D-Day Air Support

Before I ask this question I guess I’ll have to admit that I don’t know as much about the D-Day invasion as I pretend to when I recommend Saving Private Ryan.

Anyway, what kind of air support was there for the landing troops? From what I can remember from history specials, movies and the few books I’ve perused on the matter, there wasn’t much. Or was there, and I just didn’t get the real poop?

I was playing an aircraft war game on my computer and one of the missions was to provide air support for D-Day - blowing up some armored vehicles and shooting down a few planes. What I’m wondering is - why didn’t the allies send over every bomber they had to kick the crap out of the Nazi’s before they sent over the invasion force.

Or did they?


They did, and most of them missed. Bad weather, I believe.

Well, there are several reasons why the beachfront wasn’t saturated with bombs the morning of the invasion.

1.) As Alessan pointed out, weather. The June 6th invasion came just after a major storm front had passed through (the Allies, coming from the west, knew that the front was about to end; the Axis, being to the east of Britain, didn’t know how much longer the storm would last). Needless to say, it’s a lot harder to do bombing in inclement weather, especially in severe inclement weather.

2.) Surprise. The Allies had put a great deal of effort into convincing the Germans that the invasion point would be somewhere else. They had constructed decoy bases, they had sent as much false information through double-agents a possible, and generally they succeeded in convincing the Nazi command that Cherbourg would not be the target of the assault. Why waste that effort by putting all of your bombs on Cherbourg, thus proving that it’s where you plan to land?

3.) Better targets. Much of the Allied bombing raids were not aimed at specific front-line military targets; rather, they were aimed at railroad lines and supply points. The idea was to keep the German troops from being able to re-deploy and gather their force at the invasion point once it was revealed. And here, they had a great deal of success- many of the Nazi troops that arrived to back up the initial defenses were exhausted from walking and undersupplied in food and ammo.

4.) Lack of friendly fire. Dropping bombs and making strafing runs over such a tiny target as a strip of beach just begs to have a couple of bombs accidentally strike your main force.

You read my mind, Jack. I too was wondering about this while watching SPR this weekend. John is right in that much o the preliminary bombardment fell too far behind the beach because of the weather, but once the Omaha landings ran into trouble, you’d think that more close-in air support would have been called in. I’ve read that the escorting destroyers risked running aground to bring the German positions under direct fire, but where were the fighters?

There were no laser guided smart bombs back in 1944 so the chances of planes being able to knock out the concrete bunkers without taking out a large chunk of friendly forces at the same time were pretty close to nil. Keep in mind that the bunkers were built to withstand a long and severe naval bombardment. An infantry frontal assualt with a lot of grenades, flamethrowers and those tube guns (can’t remember the name of those…) was the only way to defeat these things with 1944 technology.

It’d be a cinch nowadays of course.

I also think geography played a role as well, since Omaha beach had that high cliff just in from shore. I think the other D-Day beachs were flatter than thus were a lot easier to take via a frontal assault. The cliffs made the bunkers that much more impregnable to 1940’s era artillery.

No laser guided weapons but the Germans succesfully deployed radio controlled glider bombs, especially in the Meditteranean where they sank several ships and damaged HMS Warspite so badly that B turret was rendered inoperable for the rest of the war.

Those gun turrets weighed over 2000 tons apiece and had armour plate over 24inch thick but that glider bomb put one out of commission, even shore defences would have hard a very hard time dealing with that.

On top of that the British had the ‘Tallboy’ bomb designed by Barnes Wallis, the same one who invented the bouncing bomb.
This bome weighed around 5tons and was desigend to spin on descent making it more accurate and very much faster falling, far more so than a normal freefall device.

The Tallboy was used to sink the Tirpitz and it was so devastating that it blew away the floor of the mooring she was at making the water deep enough to capsize her. One bomb went clean through her.

The same bombs were used to destroy the sub mooring shelters at St Nazaire, and these were very well protected agianst air attack.

The Allied air forces helped immensely on D-Day: not so much in ground support, for the reasons already given by John Corrado, but in air superiority. The Luftwaffe were reduced to putting less than 100 fighters up on 6 June, and only mounted 22 shipping attack sorties late on in the day. If the Luftwaffe had been able to mount any serious ground attacks, the outcome might have been a lot bloodier for the Allies. Air superiority (thanks mainly to US P-51s) was the single achievement of the Allied air forces in the entire Normandy campaign.

The air support over the next few weeks was much less effective. Although air attacks on advancing German reinforcements or counter-attacks did cause panic and damage to many units, the Allied air forces greatly exaggerated their abilities. Poor weather and an intense dislike of ground attack missions by many pilots (both because it was seen as “beneath” them and because it was far, far more dangerous than air superiority missions) hampered many raids. 2nd SS Panzer Division, 21st Panzer Division and the Panzer Lehr Division suffered remarkably low casualties from air attacks as they advanced to the front line.

Both British and US air force officers were astonishingly opposed to ground support missions - they hated the idea of being “flying artillery” for the armies. As a result, they never really worked closely in hand with the troops on the ground, with tragic consequences. Operation Goodwood (the British and Canadian attempt to seal off Caen and head for Falaise) had no air support after the sole RAF liaison officer was killed - the RAF would not allow ground troops access to radios to communicate directly with aircraft. US ground troops only gained access to radios after the commander of 9th US Air Force personally intervened (Pete Quesada, perhaps the best of the Allied air commanders).

The Germans also learned to fire smoke markers at Allied troops to confuse Allied aircraft, while American pilots often attacked British Typhoons in confusion. Also, relations between army and air forces weren’t helped by the constant risk of “friendly fire” or “short bombing”. The 30th US Division suffered 750 casualties in Allied air raids on 24 July, including the commanding officer.

Also, it was considered a lot more important to have the air drop instead. Three divisions on the ground before anyone hit the beaches proved to be most confusing and disruptive for the Germans. In fact, for awhile they thought Normandy was experiencing a major bombing raid and the paratroopers coming in were thought to be bailed-out aircrews. Fighter support, like naval artillery support, was sporadic throughout the day because reliable communications were nearly impossible. The naval gunners had the benefit of line-of-sight signallers from shore.

After the beachhead was secured, the Allies did try to combine massive bomber-raids with infantry assault. I believe one of the first attempts was Operation Goodwood, one of Montgomery’s attempts to take Caen. Most of the bombardiers added in a little “padding” for fear of hitting the assembled allied troops, but some bomb sticks also fell short. As a result, the British and Canadian troops were put into some disarray, while the majority of the bombardment fell half a kilometer or more behind the German positions. That’s not to say there wasn’t some success. Killing a Tiger was never easy, but 500 lb. bomb near misses tended to flip them on their backs. The operation was a disaster.

However, it was tried again, this time by the Americans. Operation Cobra used 1500 bombers to soften up the German lines. Again, most of the bombs fell into the German rear areas, and the massive cratering actually held up the American advance. However, some accounts claim that the survivors of the bombardment were dazed and ineffective–and there was nobody left behind them, if there ever had been. The breakout of Cobra eventually led to the entrapment of the Germans in the Falaise Pocket, where a spate of good weather facilitated an aerial destruction so devastating that the smell of dead bodies was almost overwhelming to low-flying pilots.

By the end of the war the 9th Air Force, created exclusively for ground support, was a highly efficient and devastatingly effective tool that wreaked havoc wherever they went, weather permitting. That was after a lot of trial and error.

As said in earlier posts, the American and British air forces had a bias against being used for front-line air support. Before WWII, advocates of air power were entranced with the idea of strategic air war. Some even believed, based on the trench stalemate of the first War, that strategic air war would be the only effective means of warfare in the future! So by the late 1930’s, the officers commanding the American and British air arms were the people who’d been ardently pushing for such a strategic role for years. They belived that strategic bombing was an air force’s primary purpose. Interdiction (what we’d now call theater) bombing was grudgingly acknowledged as maybe necessary as part of the mopping up campaign, while infantry support wasn’t even on the menu.

World War II of course refuted much of the military planners’ prewar assumptions. Strategic bombers proved to be far more vulnerable and far less effective then their advocates had hoped. And although it took a while for the vital ground/air coordination to be developed, the value of air support was finally proven.

In short, four years in the school of Hard Knox finally taught even the generals what worked and what didn’t.