This section is presented to Flying's readers as a special feature of great historical value. The material here is reprinted from the Army Air Force's hitherto-classified publication, Impact, and records the role of Allied tactical air power. The story of our strategic air power was presented in a similar secion in Flying's December issue. The last of these sections, dealing with the AAF's airpower against Japan will appear next month.
On the morning of August 7, 1944, two weeks after the First American Army had broken out of the Normandy beachhead at St Lo, the front was visited by a certain German General Warmilont, Hitler's personal representative. The Germans had been attacking savagely for days in an attempt to close the gap and cut off the American forces which had been pouring through to the south. Warmilont undoubtedly was dispatched to find out why this had not been done. The sentiments he brought with him from his Fuehrer unfortunately have not been recorded. But the blast he got back from Von Kluge, commanding the German armies, was:
"Whether the enemy can be stopped at this point is still questionable. His air superiority is terrific and smothers almost all our movements. At the same time, every movement of his is prepared and protected by his air force. Our losses in men and equipment are extraordinary. The morale of our troops has suffered heavily under murderous enemy fire, especially since our infantry units now consist only of haphazard groups. Behind the front, terrorists, feeling the end approaching, grow steadily bolder. The 84th Corps has reached a certain degree of disintegration... fresh troops must be brought in .. from somewhere..."General Warmilont fled from his melancholy recitation. How he later prepared the bitter pill for consumption by his chief will never be known. But two things were certainly as clear to him as they were to the other German generals. The Luftwaffe was nowhere to be seen, having failed utterly in its greatest crisis. Without it, the mighty Wehrmacht was being dissected by an enemy ground force no greater than itself and with considerably less battle experience, but made irresistible by the addition of American tactical air power.
This scarcely resembled the situation of a scant four and a half years earlier. The Germans had started the struggle with all the advantages except three. Their political, economic, and sociological structure had been carefully shaped for war for a number of years. They had the best equipped and most efficient (if not the largest) army, by far the largest and most powerful air force in the world. They were surrounded by smaller, weaker, badly prepared neighbors. Of the great powers which might possibly constitute a threat to them, one, Russia, was an enigma whose military ability and industrial efficiency was open to question; the second, Britain, was involved in trying to hold together a sprawling empire by political rather than by military persuasion and had no army or air force worthy of mention (her fleet was powerful, but Germany intended to fight this war on land and considered herself impervious to blockade); the third, the United States, was thousands of miles away and woefully unprepared.
Of her three disadvantages, Germany was aware of one. She was smaller than some of her potential enemies but she depended on her speed of conquest to enlarge both her manpower and her resources to a point where she could safely ignore this handicap. Moreover, she leaned heavily on what she thought was her superior air force.
The second disadvantage, and one she was unaware of, was the lack of anything to contend successfully with two British items, the new Spitfire and, more important, radar. German intelligence didn't know about radar and couldn't get the full story on the Spit. Britain had come to the correct conclusion that she could not be invaded as long as she controlled the air above her. Hence, the Spit: heavily armed and swift, designed exclusively for the destruction of other planes in the air, made enormously efficient by radar. Against German aircraft that had insufficient armor and armament, the result was massacre. The German failure against the Spitfire-radar combination may well have cost Germany the war. It certainly for a long time ended her offensive ability in the west.
The third disadvantage was rooted in her concept of how the war would be fought and was, in essence, an insufficiency in the realm of ideas. Her air force was (and its remains still are) purely tactical. Her air planners did not discern the huge dividends that can accrue from a carefully planned strategic bomber offensive against the key industries that support ground armies.
After the Battle of Britain, it was apparent that, given time, Germany could be expected to reshape her air force and return to the attack. It therefore was clear that the war was only to be won for our side by wrecking German war industry with air blows and by invading the continent and defeating the German armies in the field. But Britain was small and the resources of her empire were at the ends of the earth, separated from England by the U-boat fleet.
It is against this background that the importance of America emerges. We were distant enough to be unmolested by bombing, and had the industrial capacity to make an enormous amount of anything we chose. With these assets, it was logical to assume that if our theories were valid and if we made the right sort of things to support our theories we could carry the battle to the enemy. Thus the burden of "winning" the war was in a sense put on America's shoulders. Inasmuch as the airplane had already proved itself the dominant weapon in modern war, the importance of clear thinking and good planning by the US Air Corps was only too clear.
At this juncture, the leaders of the Army Air Corps well realized the principal tasks of military aviation used tactically: (1) the gaining of air superiority, (2) isolating the battlefield, (3) co-operation with the ground forces in offensive operations If, before 1939, the terrific power of tactical aviation had not been appreciated, the Germans corrected this. Their air force gave, in Poland, the Low Countries and France, a shockingly clear lesson on the effectiveness of the airplane as an air-ground weapon.
Our present doctrine on the employment of tactical air power did not evolve overnight. While we clearly understood what had to be done, we did not learn how to do it until we had been through the African campaign where the doctrine was forged that you can read in FM 100-20 today. This doctrine postulates a single commander under whom equal subordinate commanders of air and ground work together at a combined air-ground headquarters. Such an arrangement, first developed by Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham and General Montgomery, guarantees (1) joint planning wherein ground plans are made utilizing air to maximum effectiveness; (2) efficiency: the air commander, who understands what air can do, is not in a position of being ordered to do the "impossible" by those unfamiliar with the capabilities of air and (3) flexibility: instead of being parceled out and "frozen" to various ground units, air can be utilized for strong punches where most needed. Also from the African experience came the splitting of air forces into separate tactical and strategic air forces with the latter, through top command, available for tactical tasks when needed.
While German tactical aviation was a mean customer, particularly in the early days when lack of opposition made it look good no matter how it happened to be organized, it never rose to the heights of effectiveness exhibited today in the combined operations of our tactical air commands and ground armies in Europe. The Germans kept their tactical air units shackled under the command of ground generals and in numerous other ways did not measure up to us. One out- standing example is the tremendous potency we have derived from fighters by hanging bombs on them. Early in the war the Germans used their fighters solely for escort. And now, to the beginnings of the 9th Air Force.
In June, 1942, Maj Gen Lewis H Brereton, commanding the 10th US Air Force at New Delhi, interrupted a staff meeting to read a cable ordering activation of the US Army Middle East Air Force. The situation of the Allies at that moment, theories or no theories, was little short of desperate. America had been in the war for six months and had seen all her bases in the Far Pacific overrun, her puny overseas air strength literally engulfed. The Japs were in the process of solidifying their enormous conquests and stood with powerful land, sea and air forces ready to launch two further drives, one at Australia, one to the west into India. In Europe the Germans, having barely missed knocking both Britain and Russia out of the war in the two preceding years, were engaged in a second titanic struggle with the Soviet Armies. At the same time they were firmly entrenched in Africa and threatened at any moment to capture Egypt and the Suez Canal. This would have flanked the Russians in the Caucasus. Worse, it would have unraveled the British Empire at its most vital seam and would have added immeasurably to the peril of India and Australia.
It was decided, therefore, to reinforce the British strength in Egypt rather than make further efforts to prop up its crumbling bastions in the jungles of India and Burma. Accordingly, Brereton proceeded to Cairo with a single squadron of Fortresses, which in those early, cockeyed days had been making its way east to bomb Tokyo, and the 9th Air Force was born. America's organized participation in the European tactical air war had begun.
A better proving ground for a tactical air force than North Africa could not have been found. It had all the elements, on a small scale, of the greater battles we would have to fight later. We could profit cheaply by our own mistakes and by the example of the British, who already had two years' experience under their belts.
The first thing learned was the validity of what was to become the opening sentence of FM 100-20, which states: "Land power and air power are co-equal and interdependent forces, neither is an auxiliary of the other." Air and ground commanders met each day and between them worked out the best methods of employing their combined forces. They had constantly before them the sorry spectacle of the Italian Air Force, whose direction had been left to earth-bound generals and whose strength was consequently frittered away in one meaningless little operation after another.
Supply and maintenance problems had to be conquered. Sand and its end-product, dust, were the common enemy of all combatants. It coarsened food, thickened water, scored engine and gun alike. A multitude of unforeseeable little things had to be learned. Multiplied over and over again they, in the long run, enormously increased the effectiveness of the 9th, whose quick-learning ground crews kept a high percentage of aircraft operational at all times. The words of an anonymous squadron line chief illustrate the nature of these small but important details:
"To protect the pitot static tube from dust, we slip on an old GI sock. At night we cover up the canopies with old mattress covers. If we didn't, the glass would reflect in the moonlight. The white stars on the wing tips can also be seen from the air on moonlight nights, When we run short of canvas I see to it that those wing tips are covered with extra blankets or empty barracks bags. The shell extractor chutes for the wing guns have small openings which would permit sand to enter and jam the guns if we didn't cover them. So we paste paper over the openings. With a razor we cut little slits. Then, when the guns are shooting, the fired shells can easily force themselves out of the way."
Other things also were learned: the necessity for close formations, the necessity for fighter escort, the peculiarities of German planes and their weaknesses, the need for some method of blind bombing, the importance of constant photo coverage, and how to keep up with a front that was moving like an express train. Our aircraft were modified again and again. We hung bombs on our Warhawks, thus taking the first step in a fighter-bomber technique which in two years was to give us an overpowering advantage in Europe.
The mission of the 9th in Africa was simple: Eliminate the enemy air force and at the same time work with the British 8th Army. But the execution was difficult. The 9th was still tiny. Its original Fortresses had been strengthened by a squadron of Liberators which already had begun limited operations in the Middle East. While these gained operational experience with strikes at ships and port facilities in Greece and Crete, the wheels at home were beginning to turn and the first trickle of an ever-increasing stream of aircraft began to emerge. Soon two Warhawk groups and a Mitchell group arrived. On October 23, when the Battle of El Alamein started, Brereton had 164 aircraft. The British had 1,117. Opposed to them were about 1,000 German and 1,000 Italian planes of all combat types. The destruction of this enemy force was undertaken forthwith. The North African ports were hammered remorselessly. Tobruk and Bengasi became so clogged with the hulks of enemy supply ships that they could no longer be used. Warehouses were smashed, convoys sunk. The enemy's supply lines became further and further strained until a captured German ofiicer was prompted to repeat sardonically a war cry currently attributed to Rommel: "Auf zum Angriff! Spirit ist da! (Forward to the attack! Gasoline has arrived!)"
At the same time the mediums plastered the German airfields with fragmentation bombs and the fighters took their steady toll in the air. By January, 1943, Rommel had lost 700 planes. Of particular interest was the fact that many of these were captured intact by the ground forces, unable to escape because their tanks were dry. The value of the plane as an interdictor of battlefields was becoming apparent.
We continued to grow. A larger American air force, the 12th, was moving in from the west and hastening the collapse of the Axis in Africa. The Germans were not able to match that growth, nor could they replace their aircraft losses as they would have liked, The battle for the elimination of the Luftwaffe had spread as the 8th Air Force and the RAF in England set their sights on aircraft production and other strategic facilities in western Europe. To combat this menace, Germany was forced to shave her aircraft requirements for Africa and for her assault on Stalingrad, and to commit an ever greater number of planes to the defense of her home industries.
This trend continued for over two years. It was not reversed until the Russian advance in the early months of 1945 had almost reached the gates of Berlin, emphasizing, as no words can, what the Germans themselves thought of the effectiveness of strategic bombing. Germany also overhauled her aircraft manufacturing schedules, upgrading them sharply, and embarked on a concentrated program of single-engined fighter production. But it did not come soon enough. Her involvement at home merely speeded the debacles in Africa and the Caucasus. If she had had sufficient aircraft or supplies at either place, she might have reached a tremendous land decision affecting the entire war. But she did not. The best she could do was to make spasmodic efforts to maintain her strength in Tunisia, pumping in a few planes and supplies as blood might be pumped into a corpse. On one memorable occasion, April 18, 1943, a huge swarm of enemy transports was intercepted flying a tight formation right on the water near Cape Bon. It was a massacre. The 57th Fighter Group got 75 Ju-52's and Me-323's for a loss of six Warhawks.
As the campaign in Africa drew to a close in the spring of 1943. plans for an invasion of Europe from the west were beginning to take shape. The headquarters staff of the 9th Air Force was sent to England and began the enormous task of building a tactical air force to participate in the invasion. This would eventually consist of a bomber command and three tactical air commands to work with the three American armies being gathered for the offensive. There was less than a year to do the job. D-Day in Normandy had been set for some time in May or June of 1944. It was a year of feverish preparation, a year of practice, practice and more practice. One organizational setup after another was tried, from the Headquarters Command down. If it worked, it became SOP. If it didn't, it was scrapped and a new one put in. Personnel had to be gathered and trained. Radar, as an offensive weapon, was coming in. As such, it was a brand new device, little understood and its varied potentialities unexplored. These had to be learned.
Above all, suitable aircraft had to be obtained. As a starter the Marauders of the 8th Air Support Command were turned over to the 9th to form the nucleus of a tactical bomber force, along with a few Thunderbolts as an infant Fighter command. The latter had been designed as long-range, high-altitude escort planes. The problems of learning how to use them for dive bombing, glide bombing, toss bombing and skip bombing, also for strafing at minimum altitudes, the problem of improving visibility and otherwise modifying them for these unfamiliar tasks had to be thrashed out. A photo reconnaissance force of Lightnings had to be developed. More modifications were necessary here. Eventually the long-awaited Mustang began to appear. Designed, like the Thunderbolt, for long-range escort, it was to be used by the 9th for tactical reconnaissance. Still more modifications.
These myriad obstacles were further complicated by the fact that the 9th was thrown into battle as fast as its units were organized, to supplement the work of the combined strategic bomber offensive. The 8th Air Force and the RAF Bomber Command were hammering at Germany day and night in one of the bitterest and most protracted struggles in the history of warfare. According to our doctrine, the Luftwaffe had to be overcome if our invasion was to stick. D-Day was drawing constantly closer and the 9th found itself in the battle up to its neck.
Up through the summer of 1943 the Germans had constructed several hundred large airfields throughout France, Belgium and Holland, many of them along the coast. Fighters from these fields attacked our bomber formations in swarms from the moment they crossed the Channel. If they could be driven back from the coast, our bombers could fly farther in safety, their losses would be fewer, and as a result they would be able to drop many more bombs on their targets. The mission of the 9th Bomber Command was to hit these coastal fields. During the summer and fall of 1943 this was done with increasing effectiveness. At first the Germans reduced the number of aircraft on their coastal fields but eventually gave up entirely trying to operate them. The endless task of filling up cratered runways, repairing hangars and living quarters, and the mounting piles of twisted planes, wrecked either by frags or by strafing fighters, evidently convinced them that the game wasn't worth the candle. By the end of 1943 the air over the Channel coast was ours.
But the 9th received no rest. Great numbers of flying bomb sites began to mushroom along the Calais and Normandy coasts, and the task of eliminating them became the 9th's top priority. No more unsatisfactory target was ever given any bomber force. The sites were well concealed, simply and sturdily constructed, their facilities usually so located as to comprise not more than five per cent of the target area. An enormous effort was expended on them from December. 1943, to the spring of 1944, with the result that the Germans abandoned their plans for launching the bombs in huge numbers from "ski-sites" and were driven to the construction of "modified" and portable sites. When the V-blitz finally started from these substitutes, the scale was too small to affect the course of the war.
The 9th Bomber Command was now full-grown and fully trained. The 9th Fighter Command needed but one more metamorphosis to prepare it completely for the second battle of France. It shut its eyes, gritted its teeth and gave birth to a huge and powerful baby, the 9th Tactical Air Command, consisting of an entire operating headquarters and all the planes of its mother command. It was organized to work directly with the First US Army (the American invasion force) according to the pattern so carefully worked out in Africa. Soon another TAC, the 19th, was spawned, destined for co-operation with the Third US Army.
The stage was now set for the greatest amphibious assault ever undertaken by man. The problem was the familiar one of any such operation: to pour men and equipment ashore at one or more points so fast that they could overwhelm the enemy defenses there, then dig in firmly to avoid being thrown back into the sea by the first enemy counterattack. From then on it would be necessary to siphon men and equipment into the beachhead faster than they could be brought up from the interior by the enemy. In this way only would we be able to build up sufficient local superiority to break out of our beachhead and engage our foes in a war of movement.
In the light of these requirements, the anti-rail and anti-airfield stage of our campaign appeared logical. In a few months of concentrated blows at these targets we hoped to eliminate the Luftwaffe entirely from the battle area and so to wreck the transportation system that troops could not be moved in fast enough to oppose our build-up. The task was a colossal one. There were a couple of hundred airfields to be hit, each one a difficult target to knock out. Once hangars and repair facilities are destroyed (and our own air forces in the Pacific have demonstrated that you can operate without these if you have to), all you can do is to put holes in runways and damage aircraft by strafing or with frags. With respect to the former, it is hard to stay ahead of the enemy, who can fill in the holes almost as fast as you make them. The latter becomes more difficult as the number of enemy planes decreases and as they are more widely dispersed and more carefully hidden. The rail problem was even greater.
Northwestern Europe has a more complete network of double rail track than any other part of the world:
|Railroad miles |
|Percentage of |
Railroads in peace or war are accustomed to dealing with wrecks and washouts. Germany had augmented the regular emergency crews with extra workmen standing by in all important yards, and had placed large stocks of extra rails, switches and ties alongside the tracks. Experience in early attacks indicated that a rail yard could be completely blocked with a well-placed load of 500 tons, but only for a day or so. By then a through line would be in operation, with others following, depending on how badly they were needed. Prior to the invasion, Germany was only using about 30 per cent of the system's capacity for military purposes, the rest being taken up by industrial and civil traffic. Thus, capacity would have to be reduced by 70 per cent before military requirements were affected other than locally, for it was reasonable to assume that French peasants would not do much traveling nor French industry much shipping if the space were needed by German troops. Finally, we could count on considerable incidental destruction of locomotives and cars, but Germany was well supplied with both, having systematically collected the rolling stock of almost every country she conquered in Europe. Also the shortening of her communications lines as the result of Russian advances had eased her rolling stock position considerably. An added problem was the necessity for distributing our blows in such a way as not to betray where we planned to attack.
Despite these obstacles, the program was laid on and a monotonous period of destruction and repair ensued. The airfield attacks were most successful. GAF operational efficiency was cut way down, many fields were abandoned. The toll of enemy aircraft destroyed during the first six months of 1944 reached the staggering total of 6,053. These attacks supplemented the strategic campaign against the German aircraft industry and there is no question but that our overall counter-air force operation was the decisive factor in the Luftwaffe's failure to oppose the invasion. However, it is probable that the enormous numbers of Allied fighters in the air at all times and the feeling that the weakened GAF should be conserved for later crises also played their part. The complete answer will not be known until the GAF records are studied in greater detail. At any rate the result was as ordered:
|D plus 1||300||60-70|
|D plus 2||525-550||75-100|
|D plus 3||500||110-120|
|D plus 4||260-270||60-70|
Results of the rail yard campaign are difficult to assess. As expected, yards were repaired almost as fast as they were bombed, and no insuperable difficulties were encountered by the Germans until after the invasion had started, by which time a specific rail interdiction program (to be discussed shortly) was under way that resulted in enemy troops having fantastic troubles in reaching the battle area. However, a general lessening of efficiency was achieved without indicating just where we would land. And as D-Day came closer, and as our rail effort became more and more concentrated, it became harder and harder for the Germans to keep up. The cost to us in effort was immense, justified only by the belief that anything, no matter how expensive, would be worth doing if it helped the initial landing.
On April 15, 1944, the plan for the invasion which set forth the part all Britain-based aircraft would play was formally issued by Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Air Forces. It called for maximum effort by the RAF Bomber and Fighter Commands, the RAF Coastal Command, the Air Defense of Great Britain, two American and one British airborne divisions, the 8th Bomber and Fighter Commands, the 9th Bomber Command and the 9th and 19th Tactical Air Commands. Its size and complexity made it a sobering document. Consider, for example, the responsibilities of a single one of these organizations, the 9th TAC:
During preparatory phase (D minus 30 to D minus 1):
The responsibilities of the other Air Commands were equally comprehensive.
There was now a month and a half left, D-Day having been set for June 5 (it was later postponed 24 hours because of bad weather), and the landing area identified as a strip of beach on the Normandy coast between Cherbourg and Le Havre. This had been chosen after long examinations of the coastline and of the defenses erected thereon by the Germans; Also, its location with relation to the Seine and Loire rivers suggested that it could be isolated by cutting the bridges across them. Furthermore, enlargement of the beachhead there would result in possible early capture of the ports of Le Havre and Cherbourg. The perfect place for the assault would have been Calais, where the Channel is narrowest, where the beaches are the best for such a landing, and where excellent ports are near at hand. However, Calais beaches were much more strongly defended than Normandy and were on the wrong side of the Seine for successful implementation of the interdiction plan contemplated.
It was now necessary to obtain a more detailed knowledge of the beaches selected. Vertical photography had shown intricate barricades in the shallow water and on the sand, but could not show how strong these were, whether made of wood or concrete, whether anchored deep in the sand, whether they could be overrun by landing craft, or avoided by infantrymen storming the beach. The extreme hazard of taking low-level pictures of a strip so formidably defended made the invasion commanders hesitate to order any "dicing" runs until General Quesada, commanding the 9th TAC, offered to talk to members of his photo reconnaissance group, the 10th. He went down that night ready to suggest practice missions and diversionary attacks, but was met with such a blast of "He1l no. We're ready now. Just tell us what you want and we'll get it," that he went away and left the details to the group.
The first "dicing" mission was flown on May 6 in an F-5, a light, unarmed version of the Lightning, with a camera so mounted in the nose that it took a picture every five seconds, ahead and to the side of the plane. Earlier, Lightning pilots had been told that they might have to take photographs from as low as 29,000 feet. But that morning, 2nd Lieut Albert Lanker crossed the Channel at 15 feet. He reached the other side at Bercq-sur-Mer, turning around a large sand dune to lessen his chances of being hit during the turn. His pictures later showed this dune to be an enemy gun position.
Then the superbuzz started. He encountered five groups of men at work on the beach defenses, "heading straight for each group just to watch them scatter and roll. They were completely surprised didn't see me until I was almost on top of them." He was fired on repeatedly at point blank range by riflemen, but was not hit. He scaled a cliff at the end of his run, clearing the top by six feet, and got home safely. Later promoted to 1st lieutenant, he has been missing in action since December 26, [1944 JLM] during an attempt to drop photographs from minimum altitude to the beleaguered American troops at Bastogne.
All together 11 dicing missions were flown and superb photographs obtained from Calais to Cap de la Hague. The inherent danger of this work is indicated by the fact that the pilot on the second mission, Lieut Fred Hayes, was never heard from again. On the third, Lieut Allen R Keith collided with a seagull, which stuck in the glass in front of his bulletproof windshield, causing "limited visibility." But the assault forces got what they wanted. Mines with trip wires were detected attached to the tops of posts, gun positions were revealed in the sides of cliffs, weak spots in the defenses located. Thousands of copies of these pictures were distributed throughout the invasion army. The 10th Group received a Presidential citation.
Also on May 6, the focus of bomber attacks on rails was considerably narrowed. From the 15th on, airfield attacks were confined to those within a 130-mile radius of Caen, to compel German fighters to operate from bases at least as far distant from the beachhead as those of the Allies. During the last few days innumerable last-minute preparations were made and in an atmosphere of mounting tension the plans for interdicting the landing area were activated.
The geography of northwest France lends itself to such a plan. Two rivers, the Seine and Loire, completely cut off Normandy and Brittany, with the exception of a small gap near Paris, from the rest of the country. If the rail bridges across these rivers could be knocked down the enemy would have to spend an enormous amount of time unloading freight and troops, taking them across the rivers by boat or pontoon bridge, and then reloading them on trains waiting on the other side, Not only would this slow up movement but it would tie up a much greater number of locomotives and cars. Further, the rolling stock within the area of interdiction (which could not be replaced with fresh stock as long as the bridges were down) could gradually be reduced by bomber and fighter attack until there was so little of it left in the area that the rail system would have to be abandoned and road transport resorted to. This was not desirable from a German point of view for two reasons. First, road transport is much less efficient than rail transport. Second, the strategic bombing campaign had begun to create shortages in trucks and tires, and above all in gasoline, a shortage which was soon to interrupt German dreams of victory with nightmares of the most fiendish nature.
Accordingly, a bridge campaign was laid on. By D-Day all the rail bridges on the Seine from Paris to the sea were down and, more important, kept down by a variety of attackers from fighters to heavy bombers. One bridge at Rouen was smashed and rebuilt seven times without ever staying up long enough to be of use to the enemy. The Vernon bridge was knocked out by four skip-bombing Thunderbolts, the first time such a thing had been accomplished in the theater. The other ships in the squadron which did the job scored direct hits on a munitions factory and came staggering home with their wings full of rocks from the tremendous explosions which resulted. Their triumph was completely overlooked in the excitement over the Vernon bridge. An analysis of results of the bridge attacks bears out the contention of the 8th Air Force that high-altitude operations by it against such narrow targets would not be rewarding in proportion to the effort expended. It showed that skip-bombing by fighters on the deck was the most effective (although most dangerous), followed by dive bombing and last by precision bombing from high altitudes. Nevertheless, the necessity of completing this job influenced SHAEF in putting all available forces on it and on a few 11th-hour rail yard attacks.
For D-Day itself an air plan of great complexity and scope was developed. The RAF Coastal Command would patrol the Channel for submarines. A constant fighter cover to protect the convoy from the air would be flown, directed from a control ship in the Channel. During the night two American airborne divisions would drop near the base of the Cherbourg peninsula and a British parachute division on the Orne river near Caen. Also during the night the RAF Bomber Command would saturate with its entire strength five selected rail yards in the immediate invasion area. At dawn, 1,200 8th Air Force heavies would begin to plaster the beach defenses themselves.
This latter operation was a delicate one. It was realized that direct hits on defense installations with more than five per cent of the bomb load were unlikely and that confusion and panic among the defenders would be the real dividend from the operation, For this reason, it would be necessary for the invasion fleet to hit the beach immediately after the bombing while confusion was still at its height. It was planned to wait 1,000 yards offshore during the attack and drive to the beach five minutes after the last plane had dropped its bombs, if the weather were good, 10 minutes if it were bad. In the latter event, the heavies would use radar bombing methods, approaching the coast at right angles and depending on the clear demarkation line between land and water which would show up on their radar scopes to enable them to drop sufficiently near the water to be effective, and at the same time avoid hitting ships on the water.
Finally, the great day came, and the electric phrase "this is it" was heard in hundreds of briefing rooms. The invasion armada steamed out of the British ports, the parachutists and glider troops droned off into the night, and the RAF went to work, dropping over 5,000 tons on five rail yards, at that time the greatest single lift in air warfare. By first light the American heavies had commenced their job, and at H-Hour the first assault troops crashed through barbed wire and mine fields onto French soil. As expected, the defenders in most places were dazed by the bombing.
But bitter fighting ensued along the entire coast, particularly in one zone of American responsibility where a complete German division had by pure chance moved in the day before for beach maneuvers. But the landing stuck. In two days it was clear that no immediate counterattack by enemy troops already in the area could be expected to push us back into the sea. Air had played its part. The GAF, as noted earlier, made only a puny effort, considering the cosmic nature of our attack. German submarines failed utterly to penetrate the shipping lane protected so carefully by naval forces and by the RAF Coastal Command. Careful study of the enemy reaction immediately preceding and during the invasion makes it plain that complete surprise had been achieved by our forces, due in large part to a magnificently executed campaign on the part of the RAF to liquidate all enemy radar installations along the coast. It also appears that our aerial blows around Calais and down in the Nantes area were not wasted. For weeks the Germans believed that the Normandy effort was a feint and the real thrust would come to the east where we had for a long time been planting bombs like nasturtium seeds.
Air followed ground right into the beachhead. By D plus 2, an emergency fighter strip had been cleared by aviation engineers who had one company defending the strip while the rest of the battalion worked on it. Others soon followed, and the 9th TAC, whose mission was to cooperate with the First American Army, moved in while the fields were still under fire. One of them endured heavy mortar fire for three weeks and also showers of fragments from our own flak, which went up like a curtain whenever an enemy plane appeared. As units reached the continent they came under the command of Gen E R Quesada, commanding the 9th TAC. Those remaining in England were operated by Gen O P Weyland, commanding the 19th TAC.
During the early days of the beachhead all went well. The British held the line along the Orne river, while the Americans fanned west and reduced the Cherbourg peninsula. But as our ground forces worked their way inland they ran into a type of terrain which put them further and further behind schedule. That section of Normandy, known as the Bocage country, is characterized by small fields edged with deep drainage ditches and stout, impenetrable hedges. The narrow winding roads are also hedge-lined. Each hedge became a fortress, each field a dangerous open space across which withering enemy fire spattered in such a way as to discourage frontal assaults. The Germans had succeeded, despite our rail attacks, in bringing up a ring of troops which contained our forces in the hedgerows for weeks. These were well dug in, their camouflage discipline excellent, offering few targets for fighter bombers. They moved only at night. The greatest success our air forces can claim for this period is in driving back the GAF from western France.
Troops and supplies were meanwhile poured into the beachhead in an unending stream. Units of another American Army, the Third, under the command of Gen G S Patton, began to arrive. Soon the headquarters of the 19th TAC, which was assigned to operate with him, had moved over and had again taken charge of such of its units as had previously moved across and had been operated by General Quesada's 9th TAC. Allied personnel in the beachhead became almost solid, as the hedgerows continued to permit only the slowest and most painful advance.
By the middle of July, the schedule had gone so alarmingly out of whack that the air forces were persuaded to dust off a bombing technique which had been tried and had failed previously in 1944 at Cassino. But the reason for failure was known and it was believed that it could be corrected. This technique is carpet bombing. It consists simply of dropping such a heavy concentration of bombs in a small area that the defenders are stunned and demoralized for a short time. Before they can recover, Allied troops are among them, mopping them up. Two carpet efforts were made from the beachhead. The first, a British show, was laid down near Caen on July 18. A five-mile advance was made but was not followed up quickly enough and the British troops soon lost their impetus when the enemy was given time to re-form and dig in. Despite this, another attempt was made a week later, this time by the Americans between Periers and St Lo. It called for the dropping of 3,400 tons of HE by over 1,500 aircraft of all types in a space 7,000 yards long and 250 yards wide. American ground forces were brought up in strength as close as possible to the bomb line, and the bombers struck. Before the dazed Germans could recover their senses, the First Army had poured through the hole in the dam, and the rat race was on.
An analysis of the operation reveals some interesting facts. Enemy casualties amounted to less than 10 per cent, in some instances to only five per cent. This is because troops were well concealed in one-man foxholes and were not likely to be killed unless direct hits were scored on them. The damage to vehicles and weapons above ground was more serious. Communications were put in a state of chaos. But the real pay-off was in the psychological effect on the enemy. The endless stream of Allied aircraft completely destroyed the morale of several companies. Immediately after the attack scores of troops withdrew without orders and in utter confusion. This was the signal for others in the vicinity to follow suit. Prisoners taken were dazed, unable to coordinate or to think clearly. (After the Caen carpet attack numbers of them could not be interviewed by intelligence officers for 24 hours because they were unable to hear.) Many stated that the mere presence of vast numbers of aircraft unopposed overhead was sufficient to produce a mental state bordering on panic. One prisoner voiced the opinion that a loud-speaker threat to lay on a carpet attack in a certain sector at a given time would result in mass surrenders.
But this mental paralysis lasts not more than one or two hours. To take advantage of it, the attackers must be so placed on the ground that they can rush in before recovery can be effected. This means that they will be in considerable danger of being bombed by their own planes, which is what happened at St Lo, where numbers of our troops were killed. However, if this calculated risk is not taken the operation may fail.
Stated another way, a ground situation such as existed at St Lo poses the problem of softening up a hard shell of enemy resistance. Our troops can either withdraw to positions of safety before the attack, and hope to get back in time; or the bombing attack can be laid on at the rear of the enemy ring, and roll as close toward the Allied troops as the air and ground commanders consider advisable. The closer it comes, the easier the smashing of the defensive ring by our forces will be. This latter method seems to be the better of the two. At Cassino, our troops withdrew but so did the Germans. By the time we got back they were back. In November, 1944, during a carpet attack at Duren, we withdrew again in an effort to avoid casualties to our troops. But as we did so an alert enemy clawed his way forward and succeeded in getting inside the aerial haymakers thrown at him and the bombing effort was largely wasted.
Another problem posed by carpet attacks is that of cratering the area to such an extent that our vehicles cannot get through it with any speed. The ground forces want enemy positions destroyed but they want them destroyed without making a complete hash of the terrain. This problem has not been completely solved. However, inasmuch as the greatest dividends are psychological, the use of frags instantaneously fused is indicated. They have a profound psychological but no particular cratering effect.
It is not unreasonable to state that the carpet bombing at St Lo changed the complexion of the war in France almost overnight. The paralysis of the hedgerows ended abruptly, to be followed by a war of extreme movement in which the American air-ground team was given its first chance to show its stuff. The 1st Army, under an umbrella of 9th TAC fighter bombers, widened the gap, charged a short distance south, then curled east in a giant wave, rolling up the German flank as it went. It was in danger of being cut off by a determined German counterattack at Avranches, but the air ended this threat, pulverizing concentrations of enemy troops and armor as fast as they were formed. A week after the break-through, Patton's 3rd Army followed the 1st through the gap and roared south as far as the north bank of the Loire river. After a swift mopping-up operation in Brittany, it too turned east and embarked on one of the most remarkable end runs in modern warfare. There were numerous lifted eyebrows in military circles at this rash maneuver, which apparently proposed to ignore the threat to Patton's flank of large enemy forces south of the Loire. But Patton had discussed the matter at length with the chief of the 19th TAC, which was to cover his advance.
"I am going to forget completely about my iiank," he said, "if you can guarantee to protect it for me from the air."
"I can do that," replied General Weyland, "if I have the weather."
Patton took off. In a little over two weeks he had reached Paris. The weather held. In a month he was within 60 miles of Germany.
Weyland's job was threefold. In addition to knocking down bridges on the Loire and chivvying the German forces below it, he had to cover Patton's advancing tank columns, and at the same time was ordered to aid in the reduction of three ports in Brittany where German garrisons were stubbornly holding out. He soon found himself in the position of a man trying to stand on two chairs which were rapidly sliding apart beneath him on a slippery floor. The stretch became terrific. In no time at all, he was operating simultaneously in places 350 miles apart. How he managed this, at the same time continually moving his advance headquarters and his airfields to keep up with Patton as closely as possible, is one of the least publicized but most outstanding performances in a brilliant campaign.
The splitting of Weyland's effort was due to the ground force supply problem, which was severely aggravated by the German decision to hang onto all ports as long as possible. However, there is a school of thought that believes (particularly since air operations against St Malo and, Brest turned out to be quite inefficient in reducing these ports) that Weyland's forces might have been better employed in one direction only forward. The large bags of men and equipment in the Falaise gap, at the Seine, and at Mons would probably have been even larger. Sufficient additional momentum might have been generated in Patton's drive to carry him through the Siegfried Line (his patrols actually reached it and found it very lightly held).
By the end of August, a third American Army, the 9th, under Gen William Simpson, had landed in France, and with it another TAC, the 29th. This was composed of elements of both the 9th and 19th, and was commanded by Gen Richard Nugent, formerly A-3 of the 9th Air Force.
Throughout August and into September, the TACs operated at maximum strength. The 9th Bomb Division, a new operational offspring of the 9th BC and now commanded by Gen Samuel E Anderson, had been working hard to close the Paris-Orleans gap in the interdiction line and at the same time hammering the Loire bridges. It now found itself virtually hamstrung in the extremely fluid situation which developed. It was forbidden to attack any more bridges, as our rapidly moving ground forces confidently expected to use them, and was reduced to further blows at the battered but surprisingly resilient rail system of northwest Europe. But the TACs went on a spree of destruction. Fluidity was their dish. It forced the Germans to move out into the open. It created vast pockets of troops and vehicles which were being squashed together between the British ground forces and the 1st American Army, both beginning to move rapidly in the direction of Paris. The most notable of these was the famous Falaise pocket, in which much of the personnel and equipment of the German 7th Army was lost during only a few days of unrelenting attacks. On August 18, for example, the British 2nd Tactical Air Force, operating with General Montgomery's armies, destroyed 1,159 motor vehicles and damaged 1,724, destroyed 104 tanks and damaged 96 (more than there are in an entire German Panzer Grenadier division), leaving an area of smoking, stinking wreckage which beggars description. A second jam-up and battle occurred on the banks of the still bridgeless Seine, where the Germans, now in desperate retreat for the haven of the Siegfried Line, found it as hard to move out of the zone of interdiction as it had been to move in. They attempted to set up one defense line after another, but always the threat of being flanked by Patton's careening tanks to the south of them forced further withdrawals. The last engagement of any size to take place in France was a bizarre affair which found German and American armies racing eastward side by side in the vicinity of Mons.
During those ripsnorting days, the principles of independence and interdependence were tested as never before. They were stretched, bent, twisted and wracked until it became clear for good and all that our basic concept of air-ground cooperation could stand up under the strongest hurricane that blew. It was valid in every respect but one: it didn't go nearly far enough. The speed of advancing tanks, the variety and number of targets offered, the confusion between Allied and enemy forces, all these and many other factors required coordination of the closest order at all levels: army, corps, and division. For example, the tables of organization under which the TACs operated were found entirely inadequate to supply sufficient numbers of air liaison officers, particularly in the case of the 19th TAC, which was faced with the problem of working with the swiftest armor (Patton's), each of whose divisions habitually advanced in two or three columns. An air party was needed in each, to travel with it on the ground and work out the best employment of the fighters which provided continuous daylight cover for the column.
Close cover for an armored column is a specialized business. The incoming flight must know just where the column is and must be able to identify it. This is usually done by the use of colored panels displayed by the tanks. Colors must be changed daily (the Germans were soon detected displaying panels of their own). The flight must check with the flight which it relieves for the location of targets suitable for dive bombing, also with the air liaison officer riding with the tanks, to find out where the column is being held up and where it needs help. It must know where the tanks are going, and range ahead of them to spy out concentrations of enemy armor which may give them trouble. But like a good bird dog, it must not range too far (from 30 to 35 miles was found to be the useful limit). At all times it must be alert to ward off attacks on itself and the column by enemy aircraft. Traveling at high speeds is not conducive to perfect identification of targets from the air, particularly when the tank you are talking to is proceeding down the middle of a road and the enemy tank you are looking for may be lurking under a tree only 300 yards away. The air liaison officer (who should be a flyer) is very useful here in being able to describe to the plane overhead where the enemy armor is, in terms of terrain features which his own pilot experience tells him are readily identifiable from the air. His combat knowledge also prevents the tank commander from ordering dive-bombing attacks which are either impractical or impossible from the air point of view. If the liaison officer is unsuccessful in the target location to the fighter, the latter can order that a smoke shell of a distinctive color be put on it. Here again enemy ingenuity requires close coordination on our part, for the Germans may immediately fire a shell of the same color back at the American tank. To defeat this, the American tank notifies the plane as it fires: "One red smoke on the way!" giving the enemy no time to retaliate. This usually does the trick.
The Nazi rout continued as resounding triumphs were rung up by air and ground. The 1st and 9th Armies plugged remorselessly ahead against the main enemy resistance, aided by their respective TACs. The 19th TAC added to its laurels with its work below the Loire. A German force of 36,000 men in that area under the command of a Gen Erich Elster could at any time and at any point for a hundred miles have driven a vicious barb into the Third Army flank. But Elster's movements were subjected to such constant aerial scrutiny, and any attempt to "snowball" his troops was met with such a blistering visitation of Jabos (German for dive bomber), that his threat remained theoretical. He was pinned down so tight that he found it impossible even to move out. When still another American army, the 7th US (along with its own air partner, the 1st Tactical Air Force, Provisional) landed near Marseilles and moved north to join the Third Army in Eastern France, Elster had had enough. With 20,000 troops remaining, he surrendered to one of Patton's infantry platoons but insisted that Weyland, whose planes had caused him so much anguish, be in on the ceremony.
It is interesting at this point to see what the enemy himself thought of the relative effectiveness of Allied attacks. From captured documents and interviews with numerous prisoners of high rank, it is clear that the German General Staff regarded the Seine-Loire interdiction as the greatest thorn in its side, closely followed by the strategic oil campaign. The field commander and the common soldier, on the other hand, felt that they had lost the Battle of France because of the intensity and accuracy of Allied artillery fire and ubiquitous activities of the fighter bomber. As in a football game, it all seems to depend on where you sit.
Meanwhile the Breton ports fell. For weeks the sky over them was ten-tenths airplanes, as British and American heavies, mediums and dive bombers poured an unbelievable tonnage on Brest, St Malo, and the Isle de Cezembre three battered monuments to the uneconomical use of air power.
Patton's drive carried him right across France and almost into Germany. Here he stalled. He had run out of everything gasoline, food, ammunition, maps. Attempts were made to keep him going with air supply, but this was not available on a large enough scale. He dug in west of the Metz forts, while all supplies were diverted to the north where the 1st, 9th and British Armies still had some momentum, the hope being that this momentum would last long enough to permit a flanking of the Siegfried Line and a crossing of the Rhine River in Holland. It is tempting to speculate on what would have happened if the entire lift of our strategic bomber force had been temporarily committed to the hauling of freight for the 3d Army. Heavies had been used before with success to drop supplies at low level to the Maquis in France. They were to be used again to supply the airborne landing at Wesel in March, 1945. With any sort of weather break they might have delivered from 1,000 to 2,000 tons of supplies a day to Patton.
Fortresses and Libs are admittedly inefficient cargo ships, but any sort of inefficiency is permissible if the prize is rich enough. Patton had reached the Siegfried Line ahead of the enemy and found it virtually untenanted. It is not inconceivable that he could have driven past Metz, through the Saar and even to cities deep in the south German plain.
Two arguments may be advanced against the use of a strategic bomber force for freight. The first is that it will interfere with the strategic bomber campaign. However, radar bombing methods (on which bad weather forced the 8th Air Force to rely for most of its operations from this period on through the winter) are comparatively unsatisfactory for precision work. And no bombing, however accurate, can deny the use of an industrial plant to the enemy as irrevocably as capture by ground troops.
The second argument is that flak takes a heavy toll of large, relatively slow aircraft flying near the ground. Our losses from Liberator resupply missions during the two airborne operations mentioned above bear this out. But the drop zones to which the heavies had to fly were surrounded by dense concentrations of light flak. In the area ahead of the 3rd Army this was not nearly so dense at that time.
October and then November rolled around, and with them a gradual deterioration of weather. The Battle of France was over. The airborne operation to Hank the Siegfried Line was only a partial success. The Nijmegen bridge was captured and held but the forces which dropped 60 miles ahead at Arnhem were largely wiped out, partly through the inability of the ground forces to come up to them through the flooded lands that lay between, partly again through the limited capabilities of air resupply. The battle line at this time ran roughly north and south along the German western border At the top, in Holland, were the British and Canadians, and working with them the 2nd British TAF. Next came the 9th US Army and the 29th TAC. Below them, in front of Aachen, Duren and the Cologne plain, were the 1st US Army and the 9th TAC; below them, in front of Metz and the Saar, the 3rd US Army and the 19th TAC. At the bottom, in the Strasbourg area, were the 7th US Army and the 1st US TACAF (Provisional). The French were also building a ground force in this area and had air elements in the 1st TACAF now commanded by Gen Robert M Webster.
With the front stationary, the various air commands were given time to effect much needed reorganizations within themselves. Their units had been hopelessly scattered throughout France during the mad rush eastward, their communications snarled, their supply and maintenance problems critical. Advance headquarters were established near the front and numerous fighter fields within easy striking distance of the enemy made operational.
The ground armies were now faced with the problem of hacking their way through an imposing barrier of natural and man-made defenses. Bitter battles were fought and progress was painfully slow. A series of rivers, the Moselle, Meuse, Roer, Oure, Erft and Saar, had to be crossed, and the Siegfried Line negotiated before we could draw up to the Rhine and jump off on the final assault against the war industries clustered in the Ruhr.
The character of the tactical air war changed almost overnight. The relation of TAC to Army became even more intimate than before as ground made even greater and more diversified demands of air to help it rout the sullen Hun from his deep concrete nests. The operations of the TACs during this period fall into four main classifications: tactical reconnaissance, photo reconnaissance, fighter bombing and night operations.
Tactical reconnaissance was, in the main, flown by Mustangs. Their job was to patrol certain designated areas over enemy territory and to report all enemy troop and rail movements therein, also to report immediately the location and nature of any enemy targets suitable for fighter bombing or strafing and to photograph the results of such attacks. In addition, they spent many profitable hours adjusting artillery for the ground forces. Talking directly by radio to an artillery battery, a TAC R plane would find out exactly where the artillery target was, then, when the pilot was in a good position to watch the target as he flew, the battery would fire one shell at his command. He would observe where it landed and call in a correction. This would be continued until the battery was zeroed in on the target. Then, "Let her go!" and concentrated fire would be laid on until the target was destroyed. Many of these targets were enemy gun positions and many of them were silenced in this manner.
However, the greatest dividend from artillery adjustment was that the enemy, seeing the deadly fire laid down when adjusted by a TAC R plane, eventually became extremely reluctant to fire his artillery at all when a Mustang was in the area. He knew that it would be only a matter of seconds before his position would be radioed in by the plane, a battery trained on it, and a round on its way. Thus relieved of harassing enemy fire, the progress of our ground forces became immeasurably easier.
Fighter bombing and strafing was done by Thunderbolts. They are more rugged than Mustangs and have greater fire power. Their job was simply to fly to points where targets had been found for them and destroy them. Teamwork between them and the TAC R ships became highly developed. The Mustang often stooged around until the Thunderbolt arrived, and then led it in to the target. At other times, Mustangs on artillery adjustment missions would be seriously bothered by flak and would call for help. Thunderbolts would oblige by attacking the flak positions.
Daylight reconnaissance was done largely by Lightnings. The variety of uses to which their photography was put is amazing. They supplied the armies with basic coverage, front line coverage, road and river strips, dicing strips and obliques of various kinds. They also gave the air forces target, strike, and bomb damage assessment photographs. With the battle area covered with snow and the enemy well hidden, the value of photography in this phase of the war cannot be overestimated. It took considerable skill for a fast-flying TACR pilot to spot anything in the silent motionless winter countryside, whereas many juicy targets were discovered by interpreters examining in stereo the day's haul of a photo Lightning. A combination of vertical and oblique photography provided the ground commanders with material for detailed terrain studies upon which to plan their operations. One type of oblique, when covered with a carefully calibrated "Merton" grid, was found to be so accurate by the artillery that it was used by them for pin-pointing targets. Much of the credit for the development of photography for tactical uses must be given to the 67th Photo Group, whose personnel has displayed great ingenuity in anticipating the requirements of air and ground and in tearing down aircraft and rebuilding them in direct violation of all rules, so that they will accommodate the special cameras needed for special work.
Night operations fall into two categories, night intruder attacks by Black Widows and night photography by Havocs. Both were important, particularly the latter, as 90 per cent of the enemy's movements now took place under cover of darkness. The Havocs were equipped to take stereo strips, getting their light by dropping a series of magnesium flares or by using an Edgerton light, a huge affair built into the bottom of the ship and designed to uncork an 800,000-candle-power wink every few seconds.
The performance of these manifold and delicate tasks sounds easy. Actually, if it had not been for radar, their coordination would have been incredibly difficult, and impossible under the weather conditions which prevail in western Europe in winter. The use of radar in military operations is in its infancy but it has already permeated every phase of air warfare. It is used for strategic bombing by both British and American heavies. It makes night fighting and intruder operations possible. It literally saved England in the Battle of Britain. And it provided for the control and direction of virtually every day or night sortie flown by the TACs during the past winter.
At this point attention may well be focused on another part of Europe where another air force was waging its own tactical war against Germany. This, of course, was the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces, who were already old hands at the invasion game. Space limitations of this article dictated that the essence of American tactical air power be examined through the medium of one air force. As the payoff tactical air force on the Western Front and one whose recent operations are the literal summing-up of American tactical air plans, the 9th was the obvious choice. This does not mean that the work of the MAAF can ever be overlooked or underestimated. All the experience, all the lessons learned the hard way by the MAAF were applied again and again to the air war in Western Europe. MAAF's units were the tactical pioneers, and are still doing a tremendously important job.
Known first as the Northwest African Air Force, the MAAF had acquired its new title at the close of 1943. By the end of October, 1943, the 9th Air Force headquarters staff had been transferred to England and its flying personnel and ground crews had joined the 12th Air Force, tactical, plus the new 15th Air Force, strategic, which was organized in October. As it worked out, the 15th often found itself in a tactical role.
Probably the lesson which proved most valuable to the planners of the Normandy invasion was learned from the MAAF's interdiction campaigns when the battle line stood well below Rome, at Anzio and Cassino. Here, for the first time, we met the enemy on the mainland with all his re- sources at hand. Here was a well-defined supply system, a network of rails and roads that had to be systematically cut in order to relieve our own troops, stymied on a narrow mountainous peninsula. Here, in short, was a test case.
Just before the Anzio landing, the MAAF went to work to knock out all airfields in the vicinity and then proceeded to keep them neutralized after the landing. Strategic air units attacked airfields farther back where long-range enemy bombers were based and where fighters staged for the front. Communications, of course, were continually pounded deep in enemy territory. By the time the Anzio-Nettuno landings started on January 22, virtually all lines leading into Rome were cut. During the preceding four days they were hit by nearly 2,000 tons of bombs dropped by Mitchells and Marauders of the 12th Air Force and Fortresses and Liberators of the 15th.
When it became acutely apparent that additional measures were needed to help the ground armies get to Rome, the MAAF undertook the historic "Operation Strangle" across the narrow waist of Italy. This operation set the pattern for all interdiction campaigns to come. It was essentially a series of sharp one-two blows against the supply network of the enemy driving him from the railroads to motor trucks, then going after the piled-up traffic; forcing the increased use of shipping, then bombing that.
Between March 15 and May 20 there were 18 Axis divisions in the central Italian area, nine behind the Anzio beachhead and nine on the main southern front. Their combined supply consumption was estimated at 4,000 tons a day. To supply this, however, they had transportation facilities in the beginning equal to handling 80,000 tons a day: 20 times more than they required. Reduction of this supply potential began March 15. In two weeks the MAAF had reduced it from 80,000 to 4,000 tons a day, or just what the enemy required on a quiet front, and no more. The Allied offensive toward Rome started on May 11, whereupon the Axis supply requirements jumped to an estimated 5,500 tons. By May 20 two more enemy divisions had been moved from the north into the battle zone and this upped supply needs to 6,000 tons a day. But the MAAF threw the book at the supply lines, held the tonnage capacity to 4,000, and the enemy was forced to retreat.
At the optimum stage of operations just before the fall of Rome, the six major rail lines leading down the peninsula were cut at more than 100 places. In Italy, for the first time, Thunderbolts were used for extensive fighter-bomber operations against open stretches of railroad and for blocking tunnels. At pinpointing bridge targets, they proved even more effective than the Mitchells and Marauders whose bombing accuracy in this theater has been remarkable.
In preparation for the Allied landings in Southern France on August 15, bridges along the lower Rhine river were interdicted by MAAF with the immediate objective of preventing the Germans crossing from west to east toward Marseilles and Toulon. Partisans in the area farther north actually effected interdiction without any bombing. The objective was twofold: to prevent the Germans from moving in reinforcements from behind as well as keeping them from making lateral movements along the coast. Up to and including D-Day, the MAAF alone flew 12,790 sorties, inclusive of troop-carrying operations. On D-Day itself, 2,700 of the sorties were flown, or practically a fifth of the total. As a result of this tremendous campaign, the invading forces met almost no opposition. As one RAF pilot, escorting airborne troops put it, "We had a holiday we did not fire a single gun. Our job was to blot out any antiaircraft fire that might have been brought to bear against the towing craft and gliders. But there was absolutely nothing for us to do but hold a watching brief." There was not a single casualty to the gliders from enemy action.
Traditionally a Jack-of-all-targets, the veteran MAAF continued its attacks in Italy, hammered ports in Vichy France and Nazi-held Greece, and took a highly significant step toward assisting the Soviets. The first attack on the Balkan rail system took place on November 14, 1943, when Mediterranean-based bombers hit Sofia. Between April 1 and May 9, 1944, when the Russians had just edged into Romania and when the MAAF attacks were going full tilt, heavy bombers based in Italy spread destruction over the Nazi rail and air network in Romania.
An even more intensive campaign in co-operation with Russia was instituted in November, 1944. Because of its success and timeliness, it is discussed here in some detail.
Realizing that the drive of Russian armies through Hungary offered a good chance to utilize further its striking power against Nazi supplies, the 15th Air Force undertook a detailed analysis of the rail systems in Austria, Western Hungary and Yugoslavia. A comprehensive photo reconnaissance program was initiated. The resultant information, combined with reports from ground agents and prisoners of war, gave a clear picture of the traffic flow that was meeting the needs of hard-pressed Axis forces.
On December 23, the Russian high command requested bombardment of rail lines from the Linz area, northwest of Vienna, to Hungary and Yugoslavia, and the connecting lines to northeastern Italy. In view of this, and other considerations, the plan as finally developed involved the immobilization of rail centers running from Vienna down to Zagreb.
As the MAAF's attacks progressed, certain tactical factors became clear. Interdiction of through lines by bombardment of rail yards was temporary at best. Likewise, the destruction of repair facilities caused a Nazi headache but was not fatal. Plenty of alternative facilities were available. It was soon found, however, that an avalanche of bombs in a crowded yard played havoc with rolling stock and often immobilized all undestroyed stock.
Thus, while a through line could generally be restored in a few hours, no great amount of rolling stock was moved for one to three weeks. It therefore became the policy of the MAAF to select fleeting targets the yards most heavily loaded and to immobilize each while the remaining yards in the same system were attacked in similar fashion.
By the end of February, 1945, most of the important rail centers in the areas selected had been smashed.
Bombardment was not the only weapon available to the MAAF. The all-out strategic bombing of the German fighter aircraft and fuel industries in 1944 had weakened the enemy's fighter force. This, combined with the commitment of available German fighters to ground cooperation tasks, reduced the need for large-scale escort for our bombers. In turn, this permitted the use of our strategic fighters for strafing and dive bombing.
Our dive bombers were used to attack pinpoint targets not readily identifiable from high altitudes. The strafing plan, carried out in conjunction with virtually every bombing attack, was designed to add to the mounting total of destroyed locomotives and rolling stock. Also, it achieved a major degree of traffic interdiction by wrecking moving trains at numerous points on the main lines.
Thus the plan unfolded, always flexible, always directed at a single overt-all objective: to prevent Axis men, weapons and supplies from reaching the Russian front.
Attacks by the 12th Air Force on the North Italian and Brenner routes reached a climax toward the end of March when in one week nearly 6,500 sorties were flown for the loss of 30 aircraft. In a final burst of glory, the MAAF opened up on April 16 with a mammoth attack in cooperation with General C1ark's 5th Army driving the Germans out of Northern Italy. A bombardment by 1,233 heavy bombers of the 15th Air Force preceded the American jump-off in mountainous territory heavily mined and bitterly defended south of Bologna. Nazi defenses were saturated by nearly 25,000 bombs
But this is getting ahead of the story.
As winter closed in on the Western Front, ground progress nearly halted. Patton succeeded in getting past the Metz forts with the aid of heavy bombing by the RAF, the 9th Bomb Division and tire bomb attacks by the 19th TAC. To his north the 1st Army captured Aachen. If it could burst through a few more miles of very bad country it would find itself on the Cologne plain and could expect to get up to the Rhine without difficulty. But the Roer river, the Hurt- gen forest, and several strongly defended towns stood in its way. To smash this formidable barrier, the largest carpet attack yet planned was laid on. This involved an all-out effort by both RAF and USAAF. Nine saturation points were marked out lying in a triangle between the towns of Linnich, Eschweiler and Duren. Elaborate measures were taken to avoid a repetition of the casualties to American troops which had marred the otherwise brilliant execution of the carpet bombing at St Lo. Crews were carefully briefed, colored panels and smoke markers laid out to mark the American front line. Several alternate plans were developed to cover changes in the ground situation and to allow for all weather contingencies. The operation came off on November 16, airmen reporting no difficulty in identifying friendly troops. The 8th put 3,679 tons on and around Eschweiler. The RAF smashed Duren, Julich and Heinsburg with 5,640 tons. The concentration on Duren was a remarkably heavy bombing performance. Eighty per cent of the town was obliterated, along with most of a German division which was there at the time. Mediums of the 9th Bomb Division and fighter bombers also operated at full strength. Air attacks were greatly facilitated by an extremely effective anti-flak barrage laid down by 1st Army artillery.
This gigantic effort should have sprung the 1st Army into the Cologne plain without further ado. That it did not is due to two things: failure of the bombers to hit close enough to American troops to soften the enemy defenses directly in front of them, and failure of our troops to push ahead with both infantry and armor while the fleeting psychological effects of the carpet still persisted. Prisoners again testified, on interrogation, to the near coma which is produced by carpet bombing But their remarks also pointed out with painful clarity how ephemeral this coma is. One captured NCO with 12 years' army experience stated:
"My men were young and inexperienced. I never saw anything like it. These men didn't even dare to stick their heads out of their fox holes. They didn't listen to orders and were still numbed 45 minutes after the bombardment. It was our luck that your ground troops didn't contact us until the next day. I couldn't have done anything with those men that day."
"The tanks arrived a full day ahead of the infantry. If the latter had been there at the same time, things would have looked really black."
As a result of this the 1st Army found itself still a long way from the Rhine, engaged instead in a bloody battle for the Hurtgen forest and the defended towns, which lasted for weeks. It finally staggered through to the Roer river but the Germans had time to withdraw across it in good order and set up another bristling defense on the other side. The situation was now further complicated by the presence of a number of dams on the Roer. Attempts to breach them from the air were unsuccessful, largely through our lacking a bomb which would penetrate deep into solid concrete. Such a bomb now exists, perfected by the British Admiralty for the piercing of concrete sub pens, but it was not in operational use at that time. Consequently, the ground forces hesitated to cross the Roer for fear the enemy would blow the dams and wipe out our troops in the ensuing flood.
This situation resulted in passing the ball to Patton, who meanwhile had reached the Prum, Saar and Moselle river area. Elaborate plans were made and a powerful force built up for a push there. The night before he was scheduled to jump off (December 17) the Germans under Von Rundstedt counterattacked in the Ardennes.
The history of the Ardennes campaign is noteworthy on several counts. It was the first time American air power had been assigned a large-scale battle mission not planned in advance as part of an offensive. It was the first time an offensive had been launched by the Germans in nearly three years, the very first ever launched by them in this war without the assurance of complete local air superiority. It was a product of desperation, designed to relieve the unbearable pressures being exerted by the 1st and 3rd American Armies to the north and south. It also hoped to gain some respite for its nearly moribund oil industry by temporarily diverting the effort of Allied heavy bombers, and above all hoped to gain a little sorely needed time. It was planned with great care, and took advantage of every asset remaining to the enemy. The sector cho;en for attack had been almost denuded of American troops. Its terrain was bad and its communications system meager, but far better fed by the German rail network to the east than by the Allied network to the west. Preparations for the offensive began on or about November 1. For a month and a half troops and supplies were moved forward in a steady stream, mostly at night. Allied intelligence was generally aware of the trend but failure to appreciate its magnitude stresses the necessity for continuous night photography to determine the intention of an enemy who moves always in darkness. The Germans counted on bad weather to limit Allied air activity, and must certainly have had forecasts of the zero-zero weather conditions which prevailed throughout December 18-22.
The plan was limited in scope. It called merely for a quick thrust west and then north to cut off the Allied armies east of Liege, Brussels and Antwerp, nothing more. To implement it, 22 divisions and about 600 tanks were committed to the initial assault with others held in immediate reserve. All available aircraft, amounting to over 1,000 mixed types were concentrated on adjacent interior airfields. At first things went well. A surge of German armor broke through the center of the Ardennes and rolled west with alarming speed. But efforts to widen this salient met with serious and immediate setbacks. On its southern edge, Bastogne, sitting astride a vital road system. was defended stubbornly. So was St Vith to the north, which held out until an Allied line could be set up behind it running from Malmedy to Stavelot. The Germans attacked north and south with unrelenting ferocity, but the "Battered Bastards of Bastogne" were never taken, and the Malmedy-Stavelot line remained fast. Channeled thus into a few east-west roads, the enemy could move only westward. The farther he went the more extended and jammed his supply lines became, and the more vulnerable he became to air attack and to thrusts at his flanks by the rapidly gathering Allied ground forces. The deepest penetration was made by December 25, and as early as the 27th a precarious situation seemed fairly well in hand. A month after its birth the bulge was as good as hammered flat.
For a few days at the start, however, the outlook was extremely dark. Whole divisions of American troops had been swallowed. Communications were hopelessly scrambled. Nobody knew where the enemy was. The weather was atrocious with the entire area socked in tight. By December 21 the situation was so critical that a decision was made to attempt TAC R sorties at any risk. The size and location of enemy concentrations had to be obtained. In one instance, Captain Travis of the 12th TAC R Squadron took off with a ceiling of 50 feet and visibility of 100 yards. Twisting among the rain- and fog-shrouded hills he oriented himself and made a pass but the overcast was too low. He climbed up, looking for a hole, but found none. He obtained his position from the radar controller and went down twice more, skimming the tree tops and drawing heavy fire from hundreds of enemy troops and vehicles scattered through the countryside. Finally, on his fourth pass, he located his target and came home with the information needed. His exploit was only one of many. Flak and the GAF made further contributions to the ruggedness of air operation. Another recco pilot, Capt John H Holfker, was credited with three and a half enemy planes on December 17. On the 23rd he was bounced and bailed out over friendly territory. On the 28th he was hit by flak and bailed out again. This time he lit inside the German lines but hid in the snow by covering himself with his parachute. Hungry and half-frozen he finally made his way home. His comment: "I've been scared before, but never for so long."
On December 23 an unexpected break in the weather came, lasting until January 4. The hungry TACs made the most of it. The importance of channeling the enemy into a few roads now became apparent for these roads were worked over with a fury and thoroughness unequaled since the days of the Falaise pocket. Meanwhile heavy and medium bombers plastered towns. road junctions, airfields and rail installations east and west of the Rhine. Absence of complete photo cover, fragmentary prisoner testimony, and the enormous scale (104,000 tons) of this effort to isolate the battleground permit no exact estimate of its effectiveness. Nevertheless, a general picture may be drawn of the supply and communications problem. Men and supplies did get through but nothing could be relied on. Everything must have been late. The enemy, while not wholly cut off at any time from his rear, was fighting as exhausting a battle behind the front as he was on the front itself. Only by the most superhuman efforts was he able to keep bridges up and rail lines open. Bombing of certain towns caused great tie-ups. St Vith was completely blocked for three days by a 1,700-ton attack by the RAF, prisoners testifying that it took them several hours to clamber over the debris and that vehicles could not make it at all. Houfallize was similarly blocked for two days by 900 tons. The 9th Bomb Division blocked La Roche for three days with only 150 tons, thanks to defiladed terrain, the presence of built-up areas abutting directly on the roads and smashing of a bridge over an unfordable stream. Such blocks naturally presented fat targets for the fighter bombers to chew on.
Although it flew an impressive number of sorties, the GAF was generally ineffective throughout the period. It failed entirely to interfere with ground operations and was only of a minor nuisance value in the air. The paralyzing attacks of our fighter bombers finally caused it on January 1 to make a large-scale strafing effort against our airfields which netted 127 Allied aircraft destroyed on the ground and 133 damaged. Of the 800-900 enemy planes involved, about 200 were destroyed in the air, equally divided between flak and fighters. We could afford such losses better than the Hun, our activity continuing undiminished while his dwindled. Between December 24 and January 16, the 8th Air Force hit 16 German airfields, the RAF two and the 9th Bomb Division two, interrupting operations for an average period of six days per airfield. Frozen ground added to the time required to repair runways and undoubtedly caused many crackups on landing. However, the great number of German fields makes it impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of these strikes. All together we lost 592 aircraft in the first four weeks of the Bulge Battle, 50 of these in the air. Against this we claim for the same period 1,392 destroyed, 129 probably destroyed and 418 damaged.
No man can ever attempt to balance the heroic stands at Bastogne and St Vith against the operations of our fighter bombers in the bulge. However, the advancing infantryman, observing swarms of friendly aircraft with scarcely a sign of the enemy overhead, looking about him at roadsides littered with the hulks of charred trucks, tanks, self-propelled guns, and at one blasted supply dump after another, could see for himself what the TACs had done to help. In tanks abandoned because of factory-responsible breakdowns and because of the lack of fuels, in shattered towns with cratered streets he could also see the contribution of the bomber forces. Other things he could not see things such as a disrupted aircraft industry which, although recovered in some degree, was a shadow of what Goering had planned; things such as interminable and repeated delays from train reroutings; things such as transport in the rear reduced to dependence on horse-drawn vehicles and charcoal-burning trucks, and things such as the very concept of the German plan which called for a short punch rather than a determined push to the West. Truly, the Bulge provides evidence ad nauseam that the field manual is right: you can't fight a campaign on the ground today without superiority in the air.
Finally, consider the ground claims of our fighter bombers for the month December 16 to January 16, bearing in mind that the biggest hauls came after this period, when organized German resistance in the Ardennes broke down. A couple of little countries could fight a long war with equipment like this:
|Aircraft on ground||66||58|
|Tanks and armored vehicles||751||509|
|Fuel and ammunition dumps||10||27|
In addition, 654 rail-line cuts and 161 highway cuts were made by fighter bombers during these 31 days.
With the Ardennes again in Allied hands, the ground forces resumed their task of crunching forward to the Rhine. The British and Canadians already were firmly anchored there at Nijmegen and it was planned to consolidate all our other forces along the west bank, preparatory to the launching of a giant double crossing north and south of the Ruhr Valley aimed at swallowing it whole. With the Ruhr and Saar gone and Silesia long gone, it was not expected that the Reich could hold out much longer. Before this could be accomplished the Third Army had to get through a very sticky area involving the crossing of the Prum, Saar and Moselle rivers and the capturing of Bitburg, Prum and Trier. This was done, aided by the now familiar close-cooperation work of 19th TAC. Meanwhile, the First Army cooled its heels on the west bank of the Roer, still held up by those damned dams. Several feints were made, hoping to get the enemy to blow the dams and get the water out of the way for good and all. Instead, he did something far more disagreeable. He opened the valves and let the water out just fast enough to keep the river at flood level for over two weeks. Finally it went down and the 1st jumped off, rolling all the way to Cologne in 10 days. Soon the 9th Army was also gazing across the Rhine's waters at the smoke-grimed factories of Dusseldorf.
The battles of the Roer and Saar rivers were the last that the Wehrmacht was to fight in the west with any degree of vigor. We had foreseen great difficulty in negotiating Germany's mightiest river but such was not to be. The enemy had cashed almost his last chip. Five years of war, three of mordant bombing which had reduced his cities and factories to cinders, the decimation of his regiments, the crystal-ball military inspiration of his Fuehrer, the presence of fresh and unnumbered armies on both his fronts and vast armadas in the sky over his head, all these produced in him a schizophrenia and despair which made the last great operation almost anticlimactic. Without pausing to draw breath, the 1st Army pushed across the Rhine below Cologne, setting up a bridgehead via the shaky Remagen bridge. This had long been a target for the 9th Bomb Division, and it stood up under the tread of American feet and the clank of American armor just long enough for a sizable force to get across. Then it sank beneath the waves to join the Rhine maidens and the other Rhine bridges laid low either by the hands of their builders or by Allied planes. In the next few days the 2nd British and 9th American crossed in strength at Wesel, aided by the largest one-day airborne drop on record 14,365 troops and 1,345 tons of equipment delivered by 9th TCC aircraft and gliders alone. Patton burst across at Oppenheim, followed by Patch below Mannheim, Operating at breakneck speed against dwindling enemy resistance, these five armies thrust a series of air-protected and air-supplied columns down Germany's highways and around her cities, encircling the Ruhr.
The iron tentacles kept curling farther and farther, to Frankfurt-on-Main, Mannheim, Muenster, Hanover, Gotha, Schweinfurt, to places which not so very long ago were at the extreme limit of heavy bomber range. By April 20, Madgeburg and Leipzig had been taken and Patton had crashed across the Czechoslovak border with Dresden only a few miles ahead, Germany had lost the war so irrevocably that the German scene had degenerated into a maelstrom of blood-letting and destruction which was continued only because of the fanaticism of the Reich's gangster-leaders. Gone, through strategic bombing or capture, were 90 per cent of Germany's steel capacity, 85 per cent of her iron ore, 95 per cent of her hard coal, 100 per cent of her ferro-alloys, 100 per cent of her coke, 80 per cent of her lignite, 95 per cent of her fuel, 95 per cent of her synthetic rubber capacity, 70 per cent of her tire manufacturing, 55 per cent of her tank manufacturing, 75 per cent of her truck manufacturing. And, as each day passed, these percentages were growing higher.
Germany, by April 20, had been virtually cut in two. Tactical and strategic air forces smacked bridges across the Danube at Regensburg and other nearby places to keep anything from moving across the remaining slender waist toward Munich and the Bavarian Redoubt where, it was reported, Hitler and his henchmen would make a last stand.
And the Luftwaffe? Its condition was perhaps best expressed by a German POW from a fiak outfit. He said his units had three simple rules:
By April 20, 55 per cent of all airfields in Germany had been captured. German aircraft were being crowded into fewer and fewer fields as each day passed which, together with the excruciating fuel shortage, explains why in the first 18 days of April our air forces were able to destroy 3,121 German planes of all kinds, only 400-500 of them in the air. This merciless clobbering, plus the fact that 35 per cent to 40 per cent of the aircraft industry had been captured and a great deal more lay in ruins from bombing, meant that the Luftwaffe finally had ceased to exist as a fighting force.
As for our air forces, all were now tactical. On April 16, General Spaatz announced the U. S. Strategic Air Forces would now play a solely tactical role.
Germany was seeing the final result of what she began when her dive bombers screamed down on Warsaw, Rotterdam and Coventry. What Germany had been able to dish out was literally microscopic compared to what she got. Her bombers destroyed only 17 per cent of London. Fifty-six large cities in Germany are 50 per cent to 80 per cent destroyed by Allied bombing. Thus, as it turned out in the final accounting, German air planners had made some crucial errors. They had overestimated the power of their air force and underestimated the potential power of the Allied air forces. They had failed to concentrate on gaining air superiority before proceeding with other air plans. They had failed to plan properly in the sense that we planned a truly strategic bomber offensive, aimed at Germany's war industry, while the Germans, in the battle of Britain, bombed almost indiscriminately. They had failed to organize air-ground cooperation to the extent that has made the Allied tactical air forces so successful. And, finally, in their insufficiency in the realm of ideas, they failed to discern even faintly on the horizon the overwhelming might of the strategic air power that had shackled their aircraft production and left them without the fuel to fly.
There is no man who can say the American tactical air forces have not superbly fulfilled the three missions of tactical air power as defined in FM 100-20:
As the proud TACs roamed at will over the flattened foe, and as they were joined by the strategic air forces in mid-April, the scene in Germany was one of air power triumphant. It would be a long time before the evaluation boards and the other experts had made their final reports on what had been accomplished by American air power in this war, but as tactical and strategic air commanders looked about them in the shattered core of the Reich all, to a man, were confident of the final answer.
This article was originally published in the January, 1946, issue of Flying magazine, vol 36, no 1, pp 51-73. It included an addendum, "Proof That Our Tactical Plan Was Right," pp 73-74.
The original article included 21 photos, 3 maps, and the 3 data tables included above.
A PDF of the article includes the addendum.