The controversial Martin B-26 Marauder saw most service with the Ninth Air Force, operating with eight Bombardment Groups. After a terrible introduction into the European Theatre as a low-level bomber the B-26 found its niche as a medium bomber, and ended the war with the best loss ratio of any bomber in the Ninth Air Force.
The Marauder entered combat with the Eighth Air Force in May 1943 as a low-level bomber. The first mission, on 14 May, was an attack on a power station at Ijmuiden. Eleven or twelve (sources differ) Marauders from the 322nd Bombardment Group took part in the attack, returning without loss (although one aircraft crashed while attempting to make an emergency landing) but also without inflicting any damage on the target. Rather foolishly, and against the advice of the Group's own officers, a return mission was planned for 17 May. This time eleven aircraft were dispatched. One was forced to turn back with electrical problems, and would prove to be the only survivor. The mission leader and one other aircraft were shot down crossing the enemy coast. Two aircraft were lost in a collision, four were shot down by AA fire and the two survivors were shot down by Bf-109s on their way back across the North Sea.
In the aftermath of this disaster the Eighth Air Force stood down its B-26s while it was decided what to do with them. When the Marauder returned to action on 16 July it was as a medium level bomber, a role in which it would excel, ending the war as the safest bomber in use with the Ninth Air Force.
In the intervening two months the Eighth Air Force was able to activate VIII Air Support Command, which had four B-26 groups in its 3rd Bombardment Wing – the 322nd, 323rd, 386th and 387th. This meant that the Marauder could operation in much larger numbers than on the two missions in May. The four groups moved south to Essex, greatly expanding the number of targets they could hit, and began to receive aircraft modified for medium level bombing.
The 3rd Bombardment Wing made its first medium level raid on 16 July 1943 when 14 of 18 aircraft dispatched attacked rail marshalling yards at Abbeville, dropping seventeen tons of bombs on target. Ten aircraft were damaged by flak, but all eighteen returned home safely.
Over the next few months the Eighth Air Force Marauder force steadily increased in size and effectiveness. Common targets included coke ovens, power stations, and most importantly German fighter airfields, in the hope that these attacks would help divert German attention away from the heavy bombers on their way to targets in Germany. The shorter range of B-26 missions meant that they were normally escorted by RAF Spitfires, which provided protection against German fighter attack, while the B-26's increased altitude reduced the effectiveness of German AA fire.
On 17 August the Eighth's heavy bombers took part in the notorious raid on Schweinfurt and Regensburg. On the same day the 3rd BW dispatched over 100 B-26s for the first time, in an attempt to reduce the pressure on the main bomber force. One formation of 36 was forced to turn back because of bad weather over the target, and the diversionary attacks couldn't prevent the Germans from inflicting very heavy losses on the heavy bombers.
The scale of attacks continued to increase – on 27 September 130 sorties were made against airfields at Conches and Beauvais/ Tille, and on 3 October nearly 300 sorties were made, also against, with many aircraft making more than one sortie on the same day. By now the Marauder was losing its poor reputation, helped by a survival rate twice that of the B-17 – in August 1943 the Eighth Air Force calculated that a B-26 crew would survive 37.35 missions, that of a B-17 only 17.74.
In the autumn of 1943 the USAAF in Britain was reorganised. The Ninth Air Force, which had been operating in North Africa, was reconstituted in Britain and the tactical elements of the Eighth Air Force transferred to it. On 16 October 1943 the four B-26 groups of the 3rd Bombardment Wing became part of the Ninth, where for some time they made up its only effective attacking force.
The first B-26 sortie under the Ninth Air Force came on 18 October, with another attack on German occupied airfields. Six days later the B-26 was escorted by P-38 Lightnings for the first time. The number of B-26s units soon doubled. In November the Ninth Air Force divided its experienced groups into two, to make up the backbone of the 98th and 99th Combat Bomb Wings, where early in 1944 they would be joined by an equal number of new units.
The Ninth Air Force continued to attack German airfields, now as part of the Pointblank directive – a plan to wear down the Luftwaffe – but a new target soon appeared in the shape of the V-1 launch sites. The first of these was discovered by British reconnaissance soon after the formation of the Ninth, and by the end of November 95 sites had been discovered. The Marauders were soon heavily involved in Operation Crossbow – the offensive against the V-weapon sites, making their first sortie on 5 December and reaching close to 200 sorties on 31 December. In general the Mosquito was the most effective aircraft against these targets, needing to drop two tons of bombs to destroy each site, while the B-17 needed to drop 6.5 tons and the B-26 needed to drop 8.5 tons for each site. The huge Allied effort against the Noball sites delayed the start of the V-1 offensive until 13 June 1944.
Blind bombing aids became available early in 1944 when a number of B-26s were converted to carry the RAF's 'Oboe' equipment and formed into the 1st Pathfinder Squadron (Provisional) on 16 February 1944. The first mission followed on 21 February, when 18 aircraft hit Coxyde airfield in conditions that forced 190 to return without bombing.
The improving safety record of the B-26 became more obvious in January 1944 when the first aircraft flew its 50th mission. Eventually 100 sorties wouldn't be considered remarkable for a single aircraft and one aircraft survived 202 sorties.
The main focus for the B-26 groups in the first half of 1944 was the preparation for D-Day. Many German airfields close to the French coast were rendered unusable by constant repeat attacks, while rail links, marshalling yards, Noball targets and coastal guns also came under attack. On 20 April the Ninth Air Force got its eighth and final B-26 group, allowing it to sent more than 330 aircraft against individual targets.
The B-26 played a direct part in the D-Day landings, starting with a series of attacks on seven targets at 'Utah' beach timed to take place at H-Hour minus 30 minutes. Eventually around 400 Marauders, operating in boxes of six, attacked coastal targets on D-Day, starting with an attack on three gun batteries in the British assault area. By the end of the day the B-26s and A-20s of the Ninth Air Force had made more than 1,000 sorties over the D-Day beaches. Over the next few days the Ninth used its B-26s in the campaign to isolate the German forces in Normandy, attacking transport links around the battle area.
For the rest of the war the B-26 was used both to directly support the advancing troops and on missions behind enemy lines. Four groups moved to France in August 1944, to reduce the distances they had to fly to reach their targets, and on 2 October the last B-26 group to move to the continent. November 1944 saw the peak of B-26 strength in the Ninth Air Force when 1,012 were reported in the theatre, while more than 800 aircraft were still available at the end of the war.
Like most Allied aircraft the Marauders were grounded during the opening phase of the battle of the Bulge, but on 23 December the weather cleared and the Allied air forces returned to the fray, ending the remaining chance of a significant German victory. The Marauder's main target on that first day were the crucial transport links that were keeping the German tanks supplied.
In the first months of 1945 the B-26 began to be replaced by the Douglas A-26 Invader, with the 386th, 323rd, 344th and 391st Bombardment Groups all gaining the new aircraft, although a number of B-26s were retained for the bomber leaders, to ensure accuracy.
During 1945 the remaining Marauders moved on to attack targets inside Germany, including troop concentrations and transport links. On 22 February 1945 they took part in Operation Clarion, the attack on the German transport network, and for the first time since 1943 returned to low level operations. After bombing as normal from high altitude the B-26 pilots were given permission to drop down to low level and use their forward firing side guns in the strafing role. The Marauder was also used in the campaign to isolate the Ruhr, to support the Red Army and in the fight to cross the Rhine.
The final Ninth Air Force combat mission of the war came on 3 May 1945, when eight Pathfinder B-26s of the 1st Path Finder Squadron led 130 A-26 Invaders against an ammunition dump at Stod. By this point there were no useful targets left to attack, and the Marauders had to sit out the last six days before the German surrender. The B-26 was quickly phased out of the post-war occupation forces in Germany, in favour of the cheaper B-25 and the more modern A-26.