They flew by night, predominantly during the "moon period," when there was sufficient moonlight to navigate by. Their airplanes were painted black to avoid detection, and they flew at dangerously low altitudes, often as low as 2,000 ft. The first flights were with modified B-24D Liberators; later, C-47s, A-26s, and British Mosquitos were added to the arsenal. This was Operation Carpetbagger, a little known, top-secret mission of WW II conceived of and directed by the United States Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA.
Operation Carpetbagger began in support of top-secret Royal Air Force (RAF) missions flown out of a small British airbase in Tempsford, Bedforshire. Their purpose was to airdrop supplies and agents to resistance groups operating in German-held territories. Operation Carpetbagger became a reality in November 1943, when the 22nd Anti-Submarine Squadron was disbanded and reassigned first to the Tempsford air base and later to Harrington Field in Northamptonshire. Anti-submarine personnel were chosen because they were the most experienced at low-altitude flights and high-precision drops. Initially known as the 801st Bombardment Group, they were re-designated the 492nd Bombardment Group in August 1944.
There were 3,000 US Airmen stationed at Harrington Airbase between January 1944 and May 1945. The base was operated under conditions of extreme secrecy, with buildings dispersed through the countryside. Not even the ground crews and administrative support personnel knew the extent of Operation Carpetbagger.
Airmen flew in specially modified aircraft. The planes were painted a glossy black, efficient at evading searchlights. The Ball turret guns were removed and the turret closed in with a smooth metal sheath. This was the "Joe-Hole," so named because it was through this opening that the agents, or "Joes," parachuted onto the drop sites.
The "Joes" received a final briefing on their mission in an inconspicuous house in London and were then driven to Harrington, where they dressed in special jump suits. These canvas suits were, "almost roomy enough to carry a grand piano" (*Parnell). Inside the many pockets, agents packed items including money, identity documents, a small shovel (to bury the parachute), arms and ammunition, a knife, a radio set, a flashlight, and two types of capsules: one for energy, and the other, to produce an immediate state of unconsciousness lasting six hours or longer. To protect them on impact, the agents' ankles were bandaged, and rubber heel pads were inserted in their shoes. They wore jump helmets with sponge rubber padding.
Landing areas were marked out by formations of flashlights on the ground, usually in a partisan farmer's field. After the flight crew had ascertained to the best of their ability that the site was indeed partisans and not an ambush by German forces, the Joes and supplies were dropped. Between January and September 1944 the Carpetbaggers successfully dropped 8,050 bundles of propaganda leaflets, 10,725 packages of supplies, 18,535 containers of supplies, 26 carrier pigeons and 662 Joes.
Carpetbaggers supplied partisans and intelligence agents both before and after D-Day (June 6th, 1944). They aided in reconnaissance, pinpointing German positions in advance of D-Day, and supplied missions that sabotaged railroads and railway stations, bombed troop trains and disrupted canal traffic. In the waning days of the war, Carpetbagger missions supplied General Patton's tanks with fuel, dropped propaganda leaflets urging Germans to defect, and acted as feints, deflecting German warplanes from true RAF raids.
Operation Carpetbagger was so secret that airmen were not allowed to keep journals or other personal documentation. As a result, information is somewhat anecdotal, recollected with the distance of years and fading memories. There are two museums dedicated to the Carpetbaggers, one at the National Museum of the Air Force near Dayton Ohio, and the other at Harrington Air Field, Northamptonshire UK.
An interview with Earl Russell who served as a tail gunner on a modified B-24 Liberator out of Harrington, England as part of Operation Carpetbagger:
*Carpetbaggers America's Secret War in Europe, Ben Parnell, Eakin Press, 1987.
This article was originally published in June 2013, and has been updated for the
June 2014 paperback release.
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