Consolidated’s B-24 Liberator is often compared unfavourably to the more famous B-17 Flying Fortress. But the B-24 was newer, more efficient and much more versatile than the Boeing design; and with nearly 20,000 aircraft completed, more Liberators were built than any other military aircraft in American history. It was a good bomber, serving on every front, but its most valuable work may have been the war against the U-boats.
The B-24 Liberator was built around the Davis wing; a long, thin, large-area structure mounted high on the fuselage. Its twin bomb-bays used ‘roller shutter’ doors which retracted within the fuselage when opened, reducing drag. The twin tail, like the wing, was a Consolidated trademark. All this resulted in an excellent long-range bomber which had other applications; there were cargo, tanker, patrol, training and reconnaissance variants. Some were armed with even more guns as bomber escorts.
A B-24 caught on the ground at Hickam Field, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941 produced the first American casualties of the war. Liberators fought in the Pacific and China-Burma-India theatres. From the Middle East they attacked their most famous target – Romania’s Ploesti oilfields. They also joined with the B-17 in the Eighth Air Force’s three-year aerial campaign over Europe. The B-24 was never as popular with its crews as the B-17, as it was quicker to catch fire in battle and sometimes suffered hydraulic problems, but it was in some ways a better aircraft, with more modern systems.
The mighty armada of B-24s went to pasture in just a few years. Soon after the war, Liberators began to disappear from the skies. Today, only a couple of surviving examples are airworthy.
Although the B-24 had, like other American bombers, a smaller load on paper than its contemporaries, some variants could carry up to six tonnes of weaponry. The Heinkel, by contrast, rarely carried more than half its stated capacity, and sometimes much less. The B-24 could carry its load higher and farther.
American bomber tactics called for precision strikes from high altitude. The B-24 had a long, very efficient wing, together with extremely powerful turbocharged two-row radial engines, and it customarily operated at greater heights than its European rivals. This lessened its vulnerability to fighters in the Pacific, where Japanese aircraft had to struggle to reach such high operating altitudes.