Public imagination is more readily captured by the nimble fighters and the formidable heavy bombers than by the light and medium bombers. Most people are familiar with the B-17 Flying Fortress, the B-24 Liberator and the B-29 Superfortress. Many would have also heard of the B-25 Mitchell from the famed Doolittle Raid, but this time, we’ll concentrate on the less appreciated Martin B-26 Marauder.
In 1939, the military issued a call for a high-speed, long-range twin-engine light-to-medium bomber. The contract was awarded to the Glenn L. Martin Company design that became the B-26. Over a 1,100 planes were ordered even before its first flight. Powered by two ferocious 2,000 hp engines, the Marauder had a maximum speed of 286 mph and a combat range of over 1,100 miles, could carry 4,000 lbs of bombs in two bays (though one bay was often reserved for additional fuel tanks to increase range) and was protected by 12 machine guns, two of them housed in first powered dorsal turret to be incorporated into an American bomber.
Early tests revealed that power came at a high price. The craft had relatively small wings, which enabled high performance but sacrificed lift. This made the Marauder unwieldy at low speeds and caused it to stall at 120 mph. The high stall speed forced landing pilots to approach the runway at a speed of 120-135 mph, much higher than what they were used to in other planes and make a quick, hard landing before the bomber stalled out. To compound the problem, the first training planes lacked the dorsal turret, messing up the weight distribution. These problems, along with an early tendency of the landing gears to collapse, caused a very large number of (sometimes lethal) accidents among inexperienced pilots. Trainee pilots at MacDill Field in Florida had a catchphrase: “One a day in Tampa Bay.” Though the phrase was an exaggeration, the base did witness 15 crashes in one particular 30-day period.
Another perceived fault was the inability to stay airborne with one engine, though this was eventually disproved by several experienced pilots including Jimmy Doolittle. The pitch change mechanism, though, presented a problem even when both engines were running. While the engines themselves were reliable, these mechanisms needed to be kept in pristine condition, an unrealistic demand in wartime. When the device failed, it sometimes caused the propellers to overspeed, creating a scary sound and potentially disintegrating mid-flight. The plane had a bad reputation among pilots, earning such nicknames as the “Widowmaker,” “Martin Murderer” and “Flying Prostitute” – the last because it was so fast and its short wings meant it had “no visible means of support.”
In 1943, Glenn Martin was summoned in front of the Truman Committee investigating defense contract abuses. Threatening with a cancellation of the contract did its job and later versions of the bomber had larger wings, better engines and heavier caliber guns. It still enjoyed a dubious reputation among pilots and the public, prompting the USAAF and Martin to commission numerous articles in popular publications to whitewash the plane and defend it against “slander.”
The Marauder was first deployed to the Pacific in early 1941, then to other theaters from late 1942 onwards. Both in Italy and Western Europe, they were first used as low-level bombers with heavy losses. One particular force of 11 B-26s, attacking a power station in the Netherlands, was completely wiped out by flak and FW-190s. In both theaters, the Marauders were eventually reorganized for mid-level bombing runs in which they turned out to be accurate and highly effective – though still an experienced pilot’s plane.
Though it was tricky to take off or land with, the B-26 developed a reputation for staying aloft despite heavy damage. One particular plane, the aptly named Flak Bait (named after the pilot’s dog Flea Bait), flew 202 bombing missions, some on D-Day and in the Battle of Bulge. Over her career, she accumulated over 1,000 holes, returned home twice on one engine and once with a burning one, once without electrical systems and once with her hydraulics knocked out. She’s one of the few surviving Marauders out of the total production run of 5,288. A fellow survivor, Dinah Might, is exhibited at the Utah Beach Museum and can be seen up close and personal on our many WWII tours visiting Normandy.
The Marauder was quickly retired at the end of the war and its B-26 designation was passed on to the Douglas B-26 Invader, a plane serving in a similar role.
You can learn more about the warbirds that flew in WWII and see Dinah Might in person on any of our Beyond Band of Brothers Tours, Normandy Invasion Tours, WW2 Bucket List on a Budget Tours or Normandy to the Bulge Tours.