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Assembly Ships of the Eighth Air Force

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Painted in bright and unique colours the job of assembly ships was to get the bombers of the Eighth Air Force into their formations safely. They would then lead the aircraft as they headed off to their intended target. With this done, they would turn back to base. Their role would earn them the nickname 'Judas Goats', after the animal which would lead others to slaughter.

On the 19th January 1942 VIII Bomber Command was formed as part of the Eighth Air Force, before being renamed the Eighth Air Force on the 22nd February 1944, and preparations began to build up aircraft and aircrew for operations over Europe from airbases in the UK. The Eighth Air Force undertook its first joint operation on the 4th July 1942, when six Royal Air Force Douglas Bostons of No. 226 Squadron, flown by the 15th Bomb Squadron, attacked a number of airfields in the Netherlands alongside the RAF.

It wouldn't be until the 17th August 1942 that the Eighth Air Force would perform its first sortie using its own aircraft and crews. This saw twelve Boeing B-17E Flying Fortresses of the 97th Bombardment Group target marshalling yards in Rouen, France.

B-24D (41-24109) 'Silver Streak' Assembly Ship
B-24D (41-24109) 'Silver Streak'
Assembly Ship in the 466th Bomb Group for B-24's of the 330th Bomb Squadron.
Originally served with the 93rd Bomb Group and was called 'Ready & Willing'.

B-24D (41-23683) 'Green Dragon' Assembly Ship
B-24D (41-23683) 'Green Dragon'
Assembly Ship in the 389th Bomb Group for the 566th Bomb Squadron.
Originally served with the 93rd Bomb Group and was called 'Jo-Jo's Special Delivery'.

As the build up of the Eighth Air Force in the UK continued during late 1942 and 1943 and as air operations increased, various issues arose. These were as a result of hundreds of aircraft from different airfields trying to form up in the skies before they headed to their intended target. The most pressing concern was the loss of aircrews as a result of mid-air collisions and aircraft joining different groups from their own.

One such tragic accident occurred on the 31st March 1943 when B-17F (42-29573) and B-17F (41-24559), both from the 303rd Bomb Group, collided in mid-air over Northamptonshire. The aircraft were on their way to attack targets in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Of the 20 aircrew, 15 were killed.

B-17E (41-9100) 'Birmingham Blitzkrieg' Assembly Ship
B-17E (41-9100) 'Birmingham Blitzkrieg'
Assembly Ship in the 379th Bomb Group for the 525th Bomb Squadron.
Originally served with the 97th Bomb Group.

B-17F (42-3441) 'Spotted Cow' Assembly Ship
B-17F (42-3441) 'Spotted Cow'
Assembly Ship in the 384th Bomb Group for the 547th Bomb Squadron.
Originally served with the 384th Bomb Group and was called 'Patches II'.

To help minimise the risk of collisions and help crews get their aircraft into the correct formation, during 1943 each Bomb Group was required to choose one of its older aircraft, normally a B-17 Flying Fortress or Consolidated B-24 Liberator, to be modified to lead that group's formation. Once the aircraft had been chosen it would be stripped of its armour and armament, fitted with extra navigations lights and repainted in a distinctive paint scheme tailored for each group. With a basic crew of five or six people, two pilots, navigator, wireless operator and either one or two crew members to discharge flares.

The aircraft would be the first to take-off, maintaining a steady speed and rate of climb they would then fly to the rendezvous point discharging flares and flashing their lights until the aircraft of the group they were leading had successfully formed up. Once this had been done they would then change course for the intended target until they formed up with the other bomber groups on the operation. Then, along with the other assembly ships, turned round and returned to base, while the bombers continued onto their target.

B-24D (42-40127) 'First Sergeant' Assembly Ship
B-24D (42-40127) 'First Sergeant'
Assembly Ship in the 458th Bomb Group for the 754th Bomb Squadron.
Originally served with the 93rd Bomb Group and was called 'Bucket of Bolts' then joined 458th Bomb Group as 'Thar She Blows Again'.

B-24D (42-40722) 'The Little Gramper' Assembly Ship
B-24D (42-40722) 'The Little Gramper'
Assembly Ship in the 491st Bomb Group for the 852nd Bomb Squadron.
Originally served with the 389th Bomb Group.

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