Military history

The limits of air power

It has become an historical cliché of the Normandy campaign to assert that Allied air power was decisive in making victory possible. This is a half-truth. Overwhelming Allied air superiority enabled the ground troops to operate with almost total freedom from Luftwaffe interference. This was the battle chiefly won by Spaatz’s Mustang fighters in the sky over Germany during the first months of 1944, and maintained until the end of the war by the vast numbers of Allied interceptors over the battlefield. A second factor, of which more will be said below, was the fighter-bombers’ ability to smash German attempts to concentrate for a decisive armoured thrust. Thanks to the bombing of communications and constant fighter-bomber sweeps over the German rear areas, German daylight movement became hazardous, and was often impossible. In the first weeks of the campaign, while the air forces’ claims about the level of destruction that they had inflicted upon German units advancing to the front were exaggerated, the delay and anxiety that they caused were of critical importance. The infantry suffered much more than the armoured units, since they possessed few vehicles and were almost entirely dependent upon horses for divisional transport.

Yet in Normandy, the greatest concentration of air power ever assembled in support of ground operations also revealed its limitations. It was unable to inflict sufficient damage upon German defensive positions to offer the Allied armies anywhere an easy passage, despite Sir Arthur Harris’s characteristically extravagant assertion in 1945 that the air forces had given the armies in north-west Europe ‘a walkover’. The poor flying weather – which averaged one day in three through the summer – and the hours of darkness provided the Germans with sufficient respite from air attack to move their forces more or less where they wished, and to continue bringing forward a bare minimum of ammunition and supplies. Every captured German officer in 1944–45 complained bitterly about the difficulties caused to his unit by Allied aircraft and this, together with the exaggerated claims of the airmen, caused Allied intelligence to be too uncritical in its assessments of the material damage inflicted upon enemy formations in transit. Almost all were indeed seriously delayed by the wrecked river bridges and railways and the harassment upon the roads. But careful study of German records shows that only in a very few cases was the combat power of a unit seriously diminished by air attack on the journey to Normandy. Even allowing for the early morning cloud, it is remarkable that 21st Panzer’s armoured regiments were able to reach the battlefield on D-Day from their harbours around Falaise with only minimal losses from air attack. Panzer Lehr’s journey was fraught with frustration and harassment, but its order of battle was diminished by less than 10 per cent. Most Germans interviewed for this narrative recall the smashed railway junctions and bridges they passed on their way to the front, but very few remember their units suffering the actual loss of more than a few trucks. The allegedly appalling journey of the 2nd SS Panzer Division from Toulouse to Normandy has passed into the legend of the Second World War, and its arrival was certainly much delayed by encounters with the Resistance and Allied air forces. But its material losses of tanks and armoured vehicles were negligible.2 The truth is that tactical air power began to inflict crippling damage upon enemy transport only in the later stages of the battle for Normandy, when difficulties on the ground compelled the Germans to move in daylight, and when techniques of forward air control, which should have been available from 6 June, were at last put into practice.

The fundamental difficulty overhanging all Allied air support of operations in Normandy was that, with two very honourable exceptions of whom more will be said below, senior Allied airmen remained obsessed with their conviction that it was not the major function of the air forces to serve as flying artillery for the army. This, of course, was precisely the role in which the Luftwaffe had achieved such remarkable results for the Wehrmacht in the first half of the war. In 1944 and in their own writings after the war, Allied airmen wrote with astonishing condescension about the diversion of their forces to support ground operations.1 Vandenburg records a conversation with a colleague on 15 June about the army’s demand for a massed bomber attack, ‘to blast the English army from in front of Caen . . . We both agreed that the use contemplated was not proper . . .’2 Whatever Montgomery’s shortcomings in other directions, he could never be accused of failing to understand the vital importance of air support. He harangued his officers again and again about the need to live and work in the closest proximity to the airmen. It was the airmen themselves, and Air-Marshal Coningham in particular, who resolutely refused to accept a close relationship with the soldiers. Coningham had been nettled by Montgomery’s supposed failure to grant sufficient credit to the air forces under his command in the desert, and he never forgave him. He saw as little of the C-in-C of 21st Army Group as he could, and physically distanced himself from the ground headquarters. It is remarkable that Coningham’s attitude and behaviour was not rewarded with dismissal. But Tedder shared many of Coningham’s views, and above all sympathized with his distaste for Montgomery.

Tedder’s high intelligence has often been praised by his colleagues, yet his arrogant self-assurance matched that of Montgomery. He shared the views of the ‘bomber barons’ that air support by heavy aircraft for ground operations was a diversion from their war-winning role in attacking German industry: ‘I told Leigh-Mallory that he was in danger of leading the Army up the garden path with his sweeping assurances of help . . . I felt that the limitations of air support on the battlefield were not sufficiently understood; neither was the full scope of the role of air power outside the battle area sufficiently appreciated by the Army, or by Leigh-Mallory.’3

Studying Tedder’s writings, it is impossible to escape the conclusion that he suffered the same grievous handicap as most airmen of his generation – the inability to perceive that the war could only be won by the defeat of the German army upon the battlefield, an enormously difficult task to which all other operations by sea and air must be subordinated. There were grounds for much disappointment and sympathy over the failures of ground operations in Normandy in June and July. It has been suggested above that few of these were the fault of Montgomery’s generalship. Yet Tedder’s remorseless hostility to the Commander-in-Chief of 21st Army Group, his sniping and carping from SHAEF about the shortcomings of the soldiers, lessen his stature as a commander; although, of course, the anomaly of his position was that he could speak his mind in the highest places about any aspect of the campaign that he chose, but bore direct responsibility for none of it. Early in July, he was agreeing with Coningham ‘that the Army did not seem prepared to fight its own battles’.4 He persuaded Eisenhower to amend a draft letter to Montgomery promising that all the resources of the air would be available to support him: ‘I insisted that the Air could not, and must not, be turned on thus glibly and vaguely in support of the Army, which would never move unless prepared to fight its way with its own weapons.’5 He made common cause with two senior British officers at SHAEF known for their enmity to Montgomery – Morgan and Humphrey Gale – in discussing the possibility of removing the British general. On 20 July after GOODWOOD, ‘I spoke to Portal about the Army’s failure. We were agreed in regarding Montgomery as the cause. We also talked about the control of the Strategic Air Forces. Portal felt that the time was drawing near when their control could revert to the Combined Chiefs of Staff exercised through himself.’6 Yet it was Portal who, during the autumn and winter, would prove wholly incapable of controlling the British strategic bomber force, to the extent that he was obliged to confess his own inability to induce Sir Arthur Harris to conform to Air Staff policy.

The airmen considered that they were on most solid ground in their complaints against the army about heavy bomber operations. The soldiers repeatedly demanded and received the support of the ‘heavies’ in a role for which the airmen insisted they were unsuitable. The soldiers were then surprised when the bombers failed to achieve the expected results, whether against coastal positions on D-Day or tank concentrations on the Bourguébus Ridge. The bombing of Caen had accomplished nothing but the levelling of a great Norman city. The bombing before GOODWOOD had been provided, the airmen claimed, only because the army insisted that it would pave the way for a major breakthrough. This it did not. On 21 July, somewhat obscurely, Tedder ‘saw the Supreme Commander at once and told him that Montgomery’s failure to take action earlier had lost us the opportunity offered by the attempt on Hitler’s life.’7 This comment appears to reflect the airman’s wholly mistaken assumption that the German army was on the brink of internal collapse.

A SHAEF Operational Research report upon the benefits of heavy bombing in support of ground operations declared that ‘it is the provisional opinion of the investigators that the moral effects of the bombing upon the enemy and upon Allied troops far outweigh the very considerable material effects.’8 Quesada of IXth Air Force declared that he doubted whether the American bombing before the attack on Cherbourg had killed more than 10 Germans: ‘Of course, our army loved to see it before they went in. But it made me more sceptical about whether we should be using the air force as a USO show. I believed in attacking specific, identifiable targets that could be destroyed by aircraft.’9

The airmen considered that the proven inability of heavy bombers to do crippling material damage to enemy ground forces was sufficient reason to confine them to assaults upon Germany’s cities and industrial plants. Yet if massed bomber attacks provided moral benefits in the greatest campaign of the western war – which all concerned on both sides agreed that they did – it seemed reasonable to suggest that the armies were entitled to them. It was also forgotten, amidst the recriminations about ‘short bombing’ and ground-force failures, that the use of the ‘heavies’ had in fact inflicted immense damage upon the German defences before both COBRA and GOODWOOD, even if this was not conclusive. What was gravely needed, and never achieved as a result of the lack of sympathy between the personalities concerned, was improvement in the technique of co-ordinating heavy bomber operations with ground offensives. Vandenburg recorded sourly in his diary for 27 July: ‘Leaving for lunch with the C-in-C and Bedell Smith, I heard Beadle tell Jimmy [Doolittle] to the effect that what was needed to correct deficiencies in strategic bombers operating with ground forces was to get a commander who could view that support sympathetically.’10 As late as November 1944, a 21st Army Group report on air support lamented that ‘we have lacked and still do lack high-powered air staff officers at the Army Group HQ to be in on the initial stages of planning just as the gunners and sappers are.’11 This was surely a damning reflection on the gulf between the two services even in the last months of the war. All that summer of 1944, the feuds within the air forces, which had so disfigured the Allied high command in the spring, continued unabated. Vandenburg’s diary for 23 June reports: ‘Lunched with General Spaatz at which time he cautioned me to be very careful not to create an incident which, in his opinion, was desired by the RAF to start the disintegration of this can of worms by “the Tedder, Coningham, Harris clique”.’12 Brereton, commanding IXth Air Force, held a press conference following the COBRA short bombing tragedy, at which he blamed COBRA’s slow start upon the sluggishness of the ground troops.

Yet the sluggishness with which ground–air co-operation techniques developed in Normandy must be attributed principally to the attitudes of the airmen. Air-Marshal ‘Mary’ Coningham, commanding the British 2nd Tactical Air Force, was a bitter enemy of Montgomery and of Leigh-Mallory. Brigadier Charles Richardson, Montgomery’s very able BGS Plans, worked closely with the airmen on ground support plans, and found Coningham to be ‘a prima donna. He seemed to have a glorified concept of his own position, and to be too remote from the battle.’13 For many weeks, Coningham continued to direct air support from Stanmore, outside London, on the grounds that communications in France were too poor for him to command his squadrons from a headquarters with the armies. While the wide-ranging fighter-bomber sweeps carried out every day over France by Allied aircraft created great difficulties for the Germans, it was Typhoons and Thunderbolts operating in close support of the ground troops and directed by a Forward Air Controller (FAC), which could play the critical role. Requests for air support channelled through a rear staff and then passed forward with merely a map reference to the squadrons did not produce rapid or precise results. There was no lack of communications technology for Forward Air Control. Yet above all in the early stages of the battle, there were nothing like enough FACs with the front-line troops. The destruction of a single RAF vehicle in the first hours of GOODWOOD wiped out Forward Air Control for the central axis of the offensive. ‘As a result of our inability to get together with the air in England,’ wrote Bradley, ‘we went into France almost totally untrained in air–ground co-operation.’14 Brigadier Richardson said: ‘In North Africa we seemed to have got the air business right, yet we had lost some of it in Normandy.’15

Only two senior air force officers distinguished themselves by an absolute commitment to assisting the armies, undiminished by personal hostilities or jealousies. The first was British, Air Vice-Marshal Harry Broadhurst, working alongside Dempsey’s Second Army as the RAF’s AOC 83 Group. Broadhurst, a fighter pilot of great experience and a veteran of the desert, earned the affection and respect of all the soldiers with whom he worked. The second was the American General Elwood R. ‘Pete’ Quesada, a pioneering airman of Spanish extraction, quick intelligence and easy charm who commanded IXth Tactical Air Command, responsible to Bradley for close air support of the American armies.

Quesada may claim to have done more than any other airman in the Allied ranks to originate and refine techniques of ground–air co-operation, and to put them into practice. ‘Unlike most airmen who viewed ground support as a bothersome diversion to war in the sky,’ wrote Bradley, ‘Quesada approached it as a vast new frontier waiting to be explored.’16 The American airman had served in North Africa, where he found that the prevailing USAAF attitude ‘was that air forces should take care of themselves, with little consideration to the needs of the armies.’ Indeed, in 1943, it was Coningham – such a thorn in Montgomery’s side in Europe in 1944 – to whom Quesada paid generous tribute, ‘for forcing the USAAF to participate in the ground battle’. It was in North Africa that Quesada’s undogmatic willingness to adjust command arrangements to the needs of the battle first caught the attention of Eisenhower. The airman handed over operational control of a B-24 anti-submarine wing to the navy rather than seeking to direct it himself through Casablanca, on the simple grounds that this scheme was likely to be more effective. Undramatic enough, perhaps, but his gesture should be seen in the context of a war in which most airmen fought tooth and nail to retain control of their squadrons rather than surrender direction to either of the other two services. Only 38 years old, unmarried, with a quaint enthusiasm for cabinet-making in his off-duty hours, Quesada was the embodiment of the American ‘can do’ spirit which so attracted all those Europeans of his generation who were not intractably prejudiced.

In France – ‘not until Normandy did the army air force become a real participant in the ground battle’ – Quesada flew a Lightning into the beachhead on D+1 to establish his own headquarters alongside that of Bradley, with whom he established a close personal relationship. It was Quesada who first mounted aircraft radios in American tanks at the time of COBRA – it was a measure of the earlier suspicions between the two services that the airman was astonished when Bradley agreed to give them to him. Thus equipped, Forward Air Controllers could direct strikes from the very tip of the front. While on the British front the RAF jealously kept forward air control in the hands of its own personnel, among the Americans, specially-designated army officers with every unit were able to call down their own support.

Lieutenant Philip Reisler of the US 2nd Armored Division had begun his career as a Forward Air Controller in Sicily, ‘where the bombing confusion was horrible’, equipped only with red and green signal lights, which were quite invisible to the pilots, and yellow smoke canisters to reveal the Allied line. The limitations of these were still apparent in Normandy. Too many troops well behind the front fired smoke or laid out identification panels, only to expose the men ahead of them to a hail of bombs and rockets. In July, Reisler at last received a radio for his Sherman with which he could talk direct to the pilots, and operate directly under the orders of his Combat Command’s brigadier. A glimpse of clear skies at dawn and the words, ‘it looks like we’re going to have air today’, became one of the great morale boosters on the unit radio net. CC A headquarters would inform Reisler of fighter-bombers on the way, and at the scheduled hour he would seek contact: ‘Hello, Skudo leader’ (or Red Flag or Back Door or whatever the air group’s callsign), ‘this is Cutbreak. I am at co-ordinate 656474 south-east Vire.’ For the pilot above, conditions in the cockpit made map reading difficult, and as he reported to the soldier that he was approaching his area, Reisler would seek to call down a round or two of artillery or tank smoke to mark the target. Then he would hear the flight commander on the ground ordering his pilots in: ‘Jake, you go down first, Pete fly high cover . . .’ As they bombed or rocketed, Reisler would correct their fire around the target. Within five minutes, the mission was over and the aircraft gone.

It was not unknown for the Germans to spot the planes and fire smoke onto the American positions, once obliging a desperate Reisler to yell, ‘Pull out! Pull out!’ to a Thunderbolt pilot as he dived onto the Shermans. More often still, for reasons which the tank crews were never told, there was simply no air available to them. They had no power to command the presence of the fighter-bombers; they could only request them. When they did have support and it was obliged to turn home for lack of fuel, Reisler would sometimes get the planes to attack empty countryside simply to encourage the ground troops.17 This was a practice that infuriated the pilots, for whom every ground-attack sortie was fraught with peril. If they were hit, they enjoyed very little hope of parachuting at low level. When a shortage of Typhoon pilots developed in 2nd Tactical Air Force, the RAF asked for volunteers to transfer from Spitfires. There were none. Men had to be drafted.

Quesada and Broadhurst were frequent visitors to forward areas to discover at first hand what their squadrons were achieving. One morning the American was riding a jeep in search of his old fellow pupil at the Command and General Staff School, Maurice Rose, now leading the CC A of 2nd Armored Division. Following the directions of a succession of tankers up a surprisingly silent road, 100 yards away he glimpsed a tank he took to be the brigadier’s. He was driving towards it when a 75 mm shell from its turret slammed into the jeep, smashing the vehicle into a ruin and wounding Quesada’s driver. It was a Panther. The two men spent an uncomfortable twenty minutes crawling away under small-arms fire. Quesada was conscious that only the previous day he himself had laughed heartily as he heard a German corps commander’s aide being interrogated about the whereabouts of his general. The aide answered: ‘The last time I saw him, he was crawling up a ditch.’ Now it was the American general’s turn to crawl, and he was fortunate to escape alive. Few airmen of any nationality went to such lengths to keep in touch with the realities of the ground battle.

Conversely, Quesada worked hard to keep the ground commanders up to date with the air situation. The tiny handful of Luftwaffe aircraft that ventured over the Allied lines caused wholly disproportionate distress among the ground troops, and were sometimes used as an alibi by divisional commanders to explain difficulties and failures. One morning, Quesada was compelled to listen to complaints from Bradley that the 29th Division had been harassed by enemy air attack. The airman persuaded Bradley to ride with him to see the 29th Division’s commander, the excitable Gerhardt, ‘more like a rooster than a divisional commanding officer,’ suggested Quesada wryly. He demanded to know precisely what the army was complaining about. After much prevarication and inquiries down the chain of command, it transpired that a regimental commander was fulminating about an attack by two German aircraft on his command post, which had set a half-track on fire and wounded his cook. Bradley drove back in silence, to compose a letter to all divisional commanders suggesting that they should not expect to be immune to air attack. On another occasion when a similar protest was made, Quesada sent up reconnaissance aircraft to provide Bradley with two sets of photographs of the battlefield. One showed the area behind the German lines, with its empty roads and utter absence of visible movement. The other showed the Allied zone, crawling with nose-to-tail armour and transport convoys, uncamouflaged dumps in the fields, shipping unloading off the beaches. Bradley took the point.

Another personal venture by Quesada was more controversial. During one of Eisenhower’s visits to France in mid-June, the airman got up from a staff meeting, declaring that he was off on a fighter sweep. In an impulsive moment, the Supreme Commander asked boyishly: ‘Can I come?’ Equally impulsive, Quesada agreed. Within the hour he took off in his Mustang with Eisenhower crammed behind his seat in place of a 70-gallon fuel tank. ‘Once we were airborne, I began to realize, first, that he didn’t fit – I told him that I would have to turn the plane over if we were hit – and then that perhaps this was wrong.’ A few miles over the lines, Quesada aborted the sweep and took the general home. This spared neither himself nor Eisenhower severe reprimands from Washington for the risk they had taken.

For aircraft, as for so much else among the Allied armies, the abundance of resources was staggering. Quesada controlled 37 squadrons of aircraft, with enough reserves to ensure that losses could be replaced immediately. He was irked to see six Lightnings on an airstrip one morning marked as unserviceable, because their canopies had been damaged by pilots forgetting to lock them down on take-off. It was the type of damage that could be repaired in hours by an air force in real need of fighters, ‘like putting an automobile on the junk pile with a flat tire’. Pilots flew three or four days a week, perhaps five missions a day that might be as brief as 20 minutes, living between sorties in much the same mud and discomfort as the ground forces. The Normandy dust contained a hard silicon-like material that played havoc with aircraft engines running up on improvised strips. Filters were hastily designed and fitted to cope with this. ‘I was never consciously short of pilots or aircraft,’ said Quesada. British fliers were acutely nervous of their eager but inexperienced American counterparts, who were prone to attack any aircraft in the sky that they could not immediately identify. RAF Typhoons found that being attacked by Mustangs or Thunderbolts was not an occasional freak, but an alarmingly regular occurrence. So too was being fired upon by the Royal Navy over the Channel.

Despite the resentment felt towards the air forces by those Allied units which had suffered from ‘short bombing’, the pilots earned the respect of most troops who watched them in action. Well-controlled close air support became, by late summer, one of the most formidable weapons in the hands of a unit which found itself bogged down. Yet for the fliers, ground attack enjoyed none of the glamour of high-level fighter interception, and was infinitely more hazardous. Like all low-level flying, it required unrelenting concentration and precision. A New Zealand Typhoon pilot described a morning over Normandy:

Swirling clouds of yellow dust hung over the busy roads beneath us, and further to the south-east the battered city of Caen flickered and smouldered under a huge mushroom of pink and black smoke. Southwards, in the region of Villers-Bocage, a furious gun battle was taking place, and to the west, thin streams of coloured tracer spouted into the morning sky before falling away in chains of red-hot clusters. In the more open country the fields were strewn with the bloated carcasses of hundreds of tan and white cattle. Shell craters, bomb holes and burnt-out tanks littered the tortured countryside.

To the south of Potigny we began climbing but streams of light flak came racing towards us. So I hastily sank down again to the comparative safety of the taller trees and hedgerows . . . I caught sight of the object of our early-morning mission. The road was crammed with enemy vehicles – tanks, trucks, half-tracks, even horse-drawn wagons and ambulances, nose to tail, all pressing forward in a frantic bid to reach cover before the skies once more became alive with the winged death of 2nd Tactical Air Force. As I sped to the head of this mile-long column, hundreds of German troops began spilling out into the road to sprint for the open fields and hedgerows. I zoomed up sharply over a ploughed field where 20 or 30 Germans in close array were running hard for a clump of trees. They were promptly scythed down by a lone Mustang which appeared from nowhere. The convoy’s lead vehicle was a large half-track. In my haste to cripple it and seal the road, I let fly with all eight rockets in a single salvo; I missed but hit the truck that was following. It was thrown into the air along with several bodies, and fell back on its side. Two other trucks in close attendance piled into it.

. . . Within seconds the whole stretch of road was bursting and blazing under streams of rocket and cannon fire. Ammunition wagons exploded like multi-coloured volcanoes. Several teams of horses stampeded and careered wildly across the fields, dragging their broken wagons behind them. Others fell in tangled heaps, or were caught up in the fences and hedges. It was an awesome sight: flames, smoke, bursting rockets and showers of coloured tracer – an army in retreat, trapped and without air protection.18

Quesada believed that his British counterparts never approached tactical air support with enough imagination; for instance, they did not follow the Americans in using radar for the navigational guidance of fighter squadrons rather than merely for defensive purposes. He felt that the RAF was hampered by the incubus of its immense force of Spitfires, superb aircraft for high-level interceptor work, of which there was now almost none, but unsuited to the ground-attack task because of their small 1,000-pound payload and lack of robustness. It was essential for any close-support aircraft to be able to withstand small-arms fire. The British Typhoon carried 2,000 pounds and was a sound ground-attack aircraft, but Quesada much preferred his own Thunderbolts and Mustangs, the former also carrying 2,000 pounds.

A close personal friend of both Spaatz and General Ira Eaker, Quesada would never acknowledge any lack of enthusiasm for the support of ground forces among his USAAF colleagues. Indeed, he argued that it was precisely because of their long-term ambitions for their service that ‘Spaatz saw that it was vital that we should do whatever we could for the land battle – it was always on his mind that after the war we must have an independent air force. We were obsessed by proving our worth.’

Nothing above diminishes the claims of the Allied air forces to have made a vital contribution to the Normandy campaign. The bombers’ execution of the Transport Plan was central to ensuring that the invasion forces won the battle of the build-up. The fighter-bombers’ low-level operations inflicted immense damage upon the German army, above all in the later stages of the campaign. The issue is simply whether, if the leading airmen of Britain and America had devoted themselves earlier and more wholeheartedly to the support of the armies, the air forces could have provided even more effective, perhaps decisive, direct support for the ground offensives. From 1940 to 1942, the humiliations of the British army were consistently attributed to the Luftwaffe’s command of the air. Yet in 1944, when the Allies possessed air forces of a strength Goering’s pilots had never dreamed of, the German army continued to mount a formidable resistance until broken in bloody ground action.

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