Air Support on the D-Day Beaches


During the June 6 D-Day assault itself, a total of 171 squadrons of British and AAF fighters undertook a variety of tasks in support of the invasion. Fifteen squadrons provided shipping cover, fifty-four provided beach cover, thirty-three undertook bomber escort and offensive fighter sweeps, thirty-three struck at targets inland from the landing area, and thirty-six provided direct air support to invading forces. The Luftwaffe’s appearance was so minuscule that Allied counter-air measures against the few German aircraft that did appear are not worth mentioning.

Of far greater importance was the role of aircraft in supporting the land battle. As troops came ashore at Normandy, they made an unpleasant discovery all too familiar to the Marine Corps and Army operating in the Pacific campaign. Despite the intensive air and naval bombardment of coastal defenses, those defenses were, by and large, intact when the invasion force “hit the beach.” This was particularly true at Omaha beach, where American forces suffered serious casualties and critical delays. Despite a massive series of attacks by Eighth Air Force B-17s, B-24s and medium bombers in the early hours of June 6, the invading troops were hung up on the beach. The air commanders themselves had, in fact, predicted that the air and naval bombardments would not achieve the desired degree of destruction of German defensive positions. The Army’s general optimism that air would cleanse the beaches before its approach, however, was shattered. Only the subsequent success of fighter-bombers operating against the battlefield would revive the Army’s confidence in air support. Indeed, throughout the post- Normandy campaign-and in the Second World War as a whole the fighter-bomber proved overwhelmingly more valuable in supporting and attacking ground forces in the battle area than did the heavy or even the medium bomber.


Shortly after D-Day, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower toured the landing beaches with his son, newly commissioned 2d Lt. John Eisenhower. Looking at the concentrated mass of troops and vehicles vulnerable to attack in a confined space, the young officer noted that such a situation violated doctrine. The Allies were wide open to bombing attack. The elder Eisenhower replied, “If I didn’t have air supremacy I wouldn’t be here.”

Allied airpower was instrumental in making possible Operation Overlord. Defeat of the Luftwaffe was a prime requisite, while American and British aircraft worked closely with Allied armies following the successful landings.

However, success was not achieved without cost. During June 1944 the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces lost 904 aircraft: 284 in aerial combat, 400 to flak, and 220 operationally. The total included 320 Eighth Air Force B-17s and B-24s plus 44 B-26s and A-20s of the Ninth Air Force. Combined Eighth and Ninth fighter losses amounted to 540 Thunderbolts, Lightnings, and Mustangs.

Unit reports demonstrated the growing ascendancy of Allied airpower. Whereas Luftwaffe fighters inflicted 61 percent of total USAAF losses in the ETO during February 1944 with its massive “Big Week” campaign, by May the German air force’s share of the toll was barely 50 percent, dropping to 31 percent in June and further declining to 21 percent in July.

A notable aviation success was the “Transport Plan” proposed by Air Vice Marshal Arthur Tedder’s advisor, Dr. Solly Zuckerman, a prewar zoologist who studied bomb damage in North Africa and Italy. With a few other analysts he proposed that Allied aircraft should attack whole German communications systems to isolate the beachhead on D-Day, an expansion of the original concept. Some airpower advocates resented the diversion of strategic bombers to support of the invasion, but the plan worked reasonably well.

Allied air supremacy was amply demonstrated on D-Day, as American fighters claimed only twenty-four shootdowns, all during the noon hour or later. In exchange, at least four Eighth Air Force Mustangs were lost in air combat farther inland. Luftwaffe reinforcements resulted in forty-one claims by Eighth and Ninth Air Force fighters the next day.

One example of tactical airpower’s effectiveness was Panzer Lehr’s eighty-mile dash to the coast. The commanding officer described the trek as “a fighter-bomber race course,” and though the division lost only five tanks, it wrote off or abandoned eighty-four other armored vehicles and 130 trucks or transport vehicles.

In June Allied strategic bombers were shifted from petroleum and industrial targets in Germany to support the invasion. Before dawn on D-Day, RAF Bomber Command assigned a hundred planes to each of ten German coastal batteries behind the British beaches.

The U.S. Army Air Forces flew 8,722 sorties on 6 June, losing seventy-one aircraft to all causes. Ninth Air Force medium bombers performed splendidly at Utah Beach, where B-26s and A-20s destroyed most of the German heavy guns and mortars. However, those attacks were made at low level with visual bombing, which enhanced their effectiveness.

More than 1,300 Eighth Air Force heavy bombers were assigned to attack Omaha Beach on D-Day but were wholly ineffective. Forced to drop their ordnance through solid undercast, they were ordered to release slightly late to avoid striking friendly ships. Consequently their bombs fell well inland, some missing the target by as much as three miles. In any case, no bombs are known to have struck the beaches or the bluffs overlooking Omaha.

Radar Adapted to the Battlefield

Drawing upon experience ranging from the Western Desert and Tunisia through the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, Allied tactical air control in Normandy and during the subsequent European campaign was generally excellent. Fundamental to this success was the wartime evolution of radar. The Allied air forces had radar available to them from the very first day of Normandy operations, and it was soon incorporated into tactical air control as well as for early warning and air defense purposes. Radar had first been used for tactical air support control during the Sicilian and Italian campaigns, and now, in Normandy and the subsequent breakout, it reached new levels of refinement. Each TAC had a radar control group built around a Tactical Control Center (also called a Fighter Control Center), a microwave early warning radar (dubbed a MEW), three Forward Director Posts, three or four SCR-584 Close Control Units (the SCR-584 being a particularly fine precision radar used for positioning data and antiaircraft gun laying), and, finally four Direction Finding stations, dubbed Fixer stations. The MEW, considered the heart of the system, would be located within ten to thirty miles of the front.

Originally developed for air defense purposes, this radar network now took on added importance for the control of tactical air strikes. For example, when an Air-Ground Coordination Party sent in a request for immediate air support, that request went directly to a Combined Operations Center functioning between the TAC and the Army. There, the Army G-2 and G-3 and the TAC A-2 and A-3 evaluated the request. Assuming it was considered legitimate, the Army G-3 and Air A-3 would each approve it, and the Air A-3 would relay it to the Tactical Control Center with a recommended course of action. Typically, the TCC would relay the request to airborne fighter-bombers, and a geographically appropriate Forward Director Post would furnish precise radar guidance and navigation information from the MEW and SCR-584 radars to the strike flight, vectoring them to the target area. Once in the target area, of course, the strike flight leader would communicate with the Air-Ground Coordination Party that had sent in the request for final details. For its part, the Air-Ground Coordination Party would arrange for artillery to mark the target with colored smoke and also, if possible, to undertake suppressive artillery fire against known enemy antiaircraft defenses. Radar was also used for so-called blind bombing in conditions of reduced visibility. SCR-584 control eventually enabled blind bombing strikes with accuracies on the order of 400 yards from the predetermined aiming point, notably during the Battle of the Bulge in winter 1944-45.

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