‘Witchcraft’: The bewitching story of a B-24 Liberator

The aircraft that the men of the 2nd Air Division flew and maintained were more than the sum of their parts. They had their own personalities and peculiarities – be it how they handled, whether they were prone to niggles and problems or perhaps more superstitiously, whether they brought their crews back in one piece. These characteristics were often summed up in the names that the men gave their planes. This is the story of one such aircraft, an air-frame that truly lived up to its name. This is the bewitching story of ‘Witchcraft’.

One of the first things you’ll notice as you enter the 2nd Air Division Memorial Library is a large scale model of a Consolidated B-24 Liberator hanging from the ceiling, its wheels are down as if it might be on ‘finals’ to land by the staircase up to the main library. The sight of large formations of these four-engined bombers would have been a daily occurrence for the people of Norwich and Norfolk during the latter years of the Second World War. Rumbling across the city and countryside like skeins of deadly wildfowl on their way to and from bombing missions over war-torn Europe.

The Eighth Air Force, the numbered air force under which the 2nd Air Division operated paid a heavy price for its strategy of daylight bombing. Operating during the day had the advantage that the crew were able to pinpoint their targets using the Norden bombsight with much greater accuracy than the RAF’s night bombing offensive, but the flip side of the coin was that the enemy was able to see the bombers better too and was able to, at least initially, wage a war of attrition against the American bombardment groups who paid a heavy price with the loss of thousands of men and hundreds of aeroplanes.

B-24 Witchcraft
A photograph showing the B-24 ‘Witchcraft’ in flight, signed by Joe R Ramirez (crew chief). MC 371/491, USF PH 11/1: Image 6

For many crews, the planes they flew became talismans, fantastically decorated with ‘nose art’, heraldry and ‘war paint’. The aeroplanes were much more than the sum of their parts, the bits of metal and rivets from which they were constructed, they were in the eyes of the airmen who flew them and the ground crews who maintained them living, breathing machines with their own unique personalities.

Many of these aircraft became famous, some even passed into the wider public consciousness. The B-17 Flying Fortress 41-24485 named, ’Memphis Belle’ of the 91st Bomb Group based at Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire was the ride of one of the first crews to complete their 25 assigned missions in May 1943. The ‘Belle’ and her crew became immortalised in the 1944 film Memphis Belle: A Story of A Flying Fortress by William Wyler, a fascinating full-colour film that was shown in cinemas back home in the States, (the crew of the Belle were sent home and then flown around the USA as part of a PR campaign undertaken to sell War Bonds) and in 1990 the story of the ‘Belle’ was given the Hollywood treatment in the eponymous film by Michael Caton-Jones.

If the 2nd Air Divison  has a talisman then it is surely ‘Witchcraft’. A plane that performed an even more extraordinary feat than did the ‘Belle’, it is apt then that that should be the aircraft represented by the model hanging above the doorway as you enter the library.

Though the design for the B-24 was drawn up by the Consolidated Aircraft Company based in San Diego, CA, B-24H serial number 42-52534, the airframe that would come to be named ‘Witchcraft’ was in actual fact built by Ford at their Willow Run plant in Michigan. To meet the foreseen demand for the hardware of war the government instructed a consortium of manufacturers to turn out thousands of aircraft, tanks, and materiel. By the close of hostilities in 1945 Ford’s Willow Run plant had rolled out 8,600 B-24s, a staggering 40% of all the Liberators built.

42-52534 was delivered to the 467th Bomb Group (Heavy) at Wendover AAF (Army AirForce base), Utah and assigned to the 790th Bombardment Squadron. It was then flown on the last day of February 1944 via the southern ferry route from Florida to Brazil, on to Dakar and finally to England. The trip took 20 days.

The final destination was Station 145, Rackheath. Situated about five miles northeast of Norwich. Rackheath was a new airfield built specifically for the USAAF, it opened for business on 11th March 1944.

Over the next few weeks, scores of men and machines of the 467th BG began arriving – 54 B-24s were initially assigned. They must have been quite a sight seen from surrounding fields, like great, exotic beasts at rest.

They wouldn’t be idle for too long though. After flying various familiarisation and local sorties the group flew its first combat mission (as part of Mission 295) on 10th April 1944. B-24 42-52534 was captained by 2/Lt. George W Reed for the flight to Borges, France. The target was the airfield and associated infrastructure there. The aircraft was just one of 151 that made the trip. This was just a fraction of the 729 bombers and 496 fighters that the Eighth launched that day.

It’s hard to tell from photos when 42-52534 officially became ‘Witchcraft’. It was at some point between mission one and 40 which took place in early July as there are pictures of her sporting the ‘Witchcraft’ nose art and 40 odd ‘mission markings’ – silhouettes of bombs stencilled up on the fuselage directly under the cockpit.

In total the 467th BG flew 221 missions between 10th April 1944 and 25th April 1945 of those 221 ‘Witchcraft’ took part in 130, almost 60% – an astonishing figure when you realise that out those she flew as part of both mission 1 and 221 – in between she flew 100 consecutive missions without turning back.

‘Witchcraft’ flew more missions than any other bomber, not just in the 2nd Air Division but in the Eighth Air Force as a whole. This is a testament not just to the crews who flew her but to the design and build of the airframe and of course the ground crews who kept her running and patched her up when she got bits torn out of her, and she got a few scratches along the way.

A document within the archive, a book of cartoons and associated papers called ‘Rackheath Memories’ dedicates a page to the groups favourite plane and gives us a good idea of the sort of jobs Crew Chief M/Sgt Joe R. Ramirez and his crew would have been regularly carrying out. ‘The Liberator has worn out, or lost through flak, 13 engines’ and has ‘received more than 300 flak holes during 665 combat hours’.

'Witchcraft' Cartoon
‘A Short History of ‘Witchcraft” from a collection of cartoons entitled ‘Rackhath Memories’.  MC 371/476, USF 11/6

Flak, or ‘Triple A’ as it’s also known was anti-aircraft artillery. The American planes often had to fly through enormous barrages of anti-aircraft fire as they closed in on the target areas. Flak could easily bring down a bomber if it hit the engines or punctured the fuel tanks but it could also cause significant damage to the plane and horrendous injuries to the crew without actually felling the plane entirely. It is remarkable to note that when she had completed the 100 consecutive missions (she had flown 65 times to Germany, 31 times to France and 4 times to Belgian), by some great fortune, or perhaps witchcraft, no one was wounded or killed whilst flying aboard her – astonishing.

A commemorative ‘short snorter’ banknote in the digital archive celebrates the achievement. The ‘snorter’ was produced to mark the groups’ 200th mission and is signed by many of the crew and 467th staff. In the In the middle is a depiction of ‘Witchcraft’ herself aptly being ‘buzzed’ by a witch on a broomstick and around her are the battle honours, in just over a year ‘Witchcraft’ was a veteran of all the major aerial battles of 1944-1945, the Battle of Normandy, Battle of Northern France, the Battle of Germany and Air Offensive Europe, each of which is represented with a small illustration.

Commemorative 'Short-snorter'
Commemorative ‘short-snorter’ banknote showing the B-24 ‘Witchcraft’ and her ‘Battle Honours’ – note the witch flying over the plane! MC 376/655, USF 11/1

Being such a famous aeroplane there are plenty more fascinating artefacts in the archive for you to explore. Especially wonderful is a fantastic and rare photo of ‘Witchcraft’ inflight signed by Crew Chief Ramirez. I doubt there was anyone, barring the aircrew who flew and fought in her that cared for this aircraft as much as Joe and his ground crew colleagues did.

So what became of ‘Witchcraft’? Well, she was flown back to the USA soon after the end of hostilities in June 1945 and was broken up for salvage. A sad and ordinary end for such an extraordinary aeroplane.

Of the almost 20,000 B-24’s built, only a handful survive – a crying shame seeing as there were more ‘Libs’ made than any other bomber in World War II. Of that handful only two are in airworthy condition, they are 40-2366, a very early example, a B-24A in fact, which is operated by the Confederate Airforce at Addison, Texas and 44-44052 a late model B-24J that was in use by the Indian Airforce right up until the late 1960s! Today it is owned and operated by the Collings Foundation and based in Massachusetts.

The Collings Foundation has lovingly looked after this piece of living history for almost 30 years. In that time she has been painted in three different liveries representing three iconic B-24s which flew in the three ‘theatres of operations’ in which the Liberator played a part.

First up was 42-78444 ‘All American’ assigned to the 765th Squadron of the 461st BG part of the Fifteenth Airforce which fought in the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations (MTO). In 1998 she ‘became’ 44-40973, the spectacular ’The Dragon and his Tail’ assigned to the 43BG, Fifth Airforce which flew in the Pacific Theatre of Operations (PTO), and currently, she flies resplendent in the colours of an Eighth Airforce B-24. It’s not hard to guess which Liberator they chose to represent…the one and only 42-52534 ‘Witchcraft’.

If you live in Norfolk then the USA is a long way to go to see one of these magnificent machines, but if you are lucky enough to make the trip to the Collings Foundation or you see one of these two machines flying at an airshow please think of the many young men who made the ultimate sacrifice flying and fighting in these aeroplanes because the vast majority of crews weren’t as lucky as those of ‘Witchcraft’ and it is to honour them that we must keep these aircraft flying.

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