The Heavy Bomber in Air Support

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The air phase of Operation Cobra began at 10 am on the morning of the 25th. Some 1,503 of 1,581 B-17s and B-24s droppedtheir high explosive and fragmentation bombs on the Panzer Lehr Division. Joining the Eighth Air Force’s heavies were medium bombers and fighter-bombers. All together, the air effort dropped over 4,100 tons on German positions, killing over a thousand German soldiers, wiping out three battalion command posts, and destroying or severely damaging most of its armor and armored personnel carriers.

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Once ashore at Normandy, the Allies experienced a serious setback from the terrain. Farmers’ fields were bordered by thick hedgerows, a bocage that proved a natural boon to German defenders, affording them cover while forcing the Allies to follow predictable paths of advance around it. One of the most difficult problems of hedgerow fighting was preventing tanks from riding up over the hedge and exposing their vulnerable undersides to antitank fire. The solution was disarmingly simple. An inventive sergeant fitted “tusks” to the prow of a tank, which pinned the tank to the hedge and held it in place as the engine punched it through in a shower of dirt. This “absurdly simple” device (in Bradley’s words) freed the Army’s armored forces for a fast-moving mobile breakout across France.

Any breakout from the lodgement area would require the insightful and creative use of air power, including bomber aircraft such as the American B-17 and B-24 and the British Halifax and Lancaster operating in a troop-support role. Altogether there were six major raids by heavy bombers in support of breakout operations in Normandy. The first of these involved 457 Halifax and Lancaster bombers from RAF Bomber Command on July 7, in support of Montgomery’s assault on Caen. The second was an even larger raid by 1,676 heavy bombers and 343 light and medium bombers on July 18. On the 25th, American bombers of the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces struck at Saint-Lo, preparatory to the First Army’s breakout. A fourth attack on the 30th supported the Second British Army south of Caumont. Then an Anglo-American raid on August 7-8 supported the attack of the First Canadian Army toward Falaise from Caen, and the sixth raid, again supporting the attack on Falaise, followed on August 14.

Overall, the Allied high command considered these raids successful, and German soldiers caught in them testified to their devastating (if short-lived) impact upon morale. Field Marshal Hans von Kluge, Rommel’s successor, complained that bomb-carpets buried equipment, bogged down armored units, and shattered the morale of troops. Unfortunately, the terrain disruption worked both ways: it hindered the attacker as much as the defender, and, in fact, bought the Germans time to regain some composure and dig in for the follow-on attack. If such air attacks were to be useful, they had to be followed immediately by a follow-on ground assault. When this occurred, Allied ground troops found German defenders dazed and prone to surrender.

The Price of Victory

Unfortunately, heavy bomber missions could cause serious problems. The first two strikes on Caen resulted in numerous “collateral” casualties to French civilians. Sometimes friendly troops were victims of misplaced bomb strikes. In the Normandy campaign, as in other campaigns, air and land forces had to get used to working together. Bradley remarked after the war that “we went into France almost totally untrained in air-ground cooperation.” It is difficult to accept this statement at face value because the air and ground forces worked together with an unprecedented harmony. Nevertheless, in the very early stages of Normandy some “disconnects” did occur between the air and land communities. Friendly troops experienced attacks from Allied fighter-bombers. To minimize this danger, air and ground commanders arranged for friendly forces to pull back in anticipation of an air strike against German positions. But if communication failed and the strike did not come off, troops found themselves fighting twice for the same piece of real estate as German forces moved back into the gap. Soon commanders learned to follow-up air strikes with artillery barrages so that friendly infantry and armor forces could close with the demoralized enemy before he recovered and redeployed. Within six weeks after the Normandy landing, air and land forces were so confident of working together that fighter-bombers routinely operated as close as 300 yards to American forces. This was not true, unfortunately, of strategic bomber operations, as the strikes of late July and August clearly indicated.

The most publicized example of the difficulties of operating heavy and medium bombers in support of ground forces came during the preparatory bombardment for Operation Cobra, the breakthrough attack at Saint-Lo that led to the breakout across France. The Cobra strikes killed slightly over 100 GIs and wounded about 500. Without a doubt, the strikes were badly executed, and serious command errors were made. The first came on July 24, a cloudy day, when Cobra had been initially set for launch. A postponement order reached the Eighth Air Force Commander, Lt. Gen. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle, too late: the Eighth’s bombers were already airborne. Most crews wisely refrained from bombing due to weather and returned to base. Some found conditions acceptable and did drop. Friendly casualties occurred in three instances. When another plane in the formation was destroyed by flak, a bombardier accidently toggled his bomb load on an Allied airstrip, damaging planes and equipment. A lead bombardier experienced “difficulty with the bomb release mechanism” and part of his load dropped, causing eleven other bombardiers to drop, thinking they were over the target. Finally, a formation of five medium bombers from the Ninth Air Force dropped seven miles north of the target, amid the 30th Infantry Division. This latter strike inflicted the heaviest casualties-25 killed and 131 wounded-on the first day that Cobra was attempted.

The next day, in better weather, there were three more friendly bombings, all by B-24s. First, a lead bombardier failed to synchronize his bombsight properly, so that when he dropped-and eleven other bombers dropped on his signal-a total of 470 100-lb high explosive bombs fell behind the lines. Then a lead bombardier failed to properly identify the target and took the easy way outbombing on the flashes of preceding bombs. A total of 352 260-lb fragmentation bombs fell in friendly lines. In the third case, a command pilot overrode his bombardier and dropped on previous bomb flashes; previous bombs had been off target but within a safe “withdrawal” zone. The pilot’s bombs fell within friendly territory.

All of the above errors were incidental to the real causes of the tragic bombings-the restricted size of the bomb zone and confusion over whether the air attack would be flown perpendicular or parallel to the front lines. The Army wanted a parallel attack so that short bombs would not land in friendly territory. (Actually, this approach would not guarantee an absence of friendly casualties.) The AAF, concerned about the run-in to the target and enemy antiaircraft fire, preferred to fly a perpendicular approach. AAF bomber commanders also recognized that the “heavies” were not as precise as the fighter-bombers. They asked Bradley to keep friendly troops at least 3,000 yards from the bomb line; Bradley compromised on a minimal distance of 1,200 yards, with a preceding fighter bomber attack to cover the next 250 yards so that, in fact, the heavy and medium bombers would strike no closer than 1,450 yards-a distance a heavy bomber would cover in approximately fifteen seconds. A distinct aiming point and a split-second precise drop were thus critical.

Despite Bradley’s later claims that the AAF was enthusiastic over the strikes, evidence indicates that the strategic bomber people were anything but enthusiastic. In general, the strategic bomber commanders-British as well as American-believed that any diversion from their strategic air campaign against the Nazi heartland weakened their effort. The AAF leadership also had strong feelings- communicated directly to Eisenhower-that the Cobra bombings were questionable because they would involve the dropping of a large quantity of bombs in the shortest possible span of time in a restricted bombing zone. However, the AAF was overruled and the operation went forward. Whenever American bombers executed a perpendicular run, Bradley alleged that it violated a previous decision. After the short bombings of July 24, Bradley had ordered an immediate investigation of why the strike group had flown a perpendicular course. The AAF replied that such a course had been previously agreed upon, and ground forces had been informed. Shortly before his death, in his autobiography, A General’s Life, Bradley charged that the “Air Force brass simply lied,” though earlier writings had been far more temperate. One wonders whether this bold statement merely reflected the hardening of age.

In any case, Bradley reluctantly concurred with AAF plans for another attack on July 25 (though he has stated he did so because he was over an “impossible barrel”). During this series of strikes occurred the most sensational casualty of Cobra. Lt. Gen. Leslie J. McNair, former Commander of Army Ground Forces and currently the “commander” of the fictional “1st Army Group,” was killed in his foxhole by a direct bomb hit as he waited to observe the follow-up ground attack. McNair’s death and the other friendly casualties infuriated the ground forces, perhaps in part because they remembered the general’s vociferous criticism of the air support organization in 1942-43. Strangely, the tragedy seems not to have harmed ground-air relations at higher command levels. Though Bradley has stated that Eisenhower informed him that strategic bombers should no longer be used to support ground forces, this is not evident from Eisenhower’s written comments. In fact, American “heavies” continued to be used in troop support missions, notably in the German winter offensive. Eisenhower’s comments after Cobra’s bombing were far less critical than might have been expected:

The closeness of air support given in this operation, thanks to our recent experiences, was such as we should never have dared to attempt a year before. We had indeed made enormous strides forward in this respect, and from the two Caen operations [the strikes of July 8 and 18] we had learnt the need for a quicker ground follow-up on the conclusion of the bombing, for the avoidance of cratering and for attacks upon a wider range of targets to the rear and on the flanks of the main bombardment area. Our technique, however, was still not yet perfected, and some of our bombs fell short, causing casualties to our own men. Unfortunately, perfection in the employment of comparatively new tactics, such as this close-support carpet bombing, is attainable only through the process of trial and error, and these regrettable losses were part of the inevitable price of experience [emphasis added].

Though the preparatory bombing was tinged with faulty planning, sloppy execution, and bad luck, Operation Cobra itself was a masterful operation. We will probably never know precisely who was responsible for the short bombings. Certainly, the AAF was not entirely to blame. John J. Sullivan’s incisive examination of the Cobra operation rightly concluded that there was no duplicity on the part of the AAF (much less “lies”), and that, in fact, the AAF had been most reluctant to undertake the operation at all. The ground commanders did not take adequate precautions to protect their troops, and thus, Sullivan concluded, Bradley and his fellow ground commanders bore “full responsibility” for the bombing casualties to exposed troops. Yet, in fairness, the airmen must share some responsibility-from Tedder and Leigh-Mallory, who did not supervise the operation as thoroughly as they should have, to the individual aircrews who botched their runs.

While there is plenty of blame to go around, one must temper criticism of the Cobra strikes with an appreciation for the losses on the ground during the bitter hedgerow fighting and the effect of the bombing on the German forces. The relatively minor casualties incurred by friendly bombing and the bombing’s unqualified success in shattering German resistance (even Bradley was forced to admit that Cobra “had struck a more deadly blow than any of us dared imagine”) illustrate how petty the uproar surrounding the bombings really was. Unfortunately, in the postwar folklore of air-land operations, too often the short bombing is the only aspect of Cobra that gets attention. Thus, it is refreshing to read Eisenhower’s reasonable, mature, and admirable judgment quoted above. The European Theater commander never lost sight of the most important result: the Cobra bombing devastated German forces and paved the way for the breakthrough that would trigger the breakout and roll back the Wehrmacht to the German homeland itself.

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