New Zealanders with the Royal Air Force (Vol. II)
CHAPTER 10 — Normandy
Fortitude, faith, and foresight were now rewarded. In spite of bad weather the sea passage across the Channel was successfully accomplished, and a degree of surprise achieved for which Eisenhower ‘had hardly dared to hope.’ Indeed, the crossing, as Admiral Ramsay records, had an air of unreality about it, so completely absent was any sign that the enemy was aware of what was happening. No U-boats were encountered, bad weather had driven the enemy surface patrol craft into port, and no reconnaissance aircraft put in an appearance. Not until the invasion fleets were close inshore was there any enemy activity, and then it was largely ineffective. The Germans had been confident that, with their elaborate early-warning system, they would not be surprised, but they had reckoned without Allied air and scientific counter measures. In particular, almost all their radar stations on the Channel coast had been bombed out of action or else jammed during the vital period; only a few to the north of the Seine were allowed to continue operating so that they might pick up the air formations acting as decoys in that area.
Air and naval bombardments preceded the landings and afforded invaluable help in ensuring their success. Although strongly protected coastal batteries were generally able to withstand the rain of high explosives, the field works behind the beaches were largely destroyed, wire entanglements were broken down, and some of the minefields set off. Smoke shells also blinded the defenders and rendered useless many guns which had escaped damage, for the crews were driven into their bomb-proof shelters until the landing forces were close inshore. This was as well for the high seas added enormously to the difficulties of getting the troops ashore. Landing craft were hurled on to the beaches by the waves and many of the smaller ones were swamped before they could reach the shore; others were flung upon and holed by the mined underwater obstacles. Troops were swept off their feet while wading through the breakers and were drowned and many of those who reached dry land were near exhaustion. Moreover, it was not possible on every sector to swim in the amphibious tanks which were to provide fire support for the infantry clearing the beach exits. Yet, despite these difficulties, the landings went ahead and on all but one sector the process of securing the beachheads was completed more or less page 283 according to plan. By the end of the day all the assaulting divisions were ashore and Hitler's Atlantic Wall had been breached along almost the whole invasion coast. ‘As a result of our operations,’ says Montgomery in his review of the day's events, ‘we had gained a foothold on the Continent of Europe. We had achieved surprise, the troops had fought magnificently and their losses had been much lower than had ever seemed possible ….’
And so it was. At a cost of fewer than 2500 lives the Allies had gained a notable victory and accomplished the first phase of what Winston Churchill rightly called ‘the most difficult and complicated operation that has ever taken place.’
To assist the landings the Allied air forces had applied the whole of their collective striking power. Four and a half hours before the first seaborne troops set foot upon the shore of France the air transport commands had commenced dropping assault forces on either flank of the invasion area, and in this operation, the biggest of its kind thus far attempted, 2395 aircraft and 867 gliders participated. The sudden and unexpected airborne landings, coupled with the dropping of explosive dummy parachutists elsewhere, greatly confused the enemy and were undoubtedly one of the reasons for his slow reaction and uncertain counter-attack. Yet they but heralded the main aerial assault. This began just before dawn when 1047 aircraft of RAF Bomber Command dropped over 5260 tons of bombs on ten selected coastal batteries between Cherbourg and Le Havre. As day broke, bombers of the US 8th Air Force took up the attack, 1038 aircraft dropping 1575 tons on the shore defences during the half hour preceding the landings; medium, light, and fighter-bombers of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force then swarmed in to attack individual targets along the shores and artillery positions farther inland. During the remainder of the day the heavy bombers concentrated upon communication centres through which the enemy would have to bring up his reinforcements, while the fighters and fighter-bombers of AEAF roamed over the actual battle area, attacking German defensive positions, shooting up buildings known to house headquarters, strafing troop concentrations and destroying transport. Altogether during the twenty-four hours of 6 June, the Strategic and Tactical Air Forces flew 10,585 sorties in addition to those flown by the transport commands in the paratroop and glider operations.
The failure of the Luftwaffe served to increase the confusion and uncertainty that marked initial enemy reaction to the Allied landings. The Germans had not expected the assault to be launched at a time when the weather was so unsettled, and with their reconnaissance aircraft swept from the sky and communications disrupted by bombing, it was some time before adequate information got back to Hitler and even more before coherent orders were issued from higher headquarters to the fighting formations. Moreover, the Germans were convinced that the Normandy landings were merely a diversion and only the prelude to the main invasion that was to be launched against the Pas de Calais. How little was realised in Berlin or Paris of the magnitude of Allied operations is shown by Hitler's order, fantastic in retrospect, that the bridgehead must be ‘cleaned up by midnight.’ The Germans completely misunderstood the scope and purpose of the assault, and this in turn affected decisions regarding calling in reinforcements from northern France. On top of this no co-ordinated plan had been made to deal with a major onslaught in Normandy. There was, in fact, a fundamental disagreement between Field Marshal Karl von Rundstedt, who was Commander-in-Chief West, and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the erstwhile hero of North Africa, whom Hitler had placed in command of the armies holding the Channel coast. Rundstedt had favoured a system of defence in depth, holding strongly only the most vulnerable sections of the coast and the major ports, but Rommel staked all on defeating the Allied armies on the beaches. ‘The first twenty-four hours,’ he had declared, ‘will be decisive.’ Although Hitler preferred Rommel's more aggressive ideas and placed upon him the primary responsibility for repelling the invasion, the conflict had never been finally resolved. Thus, from the outset, did the Germans pave the way for their eventual defeat in Normandy.
Following the success of their initial assault the Allied armies began to fight their way inland in order to gain sufficient depth for assembling the large forces and supplies needed to develop their plan of campaign. A period of hard and incessant fighting was anticipated in which Rommel, with characteristic vigour, would make desperate efforts to contain the British and American troops to the beachheads he had been unable to prevent them from securing. Therefore, it was of paramount importance that the Germans should be denied freedom of movement for preparing a successful counter-attack and prevented from bringing supplies and reinforce- page 286 ments into the battle zone. It was to these ends that the Allied air forces now directed their collective striking power.
Bridges, railways, and road junctions both within the battle area and on the routes leading to it were the principal targets; the heavy bombers concentrated on rail marshalling yards and junctions while the medium and fighter-bombers attacked bridges and lines and maintained constant patrols along both roads and railways. All but two of the Seine bridges below Paris had been cut by Allied bombers before D Day and now these were demolished, together with the principal road and rail bridges across the Loire. Thus the battle area in Normandy was almost completely isolated except for the routes which led into it through the Paris – Orleans gap between the two rivers, and even there the roads and railways inevitably became congested, affording rich targets for the fighter-bombers and opportunities for sabotage by French patriots.
The effectiveness of fighter-bomber operations in the early stages is well illustrated by the experience of the Panzer Lehr Division commanded by General Bayerlein. Ordered to move towards Bayeux on the morning of 7 June, his columns were discovered almost as soon as they took to the road.
‘By noon,’ says Bayerlein, ‘my men were calling the main road from Vire to Le Beny Bocage, Jaco-Rennstrecke –“fighter-bomber racecourse.” Every vehicle was covered with branches of trees and moved along hedgerows and the fringes of woods …. But by the end of the day I had lost forty petrol waggons and ninety other trucks. Five of my tanks had been knocked out, as well as eighty-four half-tracks, prime movers and S.P. guns. These losses were serious for a division not yet in action.’
Bayerlein's Panzer Lehr was one of the two armoured divisions already in Normandy with which Rommel hoped to counter-attack the British beachheads. But when this division straggled into Tilly- sur-Seusses, south of Bayeux, late on the 8th, it was incapable of serious offensive action.
Widespread confusion and delay were caused to the enemy attempts at supply and reinforcement from farther afield. The 17th SS Panzer Grenadier Division which had been based at Thouars, south of the Loire, began its movement on the very day of the assault but, after a single day on the rails, cuts produced by bombing forced several sections to detrain at various points from Le Fleche in the north to below Saumur in the south. Other elements proceeding by road had hardly begun their march before dive-bombers twice attacked them, inflicting heavy damage to vehicles, guns, and personnel. Thereafter the march was continued along secondary roads and only at night. It took five full days to cover two hundred miles to the front. Parts of 2 SS Panzer Division were involved in a later epic of frustration. Tracked elements left Limoges on 11 June page 287 and its tank detachments set out from Toulouse several days after- wards. The Maquis made the journey through southern France anything but tranquil, but the real trouble began when the nine trains employed in the movement reached the Loire. Here broken bridges forced detrainment on the south bank of the river, whence the units moved across to Angers as best they could. An attempt was made to continue by rail, but two trains were blocked in open country and that, as the German railway chief noted, ‘completed the rail move- ment.’ Thereafter, and with important parts of the division still stuck far back at Angers, the order for all was a ‘road march’. Not until the closing days of the month were elements of 2 Panzer Division identified on the fighting front.
Such a ‘pilgrim's progress’ was the lot of many other units headed for the battlefield. In general, rail movements originating east of the Seine ended not far west of the French capital. Approximately half the troops coming from the south were forced to detrain below the Loire barrier and those who got across advanced no more than fifty miles further by rail. The German summary of troop movements in June indicates that few trains reached their destination; ‘Landmarsch’ is the laconic entry which concludes most of its descriptions. In retrospect, von Rundstedt gave his opinion that even had a greater number of divisions been available for his use, the net result of any effort to bring them into action could have only brought about an increase in the confusion which prevailed.
German supplies of fuel were already short on the Normandy battlefront as a result of the earlier bombing. To aggravate that shortage and also to strike at supplies of ammunition, medium and fighter-bombers made repeated attacks against the forest areas sheltering the enemy's forward dumps. Exact measurement of the contribution thus made to the enemy's critical shortage can never be determined, but beyond doubt his difficulties were increased. The destruction of two million litres of gasoline at Rennes and the firing of fuel supplies at Vire and oil storage tanks at Tours certainly involved no small local loss. The needs of 2 SS Panzer Division, for example, were such that fuel was ordered to be flown to its relief on 13 June. Yet two weeks later its commander was forced to report that ‘the attacking panzer units cannot bring up all their tanks owing to the lack of fuel.’
German military centres were also attacked with notable success. On 10 June the battle headquarters of Panzer Group West was located in an orchard at La Caine, 12 miles south of Caen. Here General der Panzertruppen Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg was completing the final details of Rommel's plan for an offensive that was to split the invasion front. Geyr had commanded an armoured page 288 corps with some success in Russia but he had never before taken the field against an opponent who held command of the air and he did not trouble to camouflage his headquarters at La Caine, where four large wireless trucks and several office caravans and tents stood in the open. On the previous day, British Intelligence had located Geyr's headquarters and reconnaissance aircraft had confirmed its position. That evening the RAF bombed it so accurately that little was left of the headquarters except its surprised and enraged com- mander. According to one eye-witness, all the staff officers were killed or wounded, the wireless trucks and most of the transport were knocked out. It was twelve hours before Seventh Army learnt of the disaster. The wounded Geyr and his shattered headquarters were then withdrawn to Paris to recuperate.
Altogether the disruption and confusion caused by the air attacks was such that Rommel's attempts to drive the Allies back into the sea were doomed from the outset. Compelled to commit his formations piecemeal as they arrived in the battle area, he was unable to assemble sufficient strength at any point for a decisive breakthrough to the coast. On 12 June he reported to Berlin: ‘The strength of the enemy on land is increasing appreciably more quickly than our reserves can reach the front …. Our position is becoming exceptionally difficult since the enemy can cripple the movement of our forces throughout the day while he himself operates under cover of very strong aircraft formations.’
By this time the Allied beachheads had been firmly linked into a continuous front covering some fifty miles and varying in depth from eight to twelve miles. On and off the beaches the men of the supply services were performing prodigies of achievement under most difficult conditions. Rough weather persisted and the problems of unloading vast numbers of men and vehicles and thousands of tons of stores over beaches strewn with mines and obstacles were complicated by the heavy seas which swamped many of the small ferries. Nevertheless, by the end of the sixth day 326,000 men, 54,000 vehicles, and 104,000 tons of stores had been landed in Normandy. This was considerably less than the planned schedule, but during the second week, as the protected anchorages were completed and the artificial harbours began to take shape, the supply situation improved considerably.
As this build-up continued, the Allied armies strove to extend their foothold and prepare for the eventual breakout across France. Montgomery's plan, as previously drawn up, was for the Americans to overrun the Cotentin peninsula and capture the port of Cherbourg. With a supply base thus assured, they were to carry out a big wheel right round towards the Seine, against which they were page 289 to drive the Germans. The British Army group on the left was, in the first instance, to attract to itself the maximum weight of German armour by its threat of a direct advance towards Paris; it was then to wheel round on the hinge of the Orne and advance on the Seine in co-operation with the Americans.
But now elemental nature, which had nearly strangled the whole Allied enterprise at birth, intervened once again and threatened disaster. Before dawn on 19 June a furious and unexpected gale sprang up in the Channel. On the south coast of England convoys were driven back to port; in mid-Channel tows broke loose and were lost, among them twenty-two sections representing more than two and a half miles of floating roadway for the piers of the artificial harbours; off the Normandy beaches, ships and craft dragged their anchors and were dashed ashore; beneath the turbulent waters dormant pressure mines were activated by the surge of the sea and added to the losses caused by the storm. During the following days the artificial harbours began to disintegrate and unloading virtually came to a halt. The discharge of stores and ammunition, which had reached a peak of 24,412 tons on 18 June, fell to 4560 tons on the 20th. After four days the fury of the gale gradually abated, but high seas continued to hinder the work of salvage and unloading. Some eight hundred craft lay stranded on the beaches, most of them damaged, while wreckage was strewn over the sands along the whole invasion coastline.
Before the storm subsided the ammunition stocks of both the Allied armies were dangerously low. Conditions would seem to have been ideal for a major German counter-attack. But it did not come. So extensive was the dislocation of his rail and road communications that, instead of being able to gather forces for a decisive blow, the enemy was hard put to it even to hold the invading armies. The Americans had already cut across the Cotentin peninsula and reached the west coast by 18 June. A week later they were fighting in the streets of Cherbourg and the thunder of German demolitions in the port area reverberated from the surrounding hills. Cherbourg fell on 26 June, but the port had been blocked and demolished with exceptional thoroughness and it was nearly two months before it could be restored to full use. Along the remainder of the front there was continuous fighting, but with only local gains and almost stalemate on the eastern sector. In front of Caen, which unfortunately had not been taken in the first rush, the British armies met particularly fierce resistance; by 30 June they were engaging in this region the greater part of seven panzer divisions – two-thirds of the total German armoured strength in Normandy. This was, however, more or less as Montgomery had planned, and the Caen sector now became the crucible in which the German armour was melted away.page 290
Throughout these weeks the Allied air forces continued to enjoy almost complete supremacy over the battle area and indeed over much of Nazi-occupied Western Europe. Heavy bombers from both the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force continued their campaign against enemy communications, airfields, and fuel dumps; they also made several notable attacks against oil plants and refineries in Germany. Medium and fighter-bombers were particularly active in direct support of the ground troops, striking persistent blows at enemy strongpoints, concentrations of troops, vehicles and armour; they also used cannon, rocket projectile, and bomb to good effect against enemy movement by road and rail.
By the end of June thirty squadrons of the Allied Tactical Air Forces were operating from bases in the Normandy bridgehead. Previously they had been compelled to fly from airfields in southern England, but as soon as a foothold was gained in Normandy work began on the preparation of landing strips. Unfortunately the number of strips that could be provided was restricted by the delay in capturing sufficient ground in the most suitable area to the east and south-east of Caen. Nor was the operation of aircraft from Normandy without its difficulties. The light, dusty soil was found to contain a high proportion of abrasive silica which shortened the life of engines and made efficient servicing and maintenance far from easy. A certain amount of trouble was also experienced from enemy artillery fire, particularly on the strips which were built alongside the main road from Caen to Bayeux. The Germans could observe the take-off and landing of aircraft on these forward grounds, some of which had to be evacuated when the casualty rate from shelling became too high. Nevertheless, operations in close support of the ground forces continued at high pressure; during July Second Tactical Air Force alone flew more that 27,800 sorties over Normandy.
The activities of the Luftwaffe were in striking contrast to this intense Allied air effort. Apart from sporadic attacks on the assault area, they were limited to cautious patrolling by day and sea mining by a small number of heavy bombers at night. Nearly 800 single-engined fighters had been transferred from Germany to the West in the first fortnight of the invasion, but Luftflotte 3 was never able to challenge Allied command of the air because of the disruption of its ground organisation. Galland, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe fighter arm, has told how, when the transfer began, most of the carefully prepared and provisioned airfields had been bombed out and units had to land at hastily chosen landing grounds. The poor signals network broke down and this caused further confusion. Because of the indifferent navigating ability of many of the pilots, accustomed to flying under an expert fighter control page 291 system in Germany, many units came down in the wrong place. The alternative airfields were too few, poorly camouflaged and badly supplied. The main ground parties came by rail and in most cases days or weeks late. Subsequently the slightest sign of activity sufficed to betray an airfield to alert Allied reconnaissance and this resulted in prompt visits by low-flying fighters. In the first two weeks more than half the German fighters sent to France were destroyed, and the supply of replacements became difficult for the Luftwaffe was now confronted with another danger which threatened its very survival.
In moving his main fighter strength to France, Goering had anticipated that, while the Normandy battle was raging, there would be few large-scale raids on Germany itself. In the middle of June, however, the United States Air Force resumed its campaign against the synthetic oil plants upon which the Luftwaffe relied for almost the whole of its fuel. During May American bombing had reduced the average daily output of aviation spirit from 5850 tons to 2800, mainly because production was completely interrupted at the two main refineries, Leuna and Politz. A week after D Day the third largest plant, Gelsenkirchen, ceased operations after a night attack by RAF Bomber Command. Total production of aviation spirit for June fell to 53,000 tons as compared with 175,000 tons in April. Speer warned Hitler of the danger to Germany's oil supplies and advocated the strictest economy and a substantial increase in protective measures, particularly fighter aircraft. But since the start of the invasion the day-fighter strength in Germany itself had fallen from 991 to 544 machines, and it had been prevented from falling still farther only by the dangerous expedient of bringing instructional units into the front line. German fighter production was greater than ever and continuing to rise, but it was not increasing fast enough to keep pace with losses.1 Therefore, to meet the fresh crisis created by the heavy bomber attacks on the ‘oil front’, Goering was compelled to curtail the westward flow of fighter replacements and to retain in Germany twenty-five squadrons which had come back to refit. This left only some forty squadrons in the West as against sixty-three in Germany. Thus the strategic bombers helped to create for the rest of the Allied air forces an opportunity to roam almost unopposed over France and the Low Countries, ravaging and disrupting enemy supply lines and installations.
1 In the three months ending 30 June, 4545 single-engined fighters were delivered from German factories, but during the same period 5527 were destroyed in action, in accidents, or on the ground. These severe casualties were an indication both of the intensity of the air fighting over Germany and of the relative deterioration in the quality of German pilots and machines.
Moreover, it was as a direct result of Allied air attacks on communications that eighteen divisions of the German Army were kept immobilised in the Pas de Calais area throughout June and the first half of July. These divisions were separated from the Normandy battlefront by the barrier of the Seine, since every road and rail bridge across that river between Paris and the sea had now been wrecked. Rommel would have liked to move some at least of these divisions into Normandy, but the fear of a second landing persisted and he knew that once a division was moved from the Pas de Calais to Normandy it could not be moved back again in time to meet a second landing. Thus by their continued attacks on communications the air forces gravely curtailed the enemy's strategic mobility and so enabled the Allies to win the battle of the build-up in spite of setbacks caused by the June storms in the Channel. By the beginning of July about 1,000,000 men, including thirteen American, eleven British, and one Canadian division, had been landed in Normandy. In the same period just over 566,640 tons of supplies and 171,532 vehicles had been put ashore. This accomplishment was soon to pay large dividends.
The Germans were even less successful in attacking Allied supply lines than they were in protecting their own. In his plans for disrupting the Allied seaborne invasion Admiral Doenitz had relied page 293 mainly on the bold employment of his U-boats and a fleet of small but fast surface craft. He expected that the new type of U-boats, along with the older ones fitted with the ‘Schnorkel’ device, would be able to operate successfully even in the shallow waters of the Channel. However, by the beginning of June 1944, only two of the revolutionary electro U-boats had been completed and the programme for their mass production was already three or four months behind schedule. This was largely because of the dislocation caused by Allied bombing. The prototype of the new submarine had been destroyed in an air raid on Kiel, whereupon the Germans had decided to continue mass production without waiting for another prototype to be finished and tested. As a result faults in design were not discovered until after assembly or, worse still, until trials were carried out at sea. Moreover, in the hope of saving time and escaping from bombing, the production of parts and sections had been farmed out to firms which had never been engaged in naval construction before and whose workers lacked the necessary skill and precision.
Because of these delays, Doenitz was forced to rely upon the older type of U-boat, a fleet of which was gathered in the Biscay ports. His efforts to transfer reinforcements from Norway and the Baltic had, however, met with disaster. Not being fitted with Schnorkel, these submarines were obliged to fight it out on the surface with aircraft of RAF Coastal Command in the waters to the north of Scotland. Only a few succeeded in getting through; nine were sunk or badly damaged; the rest turned back. This defeat left Doenitz with only forty-two serviceable U-boats in the French Biscay ports when the invasion began. By that time six of them had been equipped and tested with Schnorkel but they were hardly battle- worthy. Nevertheless, on the afternoon of 6 June, they set out from Brest, and at dark the other thirty-six sailed from Biscay ports. These travelled on the surface in the hope of making good the time lost by lack of warning, but they were soon picked up by the Allied air patrols. In the next few days twelve of them were sunk or damaged too severely to proceed, and on 12 June the remainder were ordered back to port. Ever the six which had been converted made slow progress up the Channel. Some were damaged by air attack while others developed technical faults, and in the end not one single U-boat reached the assault area in the first three weeks after D Day. On 28 June one merchantman was lost to submarine attack in the assault area and another was torpedoed the following day, but after that U-boats accounted for only one more merchant vessel in the invasion area during July.
German surface craft were similarly unsuccessful. Neither destroyers from St. Nazaire nor torpedo boats from Le Havre and page 294 Cherbourg were able to avoid the relentless patrols which screened the shipping corridor. The only German counter measure which caused any real anxiety was the pressure mine laid in the anchorages by low-flying aircraft, but constant and courageous sweeping kept this menace in check.
Enemy resistance, bad weather, and the nature of the terrain combined to delay the final all-out attack by the Allied armies until 25 July. In the interim they continued to battle for position and to build up the great reserves that would be needed to sustain their advance once they got into the open. While the British Second Army maintained incessant pressure on the Caen sector to contain the enemy's armoured strength, the United States forces in the Cherbourg peninsula fought their way southward to gain ground for the break- out, which was now to be limited to the right flank. These weeks of battle along the whole front involved some of the fiercest and most bloody fighting of the whole campaign. In his efforts to prevent a breakout the enemy fought desperately, but before the end of July his armies, unprotected from the air, unbalanced on the ground, exhausted in battle and starved of supplies and reinforcements, were ripe for defeat.
Allied air operations over the battlefield during these weeks are best illustrated by extracts from captured enemy records. On 6 July the German 84 Corps reported: ‘The enemy controls the air to such an extent that movement on the roads is impossible. The enemy artillery guided by aerial observation is able to destroy our infantry in their defensive positions without exposing itself to any kind of retaliation.’ The same story was told on 17 July by General von Luttwitz, who commanded 2 Panzer Division: ‘The enemy have complete mastery of the air. They bomb and strafe every movement, even single vehicles and soldiers. They reconnoitre our area constantly and direct their artillery fire. Against all this the Luftwaffe is conspicuous by its complete absence. During the last four weeks the total number of German aircraft over the divisional area was six ….’
Meanwhile confusion and uncertainty reigned in the German higher command. At the end of June, Rommel had proposed to Hitler that the Seventh Army should fight a rearguard action back to the Seine and then create a new line along that river and across to Switzerland. The latest British offensive had been stopped only by committing his entire reserves. If the withdrawal from Normandy did not begin immediately the Seventh Army would be destroyed. But Hitler would not hear of any withdrawal, not even of tactical adjustment of the line for better defence. As always, his orders were to stand fast. He appeared to be encouraged by the outcome of page 295 the Caen battle, regarding it as proof that the Allies could be prevented from breaking out into France.
As the imminence of disaster in Normandy became evident, the disagreements among Hitler and his generals grew more violent. After the fall of Cherbourg and the failure of the German counter-attack in front of Caen, Keitel is said to have telephoned from Berlin, complaining bitterly about the trend of events.
‘What shall we do?’, cried the despairing Keitel, ‘What shall we do?’
Von Rundstedt, who was no ardent Nazi but a soldier of the old school, replied impassively, ‘What shall you do? Make peace you fools, what else can you do?’
Keitel told Hitler of this remark, and the following day Rundstedt was relieved of his post as Commander-in-Chief West.
A fortnight later, on 17 July, Rommel was struck down. Returning to his headquarters from a survey of the front, his car was spotted by Allied aircraft. As the planes roared down to attack, Rommel shouted to the driver to race for shelter in the next village, but the fighters were too swift. His driver was killed at the wheel, the car crashed into a tree, and Rommel sustained severe concussion when he was hurled on to the road. He was carried unconscious into a nearby village which, ironically enough, was called Ste. Foy de Montgommery. Rommel recovered, but he had become implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler and was forced to commit suicide less than three months later.1
Field Marshal von Kluge was now Commander-in-Chief West with orders from Hitler to ‘throw the enemy back into the sea.’ He had taken up his post with enthusiasm but, after an inspection of the front, he reported to Hitler on 22 July in these words: ‘Within a short time the enemy will succeed in breaking through our thinly held front, especially that of Seventh Army, and in thrusting deep into France …. The force is fighting heroically everywhere but the unequal struggle is nearing its end.’ His gloomy prophecy was soon fulfilled. Three days later, on 25 July, the American Army, under General Bradley, struck south from St. Lo.
The attack was preceded by a massive air bombardment. It fell mainly upon the sector held by Bayerlein's panzer division and a regiment of paratroops. Wherever possible the German tanks had been placed in the entrances of hedged lanes but even this natural protection did not save them.
1 On 20 July an attempt was made by a disaffected group to assassinate Hitler with a bomb placed in his conference room. The attempt nearly succeeded. Three officers standing beside him were killed outright but Hitler survived with only minor injuries.
The American attack made rapid progress. Slashing his way down to the base of the Cherbourg peninsula, Bradley passed through the bottleneck at Avranches and launched his columns into the rear of the German forces. Meanwhile the British armies under Montgomery's direction shifted the weight of their attack from the Caen sector to their right at Caumont and drove for the high ground between the Vire and the Orne.
With a clean and decisive breakout now achieved, the immediate task was to inflict the greatest possible destruction on the enemy by encircling his forces which were still compelled to face generally northward against the British and Canadians. This Bradley proceeded to do. However, as the American attacks gathered momentum to the southward, Hitler ordered von Kluge to move westward all available armour and reserves to counter-attack against the narrow strip through which American forces were pouring deep into his rear. Bitter fighting ensued around Mortain but, thanks to the timely intervention of the Allied air forces, the German thrust was held and then thrown back. Low-flying attacks by RAF Typhoons using rocket projectiles were particularly effective in breaking up enemy formations and destroying their tanks and vehicles.
By the end of the first week in August the battle in Normandy had assumed this overall picture: Montgomery's Army Group was attacking southward from the old Normandy beachhead while Bradley's forces, with their left anchored near the initial break- through, were carrying out a great encircling movement designed to trap the entire German forces in the Mortain – Falaise region. In the meantime the Allied air forces kept up an incessant battering against any possible crossings of the Seine so as to impede the escape of German forces to the north of that river before the trap could be closed. They also operated intensively over the Falaise area where they found rich targets – long columns of enemy transport packed bumper to bumper and rendered immobile by appalling congestion as the Germans began their headlong retreat. Soon the countryside was littered with the wreckage of vehicles and equipment.
Complete co-ordination of the great enveloping movement proved difficult to achieve. With the mass of the Allied armies attacking from the perimeter of a large half-circle towards a common centre, page 297 determination of the exact points at which each element should halt in order not to become involved against friendly units coming from the opposite direction proved a tricky problem. ‘Mix ups on the front occurred,’ says Eisenhower, ‘and there was no way to stop them except by halting troops in places even at the cost of allowing some Germans to escape.’ In the event considerable numbers of Germans did succeed in getting back across the Seine, but only at the cost of heavy casualties and after almost completely abandoning their heavy equipment. Eight infantry divisions and two panzer divisions, however, were captured almost in their entirety.
By the middle of August the Allied armies were sweeping forward towards the Seine on a broad front. The citizens of Paris now rose in revolt and on 25 August they surged out to meet the advancing Allied columns. By dawn the next morning American cavalry stood before the cathedral of Notre Dame and French armour was driving in triumph down the Champs Élysées. The Battle of Normandy was over and, with Paris liberated and the Germans in full retreat to the north of the Seine, it seemed that the Battle of France was also won.
* * * * *
During these historic months New Zealanders, both air and ground crews, served with all the principal RAF formations – with Second Tactical Air Force, Bomber, Coastal and Transport Com- mands, and in the Air Defence of Great Britain. The Dominion contribution, including the six New Zealand squadrons in Europe, amounted to some 3850 men, of whom the large majority were air- crew. Their record of service and achievement in the air operations over Normandy is a notable one.
Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham's work as field commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force was particularly outstanding. A dynamic personality, extremely popular with his staff, Coningham had come to this post after a highly successful career in the Middle East, where his co-ordination of the American and British air effort within that command and his whole-hearted support of the British Eighth Army had contributed in large measure to the victory in North Africa. Now Coningham was to repeat this success in France, and under his direction the tactical air forces achieved spectacular results in close-support operations, in restricting enemy movement of supplies and reinforcements, and in maintaining air supremacy over the battle area.
Coningham's task was more difficult than appeared at the time for Montgomery, brilliant army commander though he was, did not prove easy of access when it came to co-ordinating land and air operations. Moreover, difficulties and misunderstandings arose over page 298 the failure to capture sufficient ground in the early stages for the development of airfields in the area south-east of Caen. Coningham, eager to deploy his squadrons in Normandy as soon as possible, fretted at the delay. He was much concerned at the waste involved in the continued location of short-range fighters in England and anxious lest ‘the rate of effort which could be maintained over Normandy would be insufficient to maintain air superiority, to harass the enemy communications and delay the build-up of enemy ground forces, which could otherwise concentrate in superior numbers against the bridgehead.’ In the event, thanks to the superb efforts of both air and ground crews, the delay proved less serious than was at first imagined.
Probably the most spectacular achievement of Coningham's squadrons during the campaign was their contribution to the defeat of the German counter-attack at Mortain and the subsequent destruction of the German force in the Falaise pocket. At Mortain on 7 August, it will be remembered, the Germans launched an all-out attack to cut off the American advance at the narrow Avranches gap. It was supported by the best of the German panzer divisions. A report of the day's events tells how:
As the morning wore on, it became all too clear that the enemy was making a desperate attempt to reach the sea and cut off the Avranches corridor. German heavy tanks continued to lumber through the mist and the American attempts to halt them with bazookas and anti-tank guns were without much avail. At mid-day, the mist lifted and fighters and fighter-bombers of the Tactical Air Force went into action. The first two RAF squadrons to take off from advanced landing grounds in the bridgehead spotted some 50 to 60 tanks and 200 vehicles filling a hedge-lined road. The Typhoons swept down to attack the front and rear of the column and brought it to a halt amidst great confusion. Soon a ‘shuttle service’ of fighters and fighter-bombers was in operation; flight after flight sought out their targets, attacked with cannon and rocket projectile and then returned to base to refuel and re-arm. Many tanks were destroyed or disabled but the greatest destruction was wrought amongst the soft or unarmoured vehicles. The moral effect of the rocket attacks appears to have been even greater than the material damage they caused. Enemy tank crews and drivers were seen to abandon their charges and run to cover under the trees and hedgerows. By late afternoon, the situation had eased. Later that evening, the Luftwaffe admitted that they had been so hard pressed by Allied fighters on taking off from their bases that the German fighters were unable to reach the Mortain area. There is no doubt that the intervention of the Tactical Air Force on this day was both timely and decisive. The critical attack by enemy armour was broken up and though bitter fighting continued for the next four days, the Germans failed to make any further progress.
New Zealand fighter pilots who held senior posts under Coningham at this time were Group Captain P. G. Jameson, in command of a mobile wing of Mustang fighters, Group Captain P. L. Donkin, in charge of a fighter reconnaissance wing, and Group page 299 Captain D. J. Scott, commanding a four-squadron Typhoon wing. Wing Commander R. F. Aitken was in charge of a night-fighter airfield while Wing Commanders A. C. Deere, J. M. Checketts, and W. V. Crawford-Compton each led RAF fighter wings. Spitfire squadrons were commanded by Squadron Leaders M. G. Barnett, J. C. F. Hayter,1J. N. Mackenzie,2R. L. Spurdle, and D. F. Westenra; Typhoon fighter-bombers were led by Squadron Leader A. H. Smith and Mustangs by Squadron Leader E. L. Joyce.3Three New Zealand units, No. 485 Spitfire squadron, No. 487 Mosquito bomber squadron and No. 488 Mosquito night-fighter squadron, were each to play their part in operations with the Second Tactical Air Force. No.486 Tempest Squadron also operated over Normandy during the early stages before it was called upon to patrol against the flying bombs.
During the assault itself, New Zealand fighter pilots shared in a wide variety of missions; they patrolled over the beaches and shipping off the coast, escorted bombers to their targets, and protected the formations of gliders with their tugs as they streamed inland carrying reinforcements to the troops holding the flanks of the landing area. Enemy opposition in the air was less than anticipated and at first relatively few combats were reported. How- ever, it is of interest to record that Flying Officer Lelong4of No. 605 Mosquito Squadron was the first pilot to destroy an enemy aircraft in support of the Normandy landings. Flying an ‘Intruder’ patrol over the German airfield at Evreux on the eve of D Day, he sighted and attacked a Messerschmitt 410 which went down and blew up on the ground. Four nights later Lelong shot down a Junkers 88 over an airfield near Paris.
1 Squadron Leader J. C. F. Hayter, DFC and bar; born Canterbury, 18 Oct 1917; joined RNZAF Nov 1938; transferred RAF Aug 1939 and RNZAF Aug 1944; commanded No. 274 Sqdn, Middle East, 1942; No. 74 Sqdn, Middle East and Europe, 1943-44.
The New Zealand Spitfire Squadron was active in patrol and attack from the outset. During the afternoon of D Day squadron pilots, flying the third patrol of the day, destroyed two enemy bombers over Normandy. One crashed on a roadway a few miles north of Carentan after an attack by Flying Officer J. A. Houlton; the other broke up in mid-air and went down into a field, its destruction being shared by Houlton and three other pilots. By the end of the first week the New Zealanders had accounted for seven more enemy machines, most of the combats taking place at dawn or dusk. Flying Officer Yeatman,3a Malta veteran, shared a Focke-Wulf with Flight Sergeant Eyre,4and then during a patrol over Caen Flying Officers Houlton, Stead,5and Transom6and Pilot Officer Patterson7accounted for four more enemy aircraft. A few days later Houlton claimed his third for the week - a Messerschmitt fighter-bomber which blew up in mid-air - and on the same patrol Flight Lieutenant Newenham8sent another Messerschmitt crashing into a wood. After this fine start, however, the squadron had no further luck during June for its patrols were confined to the beach- head, where enemy machines seldom appeared during daylight. Day after day the Spitfires continued to fly across the Channel from their base at Selsey, in Sussex, but after the first week they were sometimes able to use the emergency landing strips in Normandy for refuelling and re-arming in between patrols, thus saving the flight to and from England.
Night fighters played a dual role during the campaign in Normandy. They patrolled the beachhead and its approaches to intercept German night bombers and minelaying aircraft and, in addition, ranged far and wide over enemy airfields, roads, and railways attacking any movement they discovered. No. 488 New Zealand Mosquito Squadron achieved outstanding success in such operations. In the eleven weeks from D Day to the end of August, it claimed no fewer than thirty-four enemy machines for the loss of only one crew, thereby establishing a record among the night-fighter squadrons of the Second Tactical Air Force. In every case the enemy machine was either seen to crash or else its destruction was confirmed by ground sources. Flight Lieutenant G. E. Jameson, with his English navigator, Flying Officer A. N. Crookes,1did particularly fine work. One night towards the end of July they shot down no fewer than four German bombers in twenty minutes - an amazing performance which was acclaimed throughout the Royal Air Force as one of the finest night-fighter patrols of the war. The first three bombers were Ju88s and they crashed within sight of the British lines at Caen; the fourth, a Dornier 217, nose-dived and exploded on the ground a few miles south of Lisieux. By the middle of August Jameson had accounted for another four enemy machines and, with a total score of eleven, he became New Zealand's leading night-fighter pilot.
No. 488's most successful period came at the beginning of August when the Germans were sending their bombers over at night in some strength in a desperate attempt to prevent the Allied armies from closing the jaws of the Falaise trap. It was one night during this week that Flight Lieutenant A. E. Browne scored an unusual triple success. After intercepting and shooting down a Junkers 188 bomber over the American front near Avranches, he found and chased two more bombers, one of them over Rennes and the other farther north. In both cases the German machine was driven down and, whilst making violent evasive turns, hit the ground and blew up. Browne did not fire a single shot. The low standard of training among German aircrews at this stage of the war no doubt had some bearing on the relative ease with which many of the enemy bombers were despatched. Nevertheless, it must be emphasised that even at this period the successful interception and bringing to action of fast enemy aircraft at night and often in cloudy skies was no easy matter, the more so since the German crews were now supplied with liberal quantities of small metallised strips which they threw out to confuse the radar of the pursuing British aircraft. Patience, skill, and courage were needed as much as ever and they were not always rewarded.
The Mosquito bombers from No. 487 New Zealand Squadron flew more than nine hundred sorties over Normandy between D Day and the end of August. During the night before the landings crews operated against enemy airfields, roads, and bridges in the area of Caen and St. Lo. Subsequently they went further afield seeking enemy movement towards the battlefield. Trains were found and attacked, important crossroads were strafed, and both rail and road bridges bombed. On the night raids it was seldom possible to see the full effect of bombing and pilots usually had to return with the laconic report, ‘No definite result seen.’ By day, however, it was different. For example, on 11 June when crews attacked petrol wagons in the marshalling yards at Chatellerault, they started a huge fire which was still burning twelve hours later. On this occasion the Mosquitos had taken off from their base at Thorney Island in Hampshire within an hour of receiving news of the target, and then had flown through low cloud almost the whole way across the Channel and northern France.
Other objectives were attacked by day with similar precision. Early in August Wing Commander I. S. Smith led twelve crews to bomb the barracks at Poitiers where German troops were assembling to attack the Maquis in that area. The raid was particularly success- ful. Of three large barrack blocks one was almost destroyed, another partially destroyed, and the third, along with other buildings - one of which contained fifty motor vehicles - was gutted by fire. Photographs showed that only four bombs fell outside the barracks. A few weeks later the Mosquitos attacked a German SS headquarters at Vincey, near Metz. The two-hour flight from England was made at low level through cloud and drizzle, but fortunately at the last moment the cloud lifted and, as the Mosquitos pulled up over a hill and prepared for their bombing run, the target stood out clearly. Direct hits wiped out almost the whole of one large building and left others in ruins. On this raid the Mosquito flown by Flying page 305 Officer Heaton1was hit by anti-aircraft fire just after leaving the target and compelled to force-land. However, both Heaton and his navigator, Warrant Officer Mason,2succeeded in evading capture and, with help from the Maquis, reached the Allied lines eight days later.
During another raid about the same time one young navigator, Flying Officer Judson,3showed particular fortitude. While bombing a railway south of the Loire, his Mosquito was badly hit and Judson himself seriously wounded. Yet, half conscious and blinded by blood from injuries to his head and his right eye, Judson navigated his Mosquito back towards the American lines until his pilot could no longer retain control. He then baled out and, landing safely, determined to evade capture. He hid in a hedge until the following evening, and then, after obtaining food and shelter at an isolated farmhouse, set off to trek northwards for ten days. Eventually, after receiving further help and medical attention, he was able to reach the Allied lines exactly one month after being shot down. Another member of No. 487 Squadron, Flying Officer Whincop,4had a narrow escape when the Gestapo came to search the farmhouse where he was sheltering after being shot down behind the enemy lines. However, he was not discovered and soon rejoined the Allied forces as the tide of battle flowed over the area.
Probably the most successful period for the medium bomber crews came during the Allied advance to the Seine. The afternoon of 18 August was particularly eventful. The jaws of the Falaise trap were about to close and some hundreds of trucks, lorries, and tanks were spotted moving towards Vimoutiers in a desperate attempt at last-minute escape. Maximum effort was therefore directed to this area. Never before had crews seen so many targets and they were able to attack with comparative immunity. Photographs amply demonstrated the high claims they made. Road blocks were formed by blazing trucks, and the drivers behind either abandoned their vehicles or drove off across country to find shelter in the woods; others turned back, vainly endeavouring to discover a safer way out. Some troops even spread out white flags on their vehicles. The area between Trun and Chambois soon became known as ‘The Shambles’.
For Coastal Command crews the main scene of activity during these weeks was the English Channel and its approaches. Here they flew day and night patrols to prevent enemy submarines and surface craft from interfering with the invasion fleets and the subsequent supply convoys. Since the German U-boat fleet in the Biscay ports presented the greatest threat, the main air effort was devoted to the ‘Cork’ patrols - an elaborate system of sweeps and searches designed to close the western entrance to the Channel. It was in this area that Squadron Leader M. A. Ensor, flying a Liberator of No. 224 Squadron, depth-charged a U-boat by the light of a full moon on the night after D Day. On dawn patrol the next morning another Liberator, captained by Flying Officer Mygind1of No. 547 Squadron, attacked a German submarine off Brest. Other men who saw action in the first few days were Sergeant Kemp2of No. 206 Squadron, Warrant Officer Osborne3of No. 58 Halifax Squadron, and Flight Sergeant Raynel4of No. 228 Sunderland Squadron.
Operations against German surface craft were conducted with relentless efficiency by Beaufighter, Mosquito, and Wellington crews. Such was the intensity of the watch maintained from the air that German E-boats and minelayers seldom operated by day; at night when they ventured out from their shelters in the Channel ports, they were found by radar and then bombed and machine-gunned by the light of flares. Minor naval units based south of the Dover Straits were prevented from entering the Channel, and eventually the last hope of supply or escape by sea was denied to the German garrisons cut off by the advance of the Allied armies.
Wing Commander E. H. McHardy, Wing Commander G. D. Sise, and Squadron Leader Tacon1were prominent in these operations. Beaufighters led by McHardy had notable success against E-boats in the Channel. Sise and Tacon led Mosquitos and Beaufighters against enemy shipping in the waters between Brest and Bordeaux, where a heavy toll was taken of minesweepers, naval auxiliaries, and coasters. On 14 August Sise led twenty-five Mosquitos to the well-defended Gironde estuary to attack shipping there; one minesweeper blew up, another was set on fire, and three other ships including a destroyer were damaged. Ten days later Tacon led Beaufighters into the harbour at Le Verdon to attack the last two German destroyers left in the Biscay area. There was an intense barrage but both ships were repeatedly hit and left shrouded in smoke and flames. They sank shortly afterwards.
1 Wing Commander E. W. Tacon, DSO, MVO, DFC and bar, AFC; RAF; born Napier, 6 Dec 1917; joined RAF May 1939; Coastal Command, 1939–41; flying training appointments in Canada, New Zealand, and United Kingdom, 1942–44; commanded No. 236 Sqdn, 1944; p.w. 12 Sep 1944; Commander of the King's Flight, 1946–50.
New Zealanders with Bomber Command flew a variety of missions over Normandy. After the remarkable series of operations in support of the actual landings there was a renewal of the attack on enemy communications, and despite continual bad weather, with much low cloud, Lancasters, Halifaxes, and Mosquitos operated against such objectives on every one of the seven nights following D Day. Heavy attacks fell on the rail centres at Caen, Lisieux, St. Lo, Vire, Argentan, Chateaudun, Rennes, and Evreux. Bridges and tunnels were also bombed.
A particularly successful raid against the Saumur tunnel on the main railway from south-west France to Normandy was made by thirty-one Lancasters and Mosquitos. Led by Wing Commander G. L. Cheshire, whose No. 617 Squadron provided the major part of the attacking force, the bombers attacked by the light of flares in the early hours of 9 June. Most of the Lancasters were carrying ‘Tallboys’ - special five-ton bombs of terrific power – all of which crashed down within the space of a few minutes. One scored a direct hit on the tunnel entrance and the roof caved in. Others fell in the deep cutting leading to the tunnel and effectively blocked the approach with deep craters over 100 feet across. Two months later when the Allies captured Saumur the line was still closed.
Throughout the following weeks the assault on rail and road communications continued over a wide area, causing heavy damage to depots and marshalling yards, blocking lines and destroying large quantities of rolling stock. During July, when the Germans began to move formations from both the Pas de Calais and the Low Countries, they tried to bring these reinforcements to centres in the Paris area for detrainment. Heavy attacks were therefore launched against such centres as Aulnoye, Dijon, Villeneuve St. George, Vaires, Tours, and Revigny. As a result all the through lines running west to Paris and east to the Meuse were cut. By the end of July, when the Allied armies broke out from their bridgehead, Bomber Command's attacks in Normandy had achieved their purpose and the offensive slackened. During the next month, however, over one thousand sorties were directed against communication centres well beyond the actual battle area, against such junctions as Dijon, Douai, Lens, Somain and Givors. Bomber Command's final attack in the rail offensive took place on the night of 18 August when Connantre was heavily damaged. Since page 309 D Day the British heavy bombers had flown over eight thousand sorties against communication targets and dropped some 29,300 tons of bombs for the loss of 186 aircraft and crews.
Such losses indicated that the German fighter force was still capable of putting up a stiff resistance against the deeper penetrations made by the heavier bombers; indeed, after its initial setback in Normandy, the Luftwaffe was able to function with considerable efficiency from serviceable airfields in Belgium and Holland. To counter this renewed activity, Bomber Command, in conjunction with the United States 8th Air Force, launched a mass attack on twenty airfields in these countries during daylight on 15 August. Bomber Command, for its part, sent just over 1000 aircraft against nine German night-fighter bases. At each target there was severe damage to runways, buildings, and aircraft on the ground. A fortnight later British crews made another heavy attack on six airfields in Holland, where the remainder of the Luftwaffe's close-support units had now taken station, together with long-range bombers, night fighters, and the aircraft used for launching flying bombs. German air activity was noticeably less during the weeks immediately following these heavy raids.
During the Normandy campaign both British and American bombers were frequently called upon to intervene closely in the land battle. Montgomery was particularly anxious to have the support of the heavy bombers since he realised that, at a few hours' notice, one thousand aircraft could put down a barrage which, for the time being, was equal in weight to the shells of four thousand guns. To bring up such a mass of artillery to the required position in any reasonable time would have been a physical impossibility, but the bombers could strike without giving the enemy any warning. Air Marshal Harris at first expressed doubts about the use of his heavy bombers in the battlefield very close to the Allied lines. However, in the event, by extremely careful planning and the extraordinary skill of the crews, the risk was brought down to much less than the soldier ran in the First World War when his own guns put down the barrage. The main safeguard was the use of a double check: a carefully timed run by each aircraft and a very careful assessment of the position of target indicators by a Master Bomber.
The RAF Lancasters and Halifaxes operated mainly in support of the British and Canadian armies and in nine major attacks between D Day and mid-August dropped over 19,500 tons of bombs on German strongpoints and troop concentrations. Their first operation took place on the night of 7 June when 212 Lancasters and Halifaxes bombed a German fuel centre in the Foret de Cerisy. page 310 This attack was made in a response to a request from the First United States Army, which was meeting strong opposition in the beachhead. A week later when troop concentrations in front of the Second British Army were bombed, there was particularly widespread destruction at the main road junction in Aunay–sur– Oden. On 30 June the Germans were preparing to counter-attack at Villers Bocage when 266 aircraft arrived overhead and completely blocked all roads with craters and rubble. The enemy attack did not take place.
At the beginning of July the British armies were still held up in front of Caen and Montgomery asked for RAF heavy bombers to break the deadlock. Accordingly, at dusk on 7 July some 470 Lancasters and Halifaxes, each carrying five tons of bombs, saturated an area of two and a half square miles on the northern outskirts of Caen where there were strong German defensive positions. Unfortunately, owing to approaching storms, the bombing had to take place six hours before the ground assault began. Nevertheless, the results were quite dramatic; the German defence crumpled and within twenty-four hours British and Canadian troops had captured the whole of Caen north and west of the River Orne. Montgomery has written of ‘the tremendous effect’ on the enemy of ‘this remarkably accurate operation’:1‘… some German defenders,’ he says, ‘were found still stunned many hours after the attack had been carried out. The troops in the defences north of the town were cut off and received no food, petrol or ammunition as a result, while one regiment … was wiped out.’ Montgomery also adds that ‘the capture of Caen greatly simplified our problems on the eastern flank’ and ‘the Bomber Command attack played a vital part in the success of the operation.’ The air bombardment did, however, have one unfortunate result. As the British tanks moved forward they found their advance was often hindered by bomb craters and by obstructions, such as fallen masonry and debris. Consequently, in subsequent operations of this nature it was decided to reserve heavy bombs for specific centres of enemy resistance and to employ small bombs in the path of the advance.
On 30 July, when the British Army renewed its push southwards, Bomber Command again led the way with an attack by nearly seven hundred aircraft. In defiance of low and threatening clouds crews hit their targets ‘with remarkable accuracy’ and the ground assault made substantial progress. A week later 1018 Lancasters and Halifaxes prepared the way for the final breakout by the First Canadian Army. The air bombardment took place an hour before midnight – a daring innovation only made possible by the navigational skill of the aircrews and the efficient marking technique which had now been developed.
Bomber Command's last two close-support operations of this period came in mid-August as the British and Canadian armies fought their way southwards to close the upper jaws of the Falaise trap. On the night of 12 August 138 heavy bombers attacked road junctions ahead of the advancing columns, and in the early afternoon of 14 August some six hundred aircraft attacked enemy concentrations and strongpoints directly ahead of the Canadians, then striking directly towards Falaise. The town fell on 16 August.1
1 Unfortunately, the raid on 14 August was marred by an incident involving the loss of some eighty soldiers and a number of guns and vehicles. It appears that some of the forward troops, on seeing the aircraft approaching with their bomb doors open, lit yellow recognition flares and these were mistaken for yellow target indicators by certain crews. Subsequent inquiry established that, at a conference before the attack, the Canadians had assured Bomber Command that no pyrotechnics would be used by the ground forces that might be confused with target indicators dropped from the air; unfortunately they overlooked the existence of an army operational order which stated that troops being attacked by friendly aircraft would fire yellow or orange signals. It was also discovered that a few aircrews failed to make the carefully timed runs to their targets which they had been ordered to do.
During the Normandy campaign Bomber Command also attacked the Channel ports in support of the Navy. The most outstanding operation was that against the German fleet of light naval vessels in Le Havre and Boulogne on 14–15 June. These small but fast ships, carrying mines and torpedoes, presented a real threat to Allied shipping in the Channel but within twenty-four hours, at negligible cost to Bomber Command, the Germans lost all power of seriously disrupting the passage of convoys to Normandy. At Le Havre the dock area was badly damaged and fifty-five vessels of various types, including a number of naval craft, were sunk; while at Boulogne twenty-seven vessels were sunk and others damaged. In all some 130 naval and auxiliary craft were put out of action, virtually the whole of the enemy's light naval forces in the Channel area. At the same time the concrete shelters used to house E-boats at Le Havre were hit by several of the new 12,000-pound medium-capacity bombs.
At the end of August German E and R-boats were using the Dutch port of Ijmuiden, where they had the advantage of serviceable pens. These were massively constructed and resistant to almost anything but the heaviest bombs. However, in two small but effective attacks several 12,000-pound penetration bombs scored direct hits, one making a hole 15 feet across in the roof centre, the other blowing out a large part of the back of the pen, leaving a gap measuring 94 feet by 30 feet. In attacks on the Biscay ports at least eight direct hits were scored on the U-boat shelters at Brest and six at La Pallice.
Bomber Command gave further support to the Navy during these months by continuing its minelaying campaign. During July and August more than one thousand mines were laid from the air off Brest, La Pallice, and in the Gironde River to disrupt U-boat operations from these bases. Intensified minelaying was also carried out in the Kattegat and off the south coast of Norway to hamper German troop movements to and from Norway. Towards the end of the summer, operations were extended to the eastern Baltic where canal approaches to the ports of Swinemunde and Konigsberg were mined; altogether more than five hundred mines were dropped in the Baltic area during August and September 1944. The effectiveness of the minelaying in the Baltic is indicated in the reports sent to the German Admiralty. At the end of September one senior officer page 313 wrote despairingly: ‘Without training in the Baltic and safe escort through coastal waters, there can be no U-boat war. Without seaborne supplies it is impossible to hold Norway …. but we no longer command the sea routes within our own sphere of influence as shown by the day and week long blocking of the Baltic approaches.’
Crews from No. 75 New Zealand Squadron, under the leadership of Wing Commander Leslie, flew in all these various missions and their experiences may be regarded as typical of most of the bomber squadrons with which New Zealanders were flying at this time. The first week of the invasion was a period of intensive activity with the Lancasters operating over Normandy on six successive nights. On D Day itself, following a maximum effort against coastal batteries, twenty-four Lancasters gave support to British troops in their beachheads by bombing the road centre at Lisieux, through which German tanks and infantry were moving forward to the attack. Other targets for the New Zealanders in the early stages of the assault were the rail centres of Massy Palaisseau, Fougeres, Dreux, and Nantes. Two aircraft were lost with their crews in the attack on Dreux and after several other raids machines returned badly damaged by flak. One crew had a particularly eventful sortie to Nantes. Over the target an anti-aircraft shell exploded in the cockpit, severely wounding the captain and the flight engineer. As the Lancaster began to go down the controls were seized by the bomb aimer, Warrant Officer Hurse1of Carisbrook, Australia, whose only experience as a pilot was a little dual instruction on Stirlings. Aided by the navigator, Flying Officer Zillwood,2he managed to fly the bomber 400 miles back to England where, says the squadron record, he ‘rounded off his exploit with a perfect landing.’
In July and August a large part of the squadron's effort was directed against flying-bomb launching sites in northern France and there were also several raids on targets in Germany. Nevertheless, the New Zealanders continued to operate frequently in support of the armies in France, attacking German supply depots and communications as well as troop concentrations and strongpoints on the battlefield. During the first week of July the important rail centre of Vaires was bombed twice and there were further raids on the marshalling yards at Lens and Chalons-sur-Marne. On the 18th the squadron flew its first mission in direct support of Allied troops. That day twenty-eight crews took part in the big RAF dawn attack on the village of Cagny, to the east of Caen, where there were large concentrations of German troops and armour. ‘Fairly heavy anti-aircraft fire did not prevent an accurate attack,’ says the squadron record, ‘and fortunately only one aircraft suffered damage.’ This was captained by Flight Sergeant Moriarty,2who displayed particular fortitude after an anti-aircraft shell had burst inside his machine. Flying splinters struck him on the head, causing serious injury to his left eye. Although he was suffering intense pain, Moriarty insisted on flying his machine back across the Channel to England where he carried out ‘a masterly landing.’
There were few survivors from the missing aircraft, but one young navigator, Flying Officer Wilkinson,1 had a series of adventures which must be related. After bailing out from his burning bomber well behind the enemy lines, he went into hiding for the best part of a day in order to avoid the search parties that combed the vicinity of the crash. Then, estimating his position from his own navigation in flight, he began to move westwards, walking across country by night and sleeping in the hedgerows by day. Even so, it was anything but easy going for the Germans seemed to be every- where. Near St. Aubin he almost walked into a stationary truck full of soldiers and shortly afterwards he was forced to go to ground in a drainpipe. On another occasion he found himself in a German camp and had to worm his way out on his stomach. Eventually gun flashes indicated the direction of the front line, but the way was barred by a river and sentries patrolled the bridges. Undaunted, Wilkinson swam across, picked his way through the swamps on the other side, and at last reached the shelter of some woods. This was on the sixth night and he was soaked through, cold and very hungry. As he moved on he nearly stumbled on some Germans lying in a forward observation post. ‘Fortunately,’ he said after- wards, ‘one of them coughed when I was only a few yards away. But I heard a rifle bolt being pushed home so hit the earth quickly and then crawled slowly away, making for the far side of the field. Later, feeling badly in need of a drink, I crept into a bomb crater to find some water. On lifting my head I found two rifles pointing at me. I put up my hands and crawled out. To my great relief the men behind the rifles were members of the Durham Light Infantry.’
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Once the land fighting began the British and American squadrons had quickly established command of the air over the battlefield, and by their further attacks on communications they drastically reduced the enemy's capacity to remove troops and supplies so that, in spite of his natural advantages, he lost the critical battle of the build-up and all his counter-attacks were frustrated. Intervening directly in the ground fighting, both fighters and bombers had paved the way for and supported the advance of the armies at each stage of the campaign. Perhaps the most striking illustration of the effectiveness of air power during these months was that, while the Germans were forced off the roads and railways and driven to extreme efforts at camouflaging their movements, the Allied convoys could move in closely packed columns whose spacing seemed to be determined only by the amount of dust kicked up ahead. They needed no ‘broomstick commandos’ of the kind employed by the Germans to wipe out the tracks made on roads when their vehicles sought daytime safety under such cover as they might find or improvise.
1 In its last situation report before D Day, Rommel's headquarters stated that the planned defences of the Fifteenth Army sector were 68 per cent completed but that in the area of the Seventh Army only 18 per cent had been finished.