Baltimore Bombers

JOHN R. BREIHAN

October 12, 1993|By JOHN R. BREIHAN

The 7,000 B-26 Marauders built by the Glenn L. Martin Company are the most common image of ''Baltimore bombers,'' the name just given to Baltimore's hoped-for NFL football team. Less well known is a bomber actually called the ''Baltimore,'' which Martin built for the British Royal Air Force. Nearly 1,600 Baltimores were turned out by Martin's factory in Middle River between 1941 and 1944.

A few years ago when on sabbatical in England, I encountered this plane when I took my two sons to the RAF Museum in suburban London. On one wall was a dramatic blown-up photograph of a two-engine bomber with an odd fish-shaped body dropping its string of bombs over an Italian mountain landscape. The label identified it as a ''Baltimore Bomber.'' Feeling a bit homesick, I took some time off from 18th-century manuscripts to look into the Baltimore's service with the RAF. I also wrote to an organization of ex-RAF servicemen to ask if any of them remembered the Baltimore.

I am still receiving letters four years later, from all over the British Isles and from Australia and South Africa -- well over 400 so far. The veterans are lavish in their praise of the Baltimore, and of the Baltimoreans who built it: sturdy under anti-aircraft fire, powerful enough to fly on one engine, swift enough to escape prowling German fighters. Many credit the plane with saving their lives.

Smaller than the B-26, with a narrow fuselage, the Baltimore carried engines almost as powerful. This gave it a top speed almost as great as contemporary fighters. A test-pilot dove Baltimore at 560 miles an hour.

The first 400 Baltimores were paid for by the British; another 1,175 were ordered under Lend-Lease, which gave them the U.S. designation of A-30. The archives of the Glenn L. Martin Aviation Museum in Middle River contain scores of photographs of Baltimores under construction at the plant nearby. Each plane was flight-tested before delivery. Baltimores were once a familiar sight racing over northern Maryland farms and buzzing watermen on Chesapeake Bay.

The first Baltimores were delivered by ship (17 were sunk by submarines en route). In 1942 Martin designed a huge auxiliary ++ fuel tank which fit underneath the plane, allowing it to fly the South Atlantic from Brazil to West Africa via Ascencion Island. The tank was so large that it hung down within 18 inches of the runway; ferry pilots took care to land gently.

The RAF in Egypt received their first Baltimores at the end of 1941. They reached the combat squadrons the following spring, just in time to help blunt General Erwin Rommel's last thrust toward Suez. Four months later Baltimores flew in force to attack Rommel's forces in preparation for British General Montgomery's counteroffensive at El Alamein.

Baltimores then supported the British 8th Army's campaigns across North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, the long slog up the Italian boot. They also were assigned to long maritime patrols over the Mediterranean, the lone pilots flying up to seven hours at a stretch.

Along the way the British shared out Baltimores to other air forces operating in Africa and Italy. Australians and South

Africans, Greeks and Free French, Yugoslavs, neutral Turks and the Italian forces that went over to the Allies all flew the Baltimore. It was in fact the last bomber to serve in the Italian Air Force. African-American pilots of the famed U.S. 99th Fighter Squadron occasionally flew escort for Baltimores of the South African Air Force. Greek and Yugoslav Baltimores bombed Yugoslavia in support of Tito's partisans.

After Hitler surrendered, there was a surplus of bombers, and the Baltimores overseas were quickly scrapped. At least one, though, remained here. Remembering that 560-mph dive, the U.S. Navy used it in 1946 for flight tests of wing shapes for supersonic jets to come. This may have been the Baltimore that the Martin Company donated in 1949 to the City Department of Education for use in mechanics' training. Perhaps some school storage vault holds the only survivor of the original Baltimore Bombers.

B6 John R. Breihan teaches history at Loyola College.

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