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Flying a British plane with the aid of British radar, an American aircrew shot down what may have been a secret Nazi flight over the Mediterranean.

The Bristol Beaufighter shrouded in the darkness of the winter night of December 28, 1944. The plane stalked a large, dark shape hugging the surface of the Mediterranean Sea just south of Marseille, France. The American crew of the British night fighter confirmed that their target was a German Junkers Ju-290, a four-engine air- sank through the clouds, craft that had been sneaking valuable contraband from northern Italy to Spain under the Allies’ noses long enough to be dubbed “Barcelona Charlie.” The Beaufighter pilot pressed the firing button and put an end to those clandestine flights.

While every enemy aircraft destroyed helped the overall war effort, this victory was particularly noteworthy because the suspected cargo might have helped to prolong the Nazi war effort. How this particular crew, flying this particular type of aircraft, shot down Barcelona Charlie forms the basis for a unique and little known tale of World War II.

Robert J. McCullen first enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1940. When he finished high school and realized that jobs and financial assistance for college were scarce in northern New Jersey, which was then just starting to recover from the Depression, enlisting seemed a logical choice. He trained as an air gunner and flew for just over a year. By dint of hoarding every nickel, McCullen saved enough to start back to school in the fall of 1941. Released from the service in September 1941 to begin classes at Newark College of Engineering (later Rutgers University), he looked forward to his academic interlude.

America’s entry into World War II interrupted McCullen’s plans. He reenlisted in the Army Air Forces in June 1942 and was selected for pilot training due to his previous military service and college experience. His stay at flight school was cut short prior to winning his pilot wings. Even though he completed the grueling courses of pre-flight, primary and most of basic flight training, one of his instructors told McCullen that his flying skills were heavy-handed and recommended that he switch to another flying job, adding, “You fly like you play football, hard and violent.”

Unable to fully master piloting in the pressure-cooker environment of wartime training, McCullen nevertheless demonstrated a good grasp of airmanship and showed tremendous motivation. Like thousands of others, he was removed from pilot training and re classified as “nonpilot aircrew qualified.” As fate would have it, McCullen then became a specialist in a newly emerging segment of air combat—the world of electronic warfare.

Reporting to the Army Air Forces’ electronic training school in Boca Raton, Fla., in December 1943, McCullen learned the fundamentals of radio detection and ranging, operation of the SCR-540 airborne interception (AI) radar, and the duties of a night fighter crew. The SCR-540 was actually the U.S. version of the British Mark IV AI radar. Radar itself was still a new and highly classified technology at that point, so upon graduation the newly commissioned second lieutenant was assigned as a radio observer, or R/O. Gradually, however, although R/O stuck as aircrew nomenclature, its meaning metamorphosed into radar operator by the end of the war.

The R/Os of McCullen’s class reported to Florida’s Kissimmee Field for aircrew and aircraft conversion training. Since the United States had no purpose-built operational night fighter at this stage of the war, several airframes were pressed into service. At Kissimmee, P-70s—modified Douglas A-20 Havoc twin-engine groundattack bombers—were fitted with an R/O position in the aft part of the fuselage, while four forward-firing 20mm cannons went into a belly pack. Needless to say, the light bomber’s performance suffered, but with wartime exigencies prevailing, the P-70 had to suffice.

A night fighter combat crew consisted of a pilot and an R/O. Using a ground-controlled intercept (GCI) station, a night fighter could be guided, or vectored, to a target. The fighter’s radar had a limited range. On the Mk. IV variants, the range was limited to the distance of the fighter aircraft above the ground or sea due to the omnidirectional nature of the electronic waves emitted and received aboard the fighter. The early versions of airborne radars used meter-long wavelengths and were not able to screen out the massive returns from the surface, hiding the smaller target returns in the “clutter.” Thus the useful range of the Mk. IV at 20,000 feet was less than five nautical miles. In the Mk. VIII “centimetric” microwave radar, however, improvements in “clutter blanking,” or processing of the radar returns, broadened the range to roughly 20 miles regardless of altitude. Once within the narrow focus of the fighter’s radar, the R/O could vector his pilot to the merge (so-called because the separate blips on the radar scope merged into one), where the pilot would hope to visually acquire the target and then maneuver into firing position to destroy the enemy aircraft.

The process may sound simple, but even after 30 to 40 hours in the P-70, effective intercepts were more a matter of art than science. The SCR-540 and the British Mk. IV AI presented information to the R/O on two separate cathode ray tubes. One tube presented range from the fighter to the target, while the other tube showed the target’s altitude. The information on both scopes could be and usually was inaccurate to some degree. Quick interpretation of the data, an ability to guesstimate the maneuvers of the target, and concise directions to the pilot, to give him the best opportunity to see the target, were the keys to success for an effective R/O.

Prior to its operational deployment in the European theater, the P-70’s deficiencies were recognized as so great that it was judged best not to risk combat crews and, more significant, the secrets of radar use in combat. Instead, the United States chose to use a proven British night fighter design—the Bristol Beaufighter. In a sort of reverse Lend-Lease, 48 aircraft were taken from British squadrons and turned over to the U.S. Army Air Forces in Europe.

The Beaufighter, often called the “Beau,” was derived from a light bomber/antishipping aircraft, the Bristol Beaufort. Before the war, the Royal Air Force’s Air Ministry realized that it had no effective means of providing the same level of protection for Britain at night or in bad weather as it did with its day fighters. Throwing the single-engine day fighters into the realm of instrument flying was attempted, but largely failed due to a rise in the number of accidents. The Beau seemed likely to be the best way to put a relatively fast and heavily armed aircraft into production in time to have an effect on the night war.

The Beaufighter first flew in July 1939, with the first operational model, Mk. IF, delivered in July 1940. Heavily armed with four 20mm cannons under the nose and six wing-mounted .303 machine guns (four in the right wing and two in the left), the Beau was fast enough to catch most German night intruder aircraft and could deliver a heavy blow once it caught its prey. The variant operated by the 417th Night Fighter Squadron (NFS) was the Beaufighter Mk. VI with the Mk. IV AI radar, eventually switching in the fall of 1943 to the retrofitted Mk. VIII radar.

One peculiarity of the Beaufighter was its Bristol Hercules engines. Unlike all American military planes and most other aircraft in the world that rotated the prop to the right, the Hercules swung its props to the left. American student pilots grew up with the feel of an aircraft that needed a bootful of left rudder, but the Beau needed just the opposite rudder input. It was just one of many Beaufighter idiosyncrasies to which the Americans had to adjust.

McCullen’s class next attended a month-long conversion course with the RAF in England to learn to operate the British Mk. IV radar in Beaufighters before being declared combat-ready. The R/O’s course was conducted at RAF Usworth, where— having already learned their trade on similar equipment back in the States—the replacement crews quickly transitioned to the new aircraft. McCullen flew an additional 30-35 hours in the big British brute before moving on to operations with various night fighter squadrons, eventually joining the 417th in the spring of 1944.

The 417th NFS Sprawled airfield in Tafaraoui, Algeria. Free French Bell P-39s and North American B-25s of the USAAF as well as a variety of transient aircraft could generally on the shared Allied be found on the hot, windswept field. The weather ranged from sweltering sun to ferocious downpours that turned the field into a quagmire. Minutes after such storms ended, the temperature and humidity started to spiral upward once again, and the miserable cycle was repeated over and over.

Using its 12 Beaufighters, the 417th conducted coastal patrols, convoy escort and armed reconnaissance in addition to its primary mission of night fighting. The 417th’s mounts, like the ones of its sister Beaufighter squadrons (the 414th, 415th and 416th), were already war-weary by the time the Americans received them from the British. Some of the squadron’s aircraft were in fact Battle of Britain veterans. By 1944, when Bob McCullen joined the 417th, the Beaus were definitely showing their age.

USAAF Beaufighter squadrons used British aircraft, radar and armament, ate in British messes and often operated tactically under the direction of British night fighter headquarters. The four U.S. Beau squadrons were never formed as part of a particular fighter group, but remained administratively under USAAF control, first under the Twelfth Air Force in the Mediterranean and later under the Ninth Air Force in Europe.

Command relationships aside, McCullen had no combat contact with the Axis aircraft in the North African campaign for some time, despite flying numerous sorties. The 417th did manage to score hits on several enemy aircraft during this period, but no kills were claimed.

Missions for the fighter crews, day or night, were counted differently from those of bomber crews. While a bomber crew member had to fly 25—later raised to 35 or more—missions to earn a rotation home from combat, the fighter crew member had to fly five combat sorties to earn just one mission. The Twelfth Air Force’s rationale was to even up the number of total combat hours to which a man was exposed. This was equitable in theory, but it had clearly been designed with the day fighters in mind. Bomber sorties were usually long—up to eight hours or more—but most fighter sorties during 1943 and early 1944 were one- or two-hour affairs. The night fighters, however, often flew four hours or more per sortie, thus racking up very large numbers of combat hours. Also, the bomber and single-seat fighters typically flew in clear daytime weather. Not that the day arena was any easier, but at least those crews could see some of the threats that surrounded them in combat. The night fighters faced the same threats, but in darkness. Therefore, when a Beaufighter crew member boasted of “40 missions,” he often had logged 200 or more combat sorties.

As the war progressed, the 417th moved several times, first from Algeria to several bases on Corsica, then finally—following the Allied landings in southern France in August 1944—to Le Vallon airdrome near Salon-de-Provence. This was the 417th’s base until nearly the end of the war. McCullen made numerous moves with the squadron, gaining experience and skill in operating the Beau as a weapon, but he still had no substantial contact with the enemy. The squadron as a whole did provide valuable protection for the entire southern French coast, however, and particularly the vital port of Marseille.

The 417th’s area of responsibility was too large for any one GCI site to see all of it, so numerous sites were set up along the French coast and interior as the Allies advanced on the ground. As a Beaufighter patrolled, it moved from the control of one site to the next. Similarly, if a target was picked up, it too was tracked and handed over from one site to the next. The fighter was then vectored in the direction of the contact using the GCI “picture” from whichever site had the strongest radar return.

Each of these GCI sites was under the operational command of the RAF’s 340 Wing. Each site used several specialists to maintain the radar and track the plots of the target and fighter, but the only one the Beau crews really interacted with was the GCI controller.

The controller tried to place the night fighter in the best position for the R/O to get a solid contact with the Beau’s onboard radar. The controller also reconstructed the entire mission by drawing the fight, from initial contact to the interception, on sheets of waxed paper. These sheets were sent to the squadron after the mission, so the unit’s leadership could evaluate the skills of the crew. On many occasions the controller included personal comments like “Good show on this one!” or “What a bloody cock-up!”

During the bitterly of the coldest in history—the 417th flew night patrols, night interdiction, night escort and search missions. Their living and operating conditions were as much a test of a man’s character and cold European winter of 1944-45—one fortitude as any flying mission. Standard-issue canvas tents served as the unit’s personnel quarters, mess area, maintenance facilities and briefing areas. Much of the work on the Beaus had to be performed in the open—where mechanics’ hands, feet and faces froze.

Maintenance on the Beaus was a challenge under any conditions. Since the 417th’s machines had not been manufactured in the United States, spare parts were not available in the usual supply system. Many times the squadron “hack,” or administrative aircraft (a war-weary B-25), flew to locations in the Mediterranean and North Africa where Beaufighter parts were rumored to be available. The B-25 often returned only with a payload of tires, but since a Beau usually required a tire change after only 25 landings, even that payload was sorely needed.

On December 12, 1944, Allied intelligence picked up indications that German senior leadership, both military and civilian, was preparing either to escape or to cache portions of the looted treasures and gold of Europe in neutral countries. Reports came in of Nazi aircraft making runs from occupied northern Italy to neutral Spain. The 417th was ordered to begin patrolling the southern coast of France to intercept any Luftwaffe transports headed that way.

The 417th, despite the harsh weather and the maintenance headaches resulting from its dilapidated equipment, commenced operations that same night. Nothing was intercepted for the next two weeks, although GCI reported low-flying targets or unidentified “bogies” on several nights along the enemy’s expected route. Ample intelligence to corroborate the radar sightings even gave one unknown flier a nickname, Barcelona Charlie, due to its frequent trips in the direction of that Spanish city. Due to poor visibility, unreliable equipment or just bad luck, no visual contact was made until the night of December 28, 1944.

On that night at 1740 local time, Beaufighter number V8568, call sign “Wastenot 81,” piloted by 1st Lt. Malcolm “Duff” Campbell and his R/O, 2nd Lt. Bob McCullen, took off for what would be a maximum endurance sortie of 4 hours, 40 minutes. Climbing into the already dark winter sky and taking up a patrol line southeast of Marseille, the crew began its ritual of test firing the aircraft weapons and warming up the sometimes balky radar equipment. Unfortunately for the crew, the radar was often the only thing that could be warmed up—the Beaufighter was notorious for being an icebox. The heater was simply incapable of fighting off the cold, particularly at altitude or in frigid weather.

At 2118 the GCI station “Flametree” radioed a low-altitude contact for the crew to investigate. Due to the very real possibility that the intercepted aircraft was friendly, all intercepts had to go to visual range before the crew could fire. Thus Wastenot 81 snapped to a heading of 160 degrees and began a steep descent. Flametree continued providing vectors until the unknown aircraft traveled into the radar coverage area of the GCI site “Galley,” which then provided target updates and positioning of the approaching fighter for the merge.

McCullen saw the blip on his scope at a range of 1,000 feet and took over control of the intercept. Standard procedure at moments like these was for the GCI site to go silent and provide assistance or further guidance only if requested by the crew.

Realizing the target was extremely low, McCullen continued refining the geometry of the intercept, trying to place his pilot in the most tactically advantageous offensive position: directly behind and slightly below the target. This tactic provided both a good position to identify a target and, in the event it was the enemy, to open fire.

Plunging downward until the radar altimeter of the Beau read only 20 feet, the crew closed the range on the target. At 2130 Campbell saw the bogey 600 feet to his left. Campbell identified the aircraft as a Junkers Ju-290, a large four-engine long-range Luftwaffe transport/reconnaissance aircraft. McCullen, looking up from his scope through the clear Plexiglas bubble over his seat, confirmed the identification.

Never very numerous—fewer than 70 were ever produced—the Ju-290 was a huge aircraft for its day. As part of Kampfgeschwader 200 (KG.200), the Luftwaffe’s special-operations wing, the Ju-290 had a proven history of unorthodox long-range missions to its credit. Skimming the water’s surface at less than 100 feet—at night— showed that its crew had tremendous nerve.

The Nazi plane was thundering along at 240 knots on a heading of 270 degrees when Campbell pressed the firing button on the Beau’s yoke. Using approximately 20 degrees deflection, the five-second burst scored hits on the starboard inner engine of the target. With that engine afire, the big bird began what was described in the crew’s combat report as “moderate” evasive maneuvers. Those maneuvers, at less than 100 feet above the sea, must have been a whiteknuckle experience for both the Axis and Allied airmen.

Campbell hung on to the twisting target, with McCullen continuing to maintain radar contact in case they lost sight of the Ju-290. Administering another hit from 800 feet, Campbell closed again for a third time, from the starboard side. His final burst, from 500 feet, sent the big plane plunging into the Mediterranean some 80 miles southeast of the Hyeres Islands, off the coast of southern France.

The rugged construction of the Ju-290 and the skillful maneuvering of its pilot allowed the plane to survive an amazing 1,200 rounds of .303 machine gun fire and 400 rounds of 20mm cannon fire before it tumbled into the water. Official records for KG.200 do not mention the loss of a Ju-290 on this date. It may have been a secret flight or perhaps even a civilian aircraft.

Campbell immediately climbed away from the sea. The rest of the crew, shaking off the combined effects of adrenaline and triumph, reported the kill to GCI site Galley and started what must have been a very satisfying trip back to base.

Upon landing at 2220, the aircrew reported their success to the waiting ground crews. When the story quickly spread to the rest of the wakened squadron, a riotous party ensued. The next day, air-sea rescue aircraft searched the crash site and reported that only what looked like planks, possibly from crates, remained on the surface of the Mediterranean.

For their efforts Campbell and McCullen were both awarded Distinguished Flying Crosses. The two electronic warriors , Lieutenants pinned on their medals at an awards ceremony conducted in February 1945 on the squadron’s flight line. Additionally, the 417th was honored with a Presidential Unit Citation in June 1945.

Lieutenant Campbell died just 10 days after V-E Day, on May 18, 1945, while flying a captured Me-109 near Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. He and some other squadron mates had visited the former German airfield, and Campbell decided to see if he could fly one of the abandoned fighters. He managed to start, taxi and take off but spun in on his approach to landing. The aircraft burst into flames on impact, and Campbell perished in the fire.

Lieutenant Robert McCullen survived the war and returned to civilian life in New Jersey, where he became a policeman in Newark. He married in 1949 and had two children. In 1950 McCullen was recalled to active duty due to the Korean War and, although never sent to the Far East theater, he resumed his role as an electronic warrior. Numerous assignments on both coasts followed for McCullen—as a GCI controller, a radar intercept officer in the Northrop F-89 and McDonnell F-101 all-weather fighters, and finally as a weapons controller on the EC-121 Warning Star, a radar-equipped military version of the Lockheed Constellation. Essentially an airborne GCI site, the EC-121 served as an extension of America’s first radar detection line, conducting long-duration patrols far out to sea. McCullen achieved the rank of major before dying in an off-duty accident in 1960.


Braxton “Brick” Eisel is a U.S. Air Force Reserve major on active duty. Currently employed as a Department of Defense air defense liaison to the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C., he has also served as an Air Force historian.He suggests for further reading: Nightfighter: The Battle for the Night Skies, by Ken Delve; and Beaufighter in Action, by Jerry Scutts.

Originally published in the January 2006 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.