Operation Carpetbagger

B24H 42-51211 Y "Miss Fitts" of 801st Bomb Group (Prov)
Harrington - Station 179 (July 1944)

In October 1943 aircraft and crews of 22nd Anti-Submarine (Lt Col Clifford Heflin) was chosen to form a special unit in a project known as Operation Carpetbagger and working in close liaison with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) organisation which, up until then, had been solely responsible for such operations.

The purpose of the Carpetbagger project was to fly "Special Operations" to deliver supplies to resistance groups in enemy occupied countries; to deliver personnel to the field and occasionally to bring back personnel from the field. Combat with the enemy was avoided as it only endangered the success of the mission.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff had decided that with the invasion of Europe getting closer, the range and frequency of covert supply sorties would have to be greatly increased. This was, in fact, not the only reason for the project, the American Military Intelligence Department, known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was keen to get involved in the European sector.

In November 1943 the 22nd and 4th Anti-Submarine Squadrons were deactivated and two new squadrons were formed: 406th Bomb Squadron and 36th Bomb Squadron. These units were ordered to move to the then quite large and desolate airfield of Alconbury, quite close to Tempsford, where the 482nd Bombardment (Pathfinder) Group were already in residence.

On January 2nd 1944, Colonel Heflin and Captain Edward Tresemer, the Group Navigation Officer, were told to report to Tempsford for "Temporary duty of approximately 30 days", with them went chosen crews of the 406th and 36th Squadrons. The first US Carpetbagger missions were to be flown from Tempsford, owing to lack of facilities at Alconbury. Two days after arriving at Tempsford, Lt Stapel flew co-pilot to Col Heflin on the first Carpetbagger mission from Tempsford: during the "moon period" of January, six missions were flown by 36th Squadron and nine by 406th Squadron. In mid February the two squadrons were reassigned to the Eighth Air Force Composite Command (Special Operations Group), independent of the 482nd Group, and moved to Watton, Norfolk. This move proved to be disastrous; the heavy B-24s were incompatible with the grass runways and muddy hard standings. Col. Heflin was forced to move back to Alconbury - however the base was becoming overcrowded and Tempsford could not be used indefinitely; an airfield would have to be found in the area which was fairly remote and capable of coping with the planned increase in their operations.


Harrington - Station 179

An airfield in the depths of rural Northamptonshire, Harrington (Station 179) proved ideal for Carpetbagger operations, it was near enough to Tempsford for liaison, and not too far from the main supply bases at Cheddington and Holme (OSS Special Operations Base). The advanced echelons of 36th and 406th Squadrons moved into Harrington on March 25th 1944. Secure communications were established with OSS HQ in London, and the Group OSS Liaison Officer set up his office in the operations block - covert operations were about to commence from Station 179, Harrington. The two Squadrons were to form a new Bombardment Group to be known as the 801st Provisional Bomb Group (H).


406th Bomb Sqd (H) 801st Bomb Group (Prov)
APO 639 (= HQ 8th Air Force Composite Command, Cheddington)
Postmark: APO 68 (10/7-1944) = Kettering / Passed by Army Examiner 11431

On May 1st 1944 the Station was officially handed over to Lt Col Heflin. The first trucks loaded with parachute containers from Holme arrived, and were directed to the various hardstandings, where armourers supervised loading into the Liberators detailed for the first missions. Later in the month, two more Bombardment Squadrons were attatched to the 801st Group, these were the 788th Squadron from Rackenheath, and the 850th Squadron from Eye.


36th Bomb Sqd (H) 801st Bomb Group (Prov)
APO 639 (= HQ 8th Air Force Composite Command, Cheddington)
Postmark: APO 68 (10/7-1944) = Kettering / Passed by Army Examiner 10623

On August 13th 1944 the Carpetbaggers at Harrington were redesignated to the 492nd Bomb Group (H) and the four squadrons became the 856th, 857th, 858th and 859th Bomb Squadrons.


801st Bomb Group (Prov)
april 1944 - 13.8.1944

36th Bomb Squadron

406th Bomb Squadron

788th Bomb Squadron
(from may 1944)

850th Bomb Squadron
(from may 1944)


492nd Bomb Group (H)
13.8.1944 - 17.10.1945

856th Bomb Squadron

857th Bomb Squadron
(Night Bombing Sept. 1944)

858th Bomb Squadron
(Night Bombing Sept. 1944)

859th Bomb Squadron
(Night Bombing Sept. 1944)
(Italy Jan. 1945)

In addition to the planes and their crews support groups at Harrington included:
* HQ and 352nd Air Service Squadron
* 39th Service Group
* HQ 328th Service Group
* 35th Station Complement Squadron
* 1077th Signal Company
* 1561st Ordnance S&M Company
* 1094th Quartermaster Company
* 1139th Military Police Company
* 2132nd Eng. Fire Fighting Platoon 
* Det "O" 1020th Chemical Company.

Carpetbagger operations from the United Kingdom fell into two periods. Beginning in January 1944 the USAAF delivered supplies to resistance groups in France, Denmark, Norway, Belgium and Holland. Between January and September 1944 the 801st / 492nd Bomb Group undertook 2263 separate missions of which, due to various circumstances, 1577 (i.e. 69%) were completed satisfactorily. The successful missions delivered to Occupied Europe: 662 "Joes" (agents); 18,535 containers of supplies; 8050 "Nickles" (bundles of 4,000 propaganda leaflets); 10,725 packages of supplies; 26 pigeons (for messages, not eating); and carried 437 passengers.

The first period ended in September 1944, after which there was a lull of three months, followed by small scale activity until the last two months of the war in Europe. This second period was characterised by an increase in the percentage of sorties flown to Denmark and Norway, two countries that had received only a small quantity of supplies in comparison with those delivered to France.

In late September Eighth Air Force High Command decided that as supply missions would inevitably gradually run down, the 492nd Group would prepare three squadrons for the night bombing role, leaving only one squadron, the 856th, to carry out supply missions on behalf of the OSS. In January 1945 the 859th Bomb Squadron were transferred to the 15th Air Force and operated Carpetbagger type missions from Brindisi in Italy.

As the German army was pushed back, agents and Resistance groups found difficulty in communicating with London owing to enemy jamming and the longer distance involved. To overcome this difficulty, British De Havilland Mosquitoes were fitted with wire recording machines. A number of these aircraft were regularly operated by 492nd Group crews from Harrington to record radio messages from agents in Germany and Austria. These missions, code named Red Stocking, were flown at over 30,000 ft and proved to be the only reliable contact with agents in this area. Another aircraft used in this period was the A-26B, Invader or Super Boston. Five specially modified A-26s were based at Harrington, these aircraft were fitted out to drop agents in Germany. The 492nd Group at Harrington continued supply dropping, Red Stocking, bombing and A-26 operations until May 7th 1945 when Germany finally surrendered.

On July 7th 1945 the air echelon of the 492nd Bomb Group left Harrington for Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA, whilst the ground echelon crossed the Atlantic in the liner Queen Elizabeth. The ground echelon never made it to their intended destination at Sioux Falls as they were at sea when the first Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and when they landed they were dispersed back to their home for 30 days R&R. The Group was deactivated on October 17th 1945.


Agents - "Joes"

Personnel to be dropped into enemy territory usually arrived in large American cars with curtained windows. The strictest security was observed during this period. They were taken to "dressing huts", where they were searched for any tell tale objects. They were then helped into large padded jump suits and rubber helmets. During this time no one except the OSS dressers were allowed to talk to them. Just before take off the agents, or Joes as they were known, were driven to the Liberator, which was waiting with engines ticking over. The aircraft made its slow progress to the runway and, on receiving a green from the tower, took off into the night sky.


As the invasion plans neared D-Day, the Group were instructed to transport small commando units into France. During this intense activity many Carpetbagger aircraft and crews were lost, some to enemy flak and fighters, others as a result of striking trees and high ground.



The first was the Jedburgh consisting of three men, usually a French, American and Briton. The group was a self contained unit equipped with a radio and trained in covert warfare. The Jedburghs began to arrive at Harrington in April 1944, they were dropped into Europe together with their new equipment in containers. Sometimes during bad weather, Jedburghs would be given practice drops over the airfield.


Operational Groups

The second type of team would be altogether a stronger force of 20 to 30 men, this was the Operational Group. These units were to be flown from Harrington in troop carrying C-47 Dakotas, which would land in occupied territory where they would reinforce direct action by the Resistance groups. The Dakotas bought back shot down aircrew and wounded Resistance people for consultation in London. Three Dakotas arrived a few days after D-Day, and Col Heflin flew the first of many Operational Groups into France.


Detachment in Leuchars, Scotland 

Operation Sonnie & Ball

Although most of the Carpetbagger sorties took place from Harrington, the Group also carried out supply and agent dropping missions from other airfields. In April 1944 a detachment was dispatched to Leuchars in Scotland from where a totally different undercover operation took place.

This was Operation Sonnie, which was to fly back to the UK several thousand Norwegian aircrew trainees and American internees from Sweden. These trips were very hazardous and were usually undertaken when cloud cover was available. The B-24s used were ostensibly civilian aircraft with civilian markings, the crew wearing airline clothes. Sonnie B-24s flew to Bromma airport, Stockholm, and were serviced by American engineers living as civilians in Stockholm.

These personnel were under constant surveillance in Stockholm by German agents, who did their best to discover the route taken by the American aircraft. It was found that although some were daytime flights, they suffered no more interception than normal night supply missions.

The Group operated a supply and agent dropping operation from Leuchars - this was code named Operation Ball. Six B-24s flew these missions from July 1944. These trips were more hazardous than the European operations, several squadrons of Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighters were always on hand to hammer the unwary. There were many more abortive sorties over the mountains and fjords of Norway. Out of 65 attempted drops only 37 were successful.


Update: 1.3.2003
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