The 75th anniversary year for the Royal Canadian Air Force is also the 55th anniversary year for the Battle of Normandy. Without a doubt, the story of the RCAF’s part in the struggle to liberate France has captured the imaginations of air historians. However, few Canadians have more than the vaguest idea of the scale of the RCAF’s contribution.The major reason for this is spelled out in Jack Granatstein’s book Who Killed Canadian History? But it’s also evident that the postwar pre-occupation with building a national air force meant that wartime experiences under Royal Air Force command were seen as less Canadian.
The history of Second Tactical Air Force ought to be an important chapter in our collective memory of the war because Canadians played a large role in the air battles that made victory in Europe possible. Second TAF was formed in 1943 to support the army by establishing and maintaining air superiority, providing air reconnaissance and attacking enemy ground targets. RCAF squadrons were assigned to 83 Composite Group and formed the majority of the group’s squadrons. As the most experienced formation, 83 Group was assigned to support 2nd British Army which, for the Normandy invasion, was to include 3rd Cdn. Division and 2nd Cdn. Armoured Brigade.
The new army-support role presented the air force with an incredible challenge because the RAF had failed to develop a good ground-attack aircraft and it was forced to modify its fighters to perform a dual role. The Typhoon had proved to be a poor performer in aerial combat, but it could be modified to carry bombs or rockets.
It was one thing to declare that Spitfires and Typhoons were now fighter-bombers, but it was quite another job to make this a reality. Air Marshal Arthur Coningham, who assumed command of Second TAF after his experience in North Africa, recognized there was not much time for training. He decided that Typhoon squadrons should specialize in either rocket-projectile attacks or dive bombing. When 438, 439 and 440 squadrons arrived from Canada in February 1944, they traded in their Hurricanes for the Typhoon IB and were assigned to a dive-bomber role. Pilots who flew the Typhoon never forgot their introduction to the “monster”.
After the elegance and superb flight characteristics of the Spitfire and Hurricane, the Typhoon was a nightmare. Seven tons of aircraft with an enormous 24-cylinder Napier engine greeted the first-timer. The engine, which was five times as noisy as the Spitfire, started when a cartridge was fired and the explosion turned the motor. Fires in the engine’s air intake were common and that meant groundcrews had to stand by with fire extinguishers. Once the engine was roaring, exhaust gases seeped into the cockpit and so an oxygen mask was a necessity even on the ground.
To taxi, pilots employed a crab-like progress; they would weave into position while trying not to overuse the brakes that overheated quickly. Pierre Closterman, an experienced Spitfire pilot, recalled his first Typhoon flight: “I checked the plugs as per instruction by opening up to 3,000 revs and a film of oil immediately spread up to my windshield…. I tightened my straps, released the brakes…and slowly opened the throttle…. I had been warned the Typhoon swung but surely not as much as this! And the brute gathered speed like a rocket…. To hell with it. I tore her off the ground. This plane just had no lateral stability at all…. Luckily, they hauled F hangar down after too many accidents, but even then I passed uncomfortably close to E hangar…. Half an hour quickly passed and I began to summon the courage to land…. I had just begun to ease the stick back when the whole contraption stalled and dropped like a stone…. After bucking two or three times, my Typhoon finally calmed down and rolled drunkenly down the runway…. I managed to stop before ramming the scenery in a cloud of smoke and oil…. My poor landing didn’t seem to have attracted much attention…. As long as the kite arrived in one piece it was considered a good landing.”
Good pilots learned to cope with the worst characteristics of the Typhoon, but each takeoff and landing was a challenge.
RCAF Typhoon squadrons formed 143 Wing and began operations March 28, 1944, against railway yards and the V-1 flying bomb or “buzz bomb” launching sites. 143 Wing had undergone a short period of training in the technique of dive bombing, but practice appeared to make little difference. Average pilots could seldom hit the kinds of targets they were tasked to destroy. In one carefully measured operation, “Bombphoons”–as they were called–achieved hits once in every 41 attacks. Rocket-equipped Typhoons scored better, one hit for every 15 sorties. However, rocket-equipped Typhoons each fired six rockets so only one in 90 rockets actually struck the target. Since the objective had not been defended by anti-aircraft guns, Second TAF was deeply disappointed by the results.
Average pilots were unlikely to do better than this in combat, although exceptional pilots could greatly improve on the squadron’s average. The limitations of dive bombing, which applied equally to Spitfires, did not mean Typhoons were ineffective in a ground-support role. Each Typhoon was armed with four 20-mm cannons that could devastate “soft” targets such as trucks and bring trains to a halt by punching the boilers on steam locomotives. “Train busting” was a specialty for many Typhoon squadrons in the run-up to D-Day.
The nine RCAF Spitfire squadrons assigned to 83 Group had a much easier time preparing for the invasion. While the Spitfire IX could be employed as a dive bomber, its major roles were to destroy enemy aircraft and strafe targets of opportunity with its cannon and machine-guns. Bill Olmstead flew with 442 Squadron in Normandy and he recalled that “strafing was a very dangerous, though thrilling assignment, and in the case of the Spitfire a difficult one as the Spit was a very unstable gun platform…. The attacking aircraft would dive at a very steep angle until about 700 yards from the target, and clocking possibly 400-miles-per-hour, when the pilot would decrease the dive angle to about 20 degrees. He would open fire at about 400 yards, closing to 100 unless his bullets blew up the target. The guns fired for only a second or two, and yet their effect could be devastating.”
The RCAF also supplied three reconnaissance squadrons. Equipped with high performance Spitfire XIVs, which were able to operate at high altitudes, photo reconnaissance aircraft were–to the disgust of many pilots–too valuable to arm. Their job was to produce the thousands of vertical and oblique air photos that both the army and air force used in planning operations. Two of the reconnaissance squadrons–413 and 430–flew Mustangs in a variety of roles. On D-Day, the squadrons spotted for the Royal Navy, correcting their fire against coastal gun batteries. From then on their main task was tactical reconnaissance conducted at low levels above the battlefield.
The job of spotting enemy road and rail movement, as well as front-line targets, was necessary but costly. The Germans had been forced to concede air superiority in France, but they equipped their forces with enormous quantities of anti-aircraft guns, including the dual-purpose 88- and rapid-firing 20-and 40-mm guns.
Flak was a particularly dangerous threat to ground-support aircraft that were committed to low-level reconnaissance or tasked to attack ground targets. In the book Blue Skies, Olmstead writes: “Flak is the one thing that pilots, be they fighter or bomber, fear above everything else. Flying along in formation a mile or two above the earth, it is possible to avoid flak by taking evasive action through frequent alterations of course and altitude, but once committed to a dive on a target, the pilot must press home his attack while shells and bullets of all calibres flash by. We were quite philosophical about flak, as much as we hated it, because surviving flak was strictly a matter of luck, and it claimed the best pilots as well as the poorer ones in time. The 88-mm shells and heavier calibre guns burst with a bright red flash surrounded by a large ball of black, wicked-looking smoke that hung lazily in the sky. At dawn or dusk, pink tracer shells were visible, a sight that flyers will remember for years. It was a horrible feeling to climb away from a target and watch the rosy balls of red-hot death streaming by, missing you and your aircraft by a very few feet. Then there was the reverse effect when you attacked a target, and the shells seemed to come up so slowly that you felt you were watching them for ages. Not until they were close did you get the full impression of their tremendous speed. It took steady nerves to carry on facing so many deadly messengers.”
The German anti-aircraft regiments, manned by the Luftwaffe, had years of practice. They inflicted terrible losses on Second TAF pilots. Between April 1 and June 5, 1944, 133 fighter bombers were shot down, and the toll increased after D-Day.
As soon as the Allied beachhead on the continent was secure, the construction of airfields for Second TAF and United States Army Air Force fighter bombers became a top priority. The narrowness of the beachhead presented the airfield construction crews with limited choices and the first landing strips were crowded into a very small area with takeoffs and landings only possible in one direction away from the nearby enemy lines.
To move a fighter wing from the United Kingdom to France was a major undertaking. More than 300 men staffed the headquarters, providing signals, transport, medical and other services as well as mechanics for major repairs. In addition, each squadron had 18 aircraft, 26 pilots and 115 groundcrew. Olmstead explains that each pilot was assigned a specific aircraft and in some cases two pilots shared the same aircraft. “Each kite had its own rigger, fitter and armourer, with assistance from squadron photographers, wireless experts, electricians, and chaps who ensured that the oxygen bottles were always full. This system promoted a good deal of co-operation between the pilots and the ground crew to ensure that each aircraft was maintained at full serviceability. As I had been with the RAF, I had always been proud of the dedication and expertise of the Canadian groundcrews. I knew that every time I flew an aircraft that it had been examined and cared for to the best of human ability, and I never flew a machine in Europe that malfunctioned because of sloppy maintenance. Words are inadequate to express my admiration for the hard working, dedicated groundcrew mechanics.”
Once established in Normandy, Second TAF sought to refine the methods it had employed in the assault phase. The Luftwaffe was rarely seen in the daylight skies over Normandy because Coningham insisted that total control of the skies remained top priority even against a greatly diminished threat. Historians, secure in the knowledge that the Luftwaffe failed to recover its strength in 1944, have criticized Coningham for the way he allocated resources. However, the air marshal was determined to provide absolute security to the navy and the crowded beaches where supplies were gathered. This ongoing screen of fighter aircraft also allowed the navy to aid the land battle with its heavy guns. During June, only five of 5,000 vessels operating off the coast of Normandy were sunk by enemy aircraft, the largest being a destroyer.
After ensuring air superiority, Second TAF turned its attention to armed reconnaissance. One pilot recalled that armed reconnaissance was the preferable assignment, providing more opportunity for action, since pilots could shoot up anything and everything. Pilots got real delight from seeing a convoy become “flamers” under attack, or even only “smokers”. The ultimate achievement was to shoot up an ammunition convoy that resulted in 15 or 20 trucks looking like a May 24th celebration.
The success of this enterprise is best measured by the response of the German army which issued elaborate orders designed to limit the effects of air attacks. Daylight movement was banned in clear weather, major roads were avoided whenever possible and vehicles on side roads moved carefully at intervals of 100 and 200 yards. Lookouts, posted at the head and rear of columns, were to provide warning that fighters were near so that vehicles could be driven under cover and personnel given the chance to scatter. Such measures permitted the Germans to manoeuvre and maintain a flow of supplies to the front. However, all movement was slow and subject to interruption. The contrast to the Allied side of the front–where everyone in the densely packed beachhead moved freely–was dramatic.
The third task of the tactical air forces was to provide more direct support to the army as it waged war on the ground. The air force, aware of the difficulties of locating and hitting small targets in close proximity to the front line, preferred what it described as pre-arranged, direct support missions against targets outside the range of Allied artillery. This allowed for careful briefing of pilots and minimized the dangers of casualties due to “friendly fire”. The army, however, wanted much more because Normandy had turned into a battle of attrition and as casualties mounted there was constant pressure to employ fighter bombers in close support roles to Allied troops. To accomplish this difficult task, Second TAF developed a system that became widely known as “Cabrank”. This was based on the use of contact vehicles in direct communication with aircraft circling over the battlefield at 5,000 feet.
The contact car passed on information about the target and provided a detailed description of landmarks, such as roads, villages and woods. After carrying out the attack, the aircraft returned to Cabrank or to base if their ammo was gone or if their fuel was low. If they had to return to base, a new aircraft would take their place. Cabrank worked reasonably well on static fronts, but once the breakout began in August, a more direct system of communication between leading troops and aircraft was required.
The USAAF invented the armoured-column cover in time to assist General George Patton in his race into the heart of France. However, no similar system was developed by Second TAF and incidents of “friendly fire” multiplied throughout August as the struggle to close the Falaise Gap unfolded.
- Originally published in Legion Magazine, on January 1st 1999.