The History of the 91st Bombardment GroupHome to the Ragged Irregulars of Bassingbourn
Whenever I see them ride on high
Gleaming and proud in the morning sky
Or lying awake in bed at night
I hear them pass on their outward flight
I feel the mass of metal and guns
Delicate instruments, deadweight tons
Awkward, slow, bomb racks full
Straining away from downward pull
Straining away from home and base
And try to see the pilot's face
I imagine a boy who's just left school
On whose quick-learned skill and courage cool
Depend the lives of the men in his crew
And success of the job they have to do.
And something happens to me inside
That is deeper than grief, greater than pride
And though there is nothing I can say
I always look up as they go their way
And care and pray for every one,
And steel my heart to say,
"Thy will be done."
Sarah Churchill, daughter of Sir Winston
The 91st Bomb Group (Heavy) was an air combat unit of the United States Army Air Forces during the Second World War. Classified as a heavy bombardment group, the 91st operated B-17 Flying Fortress aircraft and was known unofficially as "The Ragged Irregulars" or as "Wray's Ragged Irregulars", after the commander who took the group to England. During its service in World War II the unit consisted of the 322nd, 323rd, 324th, and 401st Bomb Squadrons. The 91st Bomb Group is most noted as the unit in which the bomber Memphis Belle flew, and for having suffered the greatest number of losses of any heavy bomb group in World War II.
The 91st Bomb Group conducted 340 bombing missions with the Eighth Air Force over Europe, operating out of RAF Bassingbourn. Inactivated at the end of the war, the group was brought back in 1947 as a reconnaissance group of the United States Air Force, and then had its lineage and honors bestowed on like-numbered wings of the Strategic Air Command and the Air Force Space Command.
From July 1, 1947, until its drawdown in February 1952, the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Group provided worldwide surveillance, flying RB-29s, RB-45s and RB-47s. The 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron supported the Korean War from a base in Japan. The group also included the 322nd, 323rd, and 324th Straetgic Recon Squadrons, and the 91st Air Refueling Squadron. The group was inactivated on May 28, 1952, as part of an SAC-wide termination of groups as an organizational echelon.
The group was activated in 1991 as the 91st Operations Group. Between 1991 and 1994, and since 1996, the 91st Operations Group, as part of the 91st Space Wing, maintains the alert force of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles maintained at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. Its three missile squadrons, however, have no traditional link to the 91st Bomb Group and were previously part of the 455th Strategic Missile Wing and 455th Bomb Group.
The 91st Bomb Group, (Heavy) was activated on April 14, 1942, by General Order 31 of the Third Air Force.
Wartime command staff
|Group Commanders||Dates of command||Casualty Status|
|1st Lt. Edward R. Akert||April 15, 1942--May 15, 1942|
|Col. Stanley T. Wray||May 15, 1942--May 22, 1943|
|Lt. Col. William M. Reid||May 22, 1943--June 25, 1943|
|Lt. Col. Clemens L. Wurzbach||June 25, 1943--December 12, 1943|
|Col. Claude E. Putnam||December 12, 1943--May 16, 1944|
|Col. Henry W. Terry¹||May 17, 1944--May 30, 1945|
|Col. Donald E. Sheeler||May 30, 1945--June 23, 1945|
|Deputy Group Commanders||Dates of service||Casualty Status|
|Lt. Col. Baskin R. Lawrence, Jr.||May 16, 1942--May 1, 1943|
|Lt. Col. William M. Reid||May 1, 1943--May 22, 1943|
|unknown||May 23, 1943--September 13, 1943|
|Lt. Col. Theodore R. Milton||September 13, 1943--October 23, 1944|
|Lt. Col.Donald E. Sheeler||October 23, 1944--May 30, 1945|
|Lt. Col. Immanuel J. Klette||May 30, 1945--July, 1945|
|Operations Officers (S-3's)||Dates of service||Casualty Status|
|Major Edward P. Myers||October 15, 1942--December 30, 1942||Killed in action|
|Lt. Col. Baskin R. Lawrence||January, 1943--May 1, 1943|
|Lt. Col. David G. Alford||May 23, 1943--February 4, 1944||Prisoner of war|
|Major Charles D. Lee, Jr.||February 5, 1944--April 22, 1944||Prisoner of war|
|Lt. Col. Donald E. Sheeler¹||April 26, 1944--December 1, 1944|
|Lt. Col. Marvin D. Lord||December 1, 1944--February 3, 1945||Killed in action|
|Major Karl W. Thompson||February 4, 1945--June, 1945|
¹Lt. Col. Sheeler, while Operations Officer, was also acting group commander from November 15, 1944, to December 30, 1944,
Four heavy bomb squadrons were constituted May 16, 1942, and assigned to the group.
|322d Bomb Squadron (Heavy)||Dates of command||Casualty Status|
|Major Victor Zienowicz||May 16, 1942--November 23, 1942||Killed in action|
|Major Paul Fishburne||November 24, 1942--May 19, 1943|
|Major Robert B. Campbell||May 20, 1943--July 16, 1943|
|Lt. Col. Donald E. Sheeler||July 16, 1943--April 25, 1944|
|Major Leroy B. Everett||April 25, 1944--August 26, 1944|
|Major Karl W. Thompson||August 26, 1944--February 5, 1945|
|Major Edwin F. Close||February 5, 1945--June, 1945|
|323d Bomb Squadron (Heavy)||Dates of command||Casualty Status|
|Major Paul Brown||May 16, 1942--April 22, 1943|
|Major John C. Bishop||May 25, 1943--January 22, 1944|
|Lt. Col. James F. Berry||January 22, 1944--October 3, 1944|
|Major Willis J. Taylor||October 3, 1944--June, 1945|
|324th Bomb Squadron (Heavy)||Dates of command||Casualty Status|
|Major Harold Smelser||May 16, 1942--November 23, 1942||Killed in action|
|Major Claude E. Putnam||November 29, 1942--February 17, 1943|
|unknown||February 17, 1943--unknown 1943|
|Major Richard W. Wietzenfeld||unknown 1943--July 30, 1944|
|Major Immanuel J. Klette||July 30, 1944--May 30, 1945|
|401st Bomb Squadron (Heavy)||Dates of command||Casualty Status|
|Major Edward P. Myers||May 16, 1942--October 15, 1942|
|Captain Haley W. Aycock||October 15, 1942--November 8, 1942||Wounded in action|
|Major Edward P. Myers¹||November 9, 1942--December 30, 1942||Killed in action|
|Lt. Col. Clyde G. Gillespie||December 31, 1942--April 25, 1944|
|Major James H. McPartlin||April 25, 1944--July 1, 1944|
|LtCol. Marvin D. Lord||July 1, 1944--December 1, 1944|
|Major John D. Davis||December 1, 1944--June, 1945|
¹Major Myers, the Group's S-3, was also acting 401st BS commander because of casual ties.
- Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron (Lt. Col. Louis H. Magee, Adjutant)
- 364th Service Squadron
- 39th Service & Support Group (detachment)
- 161st Quartermaster Company (detachment)
- 863rd Chemical Company
- 982d Military Police Company
- 1076th Ordnance Company
- 1204th Quartermaster Company (detachment)
- 1696th Ordnance Company
Established January 28, 1942, and activated on April 14, 1942 at Harding A.A.B., Louisiana, the 91st Bomb Group consisted of a small administrative cadre without subordinate units until May 13, 1942, when it was moved to MacDill A.A.B., Florida. There Lt. Col. Stanley T. Wray took command of the group, and the four flying squadrons assigned to the group were activated. The 91st received air crews and began phase one training with just three B-17's available. On June 26, 1942, the group (now consisting of 83 officers and 78 enlisted men) was transferred to the Second Air Force and moved to Walla Walla A.A.B., Washington to complete phase two training, with two squadrons operating from satellite fields at Pendleton and Baker Army Air Bases, Oregon.
The 91st received orders to deploy overseas and on August 24, 1942, the ground echelon entrained for Fort Dix, New Jersey, where it remained until September 5, embarking on the RMS Queen Mary. Arriving at Greenock, Scotland, on September 11, the ground echelon moved by train to Kimbolton, a war expansion airfield in the English Midlands.
Part of the air echelon moved on August 24, 1942, to Gowan A.A.B., Idaho, where it received six new B-17F aircraft. From there it flew by pairs, making frequent stops, to Dow A.A.B., Maine. The remainder of the air crews relocated to Dow by train, arriving September 1. Between September 4 and September 24 the group flew training missions while it received 29 additional B-17's from air depots in Middletown, Pennsylvania; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Denver, Colorado, and conducted phase three training.
The 91st Bomb Group moved by squadrons to the United Kingdom, beginning with the 324th Bomb Squadron on September 25, flying to Gander, Newfoundland. The 324th made a non-stop flight along the North Ferry Route on September 30, landing atPrestwick, Scotland. The 322d Bomb Squadron moved to Gander on September 30, and Prestwick on October 1, followed by one day by the 401st Bomb Squadron. The group lost one of its 35 bombers during transit when a 401st B-17 crashed in fog into a hillside near Cushendall, Northern Ireland, killing 8 of the crew and a flight surgeon.
The 324th Bomb Squadron flew as a unit from Prestwick to Kimbolton on October 1, followed by the 322nd on October 2 and the 401st on October 6. On October 10, the remaining squadron, the 323rd, flew to Gander from Dow. It did not reach Prestwick until October 14, by which time the 91st had changed bases.
VIII Bomber Command had assigned the 91st to Kimbolton intending it to be its permanent base. The base was of war-time construction and had not yet been reconstructed to Class A airfield specifications. Intended as a light or medium bomber field, its runways were not suitable for the combat weights of B-17s fully loaded with bombs and fuel. Three practice missions in as many days indicated to the staff of the 91st that the runway would quickly deteriorate and Colonel Wray immediately consulted Col. Newton Longfellow, VIII BC commander, who suggested Wray inspect the RAF Bomber Command OTU base at RAF Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire ( ), to see if it might be suitable.
Wray traveled to Bassingbourn, located four miles (6 km) north of Royston. Not only was the base more appealing from its closer proximity to London, but it had been constructed in 1938 and was considerably more comfortable, with permanent brick buildings, including barracks for enlisted personnel (in contrast to the Nissen huts at Kimbolton), landscaped grounds with curbed roadways (Kimbolton, like many war-time fields, was noted for muddy conditions); and had already been re-constructed to a Class A airfield.
Wray contacted his staff and ordered them to prepare for immediate relocation. On October 14, without prior approval, the 91st moved itself and all of its equipment to Bassingbourn in one day and took possession of the station.
The combat history of the 91st Bomb Group can be ordered into three phases. The first, from November 4, 1942 to May 1, 1943, saw the 91st develop operational experience as one of the four "pioneer" B-17 groups, creating doctrine and tactics. The second, from May 1, 1943 to January 1, 1944, had the 91st in a leadership role of the Eighth Air Force at a time when the expanding Bomber Command struggled to establish air superiority without adequate fighter support. The final phase, from January 1, 1944 to May 27, 1945, was as one part of a massive, systematic campaign supported by a large force of escort fighters that brought to fruition the strategic bombing concept.
The 91st Bomb Group began combat operations on November 4, 1942, when it received a field order for a mission to bomb the submarine pens at Brest, France, later changed to an attack on the Luftwaffe airfield at Abbeville. Thirty minutes before takeoff the mission was cancelled ("scrubbed" in the parlance of that time) because of poor weather. These circumstances were typical of those encountered daily by all the heavy bomber groups in the autumn of 1942 as they pioneered the concept of strategic bombing by daylight.
On November 4 the Eighth Air Force consisted of just nine groups, two of which had been withdrawn from operations to be transferred to North Africa and another to act as an operational training unit (OTU) for replacement combat crews. Of the six remaining units only the 93rd Bomb Group (a B-24 unit) and the 306th Bomb Group were operational, and the 306th had flown just two missions.
The group's first mission was to Brest, France, on November 7. The target was the Kriegsmarine submarine base, and was the first of 28 missions against the U-boat force in the following eight months. In all, eight missions were flown in November 1942, seven of them against the sub pens. The last of these, on November 23, resulted in the disastrous loss of two squadron commanders, the group navigator, the group bombardier, and three of the five airplanes attacking.
In December 1942 VIII Bomber Command issued two-letter squadron identification codes to be painted on the fuselages of the bombers:
- 322nd BS - LG
- 323rd BS - OR
- 324th BS - DF
- 401st BS - LL
The 91st was made a part of the 101st Provisional Bomb Wing on January 3, 1943. Its first mission to a target in Germany occurred January 27, and it earned the first of two Distinguished Unit Citations on March 4 when it continued an attack against the marshalling yards at Hamm, Germany, after all the other groups had turned back because of poor weather conditions. On April 17 the group led the Eighth Air Force on its first mission against the German aircraft industry, attacking Bremen. German fighter reaction was intense and sustained, and the Eighth lost twice as many bombers as on any previous mission. The 91st had six B-17s shot down, all from the 401st Bomb Squadron.
During this phase the group received a substantial number of aircraft to replace those lost of written off. However replacements for lost crewmen were few and made by transfer of individuals. The influx of replacement crews from the Combat Crew Replacement Center at Bovingdon did not begin commence until March, 1943. As the 91st developed combat experience, it experienced a decrease in aircraft commanders, apart from missing aircraft and wounds, from moving pilots into command and staff positions. Without an adequate pool of replacements, many co-pilots were upgraded to aircraft commanders.
The second phase of combat operations, coinciding with the implementation of the Pointblank Directive to target German airpower, began in May 1943. The Eighth developed in the next three months into a force of sixteen B-17 groups and began attacking industrial targets deep inside Germany beginning at the end of July. Col. Wray left the 91st on May 22 to become commander of a new wing, the 103rd Provisional Combat Bomb Wing. He was replaced by the group deputy commander, Lt. Col. William Reid, formerly of the 92nd Bomb Group. Lt. Col. Baskin Lawrence, who had been the deputy commander of the 91st from its date of activation, had left the group May 1 to command the 92nd.
On June 25, 1943, a wholesale shifting of command officers between the two groups occurred. Col. Lawrence departed the 92nd to become commander of a new "Pathfinder" group drawn from a squadron of the 92nd, and was replaced by Col. Reid, who left the 91st to command his old group. The 91st received its third commander, Lt. Col. Clemens Wurzbach, who had been Lawrence's deputy commander.
During this transition period the 91st also had its first crews finish their required combat tours and return to the United States, including the crew of the Memphis Belle. Of the original roster of combat crews, 32% completed their tours, 15% were reassigned to other commands, and the rest became casualties. At the end of June it also acquired its most recognizable symbol, the "Triangle A" group tail marking often used in films about B-17s.
On August 17, 1943, the 91st Bomb Group led a mission to bomb the ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt, Germany, losing 10 aircraft. This was the first of several missions between then and October 14, 1943, in which the Eighth Air Force, flying beyond the range of its fighter escorts, suffered severe losses of aircraft and crews. The 91st had 28 aircraft shot down during this period, the most of any group in the Eighth. The remainder of the second phase of operations saw a suspension of deep penetration missions until long-range escort fighters became available.
Until September 22, 1943, the 91st BG had been equipped entirely with B-17F aircraft that had not been modified for longer-range Tokyo tanks. On that date it received is first B-17G, which would become the standard bomber of the Eighth Air Force in 1944-1945. It continued to receive B-17F replacement aircraft, along with the B-17G's, until December 24, 1943.
Col. Wurzbach completed his tour of duty on December 12, 1943, and was replaced by Col. Claude E. Putnam, a former commander of the 324th Bomb Squadron, who returned to his old group from duty as the commander of the 306th Bomb Group, where he had been pilot of the lead aircraft on the first mission to Germany nearly a year before. Wurzbach had commanded the group for 44 missions; Putnam would command it for 63.
The 91st Bomb Group won its second DUC as part of the six-group task force attacking the Focke Wulf assembly factory at Oschersleben, Germany, on January 11, 1944. This attack marked the renewal of the heavy bomber offensive against targets in all areas of the German Reich. Although losses were heavy (34 from the Oschersleben task force and 60 overall), three targets were struck by over 600 bombers and a group of P-51 Mustangs was part of the escort force.
From February 20 to February 25, 1944, known as "Big Week", the United States Strategic Air Forces conducted Operation Argument, a campaign against the German aircraft industry with the goal of achieving air superiority over Europe by drawing the German fighter force into combat. 800 to 1000 bombers, escorted by 700 to 900 fighters, struck multiple targets daily from both England and Italy. The 91st flew all five days, losing ten aircraft, and on February 24 attacked Schweinfurt for the third time.
The first attack by the 91st on Berlin came on March 6, when it led the entire Eighth Air Force at a loss of 69 bombers (6 of them from the 91st), followed by half a dozen more to the German capital in the next two months. On May 12 the Eighth Air Force began a costly campaign against oil and synthetic oil production facilities that continued to the end of the war. On May 17, Col. Putnam completed his tour as commanding officer of the 91st Bomb Group and Col. Henry W. Terry took command, which he would retain for 185 missions to the end of hostilities in Europe. Aided by the use of radar-equipped Pathfinder force bombers, the 91st BG averaged a mission every other day for the remainder of the war.
In addition to bombing strategic targets, often at great loss in aircraft and crews, the 91st also made tactical strikes in support of the Allied landings in France, in the battles for Caen and St. Lo, during the German winter counteroffensive, and during the Allied offensive across the Rhine River.
Beginning March 16, 1944, the 91st began receiving replacement B-17's that were by a change in USAAF policy no longer painted olive drab, and the bomber force became almost completely "natural metal finish" by July 1944. The 1st Combat Bomb Wing, of which the 91st was a part, adopted the use of a red empennage and wingtips in June 1944 to more easily identify its groups during assembly for missions. The 91st retained its "Triangle A" tail marking as well.
The intensity of operations during this phase is reflected by the 100 B-17's lost by the 91st Bomb Group during 1944, compared to 84 in 1943, despite the diminution of the Luftwaffe during the spring and summer. Radar-directed flak became very proficient in defending critical targets and the fighter force hoarded its pilots and fuel for occasional mass interceptions of the bombers.
The 91st BG experienced its worst loss of the war during this period on November 2, 1944, when it attacked the I.G. Farbenindustrie A.G. synthetic oil plant at Leuna, southeast of Merseburg, Germany. Suffering several losses to intense flak, for which this target was notorious, the 91st found itself isolated from the bomber stream at the division rally point, where it was attacked by large numbers of Fw 190A-R8 sturm fighters of IV./JG 3. In all, thirteen B-17s of the 91st were shot down out of 37 dispatched and half of the remainder suffered major battle damage. 49 of the 117 crewmen aboard the Fortresses were killed and the remainder captured.
The 91st Bomb Group experienced its final aircraft loss on April 17, 1945, and flew its last mission, to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, on April 25. The 91st had been alerted for 500 combat missions, of which 160 were scrubbed or recalled and 340 completed. Immediately after VE Day, it flew three days of operations to rescue Allied POWs incarcerated at Stalag Luft I in Barth, Germany, as part of Operation Revival, bringing out 2,032 prisoners.
The 91st Bomb Group had at least 392 B-17's assigned to it at some point of the war. Of these, 40 were transferred to other commands, 37 were retired as unsuitable for further operations, and 71 were on hand at the end of hostilities. The rest were lost: 197 in combat, 37 written off, and 10 in training crashes. Of the combat losses, the 401st and 323rd Squadrons each lost 55, the 322nd Squadron lost 49, and the 324th Squadron 38.
Approximately 5,200 crewmen flew combat missions for the 91st from 1942 to 1945. 19% were killed or missing (887 KIA and 123 MIA) and 18% (959) became prisoners of war. 33 others were killed in flying accidents. Of the 35 original crews to arrive at Bassingbourn, 17 were lost in combat (47%). Daily records indicate that for the first six months of operations, 22 of 46 listed crews were lost (48%).
The fatalities in the 91st Bomb Group, equivalent to an infantry regiment in numbers of combat personnel, exceeded the killed-in-action of more than half (47) of the Army's ground force divisions, and equalled or exceeded the rate of killed-in-action in the infantry regiments of 35 others. Only seven divisions (all infantry) had killed-in-action rates higher than the 91st BG.
|91st BG losses|
|197||B-17's lost in combat|
|10||B-17's lost in accidents|
|887||Air crew killed in action|
|33||Air crew killed in accidents|
|123||Air crew missing in action|
|959||Air crew captured|
- 1st Lt. William J. Crumm, 324th Bomb Squadron
- Lt. Crumm was an original member of the group and flew eleven of its first seventeen missions. He and his crew were the first to return from combat, assigned on February 14, 1942, to return to the United States to prepare a training manual for bomber crews. Promoted to lieutenant colonel, Crumm later commanded the 61st Bomb Squadron, 39th Bomb Group of the Twentieth Air Force, operating B-29s against Japan. He went on to become a major general in the United States Air Force and died in the mid-air collision of two B-52 bombers on July 6, 1967, returning from a mission to South Vietnam.
- M/Sgt. Rollin L. Davis, 323rd Bomb Squadron
- M/Sgt. Davis was a maintenance line chief in charge of B-17 42-31909, nicknamed Nine-O-Nine , which completed 140 missions between February 25, 1944 and the end of the war, at least 126 in a row without turning back because of mechanical failure, for which Sgt. Davis received the Bronze Star.
- LtCol. Immanuel J. Klette, 324th Bomb Squadron
- Colonel Klette flew 91 bomber missions as a co-pilot and pilot with the 306th Bomb Group, and as a command pilot with the 91st. Over 30 of his missions were as group, wing, division, or air force mission commander while serving with the 91st BG. His 91 sorties are the most by any Eighth Air Force pilot in World War II.
- Capt. Robert K. Morgan, 324th Bomb Squadron
- Captain Morgan, an original member of the group, piloted the Memphis Belle in combat and returned it to the United States.
- 1st Lt. Bert Stiles, 401st Bomb Squadron (author)
- B-17F serial 41-24485-10-BO, 324th BS, marked DF A, Memphis Belle, combat November 7, 1942 to May 19, 1943. Currently undergoing restoration after being received by the museum in October 2005.
- B-17G serial 42-32076-35-BO, 401st BS, marked LL E, Shoo Shoo Baby, in combat March 24, 1944 to May 29, 1944, crash-landed Malmö Airport, Sweden. Repaired in Sweden, it had been used as a civilian transport and recovered in 1972, where it was dismantled, taken to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, for restoration, and turned over to the museum on October 13, 1988. Due to the amount of skin work required to restore its wartime appearance, it is finished in olive drab and grey, instead of bare-metal as it was during its USAAF service, and has been restored to its original name, Shoo Shoo Baby.
- Bishop, Cliff T. Fortresses of the Big Triangle First. 1986. ISBN 1-869987-00-4
- Bowman, Martin W. USAAF Handbook 1939-1945. ISBN 0-8117-1822-0
- Freeman, Roger A. The Mighty Eighth. (1993 edition). ISBN 0-87938-638-X.
- Freeman, Roger A. The Mighty Eighth War Diary. 1990. ISBN 0-87938-495-6.
- Freeman, Roger A. The Mighty Eighth War Manual. 1991. ISBN 0-87938-513-8.
- Havelaar, Marion H. and William N. Hess. The Ragged Irregulars of Bassingbourn: The 91st Bombardment Group in World War II. Atglen, Pennsylvania: Schiffer Publishing, 1995. ISBN 0-88740-810-9.
- Ravenstein, Charles A. Air Force Combat Wings, 1947-1977. Office of Air Force History, 1984. ISBN 0-912799-12-9.