Military history

Airmen

Disagreements, even full-blooded quarrels, between the services were not uncommon either in Britain or America in the Second World War. But none generated more heat and passion or diverted so much attention from the struggle to defeat the Germans than that surrounding the proper use of the Allies’ vast air power in 1944.1 In the First World War, aircraft were directly controlled by the armies and navies of their respective nations. In April 1918, British airmen successfully escaped the thraldom of the generals and admirals to form the Royal Air Force. In America, air power remained under the direction of the two senior services, but at no time from the 1920s onwards did the nation’s leading fliers lose sight of their ambition of independence. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that, between the wars, the air forces of both countries embraced Mitchell, Douhet and Trenchard’s theories of strategic air power, which claimed the bomber unsupported to be a war-winning weapon, because of their passionate anxiety to discover a role for themselves beyond that of mere flying eyes and artillery for the older services. Their enthusiasm for strategic air power critically hampered the development of close air-ground support techniques such as the Luftwaffe took for granted from its inception. Such was the obsession of the RAF with its bomber force that during the rush to re-arm in the last years before war, the Air Ministry would have built far too few fighters to enable the Battle of Britain to be won, had it not been compelled to switch emphasis by civilian politicians more concerned with the defence of their own country than with demonstrating the potential of bombing an enemy.

Yet Britain’s inability to strike directly against Germany with her ground forces between 1940 and 1944 thrust upon the RAF the opportunity to play a role of unique strategic importance. The programme for the creation of a vast heavy bomber force, conceived in the days of despair in 1940, had borne full fruit for the airmen by 1944. Each night, up to a thousand British aircraft set off for the industrial cities of Germany, to pour explosives upon them with the aid of the most sophisticated technology that the nation possessed. Air Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, the formidable Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, had become one of the best-known and most fiercely independent war leaders in Britain, waging his campaign with implacable determination, convinced that by this means alone Germany could be beaten, without recourse to a major land campaign. When the Casablanca conference committed the Allied air forces to POINTBLANK, a bombing programme specifically designed to pave the way for the invasion of Europe, Harris paid lip service, but in reality pursued uninterrupted his campaign of ‘area bombing’ against the cities of Germany. ‘It is my firm belief,’ he wrote to Portal on 12 August 1943, ‘that we are on the verge of a final showdown in the bombing war . . . I am certain that given average weather and concentration on the main job, we can push Germany over by bombing this year.’1 In January 1944, almost unbelievably, Harris declared his conviction that, given continued concentration upon his existing policy, Germany could be driven to ‘a state of devastation in which surrender is inevitable’ by 1 April.

By day, meanwhile, the American Fortresses pursued their precision bombing campaign guided by General Carl ‘Tooey’ Spaatz, an airman who disagreed with Harris about the best means of defeating Germany from the air, but made common cause with the Englishman’s commitment to independent air power. The American official historians wrote of the USAAF that it was:

young, aggressive, and conscious of its growing power. It was guided by the sense of a special mission to perform. It had to justify the expenditure of billions of dollars and the use of almost a third of the army’s manpower. It sought for itself, therefore, both as free a hand as possible to prosecute the air war in accordance with its own ideas, and the maximum credit for its performance.2

As the directors of OVERLORD gathered the reins of command into their hands in the first months of 1944, one of their foremost concerns was to ensure that the full weight of Allied air power was available to provide whatever support they felt need of as the campaign unfolded. Eisenhower concluded early on that the ‘bomber barons’’ promise of goodwill would not be sufficient: the lure of their own convictions had often proved too strong in the past. Even more serious, both the British and American bomber chiefs had been proclaiming for months that they considered OVERLORD a vast, gratuitous strategic misjudgement, rendered wholly unnecessary by their own operations. Harris bombarded the Air Ministry with minutes declaring that ‘clearly the best and indeed the only efficient support which Bomber Command can give to OVERLORD is the intensification of attacks on suitable industrial centres in Germany . . .’3 Spaatz’s diary note of the critical 21 January Supreme Commander’s meeting at which the OVERLORD framework was laid down declared only:

Nothing of note from an Air point of view except launching of OVERLORD will result in the calling off of bomber effort on Germany proper from one to two months prior to invasion. If time is as now contemplated, there will be no opportunity to carry out any Air operations of sufficient intensity to justify the theory that Germany can be knocked out by Air power. Operations in connection with OVERLORD will be child’s play compared to present operations . . .4

As late as April 1944, the minutes of a meeting between Spaatz and General Hoyt Vandenburg, American Deputy Air Commander-in-Chief for OVERLORD, recorded:

General Spaatz stated that he feared that the Allied air forces might be batting their heads against a stone wall in the Overlord operation. If the purpose of Overlord is to seize and hold advanced air bases, this purpose is no longer necessary since the strategic air forces can already reach all vital targets with fighter cover . . . It is of paramount importance the Combined Bomber Offensive continue without interruption and the proposed diversion of the 8th air force to support of Overlord is highly dangerous. Much more effective would be the combined operation on strategic missions under one command of the 8th, 15th and 9th air forces. If this were done, the highly dangerous Overlord operation could be eliminated. It might take somewhat longer, but would be surer, whereas the proposed cross-channel operation is highly dangerous and the outcome is extremely uncertain. A failure of Overlord will have repercussions which may well undo all of the effects of the strategic bombing efforts to date. Another reason that Overlord is no longer necessary is because of the relative success of the use of H2X [blind bombing radar equipment] operations over or in an overcast . . . Hence, the one heretofore great impediment to the strategic mission (i.e. weather) has been largely overcome and once more is an argument against mounting the Overlord operation.

If I were directing the overall strategic operations, I would go into Norway, where we have a much greater chance of ground force success and where I believe Sweden would come in with us. Why undertake a highly dubious operation in a hurry when there is a surer way to do it as just outlined? It is better to win the war surely than to undertake an operation which has really great risks . . .

In discussing future operations with General Vandenburg, Gen. Spaatz stated that all experience in Africa has indicated the inability of American troops to cross areas heavily defended by land mines, and that the beaches of Overlord are certain to be more heavily mined than any area in Africa . . . Gen. Vandenburg cited his dissatisfaction with the plans for use of airborne troops. He stated that he has made protest a matter of record in all meetings with the Supreme Commanders [sic].5

This document vividly reveals, first, that two months before D-Day there were still Allied officers in high commands who were deeply sceptical about the entire operation; and, second, the messianic conviction with which the airmen opposed their own participation. It is against the background of opinions such as these that the struggles between the ground and air force commanders in the summer of 1944 must be viewed. It is a tragic reflection of the extent to which strategic bombing doctrine had distorted the thinking of so many senior air force officers in Britain and America that, on the very eve of OVERLORD, they could not grasp that this was the decisive operation of the war in the west, to which every other ambition must be subordinate.

After intense argument between London and Washington, confused by British political reluctance to surrender the independence of Bomber Command, Eisenhower had his way: direction of all the Allied air forces was placed in his hands for as long as the Chiefs of Staff deemed necessary. After a further dispute, aggravated by Churchill’s fears about the level of French civilian casualties, the air forces embarked upon the huge programme of transport bombing of French rail junctions and river crossings which was to play such a critical role in restricting the movement of German reinforcements after D-Day. Its scale was intensified by the need to attack targets relating to the entire length of the Channel coast, lest concentration westwards reveal the focus of Allied intentions. Its success was a tribute to the qualities and training of the Allied aircrew, whatever the opinions of their commanders. The cost – 12,000 French and Belgian lives – was substantially lower than Churchill had feared.

Yet if the documents quoted above reveal good reasons for the ground force commanders’ mistrust of the airmen, it is ironic that in the spring of 1944 Spaatz achieved one of the decisive victories of the war for the Allies, and embarked upon the course that was to lead him to a second. In fulfilment of POINTBLANK, his Fortresses and Liberators had for months been attacking Germany’s aircraft factories, at a cost which compelled the Americans to accept the need for long-range fighter escorts for their daylight operations. By one of the most extraordinary paradoxes of the war, the bombing of the factories achieved only limited impact upon German aircraft production; but the coming of the marvellous Mustang P-51 long-range fighter to the skies over Germany inflicted an irreversible defeat upon the Luftwaffe, unquestionably decisive for OVERLORD. In January 1944 the Germans lost 1,311 aircraft from all causes. This figure rose to 2,121 in February and 2,115 in March. Even more disastrous than lost fighters, the Luftwaffe’s trained pilots were being killed far more quickly than they could be replaced, with the direction of the air force in the enfeebled hands of Goering. By March the Americans were consciously attacking targets with the purpose of forcing the Germans to defend them. By June, the Germans no longer possessed sufficient pilots and aircraft to mount more than token resistance to the Allied invasion of France.

In May, Spaatz began attacking Germany’s synthetic oil plants. The results of even a limited bombing programme, revealed after the war, were awe-inspiring. Employing only 11.6 per cent of his bomber effort in June, 17 per cent in July, 16.4 per cent in August, he brought about a fall in German oil production from 927,000 tons in March to 715,000 tons in May, and 472,000 tons in June. The Luftwaffe’s aviation spirit supply fell from 180,000 tons in April to 50,000 tons in June, and 10,000 tons in August. It seems perfectly possible that had the scale of the German fuel crisis been perceived by the allied chiefs of staff and the American airmen been encouraged to pursue their oil bombing campaign with vigour through the summer of 1944, Germany could have been defeated by the end of the year.

Yet it was Spaatz’s tragedy that, by the spring of 1944, his own credibility and that of the other bomber chiefs had fallen low in the eyes of the Allied high command – hardly surprising in the light of their past broken promises and wild declarations of strategic opinion. Claims of Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed had so often proved fantastic that even other leaders of the Allied air forces found it impossible to credit the extent of the Mustang’s victory. For that matter, Spaatz himself remained apprehensive about the Luftwaffe’s capabilities. Plans were laid for huge forces of fighters to cover the invasion, in expectation of a great battle for air supremacy over the beachhead. SHAEF estimates suggested that the Germans might still be capable of putting as many as 300 fighters and 200 bombers into the air over Normandy in a single operation. Leigh-Mallory feared that the Luftwaffe might employ new pathfinder techniques to mount night operations over the British south coast ports. Only on D-Day, when a mere 319 Luftwaffe sorties were flown, was the truth suspected; in the weeks that followed, as enemy air activity over Normandy remained negligible, it was confirmed. The critical air battle had been fought and won by the Americans over Germany weeks before the first Allied soldiers waded ashore.

The American P-51 Mustang fighter made its greatest contribution to Allied victory by winning the battle for air supremacy over Germany before D-Day. In its original form, powered by the Allison engine, the fighter performed disappointingly. But when fitted with the great Rolls-Royce Merlin, it was transformed into one of the most remarkable aircraft of the war, capable of flying to Berlin and back with long-range drop tanks, and outperforming almost every Luftwaffe opponent when it got there. It was also employed over Normandy in interceptor and ground-attack roles. Normally armed with six .5 machine-guns, it possessed a top speed of 475 mph, and a ceiling of 42,000 feet.

In the months before the invasion, however, it was the level of mutual dissent between the Allied air chiefs which drove Tedder and Eisenhower to the brink of despair. Beyond the debate about the employment of the bombers, British and American airmen united in their hostility to Leigh-Mallory, the appointed Air Commander-in-Chief for OVERLORD. The bomber commanders flatly declined to accept their orders from him and would acknowledge only the mandate of Tedder. The fighter commanders also made clear their dislike of and lack of respect for the Commander-in-Chief. The American Brereton, an officer of limited abilities commanding IXth Air Force, and the New Zealander ‘Mary’ Coningham, commanding the British 2nd Tactical Air Force, united in their antagonism to Leigh-Mallory, while General Elwood R. ‘Pete’ Quesada, commanding the close-support squadrons under Brereton, was a bewildered spectator of the wrangles: ‘I just didn’t know people at that level behaved like that. Nobody wanted to be under Leigh-Mallory, even the British.’6

The burly Leigh-Mallory had achieved his eminence, and aroused considerable personal animosity, by intriguing successfully in the wake of the Battle of Britain to supplant its victors, Air Marshals Dowding and Park. He had directed Fighter Command – later curiously rechristened Air Defence of Great Britain – ever since, and retained this post while he acted as Air Commander-in-Chief for OVERLORD. His appointment was clearly an error of judgement by Portal, Chief of Air Staff. To his peers, he seemed gloomy and hesitant. Most of the Americans admired Tedder for his cool brain, incisive wit, and ability to rise above petty issues and work without reservation for the Allied cause. ‘Trivia were obnoxious to him,’ said one. ‘Though an airman, he was also a team player. He understood that war is organized confusion.’ But they were irked by Leigh-Mallory’s pessimism and indecision. ‘He didn’t seem to know what he wanted,’ said Quesada. ‘He couldn’t get along with people. He seemed more concerned with preserving his forces than with committing them.’7 Brigadier James Gavin of the US 82nd Airborne returned from his division’s drop in Sicily to work on the plan for D-Day. ‘Now, I want you chaps to tell me how you do this airborne business,’ said Leigh-Mallory indulgently. He listened to them for a time, then said flatly: ‘I don’t think anybody can do that.’ The exasperated Gavin exploded: ‘We just got through doing it in Sicily!’8 At a meeting of the American airmen on 24 March, General Vandenburg asked Spaatz where his personal loyalties were to lie in his role as deputy to Leigh-Mallory. Vandenburg recorded in his diary that: ‘General Spaatz directed that the number one priority was to be the safeguarding of the interests of the American component and suggested that I make this clear to General Eisenhower and ask for his concurrence.’9

At a time, therefore, when everywhere else within the Allied forces great and honourable efforts were being made to ensure that Anglo-American unity was a reality, the senior American airmen in Britain were conspiring – in a manner no more nor less dishonourable than that of some of their RAF counterparts – to defend the sectional interests of their own service. It remains an astonishing feature of the invasion that when it was launched the Allied air chiefs were still unwilling to accept Leigh-Mallory’s orders, still disputed their proper role and employment, had still devoted only minimal thought or effort to close ground support. Forward air control techniques which had been tried and proven in the desert were not introduced in Normandy until weeks after the landings. On D-Day itself, while the Allied tactical air forces made an important contribution, they lacked forward air controllers with the leading troops ashore, who might have eased the problems of the ground battle considerably. It has become an article of faith in the history of the Normandy campaign to pay tribute to Allied air power, which indeed was critical. Yet we shall see below how many weeks elapsed before the organization – not the technology or the skill of the pilots – reached the point at which aircraft could render closely co-ordinated support to ground troops.

In the spring of 1944, the air chiefs dedicated far too much attention to disputes about their own authority and independence, and not nearly enough to considering how best they could work in harmony with the armies beneath them. The post-OVERLORD report from Montgomery’s headquarters declared: ‘The most difficult single factor during the period of planning from the military point of view, was the delay in deciding and setting up the higher headquarters organization of the Allied air force. It is obvious that this delay was entirely an air force matter, and as such in no way the business of the military planners, but the effect was strongly felt in army planning.’10 To the dismay and near-despair of 21st Army Group, the D-Day Air Plan was finally settled only 36 hours before the landings took place.

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