Airfields while you wait

by Lt James M Doyle
A short jump behind the assault troops and frequently under shell fire, Ninth Air Force Engineers construct landing fields, have them ready for our bombers and fighters in a matter of hours

Long before D-day, Brigadier General James B Newman, Jr and the staff of the Ninth Engineer Command scanned reconnaissance photos and detailed maps of Normandy, looking for likely airfield sites, drawing plans for their swift completion.

The first deadline they set was on D-day itself, and that deadline was met. By the afternoon of June 6, engineers who had hustled their heavy equipment ashore just a short jump behind the assault troops were able to signal that an emergency landing strip on the beach was ready for operations.

The unit then moved quickly forward with the troops, and other newly arrived detachments began work on sites assigned to them. By D-day plus 3, C-47s were bringing in high priority supplies and serving as air ambulances on their return trips. A few days later fields upon which fighter-bombers based in Britain could refuel and rearm between missions were in readiness. Soon, Ninth Air Force fighter groups were operating almost exclusively from French soil, in close support of ground forces.

It was for this specific mission that the Ninth Engineer Command was activated — the first of its kind to become an organic part of an Air Force. In prewar June, 1940, a General Service Engineer Regiment was redesignated as the Twenty-First Engineer Regiment (Aviation). As the original regiment retained the bulk of its heavy equipment in the Headquarters and Service Company, the battalions were able to effect unaided only minor construction and maintenance, emergency repair and camouflage. Within a year, however, following a study of the experience gained by the British in airfield construction, and of the work then under way by Royal Engineer units in the United Kingdom, the regiment was recognized as being too large for a basic work unit. Accordingly the regiment was reorganized on a basis that provided the battalions with sufficient personnel and equipment for major construction jobs.

By the time the US entered the war, there were twelve such battalions in various stages of training, in addition to the parent regiment, and plans were under way for an enormous expansion.

Early the following year, a large number of battalions were ordered to England and attached to SOS (Service of Supply). Their mission was the construction of heavy bomber bases for the Eighth Air Force. It was from these units that the Ninth Engineer Command drew its strength when it began to function as "Engineer Detachment, Ninth Air Force" late in 1943.

The new command was charged with these six specific missions:

  1. Engineer planning for the support of the Ninth Air Force in the invasion.
  2. Provision of airstrips and airfields on the Continent.
  3. Assistance in the camouflage of Ninth Air Force installations.
  4. Maintenance and repair of airdromes.
  5. Support of Ninth Air Force forward elements in such engineering problems as water supply and road maintenance.
  6. Provision of mine and booby trap locating service for the Ninth Air Force.

The whole program of the Ninth Engineer Command has been geared to speed and mobility. When an Engineer Aviation battalion begins work on a site, its first objective is construction of an unsurfaced runway sufficiently long for takeoffs and landings, and with minimum marshaling areas.

When this point has been reached, aircraft begin using the strip, but work does not cease. Fighter-bombers take off from fields farther behind the lines, fly a mission, and set down on the strip for refueling and rearming before taking off on their next mission. Each night, after several missions from the strip, they return to their more distant base.

Meanwhile, whenever the runway is free of aircraft, engineers install more marshaling areas, surface marshaling areas and runway with square mesh or a special heavy bituminized fabric, known as PBS, or Hessien, and add taxiways. What had begun as a comparatively crude strip carved from the countryside is gradually fashioned into an efficient airfield. Fighter-bombers at this stage of development ordinarily employ the roulement or rotation system. The field is capable of supporting one or more squadrons for several days, and they are based there for a short period of maximum effort, to be replaced by other planes when it is necessary for them to fly back to their permanent bases for major overhauls.

When sufficient marshaling and dispersal areas have been constructed to accommodate a group on a permanent basis, the engineers move on to the site at the head of the highly secret list in headquarters, and the fighter group moves in, to stay until the front line has moved far enough ahead to make it desirable for them to leapfrog forward again. By that time, another site, probably built by a different battalion, will be ready for them.

Each battalion has a fixed amount of equipment, adequate for a specific mission, not always enough for unexpected contingencies. In spite of the most careful planning, construction may be heavier than anticipated, or the tactical situation may demand completion of a field ahead of schedule. To take care of such situations, a pool of equipment to be loaned to battalions is maintained by regimental headquarters, and battalions borrow both personnel and equipment freely from each other.

In any given tactical situation, the ground forces call upon the air forces for an appropriate type and scale of air support. From the ground forces' general plan, the Commanding General of the Ninth Air Force decides how many groups he must employ and in what general vicinity they must be based. He calls upon Ninth Engineer Command to produce the required bases within the time limits of the operation. The staff of the Ninth Engineer Command then goes to work on aerial photographs and large scale maps. From these sources, from geologists' reports on soil types, and from the best available meteorological data, tentative sites are selected, well ahead of our advance. Only the most promising of these sites become airfields.

As soon as the infantry is able to report that it has advanced into the area, reconnaissance patrols, consisting of one or two officers and a number of highly trained enlisted men, take off in a radio-equipped half-track to look over each site. They move into combat areas and carry enough armament to defend themselves against snipers and enemy patrols. They then report back to higher headquarters which makes the decision, on the basis of both engineering possibilities and tactical requirements, as to where actual construction will begin. The battalion moves its heavy equipment up to the site selected, on which the preliminary work has already been done by the advance party, and another airfield is on its way to completion.

This article was originally published in the October, 1944, "9th Air Force Issue" of Air News magazine, vol 7, no 4, pp 52-53.
The original article includes 6 photos.
Photos credited to USAAF.

Photo captions: