USAAF Tactical Airpower Over Normandy Part II

Large numbers of fighter-bombers roaming the skies over northern France prevented the movement of German supplies and greatly aided in the progress of Allied troops.

By Seth Marshall

                In the first part of this article, I discussed the absence of any real doctrine for tactical airpower at the start of the Second World War. As a result, USAAF officers drew upon tactics used by the RAF and Luftwaffe as a basis for their own doctrine. The Normandy invasion provided one of the first tests of USAAF tactical airpower in combat. With the aid of air-to-ground communications and forward observers, US fighter-bombers were able to target columns of German reinforcements heading to the beaches, causing substantial delays in their progress and inflicting dozens of vehicle losses on them in the process.

While these developments were focused towards making close air support strikes more precise, the largest single use of tactical airpower during the Normandy campaign was not a surgical strike. Operation Cobra, General Omar Bradley’s plan for an Allied breakout from Normandy, called for a large-scale bombardment by hundreds of fighter bombers from the 9th Air Force and heavy bombers of the 8th Air Force in a small target area in the German front lines. On July 24th, the offensive began with the massive barrage. Most of the aircraft dropped their bombs within the target area, but as the bombing progressed, smoke from the explosions drifted, causing the last formations of heavy bombers to drop their bombs short of their targets, causing extensive casualties among American infantry units preparing to move forward.[1] The effects of the bombardment among the defenders were varied. Some German divisions did not receive much damage from the bombings, thanks to well-dug defensive positions. Other units, notably the Panzer Lehr Division, were bracketed by the falling bombs and suffered extensive casualties. However, the Germans were able to create a temporary defensive line which limited the gains the Allied ground forces made on the first day. The following day, another bombardment nearly identical to the first was carried out. Again, the last formation of heavy bombers dropped their bombs shorting, killing more American troops. And just as the day before, the Germans were able to reform their defensive lines. Only a determined assault by an armored division which broke the flank of the German line allowed the rest of the Allied divisions to begin moving forward.

The bombardments which opened Operation Cobra were some of the only instances during the Second World War in which heavy bombers were used for close air support.  These aircraft normally flew at altitudes often exceeding 25,000 feet and in this instance were not used effectively. German units, even those which had sustained heavy bombing, were able to reform their lines successfully on July 24th and were almost able to do so again on July 25th. The bombardment had also encountered a number of problems in the planning stages, not the least of which was that the bombers could not bomb the target area parallel to the lines. This meant that they had had to fly on a path perpendicular to the bomb line, taking them directly over the Allied troops preparing for the offensive.[2] To be sure, the bombers had weakened the defenders to some extent, but the barrage had not created a hole in the German lines as had been expected by the offensive’s planners.

Following the opening of Operation Cobra, heavy bombers returned to their long-range bombing campaign, passing the task of air support over to the fighter bombers of the 9th Air Force. Through July and August 1944, these aircraft provided close air support for advancing Allied columns of troops. The aircraft of choice for these operations was the P-47, the heaviest fighter aircraft built during the war. It was well-suited for ground support missions due to its tough construction and the array of rockets, bombs, and eight .50 caliber machine guns it carried. Both the IX Tactical Air Command and the XIX Tactical Air Command, the two main USAAF units responsible for close air support of American ground forces, were equipped primarily with this type of aircraft.

During the period following the start of Operation Cobra, the rapid advance of ground forces led to a reliance on two tactics favored by the tactical air forces. The first was armored column cover, a system devised by General Quesada. Armored column cover involved the use of tanks equipped with ground-to-air VHF radio communicating with flights of four to eight fighter bombers patrolling over the advancing armor. Pilots could observe enemy forces and relay their positions to the troops, as well as attack German vehicles and positions as requested. The second tactic, known as armed reconnaissance, was created by General Otto Weyland, commander of the XIX Tactical Air Command. In armed reconnaissance, formations of fighter bombers ranged up to 30 miles ahead of the American tank columns, attacking targets of opportunity as they were discovered.[3] With the assistance of tactical air power, tank columns moved so quickly that pilots had to carry regional maps with them in order to know where allied units were located.

General Otto Weyland, commander of the XIX Tactical Air Command during World War II, would later go on to command the Far East Air Forces in the Korean War and Tactical Air Command in post-war years.

General Otto Weyland, commander of the XIX Tactical Air Command during World War II, would later go on to command the Far East Air Forces in the Korean War and Tactical Air Command in post-war years.

The process of providing air support to the ground forces was aided by the close relationship that Weyland had with General George S. Patton, whose 3rd Army tanks were protected by Weyland’s planes. Patton said of Weyland, “No operation in this army is contemplated without General Weyland and his staff being present at the initial decisions. We don’t say that we are going to do this and what can you do about it. We say that we would like to make such an operation, now how can that be done from the air standpoint?”[4] This was a marked difference to the planning of the Cobra bombardment, which had was not remembered for cooperation between the air and ground commanders.

During the latter half of the month of August, tactical air support would reach its zenith  in Normandy during operations to complete the encirclement of German forces in the vicinity of Falaise. Fighter bombers from both the USAAF and the RAF were able to maximize their effectiveness thanks to the large numbers of German vehicles clogging the roads in an attempt to escape the pocket. An aerial strike which typified the kind of fighting taking place occurred on August 13th, near Argentan. Three dozen P-47s from the 36th Fighter Group observed 800 to 1000 vehicles “milling about in the pocket west of Argentan.” After an hour of aerial attack during which 400 to 500 vehicles were claimed destroyed, the fighter bombers returned to base, out of bombs and ammunition.[5] Similar strikes would continue to take place until the pocket was finally closed on August 21st.

The losses for the German Seventh Army as a result of the encirclement at Falaise were staggering. Around 10,000 soldiers were killed, with another 40-50,000 captured. In addition, some 200 tanks, 300 cannons, 700 artillery pieces, 5,000 vehicles, 2,000 wagons, and 1,500 horses were destroyed, many of them by aircraft.[6] Photos from the battle show fields and roads filed with burnt-out trucks and carriages. Despite the scale of devastation, a large number of German troops were able to escape and would later play a critical factor in resisting Allied forces during Operation Market Garden. During the immediate aftermath of the battle though, they had very little equipment. The remnants of seven Panzer Divisions which managed to escape the pocket were able to count only 50 tanks and 60 artillery pieces among themselves when combined.[7]

One of the many roads in the region around Falaise, littered with destroyed and abandoned armor and motor transport.

One of the many roads in the region around Falaise, littered with destroyed and abandoned armor and motor transport.

The large number of destroyed vehicles claimed by fighter bombers during the Normandy campaign has been questioned over the years by historians. Many vehicles in the Falaise pocket and in other locations were later found to have been abandoned by their crews rather than hit by aerial weaponry. According to British historian Ian Gooderson, post-battle analysis conducted by RAF ground teams found that relatively few of the destroyed tanks examined were knocked out by aerial attack, as nothing less than a direct hit from a rocket or bomb would actually destroy them. Additionally, it was found that cannon and machine-gun fire from strafing runs was the main cause of destruction, particularly among soft-skinned motor transport. Gooderson remarks that the large-number of destroyed trucks and other motor transport would have blocked the roads, preventing the escape of armored vehicles and compelling their crews to abandon and burn them before retreating.[8] Finally, the destruction of so many trucks also greatly reduced the availability of the fuel needed to run tanks, forcing more tank crews to leave their armor behind. While Gooderson’s book focuses more on areas target by the RAF’s Typhoon fighter bombers, it seems safe to assume that the results achieved by USAAF P-47s were similar.

Another important result achieved by fighter bombers during the Normandy campaign was the effect on the moral of German troops. German soldiers frequently remarked in after-action reports that it was the presence of close air support which had thwarted their movements and offensives. Gooderson writes in his book that experienced German tank crewmen would become frustrated with their inexperienced comrades, who displayed the tendency to abandon the relative safety of their tanks for ditches and foxholes.[9] The demoralizing effect on German troops was felt even by commanders such as Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, who himself was attacked by Allied aircraft while in his staff car. Rommel remarked, “The enemy’s air superiority has a very grave effect on our movements. There’s simply no answer to it.”[10] German soldiers collectively feared the presence of the “Jabo” over the battlefield.

The effect of American tactical airpower over Normandy was considerable, though perhaps not in the same way as its commanders initially thought. The huge claims of destroyed vehicles racked up by fighter bombers is difficult to substantiate, particularly with regard to tanks. However, fighter bombers were responsible for causing severe delays in German reinforcements, slowing to the point of only moving at night. They also did destroy enough motor transports to seriously impede the Germans’ ability to fuel their armor. Vehicles destroyed by aircraft also made for excellent roadblocks, a characteristic whose value was maximized during combat in the Falaise pocket, forcing many panzer crews to abandon their tanks in order to escape death or capture. Finally, the psychological impact of close air support on German forces was ruinous, causing the collapse of several offensive operations and the frequent interruption of resupply efforts.

[1] P.253 Hastings, Max. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984

[2] P.101 “The Botched Air Support of Operation Cobra”

[3] P. 1 Army Air Forces in World War II." Web. 13 Sept. 2011. <

[4] P. 183 Spires, David . Air Power for Patton's Army: the XIX Tactical Air Command in the Second World War. Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2002. Print

[5] P.37-38 Hallion, Richard P. "Air Power Over the Normandy Beaches and Beyond." Air Force History and Museums Project (1994). Print

[6] P. 245 Hughes, Thomas Alexander. Over Lord: General Pete Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Air Power in World War II. New York: Free, 1995. Print.

[7] P. 245 Hughes, Thomas Alexander. Over Lord: General Pete Quesada and the Triumph of Tactical Air Power in World War II. New York: Free, 1995. Print.4

[8] P.119 Air Power at the Battlefront

[9] P. 116 Air Power at the Battlefront

[10] P. 18 Hallion, Richard P. "Air Power Over the Normandy Beaches and Beyond." Air Force History and Museums Project (1994). Print