Chapter 6: The Battle For France
For four days, till 10th June, the tactical support and air cover provided for the armies in Normandy continued to be based on England. Dawn on the 7th saw the fighter squadrons of the Second Tactical Air Force already active; before dusk twelve Junkers 88’s were claimed by the Spitfires—a tiny fraction of the hoped-for bag, for still the Luftwaffe tarried. About 175 of its long-range bombers made efforts to attack the invasion forces, but the only measure of success they achieved was the laying of some ‘oyster’ mines of a new type in the Seine Bay, which caused some casualties to ships. German fighters made little attempt to reach the lodgment area, but small formations of Focke-Wulf 190’s and Messerschmitt 410’s were active in the ‘roads’ and succeeded in sinking an American destroyer and a landing ship. For the most part, however, German fighters were operating as far south and west as Flers, Romilly, and Laval, doing their best to give air escort to the toiling infantry. The battle in the air had been won before that on the ground had begun.
Armed reconnaissance was the chief feature of that day’s flying, as of many other days now that army and air were once more on the move together. It was carried out by ten Typhoon squadrons of No. 83 Group and eight of No. 84, with the help of Mustang III squadrons released from the general pool of readiness by the Air Officer Commanding, No. 11 Group. Their duty was to paralyse movement by road and rail, especially by road. If vehicles were not seen, then bridges were to be attacked. Last resort targets were any likely looking copses or farm buildings which might hide a tank. Weather conditions were extremely bad. The thick low cloud prophesied by Stagg had returned and was at times ten-tenths at 1,500 feet. The Typhoon and Mustang squadrons had therefore to fly very low and lost seventeen aircraft to anti-aircraft fire, many others being damaged. It was a small price to pay for the importance of the task.
Soon after dawn the first large enemy movement of tanks and motor transport was observed in the district Mortagne–Verneuil–Laigle. ‘At 0530 hours on 7th June’, said Generalleutnant Fritz
Bayerlein in command of the famous Panzer Lehr Division, then beginning to move northwards in five columns from Alençon, ‘the first air attack came. It took place near Falaise. Things were bad all that morning, but about noon the attacks became incessant and terrible’; and he went on to describe the main road from Vire to Le Beny Bocage as a ‘Jabo Rennstrecke’—as we might say, a fighter-bomber’s sprinting ground. His division lost ninety lorries carrying stores and ammunition, forty fuel lorries and eighty-four half-track vehicles among which were a number of 88-mm. guns—and all this before coming into action. What the Panzer Lehr Division suffered on that day was an earnest of what was to come.
Such then was the general situation in the days immediately following the landings and it continued throughout the period during which the armies were consolidating and expanding the lodgment areas into a firm beach-head. One enemy the Allied Air Forces were powerless to master—the weather. It remained consistently bad throughout that month of June. ‘The weather has interfered with my air programme all day and is seriously upsetting me’, stated Leigh-Mallory on the 7th. ‘The weather is still lousy. It depresses me, though the Met. people say it will clear tomorrow’, he observed on the next day. To speculate on what might have happened had conditions been different is usually futile, but perhaps in regard to the invasion of Europe in June, 1944, it is not too much to maintain that a far swifter result would have been achieved had the blue skies and light clouds, which it is customary to expect at that season of the year, prevailed.
A step forward was taken when the first airfield, made by the Royal Air Force Servicing Commandos and Construction Wings, of which two, Nos. 3207 and 3209, came ashore on 7th June, was finished at Ste. Croix-sur-Mer. The problem of bringing ashore and erecting what was, in effect, a portable airfield had been the object of months of study. Special Construction Wings had been formed which, with the help in the initial stages of sappers belonging to the Corps of Royal Engineers, were at work forty-eight hours after the assault had begun, and their excavators, bulldozers and diesel-powered rollers were soon busily engaged in fields heavy with the harvest. When the commandos arrived at Ste. Croix there was not a gallon of petrol or a round of ammunition to be had. No military police were there to direct traffic and Regular Assembly Areas did not then exist. ‘We went ourselves to the beach dumps’ reported Flight Lieutenant W. J. F. Fenton, their commanding officer, ‘or waylaid “ducks” on the road until we had everything we wanted’. They had first to dig themselves in, a task which the old soldiers
performed automatically and the young as soon as shells began to fall near them. The airfield was ready on the 10th and from it Squadron Leader J. Storrar took off with urgent despatches and mail. Flight Lieutenant H. J. Dowding was probably the first Allied fighter pilot to land on, or rather beside, the first airstrip at Asnelles, which, as distinct from the first airfield, had been finished by the evening of 7th June. These airfields, which grew steadily in number until they reached a total of thirty-one in the British zone and fifty in the American, were constructed at the beginning almost invariably under fire. They were used by squadrons first as refuelling points, but, as the grip of the army tightened, they became full air bases.1
In the early days the operations mounted were sharp and short, for the distances to be traversed to and from the targets were very small. At Camilly, for example, on the high ground north-west of Caen the first objectives, German tank concentrations and strong points, were no more than a thousand yards away and the Typhoons attacking them took off, climbed to 8,000 feet over the sea and came roaring over the airfield to fire their rockets at the target, turn away and land—all in the space of nine minutes.
The most difficult problem on fields and strips was the thick brown lime-stone dust which soon coated the entire beachhead. It was obstinate and all-pervading and choked everything, including the air induction system of the Merlin engines. Aircraft were hastily fitted with the desert filter used in the North African campaign, but the problem was not solved until water was laid on to each airfield and the runways sprayed after dark.
Light anti-aircraft guns, manned by detachments of the Royal Air Force Regiment, were set up on each airfield. Their crews became singularly proficient against the hedge-hopping Focke-Wulf 190 or Junkers 88. On 14th July, for example, the detachment at Plumetot expended only five rounds in shooting down a Focke-Wulf 190, that at Ste. Croix only three in destroying a Junkers 88.
As soon as the enemy realized that the Allies were ashore in strength, he began to move reserves to the battle zone on the railways between the Seine and the Loire. Despite the bad weather these movements were at once observed and attacked by low flying fighter-bombers, those belonging to the United States Ninth Air Force being particularly to the fore. At the same time, Bomber Command continued its heavy attacks at night on railway targets and was so successful that after three days all movement by rail had been brought to a stop. The main highways were equally unsafe and the Germans
were tied to secondary roads along which their weary troops crawled during the hours of darkness. Even on these they were far from unmolested. The Mosquitos of No. 2 Group were ordered to do all that was possible to prevent their use at night time and avidly fulfilled this most hazardous task. On the first night after the invasion, 196 of them ranged far and wide to the south and south-east looking for German transport. On a moonlight night, roads, railways, and the traffic upon them, as well as woods and lakes, were visible from a height of anything up to 4,000 feet. In bad weather, however—and the weather throughout the summer of 1944 could hardly have been worse—it was necessary to fly far lower. To do so at night over the rolling country of Normandy was very dangerous. The pilot’s main problem was to discover the depth and direction of the valleys. To fly above them was safe but only too often meant flying in cloud with nothing visible and no chance therefore to strike at the enemy. To fly in them needed the most careful judgment, very sharp eyes and a very sensitive altimeter. Even the introduction of the radio altimeter did not produce all the necessary sensitivity, and a safety height had therefore to be imposed for each operation. These instructions were repeatedly ignored by pilots eager to attack a shadowy, but still visible, target. They soon found that it was possible to see the steam of an engine from as far off as five miles. The Germans discovered this too, turned off the steam and stopped the train until the attacking Mosquito had disappeared. Then the train started again, but as the Mosquito’s successor would by then be in the neighbourhood, it was necessary to shut off the steam once more. Journeys at night were very slow.
How slow can be judged from two examples taken at random from German reports. The Second S.S. Panzer Division, which was in the neighbourhood of Toulouse when the Allies landed in Normandy, was rushed to the beachhead in the early hours of 6th June. Its first units left that same day, some travelling partly by road and rail, others entirely by road. Those moving by rail used the main line Toulouse-Limoges-Chateauroux-Tours. Up to 14th June, a single track bridge at Port-Boulet near Saumur was used to traverse the Loire, but on its destruction the division had to use the only other bridge available, that at Tours-la-Riche. To do so the railway waggons had to be pushed over it one by one, for the bridge had been too heavily damaged to support the weight of a locomotive. The last elements of the division had not arrived in or near the lodgment area until 23rd June, having taken 17 days to travel about 450 miles. Had no air assault been made, the movement would have taken about five days.
A battalion of the 989th Grenadier Regiment, stationed at Nice, left by rail for the beachhead on the evening of 19th June. It followed a circuitous route via Montpellier-Narbonne-Toulouse-Bordeaux-Rochefort-La Rochelle to Thouars south of the Loire. There it had to de-train, for the tunnel between Tours and Saumur was blocked. The battalion then went forward partly on foot and partly by bus, and it did not reach its destination, Evrecy, until 19 days after its departure from Cote d’Azur.
The navigators as well as the pilots of No. 2 Group became extraordinarily skilful at this type of attack and in due course developed that proverbial sixth sense which enables men to see in the dark. The Mosquitos were soon ranging not only Normandy, Belgium and France, but also Germany, causing, almost as much by their presence as by their bombs and bullets, a grave check to the flow of reinforcements, without which Rommel’s men in the beachhead must perforce perish. The scale of their operations can be judged from that of but one Wing, No. 138, which was able to maintain an average of between eighty and ninety sorties during the five hours of darkness every night between ‘D Day’ and 3rd September, when Brussels fell. Perhaps the most outstanding series of attacks in the early period was that delivered on the night of 7th/8th July when 109 Mosquitos assaulted twenty-six trains and three road convoys.
Three weeks after ‘D Day’, thirty-one Allied squadrons were operating from beachhead airfields. Their operations were mostly to a set pattern and can be summed up in the terms, ‘armed reconnaissance’ and ‘close support’. The first took Mustangs and Mosquitos ever farther and farther afield; the second brought them, with the Typhoons and Spitfires, to attack targets pointed out by the army. These were for the most part tanks, vehicles and troops when they could be discovered. The targets were often chosen by an experienced fighter controller riding in one of the leading British tanks or in an armoured contact car. Equipped with a Very High Frequency radio telephone, he could summon the aircraft forming the ‘cab rank’ above to attack whatever target appeared at that moment to be the most suitable. Contact cars and ‘cab rank’ formations were, it will be remembered, first used by the Desert Air Force in Italy, where they proved of very great value. Now they were to prove so again.
Before a month was out, Group Control Centres, caravans where the Group Controller, sitting side by side with the Army Liaison Officer, fought the air battle in terms, as it were, of the army, had been set up. Army liaison officers were to be found at all levels of command. Their main task was to keep their air force colleagues
fully informed of every detail of the battle, every change of plan. It thus became possible not only to supply immediate air support when it was called for, in addition to what was available from the ‘cab rank’, but the details of every battle could be worked out by officers of different services serving together. Thus Army liaison officers with their opposite numbers briefed the pilots, and in the case of the bombers the pilots and crews, telling them precisely what the army wished them to do, and why. This system, first tried in earlier campaigns, was brought to perfection in Normandy, and proved its worth on through the weeks and months to come. It was a triumph at once of common sense, of mutual respect and friendship. The old opprobrious terms ‘Pongo’ and ‘Brylcreem boy’ died away or became expressions of affection. The army and the air force had gone out to war together.
To describe in detail the thousand-and-one operations which took place while the army was still striving to break out of the beachhead would require many volumes and be a fine example of monotony. They were limited only by the speed at which the ground staffs were able to service the aircraft, and by the exceptionally bad weather. At the risk of being repetitive, this major factor affecting the extent and density of air operations must be continually emphasized.
20th June: Activity in battle area restricted by weather.
21st June: Weather affected operations.
29th June: 110 Typhoon and Mustang sorties on army support calls until 1000 hours when weather became unfit for operational flying.
Entries such as these are to be found only too frequently in the laconic war diary of the Second Tactical Air Force.
Here, quoted unabridged from the Operations Record Book of the Force, is a bald statement of the activities of two of its Groups, Nos. 83 and 2, on 18th July—No. 83 operating by day, and No. 2 by night.
Fifty-one Mustangs and 74 Typhoons operated on armed reconnaissance Falaise-Argentan-Lisieux area. Claims 1 AFV and 9 MET destroyed, 14 MET damaged. Losses 3 Typhoons. Sixty Spitfires same area. Claim 4 MET destroyed, 1 AFV and 17 MET damaged.
Four hundred and seventy-two Typhoons and 20 Mustangs operated on army support targets attacking bridges, gun positions, troops and concentrations of tanks. Claims 5 AFVs. and 6 MET destroyed, 3 AFVs. and 3 MET damaged, 5 Typhoons lost. Seventy-eight Mustangs and Spitfires on reconnaissance, mainly Tac/R.4
2 Group—Night operations.
A maximum Mosquito effort was detailed to attack enemy movement across the Rivers Orne and Dives towards the Caen sector, to harass the enemy behind the bomb line and to attack movement across the Seine crossings and in the area to the north and south between Amiens and Bernay. Mitchells were to drop flares for the Mosquito attack on the Orne and Dives crossings. Of 103 Mosquitos, 100 attacked with two hundred and thirteen 500-lb. medium capacity bombs instantaneous fused, forty 500-lb. medium capacity bombs eleven second fuse, 138 flare bundles, 8,140 rounds cannon and 6,480 rounds machine-gun. One aircraft swung on take-off, one returned early with generator trouble, one taxied into a ditch before take-off. Weather conditions were 9/10ths cloud at 4,500-1,000 feet base with ground haze, very dark. In these conditions very little movement was seen, but lights were attacked, especially north of the Seine, causing large explosions and fires. Two lots of 3 and 5-6 MET were attacked, strikes being seen in one case. Six Seine barges were strafed and a railway bridge hit with bombs. Eight Mitchells dropped 49 flares, which the Mosquitos reported accurately placed. Two Mitchells of 226 Squadron carried out special patrols successfully.
Such entries are typical of the work of the Force as a whole.
The day before the operations thus tersely recorded, the German Commanding General, Erwin Rommel, narrowly escaped death at the hands of pilots of the Second Tactical Air Force. It is now known that the squadron concerned was No. 602, whose Spitfires, according to German eye-witnesses, dived on Rommel’s car that evening when it was near the appropriately named hamlet of Ste. Foy de Montgomerie. The car overturned and Rommel, flung into the ditch, fractured his skull. He survived this injury, to kill himself on 14th October as an alternative to standing trial for high treason, the charge being complicity in the plot against Hitler on 20th July.
When attacking mechanical transport, pilots had to make very sure that it did in fact belong to the enemy. Far behind the German lines this was easy enough; but in the battle area, flying as they were at high speed, it was more difficult. All Allied vehicles were marked with a five-pointed star surrounded by a circle in white paint, and vehicles of the Royal Air Force bore the roundel on their upper surface. The whereabouts of Allied troops was indicated by semi-permanent landmarks set up in their neighbourhood, and by coloured smoke which was also used by the guns to mark the targets the army wished attacked. Mistakes were sometimes made, but grew fewer and fewer as the campaign developed.
It was during these victorious days that Colonel Douglas Clifton Brown, Speaker of the House of Commons, first visited the pilots and crews of the Second Tactical Air Force. His presence on its
airfields in Normandy, and later in Belgium and Holland, and his flight in an Auster above the Rhine a few days after it had been crossed, symbolised that pride and gratitude which filled the heart of the common man whose epitome, by virtue of his high office, he was. Colonel Clifton Brown was the first Speaker of the House of Commons to come into direct contact, during his term of Office, with the armed forces of the Crown when they were in close contact with the enemy. Winston Churchill, too, wearing his air-commodore’s uniform, was to be seen on occasion on those same airfields where he was heard to proclaim with that engaging frankness which has made him so conspicuous a leader of men, that, though he had never for a moment lost hope of victory, he had for months not known how it would be achieved. The answer was written plain enough now in the faces of the pilots, crews and ground staff who crowded eagerly about him, and he had but to lift his eyes to see, in the cloudy air, the fighters and fighter-bombers ‘in ranks and squadrons and right form of war’ of an air force he had done so much to strengthen and expand and which, with the armies upon the ground, was proving irresistible. In the coming months they were to be still further inspired by a visit from King George VI, who in October toured many of the airfields of the Second Tactical Air Force in Belgium and Holland. A pilot himself, he was able to understand the difficulties overcome and the achievements realized by men in constant conflict over a widespread battlefield.
Three ‘set pieces’, to use the term by which the air force described special tasks, were mounted during the first three months of the invasion. On 10th June, forty Typhoons of Nos. 245, 181, 182 and 247 Squadrons assaulted the headquarters of Panzer Group West, whose vehicles were parked round the Chateau of La Caine. While the Typhoons attacked with rockets, sixty-one Mitchells of Nos. 98, 180, 226 Squadrons and No. 320 (Dutch) Squadron of No. 2 Group, dropped 500-lb. bombs from a height of 12,000 feet. Very great damage to the vehicles, and even more to the Chateau, was caused, and the German Chief of Staff, General von Dawans, was killed. On 30th July, five Mosquitos of No. 2 Group, led by Group Captain Bower, with Air Vice-Marshal B. Embry flying as number two, attacked a large chateau on the River Aulne used by the Germans as a rest house for the crews of U-boats. The Mosquitos flew very low, for the cloud base above the target was only 200 feet. Most of the bombs, with eleven second delay fuses, entered the building and explosions were noted. Since, however, there appeared to be no sign of life in the chateau either before, during, or after the attack, the crews when interrogated expressed the fear that it had been
unoccupied. A few hours later a message from the French Maquis informed the raiders of their great success. Far from being empty, the chateau had contained upwards of four hundred German sailors sleeping off an orgy of wine, women and song, which had begun the night before and had lasted some twelve hours. They were still in the grip of its effects when the bombs of No. 2 Group transformed their slumbers into death.
On 2nd August, No. 305 Squadron, using the same technique, destroyed a barracks near Poitiers, the home of a German school of saboteurs. Here ‘they learnt to blow things up until they were blown up themselves’.
The pressure exercised and maintained by the Allied air forces had its effect on the enemy from the beginning, and was cumulative. As early as 11th June Rommel was reporting to Keitel that ‘our operations in Normandy are rendered exceptionally difficult, and in part impossible, by the strong and often overwhelming superiority of the enemy air force ... the enemy has complete control of the air over the battle area up to a distance of about 100 kilometres behind the front, and with powerful fighter-bomber and bomber formations immobilizes almost all traffic by day on roads or in open country. ... movements of our troops on the battlefield by day are thus almost entirely impossible, while the enemy can operate without hindrance. In the country behind, all roads are exposed to continual air attack and it is therefore very difficult to bring up the necessary supplies of fuel and munitions. ... neither our flak nor our Air Force seem able to put an end to these crippling and destructive air attacks. Our troops are fighting as well as they can with the means available, but ammunition is scarce and can only be supplied under the most difficult conditions’.
These soon became in some sectors impossible. By 17th June, transport in or near the Cherbourg Peninsula was so chaotic that, according to the official U-boat log, orders were given to four German submarines to load seventy to eighty tons of anti-tank ammunition, grenades and other implements of war and take them into Cherbourg. They sailed, but the port fell before they reached it and they were recalled.
While the Tactical Air Forces were dominating the battlefield and its immediate neighbourhood, while the aircraft of the Air Defence of Great Britain were active over the beachhead, the artificial harbour at Arromanches and the roadstead beyond, while the heavy bombers of Spaatz and Doolittle by day and of Harris by night were destroying railways and marshalling yards far behind the battle and preventing the movement of troops, another branch of the Royal Air Force
was taking a remote but none the less vital share in the fight. Coastal Command, in the approaches to the Channel, and in the far north where the Atlantic meets the North Sea, was fully and most successfully engaged against U-boats desperately seeking to cut the stream of men and supplies now pouring to Normandy. In the four days succeeding ‘D Day’ twenty-five out of thirty-eight U-boats sighted were attacked. The pilots of Coastal Command were at last given ample opportunity to display their patent skill.
They seized it ‘and twixt the green sea and the azur’d vault set roaring war’.
Eighteen separate and fierce actions were fought at night, with German submarines resolute to defend themselves on the surface. Six were sunk, two in one night by Liberator, ‘G for George’ of No. 224 Squadron—Captain: Flying Officer K. O. Moore, a Canadian. The pace was too hot; the U-boats, as had been expected by Sholto Douglas and his staff, preferred to travel submerged. From 11th June to the end of the month only periscopes and Schnorkel tubes were sighted—fifty-seven times, and thirty-three attacks made. July came and the tactics of moving under water in the approaches to the Channel were pursued, with little consequent damage to our invasion convoys. The enemy lost two more submarines to aircraft of No. 19 Group. Our losses were 26 aircraft.
In the far north, however, the U-boats continued to remain on the surface and defend themselves vigorously. On 24th June, Flight Lieutenant D. E. Hornell, of No. 162 Squadron Royal Canadian Air Force, met with a U-boat in far northern waters. A fierce duel took place during which his Canso5 was hit again and again, huge holes being torn in the starboard wing and the starboard engine being set on fire. Hornell brought his vibrating and hardly controllable aircraft low over the sea, made straight for U-boat No. 1225 and dropped his depth charges with extreme accuracy. She sank and some of her crew were seen in the sea. Meanwhile the burning Canso lost its starboard engine and Hornell succeeded in putting it down on the surface. Only one dinghy remained serviceable and the crew took it in turns to sit in it or to cling to its sides. Two died of exhaustion, and an air/sea rescue lifeboat, dropped inaccurately, drifted away out of reach. The crew were finally rescued after twenty-one hours in the dinghy or in the water. Hornell died of exposure soon afterwards and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
In July, sixty sightings were made in the waters round the British Isles and forty-five attacks were carried out. Of these the most
notable occurred on the 17th. The crew of a Catalina of No. 210 Squadron—Captain: Flying Officer J. A. Cruickshank—sighted a submarine on the surface. The first attack, delivered under heavy anti-aircraft fire, was unsuccessful, for the depth charges hung up. Cruickshank climbed, turned and came again against the U-boat. Its gunners were well-trained and in good heart. The Catalina was repeatedly hit, the navigator killed, the second pilot and two members of the crew wounded. Cruickshank himself received seventy-two wounds, of which the most serious were two in the lungs and ten in the legs. He did not falter but pressed the attack and himself released the depth charges. This time they fell and, being accurately aimed, destroyed the U-boat. The second pilot, wounded as he was, took over the controls, but Cruickshank, in the intervals of consciousness—he refused morphia lest it should deaden his faculties—continued to command the Catalina and its half-dead crew. Arrived at base, he and the second pilot took an hour to land and beach the aircraft. Cruickshank was given an immediate blood transfusion and lived to receive the Victoria Cross he had so richly earned.
By such fierce fights did the pilots and crews of the Command reap for their country a rich reward. By August, the U-boats which had set off directly or indirectly to cut off the invasion forces had accepted defeat. They still tried half-heartedly to move submerged towards the Channel and nineteen attacks were made on them; but in the north only six were seen throughout the month. Three were sunk outright by aircraft of the Command and three more in co-operation with surface craft of the Royal Navy.
During this period, aircraft of Coastal Command were also very active against enemy shipping. In June the outstanding strike it made was a combined attack on the 15th by the North Coates and Langham Wings against shipping off Schiermonnikoog, on the Dutch coast. Without loss to themselves the Beaufighters sank a large merchantman, an E-boat depot ship and an M class minesweeper. On 14th June, Bomber Command also took a hand and carried out a daylight raid on shipping in Le Havre, of which the results, measured in terms of shipping destroyed, were fourteen E-boats, three R-boats, three torpedo boats and sixteen auxiliary vessels, amounting in all to some 15,000 tons. To this must be added the killing of more than a thousand German marines and the consequent demoralization of the survivors. A similar raid on Boulogne accounted for seven R-boats, three depot ships, six minesweepers and nine auxiliary and harbour defence vessels. In July, 500 attacks by 1,897 aircraft of Coastal Command sank five merchant ships and seventeen escort and other vessels. Seven missions by the strike wings were carried out
and on 15th July thirty-four Beaufighters set a tanker ablaze off the Naze, torpedoed a merchantman and left another burning, together with four of the escorts. The assault was renewed a week later when an entire enemy convoy of two ships and eight escort vessels was set on fire by rockets. In August special attention was paid to enemy surface vessels in the Bay, where nine were sunk.
In that month operation ANVIL, the invasion of Southern France, which had been the subject of much debate in the High Command, took place with full air support provided by the Mediterranean air forces.
It might appear from all these manifold activities in the air that all resistance of the enemy in Normandy was paralysed from the start. This was not so. It was gravely impaired and the mounting of counter-attacks on a scale large enough to thrust the Allies into the sea was made impossible. But the Germans could still move troops by road and rail albeit with great difficulty. Their only ally, a singularly faithful one, was the weather. Rain and low clouds by day and night, blunted the full force of our air offensive and gave the enemy’s ground forces that protection which the Luftwaffe was unable to provide.
From the middle of June, the intervention of the Allied heavy bombers became of increasing importance. Their attacks on Poitiers, Arras, Cambrai, Amiens, Douai and St. Pol, as well as on the Paris marshalling yards, soon drastically reduced enemy movements. One very successful attack was that made on Culmont–Chalindrey. Three lines were so destroyed as to resemble ‘nothing so much as a ploughed field’. German fuel and ammunition dumps in the battle area were awarded particular attention, and as early as the third week in June the enemy was being compelled to use dumps as far back as the Marne area. Altogether, by the end of July the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces, Bomber Command and the United States Eighth Air Force had dropped a total of some 34,500 tons of bombs on traffic targets, and of these more than 23,000 tons had been dropped by Bomber Command. They had done so almost without interference from the Luftwaffe, whose straits were indeed desperate. The unhappy formations comprising Luftflotte 3 were given no chance to show their mettle even to a limited extent. From the first moment and indeed for weeks before the landings in Normandy, they had been rendered powerless and their influence on the momentous events of the summer of 1944 was virtually nil. Their airfields, their organization on the ground, their supplies, especially petrol, lacking which they could not take the air, all were at the mercy of an overwhelming superiority of strength continuously and mercilessly
Seated around table, left to right: Lt.-Col. D. Heathcote-Amory (AEAF), Maj.-General R. Royce (Dep. Air C.-in-C, AEAF), Air Chief Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas (AOC-in-C, Coastal Cmd.), Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris (AOC-in-C, Bomber Cmd.), Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory (Air C.-in-C, AEAF), Maj.-General F. L. Anderson (USSTAF), Lt.-General J. H. Doolittle (C. G. Eighth Air Forte), Brig.-General F. L. Parks (First Allied Airborne Army), Air Marshal Sir Roderic Hill (AMC, ADGB). Standing, left to right: Cmdr. L. Derek-Jones, H. St. G. Saunders (the author).
displayed. With pain and grief they attempted a defensive role, striving to protect themselves rather than the unhappy armies who so desperately needed their support.
This indeed they were in no position to give even had they so desired, for none, or very few of them, were practised in the business of ground attack and an attempt to remedy this defect by diverting some 150 fighters, a quarter of the exiguous strength, to this highly specialized work, for which the pilots had not been trained, was a dismal failure. This their leaders recognized within a week and therefore ordered all their fighter aircraft, to the number of 600, to attack the Allied air forces and drive them from the sky, a task quite beyond their strength.
Nor were the bombers in better case. Compelled by the stoutness of the anti-aircraft defences of the beachhead to have recourse to high-level attacks, they were as impotent as the fighters and were soon reduced to the role of minelayers. In this capacity they flew between 1,500 and 2,000 sorties in June and July, not without a certain degree of success. Difficulties and delays were caused to Allied shipping, but such tactics could not be decisive and the Germans knew it. The anti-shipping sorties flown by torpedo-carrying aircraft were only between thirty and forty in the first forty-eight hours of the invasion and even so, the pilots were so unskilful that only about six of them reached the ‘roads’.
By the end of June the Allied attacks on communications had become so heavy and so continuous that the replacement of aircraft by the units of Luftflotte 3 had become an almost insoluble problem. The principal transit depots had to be shifted from Le Bourget and Toul to as far away as Wiesbaden, Cologne, and Mannheim, and the strength of the main units fell, in consequence, to sixty-five per cent. of establishment. Five fighter units had for this reason to be withdrawn altogether only ten days after the landings.
In July matters went from bad to worse and the activities of Luftflotte 3 were soon reduced to the maintenance of defensive patrols over such lines of communication as could still be used. To do so was inevitably to fritter away what remained of its strength and very soon it was unable to provide even the most meagre fighter cover for such counter attacks as Rommel, and presently von Kluge, tried to deliver. ‘To meet present pressure’, bewailed one German Army Commander, ‘it is at least necessary for our fighters to operate over the battle area for some period every day—even if it is only a short one’. They could do so only at the price of casualties which frequently reached ten per cent. and they therefore desisted. Luftflotte 3 had been reduced to impotence.
The attacks on bridges by the Allied heavy and medium bombers during June and July were also maintained, the two remaining bridges over the Seine, below Paris, being destroyed as well as the main bridges, both road and rail, spanning the Loire. The weather was still poor but on 29th June it improved. Leigh-Mallory at once decided to bomb the German rail traffic east of Paris, only to find that Spaatz had sent a large force to Leipzig, and the opportunity vanished. Nevertheless before July was out a ring had been traced round the battle area. It ran along the Seine and the Loire and its existence soon began to force the enemy to de-train troops, taken from the Russian front, as far east as Nancy and Mulhouse. Thence they wobbled towards the battle on bicycles, lacking their heavy equipment and in no posture to maintain a stout resistance.
And yet the German armies opposed to the British and the Americans did not break. June became July, and though Cherbourg had surrendered, Caen still stood, a bastion blocking Montgomery’s troops and preventing them from bursting out of the confined close country where they had landed, into the wide fields of Central France. Why, despite the air support available and accorded, did the army tarry? Was it the very bad weather, more hampering even to men on foot than to those in the air? Low clouds, rain, and a great storm beginning on 19th June, which lasted four days and destroyed the American artificial harbour, so slowed the process of building up stocks of ammunition, food, weapons and all other adjuncts of war, that though on the other side of the hill, so to speak, the Allied air forces were imposing a like restriction on the enemy, the scales remained obstinately level. By 12th June, the individual beachheads had been linked into a continuous bridgehead fifty miles long with a depth that varied between eight and twelve miles, and 326,000 men, 54,000 vehicles and 104,000 tons of stores had been put ashore. Enemy reinforcements were continuing to arrive piecemeal and none of them came from north of the Seine, where ‘the bulk of the German Fifteenth Army waited grimly for an assault in the Pas de Calais’.
Nevertheless the rate at which the strength of the invaders increased was judged to be too slow to enable decisive battle to be joined. Were the vast air forces at the disposal of the Supreme Commander being used to the best possible extent? Superficially, at least, it seemed so. Even the heavy bombers had been brought from strategic targets to those far nearer to the battlefield. Was this policy wrong? Harris and Spaatz, had their opinion been asked, would have answered ‘Yes’ without qualification. Leigh-Mallory was of a
different view. He was immensely impressed by the havoc which a hundred heavy bombers, assaulting a single set objective and bombing on H2S or some other radar device, were able to cause. The photographs taken of some of these attacks, notably one on Aulnoye, were to the last degree convincing and showed an area at least a thousand yards across more pitted with bomb craters than is a honeycomb with holes. If support even greater than that provided by the Tactical Air Forces was needed, why not bring Bomber Command to the actual battlefield? To do so Leigh-Mallory considered that six to eight suitable points should be chosen along the edge of the area to be assaulted. These should then be simultaneously bombed at first light by the heavy bombers; an artillery barrage would follow without pause; and when it lifted, the medium bombers would lay a carpet of bombs to a depth of 1,000 to 4,000 yards in front of the advancing infantry. In this way, as soon as the ‘holes’ were punched, the Allied forces must inevitably move through.
The scheme was under debate when Montgomery launched his attack south-west of Caen. It began on 26th June and endured for three days. Casualties on both sides were heavy, and no decision was reached. A pause ensued and it was decided to make use of Leigh-Mallory’s plan, though not exactly in the manner in which he had originally outlined it. The heavy bombers however were to give the closest possible air support to the armies. A preliminary rehearsal on 30th June on Villers Bocage was promising. Two hundred and fifty-eight aircraft of Nos. 3, 4 and 8 Groups covered by nine squadrons of Spitfires dropped 1,176 tons of high explosive with good effect, one eye-witness reporting that he had seen the remains of a German tank strewing the top of a two-storey building. The first of the operations proper took place during the late evening of 7th July when 457 bombers of Bomber Command dropped 2,363 tons of bombs on selected targets north of Caen. The infantry attack delivered by British and Canadian troops immediately afterwards brought them at length into the city, though not through it. By the evening of the 8th, the 3rd Canadian Division had captured Franqueville, a village to the north-west, and the 3rd British Division had penetrated into the northern quarter of Caen itself. Next morning it reached the area of the docks. Our advancing troops found numbers of bomb-shocked Germans still dazed and helpless several hours after the bombing was over. Nevertheless the enemy still clung to the Faubourg de Vaucelles, south of the River Orne, nor could Montgomery’s armour, ‘impeded by the cratering and obstruction caused by the bombing’, penetrate the rubble-piled streets.
A still greater number of bombers, a still heavier weight of bombs were adjudged necessary. Leigh-Mallory provided them and ten days later, on the 18th, 1,570 heavy and 349 medium bombers of Bomber Command, the United States Eighth Air Force, and the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, dropped 7,700 tons on Colombelles, another suburb of Caen. The heavy bombers used high explosive, and the mediums fragmentation bombs. Those who saw this attack—Leigh-Mallory flying in a captured Fieseler Storch was among them—will never forget the experience. ‘The bombers coming in from the sea were spread out in a great fan in the red dawn’. Soon the earth, shaken and riven, began to flow, and the light of flaming houses to provide a hideous and far from feeble imitation of the sky’s serene fire above. It was ‘the heaviest and most concentrated air attack in support of ground forces ever attempted’. This and the previous attack on Caen destroyed nearly half the city, killed and wounded several thousand of its inhabitants and enabled the army to possess itself of the rubble. Further it could not for the moment go, for the effect of the air bombardment, though very great, was not lasting. The enemy was paralysed but only for a time, and in a few hours was able, so tough and stout-hearted are the Germans, to fight again. They made excellent use of a number of 88-mm. guns—the bane of tanks—which were in position uninjured in the more open country to the south of the town. By 1100 hours these guns were beginning to make their presence felt and no break-through took place.
Nevertheless operation GOODWOOD, to quote the code name, brought von Kluge, who had succeeded the wounded Rommel, to the edge of despair. ‘There is no way’ he wrote to Hitler on 21st July, ‘by which, in the face of the enemy air forces’ complete command of the air, we can discover a form of strategy which will counterbalance its annihilating effect unless we withdraw from the battlefield. Whole armoured formations allotted to the counter-attack were caught beneath bomb-carpets of the greatest intensity so that they could be got out of the torn-up ground only by prolonged effort and in some cases only by dragging them out. . . The psychological effect of such a mass of bombs coming down with all the power of elemental nature on the fighting forces, especially the infantry, is a factor which has to be taken into very serious consideration. It is immaterial whether such a carpet catches good troops or bad. They are more or less annihilated and, above all, their equipment is shattered’. Did Hitler, as he read these gloomy words, call to mind the destruction by the Luftwaffe of Warsaw, Rotterdam and Belgrade? Seldom has an engineer been hoist more completely with his own petard.
Four more daylight attacks were made by heavy bombers of the Royal Air Force and the United States Eighth Air Force before the final discomfiture of the enemy in Normandy was achieved. On 25th July, 3,300 tons of bombs were dropped by the United States Eighth and Ninth Air Forces in the bombardment which preceded the attack launched by the American First Army on the Periers-St. Lô highway. This was not so accurate a performance as were the others. A number of bombs fell very short and caused casualties among the assaulting troops, including Lieutenant General Lesley J. McNair, ‘who was watching the preparations for the attack from a foxhole in the front line’. The fourth attack took place on 30th July when Bomber Command and the Allied Expeditionary Air Force dropped 2,362 tons of bombs ‘in support of the British Second Army south of Caumont’. In the fifth attack on the night of 7th/8th August the advance of the First Canadian Army towards Falaise was aided by over a thousand heavy bombers of Bomber Command and the fighter-bombers of the Second Tactical Air Force which dropped a total of 4,904 tons. The sixth and last occurred a week later when 3,669 tons of bombs, of which some fell among the leading troops, opened the gates of Falaise.
That these attacks by heavy bombers succeeded there is no question; but it must be realized that their object, like their aiming point, was strictly limited. Leigh-Mallory, who was as much responsible as any of the leaders for their inception, was never tired of emphasizing that they were no more than the means to an end which could be achieved by the army alone. It was for the army to advance through the hole driven for it into the defences by the air forces, which would then move further afield and deal with any reinforcements they might catch en route for the battlefield. Despite the tendency of certain army commanders to put the ‘bomb line’ too far ahead of their troops for fear of casualties, the method, though costly, remained sound. In no case was the army unable to move into the bombarded positions and in most cases it met with little opposition or none at all. If subsequently it got into difficulties, as, for example, at Caen, that was not due to any mistake on the part of the air force. The fact was, so devastating was the aerial blow it delivered, that the task falling on the supply columns was sometimes too heavy for them to fulfil. The roads were blotted out by craters or by what that morning had been the dwelling houses of French citizens. On one point all are agreed. ‘The spectacle’, writes Eisenhower, and he echoes the views of the most junior as well as of the most senior commander,’ of our mighty air fleets roaring in over their heads to attack had a most heartening effect upon our own men’.
It must not be thought that these series of attacks were made against a supine, blindly resisting enemy. True the Germans had been pinned down; true troop movements were very difficult; true the Luftwaffe was the proverbial broken reed; but nevertheless there was still some fighting spirit left. On 7th August, von Kluge launched a counter-attack at Mortain. To mount it he had collected the remnants of six Panzer divisions with about 400 tanks and he sent them in a thrust towards Avranches and the sea. If successful, he would be able to cut off the United States VIII and XV Corps and sever the communications of the United States Third Army. The plan was not his own but came from Hitler himself, who, far away in Berlin, thought he saw a golden opportunity to cut off General Patton and his tanks. ‘The plan reached us’, said General Blumentritt, von Rundstedt’s Chief of Staff, ‘... in the most minute detail. It set out the specific divisions that were to be used... and the very roads and villages through which the assaulting forces were to advance were all included’.6
On 7th August the 117th Regiment of the 30th American Division saw, clanking through the mist of a late summer morning, the vague forms of German tanks. The division had only recently moved into the Mortain sector and ‘was not well established’. One battalion of the 117th Regiment was at St. Barthelemy and its men engaged the tanks with bazookas and 57 mm. guns. They stopped some but others pressed on and about noon the situation became critical. At that moment the mist melted away and in half an hour British Typhoons appeared, flying low to deliver the first of a series of assaults which continued at short intervals throughout the day. The attacking aircraft belonged to the Second Tactical Air Force, operating according to a plan whereby they were to be used against the armour and armoured vehicles of the enemy, while fighters of the United States Ninth Air Force would be responsible for attacking communications in the battle area and for the Luftwaffe if it were to put in an appearance. This plan worked to perfection. Between 1230 hours and dusk the Typhoons flew 294 sorties. Their first target was a concentration of 200 vehicles and 60 tanks, a little north of Mortain. Of anti-aircraft fire there was little, of the Luftwaffe none, and the British squadrons attacked repeatedly and with deadly effect first the front and then the rear of the German columns. Investigations after the action showed that for the loss of only three of their number the aircraft probably destroyed at least fifty per cent, of the 78 armoured fighting vehicles, 4 self-propelled guns and 50 unarmoured vehicles left behind by the enemy.
After two hours of repeated assaults the Typhoons had to pause for by then the battle area in and near Mortain was so shrouded in dust as to be almost invisible. They were, therefore, switched to another target near Vire in the British sector. Here a contact car was asking for immediate action against a local German counterattack, supported by a few tanks. The Typhoons arrived at three hundred miles an hour, destroyed five of them, and the assault petered out.
The intervention of the Tactical Air Forces, especially the rocket-firing Typhoons, was decisive. ‘Suddenly the Allied fighter-bombers swooped out of the sky’, said General von Lüttwitz, commanding the Second Panzer Division which made greater progress than any other. ‘They came down in hundreds, firing their rockets at the concentrated tanks and vehicles. We could do nothing against them and we could make no further progress. The next day they came down again. We were forced to give up the ground we had gained, and by 9th August the division was back where it started... having lost thirty tanks and 800 men’. Five years later General Speidel, who was Chief of Staff to von Kluge, stated that the ‘armoured operation was completely wrecked exclusively by the Allied Air Forces supported by a highly trained ground wireless organization’.7
By 9th August all was won and lost in Normandy. American tanks were in Le Mans fifty miles west of the advanced German positions. The Canadians, after sustaining a bloody check north of the Laison River, were moving slowly on Falaise, which they reached and cleared by the 17th. Meanwhile, General Bradley’s forces had turned north and a pocket had been formed of which the northern side, ending in Falaise, was held by the British and Canadians, and the southern, ending at Argentan, by the Americans. In it the remnants of sixteen German divisions, including nine Panzer divisions, were caught. Only on 13th August did Hitler give permission for them to retreat behind the Seine. By then for most of them it was far too late. The mouth of the pocket was but twenty-five miles wide and the chances of escape dwindled hourly. Beyond, the German troops not caught in the trap were a rabble, half-armed and desperate, roaming the country round Le Mans and moving in easterly or south easterly direction with vague hopes of reaching the Fatherland. ‘Many are without headgear, belts or footwear’, reported S.S. General Paul Hausser. ‘Many go barefoot. ... The morale of this straggling force is badly shaken. The enemy command of the air has contributed
especially to this. ... From the foe comes, almost daily, “News for the Troops”, cunningly drawn up and scattered in large quantities by hostile aircraft’.
The Germans caught in the pocket were made of sterner stuff. In their plight they fought desperately. On the 18th a fierce action developed near Chambois—aptly named ‘Shambles’ by the British soldier—the enemy bringing up fresh troops in an endeavour to keep open the mouth of the pocket so as to allow his mauled panzers to withdraw. By the 20th the fight had become especially severe round Vimoutiers where the Polish Armoured Brigade found itself in a difficult situation. The Panzers, with a local superiority in numbers, were pressing hard when Wing Commander Dring, at the head of thirty-two aircraft from Nos. 164, 183, 198 and 609 Squadrons, arrived. The German armour, in number about a hundred tanks and armoured vehicles, was debouching from a wood. Dring caught them as they emerged and very few escaped. ‘I was flying number two to Dring’, reported Pilot Officer W. T. Lawston afterwards, ‘and he orbited the wood giving instructions throughout the attack. From the air point of view there was nothing in it. We just flew low, put our rockets into the target and returned home to receive a large basket of strawberries’.8
So it might have appeared to a young officer flying three and four sorties a day in support of a victorious army. But behind that seemingly simple operation were months of experiment, planning and training, during which Coningham and his lieutenants, Broadhurst, Brown and the rest had brought their forces to the highest pitch. From dusty air strips a mile or two from the sea the Typhoons and Spitfires, in the hands of pilots skilled and eager, went forth to wage a highly scientific battle in which the play of chance had been reduced to a minimum. The great day had arrived; the enemy were on the run or clutched in a trap. Now was the acceptable time.
‘In 83 Group’, said Broadhurst,’ we had made all preparations for the breakout and had installed the system of “contact cars”—a development of the “cab rank” system. ... These cars were armoured and designed to push forward with the most advanced elements of the advancing troops. The reason why I instituted them was because I realised that it would be impossible by means of any ordinary reporting system to keep in close, constant, and accurate touch with troops advancing at speed. I determined, therefore, that the contact car should advance with the leading armoured screen with orders to report the position of our own army at any moment
and to control the tactical reconnaissance aircraft operating the battle area. This meant that air support could be called up immediately if anything stood in the way of the army. More than that, the army commander would be able to know exactly where his troops were as messages from the contact car could be passed via the aircraft above to H.Q.’.
The ambitions of Broadhurst were very largely fulfilled, though considerable difficulty in maintaining touch with the Canadian troops of General Crerar was experienced at first. The use of contact cars was strange to them and for some time they persisted in the view that the stream of vehicles pouring east from Chambois was composed not of Germans but of Poles hot in their pursuit. The true situation was discovered by Wing Commander Green, who, on the orders of Broadhurst, flew at fifty feet above the fleeing columns and established their identity beyond contempt of question. ‘I was so low’, he reported on his return, ‘that I could see not only the black crosses on the vehicles but also the square heads of their drivers’. Nos. 83 and 84 Groups immediately attacked them, having by then had twenty-four hours’ ‘practice’ against German transport outside the ‘Pocket’ to the north and east. Throughout the afternoon of 17th August—the weather was too bad for operations in the morning—the Second Tactical Air Force multiplied its assaults. A formation of Spitfires began the business at Lisieux and the roads leading to it, on which many vehicles were found. As the afternoon drew on, it became evident that the enemy was fleeing from the ‘Pocket’ as fast as he was able without regard to the risks he took. So bad was his situation that he was ready to run the gauntlet of air attack. The one main road to the Seine runs through Vimoutiers, northeast of Trun, and it was here that the greatest execution among three or four hundred vehicles was caused. Typhoons carrying bombs cut the approaches to the little town and added to the difficulties of the enemy. As evening fell, pilots ranging further afield were greeted with a display of white handkerchiefs and cloths waved by despairing drivers. No notice was taken of this attempt to surrender. None of our land forces was anywhere in the neighbourhood to round up the would-be prisoners, and to cease fire would merely have allowed the enemy to move unmolested to the Seine. Not until an hour after midnight were the last reports to hand.
On the 18th Pelion was piled on Ossa. In vain did the Germans take to the woods. They became death traps into which bombs, rockets and, as the guns moved up, shells were poured. ‘It seemed’, said a Norman fanner caught in the press of fleeing Germans, ‘as though I was on the stage in the last act of the Valkyrie. We were
surrounded by fire’. At one time the traffic towards the Seine was running four vehicles abreast. ‘When an air attack developed, and there was one it seemed to me every half hour’, recounted another farmer, ‘the Germans, shouting “Merde pour la guerre”, ran from their vehicles and plunged into the middens of farm yards, into the doorways of houses, into cowsheds and barns—anywhere to escape the eyes of the pilots. The rockets coming from the British fighters looked from the ground as though shooting stars were rushing upon the earth. A vehicle hit by any burst into instant flame. One thing I noticed. In order to leave their vehicles as quickly as possible the German soldiers had removed the doors and one of their number always lay on one of the front mudguards looking upwards and scanning the sky’.
Forsaking the main roads as far as they could the Germans used the deep-cut lanes which abound in this part of Normandy. Along great stretches of these the beeches and hornbeams meet overhead so that in summer the wayfarer may go for several miles through a tunnel of green. These trees the enemy hoped would give him the cover he needed by day, and to make assurance doubly sure he strewed the roofs of his vehicles with fresh-cut branches. It was in vain. Here and there small bodies remained undetected, but most did not. The slightest movement, the momentary flash of sunlight on metal, an inordinate swaying of the branches when there was little or no wind, the tell-tale cloud of dust which hung in the August air about the entrance to these false havens—signs such as these did not pass unnoticed by the argus-eyed pilots of the Second Tactical Air Force. Up and down the roads they flew, meting out death and destruction, as their fathers had on that September day in 1918, when they caught the fleeing Turks in the Wadi el Far’a and slew them in their thousands.
Averaging 1,200 sorties a day for ten days the pilots of the Second Tactical Air Force turned a heavy defeat into an utter rout. Wherever they passed, a dreadful silence fell behind them.
I soon abandoned my Jeep [writes one who examined the roads round Trun, Chambois and Falaise forty-eight hours after the massacre was over] because it was impossible to go further in it except where the road—it was a small secondary road near Trun—ran through fields newly harvested which separated the frequent woods and copses. Where the retreating Germans had been caught in the open, they lay in irregular swathes mostly in the shallow ditches. Their transport was mixed. Cars of every description, many of them Citroens, Renaults and other French makes, strewed the fields, mingled with horses dead in the shafts of stolen carts and even old-fashioned traps of two generations ago. I noticed one up to date limousine painted with the stippled green and brown camouflage
affected by the Germans. It contained on the back seat a colonel and his smartly dressed mistress. Each had been shot through the chest with cannon shells. The driver, who had quitted the wheel, lay a yard or two further on in the ditch with a very dead cow for company. At the entrance to the next section of leafy lane a tank, its gun pointing skywards, straddled the road. From the turret hung a German, his bloated face black with flies. ... In the sunken lane under the semi-darkness of the arching trees in full August leaf the picture of destruction was complete and terrible to the last detail. It was obvious what had happened. Typhoons had spotted the column, though how they did so beats me, and had destroyed the leading and the end vehicles, in this instance, two armoured cars. They had then passed up and down the lane using rockets and cannons. The vehicles were jammed bumper to bumper and each bore the sign manual of the Second Tactical Air Force—a gaping hole in side or turret. It was quite impossible to move past them and almost impossible to clamber over them. Grey-clad, dust-powdered bodies were sprawled everywhere—propped against the trees, flopped over driving seats or running boards—the once crimson stains on their uniforms already turned the colour of rust. I gave up trying to walk over this mile of utter destruction and we made a wide detour only to reach another lane also impassable. It was grimly guarded by four German privates crouching against a high bank, their hands to their heads pressing them down in a futile gesture of concealment. They had been dead two days. Besides them a mill stream rippled over their upturned vehicle. ... Such were the sights I saw that day in half a dozen places I visited, including, near Chambois, a sunken orchard which was choked with dead. Over everything hung the sweet sickly smell of corruption newly born. I flew over the area next day in a ‘whizzer’ and the pilot and I agreed that the stench was very obvious even at fifteen hundred feet.
So the slaughter continued, the Mosquitos and Mitchells of No. 2 Group joining in both by day and night. They paid special attention to the crossings of the Seine. The ferries of its lower reaches were sunk by Mustangs or Spitfires, many of them from No. 35 Photographic Reconnaissance Wing. The activities of No. 69 Squadron flying Wellingtons were also considerable. They flew at night and throughout this period performed valuable service in discovering the movement of German formations. In so doing they covered an area which stretched as far as the Rhine and even beyond. On 24th and 25th August camouflaged barges were special objects of attack. At night the light bombers of No. 2 Group caught large concentrations of vehicles on the quaysides of Rouen and destroyed them. ‘It was at once apparent’, reported Group Captain Larnder, one of Leigh-Mallory’s Scientific Advisers, who visited the city on 1st September, ‘that we were on the scene of one of the outstanding attacks of the campaign; burnt out vehicles, exploded and unexploded ammunition, and the charred remains of loot and small
kit, lay so thick that in places we had to clamber over them ... At this point we met a Doctor, one Germains Galerant, who was supervising the burial of the dead ... Doctor Galerant said that the Germans arrived in a disorganized drove with few officers, if any, and asked the way to the bridges. When told that there were no bridges, they started to use the twin barge ferry’. They were left unmolested for several days until the Mosquitos, Mitchells and Bostons went into the attack. Its result was ‘a night of horror with all the petrol in the vehicles burning and the Germans screaming’. The number of the enemy killed was not large—about 350 bodies were buried by prisoners of war under the direction of the French civil authorities—but the number of vehicles destroyed was very great. Altogether No. 2 Group’s bombers made six attacks—no more were necessary to achieve a striking and most effective result. They were joined by the United States Ninth Air Force which dropped more than 300 tons of bombs on 26th and 27th August.
While the Germans were thus fleeing in rout the Luftwaffe did what it could to cover the withdrawal of the Panzers and a number of its aircraft were engaged in combat by British and American fighters. It was normally the task of the Americans to ‘ward off’ hostile formations while the British continued the task of attacking transport and airfields; but as the advance progressed so the German airfields were over-run and the activities of the Luftwaffe dwindled to almost nothing. On 23rd August Spitfires of No. 83 Group claimed 12 Focke-Wulf 190’s and Messerschmitt 109’s destroyed and on 25th August when Second Tactical Air Force were attacking the Seine ferries the United States Ninth Air Force claimed 77 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air and 49 on the ground.
All was now over for the moment. Von Kluge was dead by his own hand and Model, his successor, fleeing in bewildered rout. By the 25th Paris had been liberated by its own citizens and the French Armoured Division of General Leclerc, the British Second Army was over the Seine at Vernon, and five days later had freed Amiens and captured General Hans Eberbach, commanding the German Seventh Army, at breakfast with his staff. On 2nd September its advanced guards were across the Belgian frontier and the next day the 1st Battalion, the Welsh Guards, drove in triumph through the roaring streets of Brussels.
Throughout this swift advance the Second Tactical Air Force kept up with the armies, albeit with some difficulty. The airfield construction wings were hard put to it to provide suitable landing grounds to take the place of the beachhead strips, soon far out of range in the rear. A field reconnaissance party in armoured cars
moved with the leading armoured brigades and looked for suitable sites. The general policy was to repair damaged airfields rather than to construct new ones. The standard was low but adequate, ‘one runway 1,200 yards long sufficiently smooth to enable a light car to run along it at thirty miles an hour without undue bumping’. As time went on the permanent airfields in Northern France and Belgium and Holland were brought back into full use.
As with airfield construction so with supplies. The Air Officer-in-Charge of Administration, Air Vice-Marshal Elmhirst, drove his columns with genial ruthlessness. The army, with whom he was on the best of terms, brought supplies to rail or road-head, which in theory was not more than forty miles from the centre of an area of airfields. The pace of the advance, however, was so great that this distance was often as much as a hundred and fifty miles. To cover it meant pooling transport which in turn entailed the temporary grounding of one or more Wings while food, ammunition and bombs were brought up to the others. This reduction in flying strength could easily be accepted, for the Luftwaffe, except spasmodically, was no longer a force to which much attention had to be paid.
So ended the Battle of France. The Second Tactical Air Force had by its presence over the battlefield made victory certain and in the later stages cheap. Under Coningham, a commander of genius, it was ubiquitous and invincible. But it was not alone. Beside it was the efficient and daring United States Ninth Tactical Air Force and behind both, based in England, were the heavy bombers of Harris and Spaatz which, despite the foreboding of their chiefs, were able more than once to intervene in the battle with very great, perhaps decisive, effect. By the end of August the pilots and crews of Bomber Command had become highly proficient in bombing by day, an art they had begun to acquire in June with the bombing of Le Havre and Villers Bocage. Still further away, ranging the vast spaces of the Atlantic and the North Sea, Coastal Command had, with the Royal Navy, ensured the even flow of supplies and in so doing had contributed as much to the common victory as the spectacular Typhoons and Spitfires of Nos. 83 and 84 Groups.
Air operations, British and American, from ‘D Day’ to the fall of Brussels, were a ninety-day lesson on the meaning and significance of air power. Strategy, tactics, battlefields—all were transformed by this devastating weapon wielded in the correct manner. The enemy was reduced to impotence; his once powerful Luftwaffe, mastered and virtually driven from the air, ceased to be a factor worthy of regard, with all the consequences to his forces on the ground that this implied. Yet he did not yield easily. His troops, until the failure
of their counter-attack at Mortain, fought with desperate valour and great skill. Nor did he entirely neglect the air. Since piloted aircraft were of no avail, a pilotless model might solve his problem and redress the balance. For many years he had been labouring to produce this new weapon and another even more deadly, and his hopes were high. The Allied armies, with their attendant air forces, may for the moment be left consolidating their positions in Belgium, Holland and Eastern France, while the manner in which the enemy used the flying bomb and presently the V.2 rocket is considered.