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Allied Tactical Airpower in Normandy

An online outline of British/Commonwealth doctrine for tactical air power in Normandy.
Dedication

Overview

Chapter One:
Background

Chapter Two:
System

Chapter Three:
Problems

Chapter Four:
Practice

Chapter Five:
Assessment

Conclusion

About me

CHAPTER FOUR: OPERATIONAL HISTORY

D-Day: Assault and Lodgement

The history of the Normandy landings and the subsequent campaign is well known. By the time the Normandy campaign began, the Anglo-American forces had already fought, and won, the battle for control of western Europe's skies. This was largely a consequence of the strategic bombing offensive against Germany, which had exhausted the once mighty Luftwaffe, but come D-Day the tactical air forces benefited from this general situation in full measure. This was not taken for granted however, most of the Allies' intial air effort was dedicated to patrolling the invasion area and other essentially defensive misssions.

After the intial assault phase had successfully consolidated a lodgement, the overall air plan envisioned a change in the emphasis to five air tasks (in order of priority):

  • Air superiority;
  • Delaying the arrival of enemy reserves and reinforcements;
  • Direct support to Army troops;
  • Airlift for airborne operations; and
  • Other air transport.

The Overall Air Plan also noted, however, that "A task of major importance will be continual air attacks against key points in the enemy's rail communications leading into the lodgement area ... [and that] enemy road movements ... will be continually harassed." In large part this responsibility fell to the medium bombers of No. 2 Group, who nightly attacked bridges, road and rail choke points, across the whole front.

EPSOM: 26 June

The campaign quickly bogged down, on both sides. The five beaches were consolidated into one beachhead within a week, but many first day objectives were still unreached. The most infamous of those D-Day objectives which was still uncaptured was Caen, stubornly defended by elements of six panzer divisions. In these circumstances, General Montgomery, commanding 21st Army Group, launched Operation EPSOM on 26 June, with the intent of driving past Caen on the west flank. Despite chronically bad weather, 83 Group flew numerous sorties in support of the operation, in particular destroying a German headquarters and concentration of panzers at Carpiquet airfield.

The German response was one of their largest armoured counter-attacks of the campaign. On 29 June 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions attacked into EPSOM's western flank. That day, 83 Group was called in by 2 Brit Army to attack leading elements of the concentrating German armour. SS General Hausser later related how the panzers counter-attack "was scheduled to begin at seven o'clock in the morning but hardly had the tanks assembled when they were attacked by fighter-bombers. This disrupted the troops so much that the attack did not start again till two-thirty in the afternoon."

In part because of these air actions, the Germans' panzer attacks failed to punch through the British lines, but they did bring EPSOM to a halt.

CHARNWOOD: 8 July

The next big effort was Operation CHARNWOOD, another drive in the general direction of Caen. The full gamut of air support was laid for CHARNWOOD, from the fighter-bombers of the Composite groups and 2 Group's medium bombers, to heavy support from Bomber Command. The plan developed at 2 TAF headquarters called for 2 TAF's own resources to attack German positions just in front of the attacking troops, while the heavies from Bomber Command would strike Caen itself.

The heavies' strike on Caen remains controversial to this day. Caen was certainly heavily damaged, very probably the German defences of the area were not.

After much hard fighting, CHARNWOOD did eventually suceed. All of Caen north of the Odon fell into Allied hands on 9 July, although the German remanents succeded in establishing themselves on the south bank.

GOODWOOD: 18 July

After another week of build-up the CHARNWOOD formula was repeated again south of Caen, this time known as GOODWOOD, the largest effort yet which would involve three armoured divisions. Montgomery's hope was that this would "write down" the German panzer forces and prevent them from moving west to the US sector, and generally exhaust the Germans.

By this time, respect for the Germans' defensive abilities was running high within 21st Army Group, and given the strong panzer and anti-tank forces in the area, a difficult fight was envisioned. Air power was seen as key to overcoming this defence, and it was to be laid in full measure. Once again, Bomber Command was to provide intimate support "by similar methods as those employed for the attack on CAEN" by the "destruction" of a cluster of villages south east of Caen. Second TAF's own assets were to be concentrated upon even closer support for the Army, in particular around the CUVERVILLE area. Fire support was seen as the key to suppressing the German mortar and anti-tank defences, and air power was seen as the means to maintaing fire support for the advance as it outran the artillery's range. Air support was thus integral to the plan.

GOODWOOD was not an outstanding Allied success. The British official history maintains that the essential aim of tying down and weakening the German armour was attained, but the advance produced heavy casualities and failed to capture much ground.

SPRING: 25 July

The next effort came on 25 July with the mounting of Operation SPRING, which picked up where GOODWOOD had left off, attempting once again to breack through the German lines south and south east of Caen. This time, no heavy bombers were called in, and at least one Army planning document was of the opinion that "the air aspect of operation SPRING is in the form of a bonus and will only be undertaken if suitable weather conditions prevail."

The preliminary attack by medium bombers from 2 Group on 24 July was largely ineffective because of heavy anti-aircraft fire. The ground operation itself kicked-off at 03:30 in the morning on 25 July, quickly meeting disaster. Close air support was called in to help stabalize the situation, rocket firing typhoons from No 83 Group making a major attack on German armour in front of the Allied troops that evening. Despite these efforts, in the words of the Canadian Army's official historian, the operation "struck a stone wall." The next day it was called off, the troops ordered to dig in where they were.

COBRA: 25 July

On the same day as Canadian troops were mounting SPRING, US troops in the western sector unleashed Operation COBRA, which eventually led to their break-out on that flank. Five days later, after SPRING had petered out still with no breakthrough, 2nd British Army launched Operation BLUECOAT, another attempt to the south east of Caen, in an effort to keep the pressure up on the German defences. Neither of these efforts by 21st Army Group gained much ground, although they did unquestionably tie down and exhaust the main weight of the German's panzer forces. The American 12th Army Group, meanwhile, broke through in the west.

During all of this time, No. 2 Group was mostly absorbed with continuing its efforts to reduce German movement to the battle area. On the night of 27-28 July a maximum effort was ordered from the Group, and they flew against more than a dozen targets, including German concentrations around Bretteville south of Caen, but with most of their effort devoted to transportation targets ranging as far afield as Dijon, some 200 kilometres south east of Paris.

TOTALIZE: 7 August

The next big push from 21st Army Group was Operation TOTALIZE, an effort to break through the fraying German line south of Caen, this time decisively. TOTALIZE was conceived as heavily dependent on air power. A consideration written as part of the planning process noted that one of the "essential conditions of this operation is overwhelming air support[emphasis in original].

Once again, heavy bombers were brought in to provide close support, along with 2 TAF's own resources. The role of the fighter-bombers of 83 and 84 Groups was to be "mainly against opportunity targets as they arise during the day's operations; particular attention being paid to the 12 Pz Div area on the left flank of the main attack."

LÜTTICH

TOTALIZE was launched under cover of darkness, at 2300 hours on 7 August. Coincidently, the Germans had also choose 7 August as the start date for their only major offensive of the campaign, what they called Operation LÜTTICH, and what English language historians generally refer to as the "Mortain counter-attack." This operation, ordered by Hitler personally, concentrated four panzer divisions, the main bulk of the remaining German armour, at the west end of the German line, in an effort to reach Avranches and cut-off the US forces that had broken through. However, Allied intelligence. Almost the full weight of the US 9th Air Force was concentrated against LÜTTICH, and 2nd TAF was also called upon for suport. In all 294 Typhoon sorties were flown against LÜTTICH. The German drive bogged down after only very slight gains.

THE FALAISE GAP

By 10 August both TOTALIZE in the east and LÜTTICH in the west had petered out. This left the German forces in what was now a pocket, and Montgomery ordered renewed efforts to close the pocket and, it was hoped, capture the bulk of German 7th Army, including Panzer Group Eberbach. LÜTTICH having failed so completelly the Germans, meanwhile, switched their attentions to extricating 7th Army by evacuating it through what came to be known as "the Falaise Gap."

On the evening of 12 Aug No. 2 Group's maximum effort was concentrated against all of the transportation means out of the Falaise area, including the Seine crossings, in particular around Elbeuf. The fighter-bombers of 2nd TAF, meanwhile, were concentrating upon shooting up the densely packed columns of retreating Germans, desperately trying to flee through the slowly constricting gap at Falaise.

The Gap was finally closed on 21 August, ending the Normandy campaign with the destruction of the greater part of the German armies in France. Paris was liberated only four days later. However, significant German forces escaped to fight another day, and it would be another long eight months of hard fighting before he eventual German capitulation.


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