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 July and August of 1944, much of the Allied air forces were dedicated towards strategic bombing attacks on German military, industrial, and civilian targets. The United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) used large numbers of heavy bombers with fighter escort to achieve these aims. However, this time period also saw the use of aircraft in the tactical role, providing fire support on or near the battlefield. Operating in conjunction with large numbers of similarly-tasked aircraft from the Royal Air Force (RAF), USAAF aircraft would have a significant impact upon the German Army’s ability to react to the Allied breakout of Normandy, inflicting serious losses among columns attempting to make their way to the front lines and having a crippling effect upon both movement and the psychological state of German troops. This accomplishment was not an easy one, especially considering the overwhelming interwar and wartime popularity of strategic bombing, which impeded the development of tactical airpower.
During the years between the World Wars, the idea that strategic airpower would be the means to end futures wars held sway with most officers in the Army Air Corps. Because of the focus on strategic airpower, little attention was paid to tactical aviation, which was viewed as a lower priority for the Air Corps. This mindset prevailed through the interwar period to the early years of World War II and had an effect on the types of aircraft being created for military use. Numerous bomber and fighter aircraft were designed and built during the interwar period, but relatively few aircraft were created specifically for ground attack missions. Many of these aircraft never made it past the prototype stage, and those that did were generally not produced in significant numbers. As a result, any tactical aviation units operating during World War II would be using existing aircraft designs modified to suit the purposes of ground attack missions.
The start of World War II created an immediate need for tactical aviation units to be used in support of ground forces. However, the focus on the strategic air offensive had resulted in a lack of doctrine, aircraft, and tactics, with the result that the USAAF was completely unprepared for ground attack missions. With no experience of their own, USAAF officers looked the tactical air branches of other air forces for ideas. They drew upon the Luftwaffe’s model, which featured Stuka dive bombers closely supporting advancing armored columns, and upon the experiences of the RAF in Africa and Italy, where heavily-armed fighter bombers worked with air liaisons positioned on the ground to provide the aircraft with information on the location of enemy vehicles. The first USAAF document which featured tactical airpower as its focus was “FM 35-36: Basic Field Manual: Aviation in Support of Ground Forces.” While it was the first of its kind, there were problems with the manual, not the least of which was that it was rejected by ground commanders. Following combat operations in North Africa, a new field manual, FM 100-20: The Command and Employment of Air Power, published in July 1943. This book, which included experiences taken from the battlefields of North Africa, opened with the statement, “Land power and air power are equal and interdependent forces. Neither is an auxiliary of the other. The inherent flexibility of air power is its greatest asset… control of available airpower must be centralized and command must be exercised through the air force commander if this inherent flexibility and ability to deliver a decisive blow are to be fully exploited.” This first line laid out the command structure that would be used in France. Despite the objections of ground unit commanders, tactical air units would be brought under the domain of a centralized command system, making it easier for air commanders to coordinate larger and more effective strikes of the kind that were used during the Normandy campaign.
When the Allies invaded France on June 6th, 1944, fighter bombers and medium bombers had already been softening up the German defenses for some weeks. Following the landings, these aircraft would be increasingly called upon for close air support, a development which had not been foreseen by the airpower theorists during the interwar period. There were two important factors in close air support’s transformation into one of the primary means of fire support. One was that for months prior to the invasion, Allied bombers had been pounding Luftwaffe bases in France. In an effort to prevent their squadrons in Western Europe from being destroyed and simultaneously bolster defenses in Germany, many Luftwaffe fighter squadrons were pulled back to the Fatherland.  Additionally, the lack of an abundance of field artillery early in the invasion caused ground troops to rely more upon air support. In the week following the invasion, U.S. ground units called for close air support on 184 different occasions. Fighter bombers also performed interdiction missions, striking behind the front lines at reinforcements attempting to make their way towards the expanding beachhead. So harassed were German forces that they were limited to only moving under the cover of darkness. An often cited example of one German division which experienced frequent aerial attack was the Panzer Lehr Division, which lost 130 trucks, 84 halftracks, and a handful of tanks. These losses were not necessarily damaging to a division whose peak strength in vehicles was around 3,000, the delays caused by the attacks amounted to several days added in travel time and thereby preventing those reinforcements from reaching the front that much longer.
The first weeks of the invasion also saw the creation the first air-ground communications net, set up during the night of June 17-18 by the IX Tactical Air Command in the area of Au Gay. In this system, a group composed usually of around twelve fighter bombers would take off and fly towards a pre-designated area. Once they were within a few minutes of their target zone, the flight leader would contact an air-ground liason officer with the army unit’s corps or divisional headquarters via radio for updated information. Army units would mark targets on the ground for the fighter-bombers with red smoke for best visualization. Once an attack run had been completed, pilots were to make observations on the results of their attack to the officer on the ground, which would usually be followed with further attack runs in the area or searching for targets of opportunity in the area.
To combat the problem of not having an observer on the front lines who could communicate effectively with the pilots in the air, VHF radios were installed in Sherman tanks specially tasked with observation under the order of Major General Elwood “Pete” Quesada, commander of the IX Tactical Air Command. Quesada, a vocal advocate for the use of tactical airpower, also made the decision to put fighter bomber pilots in these tanks to act as forward air controllers, reasoning that a pilot on the ground would be better able to describe a target to another pilot in the air. This would be the first use of forward air controllers, which would become a staple of tactical airpower during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.
The heavy use of tactical airpower as fire support for ground troops during the first month and a half of the Normandy campaign was made possible by both by the development of doctrine during the first years of the war and by advancements such as the creation of air-ground communications and the placement of forward observers, which made air strikes more accurate and effective. As a result, U.S. fighter bombers were able to wreak havoc with German reinforcements, greatly slowing their progress to the frontlines. However, it would be during the Normandy breakout and the campaign to encircle the German Army in France that the U.S. Army Air Force would distinguish itself as being effective at tactical airpower. This will be covered in the second half of this article.
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