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.
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.
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.
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