia. They drive off a series of bandits drawn like vultures to the straggling, slowed Horace. In zone 4 one of the predators, an Me 110, sees an opportunity and commences a curving, climbing head-on attack. Our nose guns begin to chatter as I initiate a turn (Thank goodness Horace is a B-24J rather than one of the earlier front turret-less Liberator variants). Lord Byte’s ball turret Brownings join the chorus. Tadpoles of red fire rush past the windscreen.

That evening in the mess, using an empty beer bottle to represent our ship and a smouldering Diamond Joe cigar to represent the doomed Zerstörer, Lord Byte and JFS demonstrate to a small but rapt audience how Infinite Horace II achieved her fourth kill. Behind them Eightball, Rorschach617, bsplines and phuzz noisily punish pool balls while Shiloh and unacom brainstorm some new aspect of their fiendishly complicated dice-based baseball simulation (they’ve been rerunning the 1940 World Series since we arrived in Italy). JB? Amazingly, considering the hubbub, he’s dozing in the armchair next to mine, a battered copy of Moby Dick open in his lap. The room is as relaxed and cheerful as I’ve ever seen it. I guess I’m the only one that knows we’re going to Ploesti tomorrow.

*       *       *

 

This way to the foxer

22 Comments

  1. Eightball says:

    Oh boy, I’m really letting the side down here. :x

  2. Treners says:

    While a lot of flare path articles go over my head a bit, I must say I’m loving these AARs.

  3. Shiloh says:

    Outstanding, Tim, a brilliant write up. I’ve been playing B17 QotS quite a bit on Vassal, and it really does give some tense gaming moments.

    Anyway, everything was going fairly well for the crew of Lucky Lou until our 10th mission over Meaulte. Dropping out of formation to 10,000 ft to avoid Flt Sgt Blow running the risk of frostbite, we were pounced on by a FW190 in a vertical dive who planted 4 shells square in #4 engine, causing a runaway. Co-pilot Will Goodrich ordered an immediate bail out, but only starboard waist gunner Rich Cliveden made it out, landing in occupied France and being picked up by a German patrol shortly thereafter.

    Not so Lucky Lou, as it turned out. They’ll be scraping what was left of the rest of us aircrew off the rooftops in Meaulte for some time to come, I reckon.

  4. Rorschach617 says:

    I am loving these write-ups. Also loving the fact that we are all intact so far.

    I remember reading somewhere where a B-17 pilot was transferred to B-24s and remarked that he had never seen an aircraft that tried to kill him as much as it did.

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      bsplines says:

      Considering where the next operation is set up it is unlikely we will be intact for long (see Operation Tidal Wave for details).

      • Rorschach617 says:

        Already brushing up my Rumanian from available newsreels and film footage. From what I gather, garlic might work :)

  5. Stugle says:

    Wonderful stories. And Ploesti, eh? Well, it was nice knowing the crew of Infinite Horace II. :p

  6. unacom says:

    România. Ne ducem a casă. (Romanina. We´re going home).
    Tremendously enjoying the write-up.

    All right gentlemen. If we have to bail, stick with me. I can get us… out? well at least I can talk to the people. My family is romaninan.

    @eightball: Please. Under. Any. Circumstances. Do NOT drop your Bombs on a hospital. I mean it.

    My grandfather was a young surgeon during WW2.
    He once told me he was bombed by every major faction in this war:
    Germans -by accident. We assume.
    Allies and russians -on purpose (?). He thought.

    His hospital was once hit very hard by an air raid. He had stepped outside for a smoke, after a gruelling shift in the operating theatre, when the hospital was bombed. He told me it was clearly marked. He was one of the very few survivors.

    He got bombed again. It was never again that close.

    So please. Do not turn this into some weird kind of a circular time-altering experiment on your radio-man. I promise, I´ll bring some Glenn Miller records I can play over the intercom.

  7. JFS says:

    Whee, didn’t know I was so capable with a Browning! Now my turret team mate Lord Blythe and I will just have to figure out how to partition the honours :)

  8. WladTapas says:

    The first article got me looking, and in a nice bit of synchronicity my copy of B-17 arrived today. It’s in fine shape for a game that’s 30+ years old. \o/ Which variants or add-ons would you guys recommend after I’ve got some regular missions under my belt?

    • Shiloh says:

      As per Tim’s AAR, the Flying Boxcar one is pretty good. Head over to Boardgamegeek. There’s also a variant I’ve seen which reduces crew casualties a little bit, to fall more in line with historical casualty rates (YMMV as to what those were, mind). Again, Boardgamegeek has the details (and with the added advantage in the link below that you get some great looking additional tables)

      link to boardgamegeek.com

      Happy trails!

      • WladTapas says:

        Thanks! I’m about to take The Bookhouse on its first combat mission. It’s 8 Nov 1942, the target is Abbeville, and nobody really knows how this strategic bombing lark is going to work out…

  9. mrskwid says:

    very nice read, i wonder if FTLs desinger ever played queen of skys.

  10. Scandalon says:

    I’m loving these for some reason. My knowledge of my own familial military history only goes back to the Korean War, but at an EAA* meeting after learning of a B-17 coming through on tour, I listened to two veterans, one a P-38 pilot, one a B-17 operator (I don’t recall position) trade quips, barbs and respect. It was…sobering.

    Fresh-faced recruit “Scandalon” standing by, with a seriousness of purpose in his eyes behind the jovial banter.

  11. JB says:

    Infinite Horace II? Lovely stuff! The armchair dozing in particular is uncannily accurate, Tim. Good work, fellow crew members!

    • JB says:

      Also, I’m visiting Hendon (again) this coming Tuesday, hipefully I’ll remember to get some decent pictures this time!

  12. CybrSlydr says:

    Man, count me disappointed to find out this is an actual boardgame and not something I can grab on Steam. :(

    This sounds like just the kind of game I could go for right about now.

    • WladTapas says:

      If you don’t want to look around for a second-hand copy (and are not averse to board games in general), there’s a modern update on the way: link to legionwargames.com

      I considered that, but then found a copy locally.

    • Shiloh says:

      If you want to play it on your PC, you can – download VASSAL from vassalengine.org, and then the B-17 module here:

      link to vassalengine.org

      I play a load of board games via VASSAL – some require you to have the physical copy (most modern GMT games, also Fantasy Flight) but many older games don’t.

      You can play solitaire or with chums via its multiplayer.