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Carpetbaggers: Air Arm of the OSS in Europe

 

Charged with conducting espionage activities behind enemy lines in World War II, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) relied on dedicated U.S. Army Air Force special operations air groups to provide aerial support for its missions. In the China-Burma-India theater of operations, those missions were the responsibility of the 1st Air Commando Group, whose motto was “Any Place, Any Time, Anywhere.” In the European theater of operations, the OSS had the 801st/492nd Bombardment Group – the “Carpetbaggers,” a nickname taken from the first codename for its missions.

Originally formed as the 801st Bombardment Group (Provisional), it was stationed in Harrington, a former Royal Air Force base in Northamptonshire, about 50 miles north of London, and initially composed of Army Air Force anti-submarine warfare (ASW) squadrons relieved of that duty when the U.S. Navy received delivery of its own ASW aircraft. Upon receiving additional squadrons in August 1944, it was redesignated the 492nd Bombardment Group.

B-24 Liberator K

B-24 Carpetbaggers Liberator, tailcode “K” on a hard stand at Harrington. Note that the B-24 is painted a solid gloss black that afforded maximum camouflage at night. The forward guns (or turret, later) and ball turret were removed from the 492nd Liberators. National Archives photo

Because ASW B-24s were designed for low-level flight, they did not have the equipment necessary for high-altitude bombing missions. Though useless for high-altitude strategic bombing, the ASW Liberators were the right planes at the right time for the type of nap-of-the-earth missions the OSS planned. After swearing everyone to secrecy, OSS officers interviewed the squadron officers and crews for volunteers. Those declining were reassigned without prejudice. The B-24s were modified for their new missions, the most distinctive feature being the removal of the ball turret and replacing it with a hatch called the “Joe hole.” (Men dropped behind enemy lines were called Joes and women were called Janes.) The Joe hole was a smooth metal shroud 44 inches in diameter at its base and 48 inches at its exit. A hinged plywood door covered it during flight. When the aircraft reached its drop-off site, a green light would flash and the agent, a static line attached to his parachute, would slide down the Joe hole and parachute into the darkness.

Col. Clifford J. Heflin, commander of the 22nd Anti-submarine Squadron, was named commander of the 801st Bombardment Group (Provisional) and would remain the Carpetbaggers’ commander through most of the war. The Carpetbaggers began operations, dropping agents and supplies into occupied Europe, in January 1944.

Such missions were harrowing and demanded a high degree of skill and nerve from the crews. They quickly became adept at identifying landmarks and reached a skill level that made them able to conduct missions in adverse weather conditions that otherwise grounded conventional squadrons.

Such missions were harrowing and demanded a high degree of skill and nerve from the crews. They quickly became adept at identifying landmarks and reached a skill level that made them able to conduct missions in adverse weather conditions that otherwise grounded conventional squadrons.

By mid-September 1944, the Allied armies’ rapid advances across northern France in the wake of Operation Cobra and up from the South of France with the Dragoon amphibious landings closed the chapter of Carpetbagger missions supporting the French Resistance and opened a new, multitasking one that started with the ferrying of fuel. The liberation of France had precipitated a crisis: an acute gasoline shortage that threatened to stop the Allied armies in their tracks. The Carpetbaggers were assigned to airlift gasoline to Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr.’s Third Army. In less than a week after the cessation of Resistance missions, modified Carpetbagger B-24s were ferrying gasoline to the front.

Every space on the aircraft that could carry fuel did. The bomb bay contained four 500-gallon fuel bladders. An additional 1,000 gallons were contained in P-51 drop tanks installed in the fuselage behind the bomb bay and over the Joe hole. Finally, the auxiliary fuel tanks were sealed off to prevent contamination of the higher-octane aviation fuel and filled with 80-octane gasoline for the tanks. Though the additional tanks were vented to the outside, the crews were never entirely comfortable with the flights. Landings were particularly challenging as the planes’ destination fields were either dirt landing strips hastily prepared by Army engineers, or recently liberated Luftwaffe fighter bases with short runways that were being cleared of mines even as the Liberators were landing.

Fuel-hauling operations ended on Sept. 30, with the Carpetbaggers delivering 822,791 gallons of gasoline. Instead of removing and replacing the contaminated gas tanks in the modified Liberators, B-24 production had increased to such a pace that the squadrons were simply issued new B-24s.

The clearing of the French-Swiss border by the end of September 1944 made it possible for the repatriation of interned American aircrews that had been forced to land or parachute into neutral Switzerland. A processing center was established at the Hôtel Beau Rivage at Lake Annecy, about 15 miles south of Geneva. From October 1944 to mid-February 1945, when new arrangements made the Lake Annecy mission unnecessary, the Carpetbaggers processed 783 airmen.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...