The Misjudged B-26 Marauder
There cannot be many aircraft that have had the misfortune to be lumbered with such unflattering nicknames as The Flying Coffin, Widow-Maker, B-Dash-Crash, Winged Coffin, Marter Murderer, The Flying Prostitute* and, last but not least, The Baltimore Whore. The last two because it had no visible means of support and ‘Baltimore’ because that was where the Glen L. Martin Company made the B-26. But did the Marauder deserve the abuse?
Despite these highly derogatory views, the Marauder deserves better. Not only did it meet, and exceed, the original specification, as laid down by the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) in January 1939, for a high-speed medium bomber, but its service record is probably second to none. Certainly, the pilots who flew it operationally hold it in very high regard.
*No offence to sex workers
The design pushed the aerodynamic state of the art, at that time, to its limits. Not only that, the construction and manufacturing methods were also leading edge. Many of the production techniques proved on the Marauder went on to become the de facto standard for the building of post-war jet airliners. So, in many ways, it was a genuine pioneering design.
The perfect aircraft has yet to be built and the Marauder suffered failings, just like any other piece of complex machinery. But it can be strongly argued that they were not as fundamental as the critics at the time would have you believe.
To understand many of the main issues behind this outstanding aircraft, one has to go back to the original specification, Circular Proposal 39-640, issued on March 11 1939, when storm clouds were already rapidly brewing over Europe.
This called for a new class of medium bomber, which could carry a 3000lb bomb load (same as a B-17) but could fly straight and level at 323 mph. It would have less range (1000 miles at 265mph) and service ceiling (23,000 ft) than a B-17, but it should be remembered that even the latest fighters were not going much faster than 300 mph, so it was quite a design challenge. Over 40 US companies were sent the design brief by the USAAC and 5 eventually submitted proposals.
The Martin Company put forward the Model 179 on which it had already started work on. It also recruited, at this time, the delightfully named, Peyton Marshall Magruder, aged 28, to co-ordinate all the work as Chief Designer on the project. He was a pilot and graduate of the USN Academy at Annapolis, as well as having an aeronautical degree. He had already designed the B-10 bomber. He was clearly an exceptional individual, as he went to become an industrialist, playwright and novelist.
The first thing the team did, was go to the USAAC for clarification on what was exactly required. The answer was quite unambiguous. They wanted bomb load and high speed above all else. This was being driven, to a large degree, by Charles Lindbergh’s recommendations following his review of the Luftwaffe.
Magruder noticed that proposal did not specify a maximum landing speed, and, as you don’t get anything for nothing in aeronautics, this was clearly an area where the design team had considerable leeway in terms of trade-off with other aspects of the design. There would have been tactic acceptance of this fact within the USAAC but probably without understanding the implications. This apparent minor oversight, in what we now call the human factor element, was to have a profound and far-reaching impact on the whole project.
More surprisingly, neither was a stalling speed specified and Magruder ended up using this to his advantage with a 97 mph with full flaps stall speed being quoted, because it sounded less intimidating and frightening than 100mph – a neat psychological trick.
However, if USAAC wanted speed and bomb load, they would get speed and bomb load. Accordingly, the Model 179 design was developed very much along those lines. The proposal submitted had 15 variants and initially was a twin tail design, something that was very much the fashion at the time, and a bomb load capability of 4000lbs.
The main difference in the variants was the engine size and power giving a speed range from 315 mph to a fantastic 413 mph (with engines that were still under development.) These powerful engines also dictated a tricycle undercarriage in order to avoid nosing over under hard braking.
Significantly, even the summary performance table in the bid submitted by the Martin Company on 5th July 1939, does not even mention take off or landing speeds. An evaluation of all the bids showed that Model 179 was streets ahead of the competition, under the USAAC points scoring system used.
|Aircraft||Points Scored||No of aircraft Ordered||Price per Aircraft|
|Martin Model 179 (B-26)||813.6||201||$79,602|
|North American NA-62 (B-25)||673.6||184||Approx $63,000|
|Stearman Model D-23||442.7||Nil||–|
The die was now well and truly set, as an order to the value of $16m for these paper aeroplanes was placed with the Martin Company. The Model 179 was at least 25% higher in price than the B-25, reflecting the high points scored. This contract was just for the airframes and did not include spares and support, so the total value to the company was going to be far, far greater than just the initial airframe price.
As it happens, cost overruns in defence contracts are not new and given the nature of contracting in those days, the USAAC would have ended up paying on a cost plus basis. In fact, the first production models actually cost the USAAC $261,000 although this did reduce, with the last production model, the B-26G, ending up costing $192,427 per copy, which equates to $2.01M at today’s prices. All in all, a respectable 5,157 B-26s were made, but there was no doubt that it was considered “expensive” compared to other aircraft. By comparison, the B-25 Mitchell cost $180,000 but dropped down to $142,000 in the same period.
The first B-26 took 39,000 man-hours to build against the 33,000 for the bigger four-engined B-17. Part of the reason for this, were the novel construction techniques used. Interestingly, it would be very hard to argue either that the aircraft was or was not value for money because of the difficulty of defining the value of the outputs. One thing is for sure; defence equipment is not, and never has been, cheap.
A measure of the urgency of the need in 1940 may be judged by the fact that even before the aircraft had made its maiden flight, a further 901 aircraft were ordered. Also, quite remarkably, no prototypes or pre-production models were planned – the aircraft had to literally fly off the drawing board. This was also the first time that the military insisted on this strategy for a new aircraft, which certainly must have increased the pressure on the design team considerably.
Working flat out on the project, the team was unhappy with the twin tail configuration, on the grounds that it made a bigger surface area to be hit by the top gunner. And, after wind tunnel tests of a single tail layout, USAAC agreed and approved the conventional re-design. Other specifications that cause problems were that it was required that the pilot had to have visibility of the wing tips for formation flying purposes, which restricted options with regard to cockpit position
Otherwise, no compromise was made on aerodynamic performance and meeting the speed and load specifications, this created many problems that required innovative solutions but they were not always simple solutions either.
However, the end result was a stunning looking aircraft. If you were to put turbo prop engines onto it, it would not look out of place flying as a feeder airliner today. When it was unveiled in November 1940, a number of observers suggested that the now named Marauder was the ultimate twin engined air racer. It was no mean achievement in producing such a radical aircraft design in less than a year, especially since it incorporated many new features. Perhaps the most obvious to the eye, being the one piece transparent nose, which was the largest single plastic moulding produced at that time.
They certainly got it right, as the first aircraft flew pretty well perfectly, requiring only minor adjustments to the rudder trim after its first flight. Quite remarkably this very first aircraft went on to be used for flight training by the USAAC throughout the war – it was only retired from service and scrapped in 1945. This speaks volumes for the inherent soundness and completeness of the design.
However, it not was all sweetness and light, as flight-testing started to confirm that the required performance had been achieved, but at the expense of low-speed handling characteristics. Never less, despite these reservations, the aircraft was accepted into service. It was believed that pilots would feel more secure in a Marauder due to its firepower, speed and manoeuvrability once they had mastered the handling of it.
Despite this belief, which proved to be correct, the omission in the specification was starting to become apparent. The medium bombers of the day normally had a landing speed or between 60 –70mph. The Marauder, on the other hand, had an approach speed of 165 mph and a touch down speed of around 130-140 mph.
The fundamental problem lay in the unusually high wing loading (50lbs per square ft) which, when coupled with losing an engine at certain points in the flight envelope, could catch out an unwary pilot. The aircraft was highly manoeuvrable, with fighter-like handling, but as a result, lacked the dynamic stability of other aircraft in its class. As it required to be flown by the pilot all the time, it made long missions that much more tiring.
However, the aircraft proved to be very tough and could take considerable punishment and still keep flying. This ruggedness was due to a number of factors. A major one being the strength of the keel and the unique method of skinning the aircraft, known as stretch forming – a process whereby alloy plates are stretched to form the skin over the fuselage frame.
The alloy was pulled by over a lubricated wooden former, beyond its yield point, so that it permanently deformed to the smooth compound curves required and then heat-treated. This reduced the number of drag producing joints dramatically. The joints were then welded or flush riveted. While this technique had been used within the automotive industry, it was virtually unknown in the aviation industry at that time, although it was to become common practice.
Another structural innovation was in the use of corrugated aluminium in the wings to achieve the necessary spanwise stiffness, instead of stringers. This made for a strong structure that avoided wing twisting or warping and provided high tolerance to battle damage. This was proved by the fact that no Marauder ever suffered main wing structural failure, no matter what air loads were exerted on it.
The wings themselves were joined by the largest alloy fuselage/wing junction forging ever made, which reduced the requirement for wing root fillets. Having the tailplane set with some dihedral was another first as well.
The aircraft was also the first to have a powered gun, an electrically powered one at that. This was asked for by the USAAC, as they were having problems with hydraulic systems at that time. The actual design was Martin’s own and went to be used in a number of other aircraft.
It was also fitted with electric propeller speed controllers. This particular innovation was to cause real problems as the aircraft entered service.
(The story of the female pilots who contributed to the Marauder’s development can be found here)
A rough service entry
After only 113hrs of flight testing, the B-26 was accepted into service and the first deliveries began. These were then stopped in June 1941, after only 66 aircraft had been built, due to a spate of nose wheel failures on landing.
Investigation found that, because Martin were often short on armaments, the aircraft were frequently delivered without guns. In order to ensure that the Centre of Gravity (CofG) stayed within limits, for these delivery flights, Martin tended to use spare parts and tools as ballast.
Once the USAAC received the aircraft they, naturally, removed the 900lbs of tools and parts. This meant the CofG moved forward, outside limits, with the result that the nose wheel was taking unacceptable loadings on landing and collapsing. With all the weapons systems fitted there was no problem. While not strictly a design fault, the struts were strengthened and production restarted
Very early production aircraft after a nose wheel collapse. The top turret fittings were all installed but were plated over until the turrets themselves became available in late 1941 (USAAF).
However, nose wheel problems did reoccur some months later, again grounding the aircraft. This time it was due to a faulty batch of heat-treated nose wheel parts that proved too brittle and, consequently, broke very easily under the impact of landing. Again, this was more a manufacturing problem than a design fault but this was one yet another contributing factor to moral of the trainee pilots and mechanics becoming a serious problem.
Fundamentally there was nothing wrong with the undercarriage design as, despite being originally designed for an all up weight of 27,000 lbs, it remained essentially unchanged even when the weight went up to 38,000lbs+. The only change being a longer nosewheel oleo, to help reduce takeoff distances,
However, the poor reputation the aircraft was rapidly gaining momentum. It stemmed mostly from the infamous “One a day at Tampa Bay” incidents. This was the US Army Air Corp training base at MacDill airfield, Tampa, Florida, where aircraft crashed on an almost daily basis, hence the origins of the less than complementary nicknames.
This led to more than one review of the whole project and the whole future of the Marauder hung in the balance. It appeared that if a pilot lost an engine, then the aircraft would always crash. General Hap Arnold decide to rev-evaluate the decision to build the aircraft and tasked General Jimmy Doolittle to investigate the aircraft and then take temporary command of the B-26 training groups.
Doolittle later reported that “the Marauder was an unforgiving aeroplane and it was killing pilots because it never gave them a chance to make a mistake. “ However, his first recommendation was that production should continue as he felt it was a good aircraft, after a thorough flying evaluation in all conditions. He did point out that the level of piloting skill required was somewhat higher than for a B-25 or B-18 but, apart from that, the aircraft was basically sound.
It must be remembered that the B-26 was a very sleek and fast (300 Kts), with the highest wing loading of any USAAC aeroplane. Two of the most powerful motors available, the Pratt and WHITNEY R-2800 double Wasp engines powered it. Thus, the performance was step up from what most pilots had experienced before. Thus, if trainee pilot tried to carry out approaches and landings at “normal” speeds, disaster would be sure to strike.
There are always trade offs in aircraft design and for the Marauder it perhaps manifested it self, most prominently, in the “losing an engine at take off” regime. The pilot’s manual is very succinct on this point, stating that if an engine fails below 140mph “it is impossible to continue the take off” and the pilot is advised to belly land directly ahead. This was for a relatively light aircraft without much load – this limit rose to a formidable 163 mph as the aircraft approached maximum all up weight.
With an engine failure close to the ground, the pilot had to be very quick in trim out the torque changes or the good engine (with a massive four bladed prop of 13 ft 6“diameter) or the aircraft would snap roll into the ground. The propellers were driven at half engine speed through reduction gears in the nose of the engine crankcase and this was the first American aircraft to use of 4 blade props.
Another problem was with the fuel system was that there no baffles within the tanks. This meant that when the aircraft was side slipped, the low wing engine could suffer fuel starvation and stop – just what one did not need at low altitude and speeds.
Pilots are just as susceptible to rumour, half truths and common folklore as any other bunch people and once an aircraft has gained a bad reputation it is very hard to overcome common perceptions, however false that they may be.
For the Marauder, the biggest misconception was that the aeroplane would not fly on one engine. This was nonsense, as it could operate on a single engine quite satisfactorily, albeit with a large amount of rudder. However, losing an engine on take off could clearly be hairy and probably gave credence to this belief.
However, the 18 cylinder R-2800’s were small-bore, short-stroke engines which gave smooth-running engines with minimal vibration and each engine could produce a meaty maximum of 2000hp at 2700 rpm at the emergency settings. So plenty of power was available and in general, the engines were also found to be very reliable. This was borne out later by RAF experience where No 14 Squadron, flying B-26Bs, managed 21,000 flying hours without a single engine failure. Given that they were that they were predominantly operating out of desert strips, this was an excellent record.
Unlike most of the other medium bombers, a fully laden B-26 of did need a considerable amount of runway to get airborne.
It was also reported, at this time, that USAAC instructors were aghast that such low time pilots with no twin engine experience were being put on the Marauder.
With all this in mind, Doolittle then went to MacDill and carried out very impressive flight demonstrations, which included single-engine landings and takeoffs as well as dead stick (no engine) landings.
Period training film of single-engine landings, shows very steep approaches indeed, which must have initially proved fairly scary for low time pilots.
The training syllabus was revised to give the trainees more flying time on twin engined trainers. As a result of this the student pilots, who were selected from the top third of their class, regained their confidence and the people issues were resolved, for the time being.
A favourite aviation saying is “speed equals safety” and in the case of the Marauder, this was certainly true, especially when close to the ground. The aircraft had plenty of power available, at all stages of the flight envelope, so once mastered the aircraft was not such the untameable beast that the pilots initially believed.
All in all, the B-26 required better piloting skills, better discipline and anticipation than it’s less sophisticated predecessors. Interestingly, the RAF, who had the “short wing” models, had no problems converting and it might be argued that this was in part due a more comprehensive pilot instruction regime in the RAF. In fact, the only accident that No 14 Squadron had during conversion training, was their USAAC instructor hitting a truck while on the ground.
The B-26 normally had a pilot and co-pilot. There was an attempt by USAAC, in order to save weight, to try operating with a single pilot but this was not popular with aircrew and was dropped. Weight limitations was never really an issue with the Marauder anyway. The normal crew complement of the early models, in addition to the two pilots, were a tail gunner, top gunner, navigator, wireless operator and bombardier (bomb aimer). Later models, with the two waist guns, had an additional waist gunner. The aircraft did have 3 additional seats fitted so more crew or passengers could be carried.
However, mechanical problems still plagued the aircraft. A pattern emerged in a number of accidents, where aircraft would stall and crash just after rotating off the runway. The propeller speed control mechanism was an all-electric device and it was speculated that the props had gone into flat pitch during this critical part of the flight envelope. However, no evidence could be found to support this theory.
Working on a hunch, USAAC engineers discovered that inexperienced mechanics, when checking out the electrical powered turret, ran the batteries down. As these fed the prop actuators directly, this meant that props could over speed at this critical point in the flight envelope, due to lack of battery charge. By changing the propeller circuit to run directly off the generator and providing battery carts for servicing, the problem was resolved, but not before another shadow had been cast over the future of the Marauder.
The next major mechanical problem to overcome was sudden engine failures. Fortunately, one of these failures occurred during ground running and this enabled the engineers to quickly trace the cause to the new additives that the USAAC wanted in the fuel. This was causing the rubber diaphragm in the fuel control system to rot away and, at high manifold pressures, they would rupture and stop any fuel flow. All Marauders were grounded and 80% were found to have diaphragms that were about to fail. A change of material solved the problem and got the aeroplane flying again.
About this time, chronic leaks in the hydraulic system were being experienced. This was also traced to the USAAC changing to a new and non-flammable fluid, which destroyed the systems O ring seals. Again, a change of O ring seal material solved the problem.
While these problems nearly resulted in the project being scrapped on three or four occasions, it should be remembered that the last three issues, as discussed above, were hardly designed faults but operator problems/issues. Interestingly, much support work today by aircraft manufacturers is on similar material compatibility issues.
When one considers that there was no pre-production or prototype aircraft built to iron out these issues, it is not surprising that each problem got major publicity. If you look at the majority of successful military aircraft quite often they suffered such problems but yet when it came to the operations, they excelled at the task they were designed for. The Marauder was certainly one of these aircraft, although in the early dark days it was clear that many in authority did not have faith in the type.
Even after various secret investigations and reports and there was still a serious danger of the B-26 being scrapped in favour in other medium bombers but the first positive aspects of the programme were just beginning to emerge.
A deciding factor in continuing production was the very favourable combat experiences of the aircraft in the Southwest Pacific theatre that were coming to light.
Here Maj. Gen. Kennery pleaded for the B-26 and recommended it to Hap Arnold, on the basis of its performance against the Japanese Zeros. His 22nd Bombardment Group brought down 96 enemy aircraft for the loss of 6 Marauders in the first year of combat.
It was this outstanding performance that apparently saved the aircraft from being permanently grounded. It was also becoming apparent that the aircraft could withstand a considerable amount of punishment, which added weight to the argument to continue production.
Sadly, the spectre of the failure rose again after a disastrous raid over Ijmuiden, Holland, on 17th May 1943 by 10 aircraft. These were from the first USAAC group to fly combat missions from the UK. All 10 Marauders were lost due to the intense heavy flak and Me109 fighters, during this low altitude raid. Pilots once again started muttering that cause was that the Marauder was a bad aircraft, although, in truth, this had nothing to with the debacle that had taken place.
The Group had been lulled into a false sense of security from a previous low altitude raid over the same target. As a result of this disaster, tactics were change completely and all raids by medium bombers were, from then on, carried out at medium or high altitude. However, needless to say, for the Marauder, this was another stigma that had to overcome.
At this time, the Marauder was also being used for other slightly divergent maritime roles, namely mine laying and torpedo attacks.
No 14 Squadron with the “short wing” B-26B models was the first RAF unit to carry out this task. Each aircraft had two mines. They had to be dropped at 30 ft or less and as slow as possible. It turned out that frequently they had to fly so low that the tail gunner got soaked in seawater spray during such operations. However, it was reported that the pilot often felt as though the aircraft was running on rails, probably due to the ground affect close to the sea surface.
Fully Operational (Proof of the pudding at last)
Despite early and very convincing operational success by the USAAC 22nd Bombardment Group based in Australia. Other introductions into service roles were not always so painless. One of the other early operational tasks was in the anti-shipping torpedo role. Initially, this was not very successful due to mechanical problems with the torpedo racks and release mechanism. To overcome this problem a decision was made to redesign the racks. Four days later, they had been made, shipped and installed on aircraft that took part in the Battle of Midway. The RAF also carried out torpedo attacks.
For the RAF, these attacks were particularly dangerous work, as the pilot had to hold the aircraft perfectly straight and level for 5 seconds, after torpedo release, in order that the torpedo control wires could unwind correctly. Since you had to drop the torpedo from around 800 yards and then stay on heading for 5 seconds at over 150 mph, that sort of closing speed took you very, very close to the target. After the 5 seconds had elapsed, the aircraft was then thrown violently around the sky, as part of the evasive action procedure.
It was the RAF that discovered a structural weakness in the airframe. No 14 Squadron lost three complete aircraft and crews, a total of 21 lives (One aircraft had nine personnel on board). These were all due to instances of half the fin and tailplane coming off completely.
Given that the Marauder was only designed to a US Army Air Corp specification, perhaps we should not be, with hindsight, surprised that it had problems in this maritime role. A modification to rivet a reinforcing strip up the leading edge of the fin completely cured the problem.
At this time it was decided that, in order to overcome the apparent problems of the high wing loading, a “longer wing” was to be introduced during the later B model production and used onwards right through to the G models. The fuselage was also lengthened and the vertical fin made larger.
The “longer wing” increased the wingspan from 65 to 71 feet. The military mind, working in the predictable way that it does, realised a big wing gave more lift and, hence, a bigger bomb load could be carried. So the gross weight rose to 36,000lbs with an increase in landing speed and decrease in top speed. Quite how this helped overcome the bad reputation and the apprehension of the trainee pilots, is a point of conjecture. It does, however, again illustrate the soundness of the basic design.
The later F and G models had the wing incidence increased by some 3.5° to try reduce take-off and landing speeds but it apparently did not make that much difference. Not too surprising when you consider that the all up weight had now increased to 38,000lbs – a big step up from the earlier models. It was also not uncommon for aircraft to be overloaded up to 40,000 lbs for major bombing missions.
Interestingly, it is believed that the earlier models were more mechanically and electrically reliable than the later ones.
While outwardly, the B-26 was indeed a sleek machine, inwardly it contained many awkward and complex systems. The nose wheel, when retracted, turned 90 degrees so that it lay flat in the nose wheel bay. The crew entered through a hatch in the nose wheel bay, which also doubled as emergency escape route. As the maximum speed for lowering the undercarriage was around 140kts, this was a rather limited escape option.
The pilot’s notes also had rather unusual advice for dealing with a hung-up nose wheel. In extremis, the crew were advised to “gouge a small hole of 3 to 4” square” in the pilot’s dural floor to reach a critical hydraulic valve.
The only problem being that the engine controls and hydraulic lines were also located at this very point underfloor. So if you were unlucky, you could go from having a bad hair day to a very, very, bad hair quite quickly. Not to mention the damage that could be done to your manicure. Very helpfully, the pilot’s manual urges “extreme caution” when gouging away at the floor.
Once you got the undercarriage down your problems were not quite over, if you had to use the emergency braking system. This consisted of 1000-psi air bottles. Once you activated it, it tended to lock the wheels solid, peeling the tyre tread off in the process, adding considerably to an already stressed pilot’s workload.
The aircraft was unusual on that it had two bomb bays. The designer, Peyton Magruder, had measured up a B-17 bomb bay and then used the same dimensions for the B-26 front bomb bay. The forward bomb bay doors were also innovative in that they folded open. The aft bomb bay was smaller and had conventional hinged doors. After the C models, it was dispensed with completely and the space used for fuel tanks.
Another feature that one cannot help noticing is the fitting of an ashtray in the bomb aimers compartment. No doubt this was probably one of the most expensive ashtrays in the world, as it would have been designed, made of aircraft specified and released material with appropriate certification.
Interestingly, the Pilot’s Manual also suggests that taxiing should be carried out at 50 to 60 mph, which seems extraordinarily high, even by today’s standards. This may account for the seemingly high number of pictures of Marauders getting very intimate with immobile objects while still on the ground
The emergency instructions in the Pilot’s Manual talk about detonators in the radio set and how to blow it up. It states that the “resulting explosion is not dangerous to personnel, but contact with set should be avoided at the time”. It is somewhat hard to believe that the words “explosion” and “not dangerous” coexist in the same sentence.
Also, in USAAC aircraft, two hand grenades were stowed in the aircraft. One in the pilots compartment and the other was in the waist compartment. These were, according to the manual, to be “hurled at the airplane in case of a forced landing in enemy territory by any crew member when he is at a safe distance from the airplane”. It is suspected that this practice would have had a doubtful impact on the aircraft and probably had the potential to cause more damage to the over enthusiastic crew member handling the grenade.
There was also an auxiliary power plant. It looked like some thing off an old lawn mower with a generator bolted on the end. This was designed to provide electrical power for engine starting when battery carts were not available. Although the manual does state that power plant “should be removed from the waist compartment before starting” – that must have required at least three shredded wheat for breakfast each day.
After the B models, four “package” .50 cal guns were mounted on the belly of the fuselage, just aft of the cockpit. This increased the already considerable firepower of one unpowered .50 cal gun at the tail and nose and the two .50s in the top turret. Eventually, the tail gunner got two .50 Brownings and the pilot also had an additional fixed forward-firing gun in the nose. This made the aircraft very heavily armed indeed with twelve M-2 .50 machine guns. Not bad, considering the original spec only called for four of the much lighter .30 and inferior guns. Not only that, each gun had more ammunition than those in a B-17. This was mostly due to the innovative Martin designed ammo racking which proved very successful. American aircraft tended to have spent cartridge case collectors fitted, as it was found that the empty cases were causing damage to lower flying aircraft in the bombing formation.
However, this resulted in impressive firepower. So much so that the German ace, Genralleutnant Adolf Galland stated, when interrogated after the war, that the Marauder was the bomber he would least enjoy attacking. This was because they flew in tight formations and were very difficult to approach and had devastating firepower.
However, there were chinks to be found in this armoury. The electric motors powering the top turret were, due to weight and size limitations, small. This meant that the gunner had to be careful not to overload the motors and burn them out in a long-running firefight. This sounds fine on paper. However, if you are fighting for your life, the turret duty cycle limitations (around four minutes’ continuous use), as one can imagine, became rather theoretical in nature. This was especially true since the manual called for 20 minutes power off, once the limitations were reached. More than just a nuisance, if the enemy continued to be beastly to you for longer than 4 minutes.
Another feature of the turret was the automatic azimuth fire interrupters, to stop the gunner from shooting his own tail. Interestingly, he could still shoot his own propellers because there was no automatic interruption on that part of the firing arc – a party trick that was guaranteed to make the upper gunner really popular with his fellow crew members.
Looking at numerous pictures of crashed Marauders one is struck by how often the fuselage remains intact, providing considerable crash protection to the crewmembers. While each accident will put different loads at different places, a perfectly circular fuselage, all things being equal, provides the strongest engineering structure and, hence, the best protection. The robustness of the Marauder was legendary, with many aircraft continuing to fly with an enormous number of patches all over the airframe.
Perhaps the most famous of all Marauder pictures is the unique one below. However, losing an engine in such a dramatic fashion did not always mean complete loss of the crew and aircraft.
Identical damage occurred to ‘Swamp Chicken’ of the 323rd Bomb Group, as the photo of Little Salvo, but with a slightly happier outcome. She had her starboard engine blown off and the pilot managed to successfully crash land the aircraft in more or less one piece. Unfortunately, the field he used, was one that had a German flak battery in it, so he ended up POW after demonstrating some pretty remarkable flying skills.
Despite the inevitable problems, the wartime record of the Marauder is outstanding. When it was introduced it was touted as “the fastest bomber flying and yet handles like a fighter but carries the same bomb load as a B17”. Despite suffering a very problematical introduction into service, more related to pilot skills than the plane, it not only met the above criteria but also proved to be incredibly tough and able to withstand enormous amounts of punishment.
It is believed that, despite the initial high levels of accidents in the early years, that during 1943-1944 the USAAC accident rate on the B-25 Mitchell was higher than the Marauder. Again, this underpins the fact that the aircraft was sound and heralded a new era in performance. It was the pilots who were not, initially, up to the task.
This phenomenon where the platform technology is initially in advance of the aircrew skills is still a problem today. Witness the delay in the initial introduction of the UK Apache attack helicopter, due to pilot training lagging the aircraft production deliveries. Again, this is not a problem of the airframe but rather the training doctrine.
The B-26 sobriquet “Widow Maker” is unjust and, as the operational record shows, unwarranted. If anything, the aircraft was a “Widow Saver” due to its firepower, speed, fighter-like handling, and ability to withstand enormous amounts of punishment.
The Marauder certainly cost more to build than its contemporaries but in terms of what it delivered it and the protection it offered to its crew, it probably was good value for money on an output basis. Sadly, this very capable aeroplane never fully recovered from its initial bad reputation during entry into service and, as perceptions can often be stronger than reality, that dogged the aircraft throughout its service life.
Germany 1945, hundreds of Marauders in Germany all lined up awaiting demolition. (USAAF)
The fact a considerable number of operational B-26 crews stated that they would have rather flown the B-26 than any other aircraft, says more than anything else and should be the yardstick by which history judges this remarkable aircraft.
References: US bombers 1928 to 1980, Lloyd S. Jones
B-26 Marauder at War, Roger A Freeman
Deadly Duo – B-25 & B-26 in WWII, Charles Mendenhall
Battle Over Bavaria, Robert Forsyth
Andrew Cranfield started his aviation career in free-fall parachuting and designing (with his brother) his own, highly dodgy, hang glider. Having survived that experience, he set a number of unofficial hang gliding records and became an instructor. He was sponsored by Westland Helicopters Ltd (WHL) through his engineering degree. During his time at WHL, He designed and built a Human Power Helicopter and in his spare time flew early, rather unstable, foot-launched microlights. After being awarded a Fellowship at Cranfield University, he left WHL and his subsequent management career has included working at Optica Aircraft, Lucas Aerospace (on the Osprey V22 project) and running P&M Aviation (The only flexwing designer and manufacturer in the world with UK CAA A1 approval)- an experience that left him seriously out of pocket. He has held senior management positions in other, more profitable, high technology businesses. He currently works as a Non-Executive Director and, amongst other activities, is involved in supporting the Waterbird project (a replica of the UK’s first-ever seaplane) and contributing to an initiative to enhance the skills of UK flexwing microlight pilot.”
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