The ongoing debate over the role of Bomber Command in WW II generally ignores the contribution made to the direct defeat of the German army. If the role of heavy bombers in Normandy is discussed the emphasis is on the bombing of Caen or the casualties inflicted on our own troops by short bombing. The reality is that Bomber Command and the United States 8th Air Force played a major role in the Allied victory in Normandy, a role long overdue for recognition.The idea of using heavy bombers in close support of the land battle developed in mid-June 1944 when the stalemate in front of Caen and the shortage of artillery ammunition led Chief Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory to propose an “air bombardment behind which the army might advance.” Genuine differences of opinion as well as the personality clashes that plagued the British High Command aborted this proposal, but when Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery planned Operation Charnwood–the assault on Caen–he requested and quickly received the assistance of Bomber Command.
Air Marshal Arthur Harris was willing to co-operate, but on his own terms. As he had repeatedly explained, his men had been trained to fly at night and each aircraft operated “individually, navigating by prescribed routes to the neighborhood of their objective under conditions in which no details of the ground can generally be seen.” Each aircraft bombed on pyrotechnical markers placed on or near the objectives by Pathfinder aircraft and if necessary corrections were made by the master bomber. It involved grave risks to ask aircrew trained for such missions to locate and identify ground targets in close proximity to our own troops.
Harris wanted the army to understand that the pilot in a Lancaster or Halifax bomber had a very limited view of the ground as did the navigator, “a machine minder and plotter who spends most of his time in a cabin.” The navigator’s job was to determine the position of the aircraft using electronic aids as well as dead reckoning. The only crew member who could actually see the ground was the air bomber who had limited training and little experience in the difficult art of map reading with reference to the ground rushing beneath him. If the heavy bomber groups were to provide close support the chances of short bombings and totally misplaced concentrations would have to be expected.
With Charnwood, Bomber Command agreed to a plan that involved 467 bombers, including most of RCAF 6 Group. The target, “four map squares”, including the northwest quarter of the city of Caen was known to be well inside the ring of fortified villages and farms that encircled the city. However, Bomber Command had insisted on a bomb line 6,000 yards from the nearest Allied troops. Much attention has been focused on the decision to bomb Caen as part of the battle, but it should be remembered that the city was bombed and shelled repeatedly throughout June and July for less immediate reasons than on July 7.
The other oft repeated comment is that the bombers did little to help the capture of the city and may have hindered the advance of British and Canadian troops by blocking streets with rubble. Of course it also helped persuade Field Marshal Erwin Rommel that there was no possibility of reinforcing the 12th SS Panzer Division that was being ground into little pieces by the Allied assault. What mattered most to Montgomery and Harris is that for over an hour bombers had identified and hit a 1,000-yard-wide rectangle with virtually no spill over. They concluded that bomber crews who were well briefed could provide accurate close support.
Montgomery’s scientific adviser, Brigadier Basil Schonland, asked his operational research section to study the results of the bombing and make recommendations. Their report, which was ready in time to influence the planning of the next offensive, noted that the major impact of the bombing was to raise the spirits of our troops while lowering the enemy’s morale. It was therefore essential to take risks with the bomb line and avoid the use of delayed fuses that created larger craters, unless massive destruction was more important than rapid advance.
An elaborate bombing program was devised for Operation Goodwood, the British armored blitzkrieg of July 18, 1944, and Atlantic–the code-name for the Canadian portion of the operation. Christopher Evans, a young air historian who has written a detailed account of Bomber Command’s role in Goodwood, argues the bombing achieved almost all of its objectives. The weakness of the plan was the absence of a second, equally powerful onslaught the following day.
The targets were arranged in a complex U-shaped pattern. The industrial zone of Caen on the south bank of the Orne and the stone villages on the left flank of the tank corridor were to be destroyed with 1,000-pound, delayed fuse bombs. Mosquitoes of 8 Pathfinder Force employing Oboe, the navigation system based on radio beams, marked the targets with red smoke markers dropped from 22,000 feet. Behind them, flying into morning sun, the master and deputy master bombers corrected for wind drift dropping yellow target indicators. Finally, the Halifaxes and Lancasters approached the targets at heights of between 6,500 and 9,500 feet. The weather was clear and in slightly over 30 minutes the bombs were gone, leaving unbelievable destruction behind. Six of the 1,014 aircraft that took part in the operation were shot down.
For the 3rd Canadian Division, entering its sixth week of exhausting combat, the task of clearing the factories, railway yards and steel mills of Colombelles and Vaucelles had seemed a daunting prospect. For 8th Bde, which was to lead off, memories of German resistance at Carpiquet were all too fresh, but the sight of the bombers and the evidence of their power inspired men to believe that this apparently impossible task could be carried out.
The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada on the left flank reached Giberville and took more than 200 prisoners from a totally demoralized German Luftwaffe division. Le Régiment de la Chaudière faced much tougher opposition centred on a chateau that had not been bombed. And so a new artillery fire plan was required to help overcome resistance. The North Shore (N.B.) Regt. could not move against the steelworks until early evening and it was close to midnight before 9th Bde. entered Vaucelles to link up with the Regina Rifles Regt. which had crossed the canal from Caen. The Germans had intended to defend the industrial suburbs to the last man, hoping to draw the Canadians into the kind of street fighting that cost attackers so dearly. Instead, the southern part of Caen was captured in less than a day.
The bombing was equally successful in the British sector where German formations were so thoroughly shaken that many units surrendered en masse. The companies of 22nd Panzer Regt. were destroyed along with 20 of their tanks, including some Tigers that were flipped on their backs by the force of the explosions.
All contemporary accounts of Goodwood agree that the Royal Air Force allowed the army to stage its initial breakthrough, but by the next day the Germans recovered and blunted the armored advance with their superior tanks and anti-tank weaponry. When Goodwood ended on July 21, Allied generals were convinced the heavy bombers were the key to overcoming German defensive superiority in Normandy. The enemy was equally impressed. Field Marshal Gunther von Kluge recorded his reaction shortly before the operation was over. “The psychological effect on the fighting forces, especially the infantry, of such a mass of bombs, raining down upon them with all the force of elemental nature, is a factor which must be given serious consideration…. I am able to report that the front has been held intact until now…. However…the moment is fast approaching when this overtaxed front line is bound to break up. And when the enemy once reaches the open country a properly co-ordinated command will be almost impossible, because of the insufficient mobility of our troops.”
The operational research section confirmed this view, noting the accuracy of the concentrations and the evidence of enemy demoralization that lasted for several hours after the bombing had ended. For the U.S. 8th Air Force preparing to attack in close support of the American army at Saint Lô, the RAF achievement was a real confidence booster. If a bomber force trained for night operations could strike with precise accuracy, surely the daylight “precision bombers” of the U.S. Army Air Force could do no less.
Unfortunately, the bombing in support of Operation Cobra, General Omar Bradley’s carefully planned breakout battle, was far less accurate. The American soldiers who had withdrawn 1,000 yards north of the main east-west highway as a safety measure, frantically dug in as bombs crashed onto their positions on July 24, when the operation was postponed, and July 25 when it went ahead. Despite the serious and demoralizing losses to “friendly fire”, 90 per cent of the aircraft bombed accurately and this was the key to Cobra’s early success.
For Operation Bluecoat on July 31, Montgomery asked Bomber Command and the U.S. 8th Air Force to support his plan to hurl 2nd British Army into the fight on the American flank. Both air forces agreed to attack “likely points of resistance” in the later phases of the attack, leaving the artillery to shoot the troops onto their initial objectives. The operational research team reported that the Bluecoat bombing was generally accurate and effective.
The decision makers at 21st Army Group were now convinced that heavy bombers could be used consistently in close support of the army. Harris was not particularly happy with this conclusion. He noted it had taken a 1,000 tons of bombs to get the army forward one mile. “At this rate it will take 600,000 tons to get them to Berlin.”
Harris took great delight in making such provocative statements, but in fact Bomber Command co-operated with the army throughout the balance of the campaign.
For Operation Totalize–the Canadian offensive towards Falaise–both air forces were available. The RAF agreed to a night attack after Harris saw the results of a target-marking experiment that utilized red smoke shells. Unfortunately, only one of the villages targeted for destruction was squarely hit. The U.S. 8th Air Force attack, designed to assist the armor in the open country north of Falaise was marred by the bombing of Canadian and Polish units well short of the bomb line. Just 24 of the 492 American bombers made targeting errors, but 65 men were killed and 250 wounded. Unfortunately, the enemy was not occupying most of the positions bombed accurately and the effort was largely wasted.
First Cdn. Army was fighting with its battalions at half strength and crews were desperately welding extra tank tracks to all their Shermans. It was quite prepared to accept these errors and the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe–Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower–was asked to provide heavy bomber support on a very large scale for Operation Tractable, the final push to Falaise. Bomber Command carried out this operation without American involvement, but a large number of bombers, many ironically from 6 Group of the Royal Canadian Air Force, bombed short. This tragedy, which was similar in scale to the errors in Totalize, might have put an end to the use of heavy bombers on the battlefield were it not for the intervention of Gen. Harry Crerar. He got on well with Harris, and resisted the temptation of telling the air force how it should conduct its operations. He also did his best to ensure that the press recognized the contribution the air forces were making. After Tractable, Crerar wrote to Harris thanking him for his willing co-operation and noting: “I remain a very strong advocate of the use of heavy bombers in closely integrated support of the army…by day as well as night.” Crerar had good reasons for his optimism. In Tractable, 90 per cent of the aircraft had bombed accurately and a number of enemy strongpoints were obliterated. In the wide open rolling country north of Falaise the neutralization of a dozen key anti-tank positions spelled the differences between success and failure.
During September 1944, Bomber Command continued to co-operate closely with 1st Cdn. Army. For Operation Wellhit, the battle of Boulogne, the heavies were allotted a major role. There were only two brigades available to capture a city defended by an equal number of men protected by concrete. The keystone of the enemy position was Mont- Lambert which overlooked the entire battlefield. 9th Bde., which was assigned to take the hill, was mounted in Kangaroo personnel carriers. The brigade crossed the start line as the last bombs fell and it was on its objective within an hour. The last bunkers on Mont-Lambert were captured with flame-throwers 36 hours after the bombing, but there could be no doubt that Bomber Command had made the initial break-in possible.
For the remainder of the war, 1st Cdn. Army continued to call upon the heavy bombers for “closely integrated support of the army.” The planners drew upon the lessons of Normandy for Walcheren, the Rhineland and the Rhine crossing. A new method of substituting munitions for men’s lives had been developed.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on November 1st 1998.