The 25th Bomb Group was designated as a reconnaissance group, but was, in fact, much more than this. It has been referred to recently by the American artist, Gil Cohen, as the ‘eyes of the eighth’. Forming part of the 325th photographic wing, it was commanded by Col (later Brigadier General) Elliot Roosevelt.
On the day it was activated (Easter 1944) the 25th Bomb Group moved into its permanent base, Station 376, at Watton. It occupied the permanent site, the 3rd SAD having moved over to Griston. The group consisted of three squadrons, the 652nd Bomb Squadron Heavy, 653rd Bomb Squadron Light and the 654th Bomb Squadron Special.
652nd Bomb Squadron Heavy
The 652nd used American heavy bombers mainly B-17 Gs. It also had B-24 Ds and B-24 Hs. Its missions were long range weather flights over the Atlantic code-named ‘Epicure’ which flew a box pattern 700 miles out over the Atlantic. Weather readings were taken every 50 miles at heights varying from 50 to 30,000 feet. The average flight time for these flights was over 12 hours. For thirteen months 652 Squadron maintained an average of 1.5 aircraft in the air over the Atlantic at all hours of the day and night, and for the last nine months of the war the average exceeded two aircraft in the air for all hours of the day and night.
The 653rd Bomb Squadron Light
The 653rd Squadron used the British de Haviland Mosquito. They flew completely unarmed, relying on their speed and altitude to keep out of trouble. Their missions were not flown in groups but as lone aircraft with a pilot, and a navigator trained in meteorology. The 653rd flew 1,131 meteorological flights over the continent which were code-named ‘Blue Stocking’.
They would penetrate the far reaches of East Germany, Austria and points south. They also flew scouting missions ahead of the bomber force code-named ‘Scout’. They would arrive over the target some 20 minutes ahead of the bombers reporting weather conditions, cloud level and enemy fighter activity.
If the primary target was abandoned because of weather conditions they would move to the second or third target and begin again. As the bombers came in they would move out of the target area returning later to photograph the results. They also flew shuttle runs, code-named ‘Frantic’.
These performed the same functions as the scout missions, only this time they flew from England to Russia bombing targets in East Germany on the way. In Russia the aircraft were refuelled and the bombers re-armed. They then took off for Italy, again bombing targets in Eastern Europe en route. In Italy the tanks and bomb bays were filled and they left Italy for England once more bombing targets en route.
The 654th Bomb Squadron Special
Many of the 654th missions were associated with photography. The greatest number of these were night photography flights code-named ‘Joker’. These flights were, to say the least, difficult. Unless there was a moon, the target had to be found in the dark, using Gee equipment and the navigator’s equations. The pilot Examing a photo flashflew the Mosquito at 12,000 feet and at 270 mph ground speed. For the light source they used M46 photo flash bombs, each giving off 700 million candle power. The 654th also flew daylight photography missions code-named ‘Pru’.
Perhaps the most remarkable missions flown by the 654th were the ‘Red Stocking’ missions. ‘Red Stocking’ was the code-name given to top secret missions flown for the OSS (Office of Strategic Service). The purpose of the red stocking missions was to pick up and record radio reports from agents who had been dropped into occupied Europe by the 492nd Bomb Group based at Harrington.
A special radio system had been developed in the States by Steve Simpson and De Witt Goddard. This system gave very little side-scatter of radio waves, thus making it difficult for the Germans to detect. The agent would be given a 150 mile long line from along which he could transmit. The Mosquito would fly along this line at an altitude of some 30,000 to 40,000 feet until the crew located the agent and they would then record his messages on wire before returning home.
Steve Simpson was in charge of all OSS operations at Watton. He had been, in fact, a reserve Lt. in the US signal corps. At this time all OSS activity was the responsibility of the navy. As a result Steve was transferred from the signal corps to the navy and given the rank of Lt Commander.
Many agents were dropped into occupied Europe by the 492nd Bomb Group from Harrington but the most audacious mission of all was flown by the 25th Bomb Group from Watton code named “Hammer”. The mission was to drop two agents into the suburbs of Berlin using a Douglas A-26 Invader piloted by Lt. Robert P. Walker with two navigators on board. Lt. William Miskho was in the nose reading maps and Major John Walch observing the terrain and was operating specialist navigating equipment. The mission was flown at night from Watton to Berlin at treetop height to avoid radar detection following a zig-zag course. This mission was completely successful and resulted in some of the most valuable intelligence of the war.
- The 653rd and 654th shared many other operations
‘Grey Pea’ Missions involved the dropping of ‘chaff’ (strips of aluminium foil ahead of the bomber force to confuse enemy radar);
- ‘Red Tail’ Missions involved a Mosquito with the 25th Bomb Group carrying the Bomber Command pilot ahead of the bomber force so that he could direct the bombers onto the target;
- ‘Sky Wave’ Missions involved experimental flights over occupied Europe testing a long range radar system called ‘Loran’ (LOng-RANge);
- ‘Mickey’ Missions involved night flights using a system of radar linked with photography to map the bomb run approaches to all important targets.
The pilots and navigators of 653 and 654 Squadrons were unique. Most had already completed a tour of 35 combat missions with other bomb groups and had volunteered to fly Mosquitoes with the 25th rather than take leave and return to the States for a rest period. The remainder were veterans who transferred from the RAF and the RCAF. The 25th Bomb Group lost 84 men killed in action and 11 men became prisoners of war.