New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 9 — Prelude to Invasion
Prelude to Invasion
‘We shall be back,’ Winston Churchill had told the French in June 1940 just after Dunkirk, and now, after long years of doubt, disappointment, and prolonged debate at many conferences, the fulfilment of that promise was at hand. An invasion of Western Europe was to be ‘the supreme operation for 1944’. It would be launched during May of that year. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander on 6 December 1943, and a few weeks later a directive from the Combined Chiefs of Staff defined his task in these words: ‘You will enter the Continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other Allied nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces.’
Eisenhower had already achieved notable success as Commander- in-Chief in North Africa, where he had proved it was possible to create a closely knit Anglo-American command organisation inspired by a spirit of unity and common purpose which would override international prejudices and inter-service rivalries. This welding together of the Allied armies in the field was, in fact, Eisenhower's unique contribution to victory, but he was also a great man, peculiarly fitted for the role of Allied Supreme Commander. Universally trusted, he evoked spontaneous affection, respect, and loyalty from political and military leaders alike, from the people of America and Britain and from their troops in the field.
Eisenhower was fortunate in obtaining for his staff men whose ability had already been demonstrated in previous campaigns, notably Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur W. Tedder, who was appointed Deputy Supreme Commander. Tedder had exactly the qualities and the experience for this role. In Africa and the Mediterranean he had directed the Allied Air Forces with a brilliant hand. The Americans liked and respected him and he understood what the Army needed. Moreover, by character and experience he was well fitted to resolve the inter-service and inter-Allied difficulties that were bound to arise. Eisenhower's immediate subordinates were Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, in charge of naval operations, and Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, in command of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces. There was no corresponding appointment of a Commander-in-Chief Allied Land Forces, but General Sir page 235 Bernard Montgomery was given operational control over all land forces in the assault phase, after which it was understood that Eisenhower would assume direct control of land operations himself.
The early planning for operation overlord, as the invasion was known, had been in the capable hands of Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Morgan. He had begun work in London during the dark days of 1941 and had laboured steadily until March 1943, when a bigger Anglo-American Planning Staff was formed under his direction and given the code-name COSSAC - an abbreviation for Chief of Staff to Supreme Allied Commander, at that time still to be appointed. The tremendous task of detailed planning and preparation for operations by land, sea, and air with all their various ramifications was continued and in January 1944, when Eisenhower took over, COSSAC became SHAEF - Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. Specially erected buildings in Bushey Park, near historic Hampton Court on the outskirts of London, were now provided for a large part of the general staff of SHAEF.
The original COSSAC plan for overlord envisaged an initial assault by three divisions on the Caen-Bayeux sector of the Normandy coast, to take place at the beginning of May 1944. Then would come the seizure of Cherbourg and the Brittany ports and, after sufficient build-up of forces, the capture of Paris and the Seine ports. The Normandy coast had been selected as the most suitable area for the landing only after careful consideration of all the difficulties involved. An attack on the Pas de Calais would have offered the shortest sea crossing and maximum opportunities for exploiting Allied air capabilities, particularly where the short-range fighters were concerned. But the Pas de Calais was the best-defended region precisely because it was the most vulnerable. Moreover, the Allied ground forces would find it difficult to expand from the beaches to ports as distant as Antwerp and Le Havre. The region near Caen was second best from the air point of view but far more promising for the ground forces. This was the least-defended area within Allied range, the surface was suitable for quick airfield development, and it was near the excellent port of Cherbourg. Thus the invasion planners had early come to regard the Normandy beaches as the most suitable point for the assault, notwithstanding their considerable distance from English bases. There was little reason afterwards to regret this choice.
Important changes in the general plan for overlord were, however, made early in February 1944. Eisenhower, strongly supported by Montgomery and other top leaders, thought that the three-division assault was insufficient and the initial landing on too narrow page 236 a front; Morgan thought so, too, but he had been compelled to plan on the basis of a fixed number of ships, landing craft and other resources.1 Eisenhower now refused to accept these limitations and insisted on employing five divisions in the initial landing with some extension of the front.
This enlarged assault scheme underlined a war-long problem of the Western Allies – the shortage of landing craft – and in order to allow more time for their arrival from British and American ship- yards, it became necessary to postpone D Day until the beginning of June. Another factor which made a later date desirable was, as Eisenhower records,‘the high degree of dependence we were placing on the preparatory effort of the air force.’ Plans for the bombing of critical transportation centres in France were still under discussion, and an early invasion would provide only a minimum opportunity for such attack, whereas the improved weather expected for the month of May would give the Allied Air Forces much more time and better opportunity to impede the movement of German reserves and demolish German defences along the coastline.
Nevertheless, acceptance of the later date was disappointing for the Allied armies needed all the summer weather they could get for the European campaign. Moreover, it now became necessary to delay the complementary attack against southern France – Operation anvil – which had been planned to take place simultaneously with the invasion across the Channel. Even with the June date now fixed for the landing in Normandy, it was found that there were not enough landing craft and other facilities available to mount both the cross-Channel and the Mediterranean attacks in the required strength at the same time.
1 Unfortunately when, in August 1943, the Combined Chiefs of Staff had accepted the COSSAC Plan and fixed the target date, they had not then and there made the decisions, particularly those relating to the allocation of shipping resources, necessary to its success.
One particularly interesting feature of the operational planning was the attention given to devising means of deceiving the Germans as to the point and timing of the actual landings. The main problem was to convince them that the intention was to strike directly across the Channel at its narrowest point, against the stronghold of Calais. Because of the obvious advantages that would accrue from a successful assault in this region, the Germans kept strong forces there and fortified that section of the coast more strongly than any other. The defences were, in fact, so strong that none of the Allied leaders believed they would be breached except at terrific cost. A wide variety of measures was therefore necessary to persuade the enemy that the Allies would be tempted into this operation. Among the more obvious methods employed were simulated concentrations of troops in Kent and Sussex, fleets of dummy ships in the south-eastern ports, landing exercises on the nearby beaches, increased wireless activity and the judicious release of misleading information. In addition, there were certain important air operations presently to be described. The result exceeded expectations. Extraordinary credence was given by the enemy Intelligence division to the evidence put at its disposal and the whole German High Command, including Field Marshal von Runstedt, Commander-in-Chief on the Western Front, became more or less certain that the Pas de Calais was the Allied objective.
It is well to remember, however, that at this time the Germans were denied effective air reconnaissance of the United Kingdom and its adjacent waters. Had this not obtained, the deception might have been much more difficult.
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Throughout these months of military planning and preparation the Allied Air Forces were in action, paving the way for this greatest page 238 venture of the war. In the broad strategic sense, the air had already made a notable contribution. The winning of the Battle of the Atlantic had ensured the passage to the battlefront of a vast mass of troops and supplies from the United States and Canada, while the bomber offensive against Germany had undoubtedly weakened the enemy war potential. By March 1944, however, large numbers of bomber, fighter-bomber, fighter and reconnaissance aircraft were operating from Britain on a wide range of missions more directly connected with the actual landings in Normandy. The principal Allied forces thus engaged were RAF Bomber and Coastal Com- mands; the United States 8th Air Force with its component bomber and fighter commands; and the Allied Expeditionary Air Force which contained the RAF Second Tactical Air Force, the United States 9th Air Force, and the Air Defence of Great Britain.1
Control and co-ordination of the operations of these various formations proved a difficult and delicate problem. Air Chief Marshal Leigh-Mallory had been appointed to command the Allied Expeditionary Air Force at the end of 1943, and he had planned in anticipation that he would eventually be responsible for all air operations in connection with the invasion. Unfortunately, however, Leigh-Mallory had not won the confidence of the Americans, nor had he always been successful in his dealings with the other services. A resolute and aggressive commander of fighters in the earlier years, he lacked the diplomatic touch. While holding strong opinions about the use of air power, many of which were to be proved correct by events, his method and manner of presenting his views tended to arouse resentment. Admittedly, amidst the clash of personalities and strong feelings regarding the control and direction of operations, his position was a difficult one. But there was now some reluctance to place the United States Strategic Air Forces and RAF Bomber Command under his jurisdiction.
1 RAF Fighter Command had been divided on the formation of the Second Tactical Air Force and this was the name given to the part that was to be retained for the defence of the United Kingdom. However, the term proved unpopular and the old name was revived in October 1944.
Eisenhower, however, insisted that all air resources be employed to ensure the success of the main Allied effort, overlord. His view prevailed, and on 17 April 1944 the Combined Chiefs of Staff placed the Strategic Air Forces under his ‘operational control’. Eisenhower then delegated to Tedder the intricate task of co-ordinating the efforts of the British and American heavy bombers and of Leigh- Mallory's Allied Expeditionary Air Force. Thus, in the end, it was Tedder who exercised the final authority of the Supreme Commander in respect of air operations.
Tedder's appointment, however, did not entirely eradicate the weakness of the air command. He had no staff and there was no supreme air headquarters. Tedder had to co-ordinate as best he could the efforts of three separate air forces, each with its own Commander- in-Chief and each jealous of its own position. Nevertheless, out of this complex and unwieldy arrangement he managed, by deft direction, to ensure that the air forces achieved their tasks in the combined operations with outstanding success.
During April Tedder decided that air operations could be best planned and ordered from the Headquarters of AEAF, already situated at the former Fighter Command Headquarters at Stanmore, a pleasant suburb to the north of London. There, the commanders of all strategic and tactical air forces subsequently met at daily conferences and from there operational orders were co-ordinated. An Advanced AEAF was created at the beginning of May in the former No. 11 Fighter Group Headquarters at Uxbridge, and Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, the distinguished New Zealand airman who had already achieved outstanding success in charge of the Tactical Air Force in the Middle East, was appointed to com- mand. It was a key post, for Coningham handled direct all units of the British and American air forces allotted to him and became the air commander with whom Montgomery worked while Commander-in-Chief of all the land forces during the initial land operations.
At Coningham's headquarters was a Combined Operations Room, staffed by men from RAF Second Tactical Air Force and the United States 9th Air Force, which controlled the fighter-bombers and light and medium bombers of the two air forces. Also under Coningham's command was the adjacent Combined Control Centre set up in the page 240 famous 11 Group Operations Room from which Sir Keith Park1 had directed his squadrons in the Battle of Britain. There, using the existing well-tried and efficient signal systems with expanded com- munications, an Anglo-American staff controlled the initial fighter operations and issued executive orders to the fighter-bombers. Coningham also commanded a Combined Reconnaissance Centre to handle the visual and photographic needs of both British and American forces during the initial phases of overlord.
Coningham was the outstanding New Zealand personality in the vast organisation now established for the planning of air operations, but there were many men from the Dominion – veterans of earlier campaigns – who held senior posts. Group Captain D. H. F. Barnett and Wing Commander Player2 were prominent members of Leigh- Mallory's staff; Group Captain P. G. Jameson and Wing Commander R. W. Baker were in charge of planning at No. 11 Fighter Group; Group Captain S. C. Elworthy was at Bomber Command Headquarters and Group Captain Faville3 on the operational staff at Coastal Command; Group Captain R. L. Kippenberger and Wing Commander G. R. Magill on the operations staff of No. 2 Bomber Group. Wing Commander Bagnall4 was with a group of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force, while Group Captain Richmond,5 Group Captain Smythe,6 Group Captain A. Wall,7 and Wing Commander Dawson8 were engaged on various staff duties during this period.
1 Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith R. Park, GCB, KBE, MC and bar, DFC, Croix de Guerre (Fr.), Legion of Merit (US); RAF (retd); born Thames, 15 Jun 1892; in First World War served Egypt, Gallipoli, and France with NZ Fd Arty, 1914–15, and Royal Fd Arty, 1915–16; seconded RFC 1917; permanent commission RAF 1919; SASO HQ Fighter Command, 1938–40; commanded No. 11 Fighter Group during Battle of Britain; AOC No. 23 Training Group, 1941; AOC RAF Egypt, 1942; AOC RAF Malta, 1942–43; AOC-in-C Middle East, 1944–45; Allied Air C-in-C, SE Asia, 1945–46.
2 Wing Commander J. H. Player, DSO, DFC; born Auckland, 13 Jul 1914; joined RAF 1937; commanded No. 255 Sqdn, 1942; Personal Staff Officer, AC-in-C AEAF, 1944–45; Staff duties, DG of P, Air Ministry, 1945; died of injuries received in flying accident, 8 Aug 1947.
3 Group Captain R. Faville, CBE; RAF; born Christchurch, 5 Aug 1908; permanent commission RAF 1932; commanded No. 42 Sqdn, 1940–41; Coastal Command Development Unit, 1941–42; Group Captain, Operations, HQ Coastal Command, 1944–45.
4 Wing Commander D. R. Bagnall, DSO, DFC, DFC (US); born Auckland, 23 Sep 1918; joined RAF 1938; commanded No. 40 Sqdn, Middle East, 1943–44; Air Staff, No. 28 Group, AEAF, 1944; Air Branch, SHAEF, 1944–45.
5 Group Captain R. C. Richmond; RAF (retd); born Wellington, 14 Mar 1905; joined RAF 1930; permanent commission RAF 1935; signals duties, HQ Middle East, 1940–41; HQ Fighter Command, 1943–44; commanded No. 70 Wing, 1944; commanded RAF Station, Yatesbury, 1947–48; signals duties, No. 3 Group, 1948–49.
7 Group Captain A. Wall, OBE; RAF (retd); born Christchurch, 11 Jan 1908; Cranwell cadet 1926–28; permanent commission RAF 1928; equipment duties, DGE, Air Ministry 1941–43; Group Captain, equipment staff, RAF Staff College, 1943–44; Group Captain D of Policy, Air Ministry, 1944–45.
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Air superiority was the principal prerequisite for a successful assault of Europe from the west and the winning of air superiority had long been a cardinal point of the air planning. Operations to ensure the necessary ascendancy over the Luftwaffe were already in progress and Tedder was confident that this would be gained before the assault was launched. The long-term strategic bombing plan, originated by the Combined Chiefs of Staff in June 1943 and directed against enemy aircraft production and assembly by the US Strategic Air Forces1 and RAF Bomber Command, had already inflicted severe blows on the supply and maintenance organisation of the Luftwaffe. Moreover, the heavy daylight raids were achieving a steady attrition of the German fighter forces. Indeed, largely as a result of the Allied day and night bombing attack the Luftwaffe, which had been used with exceptional efficiency to blast a path across Europe for the German armies in 1940, was now hopelessly unbalanced and incapable of sustained offensive action.
Parallel with these attacks by the strategic air forces, a campaign of day and night intruding against enemy airfields designed to hamper German training schedules as well as to destroy enemy machines in the air was now being waged by aircraft of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force with very great success. Raids on operational airfields in the west were also causing considerable destruction of buildings and facilities.
Next to the winning of air superiority, the disruption of German communications and channels of reinforcement and supply was the most important task set the Allied Air Forces, and to this end plans had been prepared for crippling the French and Belgian railways. From experience in Italy it had been discovered that a whole railway system could be paralysed if attacks were concentrated on centres of maintenance and repair. Primary targets, therefore, were railway workshops and locomotive sheds, the destruction of which would cause long-term and widespread dislocation which the enemy could not rapidly make good. Since most of these centres were alongside major junctions and marshalling yards, it was possible to strike simultaneously at both the current traffic and capital equipment of the railways. When this process of attrition was well advanced the main attack would be switched to locomotives, lines and bridges, paying special attention in the final week to the road and rail bridges over the Seine, inflicting, it was hoped, damage so severe that the already weakened repair services would be unable to cope with it. Enemy forces moving towards Normandy would then have to take to the roads at a considerable distance from the battle area and so provide excellent targets for the fighters and fighter-bombers.
For the execution of this plan a team of railway experts chose eighty key targets in northern France and Belgium, thirty-nine of which were to be dealt with by RAF Bomber Command, twenty-three by US 8th Air Force, and eighteen by AEAF aircraft. Attacks by heavy and medium bombers on these centres were to be maintained up to and after D Day and supplemented by fighter and fighter-bomber attacks designed to cut lines and halt or destroy traffic on the move. This would be the first stage of a campaign which, as it spread eastward, would ultimately affect the whole of the German war effort.
But it was only after an exhaustive examination of other possibilities that these proposals were accepted and finally implemented. Indeed, the whole idea of drastically reducing the rail capacity of western Europe by bombing had brought about a protracted contro- versy. There were fears lest this ambitious scheme should jeopardise the attainment of air supremacy before D Day. It would also delay the opening of the oil campaign which certain air leaders felt – and events were to prove them right – would prove well-nigh decisive in the defeat of Germany. Moreover many people, among them Winston Churchill and members of the British Cabinet, were appalled at the estimates of French and Belgian civilian casualties likely to result when the rail centres were bombed. The various differences of opinion were not along national or service lines but rather criss-cross between them. However, convinced by Tedder of the importance of carrying out the plan, Eisenhower gradually overcame the various doubts and hesitations by insisting resolutely on its sober military necessity. On 5 April 1944 he wrote to the British Prime Minister:
We must never forget that one of the fundamental factors leading to the decision for undertaking ‘Overlord’ was the conviction that our overpowering Air Force would make feasible an operation which might otherwise be considered extremely hazardous, if not foolhardy …. The weight of the argument that has been brought against the bombing of transportation centres in occupied territories is heavy indeed; but I and my military advisers have become convinced that the bombing of these centres will increase our chances for success in the critical battle …. I personally believe that estimates of probable casualties have been grossly exaggerated.1
Throughout the months before D Day the air forces also had to deal with the threatened German assault on the United Kingdom with flying bombs and rockets. Attacks on the launching sites – known as ‘Crossbow’ operations – had begun in December 1943, and they continued to demand a considerable diversion of effort. However, the bombing, although it did not of itself succeed in eliminating the menace, was to be fully justified, for not only did the original scheme have to be abandoned by the Germans but their subsequent attempts were also delayed. And there is little doubt that it was this considerable delay in the inauguration of the enemy's offensive that robbed it of any major military effect.
Particularly valuable work was to be done during this period by the Allied reconnaissance squadrons. Previously, the selection of the actual invasion area had only been made after prolonged air reconnaissance of the whole of the West European coast. Now, after the decision to land in Normandy, innumerable sorties were flown so that detailed information and complete photographic cover could be secured. In February nearly a hundred small areas in Normandy were surveyed from the air to select suitable airfield sites for use when the air forces moved on to the Continent. In March beaches, ports, and coastal batteries and other defences, airfield facilities, V-weapon sites, dumps and other military installations, radar posts and countless other targets were subjected to the scrutiny of air reconnaissance. By May the whole of the European coastline from Brest to Den Helder had been photographed, elaborate target dossiers compiled, and a mass of information provided for the land and sea forces.
The principal task allotted to RAF Coastal Command during these months of final preparations was the protection of shipping in the Atlantic sea lanes along which large numbers of troops and vast quantities of equipment were now reaching the United Kingdom. This duty was to be faithfully carried out, and Allied shipping losses in the areas swept by air patrols were to be negligible. The attack on German sea communications in European waters was also maintained with marked success. In addition, Coastal Command continued to provide efficient photographic, meteorological, and air-sea rescue services.
Such, in brief, were the military plans and the assigned role of the air forces in preparation for the invasion of Western Europe. It is now necessary to describe in more detail some of the many opera- page 245 tions in which New Zealanders serving with the various RAF Commands played their part.
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Royal Air Force Bomber Command made a major contribution to the preparations for overlord. First there was the campaign against German industry and air power; then came a series of devastating attacks on key railway centres, and finally a number of effective raids on coastal defences, supply bases, and airfields.
The long campaign against German cities and industrial areas had reached a climax during the winter months in the Battle of Berlin, and then, in conjunction with the United States Air Force, Bomber Command had turned its attention primarily to the enemy's aircraft industry. The operations of February 1944, which included the ‘Big Week’ towards the end of the month, have already been described in a previous chapter. They were followed in March by raids on the aircraft production centres of Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Stuttgart. Frankfurt was attacked twice by a total of 1680 aircraft; the raids on Nuremberg and Stuttgart, by 860 and 750 bombers respectively, were also heavy. Berlin, Essen, and the important communications centre of Aachen were further targets for severe attacks. In the following month British bombers flew in force to the German cities of Brunswick, Friedrichshafen, Munich and Schweinfurt - all of which were closely associated with German aircraft production. Targets in the Ruhr and Rhineland were also heavily bombed on several nights and there were attacks against aircraft factories and repair centres in France, Belgium, and Norway.
In many of these raids the bombers wrought widespread destruc- tion. Photographs taken after the heavy March raids on Frankfurt enabled the Air Ministry to report ‘severe devastation in the administrative and commercial centre of the city which for all practical purposes has been destroyed. From there the devastation spreads to the west and east and is particularly marked in the western area where there were numerous factories and warehouses. Grain silos and warehouses along the river front have gone. One huge ware- house, with a capacity of some 20,000 tons burnt for five days. There were direct hits on the main railway station, large numbers of goods sheds have been destroyed and repair shops gutted ….’
The attack by 320 Lancasters against Friedrichshafen towards the end of April was described as particularly effective, ‘all six factories of importance within this small town being almost completely devastated.’ At Munich the damage was regarded as being ‘on a scale seldom achieved in relation to the size of the force employed.’ The page 246 pilot of a Mosquito who flew over the town just after the last of the 265 bombers had left saw ‘an enormous pall of smoke nearly four miles high.’ Diving through the dense clouds of smoke, he found ‘huge fires in the city and whole blocks of buildings ablaze.’ The heavy raids on the bomb-scarred cities of Cologne, Dortmund, Duisburg, Dusseldorf, and Essen also caused further widespread destruction.
Occasionally, however, difficulties which had long dogged the night-bomber crews intervened to upset the concentration of attack. The force of six hundred bombers which flew to Karlsruhe on the night of 24 April had to battle against strong winds and fly through electric storms and clouds heavy with ice. ‘Large chunks of ice broke off the mainplanes and crashed against the sides of the aircraft while St. Elmo's fire streaked off every odd point,’ reads a typical report. Over the target, too, there was considerable cloud and the bombing was scattered. Two nights later, when a strong force of Lancasters and Halifaxes attacked Schweinfurt, rough weather and high winds caused a considerable displacement of the bombing. The first markers fell south of the target and were followed by others still further from the aiming point.
But even if the bombing was not always precise, the weight of attack against Germany was certainly heavy. In one period of eight nights during April Bomber Command flew a total of 5757 sorties and dropped 17,610 tons of bombs, and on five nights forces of over one thousand bombers were despatched. Moreover, the RAF raids were now opposed by a steadily increasing force of German night fighters, and this driving of the Luftwaffe more and more on to the defensive was a direct contribution to the achievement of Allied air superiority.
Bomber Command opened its campaign against enemy rail communications with an attack by 260 bombers on the marshalling yards at Trappes, 20 miles west of Paris, on the night of 6 March. Reconnaissance photographs, taken shortly after the attack, showed extremely heavy damage throughout the yards with a particularly large concentration of craters in the main reception sidings. Wreckage and derailed trucks lay in confusion on all sides. All the tracks of the main electrified line between Paris and Chartres were cut and there was widespread damage to installations and depots. Two months later the marshalling yard was still under repair.
Of other attacks in March and early April, some of the most successful were those on Paris-la Chappelle, Charleroi-St. Martin, Paris-Juvisy, Laon and Aachen; at each of these centres the locomotive servicing and maintenance facilities were rendered almost, if not completely, useless and great havoc was wrought in the page 247 marshalling yards. At Paris-Noisy le Sec, the whole railway complex was almost annihilated. After the raid on Vaires, also in the Paris area, photographs showed ‘over two hundred craters on one railway siding while in another siding two long depressions in the ground alone remained to show where two ammunition trains had previously stood.’ Other damaging attacks in this early period were made on Ottignies, Rouen, Namur, Lens and Tergnier.
These first raids on rail centres were almost unopposed by fighters, but the vital nature of the targets being attacked soon caused the Germans to make radical changes in their defensive system. The network of visual and radar beacons used for the assembly of night fighters was extended into France and Belgium, with a corresponding redistribution of the night-fighter force to bases as far west as the mouth of the Seine. Eventually, as a result of this redeployment and the introduction of improved airborne radar, the enemy was able to intercept bomber forces making quite shallow penetrations over the Continent. In May, when the light summer nights made interception easier, the casualty rate rose sharply. However, by employing smaller forces simultaneously on a number of targets and by making the attacks of short duration, losses were kept within reasonable bounds.
Bomber Command's initial attacks on the marshalling yards and railway centres were made without any special changes in tactics. Markers were laid by Oboe-equipped Mosquitos of the Pathfinder Force which flew over at great height just as in the attacks on German cities; then the main force flew in to drop its high explosives. The only difference was that in order to avoid casualties among French civilians, crews were told not to bomb unless they could see the markers clearly. However, before long a Master Bomber, with a deputy in case of accident or casualty, was sent to direct each attack. It was his task to check the position of the markers dropped by pathfinder aircraft and then direct the main force to bomb the most accurately placed of these markers. In addition, ‘offset marking’ was introduced. This was a technique developed by Lancaster crews of No. 5 Bomber Group to overcome the problem of target markers being obscured by smoke - a difficulty which frequently occurred in the later stages of a raid. Some well-defined point near the target was chosen and clearly marked; then from this point crews made a timed run over the target and released their bombs. As a result of these improvements, much greater economy and precision of attack were achieved.
Since most of the railway centres in France were defended by few anti-aircraft guns the bombers were able to attack at low level, which also made for increased accuracy in bombing. Indeed, the majority of the subsequent raids on marshalling yards proved to be page 248 extremely accurate, with such concentration that the bomb craters often overlapped each other in the target area which was churned up into a landscape of fantastic desolation similar to the well-remembered ‘No Man's Land’ of the First World War.
At the end of March the bombed railway lines were often repaired within a few days, but before the end of April it was taking more than a week to get them restored and by the middle of May the accumulation of wreckage was often so vast and extensive that even important routes were closed for weeks after an attack. By that time many of the major marshalling yards and large depots for the servicing and maintenance had been wrecked and little could be done to restore them owing to the serious shortage of cranes. A growing paralysis spread over the rail networks of the Region Nord, west of a line Paris-Amiens-Boulogne and south Belgium, and in this area all the principal routes were at one time or another interrupted.
During the last days of April and throughout May, Bomber Command maintained a heavy scale of attack. In the last week of April Aulnoye, Villeneuve St. George, Acheres, Montzen, St. Ghislain, Arras and Bethune were all attacked. During May the heaviest attacks were made on Mantes-Gassicourt, Liege, Ghent, Courtrai, Lille, Hasselt, Louvain, Boulogne, Orleans, Tours, Le Mans, Metz, Mulhouse, Rheims, Troyes and Charleroi. Photographic interpretation continued to show the devastating effect on the centres attacked, and other intelligence sources confirmed this evidence as well as supplying indications of damage to signals and ancillary services, damage which did not always appear in photographs.
In order to extend the paralysis inflicted on the regions north and west of Paris, attacks were made in the period immediately before D Day on the eastern routes to Paris and the important alternative routes round the south of that city. Attacks on these centres were, however, considerably restricted by the necessity of avoiding heavy civilian casualties or damage to historic buildings. A typical example of this restriction was furnished by the important junction of Le Bourget which, because of the strong probability of bombing causing heavy civilian casualties, was not attacked at all. Nevertheless, the destruction and dislocation caused by the bombing raids in this final stage proved extremely effective, as subsequent events were to demonstrate.
Altogether, in the three months before D Day, only four of the eighty special targets escaped serious damage and traffic over the whole of France declined by 70 per cent. Of the thirty-seven special targets assigned to Bomber Command all were assessed as ‘very seriously damaged’, and in almost every case ‘to such an extent that no further attacks were necessary until vital repairs had been page 249 affected.’ Interesting evidence of the success of the whole rail campaign was discovered after the war at the headquarters of Region Nord in Brussels. There the Germans had kept an elaborate chart showing the weekly state of traffic lines and rolling stock, and on this chart from the end of March the graphs went steadily down until at last, towards the end of May, the Germans had abandoned the attempt to keep account of the damage and destruction.
Simultaneously with the last attacks on rail targets, Bomber Command had begun attacking coastal fortifications. Here again the main problem was to keep the enemy guessing where the actual landings were to be made, and the only way of doing this was by the rather extravagant method of bombing at least two coastal batteries or defence works elsewhere for every one that was attacked on the actual invasion coast of Normandy. The guns were very small targets and many were enclosed in thick concrete casemates, but the casemates for some were still under construction. It was considered that where the building of casemates was completed aerial bombing could do very little harm, but in one attack at least this opinion proved wrong. On the night of 28 May sixty-four Lancasters guided by seven Pathfinder Mosquitos attacked the coastal battery at St. Martin de Varreville, and a captured German report said that after several direct hits on one of the casemates there it ‘apparently burst open and then collapsed.’ In other attacks, even when the casemate itself was undamaged, the guns were often thrown out of alignment or their field of fire restricted by mounds of earth thrown up during the bombing, while command posts, fire director gear, and signal equipment were smashed and the batteries rendered ineffective. By D Day Bomber Command had dropped over 9200 tons of bombs on coastal batteries between Boulogne and Cherbourg.
In addition to these raids on fortifications and railways British bomber crews attacked a number of other military objectives. During May the military depots at Bourg Leopold in Belgium and at Mailly le Camp near Rheims were wrecked. An impressive account of the attack on Mailly le Camp, which was a large tank training school as well as the Headquarters of 21 Panzer Division, is contained in the report of the officer commanding this depot. ‘The main concen- tration,’ he writes, ‘was accurately aimed at the most important building …. In that part of the camp which was destroyed the concentration of bombs was so great that not only did the splinter proof trenches receive direct hits but even the bombs that missed choked them up and made the sides cave in.’ Five large ammunition dumps in France used by the German Army and Air Force were also attacked during May, and in April Bomber Command destroyed the large explosive works at St. Medard-en-Jalles, near Bordeaux.page 250
There were also attacks on wireless and radar stations. Four of these small and difficult targets were allotted to Bomber Command and the raids which were carried out towards the end of May were indeed triumphs of precision bombing. At Boulogne-Mt. Couple at least seventy heavy bombs fell on the target area, which was only some 300 yards long and 150 yards wide. Few of the transmitters on this site survived the attack and only three were subsequently identified in operation. At another station near Dieppe the aerial masts were all demolished and most of the buildings received direct hits. At Cherbourg–Urville the centre of a very neat bomb pattern coincided almost exactly with the centre of the target area, and the destruction of this particular station, which was the headquarters of the German Air Force signals intelligence service in north-west France, may well have been an important contributory factor to the lack of enemy air reaction to the assault. Enemy airfields attacked by Bomber Command during May included those at Montdidier, Tours, Rennes, Nantes and Brest.
Gibson was one of the relatively large contingent of New Zealand pilots, navigators, bomb aimers, wireless operators, and air gunners who flew with Bomber Command in this pre-D Day period. There was also a representative group of men from the Dominion working on the ground who gave faithful service in support of the air operations. Among senior officers, Air Vice-Marshal C. R. Carr continued in command of No. 4 Bomber Group, while Air Commodore A. McKee was now in charge of the large bomber base at Mildenhall, Suffolk, which controlled four bomber stations with five operational squadrons and various other units. Group Captain L. E. Jarman commanded the Pathfinder Station at Wyton, Huntingdon, and Group Captain G. J. Grindell the airfield at Fiskerton, near Nottingham, from which Lancasters operated. Early in April 1944 Group Captain Elworthy took charge of the large base at Wadding- ton, Lincolnshire, with four bomber stations and five operational squadrons under his control.
With the Pathfinder squadrons, New Zealand airmen continued to play a prominent part. Wing Commander J. F. Barron, who had already achieved a fine record of service as captain of pathfinder aircraft, was now leading a Lancaster squadron. He also acted as Master Bomber on several raids. In one such raid early in May, says an official report, ‘his determination and courage in directing the attack were largely responsible for the success achieved. Disregarding the defences he flew below five thousand feet and directed the bombing from a very low level in order to obtain maximum precision.’ It was while acting as Master Bomber in a late May attack on Le Mans marshalling yards that Barron lost his life. It was his seventy-eighth operation with Bomber Command and his thirty-second with the Pathfinders. Another outstanding leader with the Pathfinder Force was Wing Commander Watts,1 who now led a Mosquito squadron with conspicuous success. In a long and distinguished career with Bomber Command, Watts survived many hazardous missions only to lose his life early in July 1944 when his Mosquito was shot down during a raid on Berlin.
Squadron Leader McMillan,1 with a long and successful career in India and Burma, and Flight Lieutenant Cochrane,2 who had earlier completed a tour of operations with a Wellington squadron, now captained Lancasters. Both men were subsequently to act as Master Bomber on many raids and gain further distinction. Other outstanding pathfinder captains were Squadron Leader Horton,3 who continued with No. 105 Mosquito Squadron, Flight Lieutenant V. S. Moore and Flight Lieutenant Holdaway,4 both of whom also flew Mosquitos. Flight Lieutenant Breckon5 and Flight Lieutenant Hartley6 of No. 109 Mosquito Squadron, and Flying Officer J. M. Smith,7 who captained a Lancaster of No. 97 Squadron, also achieved a fine record of service. Another prominent Lancaster captain was Flight Lieutenant Verran8 of No. 83 Squadron, who had operated in France and over Germany during the first year of war.
Among experienced navigators now with the Pathfinder squadrons were Flight Lieutenant Dill,9 who had previously flown with the New Zealand bomber squadron, Flight Lieutenant Galbraith,10 who had a long period of service with Wellingtons, and Flying Officer Matheson,11 who had been with No. 218 Stirling Squadron. Matheson was lost in July 1944 when flying as navigator to Wing Commander Watts.
In the main bomber force Wing Commanders Maling,1 Nelson,2 and St. John were now in charge of RAF squadrons. Maling had seen long service with the air arm, much of it in India where he had been posted shortly after joining the RAF. In India he flew with a bomber squadron; then he spent over three years as a test pilot and became well known for his efficiency and wide technical knowledge. He also commanded a bomber squadron for a long period and served as a flying instructor before returning to the United Kingdom, where he held several appointments before taking control of No. 619 Lancaster Squadron. Nelson, a Cranwell cadet, had served with a bomber squadron in Aden before the war; then he specialised in armament duties and went to Canada to assist in the Empire Air Training Scheme. He assumed command of his old squadron, now equipped with Lancasters, early in March 1944. St. John, who had already distinguished himself in bomber operations, was now in charge of No. 103 Lancaster Squadron. He remained in this post for almost a year and by the end of the war had completed a third tour of operations.
A Halifax squadron engaged on what were known as ‘special duties’ – the dropping of agents and supplies to the resistance movements in Europe – was now led by Wing Commander A. H. C. Boxer, who had been engaged in these duties over a long period. Boxer directed the diverse activities of his unit, which included many Polish crews, with exceptional ability, and took part himself in many long and hazardous flights over enemy-occupied territories.
Squadron Leaders Calvert,3 Hegman,4 Hogg,5 Lamason,6 and Miller7 were prominent during this period as senior captains and flight commanders. Calvert for example, continued a notable career with No. 630 Squadron, while Hogg, who had been with the New Zealand Bomber Squadron in the early days of the war, now completed a third tour of operations with No. 90 Squadron. Hegman, after a successful period with No. 7 Squadron, lost his life in a raid on Berlin.
With No. 617 Lancaster Squadron, which often operated independently on particularly hazardous missions, Squadron Leader J. L. Munro and Flight Lieutenant R. S. D. Kearns won distinction as captains of aircraft and Flight Lieutenant W. J. M. Barclay as navigator. All three men were veterans of the Pathfinder Force. Their squadron, which had become famous overnight with the raid on the Ruhr dams in 1943, was now led by Wing Commander Cheshire who, like his predecessor Guy Gibson, was a magnificent pilot and courageous leader. On completion of his fourth operational tour in July 1944, Cheshire was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was one of the few outstanding British bomber pilots to survive the war.
Throughout this period New Zealand aircrews with Bomber Command maintained their reputation for skill and determination in operations. Typically, Flight Lieutenant Sparks,1 a Lancaster captain with No. 15 Squadron, had with his crew fought off attacks by enemy fighters on five occasions. Flight Lieutenant Johnston2 was another captain with a fine record in No. 15 Squadron. While approaching Friedrichshafen on one raid his Lancaster was damaged almost simultaneously by fire from a night fighter and flak. Un- deterred, he had continued to the target and dropped his bombs. Pilot Officer Nicklin,3 who captained a Lancaster of No. 57 Squadron, had a particularly difficult sortie when sent to attack Schweinfurt. He was circling the target waiting instructions to bomb when his aircraft was subjected to a furious onslaught by a fighter, during which his rear gunner was seriously wounded and the mid-upper gunner baled out. With both turrets out of action, intercommunication useless and controls damaged, the bomber was in a precarious position. Nevertheless, Nicklin remained in the target area until ordered to bomb, when, despite attack by a second fighter, he succeeded in making a good attack. He then flew the crippled bomber back to England and made a safe landing at a strange airfield.
Flight Lieutenant Fabian1 had a notable career as navigation leader of No. 15 Squadron. On one sortie to Dusseldorf during April his Lancaster was badly damaged by a Messerschmitt 109 when a flak shell exploded underneath. The bomb aimer and wireless operator were mortally wounded and fire broke out in the fuse- lage. Fabian extinguished the flames and rendered first aid and administered morphia to the injured men. Ordering a slightly wounded man to take over the wireless set, he then helped his captain navigate the bomber back to England.
A bomb aimer with a remarkable record was Flight Sergeant K. Smith,2 of No. 158 Halifax Squadron, who in a series of seventeen operations was to return with no fewer than thirteen photographs of his aiming points.
Two captains of Lancaster bombers, Pilot Officer Speirs3 of No. 7 Squadron and Flight Sergeant Brown4 of No. 620 Squadron, survived remarkable experiences at this time. Sent to bomb the marshalling yards at Chambly, north of Paris, one night early in May, Speirs was just turning away from the target when his aircraft received a direct hit. ‘The stick flew out of my hand and both the starboard engines and the starboard wing tank caught fire. The Lancaster went into a steep dive out of control so I gave the order to jump. Then I was thrown against the side of the fuselage and knocked unconscious. When I came to I had fallen through the perspex roof and was hanging on my harness upside down ….’ Speirs landed near a forest and at dawn set off towards Paris. He soon found friends who helped him to make his way out of France, and after a series of adventures he returned to England fourteen weeks after he had been shot down.
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No. 75 New Zealand Bomber Squadron based at Mepal, near Ely, was to play a prominent part in the various operations preparatory to the landing in Normandy. In the fourteen weeks before D Day its crews flew 592 sorties, dropped 1958 tons of bombs, and laid 339 mines in enemy waters; twelve aircraft were lost on these missions. Wing Commander R. D. Max continued in command until early in May when he was succeeded by Wing Commander Leslie,1 who had been with Bomber Command in the early days of the war and had also seen service in the Middle East. Squadron Leaders Climie,2 Gibb,3 and Watson4 were the flight commanders at this period. When Watson was lost with his crew on a supply-dropping mission over France he was succeeded by Squadron Leader L. J. Drummond.
At the beginning of March 1944 No. 75 Squadron was preparing to exchange its Stirlings for Lancaster bombers, but while awaiting delivery of the new machines crews continued with minelaying and supply-dropping missions to the French Resistance Movement. The areas in which mines were laid were usually along the French coast off Cherbourg, Le Havre, St. Malo and the Biscay ports, but on three nights mines were also laid in Kiel Bay, along the Dutch coast, and in the Heligoland Bight.
For supply-dropping just over one hundred sorties were despatched by No. 75 Squadron during the first fortnight of March. These were interesting if rather uneventful missions. ‘The target was reached just after midnight,’ says a typical report. ‘The area was identified near a wood at the intersection of a road and railway. The reception was good, consisting of three bonfires and a faint flashing light from a man holding a torch. Twelve containers were then dropped from about 500 feet. On the return flight two packages of leaflets were also dropped at Aix-les-Bains and St. Genix. The weather was good and base was reached without further incident.’
1 Wing Commander R. J. A. Leslie, DSO, AFC; RAF; born Inglewood, 3 Mar 1919; clerk; joined RNZAF Jun 1939; transferred RAF Apr 1940 and re-transferred RNZAF Apr 1945; commanded No. 75 (NZ) Sqdn, 1944; CI No. 1653 Conversion Unit, 1945.
These supply missions were arranged as far as possible for clear weather but crews did not always find conditions ideal at this season of the year. ‘In the target area,’ says another squadron report, ‘there was variable cloud, bases from 500 feet to zero and snow showers. Sixteen containers were dropped but the five packages of leaflets could not be released owing to the hatch being frozen.’
On 13 March the first Lancaster bomber was received at Mepal and during the next six weeks the Stirlings were gradually taken off operations, the last sorties with Stirlings being flown on the night of 23 April when five aircraft laid mines in Kiel Bay. Meanwhile the New Zealand crews had begun to take part in the attack on rail targets in France, Belgium, and Germany. Their first target was the marshalling yard at Amiens, bombed by twelve Stirlings on 16 March. Subsequent objectives were the marshalling yards at Laon, Aulnoye, Courtrai, and Lille.
No. 75's first sorties with Lancasters were made on the night of 9 April against the railway centre of Villeneuve St. George, about 11 miles south-east of Paris. Of the eleven Lancasters which took off from Mepal that night, eight were captained by New Zealanders- Squadron Leader Climie, Flight Lieutenants Fauvel1 and E. F. Witting, Flying Officer Murray,2 and Pilot Officers Armstrong,3 Millar,4Burton,5 and W. J. Willis. All crews returned safely and reported successful attacks. On following nights the Lancasters bombed the marshalling yards at Laon and Rouen and the communication centre of Aachen. Towards the end of April the New Zealand Squadron also took part in five raids on targets in Germany, sending a total of sixty-four aircraft to bomb Cologne, Dusseldorf, Karlsruhe, Essen, and Friedrichshafen. The squadron was fortunate in that only one bomber, captained by Flying Officer Herron,6 was lost during this active period.
Other rail centres attacked by the squadron during May were those at Courtrai, Louvain, Le Mans, Angers and Trappes. All these missions were comparatively uneventful, except that whilst flying back from Louvain the Lancaster captained by Flight Lieutenant Clark1 was attacked by a Junkers 88. Spirited return fire from the British bomber set the Junkers on fire and it was seen to go down and explode on the water near the coast. In addition to these attacks on rail centres, the New Zealanders flew to Germany on two occasions during May. Duisburg was the target for twenty-five squadron aircraft on the 21st and the following night twenty-three Lancasters went to Dortmund. Three aircraft, of which Pilot Officer Armstrong, Pilot Officer Burke,2 and Pilot Officer Willis were the captains, were lost in these two raids. The Lancasters also bombed the coastal batteries at Cap Gris Nez and Boulogne during May and these attacks were continued on the nights immediately preceding the invasion.
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Medium bombers, fighter-bombers, and fighters with the Allied Expeditionary Air Force flew a wide variety of missions during the months immediately before D Day. Flying-bomb sites received a large proportion of the initial effort and remained a continuing commitment, but after April operations were directed more and more against rail targets, airfields, roads, bridges and military installations in France. Day and night fighters retained for the defence of the British Isles were also able to take part in these operations for enemy reaction to the Allied preparations proved considerably less than expected. Yet the need for pure fighter aircraft continued, and thousands of sorties were flown by Spitfires and long-range Mustangs both in protecting medium and light bombers and in escorting and shepherding home the long-range bombers of the United States Air Forces returning from deep penetrations into Germany.
2 Pilot Officer E. L. Burke; born Manaia, 10 Mar 1918; farmer; joined RNZAF Dec 1941; killed on air operations 22 May 1944
In their attacks on rail targets in northern France and Belgium, the British and American medium bombers, fighter-bombers, and fighters swept over a very wide area creating havoc in marshalling yards, repair depots, and installations along the tracks, as well as among locomotives and trains on the move. The raids were intensified during May. On the 21st, for example, over 800 Thunderbolts, Spitfires, Typhoons, and Tempests operated throughout the day, claiming 67 locomotives destroyed and over 90 damaged. In the last fortnight before D Day, fighters and bombers of the AEAF flew 1388 sorties with the primary purpose of attacking locomotives, and during this period they claimed 157 locomotives destroyed and 82 damaged, as well as considerable damage to rolling stock. These claims were probably somewhat inflated, but there is no doubt that AEAF attacks made an important contribution to the widespread dislocation of the enemy rail system which denied to the enemy armies in the field the reinforcements and freedom of movement necessary to mount decisive counter-attacks.
Complementary to this assault on rail motive power was the attack on rail and road bridges leading into the invasion area. How- ever, in order not to display special interest in the Normandy area the early attacks were made on bridges over the Seine, with some others over the Oise, the Meuse, and the Albert Canal, leaving until the last weeks the task of destroying bridges south of Paris to Orleans and west along the Loire. Bridges are difficult targets but the success of the fighter-bombers, particularly the Typhoons, surpassed expec- tations. While it is probable that in one or two attacks a lucky hit exploded demolition charges set in place by the Germans, the fighter-bombers demonstrated beyond all doubt their ability to attack these targets effectively. By D Day twelve railway bridges and the same number of road bridges over the River Seine had been rendered impassable. In addition, three railway bridges at Liege and others at Hasselt, Herenthals, Namur, Conflans, Valenciennes, Hirson, Kinz-Karthaus and Tours, as well as the important road bridge at Saumur, were also put out of action.
Airfields, ammunition dumps, military camps and headquarters, together with radar stations and defence posts along the Channel coast, were among other targets attacked by RAF Mitchells, page 260 Mosquitos, Spitfires, and Typhoons in the last few weeks before the invasion. Such was the destruction of repair, maintenance, and servicing facilities on the forward airfields that the Germans were forced to operate from bases a long way from the actual assault area. This, no doubt, was one reason for the lack of enemy air interference with the landing and the subsequent inability of the German Air Force to intervene at critical times in the land battle.
The low-level attacks on the Germans' coastal radar stations were equally effective. By D Day, mainly as a result of attacks by Typhoon and Spitfire squadrons with rocket projectiles and bombs, large stretches of the Channel coast were deprived of their vital radar cover. The enemy did not obtain the early warning of the approach of the Allied armada that his radar coverage should have provided; radar-controlled gunfire was interfered with; no fighter aircraft hindered the airborne operations, and altogether the enemy was confused and his troop movements delayed.
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Royal Air Force medium bombers made their first large attack on transport targets on 23 March when five squadrons of No. 2 Group attacked the marshalling yards of Creil. Good bombing results were reported. Flight Sergeant Anstey1 who, with Flight Sergeants Winter2 and Jarvis3 as his navigator and air gunner, flew a Mitchell of No. 98 Squadron in this attack, encountered heavy flak during the flight to the target, but their machine was not among the ten Mitchells which came back damaged.
In the following weeks New Zealand pilots, navigators, and wireless operators and air gunners flew on many such missions in which marshalling yards, repair depots, and engines were effectively attacked. No. 226 Mitchell Squadron, with which fifteen New Zealanders were then flying, records operating frequently on two missions and sometimes three in one day.
By contrast Mitchells of No. 98 Squadron attacking a flying-bomb site a few days later met extremely accurate flak. While turning away from the target the leading aircraft received a direct hit in the nose, fell out of formation, and went straight down to crash in flames. Several other aircraft were hit, including the Mitchell captained by Anstey. Shrapnel from an anti-aircraft shell struck his navigator, Winter, inflicting severe wounds in the head, and he died shortly after the machine landed back at base.
No. 487 New Zealand Squadron, under Wing Commander I. S. Smith, played its part in these operations as one of the six Mosquito squadrons of No. 2 Group, transferred from Bomber Command to Second Tactical Air Force on its formation. The Mosquitos were employed in both night and day operations during this period. Their main targets were enemy airfields on the Continent, against which a total of 442 sorties were flown in May, but there were also a number of attacks on rail and military targets and against flying-bomb sites.
Many effective attacks resulted from such tactics although there were, of course, inevitable exceptions. For example, one day towards the end of March when eight Mosquitos flew to attack a flying-bomb site in northern France, the target proved difficult to identify, and while several pairs of Mosquitos were circling over the area at the same time two aircraft flew into the blast from the bombs dropped by another machine. One Mosquito went down to crash and blew up among the trees below, while the other, with its fuselage torn and twisted and controls damaged, was just able to limp back to the English coast.
Daylight operations by No. 487 Squadron during April and May included attacks on the railway repair depot at St Geristain in Belgium, the marshalling yards at Abancourt and Serquex, the radar stations at Le Treport and Sortosville-en-Beaumont, the coastal battery at Fecamps, and flying-bomb sites in the Dieppe area. By night the main effort was devoted to intruder patrols and attacks against enemy airfields in Belgium, France and Holland, and in the six weeks before D Day thirty sorties were flown on such missions, without loss.
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In the various fighter and fighter-bomber operations during these months three New Zealand units - No. 485 Spitfire Squadron, No. 486 Tempest Squadron, and No. 488 Mosquito Squadron - each played their part; at the same time there were many New Zealand pilots flying Spitfires, Typhoons, and Mustangs with RAF units.
New Zealanders were also among the senior officers who commanded or controlled fighters and fighter-bombers operating across the Channel. Group Captain P. L. Donkin continued in command of an RAF Reconnaissance Wing which was now attached to the Canadian Army, and Wing Commander R. F. Aitken remained in charge of a forward base from which night fighters flew intruder patrols over enemy airfields. At the beginning of May Wing Commander Deere took charge of a forward airfield of Second Tactical Air Force with three French squadrons under his command, include- ing some of the pilots he had led from Biggin Hill in the previous summer. His Wing Commander Flying was Crawford-Compton, who frequently led the Frenchmen to bomb flying-bomb sites, shoot up railway engines, and attack military installations and coastal targets in the Pas de Calais. One day in May, in a typical operation of this period, Compton led Spitfires to bomb a junction, tunnel entrance, and railway viaduct south of Dieppe. Hits were seen on the end of the viaduct, on the tracks at the mouth of the tunnel, and on the railway junction. A few days later an ammunition dump in a forest near Dieppe was blown up, and the same afternoon five trains were attacked in the area south of the Seine, three engines being left with steam pouring out of their punctured boilers.
Spitfire wings were led by Wing Commanders C. E. Malfroy and R. D. Yule during the early months of 1944 and then both men were appointed to operational control posts with the Second Tactical Air Force. Wing Commander Wells1 was at No. 11 Fighter Group Headquarters until March. Then he flew with a Canadian wing of the Tactical Air Force for several weeks before taking command of a new Spitfire wing formed at Detling with three squadrons that had only recently returned from Sicily. Flight Lieutenants Spurdle2 and Burrett3 were among the New Zealand pilots who flew with the Detling Wing under Wells's leadership during the subsequent weeks. Squadron Leader M. G. Barnett led Spitfires from a forward base in Sussex in this period.
Mustang squadrons flew many long-range sorties both as bomber escort and in low-level attacks on ground targets, and in these duties Squadron Leader Westenra4 was prominent in command of No. 65 Squadron. Flight Lieutenants Collyns5 and Barrett6 were among his senior pilots. The deep penetrations into enemy territory made by the Mustangs gave greater opportunity for meeting enemy fighters and all three New Zealand airmen were in action at various times during this period. On one Ranger operation over Denmark in the middle of May, Westenra and his pilots met German fighters near Aalborg and, in a ‘hectic battle which finished up right on the deck’, they claimed eight enemy machines for the loss of only two pilots.
1 Wing Commander E. P. Wells, DSO, DFC and bar; born 26 Jul 1916; farmer; joined RNZAF Oct 1939; commanded No. 485 (NZ) Sqdn, 1942; Wing Leader, Kenley, 1942–43; Wing Commander, Training, No. 11 Fighter Group, 1943–44; Wing Leader, Tangmere, Detling, West Malling and Hawkinge, 1944; commanded Fighter Leader School, Central Flying. Establishment, 1944–45.
2 Wing Commander R. L. Spurdle, DFC and bar; born Wanganui, 3 Mar 1918; ware houseman; joined RNZAF Sep 1939; transferred RAF Jul 1940; commanded No. 80 Sqdn, 1944–45; Staff duty, Admin. Plans, No. 83 Group, 2nd TAF, 1945; Wing Leader, No. 39 Wing, No. 83 Group, 1945.
4 Squadron Leader D. F. Westenra, DFC and bar; born Christchurch, 29 Apr 1918; farmer; joined RAF Feb 1940; transferred RNZAF Jan 1944; commanded No. 93 Sqdn, Middle East, 1943–44, and No. 65 Sqdn, 1944.
At first the squadron operated mainly in the role of bomber support, covering the withdrawal of Fortresses from their raids on targets in Germany and escorting Marauders to attack marshalling yards and V-weapon sites. All these operations were flown without notable incident. Pilots saw more action when, towards the end of April, they began to carry bombs and attack flying-bomb sites and ground targets on the Continent. Such missions, interspersed with escort duties and Ranger patrols over Belgium and France, were continued throughout May, and at the end of that month the Spitfires joined in the attacks against German radar stations along the French coast. Altogether this was a period of intensive effort in which the squadron flew as many as four operations in one day and a total of over four hundred sorties in the five weeks before D Day. Squadron Leader Niven,1 a Scot from Edinburgh, who succeeded Squadron Leader M. R. D. Hume at the beginning of the year, was in command of No. 485 Squadron during this period. Flight Lieutenant Lee2 and Flight Lieutenant Black3 were the flight commanders.
At the end of March the New Zealanders began to exchange their Typhoons for Tempest aircraft. The Tempest, designed as a medium altitude day or night fighter and fitted to carry long-range tanks, bombs, and rocket projectiles, was the newest product of the Hawker Aircraft Company which had produced in turn the famous Hurricane and the versatile Typhoon. After a brief period of training and practice flights, the squadron moved to an advanced airfield in Kent where it joined the first Tempest wing of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force. Operations during the next few weeks included attacks on bridges, railways, and flying-bomb sites in northern France, together with reconnaissance and Ranger patrols. The Tempests also attacked ships and gun positions along the French and Belgian coasts and took part in several fighter sweeps. On 21 May the squadron flew as part of a large force of Spitfires, Typhoons, and Tempests which made widespread attacks on trains and military transport in France, Belgium, and Holland. The New Zealanders for their part attacked goods trains between St. Omer and Lille and installations along the line. Four locomotives were reported hit and damaged. Twenty RAF pilots were lost that day but the New Zealanders were lucky and completed their mission without casualty. This good fortune continued to favour No. 486 in its operations, and during the last five weeks before D Day 208 sorties were flown without the loss of a single aircraft.
No. 488 New Zealand Mosquito Squadron continued to play a prominent part in night-fighter operations under the leadership of Wing Commander R. C. Haine; Squadron Leaders E. N. Bunting and R. G. Watts were the flight commanders. During the early months of 1944, which saw a renewal of German night bombing raids against England, the New Zealanders had flown from Bradwell Bay in Essex. The German raids were intermittent, scattered, and on a smaller scale than anticipated, but No. 488 crews were particularly successful in their interception patrols and by mid-April, when the ‘Baby Blitz’ came to an end, they had destroyed eighteen German aircraft and claimed two more as probably destroyed. Details of these successes have already been recorded.
Early in May 1944 the New Zealanders moved to a base in Wiltshire from which they flew night patrols in protection of southern and western districts, where invasion forces were now assembling. Patrols were uneventful until the night of 14 May when several crews were in action. Airborne just after midnight, Flight Lieutenant J. A. S. Hall and Flying Officer J. P. Cairns obtained a radar contact page 267 which, after a long chase, led to the sighting of a Junkers 188. Hall flew right underneath to obtain a clear-cut identification and then dropped back a hundred yards or so astern and opened fire.
The first burst found its mark and the Junkers went straight down to explode in a mass of flames as it hit the ground. Three members of the crew who baled out were subsequently captured. On patrol about the same time, Flight Sergeant Mitchell1 and his navigator, Sergeant Ballard,2 of London, intercepted another German bomber. They scored hits but lost sight of their target before being able to administer the coup-de-grâce. Searchlights illuminated a target for Flying Officer R. G. Jeffs and, closing in on what proved to be a Junkers 88, he opened fire. Both engines of the enemy bomber caught alight and it went down to crash in flames. All the crew baled out and were taken prisoner. Ten minutes later Jeffs sighted and attacked a Dornier 217, which went down with smoke pouring from one engine but was not seen to crash.
During the last few weeks before D Day there were very few nights when the enemy operated over the areas patrolled by No. 488 Squadron and no conclusive actions were reported. This was, how- ever, the general experience of both day and night defence squadrons for the German air reaction to the Allied preparations was remarkably weak. By night a few isolated attempts to attack Portsmouth and Plymouth areas were all that the now depleted German bomber forces could achieve. By day the number of German aircraft which approached the British coast was negligible and even reconnaissance machines failed to penetrate the defences. Indeed, most of the reconnaissance sorties flown by the Luftwaffe from France were limited to brief appearances in mid-Channel. All this was not surprising for standing patrols by RAF fighters as far as forty to fifty miles south of the Isle of Wight, and the frequent bombing attacks on their bases were making life particularly difficult for the German squadrons in northern France.
Mastery of the air over the Channel, wrested from the Germans in earlier years by RAF Fighter Command, was now complete. It proved of incalculable value to the Allied armies, navies, and air forces which were able to complete their preparations for the assault virtually unmolested.
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Royal Air Force Coastal Command was now a formidable force. In January 1944 it possessed some thirty anti-submarine squadrons equipped with long-range Liberator, Fortress, Halifax, and Wellington land planes, together with Sunderland and Catalina flying boats. Operating from bases that stretched in a wide arc from Iceland through the United Kingdom to Gibraltar and the Azores, these squadrons were employed in escorting convoys and hunting U-boats in the open Atlantic, the Bay of Biscay, and the Western Approaches. Farther south, on the route to the Cape, cover was provided by aircraft based at Gibraltar and in West Africa, among them the Sunderlands of No. 490 New Zealand Squadron.
The success of Coastal Command's patrols during this period may be gauged from the fact that huge convoys continued to pass almost unmolested from Gibraltar, the United States, and Canada to British ports. In March 1944 only one merchant ship in convoy was sunk in the North Atlantic, whereas eleven vessels went down in the Indian Ocean where the Allied defence was much weaker. During May not a single merchant ship was lost in the Atlantic areas swept by Coastal Command.
The Bay of Biscay continued to be the main hunting ground for aircraft based in south-west England. Intensive day and night patrols over those waters resulted in seventy-two attacks on U-boats during the first five months of 1944; but it is interesting to note that the large majority of these attacks took place at night with the aid of the Leigh Light or flares. The German U-boat commanders were now very wary of being caught on the surface by day in a region so well covered by air patrols. They preferred to sacrifice both speed and time by travelling submerged throughout almost their whole passage across the bay, venturing up only for short periods during the hours of darkness to recharge batteries and change air.
In the wider spaces of the Atlantic targets were now fewer; nevertheless, Coastal Command aircraft attacked more than fifty U-boats during this same period. One German submarine – U.231 – page 269 was depth-charged and destroyed in the light of the January moon by a No. 172 Squadron Wellington flying 400 miles north-east of its base in the Azores. Another praiseworthy kill was made by a Catalina flying boat of No. 210 Squadron at the extreme range of 750 miles north of her base in the Shetland Islands. Called out in support of a convoy returning from North Russia, the Catalina sighted the U-boat some 200 miles north-west of the Lofoten Islands. Because of the length of her patrol the flying boat carried only two depth-charges. These, however, were so well placed that the U-boat was sent to the bottom.
Tribute to the effectiveness of the aerial depth-charge attacks was paid by the Germans themselves. One day in March as U.265 began to sink by the stern after an attack by a Sunderland in the North-Western Approaches, the German commander flashed a signal ‘Fine Bombish’ before he and his men abandoned ship. While flying in to the attack the Sunderland had been hit, and members of the crew had to plug holes in the hull so that their machine would remain afloat when it alighted at its base in Northern Ireland.
An outstanding feature of the pre-D Day operations by RAF Coastal Command was the May offensive in the area between Norway, Shetland, and Iceland. It was appreciated that as the Allied invasion across the Channel became imminent, Doenitz would try to reinforce his Biscay flotillas from Norway so air patrols over northern waters were strengthened. The first sighting and attack was, appropriately enough, made by a Norwegian crew on 16 May, and during the next fortnight twelve more U-boats were depth-charged from the air. Six of them were sunk outright and others forced back to port.
New Zealanders, both air and ground crew, were to be found with almost all Coastal Command squadrons, in the United King- dom, Iceland, Gibraltar, West Africa, and the Azores. In some units the representation was limited to a few individuals but in others, notably the Liberator and Halifax squadrons, there was a relatively large contingent of pilots, navigators, wireless operators, and air gunners, as well as armourers, fitters, and radar mechanics.
Squadron Leader M. A. Ensor was the outstanding personality with No. 224 Liberator Squadron at St. Eval in Cornwall, where he won commendation for his work as flight commander both in the air and on the ground. With No. 53 Squadron also flying from St. Eval, Pilot Officer W. Anderson captained a Liberator in several attacks on U-boats. In another crew of this squadron, Flight Sergeants H. J. Mills and F. E. Bailey flew as radar operator/air gunners. In February they took part in a lengthy action round a convoy some 400 miles west of Ireland, and during two operational flights the page 270 crew sighted six U-boats and attacked five of them. Flight Lieutenants Jenkins1 and Nicholls2 of No. 547 Squadron both captained Liberators in night attacks in the Bay of Biscay, and Flying Officers Culling-Mannix3 and McDowall4 flew Halifaxes of No. 502 Squadron in night patrols over the same area. Culling-Mannix and his crew failed to return from patrol early in February, only a few days after having made a damaging attack on a German submarine.
During the intensive operations over northern waters towards the end of May 1944, New Zealanders saw at least two U-boats destroyed. One of them was attacked by a Sunderland from Invergordon with an all-New Zealand crew captained by Warrant Officer MacDonald.5 A contemporary report tells how one of the gunners first sighted the submarine when the Sunderland was about 200 miles north-east of the Shetlands. The flying boat swept in to drop a stick of depth-charges, and a few seconds later the rear gunner ‘let out a wild Maori yell’ as he saw the depth-charges straddle the target. One of them must have scored a direct hit for a few seconds later the U-boat blew up, leaving the sea strewn with oil and wreckage. Two months later this same Sunderland crew were forced down in the sea north-west of Dakar while flying to West Africa to join No. 490 Squadron. They got ashore after some adventures and were eventually rescued from the beach by a French corvette.
The squadrons based, on the West African coast flew patrols to protect convoys in that area and also to harass U-boats on passage to the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, few opportunities for attack presented themselves during these months, but the crews who flew the many long and uneventful patrols at least had the satisfaction of seeing the convoys pass safely on their way.
* * * * *
Against enemy shipping in European waters both RAF Bomber and Coastal Commands were active during these months. Bomber Command continued laying mines, a task which had long been an important part of bomber operations. Now that the technique of high-level minelaying with the aid of H2S was firmly established, aircraft dropped their mines with precision through the densest cloud and were able to penetrate even the most distant and heavily defended areas from the Baltic to the Bay of Biscay. Altogether from 1 March to the eve of D Day, crews flew 2333 sorties in which 7377 mines of many types were laid for the loss of 37 aircraft. The main aims of the minelaying campaign remained the dislocation and disruption of seaborne traffic carrying raw materials to the German war machine, interference with the passage of troopships between Germany, Norway and Russia, disorganisation of U-boat training in the Baltic, and the restriction of U-boat movements to and from operational bases on the Biscay coast. As the time for overlord drew near, however, there came the special task of ensuring that the flanks of the invading forces would be protected from attack by German surface vessels and U-boats. Mines were therefore laid in the Channel area to restrict the movement of enemy surface craft and to prevent the U-boats securing advanced bases. To avoid forewarning the Germans, these operations were skilfully woven into the general pattern of the minelaying campaign and were completed without arousing any suspicion that the Normandy coast had received special attention. The areas most frequently covered included the channels between Ushant and the Brest peninsula, the approaches to Morlaix, St. Malo, and Cherbourg, and regions off the Dutch and Belgian coasts.
While the main burden of the offensive was borne by the Stirling and Halifax squadrons of Bomber Command, Lancasters were prominent in operations along the north-west German coast where their longer range and larger load capacity were a great asset. On one night alone Lancasters laid 450 mines in the Gulf of Danzig. On another occasion a small force of Lancasters laid mines in the sea canal linking the important East Prussian ports of Konigsberg and Pillau, almost 1000 miles from their base. This was a difficult and hazardous operation in a narrow channel little more than 50 yards wide and heavily defended on both sides by flak batteries and searchlights.page 272
Mosquitos of the Pathfinder Force made a notable and interesting contribution on the night of 12 May when aircraft of No. 692 Squadron mined the Kiel Canal in bright moonlight from very low level. This was the first occasion on which Mosquitos were used for sea mining at night. The mission holds special New Zealand interest for it was led by Wing Commander Watts, an experienced bomber pilot with a fine record. His careful planning, skill, and fine airmanship contributed largely to the success obtained. Another Mosquito was captained by Flight Lieutenant Farrow,1 who had Flying Officer Strang2 as his navigator, while Flying Officer Matheson was navigator in a third aircraft.
No. 692 Squadron was supported by nine Mosquitos from No. 139 Squadron whose task was to mark the route and indicate the target with flares. Other Pathfinder Mosquitos made a ‘spoof’ attack on the lock-gates at Brunsbuttel to divert the enemy defences while ‘Intruders’ from No. 100 Group shot up gun positions along the canal. The minelaying force flew over the sea at 10,000 feet to a point near Heligoland, where on sighting the Very lights fired by No. 139 Squadron they turned south-east and began reducing height. By the time they reached the red spot fires, dropped to mark the last leg to the target, they were flying at 8000 feet and, swinging east, began the long dive which would take them over the canal at 300 feet. Watts led the first wave of six aircraft down in their dive and, in the light of the moon and the first of the dawn which was beginning to colour the eastern sky, the crews saw below them the three- and-a-half-mile stretch of the canal which was their target. One by one the leading aircraft swept down to release their mines, and with the second wave quickly merging with the first, eleven mines were ‘laid fair and square in the canal’ within a matter of minutes.
The canal was defended along its entire length by anti-aircraft guns and searchlights and an extensive system of balloon barrages above each of the bridges which crossed it. However, in this surprise attack, opposition from the defences in the mining area was slight. Only one Mosquito was shot down; a second failed to locate the target but returned safely with the rest of the force. As a result of this brilliant operation the Kiel Canal was completely closed to traffic for seven days, by which time sixty-three ships were held up at one end.
In addition to this interruption of merchant traffic which delayed delivery of urgently required materials and upset production schedules, many ships were sunk and their valuable cargoes lost. A contemporary report covering the first five months of 1944 stated that at a conservative estimate the Germans had lost, without hope of replacement, no less than three million tons of cargo-carrying capacity and almost one and a half million tons of imports–a serious drain on the enemy war potential at a critical time. German naval losses were also heavy.
German difficulties were further increased by the operations of Coastal Command's bomber and torpedo-bomber squadrons, whose crews continued to harass German shipping off the coasts of Norway and the Frisian Islands, in the North Sea and the English Channel. Because of the frequent air patrols over these waters, enemy ships now seldom sailed by day, and most sightings and attacks were made by night. There were, however, several spectacular actions against heavily defended convoys in daylight when cargo vessels, mine- sweepers, anti-aircraft ships, and naval auxiliaries were sunk and damaged.
No. 489 New Zealand Beaufighter Squadron, under Wing Commander J. S. Dinsdale, was one of the torpedo-carrying units engaged in this campaign. Together with No. 455 Australian Squadron, also flying Beaufighters, it made up an Anzac Wing which operated over Dutch coastal waters. In May 1944 there were several notable actions in this area. On the 14th the target was a convoy of four ships protected by sixteen escorts, sighted off Ameland in the Frisian Islands. Six Beaufighters from No. 489 carried torpedoes, and a further six aircraft from the New Zealand Squadron, together with twelve from No. 455 Squadron, made up the anti-flak force. Flight Lieutenant T. H. Davidson led the Torbeaus in low over the sea; they had to fly page 274 through a curtain of anti-aircraft fire but as they broke away crews saw that several torpedoes had scored hits. On one 2000-ton ship which Davidson and Flight Sergeant Langley1 attacked there was a huge explosion followed by a cloud of smoke and flames. It was soon blazing furiously. A great column of smoke rose from a second ship at which Flying Officer J. G. Gow and Flying Officer Fraser2 had aimed their torpedoes, and a minesweeper appeared to be listing badly. In addition, many cannon strikes were seen on the other merchantmen and on several of the escorts. During the attack, however, the Beaufighter piloted by Flying Officer I. A. Pettit was shot down and four other machines were hit and damaged by flak; one of them had to make a crash-landing on return to base.
Whilst attacking another well-defended convoy a few days later No. 489 Squadron lost two more Beaufighters. One was flown by Flying Officer Cameron3 of Inverness, the other by Warrant Officer Wright.4 The pilot of a third, Flight Sergeant Langley, was badly wounded in the throat, arms, and thigh whilst approaching to drop his torpedo, but despite these injuries he completed his attack and then, aided by his navigator, flew his damaged machine back across the North Sea to make a successful night landing. Langley, weak from loss of blood, collapsed at the controls as the Beaufighter came to rest.
In the last weeks before D Day the New Zealand Beaufighters flew patrols along the enemy coast in search of E-boats and other light naval craft that were operating from bases between Ijmuiden and Cherbourg. Such patrols marked the first stage of operations designed to ensure that the Allied invasion fleets would not be molested by surface craft during their passage to Normandy from ports in southern England. The main neptune operations—the naval component of overlord—were planned to begin on the eve of D Day when squadrons of RAF Coastal Command and the Fleet Air Arm would co-operate with surface vessels of the Allied navies in a wide and complicated pattern of patrols which, it was hoped, would seal both the eastern and western entrances to the Channel.
* * * * *
Because it was intended to supply the United States forces engaged in Europe directly from American ports, United States troops were assigned the right flank in these operations. They were to take Cherbourg and the Brittany ports as supply bases while the British protected the left flank of the Allied forces against what was expected to be the main German counter-attack from the east. Then, driving east and north along the coast, the British armies were to seize the Channel ports as far north as Antwerp, through which they were to be supplied from England.
To ensure the safe arrival of the assault troops on the beaches the Allied navies would provide covering forces to protect the flanks of the sea lanes used by the assault craft, with minesweeping vessels to clear channels ahead of them. Once within range of the landing areas the heavy naval guns were to open fire on the coastal batteries to supplement the work of the air forces, and then, as the landing craft drove inshore, there was to be an intense bombardment of the beach defences by every gun that could be brought to bear.
Once assault forces had established themselves on shore, naval forces were to maintain swept channels between France and England through which supplies and reinforcements could be passed. Since the initial port facilities would be very limited, provision had been made for the establishment off the French coast of five protected anchorages, two of which were subsequently to be extended into page 276 artificial harbours.1 Through these points the bulk of the stores were to be unloaded during the early stages of the campaign. To provide oil and petrol in quantity, tanker discharge points were to be set up off the French coast and submarine pipelines laid beneath the Channel, the latter under the code-name PLUTO.2
The extent of the problem of berthing, loading, and moving the forces involved in this great amphibious assault is perhaps best indicated by the fact that over 5000 ships and 4000 additional ‘ship- to-shore’ craft were to be engaged in the Channel during the assault and build-up period. The naval forces included 25 flotillas of minesweepers of all types, 6 battleships, 2 monitors (15-inch-gun bombardment ships), 22 cruisers, 119 destroyers, 113 sloops, frigates and corvettes, 80 patrol craft, anti-submarine trawlers and gunboats, and 360 motor launches, motor torpedo-boats, motor gunboats, and American PT boats.
The Allied air forces, now in action, were to increase the intensity of their attacks as D Day approached. In the assault itself they were to prepare the way for the ground forces by destroying the enemy's radar installations and by attacking coastal batteries and beach defences between Ouistreham and Varreville; and, in conjunction with the navies, they were to protect the cross-Channel movement from enemy air and sea attack. They were also assigned the tasks of providing cover over the landing beaches and of attacking the enemy to reduce his ability to reinforce and counter-attack. There would also be the air lift of the airborne forces. After the establishment of a bridgehead the Allied air forces would support the armies in their advance inland.
During the assault it was planned to maintain a sustained density of ten fighter squadrons to cover the landing beaches, five over the British sector and five over the American. An additional six squadrons were to be maintained in readiness to support the beach cover if necessary. Over the main approach channels there would be a sustained density of five squadrons, centred at roughly 60 miles and three at 80 miles from the south coast of England. Additionally, a striking force of thirty-three fighter squadrons, subsequent to its initial employment as escort to the airborne formations, was to be held in reserve for use as the situation might require.
1 The famous ‘Mulberries’, components for which had now been completed in England. They were to be towed across the Channel and then sunk or moored off the Normandy coast to the north-east and north-west of Bayeux. Each harbour was to be roughly the size of Dover and was to consist of an outer floating breakwater, an inner fixed breakwater made of concrete caissons, and four floating piers running out from the beaches. In the interval before these harbours were completed, shelter for the unloading was to be provided by sinking lines of obsolete ships to form breakwaters at each of the five main assault sectors.
2 Pipeline under the ocean.
As D Day approached, the air squadrons that were to support the Normandy invasion crowded into the airfields and bases of the United Kingdom. Some airfields that had previously held two squadrons now had six. Satellite fields had become main bases. In fact, the southern half of England, including Cornwall, was virtually one huge airfield, in places with barely orbiting and navigational space between one landing ground and the next.
The total strength of the Allied air forces now available in Britain for D Day was in the region of 13,000 aircraft. Just over half of these – about 7000 – were United States machines trained in day operations over a wide area, and including a powerful force of some 2500 heavy and medium bombers capable, in reasonable conditions, of attacking targets with great precision. American fighters were also now capable of providing protection in deep penetrations over enemy territory. The RAF forces, though slightly fewer in total numbers, possessed greater operational experience and versatility. They included a large proportion of bomber and reconnaissance squadrons, highly trained in both day and night operations over Europe and its contiguous seas, together with large numbers of high-performance fighters that could guarantee air superiority over the whole of the assault area, as well as the protection of the United Kingdom, the main base for OVERLORD.
The variety, balance, and formidable nature of the Allied air forces that were to support the invasion of Europe is indicated in the following table:
|USAAF||RAF and Associates||Grand Total|
|Heavy bombers – day||2500||2500|
|Heavy bombers – night||1458||1458|
|Medium and light bombers – day||704||704|
|Medium and light bombers – day and night||294||294|
|Fighters and fighter-bombers – day||2300||2100||4400|
|Fighters and bomber support – night||400||400|
|Troop-carrier and transport||1166||460||1626|
Against this great concentration of Allied air power the Germans were able to deploy in the West only a very limited force whose strength was further weakened by lack of adequate reserves of trained men and equipment. On 5 June 1944 Luftflotte 3, the operational air command on which fell the burden of defence in the page 278 West, possessed a total of barely 800 serviceable aircraft distributed among airfields between south and south-west France and Belgium. Particularly outstanding was the weakness of the ground-attack units in France – there was only a handful of FW190 fighter-bombers available for this role – while the long-range bomber squadrons could muster no more than some 130 aircraft and there were not more than 170 single-engined fighters. Moreover, included in the total strength were the anti-shipping squadrons based at such distant airfields as Bordeaux, Toulouse and Marseilles, which amounted in all to some 200 aircraft, a potentially formidable force but weakened by a high proportion of inexperienced crews.
During the first week of June no major redistribution of German air strength took place and there appears to have been no attempt to have ready a force of some considerable striking power to operate in an emergency. This was no doubt largely because home defence remained a prime commitment of the German fighter force, as in other theatres enemy air strength was already far from adequate to meet the demands now made upon it. But there was also the fact that until the very last moment the German High Command remained uncertain of Allied intentions, and the possibility of landings either to the east or west of the Seine estuary had to be envisaged. This uncertainty was maintained and even increased by the conflicting reports received from various sources and by the widespread nature of the Allied air attacks. The result was that the Luftwaffe was forced to adopt a policy of waiting on events, a policy which inevitably imposed serious limitations on the activity possible in the initial stages of an Allied invasion.
* * * * *
While the Germans were thus held in suspense wondering when and where the blow might fall, the men of the Allied invasion forces worked to complete their preparations on the airfields, at the ports and naval bases, and in the wired and guarded camps of the marshalling areas. When all was ready there came the briefing, which was thorough and complete. Inside closely guarded rooms the men of every unit were given a clear picture of their particular task. Aerial photographs taken almost from wave-top height gave troops a picture of the invasion beaches as they would first see them. Other photographs taken from various heights and angles revealed the German defences in all their detail. For the briefing of the British glider pilots and air crews there was a detailed model of the Orne Valley, correct even to the height of the trees and the size of the houses. In addition, there was a film which gave the impression that one was actually flying over the coast of France following the page 279 precise route that the gliders, tugs, and troop-carriers would be taking. As they watched this film pilots saw features and landmarks coming in to view and learnt what to look for. Subsequent screening of the film through a blue filter which gave a faithful representation of moonlight conditions enabled crews, knowing the landmarks, to see which were most likely to be visible at night. Briefing completed, the whole mighty host of soldiers, sailors, and airmen then waited, tense as a coiled spring, waiting for the moment when its energy would be released to vault the English Channel in the greatest amphibious assault ever attempted.
Throughout most of May the weather had been almost ideal, with a succession of soft spring days and the English Channel smooth and sunlit. But the first days of June brought a gradual deterioration and with it a series of dramatic conferences at Southwick House, near Portsmouth. Here Eisenhower and his commanders were meeting daily to correlate last-minute preparations and to receive the weather forecasts upon which depended the final decision as to the date of launching the assault.
D Day had been provisionally fixed for 5 June, and with the approach of the critical period tension continued to mount as prospects for reasonable weather became worse and worse. On the morning of 4 June the predictions received were so bad that Eisenhower reluctantly decided that a postponement of twenty-four hours would be necessary. A further conference the same evening presented little if any improvement and tension mounted even higher because, as Eisenhower remarks: ‘The inescapable consequences of further postponement were almost too bitter to contemplate.’ Owing to the state of tides the latest possible date for the invasion was 7 June, but a further postponement until then was impracticable as the naval bombardment forces, which had already sailed from their northern bases, would have to put back to refuel and the whole schedule would be upset.
In the early hours before dawn on 5 June the storm reached its height. At 3.30 a.m., as Eisenhower drove to Southwick House, the wind howled through the pine trees and the rain came in violent squalls. ‘It seemed impossible,’ he writes, ‘that in such conditions there was any reason for even discussing the situation.’ But the forecast now presented a gleam of hope since a short interval of fair weather was expected which would last until the next morning. At this critical moment Eisenhower was therefore faced with the alternatives of taking the risks involved in an assault during what was likely to be only a partial and temporary break in the bad weather, or of putting off the whole thing for several weeks until tide and moon should again be favourable. Such a postponement would, he considered, be most harmful to the morale of the Allied page 280 forces, apart from the likelihood of their losing the benefits of tactical surprise. And so at 4 a.m. on 5 June, with the storm still beating at the windows of the library in Southwick House where the Allied commanders sat in conference, Eisenhower took the final and irrevocable decision: ‘The invasion of Europe would take place on the following day.’
Within a few hours of this decision the first invasion convoys were slipping out to sea into the stormy Channel, on the far side of which lay their goal – Hitler's Fortress Europe, with its reputedly impregnable Atlantic Wall. The wind came in fierce gusts, the sea was wild and rough, and the clouds low and threatening. It was scarcely an auspicious beginning. Indeed, it was in such a gale that the last great invasion armada to sail the English Channel had come to grief four centuries earlier. But only a few small craft were forced back, and throughout the day more and more ships sailed from ports as far apart as Falmouth and the Nore, until by mid-afternoon a vast concourse of landing craft, supply vessels, and warships was moving towards the south of the Isle of Wight to ‘Area Z’ – unofficially known as ‘Piccadilly Circus’ – from where they would begin their passage across the Channel.
Shortly after midday flotillas of minesweepers had begun sweeping clear channels for them southwards to the bay of the Seine. Fewer mines were encountered than had been expected. The reason was revealed after the war by Admiral Krancke, the Commander of Naval Group, West. Coastal waters from Le Havre to Dunkirk, he said, had been successfully mined in the spring, but the German Navy's plan to lay a special barrage of mines between Cherbourg and Le Havre had been foiled by Allied air and naval power. The bombing of the French railways had delayed the arrival of the mines, and when at last there were sufficient stocks available at Le Havre, a minelaying flotilla had been despatched from Brest to carry out the plan. But Coastal Command and the Royal Navy intercepted the ships; only one got through and the barrage was never laid.
As the convoys steamed on swarms of fighters wove a protective screen above them. On the flanks Allied warships and aircraft of RAF Coastal Command patrolled far and wide searching for U-boats and enemy surface craft, reinforcing the protection afforded by the minefields already laid. Reconnaissance and intruder air patrols continued in strength with attacks on airfields and communications over a wide area. Allied aircraft also maintained their assault on the region between Calais and Le Havre where, as part of the deception plan, they had been striking with increasing vigour during the past few days, not only at the coastal guns but also at the actual beach defences.page 281
On the airfields throughout southern England there was great activity as aircraft were refuelled and made ready for their further tasks during the night and the following morning. Particular significance was given to these preparations by the fact that the wings and fuselages of all operational machines were now painted with special markings – a band of two black stripes within three white stripes – that would be readily distinguishable both from ships and from the ground. And although to the thousands of airmen who had been flying on operations across the Channel during the past months, invading continental Europe was nothing new, the historic importance of the events that were about to unfold was everywhere sensed. Morale was conspicuously high, as the Air Commanders found when they flew from airfield to airfield to speak to the pilots and crews and wish them luck.
The last glow of sunset had scarcely faded from the sky when the first aircraft took off carrying men of the airborne forces who were to mark with lights the landing and dropping zones. Soon other machines, bombers and night fighters, were leaving their bases on various missions. Among them were the squadrons of No. 100 Bomber Group whose crews, led by some of the most experienced officers in Bomber Command, were to take part in the elaborate series of operations designed to keep the enemy's attention distracted from Normandy. Lancasters were to simulate the approach of convoys towards the Pas de Calais by dropping bundles of ‘window’, strips of metallised paper, as they flew round and round in a continuous orbit moving gradually towards the French coast. Other bombers set off to represent an airborne invasion in flight and to drop dummies and noise-making machines north of Rouen. Stirlings carried special equipment to jam the few radar stations that were still in action near the assault area and so provide a screen behind which bombing and airborne landings could take place. Then, shortly before midnight, while the assault ships were tossing on the dark waters of the Channel, the main force of RAF bombers flew overhead to prepare for their approach.
Here was the full turn of the wheel. Four years earlier, almost to the day, the RAF had covered the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk. Since then other expeditionary forces had been covered in their successful landings in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, but none of these could compare in power or purpose with the vast armada that now moved in full flood of strength and confidence back to France.