9th AF Patch

416th Bombardment Group (L)

Typical Combat Mission

Aircraft Formation




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While every Combat Mission flown by the 416th Bomb Group during WWII was unique, there are some common characteristics.
The following is a general description of Aircraft Formation flying on a "typical" 416th BG Combat Mission.

Most missions were flown with 36 aircraft in a well-defined formation of specific Positions, Flights and Boxes.

Position and Flight

A group of 6 aircraft was designated as a Flight, with each aircraft assigned a Position number 1 through 6 within that Flight.

Position 1 was typically assigned to a glass-nosed aircraft and included a Bombardier/Navigator in addition to the Pilot and one or two Gunners (Douglas A-20 Havoc crews had two Gunners, Douglas A-26 Invader crews had one). Another term for the glass-nosed type of aircraft is "Lead Ship". Havoc glass-nosed models were the A-20B, A-20J and A-20K; the A-26C was the glass-nosed model of the Invader.

Positions 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 were most frequently flown by solid-nosed aircraft and did not include a Bombardier/Navigator. These aircraft were called "Gun Ships" because they held machine guns in the nose. The Havoc and Invader Gun Ship models were the A-20G and A-26B respectively. However, sometimes there were additional glass-nosed aircraft included in Flights, usually in Position 2, as Secondary Lead in case the Primary Lead aircraft was unable to lead the Flight.

The photographs below show two example Flights of 6 aircraft flying in formation annotated with Position numbers. Notice that aircraft 1, 2 and 3 form a "V" shape, and aircraft 4, 5, and 6 form another "V" following the first three aircraft.


Left: Flight of Douglas A-20 Havocs from 410th BG.
The 409th, 410th and 416th Bomb Groups all used the same formation techniques.
Note the lead aircraft is a glass-nosed model and others are solid-nosed.
NARA Reference Number: 342-FH-3A15685-72963AC

Right: Flight of Douglas A-26 Invaders from the 416th BG.
Position 6 aircraft is a bit out of formation.
NARA Reference Number: 342-FH-3A16237-57292AC
(Photos from Fold3.com National Archives (NARA) WWII US Air Force Photos)

As noted, a Flight consisted of 6 aircraft. Aircraft and crews within each individual Flight were usually from the same Bomb Squadron.

On most missions each Flight would make their own bomb run, one Flight after the other. This is why each Flight was led by a glass-nosed aircraft with a Bombardier/Navigator, so that each Flight Lead Bombardier could control the bomb release of all 6 A/C within that Flight. Aircraft in Positions 2 thru 6 remained in formation during the bomb run and visually followed the Flight Leader aircraft; when the Flight Leader opened his bomb-bay doors, the other 5 A/C would open theirs and when the Flight Leader released his bombs, the other 5 released.

Because every Combat Mission had unique objectives, sometimes all Aircraft in a Box bombed together in one run, and for some missions each Box and/or even individual Flights were assigned to different targets.


A Box typically consisted of three Flights (18 aircraft) and two Boxes were most often assigned to each Combat Mission (36 aircraft).

Flights within a Box were numbered Flight I, II and III, and the pattern and position of Flights within a Box followed the same "V" formation as the individual aircraft Positions 1, 2 and 3 formed within a Flight. Boxes were identified as Box I and Box II.

416th Bomb Group Combat Mission Aircraft Formation -- Box, Flight and Position diagram.
(Modeled after Ralph Conte Attack Bombers We Need You! A History of the 416th Bomb Group, page 24.)

                        Box I  (A)                      
                         Flight I                       
                      A-I-3     A-I-2                   
                      A-I-6     A-I-5                   
      Flight III                         Flight II      
        A-III-1                            A-II-1       
 A-III-3       A-III-2               A-II-3      A-II-2 
        A-III-4                            A-II-4       
 A-III-6       A-III-5               A-II-6      A-II-5 
                        Box II (B)                      
                         Flight I                       
                      B-I-3     B-I-2                   
                      B-I-6     B-I-5                   
      Flight III                         Flight II      
        B-III-1                            B-II-1       
 B-III-3       B-III-2               B-II-3      B-II-2 
        B-III-4                            B-II-4       
 B-III-6       B-III-5               B-II-6      B-II-5 

"A-I-1" Represents the Aircraft in Box I (designated "A" in this diagram), Flight I, Position 1.
This A/C is the Mission, Box and Flight Leader.
"B-III-6" Represents the Aircraft in Box II (designated "B" in this diagram), Flight III, Position 6.
Commonly nick-named "Tail End Charlie".

As an example, below is the Box, Flight and Position diagram showing A/C Serial Numbers and Models
for Aircraft assigned on the Loading List for Mission #204.

                              Box  I                              
                             Flight I                             
                      41-39237      43-22523                      
                       (A-26B)       (A-26C)                      
                      43-22326      41-39297                      
                       (A-26B)       (A-26B)                      
        Flight III                                Flight II       
        43-22492                                  43-22521        
         (A-26C)                                   (A-26C)        
 41-39271      41-39244                    43-22306      43-22383 
  (A-26B)       (A-26B)                     (A-26B)       (A-26B) 
        43-22321                                  41-39252        
         (A-26B)                                   (A-26B)        
 41-39264      41-39213                    41-39241      43-22381 
  (A-26B)       (A-26B)                     (A-26B)       (A-26B) 
                              Box II                              
                             Flight I                             
                      43-22352      43-22469                      
                       (A-26B)       (A-26C)                      
                      41-39332      43-22356                      
                       (A-26B)       (A-26B)                      
       Flight III                                Flight II        
        43-22505                                  43-22501        
         (A-26C)                                   (A-26C)        
 43-22512      41-39188                    41-39224      43-22330 
  (A-26C)       (A-26B)                     (A-26B)       (A-26B) 
        41-39335                                  43-22315        
         (A-26B)                                   (A-26B)        
 43-22389      41-39274                    41-39205      41-39223 
  (A-26B)       (A-26B)                     (A-26B)       (A-26B) 

In Attack Bombers We Need You! A History of the 416th Bomb Group, Ralph Conte describes "Forming The Boxes" as follows:

When the tower controllers fired a signal, engines were started.
Each flight of six lined up on the runway, two by two.
Each plane took off in 10 second intervals, after the go signal.
Thereby, each flight took off in one minute, flying a designated time and then making a predetermined angle or turn to join their leader.
Each box was off in three minutes.
Entire formation of two boxes was formed in six minutes.


The majority of Combat Mission Loading Lists identified an extra "SPARE" Aircraft in each Box. This aircraft took off with the formation and would fly part of the distance to the target in case any aircraft encountered a problem and had to return early. If this happened, the SPARE would take the position of the aircraft that returned early and complete the mission, otherwise the SPARE A/C would return to base prior to entering enemy airspace.


Approximately a quarter of 416th BG Combat Missions included a Flight of aircraft identified on the Loading Lists as "WINDOW". These aircraft carried packets of thin aluminium strips instead of bombs, would fly slightly ahead of the main formation and release the aluminium stips which would flutter downward, generating a cloud of false echoes disrupting the enemy radar signal, reducing the effectiveness of the German FLAK and anti-aircraft automated radar controls. The modern term for WINDOW is "Chaff".

Two forms of RAF "Window" radar countermeasure: chopped aluminium wire and paper backed with aluminium foil.
(From wikipedia.org)


Because clouds often partially or totally obscured the Target, a number of Combat Missions were led by Pathfinder Force (PFF) Aircraft. These were Martin B-26 Marauder aircraft from the 1st Pathfinder Squadron (Provisional), 9th Bombardment Division which were specially equipped with early radar navigation systems "Oboe" and later "SHORAN".

The PFF aircraft would take off with the Group aircraft and lead the formation to the Target. If the weather over the Target was clear enough for visual bombing, the 416th Group Flight Leader Bombardier's would take over and lead the Bomb Runs, but if the weather was too cloudy, the Group aircraft would visually follow the PFF aircraft on the Bomb Run just as they would follow the Flight Lead - when the PFF plane salvoed his bombs, the Group aircraft salvoed theirs.

The first 416th BG Combat Mission lead by PFF aircraft was Mission #82 against a NOBALL target at Middel Straete, France on June 21, 1944 and according to research by Brian Gibbons, Director/Researcher with the B-26 Marauder Historical Society, the PFF aircraft leading 416th Bomb Group Box I was piloted by Capt. J. H. Gilmore, with Lt. G. H. Howe piloting the lead PFF A/C of Box II. Two PFF Aircraft using SHORAN navigation led the Boxes of the final 416th BG mission Mission #285 against an Ammunition Dump at Stod, Czechoslovakia on May 3, 1945. A total of 85 416th BG Combat Missions included PFF aircraft.

Joseph A. Houser, Colonel, USAF (ret) describes a "Pathfinder Mission day": "Since we had to be briefed on our part of the mission before flying to the Group, we had to be up and in our briefing room at least 3 hours before the Group was scheduled to take off. This was dependent on the flying time to the group's base. We then had to attend the Group's briefing, and then present our flight and bombing plan. This made for a long day, especially when the take off was delayed or we had to lead two missions in one day. Getting up at 2 AM was not unusual."

Mission 83 Field Orders extract with PFF orders.


GEE was an early navigational system used by Allied Aircraft, initially to get the navigators to the target cities and back to their bases. Early on, GEE was not considered accurate enough for bombing but later in the War, GEE was used for bombing if visual or PFF options were not available. The first 416th Bomb Group Combat Mission using GEE for bomb release was Mission #167, Dec 8, 1944 on the Railroad Bridge at Sinzig, Germany.

According to GEE and LORAN Radar Navigational Systems, WWII, "In 1938 a proposal for a radar-type pulse transmission system for aircraft navigation had been offered. In the spring of 1940 the idea was revived and scientists were asked to investigate the development of a device that could put aircraft within five miles of a target at night, in the face of enemy defences and bad weather. Dr. Robert J. Dippy, on June 24th, 1940, proposed such a scheme with the addition of target-finding capability based on a grid system. The code letter G (for grid) was given to this proposed system; this being changed to GEE in July, 1940, for security reasons."

Fighter Escort

For protection against German aircraft attacks, Allied Fighter aircraft escorted the 416th BG crews on most of their Combat Missions. The Bomb Group aircraft formation would rendezvous with their "Little Friends" at a specific time and location prior to arrival over enemy held territory as defined in the Mission Field Orders. Fighter escorts were provided by the U.S. 9th Air Force's 9th (IX), 19th (XIX) and 29th (XXIX) Tactical Air Commands (TAC), as well as from the British 2nd Tactical Air Force and U.S. 8th Air Force.

Mission 82 Field Orders extract with Fighter Escort rendezvous orders.


FLAK is the German short term for Flugabwehrkanone (Anti-Aircraft cannon). While enemy fighter aircraft seldom attacked the 416th Bomb Group formations, FLAK was by far the most dangerous aspect of any Combat Mission flown by the 416th Bomb Group.

Most often, Germany used 88 mm cannons firing the shells which exploded via either a time delay or altitude-based trigger. Because it took some time between firing and when the shell would reach the altitude of the Allied Aircraft and explode, the aiming point for the ground-based Anti-Aircraft cannons was well ahead of the formation. To counter this, Allied Navigators in the formations would change course frequently, hopefully so the formation would be in a different location than the exploding FLAK shells. Unfortunately, during a bombing run, the aircraft could not alter course, so were very susceptible to accurate targeting by the German FLAK crews.

See the YouTube "Flak Training for Pilots in WW 2 (1943)" video on the Videos page.

Many of the 416th Bomb Group Pilots have commented that the painting by Mark Postlethwaite on the cover of Jim Roeder's book "A-26 Invader Units of World War 2" has the most accurate portrayal of FLAK bursts they have ever seen.