Picture: C-47 Dakota transports configured for casualty evacuation wait to fly into the invasion area.
The invasion of north-west Europe - 6 June 1944.
The air operations in support of the landings
The invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944 began the final stages of the Second World War in Europe. The success of the invasion was vital if Europe were to be liberated and the heroic events of the day have been rightly celebrated ever since. What is less well known is the size and scope of the air battle that was fought from the end of 1943 right up until the breakout from the beachhead.
The experience gained from the landings in North Africa, Sicily and Salerno, combined with the American 'island-hopping' experiences in the Pacific, had proved that air power was a key requirement in any successful invasion. As a result, the Allied plan for supporting the landings was divided into several specific goals. This series of attacks had begun during December the previous year with the steady destruction of the V-weapon storage and launching sites to prevent the weapons being used against the Allied forces massing in the south of England.
The V-weapon attacks were followed by a general expansion in specific types of operations over France. Firstly were a very large number of sorties to drop supplies to the Resistance. The aim of this concerted effort was to build up the fighting effectivness of the Resistance forces in all occuppied territories and cause maximum disruption to the German command and communications structure. Second on the list of priorities was the interdiction of rail and road traffic. Raids against bridges, railway marshalling yards and major crossroads were carried out by medium bomber forces, later still the strategic heavy bombers of both the USAF and RAF were tasked to continue these attacks to isolate the Normandy area. Communications targets and airfields within a 250 mile diameter circle from Callais/Dieppe, through Rouen, Paris, Orleans, Tours, Saumur, Nantes and out through the Cherbourg peninsula were attacked to completely isolate not just Normandy, but the majority of the French coast from Calais to Cherbourg.
These wide ranging attacks were part of a carefully orchestrated deception plan to convince the German commanders the target of the invasion was the Dieppe/Calais region. In order for this to work, a huge number of targets had to be attacked, both on the Atlantic Wall and beyond it, in order to nullify the defences in the Normandy region without making the actual landing area too obvious.
The communications targets were followed by attacks against radar, v-weapon (as a continuing part of Operation Crossbow) and coastal defence sites by medium and light bombers and fighter-bombers.
Finally, in the build up to the invasion itself, two more elements of air power came into play. Fighter sweeps and standing air patrols were flown to prevent any German air activity over the channel ports and invasion area, projecting an impenetrable air superiority 'bubble' around the beachhead. This part of the air operation was incredibly successful, only a single flight of two Luftwaffe fighters made an appearance over the invasion beaches on D-day itself.
The transport air forces brought both men and supplies to the beachead area in vast numbers. Transport gliders and paratroopers were flown into the area behind the beachead to disrupt the organisation of German land forces and to take a variety of tactical targets such as bridges and crossroads, thereby protecting the flanks of the invasion. The air supply bridge was maintained right up until the breakout from the beachead area because of the difficulties in getting sufficient supplies ashore. The contribution of the transport units to the success of the invasion has often been overlooked, but could only have happened because the vital element of air superiority was well and truly established during the dangerous first twenty-four hours of the landings.
The organisation required to carry out all the tasks demanded, all the while continuing the strategic bombing campaign against industrial targets in Germany, meant that the formation of specialist air forces to deal with the support missions was required. The RAF's 2nd Tactical Air Force was one such unit, formed specifically to carry out this campaign and then move across the channel as soon as airfields were available in order to maintain the close-support role.
These pages will describe the units and their missions as well as the operations that were carried out over the six months prior to and the month after the landings, to give a comprehensive history of the role of air power in the largest combined forces operation staged to that date.