The Beer-Barrel Bombers – Keg Carrying Spitfires Brought Beer to The Troops at The Front

John Buchan
Spitfire carrying beer barrels.

After the successful invasion of Normandy beginning on June 6, 1944, the Allied forces had a new issue deal with- how to get supplies to troops pushing ever further into Europe?

As part of the solution, supplies were prioritized so that less important supplies were not taking up space and time when more important supplies needed to get to the front lines.

Unfortunately, some supplies were labeled as low importance by the military brass but were felt to be of some importance by those serving on the front lines. Beer was one of those things.

Troops from the Royal Army Service Corp handle ration boxes in the harbour at Dieppe in October 1944.
Troops from the Royal Army Service Corp handle ration boxes in the harbour at Dieppe in October 1944.

Since beer was not included in the priority items being shipped to the front lines, the troops had to figure out their own ways to acquire their adult beverage of choice.

Some enterprising soldiers were able to able to acquire it from local citizens and would then become the source for other troops to receive it. This didn’t scale well and only placated a small number of soldiers.

The RAF took another approach. They found a brewery in England, Heneger and Constable, who was willing to donate beer to the troops.

British troops released from a German prison camp in 1944 drinking English beer for the first time in four years.
British troops released from a German prison camp in 1944 drinking English beer for the first time in four years.

But there was still the nagging problem of how to actually get the beer to the troops in France. From this problem was born the modification XXX.

British Spitfire Mark IX planes had pylons under each wing which were typically used to carry bombs or, and in this case more importantly, extra fuel tanks.

Spitfire Mk.IX no. PT672 flown by Major Alan Lurie. WR Markings signify 40 Squadron SAAF (Jun 43 – Oct 45). Photo: Col André Kritzinger CC BY-SA 3.0
Spitfire Mk.IX no. PT672 flown by Major Alan Lurie. WR Markings signify 40 Squadron SAAF (Jun 43 – Oct 45). Photo: Col André Kritzinger CC BY-SA 3.0

Ground crews in England would clean out the fuel tanks to the best of their ability and then fill them with beer. The fuel tanks were marked “XXX” to avoid confusion as to the contents.

Filling the tank with beer for the flight to the front. Photo: RV1864 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Filling the tank with beer for the flight to the front. Photo: RV1864 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Each fuel tank could hold 45 gallons which means that each Spitfire could carry 90 gallons of beer to the soldiers in France.

This modification to the Spitfires is considered semi-official. While the RAF never condoned such activity, they did nothing to hinder it. In fact, there is evidence of the RAF being quite aware of what was happening, but they never commented on it.

With 90 gallons per trip not being considered sufficient to quench the thirst of the troops, other options were explored. The British Hawker Typhoon could carry a larger payload.

It did not receive widespread use in this form of transport as the Typhoon was frequently confused by American pilots for a German Focke-Wulf 190. One British pilot was actually attacked twice by Americans on the same run. During one of the attacks, he was forced to jettison the tanks in order to evade the US pilots.

Spitfire carrying beer barrels.Photo: RV1864 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Spitfire carrying beer barrels.Photo: RV1864 CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Another problem with the delivery of the beer was that the first few runs with a newly modified tank resulted in beer with a slight taste of airplane fuel. Even after the fuel taste faded from the tank, a metallic taste remained.

Eventually, the Spitfire pylons were modified to hold kegs directly. This meant that the planes carried even less beer in a trip but it was of a much higher quality. They were also chilled from being flown so high in the atmosphere on the way over the Channel.

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Not to be outdone, when American pilots learned of the British beer runs, they began carrying beer to the troops as well. For good measure, they added ice cream and iced custard to the menu.