During WWII, navigational technology was still at an unsophisticated level, especially when it came to airplanes, and many practical solutions prevailed when it came to organizing large groups of bombers so that none of them would get separated and lost.
So forget about satellite-guided aircraft reaching their goal with total precision while remaining in a perfect flying formation, and behold the “Assembly Ships” of the U.S. Air Force, leading the way into battle, their bright and shiny paintwork flashing across the night skies of Europe.
Their high-contrast color scheme made the planes highly visible from a great distance. Their role was to serve as leading rams, guiding the herd that formed behind them, taking up formations such as the combat box or combat wing, while on their way to wreak havoc to the industrial core of the Third Reich.
The Assembly Ships were usually B24 Liberator bombers that had been rendered unfit for combat in previous missions but were still airworthy. The use of such aircraft first came in February 1944 and was authorized by the Air Force’s 2nd Division. These bombers were stripped of their weaponry and were given their distinctive color scheme, together with lights and an arsenal of pyrotechnics intended for signaling the others once airborne.
Usually, they were painted with patterns of stripes, checkers or polka dots in order to render them easily recognizable to the bombers that followed them.
Apart from not carrying bombs, these birds also had their armor and secondary armament removed, in many cases this even included the tail turret. The plan was for them to stick around only until the battle formation and course were set up, but if an enemy fighter vanguard was to appear in mid-flight, these flyboys were sitting ducks.
But such attacks never happened. There was more danger aboard the aircraft itself, as incidents such as the accidental discharge of flare guns inside rear fuselages occurred multiple times. Because of this, an improvement was applied, fixing the pyrotechnic guns through the fuselage sides.
Since their role demanded them to return to base as soon as the formation was established, only a skeleton crew operated the Assembly Ships, including one or two flare discharge operators.
Sometimes an observer officer would join in to monitor the formation before they were met with a salvo of AA guns and enemy fighters.
As they abandoned the formation before a battle, the Assembly Ships were grimly nicknamed by their fighting counterpart crews as Judas Goats.