Chapter 8: The Battle of France
THE assault of 6 June 1944 on the Normandy beaches was merely the beginning of operations, to quote from Eisenhower’s directive of 12 February 1944, “aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.” The initial phase of these operations ended in mid-July with the winning of the battle of the beachhead which provided sufficient ground for massing and maneuver on the part of Allied forces. The second stage, the breakout, followed immediately.
The use of overwhelming air power to speed the breakout had long been discussed by Allied commanders, but not until 19 July were plans for its application definitely formulated and approved. A conference was then held at AEAF headquarters at Stanmore with Bradley, Tedder, and representatives of the air forces present. Basic details were firmed, and on that day, and the day following, orders were issued for Operation COBRA.1 According to an agreement at the Stanmore meeting, both D-day and H-hour were to be determined by air authorities since their ability to act in full strength was rated as essential to the operation. The original agreement tentatively fixed the 21st as D-day, but adverse weather forced postponement of any action until the 24th. The weather forecasts on the night of 23 July were not altogether propitious, but AEAF determined that preparations for COBRA should commence. Early the next day 10/10 cloud in the St.-Lô area caused Leigh-Mallory to put off tactical air action from 1000 to 1200 hours when, according to AEAF meteorologists, weather would lift. The postponement was possible since FUSA had earlier signified its willingness to postpone its jump-off to as late as 1500 hours.2
But doubts entertained by Eighth Air Force weather men on this score were well founded.3 Six groups of IX TAC’s fighter-bombers took off according to plan to deliver their attack, but three groups
were recalled on account of adverse weather and the others could report only that they had bombed their target area with no results observed. Meanwhile, the three bombardment divisions of the Eighth Air Force had dispatched a total of 1,586 aircraft, and as the heavies set course for their target area observers on the far shore heard the roar of their engines from above the overcast. Leigh-Mallory, who was at Bradley’s field headquarters, determined to cancel the operation, but word of his decision did not reach the Eighth until a few minutes before the bombing was to commence and the message of recall was received by only a few planes in the last of its three formations. Efforts were made by controllers in France to pass the word to the airborne heavies, but no other means of communication were available save the extemporized use of frequencies on which the heavies might be listening. However, visibility was so poor that the lead formation made no attack on its primaries. The second found cloud conditions bad, and only thirty-five aircraft bombed after making no less than three bomb runs properly to identify their target. Under slightly improved weather conditions the third formation dropped from 317 of its bombers before the recall message was received, for the most part by units which were preparing for a second bomb run. The mediums of IX Bomber Command, which had been scheduled to follow the heavies in their attack, received the cancellation order in good time.4
The action of 24 July, ineffective at best, was marred by short bombing. A fighter-bomber caused casualties when it hit an ammunition dump within friendly lines. Its pilot had apparently picked up the wrong landmark to guide his run. A single plane of the 2nd Bombardment Division bombed the Ninth’s airfield at Chippelle, its bombardier having struck the toggle switch in a reflex induced by the impact of a package of chaff on his nose turret; two planes, bomb-loaded and manned, were destroyed and others damaged. In another instance, the lead bombardier of a heavy bomber formation had difficulty in moving his bomb release mechanism and a portion of his load was inadvertently salvoed. Unfortunately, and inevitably, the other fifteen aircraft of the formation released on their lead ship with their bombs falling some 2,200 yards north of the northern boundary of their target area. Army casualties, chiefly among troops of the 30th Infantry Division, were reported as sixteen killed and four times that number wounded. Three heavies had been lost to flak.5
The misadventures of 24 July gave the enemy information as to the place and approximate time of the impending attack and led him to withdraw some of his heavy artillery as far south as Marigny in anticipation of it. But there was no alternative to carrying out a full-scale COBRA on the first good day. That day proved to be the very next, for late on the 24th the message went out fixing H-hour as “251100B” (25 July 1100 hours British double summer time), and the standing orders for the operation went into effect.6
These orders and their frequent amendments had been literally streaming from the teletypes in the days following 19 July. Product of continued conferences between air and ground commanders, the complicated orders need here to be stated and explained. They are the more important since they were followed to the letter in the action which ensued. Fighter-bomber groups under IX TAC’s command were to begin the operation with a glide bombing and strafing attack on a rectangular target 250 yards deep and 7,000 yards long, with its long northern boundary just south of the St.-Lô–Périers road. This was the air target nearest to American lines, and fighter-bombers were assigned to it because of the Army’s confidence in their accuracy. The eight assaulting groups were to fly in column of groups, with all squadrons in column of flights. After assembling over their bases they were to check in with the controller at the Carentan airstrip at three-minute intervals, beginning at 0931 hours, and proceed thence to their targets, which had been divided into eastern and western areas. The first group was to sweep the long axis of the eastern area, the second that of the western, and so on in alternation. As the fighter-bombers completed their blows, the heavies were to appear at 1000 hours and in successive waves deliver a saturation attack on an area one mile deep and five miles long paralleling and lying just south of the fighter-bomber area. The heavies had been chosen for this role because they could deliver a fire more massive than could artillery in the same space of time. The attack would be delivered at right angles to the long axis of the target area in order to reduce the grave problem of flying more than 1,500 heavy bombers over the target within the space of 60 minutes. Even then, and even with the most careful planning of times and runs, congestion was certain, as were the added navigational difficulties of avoiding prop wash and converging courses. At 1100 hours VII Corps
was scheduled to jump off, and at that instant an additional seven groups of fighter-bombers would renew the attack on the eastern and western segments of their assigned area. The mediums then would direct their concentrations on strongpoints and areas behind the German lines which were inaccessible to artillery fire.
Thus American air resources were heavily committed to COBRA the entire heavy bombardment of the Eighth, the Ninth’s mediums, and all of the Ninth’s fighters. Fifteen groups of these fighters were assigned to the preliminary bombardment, two of the remaining three groups were marked for offensive fighter operations during the period of the main attack, and the third was assigned to care for special air support requests. With the Ninth entirely pledged to its support role, eight groups of VIII Fighter Command were called upon to give area cover to heavies and mediums alike.
With the experience of the 24th in mind, further safety precautions were added to those originally planned, and their total appeared impressive. A special weather reconnaissance plane was to fly into the assault area at 0800 hours and give the Eighth exact weather data and recommendations. The heavies were ordered to bomb visually, and to fly at the minimum altitude consistent with precautions against enemy flak, which it was expected would be reduced by the Army’s preliminary counterbattery fire. The fact that casualties had resulted from the short bombings of the previous day figured prominently among the cautions given bombardiers, and their target boundaries were to be marked with red smoke shells fired at two-minute intervals or less. Finally, although the Army had originally suggested withdrawal of ground troops to a distance of 800 yards from the bomb line and air had urged 3,000 yards, compromise was struck at a clear zone of 1,500 yards, with the Army’s forward lines marked with cerise and yellow panels.7
From the first fighter-bomber attack at 0938 hours until the last of the mediums’ bombings at 1223, the plans were carried out on 25 July exactly as the intricate time schedule demanded. Watchers on the beaches crossed by the bombers beheld the sky literally filled with the regular formations and had their ears deadened by the steady drum of the motors. A total of 1,507 B-17’s and B-24’s attacked, dropping over 3,300 tons; over 380 mediums bombed with 137 tons of high explosive and more than 4,000 x 260-pound frags; while 559 fighter-bombers delivered 212 tons of bombs and in addition a special
consignment of incendiary napalm.8 Enemy air opposition was negligible – small German formations made ineffective passes at two of the heavy units, but that was all. The loss of five four-engine bombers and one medium bomber was entirely attributable to ground fire. Fighter-bombers suffered no losses in the course of their swift attacks over the enemy front lines.
Technically viewed, the bombing was good. The mediums concentrated the missiles carried by twenty-one of their thirty formations in the proper target areas. The 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Bombardment Divisions of the Eighth Air Force likewise covered their targets well, in spite of the fact that they had been confronted with a somewhat perplexing situation. Their preplanned bombing altitudes had been fixed between 15,000 and 16,000 feet, but the known base of medium cloud over the target area on 25 July forced readjustment of these plans after most of the aircraft were airborne. Actually some bombed from as low as 12,000 feet and few if any from the predetermined height; a fact which caused most bombardiers to recompute hurriedly their bombing data and reset their sights. Moreover, the drop to the new and lower bombing levels loosened formations. This added to the strain on pilots and was the more perilous because of the crowded air over the target area. It also tended to produce elongated bomb patterns as units dropped on their leaders. Smoke markers proved of little value. At best they were not visible until their smoke drifted high, and then the prevailing south wind quickly displaced it. Furthermore, once the attack had begun and great clouds of dust and smoke billowed up from the target area, red smoke was difficult to distinguish from shell and bomb bursts or from the muzzle flashes of American artillery. Under such circumstances it is remarkable that ORS experts, after elaborate scrutiny of records and strike photographs, found that bombing errors were actually less than had been anticipated in an operation of this type, This does not mean that all bombs were placed in the target areas. Partly because formations could not he kept tight, and partly because of extreme precautions taken against short bombing, approximately one-half of the 1st Bombardment’s loads was delivered south of the prescribed destination. Spillage on the part of other formations extended both to the east and west of their targets, and bombs from seventeen units fell in the clear zone from which American troops had been withdrawn.
Gross errors in bombardment had been anticipated, and the probability
of their occurrence was known to both air and ground commanders. They occurred on 25 July and they were costly. The lead bombardier of one formation had trouble with his bombsight and released visually with bad results; another failed properly to identify vital landmarks, and the command pilot of a third formation, failing to observe the order that bombing was to be by groups, ordered “Bombs away” when his wing leader dropped in the cleared zone, and his own unit perforce followed his example. Thus frags and HE from a total of thirty-five heavies fell north of the target areas and within American lines. As early as 1040 hours reports from the continent to air headquarters in England told of short bombing as far back as American artillery positions, and though the hour was late, efforts were made again to caution those formations of heavies which had not as yet bombed. Mediums of IX Bomber Command likewise short-bombed, with forty-two aircraft dropping within friendly lines because of faulty identification of target. All the gross errors on 25 July were classified as personnel errors. Their cost was reported to be 102 army personnel killed, including Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, and 380 wounded. Again, as on the 24th, casualties were concentrated in the ranks of the 30th Infantry Division.9
Air’s effort on 25 July had been great, but military results are measured in terms of accomplishment rather than in terms of energy expended. The results of the air bombardment were definitely not all that optimists hoped for, but foe and friend agree that they were of more than ordinary stature. Enemy casualties were not extensive; in fact, they appeared small in view of the weight of aerial bombardment coupled with artillery’s preparatory fires.* Two factors help to explain this discrepancy. The first is the Germans’ use of deep communication trenches and equally deep individual shelters. The second is the desire of the Army to avoid unnecessary cratering, which caused a high percentage of frags to be mixed in with high-explosive GP’s. Direct hits were necessary to produce casualties, for a man in a shelter two feet from a crater rim was safe from any effect save that of concussion. Enemy evidence and that of Allied officials who later examined the battlefield indicate that thin-skinned vehicles were shredded and that the treads of armor were broken by flying fragments of steel. Where weapons were not destroyed they could not be
* The war diary of the German Seventh Army in its entry for 25 July constitutes an exception to this rule for it records heavy losses in the MLR and in artillery.
used until after they had been cleaned of the dirt in which they were sometimes buried. The enemy alleged that much heavy material was withdrawn to the rear after the bombing commenced, but he was emphatic in his insistence that craters on main roads impeded movement both from and to the battle lines.
Prisoner-of-war interrogations are in full agreement that the destruction of communications and of morale was very great. Loss of communications had its immediate tactical effects since it left units without contact with the rear and without knowledge of what was happening on their flanks at a time when the dust cloud limited visual observation. Units fell out of control when men were separated from CP’s and from their officers and NCO’s; one group of four enemy tanks ran up the white flag before the ground assault had been launched. But above all, the destruction of communications bred a feeling of isolation among forward unit which added to the shock effect of the bombardment itself. This shock pervaded the entire bombed area for, as Army Group B laconically recited, the bombardment consisted of “bomb carpets of hitherto unknown dimensions.” Battle-tried and raw troops alike appear to have been affected, the younger men of both groups being the quickest to recover. Too easily overlooked, but repeatedly stressed by the enemy, was the shattering effect on morale produced By the very appearance of such a multitude of hostile planes overhead, with no GAF anywhere in evidence. They came on “like a conveyer belt,” and Africa Korps Veterans labeled them Partei-Tag Geschwader, with reference to the well-aligned squadrons which had flown in dress parade over Nürnberg rallies in the peacetime period of Nazi rule. Morale was thus hard hit even before the “bomb carpets began to unroll in great rectangles.”10
Maj. Gen. Fritz Bayerlein, commander of Panzer Lehr Division, was later to give a vivid picture of his experiences on this day. He was a seasoned front-line soldiered tough tanker – and his statements have the hallmark of veracity, although they cannot serve as the basis for broad generalization. His communications had been destroyed in the first air attacks, and as the heavies began to come over soon after 1000 hours, he set out on the pillion of a motorcycle to visit his advanced CP at Le Mesnil Amey. There he observed the later stages of the bombing from a stone tower with walls two meters thick. What he could see of the battlefield he termed a Mondlandschft (a lunar landscape). What he found there and at Hébécrévon and other points
which he personally visited was half of his three batteries of 88-mm. AA guns knocked out and his forward tanks pitched into craters or disabled by direct hits and by blasts which had thrown them on their backs. Communications both with his own regiments and with the corps was by runner only, and 70 per cent of his personnel was “either dead, wounded, crazed or dazed.” Not until nightfall, when his forward lines had been overrun, was he able to gather together a small combat group from his scattered and shattered division.11 In retrospect, von Rundstedt regarded the St.-Lô bombing as “the most effective, as well as the most impressive, tactical use of air power in his experience.”12
The findings of American ground forces with respect to the results of air’s part in COBRA were stated with a moderation both natural and proper. XIX Corps voiced its doubts as to the material assistance rendered the ground assault by air’s strikes.13 Other organizations agreed with the enemy’s statements that disorganization was the most apparent result of saturation bombing. The 2nd Armored Division noted shortcomings in the operation, among them the fact that the withdrawal to produce a safety zone was closely followed up by the enemy, with the result that the 1,500 yards given up had to be regained by fighting. And American armor, like enemy panzers, regretted the cratering of main highways, where damage done by 500-pound GP’s required the services of engineers before advance was possible. This emergency, however, had been foreseen, and the engineers were on hand to do the job.14 The 4th Infantry Division had been bombed, but in its advance it encountered only small-arms fire. The 30th Infantry Division not only had been short-bombed on two successive days but enemy-inflicted casualties among its infantry and tanks were the heaviest suffered by any American division. One of its leading infantry battalions was delayed in moving until reorganized and reinforced, but its armor was able to move out at once and assist in overcoming Panzer Lehr’s resistance at Hébécrévon, in spite of the fact that the division encountered enemy artillery fire from the southeast as it assaulted. Maj. Gen. Leland S. Hobbs, commanding this division, was early at pains to point out that similar, and hence confusing, landmarks, together with the wind which funneled the smoke cloud to the north of the St.-Lô-Périers road, helped to explain the bombers’ errors.15
Because of casualties inflicted by friendly planes, one leading battalion
of 9th Infantry Division also required reinforcements, and its advance was delayed from one to one and one-half hours, during which time German SS troops and paratroopers organized the most serious resistance which the division encountered. The 9th’s other assault units attacked immediately after the aerial bombardment, gained ground, and went through their objectives. At the moment of action this division rated air’s performance as very unsatisfactory. The division had anticipated that its men would “walk unharmed through the bombed area,” but had found that they met with a fair volume of fire. Later judgment was of another order. The 9th observed that its own morale remained high, while that of the enemy “was definitely broken” and his defense installations, communications, and supplies badly disrupted. Even “though the results were not what we had expected, it never occurred to us that we could fail after the use of such mass aircraft.”16 VII Corps chronicled, as it must, losses at the hands of friends and listed the disorganization and the drop in morale which resulted, but voiced the opinion that “our losses would have been infinitely greater, and our success would perhaps never have materialized if it had not been for the all over effectiveness of this heavy bombardment.”17
Five months after the action, when an airman raised a question as to air’s efficacy on 25 July, Eisenhower was to declare that it was impossible “to convince the Army that the battle of St.-Lô had not been won as a result of the direct support given by the Eighth Air Force.”18 Later still, von Rundstedt was to attribute the American success to the air bombardment, the weakness of the battered German ground forces, and to the initiative of Allied armor and infantry.19 FUSA, in its after-action report, followed the same general line as the enemy commander.20
The obvious defects of COBRA were made the subject of immediate and continued study. Means were sought to shorten the time interval between the cessation of bombing and infantry’s advance, since at St.-Lô some enemy units had recovered from shock and re-organized their positions before American troops closed with them. A special ORS study on fuzings for this special type of bombing was soon published and became standard. The training of bombardiers was intensified as the desire for heightened efficiency and the steady inflow of replacements alike demanded. The search for better bomb-line and target markers was carried on, and efforts were made
to establish a closer association of Eighth Air Force and ground forces when the former was functioning in a tactical role. The hunt was kept up to find the as yet missing link in communications and control: effective radio contact between ground controllers and bombers flying an air support mission.21
Air’s role in COBRA was by no means limited to the mass bombardment of 25 July. With the intent of rendering general support, Second TAF had flown armed recces in the battle zone during the morning of the 25th, and in the afternoon it continued them, in some cases operating in what was normally an American area of responsibility.22 On that same afternoon IX Bomber Command gave its attention to four targets in the line of interdiction, and IX Fighter Command flew four missions of group strength against rail lines well beyond the battle zone, while planes under the operational control of IX TAC pursued their steady course of air support in cooperation with FUSA. The battle front was still too fluid to admit of much close support, and consequently request missions were few. But armed recces in the battle area were constant during the remaining daylight hours of 25 July. Thirteen such missions in squadron strength were flown between 1135 and 2104 hours, with pilots selecting the usual wide variety of targets. They hit a bridge over the Sienne, in the neighborhood of Gavray, and bombed and strafed ammunition and fuel dumps in proximity to the battlefield. When roads near St.-Gilles were dive-bombed, the resulting explosions suggested that a jackpot had been hit. Steeple OP’s were again singled out and two in the combat zone were demolished. IX TAC rounded out its day with four missions designed to render enemy night traffic hazardous by dropping bombs fuzed for delays of from one to twelve hours on crossroads in the vicinity of Coutances. Alone among the Ninth’s fighter-bombers this day, the 406th Group encountered enemy aircraft. Some of its planes met fifteen of the GAF over Lisieux and claimed four destroyed for the loss of one missing.
The Air-Tank Team
Infantry had figured most conspicuously in breaking the hard crust of the enemy’s positions on 25 July, although on occasion armor had “punched its own hole.” Planners had anticipated this success and had assigned two armored divisions and one of motorized infantry to exploit it. Their orders were to plunge south along the main road to Marigny
and that to St.-Gilles, and thence drive to objectives lying to the southwest. In anticipation of these movements by two combat commands from each of the two armored divisions committed to the action, IX TAC had developed plans for the closest kind of cooperation with the four armored columns. These plans were put into operation on 26 July as VIII Corps, and then XIX and V Corps together with the British right joined with VII Corp in the drive south. As IX TAC’s orders bearing the date of 20 July were tested, and improvements in their provisions were made in the light of experience, air began to write a new and brilliant page in the history of close support. Armored column cover (ACC) became a standard procedure, and the air-armored team began the swift and effective action which it continued until the Siegfried Line was reached.23
A technical innovation had much to do with the new team’s success. As the plans for COBRA were maturing, the suggestion was advanced by Quesada that air cover of armored columns would be rendered more effective if an air support party (ASP) was put in each tank column and equipped with an air force type VHF radio to make two-way communication possible between the tanks and their escorting planes.* Quesada’s suggestion was welcomed by Bradley, and Ordnance was directed to send a tank to IX TAC for a trial installation. Through mischance the Sherman was dispatched to an armored division which promptly swallowed it. Its failure to appear at its proper destination caused a second Sherman to roll up to IX TAC’s head-quarters, but since no one on the spot knew what to do with it, it was returned to Ordnance with thanks. Higher command, now thoroughly agitated, managed to retrieve the second tank and an SCR of proper type was promptly installed. Tests showed that the capabilities of the device were so great that other installations were expedited with a top-priority rating which both Army Ordnance and IX AFSC observed.24
The basic principles in the first of the ACC orders remained essentially unchanged throughout the remainder of the war in Europe. “Each of the rapidly advancing columns will be covered at all times by a four ship flight ... [which] will maintain a close armed recce in advance of the ... column. They may attack my target which is identified as enemy, directing their attention to the terrain immediately in
*Air support parties later came to be known as tactical air liaison officers (TALOS), but the earlier designation current at this period, is here employed.
front of the advancing column. The combat command commander may monitor [radio] channel ‘C’ to receive any information transmitted by the flight of FBs which is covering him. [He] may also request this flight to attack targets immediately in front of him. Targets which require more strength than the four ship flight will be passed back through ASP channels, and the mission will be accomplished by FBs on ground alert.” The call signs given to ground units were added to flyers’ vocabularies – 2nd Armored Division was “Abtide” and its combat commands “Cutbreak” and “Murphy”; 3rd Armored Division was “Instand” and its fighting units “Poodle” and “Bronco.” The plan was simple, and possibly on that very account, it worked with a singular perfection.25
On the very first day that such cover was provided, four groups dispatched a total of seventy-two squadron missions of the type ordered, with 368th Fighter-Bomber Group alone sending out twenty-five. This rate of performance was maintained, or exceeded, on good flying days during the critical period from 26 to 31 July. IX TAC could not have maintained that rate and at the same time have performed its other tactical duties had not the labors of IX Engineer Command enabled it to base sixteen of its fighter-bomber groups together with P/R and Tac/R units on Normandy airfields by the end of the month. The new fields were plagued with dust which not even Hessian mat could keep down, but ground crews worked their miracles of rearming, refueling, and maintenance notwithstanding.
Detailed records of the methods employed and of the extent of air’s achievement in ACC are of an elusive character, for their original form was the conversations between tank commanders and their air advisers on the ground and flight leaders in the air above them. But in the closing days of July, when the procedure was still novel, some records, fortunately, were preserved. “Is the road safe for us to proceed?” was the question radioed on one occasion from tank to plane. “Stand by and we’ll find out,” came the answer, and in their ensuing sweep the four P-47’s spotted as many enemy tanks on the road ahead and put them out of action. Returning to the air over their column, the planes radioed: “All clear. Proceed at will.” When radio jammed, tanks used shells or machine-gun tracers to mark the target they desired attacked and got results. On another occasion a single Sherman was threatened with destruction at the hands of German panzers, but the covering planes observed its plight and managed to disperse the
enemy. In response to a column commander’s request, the road ahead of him was swept with fire. The planes then radioed, “Go ahead,” but instantly recalled that direction. “There’s one we missed. Tank at right side of road. Next building up. 200 yards.” Dive bombing eliminated the enemy block, and the ground column got under way again. To take one other example, the crew of a German tank fired by strafing was last seen surrendering to the American column. Such evidence of continuous ACC, drawn from the experience of the Ninth Air Force’s fighter-bomber squadrons, at least indicates the intimacy prevailing in this growing association of armor and accompanying aircraft.26
Pilots diving to attack with bombs or machine-gun fire, and as swiftly regaining altitude, were not in a favorable position to observe the exact results of their own strikes, and their claims were often inexact and exaggerated. But on many occasions apparently inflated reports were proven to be sober truth, and even the exaggerations are meaningful, for they accurately reflect the exaltation of American airmen engaged, as they put it, in “hazing the Hun.” Claims poured in, beginning with the first day of ACC, and they mounted steadily. On 26 July individual flights included in their reports such items as fifteen rockets fired, two tanks destroyed, one probable destroyed. one tank destroyed by strafing; eight bombs on two Mark II tanks, left burning; two Tigers holding up our advance dive-bombed with poor results, then strafed and destroyed. The flyers were catholic in their choice of targets with claim lists for this and the ensuing days including staff cars, buildings, truck convoys, and, increasingly, horse-drawn artillery and horsed vehicles crowded together on the roads leading south.
The armor of VII Corps, together with escorting planes, had taken the lead in the breakout on 26 July, plunging along the roads from Marigny and St.-Gilles to points beyond Percy and Gavray. Thanks to this aggressive thrust to the southwest, VIII Corps, on going into action a day later, encountered less enemy resistance, and once under way, its columns moved even faster than those of the corps on its left. VIII Corps vehicles, with the identifying circled star on their tops freshly painted, pushed straight south along the highway which parallels the western Normandy coast, for FCSA had revised its plans and the pursuit was continued without halt. Lessay and Périers, Coutances and Avranches, Pontaubault and Ducey were successively entered as the enemy’s western flank withdrew in disorder. The Germans, perforce,
threw caution to the winds and moved in daylight. No mere solitary motorcyclists on the roads now, but close-packed columns – lucrative targets for IX TAC’s fighter-bombers. Air’s resources were sufficient to exploit the situation as it developed, and armed recce in the battle area was the standard instrument chosen. The scale on which such action developed is remarkable. On 26 July, sixteen such armed recces were ordered with eight aircraft participating in each. The next day saw seventeen undertaken in varying strength. Ten more were staged on the 28th, six on the day following, and a single one on the 30th. Results were substantial in the case of most missions, but it was the 405th Fighter-Bomber Group which, on 29 July, furnished the highlight of a lively period.27
This group had been ordered to fly armed reconnaissance of the battlefield throughout the day, but bad weather barred operations in the morning. In the afternoon it cleared and P-47’s took off from Picauville and directed their course to the Villedieu area. There they found few targets, but as the flight circled back toward Coutances they saw a mass of traffic on the roads, at times moving bumper to bumper, and they began to work it over systematically. Between Roncey and St.-Denis-le-Vêtu they discovered one column blocked on the east by elements of 2nd Armored Division and on the west by elements from the 3rd. Here was a fighter-bomber’s paradise. The first flight to attack radioed the home controller to that effect, and operations were immediately laid on which caused the group to rotate its squadrons over the target throughout the long afternoon. From 1510 to 2140 flights attacked, returned to base, refueled and rearmed, and took off to attack again. In the midst of the melee a general shouted over his tank radio: “Go to it! Get one for me!” The target, extending over a road distance of more than three miles, was an extraordinary one. Two days after the action, American columns found the road impassable, and Army reports substantiated the pilots’ claim with a list of 66 tanks, 204 vehicles, and 11 guns destroyed, and 56 tanks and 55 vehicles damaged by the combined action of American artillery, tanks, and planes. No wonder that, on returning to Picauville after delivering his attack, one youthful pilot had ejaculated: “I have been to two church socials and a county fair, but I never saw anything like this before!”28 The scale of IX TAC’s tactical effort in the period from 25 through 31 July was unusual, even for that command. Its operations in that week were at times restricted by weather, yet its sorties totaled 9,840,
of which 655 were reconnaissance flights. It dropped over 2,000 tons of bombs and claimed the destruction of 67 enemy aircraft in encounters. Seventy-eight of its own planes had been destroyed, ten of them in air combat.29
Pursuit aid Encirclement
American G-2’s and A-2’s depleted their stocks of grease pencils in their effort to depict the rapidly developing situation of 26 July to 1 August on the acetate coverings of their situation maps. At the outset of that period the German Seventh Army had acknowledged a “serious breakthrough” on the St.-Lô front, and had ascribed it in part to the “enemy’s concentrated employment of air power” which checked the concentration of German reserves.”30 At the end of the period, the situation maps left no doubt in anyone’s mind that the breakout was solid fact. Aside from one brief interlude, the military themes of the August battles west of the Seine were to be the pursuit and encirclement of a defeated and disorganized enemy.
American forces, ground and air alike, played a major role in developing both these themes. Their action was as swift as their mass was great. They functioned the more effectively because in the early days of August their organization was perfected in a manner long planned. FUSA continued active with three corps under its command, but on 1 August the U.S. Third Amy (TUSA), initially comprising four corps, became operational under the command of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. On the same day Bradley’s 12th Army Group formally assumed immediate command over the two armies from headquarters recently established at St.-Sauveur-Lendelin, and its first letter of instruction31 contained the following information under the heading “Supporting Forces” :
(1) Air Force
Ninth Air Force supports the Twelfth Army Group
IX Tactical Air Command will be in direct support of First Army
XIX Tactical Air Command will be in direct support of Third Army.
IX TAC, therefore, continued an old association. A firm plan for air support on the ensuing day issued, as previously, from the daily joint conference at its headquarters at 1930 hours, and in urgent cases Army requests could be answered with a lapse of only sixty to eighty minutes from the time the request was received until planes were over their targets.32 XIX TAC, under the command of Brig. Gen. Otto P. Weyland,
became operational according to plan* on the same day as TUSA, with headquarters established in close proximity to Patton’s. From the start, the association of the organizations in the Combined Operations Section and in their respective headquarters was both friendly and effective. Three groups initially were assigned to XIX TAC, but the flexibility of the American air organization was accented by the fact that the final allocation of fighter-bomber groups between IX and XIX TAC was left for their commanders to determine.33
Under this new dispensation, it was essential that the advanced headquarters of Ninth Air Force be brought into immediate contact with that of the 12th Army Group. Accordingly, its operational headquarters at Uxbridge and the phantom advanced headquarters which had existed at Grandcamp les Bains since 8 June were closed at 2400 hours on 5 August, and a single advanced headquarters was opened at St.-Sauveur-Lendelin at 0001 hours the following day. Army and air signal organizations had provided the many necessary installations, and thereafter the planning and supervision of the Ninth’s operations were conducted in close collaboration with the air section of the 12th Army Group. A huge circus tent, with attendant trailers, provided the scene of activity, and its site, in an open field with little or no camouflage, offered indisputable evidence that the associated units enjoyed the full advantage of air superiority. The joint labors of those who toiled within the tent led to the steady perfection of air support, and hence of means to apply air power with tactical effect. A-2’s and G-2’s, A-3’s and G-3’s pooled their information and devised joint plans. Briefings twice a day saw Army depict the ground situation and air relate the results of its recent efforts. Ground then presented its requests and with air arrived at an allocation of available strength and a determination of the air plan. Thanks to the existence of full information at advanced headquarters, these plans at army group-air force level were devised in a fashion which allowed an ample exercise of initiative by the associated TAC’s and armies.
At approximately the same moment that this reorganization occurred, a change of command was effected in the Ninth Air Force. In June the establishment of an Allied airborne force had been approved, and Eisenhower had signified his wish that an American airman should command it. Teletypes exchanged between Marshall,
Arnold, and Giles in Washington and Eisenhower, Smith, and Spaatz in ETO narrowed down the list of possibilities, as it became evident that certain individuals could not be freed from current duties or lacked the required combat experience. The choice was further restricted by the fact that it was desirable that the American commander should possess a rank equivalent to that of the senior British officers with whom he would be associated. After nearly a month had passed, it was determined that Brereton, who had commanded the Ninth since its inception, should assume command of the new First Allied Airborne Army; that Maj. Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg should succeed him in command of the Ninth; and that Maj. Gen Ralph Royce should follow Vandenberg as Deputy Commander, AEAF.34
Under its new as under its old Commander the Ninth’s design and function were supremely tactical. The design was logical, and the tactical functioning of the entire force improved as pilots and ground crews alike gained in experience and as commanders from group to air force learned valuable lessons in the same school. A greater understanding of one another’s needs and capabilities was required at all army and air force levels, and a greater tolerance. Both could only be produced by the greater knowledge resulting from the intimate association of all parties concerned, from commanding generals down to the ASP’s and ground liaison officers (GLO’s) which operated with ground and air units, respectively. No sudden miracle was achieved, but progress was made through a variety of means. Pilots were regularly sent to spend time with ground units at the front. It was styled a rest period, but the results were seen in ensuing tactical operations. The A-3 of the 368th Fighter-Bomber Group spent the better part of a week with 3rd Armored Division in an effort to further ground’s understanding of air’s capabilities.
As armored divisions developed the practice of rising a number of combat commands in the course of their advance, the need for an added complement of ASP’s became real. Although air force tables of organization made no provision for such officers even for corps and divisions, they were provided for the combat commands through a neat juggling of personnel allotments, even as by similar means they had been made available to the larger army units. Air stressed the need to keep ASP’s with the divisions to which they had been assigned, regardless of divisional transfers from one army to another – a change which involved a shift from the responsibility of one TAC to that of
the other. GLO’s in their briefings of air personnel assisted in the education of the air units to which they were attached, and in their interrogations of pilots they gathered information useful to Army G-2’s. In periods of swift movement and uncertain communications, they were able to gain knowledge of the location of their own forward columns from such sources, a knowledge so valuable that it became standard procedure for returning pilots to report the location of the head of the column which they had just left. Since speed was a prime consideration, the report was sent to Army in the form of a hot news flash. Furthermore, it was soon found that ACC not merely provided a striking force for armor’s use but that radio contact allowed the covering flight to serve as the eyes of the advancing column. The intimate day-to-day association, in planning and in combat, bred both increased tolerance and increased efficiency.35
In the first weeks of August there was no lack of action to produce such intimacy. Patton’s Third Army had been given Rennes and Fouères as its initial objectives, with a drive west into Brittany to follow. On 3 August it was directed to pursue the Breton operation with a minimum of forces and to mass its power for a drive toward Mayenne. Relentless pursuit was the order of the day, for the enemy was clearly off-balance. As FUSA (now under Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges) and the British swung on the Caen pivot and drove against Vire, Domfront, and Falaise, TUSA continued its main movement into the Le Mans area and in subsidiary operations extended its southern flank to the Loire. By 10 August, the Breton fortresses at St.-Malo and Brest were encircled; to the south, Rennes, Angers, and Nantes were occupied; and in its eastward drive, TUSA crossed the Mayenne at Mayenne and Laval and the Sarthe in the vicinity of Le Mans with other of its elements swinging north against Argentan.36
German resistance on the western flank was greatly reduced, and the enemy recorded that his own forces were split into small groups, wandering aimlessly in a generally easterly or southeasterly direction, They lacked arms and rations and their morale was badly shaken, thanks in no small part to “enemy command of the air.”37 Nevertheless, the American situation was a little perilous in two particulars. First, its drive to the south had merely opened a narrow corridor some twenty miles wide in the vicinity of Avranches. Through this vulnerable spot an incredible volume of traffic must pass as operations developed to the south and west. Second, as TUSA concentrated its
main effort on the drive east, its lengthening southern flank was left exposed. The latter problem was disposed of when, on 6 August, Patton turned over the task of protecting TUSA’s western flank to XIX TAC. The line of the Loire was thereafter lightly held by Third Army detachments, with planes of XIX TAC mounting guard over-head against possible enemy threats. Concern for the protection of the Avranches bottleneck is seen in Army’s request that Weyland’s command give protection to the bridges at Avranches – a request that caused five missions to be flown in that area on 2 August. With the same purpose in view, flights engaged in ACC were ordered to make periodic sweeps over the rest of their columns and in the direction of Avranches. Through XIX TAC provision was further made for two P-61’s from IX Air Defense Command to be on constant night patrol south of Avranches and in the Pontorson area. To meet these and other requirements, the forces at the disposal of XIX TAC were increased and by 7 August nine groups were under its control. All were veteran units, and the greater part had already operated under Weyland when he was in control of IX Fighter Command in England.38
The need for both day and night cover of the corridor, and particularly of the Avranches and Pontaubault bridges, is explained by a recent development of GAF opposition. Up to that point the enemy air force had confined its offensive operations in the battle area almost exclusively to mine-laying. But German fighters struck at an armored column on 2 August, and the GAF on the night of 2/3 August began a series of small raids in the Avranches and Pontaubault area. Subsequently road convoys were attacked, virtually for the first time; and by night, when there was some use of glider bombs, the enemy managed to score near-misses on Patton’s headquarters and to destroy an ammunition dump.39 As this new activity suggested, plans were afoot for a counteroffensive, with the German Seventh Army scheduled to attempt a drive west through Mortain to the sea, and the GAF had been reinforced in an effort to provide much-needed air support.
German statistics are extremely confusing but emphasize the weakness of the GAF at this stage of the war. In July and August Luftflotte 3 appears to have received as replacements a total of 460 Me-109’s and 440 FW-190’s, but these gains were obviously offset by losses – 524 being listed for July alone.40 Because of numerical inferiority, the Luftwaffe avoided the use of large formations whenever the weather was good or the approach of Allied planes was anticipated.
There is reason to believe, as the German high command had observed in June, that units transferred from the eastern front lacked the experience necessary to oppose the well-trained pilots of the western Allies.41 And in any event, the planes were forced to operate from bases far removed from the battle lines and subject to repeated Allied attacks. In spite of these difficulties, however, the GAF made its first considerable effort against the invading forces in the early weeks of August with an average of about 400 sorties per day.42
The plan for the Mortain drive had been meticulously drawn up in Berlin, where Hitler still demanded the impossible of his generals in the West. Five panzer divisions were to be massed under the control of the Fifth Panzer Army, whose commander, Col. Gen. Joseph (“Sepp”) Dietrich (like Gen. Paul Hausser, now commanding Seventh Army), was an SS man. In spite of this affiliation with Nazi zeal, the veteran tanker saw a double danger if the plan were carried into execution. The armored striking force could only be assembled by disengaging the panzers, and although they were to be replaced by infantry, the resultant diminution of strength on the northern flank would imperil Falaise. Furthermore, he considered it “impossible to concentrate so many tanks without inviting disaster from the air.” To all such objections Field Marshal von Kluge (C-in-C West) replied: “It is a Führerbefehl (Hitler order).” An order from the German Seventh Army, in an apparent show of resolution, declared that on “the successful execution of this operation ... depends the decision of the war in the West, and with it, perhaps, the decision of the war itself,” but upon receiving Hitler’s order on 1 August, von Kluge had warned his superiors that “to the best of my knowledge and conscience, the execution of this order means the collapse of the whole Normandy front.” The Führer’s will prevailed, however, and what the Germans called Operation LIÉGE was launched on 7 August. Prudently, in view of the air situation, H-hour was placed shortly after midnight.43
Although the struggle continued for over a week, the fate of the German offensive was determined in the first twenty-four hours of fighting. FUSA’s 30th Infantry Division bore the weight of the initial attack. Although the division had only recently arrived in the area, it held well and two other divisions were rushed to its assistance. Mortain itself was overrun and a battalion of the 117th Infantry was left isolated in that vicinity, but the enemy spearheads were brought to an abrupt halt when still sixteen miles from their Avranches objective.
They struck a strong rather than a weak point in the opposing line, for the Americans had sensed that the attack was coming and were prepared for it. In addition, the weather played the Germans false. The days preceding 7 August had seen air action restricted, and on occasion all but eliminated, by low-hanging clouds. The German assault, begun at night, in its initial stages had moved through mists but, as von Kluge later lamented, “the barometer remained high” from 7 to 18 August and the mists lifted on the final day of action. IX TAC flew 429 sorties on 7 August, chiefly in the threatened area. Its old companion, Second TAF, responded to a request for its assistance By directing nearly 300 sorties of its rocket-firing Typhoons into the Mortain region, while XIX TAC, busy as it was in Brittany to the west and in the Argentan–Le Mans area to the east dispatched a group to strengthen air support and covered the fighting area with P-51’s. The entire effort was well coordinated by the tactical headquarters in action which afforded further evidence of the Allies ability to mass their tactical air strength.44
Allied claims of tanks destroyed were undoubtedly exaggerated, but the enemy recorded air’s substantial success. The 1st SS Panzer Division, bearing the proud title of Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler (Adolf Hitler’s Own) reported fighter-bomber attacks of such caliber as it had never before experienced. Von Lüttwitz, commander of 2nd Panzer Division, the only German armored unit to enter the battle with normal strength, was more explicit: “We made a swift advance of about ten miles and suffered only three tank losses. 116 Panzer Division made only limited progress ... Suddenly the Allied fighter-bombers swept down out of the sky. They came in hundreds, firing their rockets at the concentrated tanks and vehicles. We could do nothing against them, and we could make no further progress.”45 Equally grim were the entries in Seventh Army’s war diary: “The attack has been brought to a complete standstill by unusually strong fighter-bomber activity,” and later, “The actual attack has not made any progress since 1300 hours because of the large number of fighter-bombers and the absence of our own Air Force.”46 The transportation officer of that same army was to add a pertinent postscript to these notations when he declared that “Allied interdiction had prevented the rapid build-up of the German striking force to the strength required to accomplish a breakthrough.”47
As night closed in after the first day of fighting, Hausser ordered
that “the attack be continued as soon as air situation permits.”48 But steady resistance on the ground, which speedily developed into a counterattack, and air’s continued onslaughts in support of both defense and offense rendered this impossible. The isolated American battalion near Mortain, assisted by medical supplies which artillery packed into the emptied bases of smoke shells and fired into its lines and by additional supplies dropped by C-47’s and P-47’s, held out until relieved on the 11th as the American lines surged forward.49 The enemy had thrust his concentrated armor into a trap, and by 11 August he was aware that American armored and air concentrations made his position hopeless. Even Hitler was forced to bow to the logic of events and permit a limited withdrawal. Two days later von Kluge, increasingly alarmed at threats to his rear developing from north and south in the direction of Falaise and Argentan, recommended a genuine withdrawal to the Flers area on the ground that if “the widely spread front line remains as it is ..., it will be broken through and surrounded by the enemy, with his superiority in men and materials, and his mastery of the air, and our units could not fight their way out.50
The application of pressure at the Caen hinge had contributed to the distress of von Kluge’s northern lines, since Montgomery had ordered an attack in the direction of Falaise as Patton swerved north toward Argentan. To speed his own effort, the British general requested direct support from the heavy bombers, and on the night of 7 August the RAF dispatched over 1,000 planes to bombard areas flanking the projected assault. Artillery then took up the fire, and motorized infantry in their armored “Kangaroos” bounded through the enemy lines. This first phase of the action was fully successful, although weather and smoke blanketing target markers allowed only 637 of RAF’s bombers to attack.
The second phase opened on the following day with the Eighth Air Force playing a supporting part. Its bombardment was to be directed against four areas by formations flying parallel to the front lines and delivering their attacks progressively from north to south in the general manner of a creeping barrage. The adoption of this procedure involved a long flight over enemy territory and greatly magnified the ever present problems of navigating in heavy traffic. Hence special precautions were taken against bombing errors. Artillery was to smoke the edges of target areas which were also to be marked by dropped flares. Scouting aircraft were to give information on weather
over the targets and to check on the target markers. While troops were withdrawn nearly a mile from the northern edge of the area to be bombed. The American heavies attacked at about 1300 hours on the 8th, flying straight and level through intense and accurate flak. Good concentrations were effected on three areas, the fourth was not bombed because it proved impossible to make positive identification of the target. Of the 678 bombers dispatched, 492 attacked. In spite of precautions taken, there were errors which resulted in the bombing of points outside the target areas but within enemy lines. Short bombing within friendly lines resulted from gross errors on the part of two twelve-plane groups. In one case, faulty identification of target by the lead bombardier led him to drop near Caen, although fortunately some other bombardiers of the formation cautiously refrained from dropping with him. In the second instance, a badly hit lead bomber salvoed short and the rest of the formation followed in regular routine. Canadian troops were thereby in some measure disorganized, and suffered casualties amounting to 5 killed and 131 wounded. Eighth Air Force losses were counted at 9 heavies destroyed by flak and over 200 damaged in varying degrees. The safety precaution of adding five minutes to the interval between the end of bombing and the jump-off by ground forces, coupled with the depth of the Canadians’ preliminary withdrawal, may well have given the enemy opportunity to recover from his initial shock before the ground attack developed. At all events progress was slow. By 11 August, Operation TOTALIZE had gained some eight miles, but Falaise was still as many miles away.51
In the course of their attack on 8 August the tenth’s bombers had the novel experience of meeting a small formation of CAF fighters close to the coast.52 Their presence there, though ineffective, was evidence of the Luftwaffe’s current determination to aid the distressed German armies and in some measure to challenge Allied air supremacy. The challenge was sufficiently serious to require extra effort on the part of the TAC’s, which were led to provide planes as escort cover to those engaged in ACC. But it was a challenge eagerly accepted by British and Americans alike. The latter certainly had good hunting as they warred on German “bandits” in the days between the opening of the German drive against Avranches on 7 August and the closing of the Falaise–Argentan pocket on the 19th.
It was the XIX TAC which met the enemy in the air most frequently, probably because its assigned mission caused its planes to
range close to the Paris area, where enemy airfields were numerous. On every day but one of the two-week period here involved its units engaged in air combat; a fact which is the more remarkable since on five of these days weather limited the command’s operations. On occasion weather played favorites, leaving American bases socked in and pilots restive while German fields remained open. Under such circumstances small enemy formations attacked columns of the 4th Armored Division and 79th Infantry Division with impunity from air countermeasures. But when weather allowed, XIX TAC’s P-47’s and P-51’s were active and generally successful, even when the odds were against them. As the Germans lunged against Mortain on 7 August, four American formations encountered the GAF in the Chartres–Le Mans–Mayenne area, claimed fourteen and lost two. On the same day, attacks on two busy enemy fields near Chartres brought claims of nineteen destroyed on the ground at the cost of three P-51’s. The 9th was marked in the annals of XIX TAC by a record high of 780 sorties, and by three enemy encounters. “Exclaim” (the 79th Infantry Division) vectored covering planes to attack two strafing Me-109’s, caused their own AA to withhold its fire as the P-47’s attacked at 700 feet, and voiced its thanks when one of the Germans was destroyed. One squadron of the 362nd Fighter-Bomber Group, operating near Le Mans, was bounced by twenty-five of the enemy and before the German formation broke away, it had lost two aircraft.
A reckless squadron of the 406th Fighter-Bomber Group scattered its adversaries on 11 August by resort to the unusual device of rocket fire. On the 13th, one eight-plane unit from the 363rd Fighter-Bomber Group sighted twenty-five enemy dive bombers and drove them off after destroying eight, while another formation blasted four from the skies at the cost of one. The following day saw a quartet of P-47’s from the 405th Group bounced by sixteen of the enemy who cut in under the covering formation. Here the Americans destroyed three but lost four. 15 August was the 373rd Group’s day. As its formations were attacking the base at Bretigny, one of them was jumped by an equal number of the enemy, whose aggressive spirit fortunately was not accompanied by a high degree of skill. The enemy lost five planes. Other XIX TAC units encountered opposition near Chartres and Cernay la Ville and reported eight planes destroyed with half as many lost. In spite of the bad weather which prevailed on 16 August, the veteran 354th Group further distinguished itself. An eight-plane squadron of its P-51’s met seventy bombed-up FW-190’s and immediately
attacked. At a cost of two aircraft, the Americans brought down an equal number of the enemy and dispersed the formation. In a second encounter, a squadron of like size took on twenty of the enemy over Maintenon. The P-51’s climbed above their adversaries and struck, whereupon some sixty other German planes swooped out of the clouds to join in the melee. For fifteen long minutes there was a wild fight from 11,000 feet to the deck, and at its close the score was 11–2 in favor of the AAF. The Germans thus occasionally appeared aggressive, but they lacked training and, probably because of their slender resources, they assumed the offensive chiefly when they had superior numbers or expected the advantage of surprise.
On the 19th the enemy learned that it was dangerous to attack an American column when supporting aircraft were within call, for eight planes of the 371st Fighter Bomber Group were vectored to a point in the Dreux area and destroyed two of eighteen enemy dive bombers. That same day a squadron of the 406th Group strafing an airfield near Pontoise, was jumped by enemy fighters. A second American squadron came to its aid, but in a series of dog fights with a strongly reinforced enemy five P-47’s were lost, though not before as many enemy planes had been shot down Another squadron of the same group performed notably when bounced by a superior enemy force near Paris. The American planes were out of ammunition and immediately hit the deck, where their skilful maneuvering caused two German ships to crash. At the close of a fight on 20 August between eight planes of the 362nd Fighter-Bomber Group and four times that number of enemy, the score stood 6–2, one American pilot being credited with four kills. Even Tac/R planes, habitually operating in pairs, met and vanquished the enemy, and Allied fighters repeatedly proved themselves more than capable of coping with a reviving challenge from the GAF. If the air umbrella over Allied forces leaked a bit in spots, it was so effective that ground troops tended to expect complete protection and to protest vigorously if they were robbed of even a part of their rest at night by bombing, or if their movements by day were even occasionally subjected to air attack. Air had earned the right to have such protests made.
The Falaise–Argentan Pocket and Gap
With the failure of the German thrust toward the coast and with the Falaise–Argentan pocket taking shape, air’s mission of close support again became preeminent. It also became increasingly difficult
to accomplish. The fronts were for the most part fluid, and in the prevailing confusion bomb lines were constantly shifting. Since all were naturally concerned to avoid the bombing of friendly troops, the area in which close support missions could be carried out was steadily restricted.
On 17 August the bomb line was entirely removed from the pocket west of the narrowing Falaise–Argentan gap, and theoretically air activity over the beleaguered enemy in that area ceased.53 Two days previous to this, when German concentrations offered most appealing targets, Spaatz, Tedder, and Harris had signified their desire to “hit the Germans inside the bag” with heavy bombardment. They stressed the fact that such an effort would require careful planning on the spot – not in England – and at an Army level if the obvious difficulties were to be surmounted. The 21 Army Group approved in principle but noted the difficulty of properly warning the advancing Allied troops. Bradley’s opinion was sought, and he in turn took counsel with Ninth Air Force. Its opinion, rendered as Harris held his bombers ready, was that while such bombing was a possibility, it was a practical certainty that American and British casualties in large numbers would result. The Ninth, therefore, advised against the project, and the fat targets in both pocket and gap remained the almost exclusive property of the fighter-bombers. Doolittle was keen to use the fighter-bombers of VIII Fighter Command to maximum advantage if general strafing were ordered, but he was averse to employing them within the tactical area because they were not accustomed to working close to troops. Accordingly, the Eighth’s fighters continued their useful activities chiefly in the area east of the Seine and south of Paris. In fact, as pocket and gap were progressively constricted, close-in enemy targets came to lie largely in Second TAF’s area of responsibility.54
That vigilant RAF command had been most helpful at Mortain on the 7th, and two days later IX TAC had been able to return the courtesy in some measure by informing RAF 83 Group of rich road targets within the Flers–Argentan–La Ferte Mace triangle, which Typhoons promptly attacked. Coningham later voiced his thanks to Vandenberg for the “big field days” afforded to Second TAF as a result of this Allied team work.55
There was, nevertheless, solid work of direct support for American tactical units to undertake, though all the skills which they had amassed were required for its accomplishment. The ground situation
was confused by the existence of enemy pockets of resistance in areas which had been overrun and by deep, but narrow, penetrations into enemy territory on the part of Allied units. “Know your target before you hit it” became the standard maxim, and orders prescribed that there should be no strikes made within the rather uncertain bomb lines unless specifically ordered, Even so there were sufficient instances of Allied attacks on friendly troop to render the latter trigger happy and to add a further peril to those which airmen must normally encounter. On the 15th, American planes strafed the newly established headquarters of TUSA and XIX TAC near Laval, where a pilot of VIII Fighter Command was shot down, and on the same day friendly troops southwest of Carrouges were subjected to attack. Other equally tragic events were burned into the memories of individuals who fought on the ground and in the air in this period of swirling battle but, like the shorts of supporting artillery, they must be set down as the inevitable accompaniment of close support.56
Missions flown by American airmen were classified as armed recce or as ACC in the records kept by their commands. Bur the effectiveness of ground controls in these days stripped any such formal distinctions of their meaning. ACC’s were instructed to conduct armed recce in advance of the columns which they escorted if no targets were available; and ground was likely to vector planes assigned the general mission of armed recce to very specific targets. In either case tactical results were achieved. As Patton’s columns converged on Argentan, XIX TAC’s groups were particularly active. On 10 August ground recorded their destruction of tanks and their silencing of mortar and artillery positions. In the days which followed they were credited with allowing American columns to continue the advance after offending armor had been destroyed or guns eliminated, and on one occasion they even played the leading role in the surrender of enemy ground troops. This last occurred on 14 August, as a squadron of the 405th Fighter-Bomber Group assigned to cover the 7th Armored Division, was busy strafing northeast of Carrouges. When Germans in the road waved white flags, the planes buzzed the road and shepherded the Germans into a column which then marched toward the American lines to surrender.57
IX TAC, committed as always to support of FICSA, flew over 6,600 sorties in the period 7–20 August chiefly in direct support, with a high of 673 and a low of 161 for a single day’s operations. Its missions
were almost exclusively those which were planned in cooperation with its ground companion to meet an ever changing situation. Running “flying interference” for its old friend, the 2nd Armored Division, the 366th Group bombed woods southeast of Brécy on 7 August, and as the smoke from the ensuing explosions towered to a height of 2,000 feet “Murphy” asked that the planes eliminate a group of concealed enemy 88’s and followed through with congratulations on a fine job done. Near Sourdeval, on the 10th, the 50th Fighter-Bomber Group dealt with three antitank and six light guns to ground’s satisfaction, and two days later in the same area, IX TAC’s formations blasted six smoke-marked positions held by German infantry. At “Poodle’s” (3rd Armored Division) request, the town of Ranes was twice bombed by the 404th Fighter-Bomber Group on the 15th. Two days previously, battered elements of 1st SS Panzer Division had reached this area after being “held up by waves of Jabos attacking.”58 By way of variety IX TAC struck at enemy dumps in or near the battle area every day from the 8th through the 13th. Its planes also delivered plasma to advanced units of the 3rd Armored Division two and one-half hours after the unusual request was received, and aircraft of the 48th Group, escorting troop carriers bearing supplies to the “lost battalion” near Mortain, embraced an opportunity to hit three gun positions.
As the trap gradually closed, new assignments were given to the American armies. On 13 August TUSA’s movement through Argentan toward Falaise was halted, and soon after its XV Corps was directed to resume its drive eastward. FUSA took over responsibility for further action to close the southern jaw of the trap, receiving one armored and two infantry divisions which had been under the other army’s control. As request missions decreased in number with the diminishing size of the attack area, IX TAC and Second TAF devoted themselves to clobbering German concentrations. On 13 August, when fourteen group-strength armed recces were flown in the battle area, the 366th Group spotted a line of German tank trucks on a road near Carrouges. Camouflage had been attempted, but keen-eyed pilots noted trucks “under trees in the middle of the road,” and their strike resulted in explosions and fires along a line one and one-half miles long. The Germans’ enforced concentrations on the ground were matched by congested traffic patterns in the skies overhead, but there the traffic was Allied. American pilots took over attacks as the British left off, and on occasion formations were forced to queue up and wait
their turn to strike. Enemy columns were blocked, held head tail, and the immobilized vehicles were worked over at leisure and systematically. Pilots submitted claims of vehicles destroyed which would have been written off as preposterous had they not been attacking such lucrative targets, but as one returning pilot put it on 17 August, “The whole goddam German army is moving through the Gap.’’
The pocket became a shambles, and the enemy knew freedom from attack only when chance determined that his position lay within the Allied bomb line. To use main roads was fatal, but secondary roads were speedily clogged with the debris of blasted vehicles. Enemy problems of supply, always acute, became exaggerated, and panzers committed hara-kiri for lack of fuel or ammunition. Many German prisoners taken in this period expressed a greater dread of artillery’s massed fires than of fighter-Bomber attacks – shells seemed terribly personal and the fires lasted longer than those resulting from dive bombing or strafing.59 But General Bayerlein, with the remains of his division now organized as Kampfgruppe Panzer Lehr, developed an opposite opinion as he struggled to escape eastward. Allied “Jabos” struck his congested columns on the roads near Habloville with the usual devastating effect. They cut his wire communications and, continuing their attack without respite, made it impossible for his radio to be manned. These attacks became intensely personal for the general, when from a slit trench which he had sought safety he looked out to see, he felt certain, one low-swooping pilot staring straight at him through the plexiglas.60 Von Lüttwitz, with only fifteen tanks of his 2nd Panzer Division still operable, struggled to break out of Bailleul as the gap closed, but the night movement he had ordered proved impossible because of the debris which cluttered the roads. He was able to extricate only a remnant of his remnant by filtering small detachments through the Allied lanes. Organized direction of a more general movement was out of the question amid the chaos produced by air and artillery bombardment.61
Rumor had it that time bombs, dropped by Allied airmen, denied Patton the chance of smashing from Argentan straight through to Falaise. From 10 through 13 August such bombs, fuzed to a maximum of a twelve-hour delay, were planted over a wide area by IX TAC and IX Bomber Command with the purpose of rendering enemy movement hazardous “on the routes of retreat he was likely to follow in his effort to escape encirclement” Prior to the last day’s missions
the Canadians, who were advancing into the general area thus bombed, were warned of possible danger from this source, and because of fears lest the Allied advance be hindered, the maximum fuzing permitted on the 13th was for a six-hour delay. The known effect of the bombings, however, stands in no demonstrable relationship to the rumored one. If the times of air attacks, together with the location of their targets and their bombfalls, are matched against TUSA’s penetrations, it is clear that the halt order of 13 August could not reasonably have been occasioned by fear that delayed-action bombs would take American lives. Furthermore, available evidence indicates that the order was due rather to fears of confusion, or even more calamitous results, if existing inter-army boundaries were changed, and to the desire of the higher command to get the Third Army back on its west-east axis in order to win crossings over the Seine.62
In the August days marked by the fighting around Mortain and in the Falaise–Argentan area, the enemy continued to feel the effects of a sustained interdiction program. Late in July Hitler was at last ready to allow mass movement of infantry from his Fifteenth Army in the Pas-de-Calais. But the decision thus laggardly made came too late to influence the tides of battle, since, in Montgomery’s graphic phrase, the newly arrived divisions “found themselves reinforcing failure.’’63 They were the less effective because their movements were as haphazard as those of units earlier moved into Normandy. The 331st Infantry Division started by train, but was soon forced to the now usual Landmarsch after a roundabout rail journey which carried it close to the Belgian border. The 84th Infantry Division departed from the Le Havre area on bicycles, and four days of frantic pedaling brought the troops exhausted to the Mortain battle. Gen. Eugen-Felix Schwalbe, commanding the 344th Infantry Division, received orders to move west on 3 August. His service troops marched to Rouen in three days, but his infantry, which should have covered the seventy-five miles to the assembly area in twenty-four hours by rail, consumed nine days in a delayed movement over circuitous routes and arrived after the Falaise battle had been lost.64
In spite of added evidence of its success, however, the interdiction program was subjected to radical revision in this period. The need for such action was imposed by the swift advance of the American armies,
in particular by that of Patton’s Third Army. As VIII Corps began to swing its combat commands into Brittany, it was clear that the destruction of bridges there would impede their advance; hence attacks on them, and on enemy fuel dumps as well, were banned on 2 August. The 12th Army Group’s requests of 2 and 8 August ended attacks on all rail targets west of a line from Rouen up the Seine to Mantes, thence through Dreux, Maintenon, Chartres, and Cloyes to the Loire at Beaugency and west along the Loire to Names. Initially only the Loire bridges on this line were exempted from bombing, but on the 17th orders from AEAF stipulated that no bridges of any kind were thereafter to be attacked without its express authorization.
furthermore, in the period marked by these mounting prohibitions, the basic purpose of interdiction underwent a gradual change. Its original intent had been to choke off enemy movements into the battle area. By degrees the purpose of blocking movements out of that very region came to receive major accent. The new accent is to be discerned in the comprehensive revision of the interdiction program announced by AEAF on 9 August. Under the terms of this instruction, Seine rail and highway bridges north of Paris still constituted a first priority, but a second line of interdiction, marked by twenty-one rail bridges, was established with second-priority rating. This line extended from Étaples through Péronne, Fismes, Nogent-sur-Seine, and Clamecy to the Loire at Sully and constituted an arc lying approximately seventy-five miles to the north, east, and south of Paris, the French capital and the hub of the French rail system. Further elaboration of the new program called for air attacks on nine rail bridges over the Oise River and on nineteen rail centers east of Paris, to which lower priorities were assigned.65
Bridges on the second line of interdiction had been occasionally attacked in June, and since 1 July they had been in the category of recommended targets. However, the major fraction of the total weight of strikes against them was delivered in August, and not until then were the attacks developed systematically. As VIII Fighter Command conducted particularly devastating attacks on rails and rolling stock east of the Seine, the heavies of the Eighth struck mightily at a wide variety of freight yards extending east through Alsace and Belgium into Germany. The heavies also engaged in attacks on designated bridges along the second line, where they had achieved marked success two months earlier, but because the bridge targets were pin-points
and because weather was often unfavorable, results were not proportionate to the effort made.66 The Ninth’s fighter-bombers were engrossed in their essential work of close support and in attacks on road targets, and hence the major American contribution to the revised program was left to IX Bomber Command. Its attacks on Loire bridges had ended on 2 August, bridges on the Seine were attacked only as repairs to them required, and targets in the Paris–Orléans gap were the objectives of a comparatively small number of medium missions flown through 14 August. Consequently, the mediums could, and did, concentrate their effort on the other bridges listed in the new schedules, beginning their strikes on second-line bridges on the 3rd, when the new program was not as yet fully formulated, and continuing them through the 16th. Centering their effort on twelve of the seventeen structures between Frévent in the north and Neuvy-sur-Seine in the south, they claimed that as a result of single or repeated attacks six were rendered unserviceable. The Oise bridge at Conflans had been destroyed in May and remained impassable, but IX Bomber Command bombed seven of the remaining eight over that river between 9 and 15 August and blocked them all at least temporarily.67 Targets on the second line were thus subjected to systematic attack only in the short period between issuance of the 9 August directive and 16 August, when the advance of Allied columns made the further destruction of bridges “unnecessary and even disadvantageous.” The results of the attacks delivered were naturally less than those obtained by the bombing of like targets on the first line of interdiction during a longer period, In the latter case, traffic had been reduced by over 96 per cent; in the former, the traffic cut amounted to but 65 per cent. This meant that fifty trains per day might pass over the twelve routes involved in the second line.68
It is noteworthy that in the period when the Germans were trying to escape from the gap and withdraw to the east significant exceptions were made to the rule of no bridge attacks west of the Seine. In those days, and at Army requests, IX Bomber Command not only planted delayed-action bombs on retreat routes but struck in strength at bridges over the Touques and Ride rivers. The latter attacks were concentrated on 14 August and during the three days which followed. Weather canceled one four-group mission, limited the effect of others, and rendered difficult any accurate assessment of damage done. Here the tactical purpose was exclusively that of restraining the enemy’s retreat.69
In Brittany and along the Loire
Although in early August attention was generally fixed on the Normandy battle area and points to the east of it, American air forces were compelled also to find both time and strength to support a decision to reduce St.-Malo and Brest in Brittany. XIX TAC furnished ACC for VIII Corps columns as they rapidly converged on those fortresses, and that command continued to be responsible for rendering the assistance requested by ground troops seeking their reduction. Fortunately, the citadel of St.-Malo was speedily disposed of, but installations on the near-by Île de Cézembre held out until 2 September and enemy forces at Brest persisted in a stubborn defense until 19 September.
The capture of the citadel at St.-Malo on 17 August was one for which ground action was solely responsible. Although IX Bomber Command delivered three attacks, the concrete shelters were so deep that bombs barely made their lights blink and the gun emplacements were so well built that not even 1,000-pound semi-armor-piercing bombs could penetrate them. The Île de Cézembre had such nuisance value that a seaborne assault was suggested. Its guns impeded the progress of the attack on the St.-Malo citadel, commanded the sea approaches to that port and likewise, though in lesser degree, those to Granville on the Cotentin shore. Ground and naval artillery joined with air’s repeated bombardment of deep-dug shelters and heavily built emplacements. IX Bomber Command began its attack with the aid of flares on the night of 6/7 August, and returned in some force three times more. XIX TAC used the island as a target of last resort on one occasion and delivered a planned strike on the 23rd. Fighter-bombers of IX TAC’s 370th Group, diverted from their planned attack on St.-Malo by the citadel’s surrender, dropped napalm on the obstinate island on 17 August and again added the spectacular, and much photographed, effects of that new weapon to a ground-air-sea bombardment on the 31st in which RAF Lancasters also joined. By September, the combined effort of the several services had destroyed all of the offending island’s surface installations and pockmarked its entire face with craters. Heavy artillery found help in dealing with pillboxes and embrasures through the removal of camouflage and earth coverings by air bombardment, but napalm, though burning out one surface shelter, produced little effect on the garrison, whose casualties
were generally light. The island stronghold’s surrender on 2 September was apparently induced by a water shortage resulting from the destruction of its distilling plant.70
Operations designed to reduce Brest, a port on which high value had been placed as a potential supply base for the advancing Allied armies, constitute a strange and highly individual story. The operations have been properly described as “curiously independent,” for VIII Corps (Ninth Army after 5 September) was left far behind the eastward thrusting armies and appeared to be fighting its own private war. SHAEF and the 12th Army Group, however, set so great store on the action to which VIII Corps was committed that from 25 August until 9 September air strikes in the area were accorded a very high, and at times the highest, priority. In consequence an abundance of air strength was employed.71
From the opening of the assault on 25 August until the final capitulation on 19 September, air operated under distinct disadvantages. Its power could only be applied effectively if communications were good, and at Brest they were markedly deficient. In consequence, ground forces were often left without knowledge of air’s intentions, while air too often lacked the requisite information upon which to base proper, and of necessity detailed, planning of operations. Intelligence with regard to the exact nature of the targets to be attacked was often sketchy, and on too many occasions air was asked to bomb invulnerable targets. The service of technical experts, to determine what targets could be most profitably attacked and what bombs and fillings should be used, was not employed, although available, and air-ground assaults were at times badly coordinated.72
Since the German garrison could receive neither reinforcements nor supplies, and since enemy planes did not operate in the area, Allied air forces could concentrate their full attention on direct tactical support of the ground attack. Heavy bombers of the Eighth were four times brought into play and those of the RAF twice. The mediums of IX Bomber Command were employed on six occasions, on one of which its new A-26’s flew their first mission.
The defenses of Brest were rugged, with concrete pillboxes and emplacements supplementing the perimeter defense built around a series of old forts which had been modernized. In general they were not targets which could be demolished by air attacks – no case was later found of a concrete emplacement so destroyed, and a 12,000-pound
Tallboy dropped by RAF, which created a huge crater 200 yards from a 105-mm gun emplacement, failed to damage the emplacement itself. Under such conditions, and with information so scanty and communications so poor that it took the better part of two days to lay on a bomber strike, the missions of the heavies and of mediums alike involved a considerable waste of effort. Their attacks, made in strength on six different days between 25 August and 14 September, did no material damage to modern concrete structures, although they destroyed some open emplacements, pulverized old masonry works, and filled ancient moats with debris. In addition, they undoubtedly wore down the enemy, disturbed his communications, and hurt his morale-to what exact extent we cannot know. Thanks to added precautions and the considerable distance which generally separated the bombers’ targets from the front lines, there were no casualties suffered by friendly troops in these or other air operations at Brest.73
The effort of fighter-bombers at Brest was intense, two or more groups from IX TAC being assigned to the operational control of XIX TAC on each day from 5 to 10 September to strengthen the latter’s available forces. With the port accorded top priority on the 2nd, it was planned to use all of XIX TAC’s nine groups plus five or more of IX TAC’s nine, but a personal visit by Weyland to VIII Corps disclosed that the prevailing scarcity of artillery ammunition so limited VIII Corps plans that a force of this size could not be used. On the 5th, however, twelve of the Ninth’s eighteen fighter-bomber groups were over Brest.74 Fighter-bombers functioned whenever flying was possible. Their planned attacks could be delivered two to six hours after requests were received, and the much-used device of placing planes on air alert over the assault area enabled ASP’S to direct them to desirable targets almost instantly. It should be added that the P-51’s of 10th Photo Reconnaissance Group were present throughout the campaign to direct artillery fires, and that veteran artillerymen rated their work as the best they had ever experienced.
The very presence of fighter-bombers in an area was a signal for enemy guns to cease firing, and even near-misses served at least to keep the enemy under cover. When 5th Ranger Battalion asked fighter-bombers for an attack on its objective, the first sweeps failed to hit the target, but subsequent attacks struck home and leading elements of the Rangers reached the fort six minutes from the time the last bomb fell. The position was taken before its garrison could organize
its defense, and one Ranger, whose assault platoon of 60 men had taken 247 prisoners, declared that “he would never bitch about the Air Corps again.” The 29th Infantry Division was assisted by air attacks in its capture of a series of positions. In one defense installation a turret of five-inch steel, mounted flush with the ground. had been unharmed by the near-miss of a bomber’s 1,000-pounder, but heavy artillery, coupled with a fighter-bomber attack, allowed its capture. The enemy’s position on Hill 100 was well emplaced and provided with excellent observation, but the 38th Infantry Regiment reported that air attack so effectively neutralized the position that it fell without excessive loss to the assaulting infantrymen. The 2nd Infantry Division, to which the 38th belonged, later stated that “fighter-bombers afforded the finest air support experienced by this Division in the entire war by striking designated targets from air alert.”75 Such evidence from the three divisions participating in the assault is of the more value because the reports of returning pilots were of necessity indefinite as to actual results obtained in missions which at times operated within 150 to 200 yards of the advancing doughboys.
Since early August the protection of Third Army’s southern flank had constituted a distinct mission assigned to XIX TAC, and developments connected with its performance had proceeded along lines quite as individual as the operations at Brest. A minimum force was employed, for XIX TAC was forced to concentrate its strength in support of operations in Brittany and of Patton’s rapid drive to the east. Tac/R missions were regularly flown south of the Loire to spot any possible enemy movements, and if information furnished by them demanded, they were followed up by armed recces. In late August there was the greater need for such action since the enemy, impelled by the American landings in southern France on 15 August,* determined to evacuate that general area and set a series of columns in motion in the direction of Dijon, where lay their only chance to avoid encirclement. XIX TAC, accordingly, developed a project to interdict all rail movements from the south. The better to exercise surveillance over the region of the enemy’s retreat it pressed a P/R squadron, equipped for night photography, into the service of Tac/R, and in early September spotted the columns of Maj. Gen Eric Elster’s Foot March Group South making their way into the Poitiers–Châteauroux area. Armed recces flown on 1 and 7 September by the 36th and 405th Fighter-Bomber
* See below, pp. 426-36.
Groups took heavy toll of the long-drawn-out columns, whose morale had already been undermined by the guerrilla tactics of the French Forces of the Interior and possibly by the propaganda leaflets which XIX TAC had dropped in the area.
On 4 September the newly constituted Ninth Army was charged with protecting the Loire line west from Orléans, but Third Army’s 83rd Infantry Division, Maj. Gen. Robert C. Macon commanding, still maintained detachments at critical points along the river, and its patrols operated south of it. One such patrol learned that Elster, impressed by air and fearful of the French, might be considering surrender. Two men sent to his Châteauroux headquarters confirmed this information, and on the 10th details for his capitulation were worked out in a conference at Issoudun. To impress the enemy commander with the inevitable consequences of delay, a strong formation of the 354th Fighter-Bomber Group swept over Issoudun during the conference, ready to act if the Americans displayed panel signals. Elster, impressed by this further show of air power, agreed to march to Beaugency and there surrender. His troops were allowed to retain their arms until they reached the river, but attendant planes threatened should they show signs either of hesitation or of fight. When negotiations for the capitulation first got under way, Patton asked to be relieved of accepting the surrender, and on 16 September Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson, now commanding Ninth Army, wired Weyland: “Inasmuch as your command has been instrumental in accomplishing this surrender, request that you or your representative be present with General Macon to accept the surrender.” Accordingly, and appropriately, the commander of XIX TAC was present at the Beaugency bridge ceremonies on that same day, and later received a consignment of surrendered German Lugers for his unit commanders. When the count was made, prisoners were found to total 754 officers, 18,850 men, and 2 women. XIX TAC’s unique mission had been accomplished.76
From Falaise to the Siegfried Line
Whether the air-ground effort involved was great or small and whether the operation was accorded a high or a low priority, the actions south of the Loire and around the Breton ports were all subsidiary to the main campaign in northern France. They developed on its periphery; at the center the relentless drive eastward was maintained after the closing of the Falaise–Argentan gap, even as it had
been stoutly sustained before the pocket had appeared on war room maps. While one of Third Army’s corps surged into Brittany, another had closed on Argentan, but the third and fourth still moved ahead toward the Seine and Yonne. Even before the gap was closed XV Corps swung away from Argentan and raced away eastward to join its fellows in Patton’s epic “end run.” With the gap closed, the US. First Army and then the British and Canadians of 21 Army Group joined in the drive east. On 19 August, the very day that Polish and American armor struck hands at Chambois, Patton’s 79th Infantry Division flung a bridgehead across the Seine near Mantes, and XV Corps pushed north along the west bank of the river. Enemy intelligence appreciated the American intent to cut off the Fifth Panzer Army and the Seventh Army in Normandy and then turn eastward. On the 23rd, FUSA took over the American zone north of Paris and Third Army concentrated on forcing Seine crossings to the south where it passed the river barrier at Melun and Fontainebleau on the 24th and at Troyes a day later. At the same time the British and Canadians reached the Seine in their zone and began their crossings on the 25th. That day saw Paris liberated and the area between the Seine and the Loire freed of the enemy. It was D plus 80 and the Allies were now a full ten days ahead of schedule.77
First Army drove in the direction of the German frontier with such success that within three weeks its units were in five countries. They passed the Soissons escarpment on 31 August, entered Sedan on 7 September, Liége on the 9th, and liberated Luxembourg on the 10th. On the 10th they crossed the German frontier, and as they freed Maastricht on 14 September, they penetrated the outer defenses of the Siegfried Line south of Aachen. Third Army’s timetable was even more startling. Its thrusting divisions turned the Somme–Marne line before it could be occupied, crossed the Meuse at Commercy and at St.-Mihiel on 31 August, and farther north at Verdun two days later. Although American patrols were in Metz for only a brief moment on 2 September and the first bridgehead over the Meuse at Pont-à-Mousson was withdrawn the day following the crossing, a small but solid bridgehead was established to the south of Metz between the 7th and the 10th. Farther south, firm contact was established on 11 September with Lt. Gen. Alexander M. Patch’s Seventh Army, which had moved rapidly up the Rhone, and five days later Third Army units entered Nancy. In the extreme north, the British captured the commanding
general of the German Seventh Army as they swept into Amiens on 31 August, and leaving forces to contain the German garrisons of Channel ports, they liberated Brussels on 4 September and entered Antwerp on the day following.78
During this wild rush to the east, the TAC’s were strained to the utmost to fulfil their obligations to their companion armies. Unfortunately, but unavoidably, their capabilities of giving the support desired were reduced throughout this period by the high priorities accorded Brest. Moreover, they were placed at a further disadvantage in respect both to communications and to bases. It was bad enough that directors of operations should be forced to replace their large-scale maps with others offering less detail but on a scale which would allow the battle front to be shown in the limited space available for display. It was infinitely worse for both operations and intelligence when the scale of available communications was similarly reduced, as it must needs be in a period of rapid advance. To make up in part for inevitable deficiencies the Ninth applied Brereton’s old maxim, “Keep Mobile.” Its own advanced headquarters moved to Versailles with those of 12th Army Group on 6 September, and by the 12th its rear headquarters had moved from its Berkshire home at Ascot to Chantilly.
Such moves, however, were as nothing compared to the enforced mobility of the TAC’s. Tactical needs required that their commanders continue in intimate association with their respective armies. The mere existence of a mobile advanced headquarters was not enough to fill the requirements of August and early September 1944, although such units were regularly jumped forward. Special detachments were, therefore, improvised to match the breathless pace set by the forward headquarters of Hodges’ First and Patton’s Third Army. These detachments managed to maintain at least the essential minimum touch with their own operational headquarters through a sometimes odd assortment of communications links, but as a precaution against communications failure the TAC’s wings were kept so fully briefed that they could function autonomously. Armies shortened their communications with their fighting units as their headquarters moved toward the front lines, but the forward movement of air headquarters greatly increased the problem of maintaining the volume of communications traffic necessary for their direction of operations from bases which now lay ever farther to their rear. Enthusiastic cooperation between
Ninth Air Force and 12th Army Group signal officers, who pooled their resources in men and materials for the solution of their joint problem, did much to reduce the difficulties inevitable in days when air was impelled to give signal equipment a priority equal to that enjoyed by bombs and gasoline and when armies devised wire-recovery programs. Happily the need for wire was reduced by the fact that the patient skill of signal troops permitted generous use to be made of the underground cables of both the French civilian and the German military systems. Terminal installations had generally been destroyed, either by bombing or by demolition, but they could be replaced far more easily than miles of wire could be strung. Radio proved a godsend, and to improve its facilities a task force from the Ninth’s signal personnel seized the Eiffel Tower on the day Paris was liberated. Thereafter this tourists’ mecca served as the most important relay link in that air force’s elaborate radio network.79
It is a cardinal principle that if the optimum tactical results are to be obtained air bases must be as close as possible to the battle lines. On 9 August the last of the Ninth’s eighteen fighter-bomber groups was established on a continental field, and in the closing weeks of that month four groups of mediums began operations from Normandy bases. This was a real gain but after Falaise it was in part offset, for the time consumed in individual sorties increased sharply as the battle lines raced away from existing bases. No one was more conscious of the gravity of this problem and of the need for an adequate solution than the Ninth’s aviation engineers. They reconnoitered possible sites from L-4’s and on the ground and sought a greater efficiency through decentralizing operational controls. They secured asphalt from local sources and devised top surfacing for crater fills from a compound of old surfacing, new tar, and diesel oil. When the railway from Cherbourg to Paris was opened, they painted an identifying symbol on the caboose of a train bearing precious materials, shadowed the train thus branded from an L-4, and had trucks waiting for the shipment as the train came to a halt in the Paris yards.
By mid-September only one of the Ninth’s fighter-bomber groups was based on the continental field it had first occupied, while three had moved four times and one no less than five, in most cases to a newly opened strip. By that same date five groups were disposed fairly well forward in an arc from Péronne to Reims, with two others in the Paris area. But if the lack of ideally sited fields occasioned no
serious delays in operations, it did give rise to difficulties in the conduct of air missions to the east. It was easy enough for planes based on the Cotentin or in Brittany to operate against Brest, but when they were called upon to support Patton’s advance, auxiliary fuel tanks or refueling at a more easterly field might be necessary to carry them forward from their home base. Roulement again came into vogue at a time when armies were advancing with such speed that a move from one field to another 200 miles nearer the front did not always obviate the need for belly tanks. Because of the existing transportation crisis, moreover, ordnance supplies on the new strips at times ran perilously low, with prestocking and resupply equally difficult to effect, but airdrome squadrons, repeatedly displacing forward, managed to ready the new fields and keep the planes flying, just as armorers serviced their weapons with remarkable efficiency under the most trying conditions.80
Everything in condition to fly added its weight to the momentum of the great drive. Tiny L-4’s afforded valuable liaison between ground commanders, continued their ever useful functions as air OP’s, and found new assignments in assisting to control ground columns and in serving as “horseflys” to guide fighter-bombers to targets selected by ground. Air Despatch Letter Service was never more active. 10th Photo Reconnaissance and 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Groups, their activities on occasion supplemented by reconnaissance units of the Eighth, continued to perform the varied tasks which they had assumed before D-day. In their earlier performance of assigned missions they had not merely observed and photographed but had directed the fires of naval artillery. They had quickly dispelled Army’s early fears lest the pilots of high-performance aircraft prove incapable of adjusting artillery fire. In the course of the COBRA breakout such action had made possible the successful engagement of eighty-one targets, and the pilots met all the precise requirements of the highly specialized arm which they served. A special premium was placed on visual reconnaissance as the period of highly mobile warfare began, but the reconnaissance groups continued their photographic missions and on 12 September reported that they had completed the full coverage of the Siegfried Line and the Rhine area which Army had requested. American ground forces regretted that single-seater planes did not allow as effective observation as was wished for, and that facilities available for the mass production of prints and the quick dissemination
of intelligence to ground units, particularly to divisions, were insufficient to meet their heavy requirements. However, as the enemy early remarked, “widespread reconnaissance was almost immediately transformed into attacks.”81
IX Bomber Command was frequently weather bound. Nevertheless, as German forces were pinned into the forested bends of the Seine about Rouen, the mediums struck at hidden targets there on 20, 26, and 27 August, while every day from the 26th through the 31st they bombed enemy dumps east of the Seine. Only a fraction of the planes dispatched on 11 and 12 September to blast Siegfried Line positions in front of VII Corps were able to attack, but in strikes on the 16th at the viaduct near Arnemuiden they damaged that communication link with the island of Zuid Beveland at the mouth of the Schelde and the mainland.
The services of fighter-bombers were greatly in demand for close support in the extremely mobile type of warfare that became the vogue as columns forced river barriers and moved across the Picardy plains or the rolling countryside of Champagne. The form which such actions took had become somewhat stereotyped since St.-Lô, as mission after mission took off for armed recce or ACC. The only marked variants on the established themes now exhibited were that fuel tanks often replaced bombs on wing shackles and that the tremendous firepower of the P-47 was more than ever conspicuous. The concentrated stream of projectiles discharged by its eight 50-mm. machine guns tore through thin-skinned vehicles and, by ricochet from roads into the soft undersides of tanks or by direct penetration of the air vents in their afterdecks, could even put panzers out of action. Since incendiary bullets were used, gasoline fires often resulted. The effect of strafing attacks directed against personnel was fearful, and the enemy estimated that only 20 per cent of those wounded by air returned to duty as against 40 to 50 per cent of those wounded in ground actions.82 Air attack often took the place of artillery, which was less readily available under the conditions which prevailed in August and September. But the novelty of armed recce and of ACC had in some measure worn off; hundreds of pilots were actually making history every day, but few of them cared to do more than enter a formal record of the missions which they had flown. Their work had become routine – they were merely doing the expected – - and ground forces seem to have shared their mood. Hence the historian conspicuously lacks detailed
evidence of the results achieved on many vital missions, now described as “milk runs.”
Nevertheless, ground bore testimony to the fact that airmen were living up to expectations. VII Corps, which IX TAC served, declared: “We could not possibly have gotten as far as we did, as fast as we did and with as few casualties without the wonderful air support that we have persistently had.”83 Patton had early developed an enthusiasm for air support which grew as his drive progressed. Confident of the accuracy of fighter-bomber attacks, he recommended that bomb lines be done away with so far as ACC was concerned, since they could not be advanced with a speed equal to that of his troops. The general declared that the destruction of enemy transport and troop concentrations ahead of his columns, together with the information passed to them from the air, had “saved time and lives,” and he classified the cooperation of XIX TAC as “the best example of the combined use of air and ground troops that I have ever witnessed.”84
Not every mission was successful. At times radio performed badly, though this was in part overcome by a reassignment of frequencies for use in ground-air conversations, and at other times empty fuel tanks cut missions short. But on the 20th, to look at the reverse side of the coin, 7th Armored Division west of the Seine gave the eight covering planes of the 362nd Group a tank target. Search disclosed six well-camouflaged panzers. Since they were close to American forces the squadron leader searched the target at a very low altitude and then, from a more lofty perch overhead, directed his companions in the individual attacks which destroyed the enemy force.
The enemy was striving mightily to extricate his forces and succeeded in moving a considerable mass of men across the Seine, using a variety of devices at some sixty points along the river. But his loss of equipment was appalling – infantry divisions which escaped to the east carried with them only single guns and were “mobile only to the extent that they had some confiscated horses,” while panzer divisions had only from five to ten tanks each.85 During the days when the roads leading to the Seine were crowded with the fleeing enemy, IX TAGS units submitted mounting claims for road transport destroyed. On 18 August they joined with corps artillery in destroying barges on the Seine and soon brought ferries under attack. Bridges were more than ever essential to the enemy, but Quesada’s pilots were old hands at destroying them and they again showed their skill. On the 18th they
blasted a pontoon near Les Andelys, three days later they hit a wooden bridge in process of construction, and on the 25th the 368th Group delivered a final blow at Oissel. The partly repaired emergency rail bridge there was being used for vehicular traffic at the time of the attack, and trucks were bumper to bumper on it when it was destroyed. The resulting road block piled up a line of vehicles extending back into the countryside for at least five miles. Later investigators found them burned, either by strafing or by their crews.86 further to harass the enemy, IX TAC also struck at enemy airfields, the majority of which it was itself to occupy before the Battle of France had ended.
The enemy’s position on the ground was clearly desperate as August closed, and once again the Luftwaffe attempted to give aid. But in the “Y” service provided by the 3rd Radio Squadron Mobile of the Ninth Air Force there were skilled linguists, thoroughly familiar with the colloquial chatter of enemy pilots and ground controllers. Since landing in Normandy on D plus 3, this unit had been regularly credited with kills which their information enabled attacking planes to make. On 24 August they recommended sweeps over German fields at times when the enemy was accustomed to use them heavily. The result helped to make 25 August a red-letter day for the Ninth as regards enemy aircraft destroyed in the air and on the ground, for on the basis of information furnished by “Y,” the 367th and 474th Fighter-Bomber Groups flew missions against airfields in the St.-Quentin–Laon area where air combats resulted in total claims of forty-one enemy planes destroyed for a loss of eighteen. On the same day, again acting on intelligence reports, units from the 365th, 367th, and 370th Groups demolished thirty-three planes on fields near Cognac and Dijon, including in their claims thirty Ju-88’s which the enemy was known to be using for air evacuation. To round out the day’s action, the 354th Group claimed thirteen enemy aircraft destroyed on the ground at Beauvais and Reims and, in three attacks on numerically superior enemy formations in the air east of Paris, claimed thirty-six destroyed for the known loss of five with other aircraft unaccounted for.87
Among a myriad of small incidents whose aggregate tactical results assumed impressive proportions, three actions stand out. As First Army drove through Maubeuge and Valenciennes at the rate of sixty miles in two days a mass of retreating Germans were caught behind the converging columns of VII and XIX Corps. The Mons pocket
thus formed by 3 September extended as far back as Compiègne and included troops from some twenty different enemy divisions. IX TAC joined in working over this confused mass and took heavy toll of vehicles and personnel before the pocket was mopped up and over 25,000 Germans made prisoners of war. A second significant series of actions occurred as TUSA’s troops forced a crossing of the Moselle between Metz. and Pont-a-Mousson between 8 and 11 September. The enemy resisted the crossing stoutly and launched repeated counterattacks once American troops had reached the east bank. In support, IX Bomber Command struck successfully at bridges north of Nancy to block the movement of possible enemy reinforcements, while fighter-bombers hit at targets indicated by ground in the immediate front of American units and on their flanks, tank concentrations being their favorite assignment. In one attack on such an objective a unit from the 406th Group made forty individual passes at fifteen tanks near Arry on 10 September and was confident that all had been immobilized or destroyed, On the 11th, XX Corps reported that the air attacks of the preceding day had greatly facilitated the assault on the front of the 5th Infantry Division. Emplacements had been knocked out and groups of Germans had surrendered in the midst of the bombardment. The division itself paid tribute to air for help rendered in establishing and consolidating the bridgehead. Ground’s only regret was that more fighter-bombers had not been available.88
The third special air support action developed in the region covered by the Forêt de la Haye, on the western outskirts of Nancy, simultaneously with the struggle for the Moselle bridgehead. The thickly wooded area was well defended with strongpoints and its garrison had recently been reinforced, but it was cleared by the 15th. Here IX Bomber Command furnished the principal air support. B-26’s and A-20’s joined in heavy attacks against strongpoints on the 10th and repeated the operation in reduced strength on the 12th. These blows, plus the operations of fighter-bombers which choked off further reinforcement of the enemy, helped to force his almost immediate withdrawal. The results of the action were twofold: added insurance for the growing American bridgehead to the north and the occupation of Nancy itself on 16 September.89
On 11 and 12 September the GAF again became active, fighting like the rest of the Wehrmacht to gain time for the development and manning of defense positions along the German border. On the first of
these days, IX TAC’s formations sighted seventy hostile planes and engaged in two encounters over enemy territory. On the day following as many more were sighted, though only a single combat eventuated. In these actions by the 365th, 368th, and 474th Groups, twenty-five enemy planes were claimed destroyed for the loss of six. On the 11th, the 406th Group of XIX TAC claimed six for two in an encounter over Landau. The day following, 405th Group claimed five for two, while the 354th, attacking in the Frankfurt–Limburg area, claimed nine demolished on the ground and, as a result of air encounters with larger German formations, added claims of thirty destroyed to its already impressive record. The group’s own losses were two planes. Once more its pilots reported that the enemy appeared inexperienced, though aggressive.
In the course of August and the opening weeks of September the Allied armies had pushed nearly 400 miles eastward. Movement meant increased consumption of gasoline, and the arrival of new divisions heightened the demand for all classes of supplies. The expenditure of ammunition was phenomenal – in a single month the armies used eight million rounds of artillery and mortar shells as against the total of ten million used by the American Expeditionary Force in the entire period of the first world war.90 As soon as the sweep into Brittany began supply officers in all echelons experienced the pressure applied by the lengthening of the routes which their trucks must cover, and they became painfully aware that each mile of advance doubled the problem of supply by trucks, since all computations must be based on a round trip starting at their base. By the end of August the situation had become acute. The 12th Army Group admonished its armies that they must be prepared to extend their own lines of supply to the maximum and demanded rigid economy in the use of supplies.91
Communications Zone trucks operated on a 24-hour basis, and Red Ball express highways were created to expedite traffic. By 8 September, the Red Ball service extended to Soissons and precarious rail connections reached from Cherbourg to the vicinity of Châlons, in spite of the damage done by Allied bombings and the havoc wrought by German demolitions. Every conceivable type of transport was brought into play from lumbering tank-recovery vehicles to the light trucks which once had been rated as the property of field artillery
units, Chemical Warfare Service, or IX Air Defense Command.92 But the problem remained acute, for the armies continued to put space between the new rail and truck heads and their own front lines, with the result that at the end of the Battle of France the intervening distance was at least as great as it had been in the campaign’s early stages. Fortunately, the degree of air supremacy enjoyed by the Allies allowed road transport to operate around the clock and speeded night traffic by allowing the “light line”* to be carried well forward. After 21 August, First Army never received enough gasoline to cover in full a day’s requests, nor could those of the Third Army be answered. Both were able to alleviate the situation a little by making use of captured rations, medical stores, and wire, but the Third bitterly lamented that German gasoline was not suited to propel American tanks. Reserves dwindled and disappeared, and issues were made “on a day to day, or even an hour to hour, basis.”93 As the crisis developed it was natural that the possibility of providing relief by airlift should be examined. In preinvasion planning attention had been focused on tactical operations, with little thought accorded air’s potential in connection with the logistics of the coming campaigns,94 and since then air transport facilities had been developed chiefly as an aid to emergency supply of critical items. Beginning on D plus 6, air supply had been used to remedy deficiencies in stocks of mortar shells, and in the period of the great storm which broke on the beaches on 19 June, troop carriers brought in approximately 1,400 tons of critical supplies. But however helpful the planes might be in the supply of special items, they could carry only a small fraction of the armies’ total requirement,95 and the emphasis, with reference to air operations, continued to be placed on tactical support. Even in the emergency of late August, tactical needs came into sharp conflict with those of supply. Between 19 August and 6 September, special airfields were hurriedly constructed or reconditioned for transport use near Le Mans, Orléans, and Reims.96 But the operations of troop carrier aircraft, which constituted the bulk of the planes suitable for transport, depended upon a decision by supreme headquarters as to whether supply of the advancing ground armies or pending airborne operations, intended to speed the collapse of German resistance, should receive priority. Three times before it was determined to carry out the Arnhem drop after 10 September plans were made for use of the newly
* I.e., the point behind the lines up to which trucks might use their lights.
created First Airborne Army and as often abandoned. Only on occasion, therefore, could air’s full resources be applied to the relief of ground’s distress, for when plans called for an air drop the troop carriers necessarily stood by.97
Air transport efforts, however, were by no means inconsiderable. As the ground forces threatened to run off the eastern edges of available maps and the need developed for detailed planning of operations in German territory, over 200 tons of maps, hurriedly provided by civilian presses in Great Britain and by the engineer topographical battalions of the Eighth Air Force, were lifted to their destinations by air.98 In the attempt to meet the need for gasoline, the B-24’s of the Eighth Air Force were also pressed into service, each bomb bay being loaded with 200 five-gallon cans of the precious fluid. The assistance thus rendered the ground forces was substantial, but the heavy bombers, by breaking up advanced runways, imposed a new burden on the hard pressed aviation engineers and the diversion of the B-24’s unavoidably restricted the Eighth’s strategic activity.99 Intermittently, the troop carriers were made available for full-scale operations. Their best effort came in the ten-day period extending from 5 through 14 September with a total of over 5,200 sorties flown, 851 being the high for a single day and 35 the low. During this period the troop carriers alone delivered over 15,000 tons of freight, including nearly 2,500,000 gallons of gasoline; but at that time First Army, which enjoyed a supply priority, had a consumption rate averaging 571,000 gallons per day and Third Army’s daily requests exceeded 1,000,000 gallons.100 It is clear that had air transport’s best effort been sustained, without interruption by weather or the claims of other activities, it could not have been enough. And only more careful planning in anticipation of the need could have substantially increased the capacity available.
As early as 27 August, the 12th Army Group had decided that “the armies will go as far as practicable and then wait until the supply system in rear will permit further advance.”101 By mid-September the limit was just about reached. To quote the group’s own report: “The Third Army was grinding to a stop, not from enemy resistance, but from lack of fuel. ... Spent by a month and a half of continuous fighting and movement in which it had advanced more than 400 miles across France and Belgium, Twelfth Army Group ... had been brought to a halt along the line of the Moselle River and the Siegfried defenses.”102