Chapter 4: Before the Curtain Rose
‘Magnitude, simultaneity and violence’ were, said Winston Churchill, the prime requisites for the successful invasion of Europe. To these he might have added energy, determination, and mutual trust. All were eventually forthcoming; but for many weary men and women the weeks and months which elapsed before the will produced the deed and Flight Lieutenant Weighill of No. 2 Squadron, flying above the Normandy beaches at first light on 6th June, 1944, could report that he had seen ‘the first men actually land seemed almost unbearably prolonged. For four years the cry, ‘How long, O Lord’, had risen from hearts close to despair or made sick with hope deferred, and there had not been wanting some, notably within the confines of the Kremlin, who had openly expressed their conviction that the British and Americans did not intend to advance ‘to the extreme edge of hazard’ and to commit their armed forces to an enterprise of such high and unknown peril. This anxiety was natural, if ill-founded; for the preparations necessary before the invasion of Europe could be successfully launched were long, detailed, and not easily made.
To assault the West Wall, a fortification loudly proclaimed by Göbbels to be impregnable, the sincere and prodigal co-operation of all three Services belonging to both Allies was of paramount importance. It depended first and last upon the ability of Britain and America to work together in close and protracted harmony. To do so was not easy in theory and proved harder in practice.’ It is demanding much’ wrote Lieutenant-General F. E. Morgan, who on his appointment as Chief of Staff to the as yet unchosen Supreme Commander found himself charged with producing the plan for invasion, ‘of great democracies, which progress normally by means of the narrow margin between positive and negative effort, that they should devote whole-heartedly all their exertions in one direction. But such is the magnitude of this task that I believe its achievement to be impossible if less than this degree of unity is brought about. It is certainly impossible if any less degree than total unity of endeavour is aimed at’.
In writing thus, the General was but reflecting the views of Eisenhower, in due course to be chief of the invasion forces. On assuming command of the North African expedition, that great leader had from the first preached the doctrine of intimate and continuous co-operation between all Allied fighting men, and saw to it that, at least among his own staff, it was practised with conviction and success. At all times, and especially at moments of crisis, the whole weight of his influence was thrown on the side of unity, and it was decisive. This was not the least of the services he rendered to the Allied cause.
How to use the men and material ultimately available for an undertaking which would dwarf even ‘the majestic enterprise’ of operation TORCH, required much hard and detailed thinking by a very large number of persons. They were of all sorts and conditions. Some of the professional sailors, soldiers and airmen were the fine flower of Britain and America; on a lower plane were many of conspicuous ability, and many more made up in application what they lacked in professional knowledge. Broadly speaking, the planners fulfilled their task. The mice were in labour and produced a prodigious mountain. It was no easy confinement and the birth pangs were prolonged. To the reluctance of allies to reach a common policy and to act upon it, to the tendency of democracies to mistake procrastination and delay for wisdom and prudence, to the shortcomings of human nature apparent even among leaders of men was added the intricate nature of the problem itself.
It was not until April, 1943, on Morgan’s appointment that planning for the invasion of Europe began in earnest, although exactly a year before, General Marshall and Mr. Hopkins had brought to London proposals for joint Anglo-American action against the continent. They were known as the Marshall Plan,1 and were based on two assumptions: first that Western Europe was the most favourable theatre in which to mount a joint offensive, for nowhere else could that overwhelming mastery in the air indispensable for victory be so easily achieved, and secondly that Soviet Russia would continue in the field, being encouraged to remain there by ever larger and more frequent raids on the coasts of France and by an air offensive of steadily increasing weight. Granted these conditions, General Marshall considered that forty-eight divisions and five thousand eight hundred combat aircraft would be necessary for success.
His plan was not the first. The return to Europe had been studied as far back as the dark days immediately following Dunkirk; but it
was not until the Americans arrived upon the scene that it began to move towards the foregound and to assume greater and greater importance with each change of code-name. As the weeks and presently the months went by, ROUND-UP became SUPER-ROUND-UP, then ROUND-HAMMER, RUDGE, and finally, OVERLORD. The number of men and the amount of equipment being at the moment of General Marshall’s visit and for a long time afterwards quite insufficient, no attempt was made to develop his plan in detail, and a disgruntled Molotov, who had asked in 1942 that forty divisions of the enemy should be contained in France, had to be content with the information that, while this was not possible, our air attacks were keeping about one half of Germany’s fighter Strength and a third of her bombers away from the Eastern Front.
The fact was that in the spring of 1942 neither the British and American governments nor their Chiefs of Staff were in a position to take a final and irrevocable decision on the date of the invasion of Europe. Their planners rightly told them that for so great an enterprise overwhelming force was necessary, unless the enemy showed unmistakable signs of wishing to abandon the struggle. Such force was not in the hands of the Allies at that date. The maximum number of divisions which could be put ashore, together with their tanks and vehicles by the landing craft then available, was six, and the operation would take three weeks. To cover it no more than 1,467 Royal Air Force fighters, 443 medium and heavy bombers, 142 Army Cooperation aircraft, and 260 aircraft of Coastal Command, could be provided, and these were available only if relieved of all other tasks. Would ‘a crack in German morale’ appear as the result of defeats in Russia? If so, operation SLEDGEHAMMER, the seizure of a bridgehead in the Pas de Calais, where fighter cover to a maximum degree of intensity was possible, might be successfully launched.
The weeks passed and by mid-June 1942 it was apparent that the crack had not appeared and that SLEDGEHAMMER was not therefore a feasible operation of war. Roosevelt, Churchill and their advisers turned their eyes towards Africa. Operation TORCH was swiftly planned and executed, and when, after hard fighting, it achieved victory at Tunis in May, 1943, the policy of stabbing the soft underbelly of the Axis Powers seemed preferable to an immediate blow upon their hard outer carapace.
During the twelve months which elapsed between the visit of General Marshall and the arrival of General Morgan, the planners in London had been far from idle and far from few. By April, 1943, the planning machine had grown into an apparatus of formidable complexity. At the summit was a committee composed of high
ranking officers, which decided major planning policy for such continental operations as the Chiefs of Staff had chosen for eventual execution. Immediately below them was a body known as the Principal Staff Officers Committee, reinforced by a representative of the Special Operations Executive whose primary concern was ‘subversion and sabotage’. Their duties were to take decisions within the limits laid down by their chiefs and to co-ordinate the plans presented to them. Lower down was the Progress Syndicate made up of other representatives of the same commanders. To them fell the task of carrying out the decisions reached by their superiors. Attached to the three bodies was the Secretariat and there were in addition numerous ad hoc sub-committees dealing with particular problems and aspects of the invasion. The organization was called the ROUND-UP Special Planning Staff, and laboured in Norfolk House, St. James’s Square. Its air force members owed allegiance to the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Plans) if they were dealing with an operational matter, to the Air Member for Supply and Organisation if the problem was administrative, and at all times to the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Fighter Command. The duty of this high-ranking officer was to maintain his Command in action with all that that implied, and to be ultimately responsible for every detail in the plan for ROUND-UP which concerned the role of the air forces, of which he was Commander-in-Chief (Designate).
To make the functions of this organization and how it worked quite clear to Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory when he succeeded Air Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas at the head of Fighter Command, the Vice-Chief of the Air Staff wrote: ‘The Special Planning Staff is responsible to you as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, ROUND-UP ... but they are not your agents in your role of Commander-in-Chief, Fighter Command, for implementing the re-organization within your command to meet ROUND-UP necessities. Nor should you rely on the Special Planning Organization to consider all aspects of training and development in your command from the wider angle of possible future operations. Your contact with the Special Planning Staff will help to foresee such developments and how they can best be fitted in with your present responsibilities, but any advice on this subject that you need must come from the Air Ministry through the normal channels.’ ‘There’, remarked Leigh-Mallory on receiving this explanation, ‘you have it in a nutshell’.
So elaborate a system—and it was one of several active for months before ‘D Day’—may demonstrate the weakness of the committee technique, but was in the circumstances probably inevitable. In the
hands of a master, this technique has much to commend it. It ensures the consultation of the best brains, it taps the most numerous sources of knowledge, it conforms to the essential principles of democracy. But when it is misused—when, for example, a body which should be advisory becomes executive, or when there is not sufficient determination to substitute action for deliberation—then the consequences may be grave.2 In the case in point they were not, for, when June, 1944, eventually arrived, the Allies possessed so great a preponderance of strength in the air that nothing but a major blunder or deliberate treachery could have prevented success.
The task the planners faced was even more complicated than the machinery designed to cope with it. Not only had the role of all three Services to be defined and accepted by all three, but the part each ally was to play and the number, weight and disposition of the forces each was to furnish had to be settled. Most difficult perhaps of all, the chain of command had to be agreed upon between the governments of two great democracies which could each advance strong claims to provide the Supreme Commander. The British had been longer in the field and were still bearing the brunt of the fight; the Americans could and were about to make the larger contribution in men and arms. After some delay and negotiation it was finally agreed that the Supreme Commander should be an American, and his Deputy an Englishman. Dwight Eisenhower, who had commanded the expedition to North Africa, was appointed to the first, Arthur Tedder to the second. The choice of a high officer of the Royal Air Force as second in command of the greatest military enterprise history has so far recorded was no accident. It marked the conviction of both Allied governments that the decisive field, at the outset at least, was situated neither on land nor upon water but in the air. By 1943, the lesson that without superiority—supremacy indeed—in that element, all major military and naval operations are doomed, had been driven home again and again and had at last been learnt.
When the Allies set foot upon the soil of France they were determined to do so under cover of an air armada which should be overwhelming and directed with all the skill that experience could provide. In the general scheme Tedder was to be the deputy, the man who, working closely with Eisenhower, should be ready to take his place were he to be struck down; but Tedder, though responsible for the superior direction of all air operations, was not in immediate
command of the air forces, nor, at this time, was his chief of those on land. These two high officers were to concern themselves, at least until a firm footing on the Continent of Europe had been achieved, With the broad general aspects of the undertaking. The conduct of the operations themselves during the period of assault and build-up was to fall to their immediate subordinates, the Commanders-in-Chief—Bertram Ramsay for the naval forces, Bernard Montgomery for the land, and Trafford Leigh-Mallory for the air.
It was in this last and most vital field that difficulties, due not so much to the enemy as to the temperament and convictions of certain Allied leaders, presently appeared. They were removed by the skill, tact and patience of Tedder, qualities he shared with Eisenhower and which, useful at all times, are essential to those who command the forces of allies in time of war.
By July, 1943, Morgan and his staff of planners, known from the initial letters of the title, Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander, as the COSSAC organization, had produced a preliminary plan which was considered by the Chiefs of Staff at the Quebec Conference in August. They ordered its development, and intensive planning thereupon began. Into the plans of the naval and military forces it is not necessary to enter; those of the air forces were in essence simple, in detail complicated. They were designed to be carried out in four phases. The first, or preliminary, was the strategic bombing of Germany; the second, or preparatory, was the addition of targets more closely connected with the proposed invasion, such as railway centres, coast defence batteries, harbours and airfields, especially those within one hundred and thirty miles of Caen, and in the areas of Brest and Nantes. The third was the assault phase and included the protection of the sea and land forces during their voyage across the Channel and when they were ashore. The fourth phase was a continuation of the programme laid down in the first and second—the prevention or delaying of the arrival of enemy reinforcements in the lodgment areas, the direct support of the land forces in those areas, the execution of airborne operations and the provision of air transport. These plans were drawn up to meet the three-fold request of Montgomery, who was to command all the land forces in the initial stage, and who asked for complete air cover during the landings and the denial of railways to the enemy up to a hundred and fifty miles from the beach-head.
Of the four phases, the second proved a stumbling block because of the devotion of the strategic bomber forces to the first. The Casablanca directive laid upon them the task of destroying the industrial capacity and the will of the German people to continue
the struggle. It was a plan after the hearts of Harris and Eaker and they had been engaged on it for some nine months when, on 15th November, 1943, Leigh-Mallory was appointed Air Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force. He had at his direct disposal the Second Tactical Air Force (Royal Air Force), the United States Ninth Air Force, also tactical, and the forces of Fighter Command which on that day became the Air Defence of Great Britain. He was not, however, given control over Bomber Command nor over the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe. These remained at the disposal of the Combined Chiefs of Staff.
As the planning proceeded, it soon became evident that the air forces available for OVERLORD were too small. They included no heavy bombers. With these Leigh-Mallory and his planners were quite unable to dispense and said so. It was then that a direct conflict of opinion arose. Early in January, 1944, Harris made known his views in the clearest possible manner. ‘The only efficient support which Bomber Command can give to “OVERLORD”‘, he said, ‘is the intensification of attacks on suitable industrial centres in Germany as and when opportunity offers. If,’ he went on, ‘we attempt to substitute for this process attacks on gun emplacements, beach defences, communications or dumps in occupied territory, we shall commit the irremediable error of diverting our best weapon from the military function for which it has been equipped and trained to tasks which it cannot effectively carry out. Though this might give a specious appearance of supporting the army, in reality it would be the greatest disservice we could do them. It would lead directly to disaster.’ This was definite enough and Harris was supported by Spaatz3 and by an influential body of opinion both in Britain and America who believed, or affected to believe, that the war could be won without an invasion of Europe. Both Strategic Air Force Commanders mistrusted a policy by which their bombers would be called upon to fly ahead of an army advancing across that Continent to the assault of such tactical targets as it might choose for them. This view was soon to be dramatically reinforced by the failure of the armies in Italy to profit from the blotting out by bombing of the town of Cassino on 15th March, 1944. From that moment onwards, until they were persuaded to the contrary, they viewed with distrust the prospect of staging a series of similar annihilations in Western Europe.
Aware that heavy bombers would have to be used, though not assured that they would be, for, as has been explained, he did not have them under his direct command, Leigh-Mallory pursued his
plans. In January, 1944, he set up the Allied Expeditionary Air Force Bombing Committee under the chairmanship of Air Commodore E. J. Kingston-McCloughry, an Australian. Its members included Professor S. Zuckerman, as scientific adviser, and Mr. R. E. Brant, whose knowledge of the French railway system was extensive. The joint plan which they presently submitted was to be carried out in two stages, the first of a general, the second of a special character. As a preliminary operation, the capacity of the French and Belgian railway systems to carry traffic was to be reduced to the greatest possible extent by bombing, and then, when ‘D Day’ drew near, the tactical phase was to open, and railway and road centres, bridges and rolling stock were to be attacked in an attempt to paralyse all movement in the lodgment areas or towards them. It presently became obvious that the plan for that part of OVERLORD known as NEPTUNE which was concerned with the landing of the armies, would, when carried out, provoke a desperate race between the two opponents. The prize would be for the Allies, the construction of an impregnable beachhead, for the Germans, the flinging of the invaders into the sea. Whichever side proved first to bring its reinforcements on to the field would win the victory. The importance, therefore, of both the strategic and tactical bombing attacks on means and methods of communication could not be exaggerated.
Before, however, the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces Bombing Committee was able to make its views prevail, there was much discussion and no little disagreement. In February, 1944, the doctrine propounded by Zuckerman in his report on the air operations in Sicily and Italy was embodied in the initial joint plan and a list prepared of the principal railway centres to be attacked in Flanders, the basin of the Seine and that of the Rhine at Mulhouse. By adopting Zuckerman’s conclusions, of which the most important was that the best method of destroying railways was to attack maintenance and repair facilities, Leigh-Mallory showed his hand and at once aroused strong opposition. Such attacks, said the critics, would mean heavy casualties among French civilians at a moment when their goodwill would be more than ever needed. Even members of the Air Staff, whose professional instincts urged them to support the attack on railways, were influenced by this political consideration. So also were other Service and civilian chiefs, and even the Supreme Commander himself, while Spaatz and Harris continued vigorously to protest against what they felt to be a grave misuse of their forces.
Leigh-Mallory, however, persevered, being supported steadily by Tedder. Eisenhower’s deputy had had experience in Italy of the bombing of railways and the means of transportation and was
convinced that such a policy would achieve great, perhaps decisive, results in France. By the beginning of March Leigh-Mallory’s Committee had drawn up a list of seventy-five railway targets comprising the major servicing and repair centres in northern France and Belgium. He at once pressed for permission to attack them. To damage or destroy them, he said, would compel the enemy to move from the railways to the roads and the delay thus imposed would assuredly be fatal. It was at length decided to make trial of this plan, and on the night of 6th/7th March, 1944, 263 aircraft of Bomber Command dropped 1,258 tons of bombs on the railway centre at Trappes, south-west of Paris. The results were striking. Tracks, engine sheds and rolling stock were so heavily damaged that the centre was out of action for more than a month. Eight further attacks by Bomber Command, in strength varying from 300 to 80 aircraft, were made during the month on other rail centres. While the full measure of the success they achieved was not known at that time, sufficient evidence was soon available to show the soundness of a plan unswervingly urged by Leigh-Mallory from the beginning, and to which Eisenhower had in due course become converted. At the end of March, at a meeting convened by the Supreme Commander and attended by the heads of the two air forces and by the Chief of the Air Staff, it was decided that the ‘Transportation Plan’, as it was then known, would, despite the possible odium it might arouse, offer the best chance of success. A week later the matter was discussed by the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, which was attended by the heads of the three Services. All urged the adoption of the plan, and after much debate the inevitable compromise—in this instance to be disregarded almost before it was reached—was adopted. It was decided that attacks on railways must be restricted to places where the risk of causing casualties among the civilian population would be comparatively small. Eventually it was suggested that the list of targets should be revised and only centres where casualties among the French were unlikely to exceed 150 should be bombed. This restriction was even included in the final directive. It was very soon ascertained that, in fact, the casualties, though sometimes grievous, were not nearly so heavy as had been feared, and that on some occasions the number of Germans killed had exceeded the number of French. On 15th April, Tedder issued a complete list of ‘Transportation’ targets to the United States Air Forces and to Bomber Command, and informed Spaatz and Harris that the ‘Transportation Plan’ had been approved.
To assist the Deputy Supreme Commander in the direction and regulation of the bombing operations an Advisory Committee was
set up at SHAEF. This committee was to be the sole body responsible for advising the Deputy Supreme Commander in the direction of the bombing operations and for deciding what additional air reconnaissances or other investigations would be required in furtherance of the Plan. The composition of this committee was: Chairman: Air Vice-Marshal J. M. Robb (D./C.O.S. Air), Representatives from Air Ministry, the United States Strategic Air Force, Bomber Command, AEAF, Railway Research Service, G.2 SHAEF, and a Scientific Adviser.
The way seemed clear at last. The plan was pursued throughout April and May by Bomber Command with mounting success, and by the night of 2nd/3rd June, when Trappes was attacked for the second time, 8,800 bombers had dropped over 42,000 tons of bombs upon thirty-three railway centres in France and Belgium. Among them were the marshalling yards of Vaires-sur-Marne, Noisy-le-Sec, Villeneuve-St-Georges, Juvisy, Le Mans, Trappes and Mantes-Gassicourt in the Paris region. The damage caused was very heavy, and though the enemy was able to repair tracks quickly and thus to reopen one or two lines through the centres, their capacity to repair and maintain rolling stock had been greatly reduced. In addition to these attacks made in direct preparation for the invasion, Bomber Command also made thirteen assaults on strategic targets in Germany, the heaviest being on the night of 24th/25th April when 1,094 tons of high explosive and 1,076 tons of incendiaries were dropped on Karlsruhe.
The American heavy bomber forces were slower than Bomber Command to attack the forty-five targets allotted to them. By the end of April, only one of these had been bombed. By ‘D Day’, however, the Americans had dropped 11,648 tons of bombs on twenty-three targets.
Thus, with the approach of ‘D Day’ a rapidly spreading paralysis was creeping over the railway network of the Région Nord. When that day dawned, 21,949 British and American aircraft had cast down a total of 66,517 tons of bombs on eighty chosen targets. Of these, fifty-one were placed in category ‘A’ and thus considered to have been damaged to such an extent that no further attacks would be necessary until vital repairs had been carried out; twenty-five were put into category ‘B’ and were therefore thought to be severely damaged, but still to possess a number of installations intact, which would necessitate further assaults. Only four were in category ‘C’, which signified that they had sustained little or no damage. Of this impressive total, Bomber Command had placed twenty-two of its. targets in category ‘A’ and fifteen in category ‘B’.
The movement of German troops and material by rail had thus become a matter of very great difficulty and hazard, and this well before any landings had been made. Such trains as still ran moved very slowly, were forced to make long detours and travelled only at night. The enemy had no freedom of movement in a large part of France and Belgium and would therefore find it difficult, if not impossible, to marshal troops quickly for a decisive counter-attack when the invasion became an accomplished fact. The ‘Transportation Plan’ had proved singularly successful.
The heavy aircraft of Bomber Command can be left for the moment roaring through the night to accomplish a grim but necessary surgical operation. The cost was light—only 203 out of 8,795 aircraft despatched on all these operations between 6th March and 3rd June were lost—and contrary to the foreboding of those who feared political reactions, the bombing left little resentment. For the spirit of the French, that gallant fire which Pétain and Laval had so nearly quenched, was alive again, and to the destruction wrought by British bombs was added that carried out ruthlessly by the French Resistance Movement. The French are a logical people, and the flame and roar of these onslaughts, which sent locomotives spinning in the air, tore huge craters in ground covered by a network of vital railway tracks, and pulverised rolling stock, were to them the preliminary, if fiery, signs of freedom. When, after the liberation of Paris, certain officers of the Royal Air Force, Leigh-Mallory among them, visited a number of these smashed and twisted railway centres and sought to excuse their destruction on the grounds of military necessity, they were received with brave smiles and nodding heads and a chorus of ‘il le fallait’4.
The exploits prior to ‘D Day’ of the Second Tactical Air Force under the command of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, whose reputation had been established in the North African campaign, were equally considerable. His force was composed of three Groups, Nos. 83 and 84, each of fighter aircraft—Spitfires, Typhoons and Mustangs—No. 2 (Light Bomber) Group, detached from Bomber Command as early as 1st June 1943, and one Reconnaissance Wing—No. 34—consisting of Mosquitos, Mustangs and Spitfires.5 Early on, Leigh-Mallory decided that in view of the restricted area over which air operations would be conducted in the preliminary stages, it was essential that a single commander should be in charge. Coningham was therefore appointed and set up his Advance
Operational Headquarters at Hillingdon. It was staffed jointly by American and Royal Air Force officers and included representatives of the Twenty-first Army Group charged with the duty of keeping the Tactical Air Commander closely informed of the situation on the ground. General Brereton,6 commanding the United States Ninth Air Force, also joined the headquarters when the invasion took place. In other words, by the dawn of ‘D Day’, a close and intimate co-operation, not only between the two Tactical Air Forces, British and American, but also between those Forces and the armies they were to aid, had been achieved.
This had not yet come to pass when the squadrons of the Second Tactical Air Force began the many tasks which fell to them in the months and weeks before the great moment arrived. First the operations of No. 2 Group. It was commanded by Air Vice-Marshal Basil Embry, who, by the time the war was over, had won admission to the Distinguished Service Order four times, and, as an Air Vice-Marshal, had taken part in nineteen operations against the enemy. His group of medium and light bombers began by sharing in the assaults on railway centres and marshalling yards in France and made twenty attacks in all between the middle of April and the end of May. Equipped in 1943 with Mosquitos and Bostons, the Group gradually found the Bostons replaced to its satisfaction by Mitchells. Among the more successful attacks made when the Group was flying Bostons was in November, 1943, when they assaulted the village of Audinghen, suspected of being the headquarters of the German Todt organization. Photographs taken afterwards showed that ‘a very heavy concentration of bombs has virtually destroyed the village’.
It was on turning away from this target that a Boston of No. 88 Squadron, piloted by P/O. Gibson, was hit by flak. Gibson’s collar bone was broken, his face badly gashed, and he was stunned. On regaining consciousness, though his arms were paralysed, he mastered the plunging aircraft, which had lost 2,000 feet, by gripping the control column with his knees, and as soon as the Boston was flying on a steady course, ordered the crew to abandon it. They hesitated; for they did not wish to leave him behind, and since some feeling had now returned to his arms, they decided to stay with him. In very great pain, Gibson clung to his controls, and made a safe landing at Hawkinge.
A number of squadrons were presently rearmed with the Mosquito Mark VI, an aircraft they soon found very suitable for the delivery
of low-level attacks. Two operations of a special kind carried out on 18th February and 11th April, 1944, will serve to illustrate their tactics. In the first, nineteen Mosquitos—six each from No. 487 Squadron RNZAF, No. 464 Squadron RAAF and No. 21 Squadron, and one Photographic Reconnaissance aircraft—under the leadership of Group Captain P. C. Pickard, attacked the jail at Amiens. The object was to release some seven hundred prisoners, many of them members of the various French Resistance Organizations awaiting trial or execution behind its grim walls. Among them was a Monsieur Vivant, a key member of the Resistance Movement in Abbeville. The prison, built in the form of a cross, was surrounded by a wall twenty feet high and three feet thick, and was guarded by special troops, the whereabouts of whose living quarters was accurately known. Following what had long been the general practice in No. 2 Group and others, an accurate model of the target was constructed in plaster of paris—persons employed in peace time on the decoration of wedding cakes were found to be particularly skilful at this form of work—which was used for the briefing. The model was designed to show the objective as it would appear four miles away to a pilot flying at 1,500 feet. The bombs had to be released from a very low altitude, and to avoid the risk of collisions a very exact time-table was followed.
The weather on 18th February was so bad that there was talk of cancelling the operation, but the pilots, realizing that this was the last chance fate offered to rescue the Frenchmen, would have none of it, and took off an hour before mid-day, flying through storm and snow at sea level. Then, with a fighter escort, two waves of the attack swept upon the north of Amiens and approached the prison along the straight Amiens-Albert road. Their bombs were so accurately placed that the third wave coming in was ordered home by Pickard a few moments before he was attacked by two Focke-Wulf’s. His aircraft crashed a few miles from the prison and his body and that of his navigator, Flight Lieutenant J. A. Broadley, were buried by the Germans on the next day. The result of this raid, which cost the life of a famous figure of the Royal Air Force, was the escape of 258 prisoners including the all-important Monsieur Vivant; but the bombs killed 102 of whom many were not political prisoners. Moreover, sad to relate, many of those who made their escape that day were subsequently recaptured.
Success also crowned the efforts of six aircraft of No. 613 Squadron led by Wing Commander R. N. Bateson to an objective in The Hague. The attack was made on 11th April on a five-storey building ninety feet high, situated close to the Peace Palace. It was known as the
Kunstzaal Kleizkamp (the Kleizkamp Art Galleries) which were being used to house much of the principal register of the population. These records were of the utmost value to the Gestapo. To destroy them would greatly hamper its efforts to suppress the activities of Dutch patriots. Flying at fifty feet, Bateson led his small force on a complicated route designed to conceal his intentions. On reaching the town, the Mosquitos circled it once, and then Bateson, descrying the Peace Palace, came down into the Scheveningsche Weg, where the Kunstzaal was situated, and one after another the Mosquitos released their bombs. Two of them went through the front door of the Gallery and two through the windows on each side of it. The sentry on duty at the door was seen to drop his rifle and run for his life. The other bombs hit the German barracks just behind the Gallery, which was razed. Almost all the files and most of the elaborate card index it contained were destroyed, a service of the greatest importance to the Underground Army. The survivors among the Dutch officials, many of whom were killed for no warning could be given, faked thousands of cards and thus threw the records upon which the Germans depended into inextricable confusion.
Such raids, which increased in frequency after ‘D Day’, not only immensely impressed and heartened the suffering people of Europe, but were a source of special pride to the Royal Air Force.
While No. 2 Group were taking their share in the ‘Transportation’ programme, and attacking special targets in FLOWER operations (intruding into enemy airfields) the Photographic Reconnaissance Squadrons were equally active. For weeks, months, indeed, they had been employed in taking thousands upon thousands of photographs of beaches and their exits, airfields or possible sites, dropping and landing zones, camps, motor transport parks, dumps, batteries, gun emplacements, strong points and many other objectives covered by the term military installations. Such a task entrusted to Mustangs or Spitfires, fitted with oblique cameras, involved flying a very large number of low altitude sorties over heavily defended areas. The manner in which the technique of doing so without incurring too grave a loss was learnt was the outstanding feature of the Second Tactical Air Force reconnaissance wings. Flying Officer Ashford, for instance, earned a spell in hospital by landing ‘without brakes or flaps with a piece of shrapnel embedded in his side’. Flying Officer Winslow photographed his objective, a radar installation, though flames were in his cockpit licking his face and wrists. Group Captain P. L. Donkin, commanding No. 35 Wing, was shot down off Ostend, and was not picked up until after he had spent six days and five nights in his dinghy. A fortnight later he was once more in command of his wing.
The amount of work carried out by these reconnaissance squadrons can be judged from the records of but one Royal Air Force Mobile Field Photographic Section, which, in the two weeks before ‘D Day’, made more than 120,000 prints for the use of the army. Before the war was over, officers down to the level of platoon commanders were being furnished with photographs of the enemy’s positions, taken an hour or two before they advanced to their assault, and were thus able, before setting out, to discover almost as much about them as they would have learnt if they had been allowed by an obliging Wehrmacht to inspect them beforehand.
The cameras fitted to the Mustangs were able to take vertical, oblique backward, or forward facing photographs. At a certain height they could operate automatically and take three pictures a second; but at low altitudes and very high speeds, they could not provide a continuous pictorial cover. It was for the pilot, therefore, to judge the moment accurately and to press the camera button at the instant that his aircraft, flying sometimes at a speed above 400 miles an hour, was facing the target at the correct angle. This required skill and judgment of the highest order, and it is scarcely surprising to learn that Photographic Reconnaissance pilots received the better part of a year’s special training before they were deemed to be proficient.
As the great day drew nearer, the air offensive increased, but against targets of a different type. It was, of course, essential to paralyse the radar cover on the western front which the enemy had, with great thoroughness, established from Norway to the Spanish border. The closest concentration of radar stations was in north-west France and in the Low Countries. The system he followed was similar to that brought to so high a state of efficiency in Great Britain and was made up of a coastal chain supported by a number of inland stations. Between Dunkirk and Brest there were sixty-six radar stations of various kinds. To attack them all, even with the formidable air strength available to the Allies, was hardly possible and it was therefore decided to combine assault by air with radio counter-measures. The staff for this purpose was set up on 15th May under the direction of Air Vice-Marshal V. H. Tait, Director of Signals in the Air Ministry. They gave advice to the Naval and Air Commanders-in-Chief on everything connected with radio counter-measures and one of their chief duties was the choice of targets most suitable for direct air attack. Installations able to report on the movement of shipping or used to control the fire of batteries, or set up in areas where they might interfere with the landing of our airborne forces, were the most suitable targets. As a further precaution,
for every radar post attacked in the lodgment areas two were attacked outside them. The attacks were postponed as long as possible so that the enemy should not be able to improvise equipment to cover the gaps in the radar chain which might be created. They did not, therefore, begin until 10th May, when the aircraft reporting stations were bombed. These installations if hit, could not be easily repaired, and because of the narrowness of their beam were hard to jam. A week later the attacks on night fighter control stations and on the stations controlling the fire of coastal batteries were begun. During the week before ‘D Day’, a series of attacks on forty-two radar sites, most of them provided with more than one type of equipment, was carried out, and in the last three days, six sites chosen by the Navy and six by the Air Force were given special attention.
The assaults were delivered for the most part by the Typhoon and Spitfire Squadrons of Nos. 83 and 84 Groups. The targets were very heavily defended by light flak and to attack them ‘demanded great skill and daring’. The losses in aircraft and pilots were very heavy. Of the many assaults made, Leigh-Mallory in his despatch selected three as worthy of special mention. There was that of 2nd June carried out by eighteen rocket firing Typhoons of Nos. 198 and 609 Squadrons on the Dieppe/Caudecôte station, used for night fighter control and the control of coastal batteries. For the loss of one Typhoon, the station was put out of action. There was the attack on the 4th June on the station at Cap d’Antifer by twenty-three Spitfires of Nos. 441, 442 and 443 Squadrons Royal Canadian Air Force. They secured nine direct hits with 500 pound bombs and destroyed the ‘chimney’ and the giant Würzburg installations. There was finally the attack on the day before ‘D Day’ on the Jobourg station near the Cap de la Hague, attacked by Typhoons of Nos. 174, 175 and 245 Squadrons, firing rockets. It was equally successful.
Of the enemy’s radar navigational stations, the two most important, one at Sortosville south of Cherbourg and the other at Lanmeur near Morlaix, were attacked, the first being destroyed, the second rendered temporarily unserviceable. Four wireless telephone stations of great importance were dealt with by Bomber Command. That at Mount Couple near Boulogne, made up of some sixty transmitters, was almost wiped out on the night of 31st May/1st June, seventy heavy bombs hitting the target, which was only 300 yards long and 150 yards wide. To make sure of this decisive result required the dropping of 474 tons of bombs by 105 Lancasters. That night, too, the station at Au-Fevre near Beaumont-Hague was rendered
unserviceable, and two nights later the station at Berneval-le-Grand, close to Dieppe, was almost wiped out by 541 tons of bombs. The most important achievement, however, was the destruction by ninety-nine heavy bombers, dropping 509 tons of bombs, of the station at Urville-Hague near Cherbourg. This was the headquarters of the German Signals Intelligence Service in north-western France. The photographic interpretation report, afterwards found to be singularly accurate, stated that the station was completely useless, and the site itself rendered unsuitable for rebuilding. The destruction of this intelligence station had a powerful influence on the battle which began two days later, and was certainly one of the main reasons why the enemy’s reaction in the air on ‘D Day’ and afterwards was so slight.
The results, then, of the air attacks on the radar stations were highly satisfactory. All six of the long-range reporting stations south of Boulogne were destroyed before ‘D Day’ and fifteen others in the area were made unserviceable. Thus large stretches of the Channel coast, as the vital day approached, were desolate of radar cover. By ‘D Day’, not more than eighteen per cent. of the enemy radar apparatus in north-west France was in operation, and for long periods of the fateful previous night, only five per cent.
The result was summed up by Leigh-Mallory in his despatch. ‘The enemy did not obtain’, he said, ‘the early warning of our approach that his radar coverage should have made possible. There is, moreover, reason to suppose that radar-controlled gunfire was interfered with. No fighter aircraft hindered our airborne operations; the enemy was confused and his troop movements delayed’. Evidence subsequently discovered fully endorses this statement.
After their successful attack on railways, Bomber Command and the American heavy bombers found themselves with five further tasks to perform before the invasion could be launched. The first was to cut the Grande Ceinture railway which encircles Paris. This was successfully accomplished at Juvisy, Palaiseau and Versailles by Doolittle’s bombers, while targets in the Loire area, notably at Tours, Saumur, and Angers, were attacked by Bomber Command.
The next step, which marked the concluding phase of the ‘Transportation Plan’, was an ambitious attempt to isolate the assault area by destroying all rail and road bridges on the routes leading into it. To have fulfilled this part of the programme before ‘D Day’, however, would have given the enemy a strong hint as to the spot chosen for the assault, for to isolate the Normandy battle area it would have been necessary to cut all bridges across the Seine as far
as Melun and then down the line of the Loire to the sea from Orleans. The bridges over the Seine were bombed at once, but those on the Loire survived until after ‘D Day’.
Controversy on the vexed question whether bridges could be effectively destroyed by bombs had long been endemic in the staffs of the Allied air forces. Zuckerman’s analysis of attacks on bridges in Italy showed that, as targets, they were difficult and unprofitable. Coningham suggested fighter-bombers, and experiments made by these aircraft against bridges over the Meuse and Seine were immediately successful. It was soon discovered that it required no more than some hundred sorties by fighter-bombers, or from 100 to 200 tons of bombs, to destroy a bridge, whereas a minimum of 640 tons of bombs were necessary if heavy bombers were used.
The main programme of bridge destruction was begun on 24th May by the United States Ninth Air Force, whose low-level fighter-bombers were particularly successful. By ‘D Day’, eighteen of the twenty-four bridges between Rouen and Paris were completely broken and the remainder blocked. Twelve other rail and road bridges over the Oise, the Meuse, the Moselle, the Escaut, the Albert Canal and the Loire were in a similar condition, the total tonnage of bombs dropped being 5,370 in 5,209 sorties. In these very vital operations, the Americans took great risks, incurred heavy losses and achieved complete success.
Three further tasks remained to be accomplished to complete the programme of aerial destruction. Such trains as were still running on the disorganized railways of north-western Europe must be attacked, enemy airfields just outside or in the area must be put out of action, and, of greater importance, the coastal batteries composing the most formidable of the defences of Festung Europa must, if possible, be destroyed. Locomotives and rolling stock were attacked from 21st May onwards by fighters and fighter-bombers of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force operating over France and Belgium, and by the United States Eighth Air Force over Germany. No accurate record of the damage caused has been discovered, but there is no doubt that it was severe. Between 27th February and 27th March, for example, Captain Mössel noted that the British and Americans had successfully destroyed 399 locomotives and damaged an unknown number. ‘There are also’, he adds, ‘hundreds of railway coaches destroyed’. This was the total for but one month and the attacks delivered in April and May were on a heavier scale.
The attention paid to enemy airfields was no less intense than that to other objectives, for the Allied air staffs found it hard to believe that the Germans would allow a huge armada of ships to move
across the Channel unmolested from the air. As soon as the ships neared the French coast, it was expected that the Luftwaffe would use every means at its disposal to assault them. If they did so, this would provoke a great air battle similar to that fought over Dieppe in August of 1942. The Allies would enjoy the advantage of numbers and possibly of quality, while the enemy would make the most of his possession of the nearest airfields. That was the general opinion in April, 1944, but in May, when the Allied ascendency in the air over France and the Low Countries became daily more manifest, the planners began to feel that complete Allied air supremacy from the very beginning was by no means an idle dream. They therefore revised their plans and urged the destruction of aircraft maintenance and repair facilities on all main airfields within a radius of 150 miles of Caen. When this had been accomplished, attacks were to be switched to runways, hangars, parked aircraft and control centres. Two lists were drawn up. The first contained the names of forty major airfields within the prescribed distance, the second, those of fifty-nine bomber bases in northwest Europe. Attacks upon them began on 11th May and were continued intermittently up to ‘D Day ‘ and after. Before ‘D Day’, thirty-four airfields had been attacked, mainly by the United States Eighth Air Force, though Bomber Command and the Second Tactical Air Force had a share in these operations. The programme was not completed by the time ‘D Day’ arrived, but Leigh-Mallory was by then not seriously concerned with the reactions of the Luftwaffe. He felt confident that the fighter cover he had provided for the assault, which would amount to 171 squadrons of day fighters and fighter-bombers, would be more than sufficient to defeat any German attempt to interfere with the invasion from the air.
There remained one final task. Attacks on railways, roads, bridges and rolling stock would, and in the event did, prevent the rapid reinforcement by the enemy of his troops in the lodgment areas, but their sea-washed western edge was covered by a formidable array of coastal batteries. If not destroyed or neutralized, these were capable of doing immense, perhaps overwhelming, damage to the ships carrying the invading force. It was decided that they must be subjected to a dual assault by the Allied naval and air forces and a joint fire plan was accordingly devised. Following the general principle that for every target attacked in the lodgment areas, two similar targets should be attacked outside them, two batteries in the Pas de Calais and Dieppe areas were to be attacked for every one in Normandy. Photographic reconnaissance had shown that nearly all these batteries lacked their concrete casemates, which were still
under construction. If they could be hit by bombs before these were completed, considerable damage might be done.
By 5th June, the Allied Air Forces had dropped 16,464 tons of bombs on twenty-one batteries in the NEPTUNE area and on a further twenty-two which were not designed to come into action until the invaders were ashore. Subsequent investigations carried out in the last month of the war led to the conclusion that, after these attacks, thirty per cent. of the gun emplacements between Le Havre and Abbeville had been sufficiently damaged to make it unlikely that guns could have been installed in them. ‘The bombing’, said the Analysis Unit, ‘both delayed further construction and was very successful in reducing the efficiency of the batteries, not only because of the damage it caused but also because of the threat of further attacks’.
While these assaults on many varied and vital targets were being carried out with ever increasing violence, the defence of the assembly areas in England against attack from the air was not neglected. As has been said, on 15th November, 1943, Fighter Command was transformed into a new organization known as the Air Defence of Great Britain and entrusted to Air Marshal R. M. Hill. ‘Our mission’, he said in his first Order of the Day,’ is to work in complete co-operation with the Tactical Air Force, each giving the other mutual encouragement and support and forming reciprocal components of one great fighting organization, enterprising and skilful in offence as it is tough and resourceful in defence’. At the time of the formation of this new Command it was not considered that any serious offensive by day could be launched by the Luftwaffe against southern England. The most that could be attempted was thought to be from 100 to 150 sorties by German bombers in any one night and the sustaining of an offensive at the rate of twenty-five sorties a night. This estimate proved reasonably accurate.
This ‘Little Blitz’, to give it its popular name, was mounted in January, February and March, 1944, under the leadership of one of the most remarkable men of the Luftwaffe. Dietrich Georg Magnus Peltz, an Oberleutnant in 1939, had by November, 1943, risen to the rank of Generalmajor. His operational career had been distinguished, for he had flown seventy-seven sorties over England in the winter of 1940/1941, one of them being against Coventry, and had also flown much on operations in Poland, Greece and Russia. This very capable officer was put in charge of the retaliatory measures against England and received for the purpose Fliegerkorps IX, made up, on paper, of some 550 aircraft. He began on the night of 21st/22nd January, 1944, with an attack by 95 aircraft on London
and the Home Counties, followed by five raids on London in the first three weeks of February, in which the maximum number of aircraft used was 170. His tactics were the opposite of those pursued by the Luftwaffe three years before. Then the assault on London had begun with darkness and ended with dawn; now, following the practice of Bomber Command, it was concentrated into the shortest possible time. Peltz made complicated and ambitious use of flares dropped by Pathfinders, whose aircraft, Junkers 188’s or Messerschmitt 410’s, were alone in the force to be provided with bombsights. When the flares had dropped, the rest of the force was to come in and bomb immediately. Bombs as heavy as 2,500 kilogrammes were used.
Peltz at first achieved a certain degree of success. Two raids in February did some damage, the bombers diving to as low as 2,000 feet to release their bombs. Surprise was achieved, but even so the losses were about ten per cent., and when Peltz sought to repeat this feat he soon found that his pilots and crews were insufficiently trained. It was too dangerous to send over the bombers during the moon period. In March there were five raids on London and in these the Luftwaffe discovered to its cost that the number of Royal Air Force night fighters had been increased and that ‘enemy intruder aircraft are particularly unpleasant, for they follow our bombers right up to their landing ground’.
In addition to London, Lincolnshire, the Home Counties and the south-west of England in general received some scattered attention, but before April was out the raids had dwindled, and soon died away altogether. Their lack of success was due to more than one cause, but mainly to the deterioration of the Luftwaffe which, having been by Hitler’s order concentrated for so long on the defence of the Reich, had lost the power of the offensive.
Between April and ‘D Day’, the Luftwaffe visited the south coast of England, but the attacks it delivered there were noticeable more for the number of flares dropped than for the weight of bombs. The Solent attracted its attention as also did Plymouth. These raids were carried out largely in order to reconnoitre the areas in which the invasion craft were being concentrated. To do so by day was too uncertain and too dangerous.
This was the utmost the enemy could do in the air to counteract the vast offensive measures which the Allies were preparing. He was presently to add to them the flying bomb and the rocket, to be described in Chapter VII. But in general, his counter action in the air was pitiful. To such a state had the once proud Luftwaffe been reduced by the spring of 1944.
One measure taken by Hill and his Command was of great importance and success. He was determined to make it as difficult as possible for any enemy aircraft to fly over southern England by day. To achieve this, standing high level and low level patrols were maintained far out in the Channel for many weeks and in every kind of weather. In the six weeks before ‘D Day’, the enemy made only 129 reconnaissance sorties. The few aircraft which were able to cross our coasts reported that by the end of April there were, among other craft, including warships, ‘ 510 landing craft of every description, 15 large and 15 medium transport and 290 small vessels’, in Portsmouth and Southampton, with ‘272 landing craft and 22 small vessels in the Plymouth area’. These were sufficient, Captain Mossel judged, to carry three and a half divisions, and as the warm, bright days went by, he joined with other high German officers in speculating where the blow would fall.
All agreed that ‘a large landing is intended in the Channel and that the enemy is ready to undertake it at any time’. Noting the increase in air attacks on batteries, railways and junctions in the area between the Scheldt and the Seine and also those farther afield delivered by Bomber Command against Aachen, Coblenz and Metz, the lugubrious Captain had, by the end of May, convinced himself that the blow would fall somewhere between the Scheldt and the Port of Brest, probably near the mouth of the Somme. The mounting scale of the air assault filled him with well justified dismay. ‘By continuously attacking airfields’, he noted, ‘it is the enemy’s intention to decimate our aircraft in the coastal areas and to destroy the installations around our airfields so completely as to make it impossible to supply the units stationed on them’. After recording with sorrow the damage to railways and rolling stock he ended by saying in a revealing entry made just before ‘D Day’, ‘We are experiencing a classic example of the air war on an extensive scale, its aim being to decide the war in the air above Germany. I have observed that a number of officers still do not realize the danger of this form of warfare. They still maintain the attitude that they are Herren Offiziere who bring wars to an end by occupying the territory of the enemy. That he should find it possible to overpower his adversary by cutting off his communications by sea, by destroying his armament factories, by paralysing his means of transport and by reducing his towns and villages to ruin has not yet become clear to them. What war in the air or war on the sea means is still beyond their comprehension’.
It was never intended to hide entirely from the enemy our preparations for the invasion of France. That would indeed have
been impossible considering the vast quantities of shipping, men and equipment which had to be concentrated in so small an area. Rather was it determined to conceal the direction of the blow and the date upon which it would be delivered. The success of this policy was in no small measure due to the activities of the fighter aircraft of the Air Defence of Great Britain.
Meanwhile Coastal Command had been far from idle. On the 5th June it had fifty-one squadrons and three flights to put the cork, described in Chapter II, into the bottle. To these must be added twelve operational squadrons from the Fleet Air Arm, the United States Navy and the Royal Canadian Air Force, placed temporarily under the command of Sholto Douglas. Thirty squadrons composed of Liberators, Sunderlands, Catalinas and Wellingtons were detailed to carry out the main feature of the plan in the South Western Approaches. Beaufighter squadrons, 11½ in number, were standing by to attack any German surface vessels which might seek to give battle, while five squadrons of Swordfish were ready to give cover to the convoys crossing the Channel. Farther north, No. 18 Group disposed of three squadrons to guard against an attempt by U-boats to move from Norway into the Atlantic, and in this they were assisted by two squadrons of No. 15 Group and two squadrons in Iceland.
For about a month before ‘D Day’, a large number of anti-U-boat ‘cork’ patrols were flown, but little U-boat activity was observed in the South Western Approaches. The enemy, it seemed, had decided to wait until the invasion began before sending his U-boats into action. On 16th May a movement among them in the northern transit area between Norway and Iceland was observed. Squadrons of No. 18 Group went immediately against them and there were a number of individual combats fought with great pertinacity, for the U-boat captains, presumably in order to maintain as high a speed as possible, disdained to submerge and reverted to their former tactics of staying on the surface and fighting it out. Up to 31st May, out of twenty-two U-boats sighted in these far northern waters, six had been sunk. It was an auspicious beginning.
On 5th June, 1944, all was at last ready. By then some 200,000 sorties had been flown in various missions connected with operation OVERLORD over a period of two months and some 200,000 tons of bombs had fallen upon the enemy. About one aircraft in every thousand had been lost in combat. By that date, the railway communications of France and northwest Europe generally had been ruined beyond immediate repair, the radar warning system had been disrupted and, finally, the destruction of the bridges across the Seine between Paris and the sea had isolated Normandy.
Despite these blows, or rather, because of their diversity, the enemy remained doubtful as to where the impending blow would fall. Would it be north or south of the river Seine? He was soon to know, but when, on the night of 4th June, storm clouds gathered above the Channel, and its uneasy seas began to mount, it seemed so unlikely that any seaborne operation could be launched that Erwin Rommel had left his headquarters at La Roche-Guyon on the banks of the Seine to visit his wife in Stuttgart. The head German meteorologist had given it as his professional opinion that the weather, for the moment at least, was on the side of the defence. At that moment, some seventy miles away on the other side of the Channel, a group of anxious American and British Commanders were in conference with other meteorologists in a fort above the town of Portsmouth.