The “Widowmaker”

B-26 Marauder Dinah Might at the Utah Beach Museum (Photo: Author’s own)
B-26 Marauder Dinah Might at the Utah Beach Museum (Photo: Author’s own)

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 (Read our earlier article - America strikes back), but this time, we’ll concentrate on the less appreciated Martin B-26 Marauder.

A Martin B-26 Marauder in flight (Photo: USAAF)
A Martin B-26 Marauder in flight (Photo: USAAF)

In 1939, the military issued a call for a high-speed, long-range twin-engine medium bomber. The contract was awarded to the Glenn L. Martin Company design that became the B-26. Due to the deteriorating situation on the frontlines, production had to be quick and even the testing of prototypes was skipped. The B-26 made its first flight in November 1940 and the troops received the first ones in 1941. Over 1,100 planes were ordered even before its first flight. Powered by two 2,000 horsepower Pratt & Whitney engines, the Marauder had a maximum speed of 286 mph and a combat range of over 1,100 miles. It could fly up to 20,000 feet (6,100 m). It could carry 4,000 pounds (1,800 kg) of bombs in two bays (though one bay was often reserved for additional fuel tanks to increase range) and was protected by twelve .50 caliber Browning machine guns. Two of them were housed in powered dorsal turrets which were incorporated into an American bomber for the first time. Earlier models were equipped with some 30. caliber Browning machine guns (Read our earlier article - The .30 cal Browning), these were up-gunned later. It could also carry a torpedo for anti-ship missions. The B-26 had a crew of seven: two pilots, navigator/radio operator, a bombardier, and three gunners.

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Close-up of the Marauder's powered turret (Photo: USAAF)

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 (193 to 217 km/h), 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 coming from flight schools in 1941-42. 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.

A B-26 after an unsuccessful landing on Sardinia in 1944 (Photo:
A B-26 after an unsuccessful landing on Sardinia in 1944 (Photo:

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,” “Flying Coffin” and “Flying Prostitute” – the last because it was so fast and its short wings meant it had “no visible means of support.” Due to the many modifications fixing the earlier problems, B-26s included variants “A” through “G.”

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Front view of a Marauder in flight. Note the bombardier/nose gunner enjoying a cigarette. (Photo: Wikipedia, public domain)

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 U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) and Martin to commission numerous articles in popular publications to whitewash the plane and defend it against “slander.”

A Marauder above Tunisia in 1943. She returned home despite the visible heavy damage to the wing and engine. (Photo: Wikipedia, public domain)
A Marauder above Tunisia in 1943. She returned home despite the visible heavy damage to the wing and engine. (Photo: Wikipedia, public domain)

The Marauder was first deployed to the Pacific for its first combat mission in early 1942 to fight the Japanese, then to other theaters, such as Europe and the Mediterranean, from late 1942 onwards. Both in Italy and Western Europe, they were first used as low-level bombers with heavy losses. A group of 10 B-26s, attacking enemy targets in the Netherlands, was completely wiped out by German anti-aircraft fire and FW-190 fighters. 34 airmen lost their lives on this catastrophic mission. The Marauders were eventually reorganized for mid- and high-level bombing runs in which they turned out to be accurate and highly effective especially with fighter escorts – though still an experienced pilot’s plane. Due to the technical improvements and altered bombing tactics, the Marauder ended up as one of the most successful U.S. medium bombers with the lowest loss rate among the American bombers. In the end, it became a widowmaker for its enemies instead of its own crew.

A Marauder executing an extremely low-level bombing run at a flight school in Texas (Photo:
A Marauder executing an extremely low-level bombing run at a flight school in Texas (Photo:

Though it was tricky to take off or land with, the B-26 developed a reputation for staying aloft despite heavy damage. One plane, the aptly named Flak-Bait (named after the pilot’s dog “Flea Bait”), flew 207 missions, some on D-Day and in the Battle of Bulge. With so many successful missions, it set a record among U.S. bombers in WWII. 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. Most of the remaining Marauders were blown up in Germany into scrap aluminum. This saved the expense of flying obsolescent aircraft home and helped revive the war-torn European economies. Flak-Bait is one of the few surviving Marauders out of the total production run of 5,288. Most of them can be found in the USA. Currently, remaining parts of Flak-Bait are being restored at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum.

Flak-Bait being restored in the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution (Photo: NASM)
Flak-Bait being restored in the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution (Photo: NASM)

During the preparatory bombings before D-Day, they played an important role in bombing bridges and railways. On D-Day, around 300 of them bombed the German fortifications of Utah Beach. One of the surviving B-26s, Dinah Might, is exhibited here at the Utah Beach Museum (Read our earlier article - The Utah Beach Museum) and can be seen up close by our passengers on our tours traveling through Normandy. This plane was named by its crew after the Bing Crosby hit of the time. Just a couple of minutes before the D-Day landings, the final bombing run against German resistance nest WN5 was led by Major David H. Dewhurst Jr., squadron commander of the 553rd Bomb Squadron of the 386th Bomb Group. During the liberation of Europe, he completed 85 combat missions. He died in a car accident in 1948. His two sons, David and Eugene, visited the Utah Beach Museum on June 6, 2007, when they unexpectedly recognized their father and his crew with their B-26 on an old photo. This was when they learned that their father was a decorated pilot and commander in WWII. This unbelievable discovery led them to fund more than the third of the costs of a major development of the museum which almost tripled the size of the museum. As part of the expansion supported by the Dewhurst brothers, a B-26 Marauder medium bomber was brought to the museum, which is still on a long-term loan from the Air and Space Museum of Le Bourget. This very B-26 was repainted to follow the colors of Major Dewhurst’s plane, the “Dinah Might”. A glass-roofed hangar was built around the plane.

Dinah Might at the Utah Beach Museum in Normandy (Photo: Author’s own)
Dinah Might at the Utah Beach Museum in Normandy (Photo: Author’s own)

The B-26 saw service also in the British Royal Air Force, the Free French and the South African Air Force. The Marauder was quickly retired after the war and its B-26 designation was passed on to the Douglas A-26 Invader light bomber. You can learn more about the Marauder and other warbirds that flew in WWII and see Dinah Might at the Utah Beach Museum on our tours that visit Normandy.

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A Douglas B-26 Invader (Photo: Flickr, Ragnhild & Neil Crawford)

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One of our groups with a tour bus (Photo: Author's own)

Please remember that our 2022 list prices are 10% lower than in 2023, so if you book your tour for this year, you can still enjoy the hotel and bus transportation services we purchased before inflation came. If you are planning to travel in 2023 or 2024 for the 80th anniversary of D-Day, but still want to save 10% from our list price, book now by paying the registration fee and the tour price together. 

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