Cool heads and hot lead

Fighter Command of the Ninth Air Force has a threefold tactical purpose — escorting bombers, bombing targets, strafing troops

On the road to Gavray southeast of Coutance, an American armored column poked its steel finger into the face of German Panzer and infantry units. It could cope with the Wermacht Panthers and many of the enemy field pieces, but the fixed emplacements built by the Boche during four years of French occupation presented a different problem. One of these held up the column. The hedgerowed country that typifies Normandy and the Brest peninsula offers concealment and cover for a defending force that has cost many lives in the taking. The commander of the armored column knew what it would mean to open his flank to the fire of the emplacement.

He plugged in his throat mike and called: "Tank commander to Thunderbolts, can you help me out?"

Several hundred feet above the column the leader of a Ninth Fighter Command Thunderbolt element replied: "What can we do for you?"

"There's a gun emplacement under your right wing. It's been holding up my column for hours."

Within seconds bombs and .50-cal guns had silenced the German gun.

Throughout the campaign that started June 6 — from Brest, across hedgerows, rivers and valleys to the green hills and woods at Vire in Normandy — conversations between pilots and tank commanders asking for direct support are common. "It is the essence of ground-air teamwork," says Major General E R "Pete" Quesada, commanding general of the Ninth Fighter Command.

While it is difficult to measure precisely the fighter-bombing results in terms of American ground force progress, it is clear that the Thunderbolts have crippled the German front and rear lines, cutting both its strength and resistance. Time after time, Nazi prisoners have admitted that they were pinned down during the day by the bombs and fire of the fighter-bombers, were thus able to move only at night along secondary roads where a snail's pace is necessary to avoid traffic accidents. Some prisoners had eaten only once in two or three days. their ammunition supplies were short, and reinforcements couldn't be brought up — all because of Thunderbombing.

American Army Commanders, too, have attributed the high speed movement of our ground forces to the cooperation of the Lightnings, Thunderbolts and Mustangs which simultaneously clear the skies of the Luftwaffe and weaken the enemy's hold and counterattacks. The ground forces credit fighter-bombers with breaking up the biggest German counterattack launched on August 7th.

The Wehrmacht High Command has told its forces what the effect of air power has been on transportation. Keite1 himself signed an order which said in part: "The losses of motor transport in the west in addition to those suffered at the eastern front have reached such proportions that only a small percentage can be replaced. Newly activated and trained divisions must often wait months for their motor equipment." The order continues with the admonition to avoid traffic accidents, and then warns, "The leaders of all units equipped with motor vehicles must be told about the shortage of motor transport, and particularly about the effect of the enemy air force." Keitel's concern is understandable. Figures for one week beginning July 25th, show that destruction wrought by fighter-bombers actually made targets become scarce. During that period, planes of the Ninth Fighter Command destroyed 384 tanks or armored vehicles with caterpillar tracks; 2,287 trucks, staff cars, buses; 14 locomotives: 125 horse-drawn vehicles; 33 railway and highway bridges; and severed 46 railway lines. Add to these the probables and damaged which reduced the enemy's power, the successful attacks on 38 enemy troop concentrations, 71 gun emplacements and 12 military dumps, 85 railway junctions and it is obvious that fighter-bombers can pack a knockout punch.

Driving over the twisting, hilly roads that lead southwest from the July 25 jump-off line along the St Lo-Periers road, one sees the aftermath of the greatest air-ground routes in military history. So thick are the wrecks of tanks. trucks and other motor equipment that the fields resemble salvage dumps. You can see evidence of fighter-bomber marksmanship in the form of vehicles destroyed in concealed spots and at the curves in the serpentine roads. Nowhere was the Hun safe from the fifties and bombs.

During the week ending July 31, Ninth Fighter Command pilots averaged more than 1,000 sorties a day, with former clerks, salesmen, mechanics, students, and farmers flying over France, then helping ground crews to speed their return to combat. Many went without food until darkness closed in on the targets and their fields. Planes that normally would be grounded for maintenance were kept in the air through superhuman effort by ground crews working all night in the damp fog of Normandy. Staff officers pored over target area maps and photos, studied ground situation with advice and assistance of the Ground Liaison Officers. Cooks ran messes around the clock. Everyone on the fighter-bomber bases worked at full-blower speed to contribute his share toward the team of footsloggers and tankmen at the front and the planes overhead. Before the Normandy phase of World War II started, there were few military men who would concede that tanks, particularly the larger and heavier ones, could be knocked out with machine gun fire. But every day, Mark V and VI giants of the Wermacht are falling to the eight .50-cal guns of the Thunderbolts. Other fighter-bombers are scoring kills with their cannon and machine gun fire.

Close support in front of the ground forces is only one phase of fighter-bomber offensive action. Long before D-day, they were hitting at German communications and supply lines so hard that weak resistance to the invasion forces was a logical result. They crippled the Luftwaffe so effectively that our planes have been attacked only when the enemy had local numerical superiority. In the pre D-day program, bridges, railroad marshalling yards and junctions, locomotives and rolling stock, highway embankments and viaducts, were hit in an area that would most effectively bottle up the Germans in the battle area to come. First, the bridges over the Meuse in Northwestern France and Belgium were hit. Then the marshalling yards along the classical battle route to the beaches in Normandy — Amiens, Namur, Charleroi and Hirson — cities that figured in the news when the Germans swept across France in the stab from the Low Countries just four years ago. Like a boxer who jabs with his left and then crosses with a right hook, the fighter-bombers blew out bridges on the Seine, then the Meuse and Oise, and with a quick feint, returned to the Seine. Marshaling yards and bridges around Meziers, first breakthrough point for the Germans in 1940, were hit. The Americans sought to deny the enemy the path he had used in the 1940 blitz, which in 1944 could be his defense.

Now as the campaign goes into its fourth month, the effect of this systematic bombing can be seen very clearly. Captured German officers say that it takes about eighteen days to reach the front in France from central Germany, in contrast to five days to the Russian lines. There is much evidence of the inability of the Nazis to reinforce their divisions on the front lines in Normandy, where the Wermacht would have logically shifted units rapidly in an effort to stop the stream of American armor spilling down the western side of the Cherbourg peninsula while similar outfits thrust on the other side of the line.

Thirty-seven bridges west of a line running roughly from Caen to Orleans were smashed — Laval, Avranches, Coutance and Vitres, names that have become headlines in the news as the battle moves toward the Rhine. All these meant that the Hun could bring up reinforcements and supplies only in small dribbles compared to the rush of men and material urgently needed on the sprawling front.

As June 6th drew closer, the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces joined with the. RAF to knock out locomotives and trains, each unit specializing in the type of target most vulnerable to the type of aircraft it flew. The heavies took on the large marshalling yards and factories, the mediums struck at similar targets, the fighter-bombers went down to tree-top level to strafe and bomb everything that rolled on rails.

Pilots of the Ninth Fighter Command cut a swath fifty miles wide over the northern stretches of Europe from Brittany to Belgium. The total of locomotives left in ruins reaches well into the hundreds, and even though many could be repaired, their rebuilding would seriously affect installations the Germans knew were needed for the onslaught certain to come with the apple blossoms in Normandy. Again, it is impossible to measure accurately the damage wrought in terms of divisions or corps or armies that could not be moved, but even the lay observer can see the devastating effect of tying the Germans to the ground in contrast to their blitzkrieg tactics in Poland and the Low Countries and France in 1940.

The mechanics of ground-air cooperation require a fine degree of precision, but it is singularly lacking in the red tape of army routine. Through an interchange of personnel in which Air Support Party Officers are attached to ground units down to divisions, and Ground Liaison Officers are attached to air force units down to groups, the specialized knowledge essential to both branches of the service are employed where needed.

On the top side, Maj Gen E R Quesada's headquarters are only a minute's walk from Lieut Gen Omar N Bradley's First Army headquarters. In a combined operations intelligence tent, banked on either side by the mobile vans of the ground and air forces, officers from both camps in the air-ground team work together as though they were a single organization. During the day, request missions originating with the lower echelons in the ground forces come up through a specialized communications net to the nerve center of ground-air action. There, the feasibility of filling the request is weighed, taking into consideration every possible angle such as the seriousness of the threat that might be developing along our front, the availability of aircraft, weather conditions at the fields and over the proposed target. Sometimes, in their enthusiasm for air support, ground commanders will request bombs on targets that could be hit just as well by artillery, or objectives will be picked which can't be taken out with air power. So air and ground liaison officers decide between them what should be done.

Along with the request missions, many are planned the night before as proposed operations. Then the assembly in the combined ops tent takes on a board meeting aspect where the representatives of the various departments in a corporation present their Views, information, and requests for action. The session is conducted by the combat operations officer of the supporting air unit. Weather information is presented first, then intelligence, ground and air, followed by the ground situation, including a resume of the action during the day and an appraisal of tactical and strategic situations. The G-3 for air, whose post is with the air unit supporting the army, summarizes the requests he has received during the day for operations on the following day. He then asks for the missions he wants laid on. The targets are usually those close in front of the ground forces, gun emplacements, columns of tanks or troops on the roads which are moving up or will be advancing for an attack already in progress, ammunition and storage dumps — targets which the artillery cannot reach because of range, or which are fleeting and therefore difficult to spot except from the air.

In effect, American air power has, through recent application by the Ninth Air Force, attained the war-winning position long prophesied but only occasionally achieved. At the same time, the success of air-ground cooperation, with fighter planes as the flying implements, proves conclusively that Allied tacticians are avoiding the mistakes of the Italian campaign in their drive for Berlin. At Cassino, the air protagonists discovered that heavy explosives, whether delivered from fixed artillery or from highly mobile aircraft, can have a decisive effect only where the barrage is timed closely with advances by the foot soldiers. Applying this lesson in Normandy, Thunderbombers have breached enemy defenses, then have continued their bombardment while the infantry moved forward to keep the enemy from reforming his lines. Fighter Command has other missions which must be flown — escort for bombers, cover for areas in which troops are landing, for example. When provision has been made for these missions, the total availability for support sorties is determined. Usually, there is a sufficient number of aircraft to take care of all logical support missions. Then, too, there are the missions which the Fighter Command will lay on in a broad plan of action which will cripple the enemy farther back from his main lines. Bridges, railroad and road junctions and similar targets are picked by intelligence and passed on to the operations section. Finally, a complete disposition of the fighter-bombers for the following day is made. Later that night the teleprinters in the groups will clatter with an order for the missions that will be flown when the first fog burns off the strips that have been scratched out of the fields and woods of northern France. Then cool and calculating Americans will go out to spray hot lead on the crumbling Wermacht.

This article was originally published in the October, 1944, "9th Air Force Issue" of Air News magazine, vol 7, no 4, pp 33-35.
The original article includes 4 photos.
Photos credited to USAAF.

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