Air Tactics in France

By Kenneth R Porter
Flying's European Correspondent

Blasting a path for troops, AAF speeds drive on Reich by close tactical support.

Ninth Air Force Advance Headquarters,
Somewhere in France

On the second anniversary of the American air offensive launched from Britain on Hitler's "impregnable" Europe — on August 18, 1944, or D-plus-72, to be exact — the greatest disorganized retreat in the history of air warfare got under way as German mobile, tank and ground forces fanned out in utter rout from between Falaise and Argentan, two small villages in Normandy. It was Germany's Black Friday — a day of complete Allied supremacy.

That anniversary day bag for the combined Allied air forces totaled more than 3,800 transports destroyed or damaged, 124 tanks smashed and 96 crippled, scores of half-tracks, field cars and jeeps (or their German counterparts) destroyed, ammunition and supply dumps and fuel depots blasted to ruins. In all, 5,000 sorties were flown by Allied aircraft. But the striking thing about this "anniversary celebration" of the American air offensive against Germany was the almost complete concentration of combat aircraft for tactical purposes.

The smashing effectiveness of this comparatively new use of the AAF in tactical warfare might well cause one to overlook the strategic air warfare that made its success possible. On this same day— just two years before — 12 Flying Fortresses of the Eighth Air Force took off from an American airfield in England to bomb rail yards at Rouen as the initial step in the greatest of all strategic air offensives. Since then, nearly 300,000 tons of high explosives and free bombs have been dropped by the Eighth on strategic war industries in Europe.

During this 24-month campaign, the Eighth Air Force had flown 301,000 sorties from Britain — 162,000 by Flying Fortresses and Liberators and 139,000 by Mustang, Lightning and Thunderbolt long-range fighters — or an average of nearly 413 sorties a day.

Briefly that is the record — the two-year record of the Eighth Air Force. Its mission was, and is, strategic. It is a long range air force; its purpose is to cripple potential power. It concentrates on the destruction of factories and installations which would aid the enemy in the future. In comparison, the mission of the Ninth Air Force is purely tactical. Its purpose is to give close support to ground forces — to clear the way for the steady advance of troops.

Taken together, the thorough-going strategic warfare of the Eighth Air Force and the more recent tactical blitzkrieg of the Ninth represent an approach somewhere between that of the Russians and Germans who emphasize tactical air warfare and the British who emphasize strategic air warfare.

The air policy of the AAF is outlined in the field regulation booklet of the War Department entitled Command and Employment of Air Power. This booklet sets up the following rules for the use of combat aircraft.

First priority is given to the establishment and maintenance of air superiority, a task which involves destruction of the source of enemy air power. In a word, the first step in the AAF air offensive was precisely the one taken in the activation of the Eighth Air Force — the strategic employment of existent air power.

Second priority is given to the disruption of hostile lines of communications, destruction of supply dumps and installations and of troop concentrations in rear areas. This "isolation" of given battle areas is a joint strategic and tactical enterprise. Consistent with AAF policy, the task was undertaken early this year by both the Eighth (the strategic) and the Ninth (the tactical) Air Forces.

Third priority — or, more correctly, the third step — in the AAF offensive is "the destruction of selected objectives in the battle area in the furtherance of the combined air-ground effort." It is this third phase of the air offensive that gave birth to the Ninth Air Force whose spectacular exploits, the AAF says, is the logical sequence in the use of air power which the field regulation booklet outlines.

The Ninth is a youngster. It was only on February 17, 1944, that General Eisenhower's headquarters announced that elements of the Ninth which had fought in the Egyptian and Tunisian campaigns were in Britain under the command of Lieut Gen Lewis H Brereton. At that time the Ninth was the smallest air force in Britain. Within four months it became the strongest air force in the world.

It should be clear that an Allied victory required the destruction, for example, not only of factories which would, in six months, put 1,000 locomotives on rails in Germany and France, but the destruction of locomotives that already were in those countries. There was needed an air force which could live and maintain itself in the field, close to the troops. Such an air force had to be able to attack anything from a staff car to a railway yard, to silence a field gun at a few minutes notice, destroy a road used by a retreating enemy, or hit a tank which was holding up an infantry advance. That is why the Ninth grew so rapidly.

There are many things that differentiate the Ninth Air Force from the Eighth, the strategic air force here. But there is little to detract from the logical sequence of the use of both in winning the war. Only as one recognizes that sequence can he properly evaluate the effectiveness of tactical air warfare.

Of necessity, the Ninth is self-sufficient and self-mobile. It is the only air force to have its own engineering command equipped to build front-line emergency landing fields from which its fighter- bombers operate. It has its own air defense command to protect those air fields. Its service command, complete and self-contained, is sufficiently mobile to transport equipment either by land or sea and to move practically any repair or replacement parts to within shell-fire or even sniper range of the enemy. Besides its bombers and fighters-bombers, the Ninth has the largest force of Skytrains and American and British gliders in the world. These are the aircraft that flew thousands of paratroopers and airborne infantrymen into France five hours before the seaborne troops landed on D-day. Since then the Skytrains have done a less spectacular but equally important job of supply, evacuation of wounded, and transport of mail and equipment.

The Ninth fighters are divided into two tactical commands, one of which supports the American First Army and the other the American Third Army. It was recently announced that the Nineteenth Air Force is under the Ninth's command, presumably sharing in the type of operational activities for which the Ninth is famous. Both units fly the same equipment — Mustangs, Lightnings and Thunderbolts.

This, then, is the tactical air force that is backing up our Armies in France. Rather, it is the tactical air force with our infantry.

Its activities began months ago when the Ninth started operations from Britain with Marauders which once belonged to the old Eighth. Then Mustangs began arriving in the United Kingdom and the Ninth pioneered the use of these long- range fighters. After the Mustangs came two versions of the Havoc, one the glass-nosed bombardier version and the other solid-nosed with six forward-firing machine guns. Late in March, Thunderbolts and Lightnings went into operational work for the Ninth.

Preparation for tactical warfare began early in April and May. Fighter-bomber pilots studied new and improved old approach angles so that their objectives became equally vulnerable from zero degrees to an almost perpendicular dive. Thunderbolts were power-dived at amazingly steep angles and shallow-angle glides were developed into an entirely revolutionary method for planting delayed-action bombs.

Meanwhile, huge fleets of Skytrains, towing gliders, roamed over England, practicing for the big day. Air training maneuvers, like those carried out by ground units, dwarfed anything ever before seen in warfare.

In May, the Ninth stepped up the joint air offensive, the second stage in the AAF planning. From May 1 to June 6, Marauders, Havocs, Thunderbolts, Lightnings and Mustangs flew more than 35,000 missions — more than 1,000 a day. These attacks kept the enemy guessing as to where the invasion armada would strike, while covertly softening Jerry's coastal defenses in the Cherbourg area. Every one of those 35,000 missions was directly connected with the invasion.

There were, for instance, a ring of German airfields within 50 miles of Paris to the north and west that would have based German planes to hit the invasion ships. In the five weeks before D-day, 85 bombing attacks were carried out on these Luftwaffe bases with Marauders smashing hard at hangars, repair shops, headquarters and barracks. At the same time, the area of France which was to become the invasion battlefield was isolated. Bridges crossing the Seine and Meuse rivers became choice targets for the Ninth. On May 1 there were 13 important highway bridges and nine railway bridges crossing the Seine; by June 6 they had all been either completely destroyed or made unusable. In August the German 7th Army tried to escape across the Seine on the way back to Germany. What happened to that Army was largely due to the bombing carried out before D#day by the Ninth Air Force.

D-day was a busy one for Ninth pilots. There were three chief jobs for that day which marked the purest tactical employment of air power.

  1. At 0050 hours the first of a 200-mile procession of troop-carrying Skytrains and gliders dropped men on the Cherbourg peninsula. At dawn this unarmed fleet still was pouring men into the thick of German defenses.
  2. Marauder crews which had been briefed at 0200 hours, moved off at dawn in a driving rain to hit German coastal guns before the seaborne troops landed. Eight waves of medium bombers, each carrying 16 250-pound bombs, battered the big guns from 4,000 feet as our first landing craft approached the shore.
  3. As the movement of troops continued, Lightnings patrolled the Channel and Thunderbolts circled over the landing points. Other fighter-bombers probed far inland to block roads, silence guns, blow up radio and power stations and keep German reinforcements from moving up.

Since D-day, our Army's major moves toward Cherbourg, Caen, St Lo — and the breakthrough to Paris — were preceded by these same methodical bombardment and strafing attacks by the Ninth Air Force and the RAF's Second Tactical Air Force.

In the first week after D-day, Ninth fighter-bombers attacked more than 1,000 specified enemy targets in addition to making hundreds of unrecorded individual attacks on railway trains, staff cars, and on troops in camps, convoy, hedgerow positions, and forward observation posts. Until the weather closed in — the worst storm in 20 years hit the invasion coast the week after D-day — the tactical pilots were averaging more than 100 individual attacks an hour on permanently-established German defensive lines prepared months before.

As soon as there was room for them, the fighter-bombers moved to bases on the continent. These airfields had been constructed hastily by Ninth Air Force engineer units whose work started on D plus 1 — under artillery and sniper fire — building the first emergency landing strip in France. Thunderbolts of the Ninth flew from a refueling and re-arming strip in Normandy on June 13, marking the first scheduled flight of Allied warplanes in France. Simultaneously, Skytrains loaded with complete staffs of surgeons, nurses and medical technicians moved to the "far shore" to initiate the first aerial ambulance service of the war.

You've read about German fuel shortages. Here is some history:

On the same day as our aerial ambulance shuttle service inauguration, June 13, the first of a series of pinpoint attacks on a trio of large fuel dumps at Domfront, 40 miles southwest of Caen, was carried out by Marauders. The Nazi panzer units operating against the British 7th Armored Division in the Caen area were actually drawing fuel from these dumps which, it was later revealed, contained a sufficient quantity to supply 12 enemy divisions. These same dumps at Domfront, as well as a huge store of fuel hidden in trenches and underground tanks in the Foret d'Andaine, were blasted on June 15 by Marauders and Havocs. In fact, during the latter part of June and early July our bombs hit the German depot in the Foret de Conches, 40 miles southwest of Rouen, another in the woods near Senoches, others at Bruz, Rennes and in the Foret de la Guerche. The fuel offensive is still on. Prisoners of war testify that panzer companies are abandoning their vehicles and marching as infantry, of armored units stealing gas from the Luftwaffe, of regiments on foot and bicycle because they had no gasoline for their vehicles.

During the advance on Cherbourg, Army and Air Forces officers worked out — for the first time in the European theater — a plan whereby ground forces suddenly in need of air support could obtain it immediately from a pool kept "on call" at nearby strips. Such requests are passed on to the strips through a centralized channel that permits the air commander to approve or reject them. If his approval is granted, the planes get to the point of call in an amazingly short length of time.

Here is a picture of the fighter-bombers at work on tactical objectives. On June 22, at 1300 hours, the first of more than a dozen waves of planes, flying 48 abreast, struck from west to east just below Cherbourg to bomb and strafe all German gun positions, encampments, supply depots, ammunition dumps, pill-boxes and all mobile and fixed artillery units they could find in line of march of the advancing First Army. They were directed by smoke signals from our own forward troops.

Striking the three miles of German defenses between Cherbourg and our front lines, fresh fighter-bomber formations completely blanketed the area with flights zooming overhead every five minutes for an hour. Some of the toughest strong-points ever encountered, consisting of massive concrete stockades surrounded by high rock walls and mid-Victorian moats, virtually invulnerable to ground attack, and huge pyramid-shaped forts of steel-reinforced masonry were among the targets destroyed.

At 1400 hours, Marauders and Havocs began flights at five-minute intervals over the area to attack even stronger positions which had not been hit by the fighter-bombers. This phase of the battle coincided with a powerful artillery barrage from the ground troops. All this adds up to the reason why Cherbourg fell — and the same story could be told concerning dozens of other similar points that have fallen to us since then.

Typical of the emergency missions carried out by the Ninth was their assignment on July 27. The First Army had been held up south of the St Lo-Periers road and air support was needed. Marauders, Havocs and fighter-bombers were ordered to bomb rectangles. Some of the aircraft were armed with fragmentation bombs and other small general purpose missiles. Others were assigned to area bombing and the remainder were told to hit specific targets at crossroads or inside villages within their rectangle.

The area attacked on that day was about five miles long and a mile wide, and was due south of a similar rectangle which had been attacked by heavy bombers of the Eighth Air Force. The operations had the desired effect — within a matter of hours two First Army armored columns had pushed forward 12 miles. Coutances fell to our forces soon afterward.

It would be next to an impossible task to chronicle the daily activities of our tactical air forces in France. Almost hourly come releases like these from their headquarters: "On the afternoon of August 1 more than 300 Marauders and Havocs were dispatched to attack bridges across the Loire and Seine rivers with effective results."

The toll of destruction also included 69 motor transports, three staff cars, 18 horse-drawn guns and 28 horse-drawn carts. Troops, guns, and roads in the battle-zone were hit. Thirty-eight German tanks and armored vehicles were destroyed.

"Widespread and frequent attacks upon railway targets between Le Mans and Tours have netted a total of 140 railway cars destroyed; four locomotives destroyed and tracks were cut in 21 places. Lightning and Thunderbolt fighter-bombers also bombed enemy fuel dumps at Flers, Tours, Rennes and Laval. Huge fires were reported."

The strafing of roads in France has brought even more spectacular results. Originally the Germans moved divisions over roads at 30-yard intervals, day and night. Then they moved onto side roads and soon restricted movements to nighttime. Today they go only with aircraft lookouts posted on every vehicle.

Staff cars, half tracks, buses, motorcycles and tanks litter the roads in an indescribable jumbled mass, the dead lying in ditches where the Thunderbolts left them. The roads are so cluttered that American bulldozers have been called up to clear the wreckage into the fields.

These low level attacks by fighters and fighter-bombers — especially those carrying rockets — have frayed Nazi nerves to the breaking point. Maj Gen E R Quesada, commander of the Ninth, credits his air force with the creation of conditions behind enemy lines that are unbearable. "No army can stand it;" he says, "the combined and coordinated effort is getting the Germans down."

Just how demoralizing the air blitz has been is indicated in reports of wholesale surrender of ground troops to flying squadrons. Recently a Thunderbolt squadron "captured" more than 300 Nazi soldiers. Operating over the German lines the squadron came upon a group of enemy troops standing on a road. One was waving a white flag. Wheeling over the group the airmen headed in the direction of the American lines, waggling wings as a signal for the Germans to follow. They marched off in columns of four while the Thunderbolts maintained patrol overhead until American soldiers, summoned by aircraft, came out and took them in tow.

On another occasion, a fort that had been subjected to considerable bombardment by land-based field artillery and 155-mm guns, surrendered immediately after fighters dropped 500-pound bombs on the installation.

The prisoners themselves give the clearest picture of the effectiveness of the air strikes. They report that dive bombing and strafing are more destructive of morale than level bombing, that German officers are unable to hold their formations together under dive-bombing and strafing attacks.

Armed reconnaissance by bomb-laden and heavily-armed fighters, and radiophone coordination between ground forces — especially armored units — and the air, have constituted one of the principal techniques of their recent successes.

Summarizing their efforts, high-ranking ground force officers credit the Ninth with providing the finest air-ground co-operation in the history of warfare. General Bradley, American ground force commander, says: "We could not have achieved what we have if it were not for the Ninth Air Force." And that terse comment on this final phase of the AAF drive into Europe applies equally well to every step of its plan which was put into operation back in August, 1942.

This article was originally published in the November, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 35, no 5, pp 24-25, 84, 88, 90.
The PDF of this article includes photos of a rocket strike on a rail line, the aftermath of a rocket strike on a road, and B-26s over the Rhone river.
Photos credited to British Official, Acme.