100 day wonder

by Lt Robert Gerdy
Stemming from a comparatively small group in Africa, the 9th Air Force skyrocketed in strength to lead the Allied invasion of France

In February, the Ninth was the smallest air force in Britain; less than four months later, in June of this year, it emerged the strongest in the world. Officially, the Ninth got its start in ETO on February 17th when Gen Eisenhower's headquarters revealed that elements of the Ninth Air Force — veterans of the campaigns in Egypt and Tunisia — had been transferred to Britain and placed under command of Lt Gen. Lewis H Brereton. One hundred days later, operational strength of the original group had jumped 1000%.

This rapid growth of the Ninth had an important part in the allied invasion master plan — a plan which called for swift creation of an air force different from anything that appeared in other war theatres.

Air power's principal role, for months before invasion, had been to cripple German production, level factories turning out planes, tanks, guns, bombs, submarines, locomotives, engines. These attacks had no immediate effect on allied ground troops in the field, but in the course of months and even years, they sapped German industrial strength, will and equipment to fight.

In March and April, 1944, emphasis in Britain shifted visibly to a new type of air warfare — tactica1 operations. Instead of throwing its entire strength against German war industry, Allied air power began to strike at the Germans in their strongpoints and trenches, on the roads and railways from their training camps to the big coastal defensive garrisons. Our aircraft were out not only to destroy factories which in six months would put a thousand locomotives on lines from Germany to the west wall; they were destroying the locomotives, aircraft and armies already there.

This tactical job required a new air force, one which could live and maintain itself in the fields, attack anything from a staff car to a railway yard, silence a field gun at a few minutes' notice, join infantry, artillery, and armored corps in the struggle for a few hundred yards of enemy-held soil. To accomplish all this the Ninth Air Force, structurally and in terms of equipment different from any other American combat air force, was organized.

The Ninth Air Force is as self-sufficient and self-moving as an air force can be. It has its own Engineering Command to build the front-line fields from which fighter-bombers fly in intimate support of the army. It has its own Air Defense Command to protect these landing strips from attack by the Luftwaffe without overburdening army artillery. Its Service Command, most intricate and extensive in the world, moves swiftly overland and oversea, handles almost any kind of repair and replacement within range of enemy shellfire.

Warplanes of the Ninth are flexible enough to handle any assignment that falls to them in the course of hard ground fighting. For instance, the same Thunderbolts that fly on the deck deliberately to plant delayed-action bombs under the end-spans of a railway bridge can outshoot German fighters at any altitude and can storm enemy mountain strongholds under conditions which make field artillery powerless. All Ninth Air Force crews have been taught to get all they can out of their aircraft. Before invasion, Marauders attacked only from medium altitude and in clear weather. Since D-day they have bombed at night and through soupy skies, flown at tree top level and strafed with all eleven machine guns, operated under thick banks of clouds within easy range of enemy flak guns.

In addition, the largest force of C-47 Skytrain troop carriers and CG-4A and Horsa gliders in the world belong to the Ninth Air Force. Part of a train that stretched almost 200 miles, these aircraft flew thousands of paratroopers and airborne infantrymen into the heart of the German lines five hours before the first seaborne troops charged up the shore on D-day. Since then, ferrying constantly from France to Britain, they have done the less spectacular job of supply and resupply, evacuation of wounded, transport of mail and equipment.

Structurally different from any other American fighter command, the Ninth is divided into two tactical air commands: one with the army on the western flank, the other on the eastern flank. These joined the infantry soon after D-day, now face shellfire and snipers as immediately as the foot soldiers they are supporting.

These are the distinguishing marks of the air force which came by boat and air from North Africa in the fall of 1943 to reorganize completely in Britain, to spearhead and support the invasion. It was a skeleton force that arrived from the Middle East, but the two top generals — Lt Gen Lewis Hyde Brereton and Maj Gen Ralph Royce — had both been in combat almost constantly since December 7, 1941, and had fought the enemy on every front from Tunisia to the Philippines. Recently, Gen Brereton was elevated to Commanding General of the 1st Airborne Army and Maj Gen Hoyt S Vandenberg became Commanding General of the Ninth Air Force.

In the desert, the Ninth had supported the Eighth Army for more than a year, clear across North Africa from El Alamein to Cap Bon and into Sicily and Italy. But in England it had to start all over again. Tactical support in the loose, spacious desert battlefield is nothing like tactical support among the tightly-knit, crowded concrete fortresses and strong points of the French coast. In Africa, the Ninth had been a combination strategic and tactical air force. In Britain, it became purely tactical. To begin with, it took over the Marauders of the old Eighth Air Support Command, which ever since July, 1943, had been taking a small but steady part in the air offensive from Britain. Up to New Year's Day, 1944, these Marauders had flown more than 100 separate operations, had dropped about 7,000 tons of bombs on enemy targets. Once they joined the Ninth, the Marauders increased strength and frequency of their operations until now 7,000 tons would be a poor tonnage figure for one month.

On December 1, the Ninth Air Force put its second operational craft into combat — the new, long-range Mustang — and for several months this pioneer group was the only Mustang unit in action.

Early in March, the Ninth Air Force began to develop at enormous speed. Two new versions of the A-20 Havoc — one the glass-nosed bombardier version, the other solid-nosed with six forward-firing machine guns — joined Marauders in attacking marshalling yards, airfields, and pilotless aircraft installations on the coast. Within a fortnight, husky Thunderbolts and trim, fast-moving Lightnings went into operation for the Ninth.

By Mid-spring, Ninth Air Force frontline fighter strength was the greatest in the world. But these fighters, predominantly Thunderbolts, were not intended primarily for escort, pursuit or patrol. All of them were converted to flghter-bombers, only incidentally seeking combat with the Luftwaffe and regularly hitting targets either too small, too well-concealed or too mobile for medium or light bombers.

Every week in April and May, Ninth Air Force fighter-bomber pilots invented new techniques and developed a flexible manner of attack effective against any target. They learned to approach their objectives at any angle from zero degrees to an almost perpendicular dive. Thunderbolts dived at steep angles, glided at shallow angles, skipped and slid bombs into tunnels, planted delayed-action bombs deliberately under the end-spans of bridges. Joining Marauders and Havocs in combined operations, Thunderbolts at great hazard dived to silence German antiaircraft guns on the secret weapon coast before the mediums and lights came to bomb coastal emplacements and flying bomb sites.

Meanwhile, Ninth Troop Carrier Command  under Brig Gen Paul L Williams who had directed airborne landings in Sicily and Italy — sent huge fleets over southern England practicing for the job that was to be performed with such precision on the night of June 5-6. By the beginning of May, the command was carrying out training maneuvers that dwarfed any real or simulated airborne operation in history.

Bombers and fighter-bombers of the Ninth stepped up their offensive to new heights. From May 1 to June 6, Marauders, Havocs, Thunderbolts, Lightnings, and Mustangs flew more than 35,000 individual attacks — over a thousand a day. Invasion was close, and the Ninth, while softening the invasion coastal defenses, had to be doubly careful to keep the enemy from guessing where the expeditionary force would strike.

Fighter-bombers, armed with anything from clusters of fragmentation bombs to the record weight of two 1,000-pounders, ranged from the Brest Peninsula, westernmost point in France, eastward to Cologne, Hanover and Bremen in Germany. North to south, they struck from the Netherlands to points within 100 miles of the Pyrenees and the Franco-Spanish border. Marauders and Havocs, using new pathfinder techniques and beginning the first American night-bombing attacks on European targets, blanketed the northern coast of France, Belgium and Holland, although they rarely went deeper than 135 miles inland.

Their objectives were all directly connected with the invasion.

After France fell, the Germans had built dozens of airfields in northern France and the Low1ands — some almost on the coast, others deeper inland and better protected. A ring of them, within 50 miles of Paris to the North and West, were in easy tactical range of Normandy. In the five weeks before D-day, the Ninth carried out 85 bombing attacks on Luftwaffe bases, some operational and others merely held ready for use. These operations against the Luftwaffe were fiercest in the twenty days from May 11 to May 31. On May 12 and 13, Marauders and Havocs smashed hard at hangars, repair shops, administration headquarters, and barracks at nine airfields around Paris and further east near the Franco-Belgian border.

Simultaneously, bombers and fighter-bombers carried out a persistent, effective series of attacks on bridges crossing the Seine and the Meuse to isolate what was to become the battlefield. Destruction of rail and highway bridges across the Seine from Paris to the sea was almost exclusively assigned to the Ninth. On May 1, there were thirteen important highway bridges and nine railway bridges crossing the Seine; on June 6, there were none. In the first month of invasion, reconnaissance pilots reported that the Seine had become a major obstacle in the movement of German troops westward into the battle zone. Panzer divisions and infantry units were tied up on the eastern bank, crossing by ferry or by pontoon bridges frequently thrown up at night and dismantled by day.

On May 1, the Ninth Air Force was in the middle of a highly concentrated offensive against enemy railway yards related to the battle area. The job was enormous, because before the war French railways had been among the best in the world and they were strengthened in four years of German occupation. The most important links in the railway network were those connecting German. industrial centers and training camps with the French coast.

In 76 operations against marshalling yards in the 35 days, the Ninth Air Force literally destroyed 16 repair centers and yards, forced the Germans to make hasty, expensive repairs on many others. Tracks were severed in hundreds of places in France and Belgium. Ninth Air Force fighter-bombers, with careful timing, would cut the tracks in front of a long freight train, then machine-gun and bomb the train when it stalled.

These fighter-bomber attacks were not only against railway yards but against any kind of traffic on the move across northern France. On May 21, otherwise an inactive day for allied aircraft, more than 500 Thunderbolts in 13 waves bombed and strafed trains all the way from Le Conquet to Coblenz. In one two-week period, ending D-day, 176 locomotives were utterly destroyed and scores of others were damaged.

Throughout the fall, winter and spring, Ninth Air Force bombers had to be diverted from their tactical job to attack the pilotless aircraft launching sites, which for eight months were described merely as military objectives. Braving intense flak, Marauders launched the offensive against the secret weapon coast on November 5, put a large part of their total effort into reducing the threat of pilotless aircraft.

These, then, were the pre-invasion assignments of the growing Ninth Air Force — the isolation of the battlefield from the east and south, neutralization of German airfields near the coast, persistent harrying attacks on pilotless aircraft installations, the search for and destruction of trains and trucks on the move, snarling up of busy railway lines and choke points.

On D-day, planes of the Ninth were in the air for almost twenty-four hours. At 0050 the first of a 200-mile procession of troop-carrying C-47s and gliders had dropped paratroopers on the Cherbourg Peninsula. At dawn, the huge unarmed and unarmored fleet was still pouring paratroopers and airborne infantrymen into the thick of German defenses to strike the blow that touched off the entire invasion.

At dawn, too, Ninth Air Force Marauder crews, which had been briefed at two o'clock in the morning, moved off in semi-darkness in a bitter driving rain to take a final crack at German coastal guns, leveled out over the Channel, before the ground troops landed. Eight waves of medium bombers, each carrying sixteen 250-pound bombs, and bombing from 4,000 feet, were battering the big guns as the first landing craft approached the shore.

As the movement of troops began, Lightnings patrolled the Channel and Thunderbolts circled in huge protective formations over the landing points. Other fighter-bombers simultaneously probed far inland to block roads, silence guns, blow up radio and power stations, head off troops. Thunderbolts stopped northbound convoys of military lorries dead long before they reached the coast. Havocs and Marauders returned to France again and again to give the Germans no rest and to disorganize their counter-invasion maneuvers.

The Thunderbolt and Lightning umbrella did more than protect the ground troops from a Luftwaffe which never boldly appeared. Formations often peeled off and zoomed downward to knock out German guns, to check reinforcements that could be seen in the distance moving toward the front. In more than one sector, the fighter-bombers saved critical situations on the firing lines by timely dive-bombing attacks on German positions that had held our forces at bay.

From June 6 onward, the Ninth Air Force settled down to a steady and virtually sleepless support of the ground troops.

When ground fighting reaches a crucial point or impasse, the Ninth Air Force is called upon for special jobs. In the field, this happens every day. Headquarters of the Ninth's tactical air commands are so close to ground headquarters that the fighter-bombers can get into the air to eliminate a ground obstacle within minutes. Stinsons and Piper Cubs furnished by the Ninth, truly front-line aircraft in the invasion of Europe, have become advance scouts for the artillery, reporting the accuracy of their fire, giving them the location of targets.

Occasionally air power is called upon for a massive effort in support of ground troops. When the British Army was stalled at Caen, large formations of every British and American offensive aircraft pulverized the German lines across the Orne and cleared the way for a mass crossing of the river.

The targets shift to new grid squares on the huge maps in headquarters war rooms. But the Ninth Air Force continues tactical operations in France, a jump or two ahead of the infantrymen, throwing decisive force into deadlocks, stripping, isolating, weakening German armies between our forces and Berlin.

This article was originally published in the October, 1944, "9th Air Force Issue" of Air News magazine, vol 7, no 4, pp 19-25, 70.
The original article includes 10 photos.
Photos credited to USAAF.

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