Hit and run

by Capt Roger Williams

With thousands of men and officers of the Ninth Air Force directly involved in the actual invasion and succeeding engagements in Normandy, it would be difficult to say which of the half-dozen commands has contributed most to the rapid Allied offensive since June 6th. But no one will challenge the importance, the overall value of Ninth Bomber Command's efforts leading up to D-day. That pre-invasion bomber program goes back more than twelve months before the invasion to May 14, 1943, when the first Marauder mission against a German target developed as a complete failure and the second mission, on May 17th, resulted in the loss of every raiding plane. Now almost forgotten, those early failures are not difficult to explain in the light of later, more successful raids.

When the first Marauder crews came to England, they were completely green, had been trained only in low-level attack. Eleven Marauders went out across the North Sea on May 14th; all except one got through to the target at Ijmuiden in Holland, but subsequent recco photos revealed practically no damage to the power station. So the second raid was ordered. Again, eleven ships left England. One turned back, the only plane to return at all, for the others were ripped to pieces by German flak. Without complete faith in themselves and their planes, the pilots of Ninth Bomber Command might well have forgotten the whole Marauder effort after that now famous "ten to one" disaster. But two months later, every man in every crew had learned a brand new set of tactics in the medium-altitude bombing strata, cramming six months of training into less than sixty days. On July 16, 1943, the first medium-level raid was made — successfully.

Led by Brigadier General Herbert B Thatcher, then a colonel, eighteen Marauders went out against the railway yards at Abbeville, France, taking off in a tight formation so precise in execution that it is still the "standard operating procedure" for Marauder and Havoc crews. Accompanied by Spitfires, carefully avoiding flak by a well-rehearsed evasive action, they returned without a loss, and only three ships bore anti-aircraft wounds. Nine days later, the coke ovens at Ghent were blasted by the Marauders and a day later the Nazi airdrome at St Omer felt the bombs of the B-26s. It was this latter raid which opened the first phase of the pre-invasion offensive — pushing the Luftwaffe back from the Atlantic Wall.

The First Phase

At this stage, the Ninth Air Force was still in North Africa, the medium bombers were operating under the Eighth Air Support Command. The heavies, blasting Luftwaffe production centers, were falling prey to swarms of German fighters at the doorstep to Europe. Here the Marauders moved into the fight, to shatter Nazi air centers along the French and Low Country coasts. Knowing that it would be impossible to completely destroy permanent airdromes, the Marauder pilots depended upon frequent raiding to force the Luftwaffe back from the coastal cities to fields less vulnerable to attack. Nor was pattern bombardment considered sufficient for this particular effect upon German air operations. Because damaged runways can be repaired quickly, bombs were dropped on dispersal areas where parked aircraft, living quarters, fuel dumps, and repair shops felt the full fury of the Marauders. In one instance, though damage to the target airdrome has since proved almost permanent, The Germans had located one of the most important air bases at Schipol-Amsterdam. Then, on December 13th last year, Marauders went out to finish the job of destruction at this field — a job which had been started by the RAF some months before. Two hundred B-26s dropped slightly less than 800 1,000-pounders on this single target area.

Buzz Bomb Sites

Marauder offensives against the Nazi buzz bomb launching platforms may well be described as the second phase of their year-old career. Beginning on November 5, 1943, this work reached a spectacular climax during March and April of this year, with the denouement still continuing as this is written. That these pilotless planes have constituted an effective, though futile, weapon for Hitler is well known throughout the world. How effective they might have been without the interference of the Marauders is, however, know to few people outside the ETO.

The Railway Yards

Although depots, marshaling yards and railroads have been under fire since almost the beginning of the war, these targets are usually considered as the third phase of 9th Bomber Command's offensive against Germany. Early in March, Douglas Havocs flew their first mission over Conches, France, while Marauder-Havoc teams carried out a three-pronged offensive against rail yards, launching sites, and airfields to move the pre-invasion effort into high gear. In all, more than 10,000,000 pounds of explosive dropped from the mediums during this period, with more than a third of this weight falling on railroad yards alone. Then, on March 26th, the Marauders flew their "revenge mission" against the German E- boat pens at Ijmuiden, scene of their great failure just a year before. It was obvious that Germany could defend the coast only if supplies and reinforcements could move through Northern France and Belgium without interruption. It was logical for the 9th Bomber Command to concentrate on such targets. Unfortunately, slave labor made quick repair of railroads quite simple, even when marshaling yards and depots were completely ruined. However, concentration on engine sheds and other permanent rail yard installations made it possible for Marauders and Havocs to hamstring the Hun by making repair of his rolling stock almost impossible. At the same time, close cooperation of reconnaissance squadrons quickly revealed close congestion at particular centers, led to devastating raids by the medium bombers. From March through May, this offensive against railroad centers continued, with 3,400,000 pounds falling in March, 5,600,000 explosive pounds hitting rail targets in April, and more than 5,000,000 pounds falling during May. And all of this was possible without affecting the raids on buzz bomb sites and airfields. Dropping a total of 30,000,000 explosive pounds in the months preceding D-day, the IX Bomber Command had given the tip-off on the fourth phase of its work.

Coastal Guns

On May 4, the Marauders and Havocs opened a new bombing chapter whose implications were obvious, for on that day the first coastal guns came under fire. Hitting these pinpoint targets with monotonous regularity, they got their practice in the one phase of bombardment which every crew would concentrate on once the beachhead was opened. At the same time, they made their first forays against bridges carrying highway and rail traffic across the Seine and other French rivers — the fifth phase and the last training session before invasion.

Air Ground Support

On June 6, in a cold, wet dawn, the Marauders and Havocs came into their own. Saturating coastal guns, Marauders paved the way for landing craft in the morning, then turned the show over to the Havocs in mid-afternoon for raids on road junctions behind the enemy defenses, handcuffing reinforcements and spotting targets for the combined Marauder-Havoc raids that followed during the evening of June 6th. Encountering no air opposition but hampered by bad weather, the mediums flew so low that gunners actually traded fire with light flak batteries on the ground.

This article was originally published in the October, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 7, no 4, pp 26-28, 70, 72.
The original article includes 7 photos.
Photos credited to USAAF.

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