Air Classics

Squadron of deception

Squadron of deception

Hutton, Stephen



They flew in four– engine heavy bombers – but never dropped a single bomb! They were an American Eighth Air Force (8th AF) squadron, but flew their first missions with the British Royal Air Force (RAF). Initially, they flew night missions with the Royal Air Force and, later, daylight missions for the Mighty Eighth. On all these missions their aircraft preceded the Allied bombers to the target. They flew at times when the RAF and the 8th AF had no operations. And they flew on days when the 8th AF stood down because of weather. They were a unique and secret squadron that saved many Allied lives during World War Two. They were the 36th Bomb Squadron Radar Countermeasure (RCM) unit – the only electronic warfare squadron of the 8th AF.

Oh! You’ve never heard of them? As a secret squadron their story has largely gone untold. Until now. The 36th Bomb Squadron (36th BS) was a radar countermeasure unit that did not drop bombs and was not involved in typical 8th AF missions. It only compared to other bomb squadrons due to the fact that B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers were used. The bomb squadron name was designed to mislead the enemy and Allied personnel with no “need to know” into believing this was just another American bomber squadron. In fact, for the most part the bombers looked just alike, but instead of having the large heavy bombs loaded in the bomb bays, the radar countermeasure aircraft carried high voltage jammers. This squadron functioned as a special bomber support unit to protect Allied bombers and also to conduct experimentation of new electronic warfare equipment.

Electronic warfare was in its infancy at this time and the United States was following on the coattails of Great Britain. The ingenious British had learned that RCM had reduced their bomber losses by an astounding 50 percent. The 36th BS performed radar countermeasures by jamming the German radar which gave them early raid warning, and which also controlled the enemy fighters, the flak batteries or antiaircraft guns, and searchlights. Using RCM operational tactics, the missions of the 36th created spoofs and diversions causing confusion to the German defenders. Successful RCM missions left the Germans guessing the size of the invading forces, where to direct their critical defenses, and if a threatened mission was real or just a “spoof.” By the spring of 1944, the Germans could ill afford to waste its resources of pilots, fuel, and aircraft. Through deception this special bomber support program, part of a larger electronic warfare effort, would save many Allied lives.

The 36th was born out of the 803rd Bomb Squadron (Provisional). The 803rd, which was not yet fully organized, worked initially with the RAF’s 100 Bomb Group at RAF Sculthorpe during March 1944. Air Vice Marshal E.B. Addison led the RAF group whose motto was “Confound and Destroy.” Combat veteran Capt. George E. Paris was chosen to command the 8th AF’s fledgling 803rd. Captain Paris and this first attachment of airmen had already completed an operational tour by flying the required 25 missions. The radar countermeasure effort came under RAF Bomber Command and performed a variety of special operational activities. The secret missions used exotic hardware. The simplest was nicknamed Chaff, or Window as the British called it. These were aluminum strips not unlike tinsel and were dropped from the aircraft to obscure the enemy’s radar with “snow.” On a side note, it was discovered that in dropping some of the tinsel over the continent that, in addition to fouling the enemy radar, the cows were eating it and dying of indigestion. So, it had a bad side effect for cows as well as the enemy!

Other special equipment utilized in the Gremlin’s bag-of-tricks were powerful electronic jammers. These devices had unusual nicknames like Mandrel, Dina, Jackal, Jostle, and others. Mandrel, for example, was an airborne transmitter tuned to radiate noise over the enemy radar frequencies. This disturbance tended to obscure the size of Allied attacking forces on the enemy’s radar screens and also caused the enemy to conclude an attack was imminent when one was not. Another airborne electronic jammer, nicknamed Jackal, was used to jam the German tank communications during the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944-45. Many of the aircraft jamming systems were developed and tested by Allied scientists associated with the American-British Laboratory Division 15 (ABL-15). They were part of the British Telecommunications Research Establishment located at Great Malvern.

In April 1944, Lt. Col. Clayton A. Scott assumed command of the 803rd. At this time the squadron included nine crews and six B-17s. In May, the squadron moved from Sculthorpe to RAF Oulton and commenced nighttime RCM operations supporting the RAF as they pounded the Nazis relentlessly. For the new 803rd, and for the Allies, the most important electronic warfare mission of WWII was soon to take place.

The first operational mission for the 803rd was on D-Day. This historic mission used four 803rd B-17Gs on the night of 5/6 June, along with aircraft from RAF 100 Group’s 101 and 214 Squadrons. The mission’s purpose was to mask the Allied invasion fleet and to support the airborne operations on the Normandy beachhead. The aircraft with their bulky Mandrel jamming boxes bolted onto metal framed shelves in the bomb bays were in their assigned orbit positions over the English Channel from 2235 hours 5 June, to 0450 hours on 6 June. The original unit history record stated, “This mission proved very effective in countering the enemy warning system and contributed materially to the success of the landings on the beachhead.” With this first mission, the 803rd flew into RCM history in a most honorable manner.

In an 8 June message of congratulations from T.C. Dickens, Group Captain, Commanding RAF Station Oulton to the Officers Commanding the RAF’s 101 and 214 Squadrons and the 803rd, Dickens said: “The results achieved on the night preceding invasion day were highly successful. This has already been established. It may be found that your achievement was of even greater importance than can be known at present. I appreciate that the culmination of your effort can only have been achieved by careful training and attention to detail. This is reflected by the results of the crews concerned. Great appreciation has been expressed by Naval Commanders of the support from the Squadrons and it can now be disclosed that the work of 101, 214, and 803 Squadrons succeeded most effectually in confusing the enemy as to the point of landing thus permitting the tactical surprise which we gained.”

In August 1944, personnel from the 803rd merged with selected men of the 856th Bomb Squadron and the 858th Bomb Squadron of the 492nd Bomb Group to form the new 36th Bomb Squadron (Heavy) RCM unit. At this time, the squadron packed up and moved again to Army Air Field (AAF) Station 113 Cheddington, 30 miles northwest of London (Cheddington later became famous as the location of the Great Train Robbery). At Cheddington, Maj. Robert F. Hambaugh assumed command and continued in that capacity until war’s end.

During August 1944, half of the 16 operational missions were flown from RAF Oulton with the remaining half from Cheddington. In addition to the Mandrel patrol missions, the squadron flew four frequency search missions at the request of ABL-15. These data gathering missions contributed to RCM research being carried out by the ABL-15 scientists and technicians. Naturally, the squadron had to know what radio and radar frequencies to jam because the enemy’s frequencies were changed on a regular basis.

Squadron navigator Lt. Joseph Thome recalled serving at Cheddington as well as working with ABL-15, “Some of the work that we were doing there was pretty highly classified. We worked real close with the ABL. They were the ones that were providing the Americans with their electronic knowledge. They were quite a bit ahead of us. We worked together. That’s the reason, of course, why we were there. We loaned them the airplanes to put their equipment aboard and when we weren’t flying combat missions we were flying for ABL. We were trying to prove over England what we were going to perhaps do later over over the continent. They (ABL-15) were very successful in what they were doing. They were so far ahead of us it was terrible. They came out with some pretty good inventions. We just tried to keep everything way above board. We just went out there and we turned certain switches on and turned them off as they programmed us to do.”

It quickly became clear that the B-24 Liberator was better suited in delivering a more ample power supply to the high voltage jammers than the B-17. By September, with great diligence, the squadron completed the change-over to an all B-24 Liberator fleet. However, for seven of the eleven war-weary Fortresses the 803rd had flown, their duty was not yet over. These aircraft were later used in Project Aphrodite — the program to destroy Adolf Hitler’s Vengeance weapon sites. It was this secret project that took the life of Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., the brother of President John F. Kennedy.

One most effective jamming mission for the new squadron using its new aircraft took place on the evening of 5/6 September when seven B-24s successfully completed a moving Mandrel patrol jamming from 2215 hours to 0235 hours. Over 600 RAF aircraft were dispatched with seven failing to return for a loss rate of 1.1 percent and the main target for the attack was Kiel. The raid analysis report stated in part: “To cover the attack on Kiel, the Mandrel screen moved up at 2300 hours from a patrol line extending from coordinates 5345N-0320E to 5033N– 0250E to fresh positions from 5505N– 0635E to 5318N-0325E. The enemy was thus deprived of early warning, and it may well be that he again anticipated nothing more than a spoof attack with the result that fighter action was not initiated until after the bombers had crossed the coast.” The 36th Gremlins were effective again!

During October 1944, RCM night missions continued in support of RAF Bomber Command whose targets included Bremen, Cologne, Essen, Frankfurt, plus others. Successful spoof jamming missions were also commenced when Bomber Command had no operations. Deceived by the spoof and believing a RAF bombing raid was approaching their territory, enemy controllers at the radar stations would initiate fighter action, thereby wasting manpower and fuel. Reduced bomber losses over the continent were being attributed to the screening efforts.

A classic electronic warfare mission occurred on the evening of 6/7 October. This mission produced significant results as the jamming Gremlins worked their special magic. A flight of seven Liberators was dispatched and successfully completed their mission without incident, jamming from 1815 hours to 2145 hours. The screen was in support of RAF Bomber Command attacks on Dortmund and Bremen. Like the night before, it was a moving Mandrel screen. The RAF had 484 aircraft attack Dortmund with a loss of five aircraft or one percent. The attack on Bremen utilized 246 aircraft and incurred a loss of five aircraft or two percent. An Interception Tactics Report stated that the operations were highly successful, “To have succeeded in penetrating 120 miles beyond the battle line to the Ruhr and in carrying out a major attack on Bremen, for the loss of five aircraft on each was an extraordinarily encouraging outcome. Tactical surprise was evidently achieved in the north by use of a Mandrel screen, a lowlevel approach as far as was possible towards the mouth of the Weser, an unusual approach route and restrictions on signals with the result that fighters were able to get to the target only after the bombing had been in progress for about ten minutes. The raid in the north and its protective screen were intended to lessen the fighter opposition farther south, but it appears that even without this there was sufficient confusion in the enemy’s control over southwest Germany to prevent any well organized interceptors from coming up.”

Dr. Reginald V. Jones, Great Britain’s foremost electronic warfare wizard, Assistant Director of Scientific Intelligence, and Prime Minister Churchill’s advisor in the countermeasures program wrote in his book Most Secret War, “One of the examples we enjoyed most occurred on 6 October, when we obtained Gen. ‘Beppo’ Schmid’s (Commander of the German nightfighters) personal reaction to the fact that our losses were only 13 out of 949 aircraft. The night’s major operations were twin attacks on Dortmund and Bremen. In the latter, our bombers made a low approach under radio silence, while the German early warning radar was jammed by a screen of 100 Group aircraft operating their Mandrel jammers; as a result the nightfighters were only able to attack after our bombers had been over the target for ten minutes. Similarly, the Dortmund force flew low over France and turned north and climbed towards the Ruhr again screened by Mandrel aircraft, while a spoof force of Mosquitoes went on to threaten Mannheim. The result was confusion to the defenses, and General Schmid reacted with a castigatory diatribe to the whole German nightfighter organization: ‘I am astonished that in spite of pains, admonitions, and orders throughout the whole year, I have not succeeded in bringing the Jagd Divisionen (fighter divisions) at least to the point of being able to distinguish in what strength and in what direction the enemy is approaching. In my view, there is no excuse whatever for this failure.'”

The next evening, the night of 7/8 October, the squadron succeeded in another electronic warfare jamming spoof, one truly for the record books. There was no offensive by Bomber Command this night, however, six B– 24s of the 36th were successfully dispatched and completed their mission without incident. The jamming was between 1845 hours to 2200 hours. The Raid Analysis Report described the operation thus: “Taking advantage of the fact that there was to be no bomber night offensive on this night of 7/8 October a spoof attack by the Mandrel screen and special Window dropping aircraft, supported by high and low Intruders (RAF Mosquitoes attacking enemy airfields) was planned against Bremen. Following on the attack on that city on the previous night when practically no enemy activity was recorded, it was anticipated that a threat to the same would serve a number of useful purposes. All the evidence so far received shows that the whole operation went according to plan and was an unqualified success. Enemy radar stations plotted the formation as it was anticipated they would and the enemy controllers, deceived by the spoof, initiated fighter action in accordance with our purpose.”

Through October, the RCM squadron suffered no casualties or lost any aircraft during orientation training or by fighters or flak though The JIGS UP, Liberator s/n 42-51232 R4*J, did fire on a British Mosquito by mistake!

(To Be Continued)

Copyright Challenge Publications Inc. Jul 2001

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