Tuesday 16 December 2014

The Last Liberator

To my military aviation enthusiast friends:

The photo is of a B 24 J Liberator bomber now in a museum in Britain. The plaque near the nose shows that it was donated by the Indian Air Force.


Yes, the Indian Air Force operated B 24 Liberators, which it did not finally retire till as late as 1968. This is an especially interesting fact since not one of those Liberators was ever acquired officially.

Here’s how it happened. During WWII, a lot of B 24s were transferred to Britain by the US and many were based in India for use against the Japanese in South East Asia. Under the terms of the Lend Lease agreement, at the close of hostilities they had to be either returned or destroyed. The US didn’t want them back – after 1945 the B 29 and its successors were their main bombers and they were scrapping their own B 24s as fast as they could. So the British gathered the B 24s in a plane graveyard in Kanpur in North India and wrecked them by bulldozing them, pouring sand in the engines and so on. The technicians made a less than complete job of it though since they were anxious to go home after years of war. And they also thought the incompetent Indians could never make use of them anyway.

In 1947 India became independent and almost immediately began fighting a war with Pakistan over Kashmir. India had no bombers, so Pakistani forces were “bombed” by crewmen in DC 3 Dakota transports shoving explosives out through the doors. (Obviously, this was less than effective, and yet in December 1971 Indian aircrew did the exact same thing with Antonov transports over East Pakistan.) That and the prestige requirement for heavy bombers led to the demand for India to acquire some.

Britain, then India’s go-to country for weapons, offered the already obsolete Avro Lancaster. The IAF rejected that. There was no money to shop from elsewhere and the Indian government of the time was still chary of buying weapons from the USSR, a situation that would not be corrected till the late 1950s. So it seemed that India might have to do without the prestigious heavy bomber...

...until, in 1951, someone remembered those wrecked B 24s lying in the aircraft graveyard and decided to do something about it.

So the technicians from Hindustan Aeronauticals Limited, the state run aero-engineering company, went over and began constructing complete aircraft from the component parts of the wrecked ones. Not only had they been wrecked, they had been sitting in the weather for years totally without any kind of protection. The technicians had to work with what they could find, and as soon as an aeroplane was in a flyable condition they’d fly it over to the main HAL depot in Bangalore (about a thousand or so kilometres south) where proper repair work could be done. Each of the planes was constructed out of bits and pieces of several, most of which were in different paint schemes (and were different model B24s as well). So you might have a plane with a natural metal finish fuselage with desert pink wings and a jungle green tail section, flying with four engines taken from four different aircraft and only a few cockpit instruments. Amazingly, every one of the planes that could be salvaged managed to make it safely to Bangalore for proper repair. Ultimately, enough B24s were salvaged – about 44 of them – to equip three squadrons (Nos. 5, 6 and 16), not bad when one remembers that they were deemed unusable by the incompetent Indians.

There were two rather amusing sequelae. The first was when the Americans became aware that the IAF was flying squadrons of B 24s. They decided that India must have acquired the planes illegally from some source which had not wrecked Lend Lease aircraft as mandated. It took a lot of persuasion for them to accept the truth. The other one I’ll tell you about in a bit.

In the late 1950s, the British finally decided that India was capable of flying bombers and decided to supply the Canberra. (The USSR had offered the Il 28 – and the MiG 17 – but India was still at the time not “buying Russian”, a situation fortunately corrected since.)  Nos. 5 and 16 Squadrons then dumped their Liberators for Canberras, and No 6 Squadron – which no longer had the bombing role to perform – had theirs converted to the maritime reconnaissance role. The useless waist machine gun positions were removed and the ventral ball turret was replaced by a radar in a retractable housing. So, instead of looking like this:

The No 6 Squadron B 24s ended up looking like this:

When India invaded the Portuguese colony of Goa in December 1961, No 6 Squadron B 24s conducted leaflet raids on Portuguese positions. During the war with Pakistan in 1965, they flew maritime reconnaissance missions which had nothing much to do since the Indian Navy stayed hiding in harbour for fear of politically damaging sinkings. And they were finally retired in 1968 and consigned to another aircraft graveyard, in Pune near Bombay.

And there they might have remained, if only the West hadn’t suddenly woken up one day and found they had almost no B 24s left, let alone any in flying condition.

So it came about that some of the surviving B 24s were – once again – cleaned up, oiled, put back into running order, and flown over vast distances to their final resting places in museums. The final one – the one in the photo with which I started my article – didn’t reach its RAF museum till 1974.

Now here is where the second funny sequel I mentioned happened. As one of the planes was being flown to Britain, circa 1970, off the Pakistani coast, Pakistan scrambled jet fighters to intercept it. Because Pakistan hadn’t yet heard that it was no longer an active Indian type.

That the B 24s didn’t actually do much during their service with the IAF is obvious. They did almost achieve something extraordinary, though, something that might have changed India altogether. At one time in 1953 the IAF decided on a live bombing drill near Delhi at a test range. Through some combination of geological factors the bombs dropped by the B 24 formations – all in a straight line – caused earthquake-like tremors in Parliament House and caused the assembled politicians to run for their lives.

If the Parliament building had collapsed on their heads, or one of the bombs fallen a bit further on, we could have got rid of the political class in one fell swoop.

Further Reading:

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