The RAF on D-Day and beyond…

In January 1944 Tedder and Coningham were recalled to Britain to join Eisenhower for the countdown to D-Day. They brought with them enormous experience, the glow of victory and a shared outlook. The nature of the air war fought through North Africa, Sicily and Italy had to some extent been formed by Coningham’s ideas and leadership. In February 1943, he was given command of the British and American tactical forces in Tunisia. The team carried the Allies through the expulsion of the Axis forces from Tunisia, the Sicily landings and the invasion of Italy. At every stage lessons were learned and technologies and tactics were refined that would be applied triumphantly in the next stage of the air war.

On D-Day, 171 squadrons roamed over the troops toiling ashore. The almost total lack of opposition meant they were barely needed and hopes faded for a decisive first-day battle that would wipe the Luftwaffe from the skies. When dusk fell, the bag was a paltry twelve Junkers 88s. On 10 June, tactical support and air-cover units began to move across the Channel. Waiting for them at Sainte Croix-sur-Mer was an airfield, thrown together from portable components by the RAF Servicing Commandos and Airfield Construction Branch wings. By the time the Normandy campaign was finished there would be thirty-one in the British zone and fifty in the American area of operations, most of them constructed under fire.

For Britain-based ground crews who manned the invasion force bases, Normandy would bring a dramatic change to their routines. Harry Clift, an armourer with 175 Squadron, arrived by Dakota on the morning of 17 June. They touched down at airstrip B5 at Le Fresne-Camilly, north-west of Caen. Before landing they were told to unload as quickly as possible and then carry aboard a party of wounded who would be lying on stretchers by the runway. The aircraft threw up clouds of dust, alerting the German 88mm gunners who opened fire on the runway. He and his comrades scrambled out and flung themselves to the ground ‘much to the amusement of the wounded’. The shells landed a hundred yards away and they were assured by the veterans that they would soon get used to it. ‘After that we only dropped to the ground for the close ones and ignored the others.’

In sunny weather – by no means constant in a summer of freakish cloud and rain – the thick dust, a compound of limestone and powdered dirt, was a menace. Each take-off and landing would send it swirling around the airfield forcing the armourers to swathe their heads in scarves and shield their eyes with anti-gas goggles to protect them from the blast from the propellers. It worked its way into the 20mm cannon, causing many stoppages and clogging the air intake system of the Merlin engines, so that desert filters from North Africa had to be fitted. The problem would eventually be reduced by laying bitumen-coated strips on the runways and spraying them with water at night.

Life was tough for the crews, working all the hours of daylight, subject to frequent shelling and strafing, sleeping in tents, or at least trying to against a constant background roar of aircraft and artillery. There were many compensating satisfactions. They were right on the front line and the 175 Squadron armourers ‘could watch our Typhoons take off … form up over the sea, fly inland to the target, dive on to their target, release their rockets, pull out of the dive and circle the strip ready to land. It gave us the feeling that we were personally involved in the attack.’

The pilots provided a running commentary on the progress of the battle. Sometimes the ground crews made their own direct contribution. At Le Fresne-Camilly, exasperated at the attentions of the Luftwaffe who would shoot them up on their way back to their bases after attacking the beachhead, they made a gun-pit out of sand bags and installed twin Browning .303s. One day they brought down a marauding Focke-Wulf 190.

For once there was a feeling that, further up the chain, the effort was appreciated. One day they received the ultimate accolade. ‘We were told to smarten up and gather at the side of the runway,’ Clift recalled. ‘When we arrived there we found a large crowd of all ranks who like us were wondering what it was all about.’ After a while a light aircraft landed and rolled to a stop nearby. ‘In the rear cockpit was Winston Churchill who stood up … and gave us a pep talk, telling us how he and everyone back home were thinking of us and how proud they all were at the way we were fighting the enemy.’

Harry Clift would go all the way to Germany but it was the first weeks that stuck most vividly in his mind. ‘It was hard work, we were in danger most of the time, but we had an important job to do and we were allowed to get on with it without interference or red tape. In those early days we found a feeling of camaraderie between all ranks which was to stay with us throughout the campaign.’

Among the British pilots were many who had been fighting since the beginning of the war. They could remember the daunting odds, the scant resources, the desperation and the exhaustion of the Battle of Britain. Now there was a lavish supply of aeroplanes and pilots and the only shortage was the paucity of enemies to come up and fight. For some, Normandy was an opportunity to pay off old scores.

Geoffrey Page had baled out over the Channel in August 1940. He was badly burned when they picked him up and spent the next two years at Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead, where he was one of the pioneering plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe’s ‘guinea pigs’, undergoing multiple operations. Sometimes the orderlies would push the patients out onto the hospital lawn, where they watched Spitfires on their way to sweeps over northern France. ‘How my heart yearned to be one of them, and not just a burnt cripple,’ he wrote. ‘I made a bitter vow to myself that, for each operation I underwent, I would destroy one enemy aircraft when I returned to flying.’ He overcame many bureaucratic obstacles to get a chance to fulfil this promise and in June arrived in France at the head of 132 Squadron. Initially, he was disappointed by the Luftwaffe’s absence and had to content himself shooting up targets of opportunity on the ground. Although he ‘exulted in the sight of my cannon shells ripping into the lurching vehicles as they careened about the narrow Normandy lanes like stricken animals, my lust lay in the desire to destroy enemy aircraft’.

Then, one day, while on a test flight with another pilot thirty miles behind the enemy lines, he got his chance, running into a formation of thirty Me 109s near Lisieux. Despite the odds, he plunged to attack. In the dogfight that followed Page was hit by a cannon shell and wounded in the leg. The red mist cleared. He dived to tree-top level, and pulling out, looked round to see only a lone Messerschmitt was now dogging him. ‘Hatred brought with it a new strength,’ he wrote. His opponent pulled up the nose of his aircraft to get enough deflection on his target. The move was fatal. Already on the point of stalling when the pilot opened fire ‘the recoil slowed the [aircraft] sufficiently to flick over and strike the trees twenty feet below. Circling the funeral pyre I watched the column of black smoke rising with morbid fascination.’

For Pierre Clostermann, Normandy represented a further opportunity to restore the honour of France. He was a diplomat’s son with family roots in Alsace and Lorraine who was studying aeronautical engineering at California Institute of Technology at the start of the war. Before he could return home, France had fallen. He made a circuitous journey to England, and after training joined first 341 (Alsace) Squadron, before transferring to 602 Squadron, where he flew Spitfires over France. Five days after D-Day, he set foot again in his homeland. The squadron was told to overnight at the landing ground at Bazenville, just south of the British landing beaches. He and his friend Jacques Remlinger were given the honour of putting down first and dressed for the occasion in their best dark blue uniforms. The great moment was a let-down. They landed in a cloud of dust which ‘penetrated everywhere, darkened the sky, suffocated us … for 500 yards round the landing strip all green had disappeared – every growing thing was covered by a thick layer, stirred by the slightest breeze’. Their first night was interrupted by the drone of a twin-engine aircraft and the swish of a falling bomb. ‘I dived under a lorry … the earth quivered, a burning gust of air slapped our faces and glowing splinters bespattered the tent, the trees and the lorry and bounced back sizzling on the dew-covered grass.’

Like the German army, the Luftwaffe used what resources they had to great effect. The narrow bridgehead behind the landing beaches was so choked with troops, ammunition dumps, concentrations of armour and aircraft that, as Clostermann said, ‘they could scarcely fail to score a bull practically every time’. The greatest hazards faced by Allied pilots in Normandy were the expertly operated 20mm light flak guns that protected airfields and the 88mm anti-tank guns of the infantry. After the initial avoidance of air-to-air combat, the Germans did come up to fight, sometimes with devastating effect.

The Luftwaffe, though, had no hope of turning the battle. Their enemy overwhelmed them in every department. The first units ashore arrived with radar systems and mobile air–ground control posts, allowing commanders to request air strikes which, most of the time, materialized.

Coningham pressed on with the methods he had developed in North Africa and Italy. The essential challenge of close air support was how to concentrate firepower on tactical targets in the shortest possible time. Coningham’s solution was the ‘cab rank’ system. It involved placing an air controller with the advancing troops, who could call on permanent air patrols loitering on the edge of the battle zone. The aircraft would carry a list of pre-arranged objectives but could be switched immediately if required to targets of opportunity or to relieve an immediate threat.

In Normandy, the system reached its apotheosis, finally fulfilling the devastating potential of air–armour fusion glimpsed on the battlefields of the Western Front a generation earlier. On the road to Berlin, the ‘brown jobs’ and the Brylcreem Boys marched side by side. On the British side the new methods were incarnated in the muscular form of the Hawker Typhoon (for the Americans it would be the P-47 Thunderbolt), loved by every Allied footslogger, dreaded and hated by his German foe. The ‘Tiffy’ was a speedier, deadlier descendant of the Fighter Command stalwart of the Battle of Britain. Its development had been marred by technical setbacks and, initially, it earned a reputation among pilots as a killer when put into a dive. By the summer of 1944 it was the perfect machine for the campaign, capable of 400mph and packing firepower that made the eight Browning .303-calibre machine guns of the 1940 Hurricane seem like peashooters.

According to Harry Clift, a typical armament load consisted of ‘four boxes of 20 mm ammunition. Each box contained a belt of 140 rounds, made up alternatively of two High Explosive and two Armour Piercing/Incendiary shells throughout the belt.’ Next came ‘eight rocket motors weighing 20lbs each and already fitted with fins and saddles by the armourers’ assistants working at the bomb dump’. Screwed into each was a 60lb High Explosive Warhead. The rockets were mounted on rails under the wings and fired electrically. A newsreel commentary claimed one Tiffy could deliver the equivalent of a destroyer’s broadside and just one missile could transform a tank into a hunk of glowing metal.

The Germans received their first taste of what fighter bombers could deliver at dawn on D-Day plus one. The Panzer Lehr division was caught as it moved forward in five columns from Alençon, eighty-five miles south of the beachhead. The attacks went on all morning. Before they had even sighted the invasion forces they had lost ninety supply lorries, forty fuel trucks, eighty-four half-track fighting vehicles and several 88mm guns.

Only five days after the landings, Rommel reported to Field Marshal Keitel that ‘the enemy has complete control of the air over the battle area up to a distance of about 100 kilometres behind the front [which] immobilizes almost all traffic by day on roads or in open country … in the country behind, all roads are exposed to continual air attack and it is therefore very difficult to bring up the necessary supplies of fuel and munitions …’ Generals were as vulnerable as everyone else. On 17 July, Rommel’s staff car was caught in the open by a Spitfire of 412 Squadron, a Canadian unit. Rommel was badly wounded and invalided back to Germany, never to return to the battlefield.

The defenders were under attack on sea as well as land. The attempt by U-boats to stem the flow of men and logistics across the Channel exposed them to the attentions of Coastal Command which, in four days following D-Day, attacked twenty-five submarines, sinking six of them.

The picture on the ground was rather different. The continuing inability of the British to take Caen prompted Leigh-Mallory, eight days after the invasion, to suggest a raid by light and heavy bombers to ‘unfreeze’ the situation. The tactical use of heavies had been tried before in February during the battle of Monte Cassino in southern Italy when American bombers dropped 1,400 tons of bombs on a hilltop monastery overlooking the Allies’ route to Rome. The attack achieved little. There were no troops on hand to follow up and German paratroopers moved into the rubble to establish strong defensive positions. The proposal was rejected by Tedder, apparently on the grounds that Leigh-Mallory was trespassing on Coningham’s area of responsibility. Bomber Command and the US Strategic Air Force were anyway opposed to the operation, fearing the front lines were too close and accuracy too questionable to prevent friendly casualties.

Three weeks later, with the capture of Caen no nearer, Montgomery grabbed at Leigh-Mallory’s plan. On 7 July, AEAF HQ at Stanmore in Middlesex discussed a request for Bomber Command to blast a path for a renewed assault by carpet-bombing the northern approaches to Caen. Tedder, who had been leading the criticism of Monty, disliked the development, believing it could encourage continual Army requests for heavy bomber support, diverting them from more pressing duties, but did not object.

In one hour on the late evening of 7 July, 457 Bomber Command aircraft dropped 2,363 tons of bombs on northern Caen. The effect was spectacular but the results relatively insignificant. Two days of bitter fighting followed, resulting in the capture of half the city but the bombardment seems to have brought few advantages. apart from boosting morale. There was no proper co-ordination between air and ground and though the defenders were shaken up, few were killed. Showing the same fanatical determination that would mark every stage of the German retreat, they fell back to positions on the south of the city to block any further advance and the strategic position remained the same.

Despite the disappointing results, Montgomery gave a wildly optimistic account of the episode and British and American heavy bombers launched six further massive air raids before German resistance in Normandy cracked. The risk to civilians was obvious. About 3,000 French men, women and children were killed in Caen alone between 6 June and 19 July. The French historian Henri Amouroux put the civilian death toll for the campaign at more than 50,000.20 The bombs had the same effect on French towns as they did on German ones. About 75 per cent of the fabric of Caen, ancient churches, university and all were demolished by the attacks. Nor were the liberating troops spared from the inevitable inaccuracies. The preparatory bombardment for Operation Cobra, the American attack on Saint-Lô at the end of July, killed about a hundred GIs and wounded another 500.

The effort was an attempt to break out of the cramped hedge and lane ‘bocage’ of the Cherbourg Pensinsula and into the easier country to the south where the US divisions could sweep west to secure the ports of Brittany and east towards Paris. The massive air assault of 25 July involving 1,500 heavy bombers dropping 3,400 tons of bombs, opened the first big cracks in the German defences.