One of the units taking part in this November 2 mission was the 303rd Bomb Group. As one of the oldest Groups in the Eighth Air Force it had arrived at the base in Molesworth, a small village about 10 miles west of Huntingdon, in September 1942 and had carried out operations from there ever since.
The 303rd Bomb Group consisted of four Bomb Squadrons, namely the 358th, 359th, 360th and 427th. The first bomber of the Group to complete 25 missions over Europe was, coincidentally, also the first of the entire Eighth Air Force to do so. This famous bomber was nicknamed "Hell's Angels". The Group adopted this name as its motto and was therefore known as the Hell's Angels Group.
In November 1944 the Group flew with B-17G bombers, popularly known as the Flying Fortress. At this stage of the war most bombers were not camouflaged any more and remained in bare aluminum. To facilitate assembly during missions and recognition of the bombers, brightly colored symbols and letters were applied to them. In early November 1944 the 303rd Bomb Group's insignia was a large letter C in a white triangle framed with a red band, painted on the tail section and upper surface of the right wing. Each Bomb Squadron had its own code, consisting of two letters. The 359th Bomb Squadron, for example, was known as BN, painted in black on both sides of the fuselage. It was preceded by the American national symbol, the star. In addition, a yellow squadron number was painted in the top apex of the tail insignia, planes of the 359th Bomb Squadron carried number 2.
Within the four Bomb Squadrons each bomber had its individual aircraft letter. This was also painted in black, but on the right hand side of the national insignia on the fuselage and beneath or in the triangle on the tail in yellow or black.
Finally, each aircraft had its own unique serial number. This was also painted beneath or in the triangle on the tail. So far for the official markings on the B-17's of the 303rd Bomb Group. Many bombers also sported unofficial nicknames given by their air or ground crews. These nicknames were usually painted on both sides of the nose. Therefore, on the early morning of November 2, 1944 a visitor to a hardstand in the 359th Squadron area at Molesworth could find a B-17G, serial number 42-97781, fuselage code BN * O, and the nickname "The 8 Ball" painted on its nose. The eight ball is a term from American pool billiard. It is the ball used "to do all the work" and pool the others balls.
It was already the third B-17 to be called "the 8 Ball" within the 303rd Bomb Group. The very first "8 Ball" was one of the original planes of the Group, B-17F 41-24581. It crossed the Atlantic when the training of the Group in the United States had been completed and the air echelon flew to England in 1942. Due to combat damage as a result of the mission to Romilly-sur-Seine on December 20, 1942, pilot William F. Calhoun was forced to make a belly-landing with "the 8 Ball" at the emergency field at Bovingdon. The damage was so severe that it was declared a "total loss" three days later and was salvaged. It did not take long before Calhoun received a new bomber, namely B-17F 41-24635. Again, "the 8 Ball" was painted on its nose. This B-17 would have a long and distinguished career within the 303rd Bomb Group. On many missions it would lead the Group to targets in Germany and the occupied countries. Finally, in 1944 its active combat days were over and the plane was flown back to the United States, where it finally ended up in a scrap yard in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
This led to the third "8 Ball" at Molesworth, B-17G 42-97781.1t had arrived in May 1944 and on the morning of November 2, 1944 it was ready and waiting for its air crew to go on its 57th combat mission.