Historians have generally ignored the role of the Allied air forces on Jun. 6, 1944. Besides analyzing the Transportation Plan, the Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF) program for destroying the rail yards in France and Belgium, there is little discussion of bomber participation in the invasion. As told by Stephen Bourque in his book D-Day 1944 The deadly failure of Allied heavy bombing on June 6, for more than 75 years, most of the standard works on the Normandy assault have dismissed the Eighth Air Force’s involvement with general comments noting that they overshot their targets. In some cases, historians note that the staff changed the bombing plan to save lives, which General Eisenhower supposedly approved. Meanwhile, aviation historians regale readers with statistics that discuss the grandest bombing raids of the war, such as RAF Bomber Command’s assault on Cologne in May 1942, with 1,046 aircraft, the Eighth Air Force’s assault on Berlin in March 1945, with 1,221 heavy bombers, or both air forces attacking Dresden in February 1945, with 1,296 aircraft. Yet these raids pale in comparison with the efforts of the US Air Force and RAF on D-Day.
The first combined assault that morning against coastal defenses, with over 2,800 aircraft from Bomber Command and the US Eighth and Ninth Air Forces, was the largest of the war, by any measure. By individual service, Bomber Command’s 1,300 aircraft and the Eighth Air Force’s 1,350 bombers were their most extensive assaults of the war. This incredible demonstration of Allied bombardment capability did not end with that first wave of aircraft. From the evening of Jun. 5/6 to the following night, more than 5,000 heavy bombers attacked targets in support of the ground forces landing on the Normandy invasion beaches. All day long, thousands of Allied bombers continued to hit towns, bridges, and rail yards across France. For example, at 1330hrs, 56 B-24 bombers from Hodges’ 2nd Division arrived over Caen. Without warning, they bombed the center of the city, where citizens were at the market gathering supplies to take to their hiding places. Within a few moments, over 400 of them were dead and another thousand wounded or traumatized. Bombers from the Ninth Air Force returned at 1630hrs, while Bomber Command joined the fray later that night. From Caen alone, there were over 1,741 deaths, thousands more wounded, and still thousands more joining groups of refugees trying to flee to safety. For the next week, Allied bombers would continue to destroy French cities to prevent German troops from using their roads. Why, then, has so little historical attention been focused on this massive aviation effort?
Firstly, the mission was not in line with Harris, Spaatz, and Doolittle’s doctrinal focus. US and Royal Air Force historians and publicists have played down their participation in this part of the war. Operating within the theoretical framework created by Douhet, Trenchard, and Mitchell, they sought to take the fight to German industry and the country’s population. These heavy bomber commanders seriously believed they could end the war without placing a single Allied soldier in France, other than as a mop-up force after Hitler and his regime surrendered. Supporting the invasion was not a welcome diversion, especially for the American commanders, who were determined to create an independent air force after the war. Their participation in the Joint Fire Plan was precisely the kind of role they did not wish to perform: serving as the Army’s long-range artillery.
A second reason for not celebrating the air forces’ bombing in Normandy is because they killed French citizens, precisely the people the Allies were seeking to liberate. We have already noted that the initial bombardment resulted in the death of hundreds of civilians, the wounding of many others, and the destruction of much of their property. By the end of the day, Allied bombers would kill over 1,300 civilians in the département of Calvados, plus another 725 in the Nord in support of Fortitude. The physical damage was significant, as the historic centers of places such as Caen, Lisieux, Falaise, St Lô, and Coutances became piles of rubble. Villages such as Norrey-en-Bessen, Aunty-sur-Oden, and Condé-sur-Noireau ceased to exist. By the time of the Allied breakout from Normandy in July, over 8,000 civilians had perished, most of them at the hands of Allied bombers. We should also remember that in most instances, few Germans were present when the bombs tumbled from the sky, since the heavy bombers struck beyond the front lines. It is no wonder the Allied bombing effort in support of Operation Neptune has received so little official attention.
In its official assessment, Eighth Air Force deputy operations chief Col Walter Todd noted:
The immediate beach areas showed only limited evidence of bombing damage as was to be expected in view of the extra precautionary measures taken to avoid short bomb falls when the overcast bombing technique was used. [Those precautions included the arbitrary time delays on bomb releases.] Areas behind the beachhead, ranging from 300 to 400 yards to three miles revealed extensive evidence of concentrated bombing patterns. The principal contribution made by this bombing effort was the demoralization of enemy troops and the disruption of signal and transport communications, which hindered the deployment of immediate reserves.
However, despite such comments, this was not the mission; they were supposed to neutralize the beach defenses. The final reason for officially ignoring this massive display of airpower, therefore, is that it generally failed. Only on Utah Beach, where IX Bomber Command flew low and delivered its bombs on target, did airpower accomplish the tactical wishes of the ground commanders. In contrast, 1,300 Lancaster and Halifax bombers were incapable of neutralizing ten coastal artillery batteries that morning. Allied warships dueled for much of Jun. 6 with German gun crews that survived the air assault. In the end, it was the firepower from the US and Royal Navies that put these installations out of action. Meanwhile, 1,400 Liberators and Fortresses were incapable of inflicting any damage on 45 defensive positions. Very few Germans perished or suffered wounds under the almost 3,000 tons of bombs the Eighth Air Force deposited along the Normandy beaches – a spectacular indication of failure. And while the bombardment certainly caused many to lapse into shock or become disoriented, sufficient German gunners and infantry handled their weapons, causing needless casualties among the landing forces. Much of the blame for this failure rests with a handful of colonels at Eighth Air Force headquarters. These planners failed to consider in their calculations the infantry commanders’ desires and the fate of the soldiers wading ashore. Despite their later arguments, the staff changed the plan, not for operational purposes, but to prevent potential bad publicity. Passing off this change by alleging that the Supreme Commander approved it only accentuates one’s disdain for this irresponsible decision.
The bombardment of France by American and British aircraft is a topic that historians have long ignored. But rather than ending the discussion with the D-Day bombing, it is much better to use it as the place to start an examination of what happened and why.
D-Day 1944 The deadly failure of Allied heavy bombing on June 6 is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Edouard A. Groult, U.S. Air Force, Royal Air Force
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