The Battle of Normandy

The 398th Was There!

By Keith Anderson, Pilot, 600th Squadron

The upcoming tour to join the 60th anniversary commemoration of D-Day stirs memories of our 398th Bomb Group’s introduction to combat a few weeks before that long anticipated pivotal point of World War II.  We passed over fields with rows of tanks, trucks and artillery parked hub to hub that April day we flew into Nuthampstead on the final leg of our trans-Atlantic trip and while flying orientation and practice missions during the following two weeks of operational  indoctrination.  Those sights and our welcome to the ETO by “Lord Haw-Haw” over German propaganda radio the evening of our arrival confirmed that we had transitioned from training to the real thing and that the war in Europe was about to enter its final phase.  Winston Churchill had declared after the Battle of Britain that England had survived “the end of the beginning” and now we had arrived just in time for “the beginning of the end”!

We flew our first mission on May 6th and twenty three more during the next thirty days, including four to Berlin, and had become seasoned combat veterans.  Many of our original crews had already completed 1/3 of their combat tour and four of them were missing in action (28 of these crew members were later listed KIA). Then, on the evening of June 5th we were summoned to briefing and advised that we were privileged to participate the next morning in the largest amphibious invasion in human history.  That is the only mission I can recall that we were briefed the evening before take-off and then, after being sworn to secrecy, sent back to our huts for a few hours of sleep – probably due to the unusually early take-off scheduled for 0439.  Another departure from the norm was that we flew in seven individual six plane squadron formations rather than our normal group combat box.  Our target was the beach fronting Courseulles-Sur-Mer (designated Juno Beach) and our mission was to detonate mines, destroy beach obstacles and create shell holes as cover for the assault troops.

We released our bombs about 30 minutes before the first wave of the 3rd Canadian Division landed.  The much anticipated birds-eye view of this momentous and historic operation was frustrated by a nearly solid under cast which obscured all but fleeting hazy glimpses of ships below.  It was a short mission by our standards and we had no opposition since the Luftwaffe was conspicuously absent and all of the German artillery was concentrated on the incoming landing craft. We were back at base by noon, glued to our radios for reports of progress from BBC and Armed Forces Radio.  And, of course, there was the ever cordial “Lord Haw-Haw” telling us how delighted he was that the Wehrmacht was driving our armies back into the sea and proclaiming that the “D” in D-Day stands for “Dunkirk, Dieppe, Death and Destruction”.  Despite his dire bravado (was he later reincarnated as “Baghdad Bob”?) the Battle of Normandy had successfully begun and the liberation of Western Europe was finally under way.  We were players in the great epoch even though our role that day, in truth, was minor and not particularly hazardous.  It should not be overlooked, however, that the invasion would not have been possible had not the preceding months of air offensive, at great cost, eliminated the Luftwaffe as a factor in the German defenses and severely depleted the resources and impaired the mobility of their armies.

The three airborne divisions, six infantry divisions and one armored division which landed on D-Day soon achieved all their major objectives and united to form a solid front but progress thereafter fell increasingly behind schedule.  The difficulty of offensive operations in the hedgerow country in the American western sector of the front had been underestimated.  Conversely, the British eastern sector was more open and there the Germans had concentrated most of their Panzer divisions so the resistance was formidable.  Unusually bad weather, which had forced a one day postponement of D-Day to begin with, continued to delay the invasion timetable for weeks thereafter.  All Allied supplies had to be landed on the beaches and through two partially completed prefabricated Mulberry harbors (ingenious arrangements of sunken concrete structures serving as breakwaters and anchor points for floating jetties) but a four day gale commencing June 19th nearly demolished the harbors and ran more than 700 ships and landing craft aground.  By early July Allied forces were nowhere more than 15 miles inland, occupying only one-fifth of the area anticipated in the original battle plan.  Nearly one million men, comprising 27 divisions, had been landed with another 15 divisions waiting in England but no room to deploy them in the cramped beachhead.  Air commanders had been promised 27 airfields but only 19 were operational and finding space for take off and landing without risking mid-air collision was becoming increasingly difficult.  More than 60,000 casualties had been sustained in achieving this modest advance and fear of a stalemated front was emerging.

General Montgomery, initially in command of all Allied ground forces in Normandy, called a conference on July 10th with his two subordinates, General Bradley commanding the First US Army and General Dempsey commanding the Second British Army, to develop a plan to decisively break out from the Normandy beachhead.  They conceived a two-prong offensive - Operation ”Goodwood” by the British and Operation “Cobra” by the Americans – both to be preceded by saturation bombing using heavy and medium bombers.  “Goodwood” was scheduled for July 18th with “Cobra” set to begin the following day.

Operation “Goodwood” was begun as planned with medium and heavy bombers from RAF Bomber Command, medium bombers from the Ninth Air Force, and all but one B-24 groups from the Eighth Air Force participating and the forward German zone was penetrated successfully.  Allied intelligence had underestimated the depth and strength of enemy defenses, however, and the advance soon bogged down with heavy British tank casualties.  Torrential rain on July 20th brought that offensive to a halt.

A prerequisite to Operation “Cobra” was the capture of St. Lo but this was not accomplished until July 19th and then the rain on the 20th caused that offensive to be further delayed.  The target was the Panzer Lehr Division and General Bradley, himself, designated the boundary of a carpet bomb rectangle three and a half miles wide and a mile and a half deep on the south side of a road running east-west from St. Lo.  He wanted a lateral bomb run parallel to the road and a safety zone of no more than 1,000 yards between the road and his ground forces so they could move in rapidly after the bombardment.  He flew to England to present this plan to Air Chief Marshall Leigh-Mallory, who was in command of all air operations for the invasion.  The Eighth Air Force operations staff wanted a 3,000 yard safety zone and a perpendicular bomb run to minimize exposure to anti-aircraft fire (we were to be at one half our normal bombing altitude) and to avoid converging the bomber stream on the narrow dimension of the rectangle.  Bradley was at first adamant that his plan be followed but a compromise was finally reached on a north-south bomb run and a 1,200 yard safety zone  with heavy bombers striking no closer than 1,250 yards and fighter-bombers covering the difference and with front line ground forces well dug in.  Bradley was advised that he could expect about 3% short drops due to bomb sight or bomb rack malfunctions and agreed that he could accept the resulting casualties..

Weather began clearing on July 23rd so Leigh-Mallory set the “Cobra” bombardment to begin at 1300 on July 24th and flew to Normandy to witness the operation.  He found the sky overcast with very poor visibility so decided to postpone the bombing until the following day but his message reached England only a few minutes before the first of 1,600 bombers arrived over the target area.  The first 500 found visibility so limited that they could not release their bombs and only 35 of the second wave dropped theirs after making three runs to identify the target.  More than 300 bombers in the third wave were able to drop their loads before the recall order was received.  The 398th dispatched four individual squadron formations of thirteen aircraft each that day as part of the third wave.  The first two squadrons found very poor visibility and severe prop wash but were able make visual runs with good results through opportune breaks in the cloud cover.  The lead aircraft of the third squadron had an accidental release on one bomb rack and the rest of the squadron dropped on this release.  The lead, at that time unaware of the premature release, continued the run and dropped its remaining bombs on target.  The fourth squadron located the target through a break in the clouds but not in time for the bombardier to make a run and the recall order was finally received before a second attempt could be made.  No battle damage was sustained by any of our aircraft because well-coordinated American artillery and fighter-bombers soon put out of action any German anti-aircraft batteries which opened fire.

The saturation bombing was rescheduled for 1100 on July 25th with a special weather plane sent out to check visibility in the early morning.  Remarkably, surprise was not lost.  The Panzer Lehr Division commander was sure that the first bombing signaled a major offensive but his losses were relatively light (fewer than 25% of the heavy bombers had dropped and the fighter-bomber, medium bomber and artillery bombardment phases of the operation were stood down in time) and, when American troops failed to push across the road, he assumed that his own retaliatory artillery fire had turned it back.  He congratulated his troops for repulsing the attack and moved more of them into the rectangular target area!

This time the operation went as scheduled with 550 fighter-bombers opening the curtain with 200 tons of bombs and napalm.  They were followed by 400 medium bombers with another 650 tons of bombs and then by 1,500 heavy bombers dropping 3,300 tons.  All the while American artillery was intensifying the bombardment with 125,000 rounds.  Our group again provided four individual squadron formations in trail with thirteen aircraft in each.  The mission was flown as briefed with the exception that bombing altitude was lowered to 11,500 feet due to clouds and visibility.  Bomb patterns were reported as good and on target and again no flak or enemy fighters were observed in the area.

The bombardment achieved the desired result.  More than 1,000 men of the Panzer Lehr Division were killed and the survivors stunned and deafened.  The division commander later reported that his front lines looked like the face of the moon and at least 70% of his troops were out of action – dead, wounded, crazed or stunned senseless.  Three battalion command posts simply vanished, along with an entire parachute regiment.  Only a dozen tanks remained operable.  This was not without cost however.   136 American troops were killed by bombs dropping short on the two missions and another 621 wounded.  Among the victims was Lt. General McNair – the highest ranking Allied officer killed in Europe.  He was standing on an open knoll with his staff observing the bombardment, contrary to orders that all troops be dug in.  Bradley was furious and claimed that he had been “coerced” into agreeing to the north-south bomb run with the planes coming in over the heads of his troops.

The ground attack got under way with three infantry divisions moving forward to create a gap for an armored division and a motorized infantry division to roll south and fight their way through to open country.  General Patton had been waiting impatiently in the wings to assume command of the Third US Army on August 1st but was now given two armored divisions beforehand to lead the way to the crucial road junction at Avranches – 30 miles south at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula.  His troops captured the town two days later and Patton passed four divisions through the junction within 24 hours and on the roads toward central France.  The crucial breakout had been achieved - General Bradley later described Operation “Cobra” as “the most decisive battle of our war in western Europe”.

British and Canadian forces were still stalled south of Caen so General Montgomery ordered the First Canadian Army to open an offensive southward toward Falaise.  This began with Operation “Totalize” on the night of August 7th.  The Eighth Air Force dispatched 681 B-17s the following day to support this attack, including 36 aircraft from the 398th – flying this time in the normal combat box.  The mission again was at medium altitude but this time the bomb run was south-north over the heads of enemy troops (predominantly tanks and artillery) and, to make matters worse, a strong north wind aloft made for an agonizingly long run.  Anti-aircraft fire was intense and accurate from the before the IP was reached until the French coast on the way out.  Nearly every plane in the group received battle damage, two were shot down, one crash landed in liberated France, and ten crew members were KIA.  Bombing results for the group were rated poor.  August 8, 1944 was not a good day!

To make matters worse and despite the south-north bomb run, 25 Canadian soldiers were killed and another 131 wounded by errant bombs.  The offensive bogged down three days later only half way to Falaise but a new offensive succeeded in reaching that objective on August 17th.

The liberation of Paris on August 25th marked the end of the Battle of Normandy.  Most of our original crews were by then either missing in action or on their way to new assignments after completing their combat tours.  Our formations were becoming increasingly manned by a new generation of replacement crews.

 

See also:

  1. 398th Mission: 06 June 1944 - Courseulles, France
  2. 398th Mission: 24 July 1944 - St. Lo, France
  3. 398th Mission: 25 July 1944 - St. Lo, France
  4. 398th Mission: 08 August 1944 - Couvincourt, France

 

Printed in Flak News Volume 19 No. 2, Pages 6-8, April 2004