Amazing Images of ‘In Your Face’ Assembly Ships

Assembly ships were the solution to a problem many faced during WWII, which was primitive navigation technology. This could cause logistical issues for aircrews. In particular, the organisation of the huge amounts of bomber aircraft into a coherent formation.

Formations like the combat box were used on bombing missions during the war to maximize defence against enemy fighters, and maximize the accuracy of bombs on the target. Organising these formations however, was a very tricky task.

Bomber formations would consist of sometimes hundreds of aircraft from different groups and different airfields. They all needed to meet up at the right time and place, while under radio silence to reduce the chance of informing the enemy of the impending attack.

The vast amount of aircraft involved meant proper organisation was key.
The vast amount of aircraft involved meant proper organisation was key.

In the 1940s, satellite guided navigation was many decades away, so a more practical solution to this difficult task was required. This was achieved with ‘Assembly Ships’ from the U.S. Air Force; brightly coloured bombers that helped with the organisation of missions.

In 1943 each bomber group was required to chose an assembly ship, usually a B-17 or B-24 bomber that was obsolete or deemed unfit for combat service in some way, but still airworthy. These aircraft had already fought hard and done their part in battle.

They had their weaponry removed and equipped instead with flares, lights and pyrotechnics, which were coloured specifically for certain formations. The aircraft were also painted in their distinctive bright colours, often being striped, checkered or polka dotted for the most recognisability.

The magnificent colours of B-24D Barber Bob can be seen here.
The magnificent colours of B-24D Barber Bob can be seen here.

Their extravagant, high contrast colours meant they could be seen from far away, and easily identifiable as the rallying aircraft. Upon finding them, the bombers would arrange into formations before heading out to Europe to attack the crucial industries of the Third Reich.

Their first use was in February 1944 with the 2nd Air Division.

On board, only a basic crew was needed to fly the aircraft, and one or two men to discharge the flares and pyrotechnics.

Without any defensive armament the assembly ships were sitting ducks. So they would take off ahead of the bomber forces, and fly to the rally point. Once there, they would use their flares and lights to organise their respective group into formation.

Then would then fly ahead in the direction of the mission, meeting up with the other bomber formations taking part in the attack. Once all aircraft were positioned and on the way to the target, the assembly ships themselves would turn around and head home.

This ensured these defenceless aircraft would never encounter enemy fighters. However there was one report of an unarmed assembly ship flying all the way Germany with its formation.

In the early days of using the assembly ships, there were a few incidents of accidental discharges pyrotechnics inside the aircraft, so a modification was made to mount the flair guns in the sides of the fuselage.

As they abandoned the formation before a battle, the Assembly Ships were grimly nicknamed by their fighting counterpart crews as Judas Goats.

 

Despite her outrageously obvious paint scheme, Wham Bam was hit by another Liberator who didn’t see her and got too close.
Despite her outrageously obvious paint scheme, Wham Bam was hit by another Liberator who didn’t see her and got too close.

 

A close-up of Pete the Pom Inspector’s nose art combined with its assembly ship polka dots.
A close-up of Pete the Pom Inspector’s nose art combined with its assembly ship polka dots.

 

A close-up of the nose art of Pete the Pom Inspector 2nd.
A close-up of the nose art of Pete the Pom Inspector 2nd.

 

A rare colour photograph shows off the giant red-outlined orange polka dots of the striking paint scheme of Pete The Pom Inspector.
A rare colour photograph shows off the giant red-outlined orange polka dots of the striking paint scheme of Pete The Pom Inspector.

 

An airman poses with Consolidated B-24D Liberator Lemon Drop (USAAC Serial No. 41-23699), an assembly ship of 44th Bombardment Group, 68th Squadron at RAF Shipdam, Norfolk, England
An airman poses with Consolidated B-24D Liberator Lemon Drop (USAAC Serial No. 41-23699), an assembly ship of 44th Bombardment Group, 68th Squadron at RAF Shipdam, Norfolk, England

 

An Army photographer in First Sergeant snaps a photo of a B-24J Liberator of the 458th Bombardment Group climbing out of England and crossing the coast of the English Channel.
An Army photographer in First Sergeant snaps a photo of a B-24J Liberator of the 458th Bombardment Group climbing out of England and crossing the coast of the English Channel.

 

B-17F Flying Fortress aircraft Spotted Cow, was the Lead Assembly Ship of 384th Bombardment Group, flying with the 547th Bombardment Squadron, and based at RAF Grafton Underwood
B-17F Flying Fortress aircraft Spotted Cow, was the Lead Assembly Ship of 384th Bombardment Group, flying with the 547th Bombardment Squadron, and based at RAF Grafton Underwood

 

B-24D Barber Bob
B-24D Barber Bob

 

B-24D Bucket of Bolts (formerly Thar She Blows Again) undergoes repair, removal of her guns and painting to become First Sergeant at RAF Horsham St Faith.
B-24D Bucket of Bolts (formerly Thar She Blows Again) undergoes repair, removal of her guns and painting to become First Sergeant at RAF Horsham St Faith.

 

B-24D Liberator Green Dragon in the sun at RAF Hethel, shortly after her new paint scheme was applied.
B-24D Liberator Green Dragon in the sun at RAF Hethel, shortly after her new paint scheme was applied.

 

B-24D of 392nd Bombardment Group, 579th Bombardment Squadron, known as Minerva (USAAC Serial No. 41-23689). A veteran of the Ploesti oil refinery raids.
B-24D of 392nd Bombardment Group, 579th Bombardment Squadron, known as Minerva (USAAC Serial No. 41-23689). A veteran of the Ploesti oil refinery raids.

 

B-24J Liberator Green Dragon II (USAAC Serial No. 42-99972) was the second Lead Assembly Ship of the 389th Bombardment Group, 567th Bombardment Squadron, based at RAF Hethel, Norfolk
B-24J Liberator Green Dragon II (USAAC Serial No. 42-99972) was the second Lead Assembly Ship of the 389th Bombardment Group, 567th Bombardment Squadron, based at RAF Hethel, Norfolk

 

Barber Bob. Barber Bob, more commonly referred to by its combat name, Ball of Fire, was the assembly ship for the 93rd Bombardment Group, 328th Bombardment Squadron
Barber Bob. Barber Bob, more commonly referred to by its combat name, Ball of Fire, was the assembly ship for the 93rd Bombardment Group, 328th Bombardment Squadron

 

Green Dragon in flight over England, leading the 389th Bombardment Group
Green Dragon in flight over England, leading the 389th Bombardment Group

 

Lead Assembly Ship of 448th Bombardment Group, operated by the 712th Bombardment Squadron at RAF Seething, Norfolk in 1944.
Lead Assembly Ship of 448th Bombardment Group, operated by the 712th Bombardment Squadron at RAF Seething, Norfolk in 1944.

 

Lemon Drop was one of nine aircraft flown to England by the 68th BS. She was a veteran of Operation Tidalwave, the August 1943 low-level mission to bomb the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania
Lemon Drop was one of nine aircraft flown to England by the 68th BS. She was a veteran of Operation Tidalwave, the August 1943 low-level mission to bomb the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania

 

Liberator Spotted Ass Ape leads her group over the English countryside.
Liberator Spotted Ass Ape leads her group over the English countryside.

 

Lucky Gordon, with the 703rd Bombardment Squadron, helped to assemble formations for the 445th Bombardment Group, flying from RAF Tibenham in Norfolk.
Lucky Gordon, with the 703rd Bombardment Squadron, helped to assemble formations for the 445th Bombardment Group, flying from RAF Tibenham in Norfolk.

 

Markings on the port side indicate 45 combat missions.
Markings on the port side indicate 45 combat missions.

 

Minerva’s paint scheme likely came from the USAAC’s experiments with “disruptive” paint schemes.
Minerva’s paint scheme likely came from the USAAC’s experiments with “disruptive” paint schemes.

 

Only the front half of First Sergeant was white, with the polka dots changing from red and blue on white at the front to red and yellow on army green aft.
Only the front half of First Sergeant was white, with the polka dots changing from red and blue on white at the front to red and yellow on army green aft.

 

Pete the Pom Inspector, a B-24D (USAAC Serial No. 42-40370) that once belonged to the 44th Bombardment Group
Pete the Pom Inspector, a B-24D (USAAC Serial No. 42-40370) that once belonged to the 44th Bombardment Group

 

Rage in Heaven (USAAC Serial No. 44-40165), a later model B-24J Liberator, was Lead Assembly Ship for 491st Bombardment Group, operated by the 852nd Bombardment Squadron.
Rage in Heaven (USAAC Serial No. 44-40165), a later model B-24J Liberator, was Lead Assembly Ship for 491st Bombardment Group, operated by the 852nd Bombardment Squadron.

 

Silver Streak, the assembly ship for the Liberator crews of the 466th Bombardment Group, based at RAF Attlebridge.
Silver Streak, the assembly ship for the Liberator crews of the 466th Bombardment Group, based at RAF Attlebridge.

 

Spotted Ass Ape leads Liberators of the 458th Bombardment Group.
Spotted Ass Ape leads Liberators of the 458th Bombardment Group.

 

Spotted Cow lifts off from RAF Grafton Underwood.
Spotted Cow lifts off from RAF Grafton Underwood.

 

The Little Gramper, a B-24D, was the first Lead Assembly Ship of 491st Bombardment Group. She wore one of the brightest and most visible schemes of all the assembly ships
The Little Gramper, a B-24D, was the first Lead Assembly Ship of 491st Bombardment Group. She wore one of the brightest and most visible schemes of all the assembly ships

 

The red and white stripes of Boeing B-17E (USAAC Serial No. 41-9100) Birmingham Blitzkrieg
The red and white stripes of Boeing B-17E (USAAC Serial No. 41-9100) Birmingham Blitzkrieg

 

With her freshly painted polka dots and her new name, Spotted Ass Ape assembled her group’s aircraft on 12 July 1944 for a raid on the big Luftwaffe fighter base at Évreux–Fauvill
With her freshly painted polka dots and her new name, Spotted Ass Ape assembled her group’s aircraft on 12 July 1944 for a raid on the big Luftwaffe fighter base at Évreux–Fauvill

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