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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Navy's Air War

the Aviation History Unit OP‑519B, DCNO (Air)

Harper & Brothers Publishers
New York and London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p89  Chapter 10

Naval Aviation in the Invasions of France

Amphibious invasions of hostile territory by combined naval, ground, and air forces were one of the outstanding military characteristics of World War II. The beginning date of these operations was normally called D‑Day and the precise time of the attack H‑Hour. Although there were many such days for our armed forces during the war, to most Americans D‑Day meant 6 June 1944 — the day of the assault on northern France in the Normandy area. It was here that the major Allied offensive effort against Germany was directed. To transport the bulk of the assault forces and their equipment to the attack area, the Allies assembled the greatest and most diversified naval amphibious and support forces ever engaged in a single operation. The invasion fleet composed of American, British, Canadian, and French units was under the command of Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay, RN. It was divided into two task forces, one under British command covering the eastern area and the other under Rear (later Vice) Admiral Alan G. Kirk, USN, covering the western beaches. There were several task groups under Admiral Kirk including forces commanded by Rear Admiral J. L. Hall, USN, and the late Rear Admiral D. P. Moon, USN. The force of more than two thousand naval craft of all types under Admiral Kirk's command formed but part of the total number of Allied vessels used in the invasion.

Since the assault areas were within range of American and British fighter aircraft based in southern England, there was little need for carrier planes. United States naval aviation, however, performed two vital functions throughout the entire campaign; one was protecting naval vessels operating between England and the invasion coast of France; the other was aerial spotting and observation for naval gunfire support ships. The first of these functions was the primary responsibility of the Navy's fleet air wing (Fairwing) 7. Aside from air attack, the greatest potential menace to the naval forces in this campaign came from  p90 the still power­ful German submarines operating from French bases on the Atlantic. It was of the utmost importance to the success of the invasion that U‑boats be prevented entirely from operating in the English Channel or, failing that, "kept down" and thus rendered less effective. Because submarines could operate under water for only limited periods at relatively slow speeds, their ability under such conditions to catch surface ships in a position favorable for torpedo attack was severely limited. Normally, they achieved position by relatively high speed surface movement. By making the surface unsafe for them, co‑ordinated aircraft and ship patrols neutralized U‑boats by forcing them to remain submerged and unable to get into striking position.

The PB4Y‑1's or Liberator patrol planes of Fairwing 7 based at Dunkeswell, Devon, England, were important members of the Allied air‑surface team which beat back attempted U‑boat interference with the Normandy invasion. Operating under the direction of Royal Air Force Coastal Command, these navy planes helped maintain continuous air patrols over the Channel and its Atlantic approaches. Combined with those of surface ships, these patrols were so intensive that a submarine could not remain on the surface for more than a few minutes without being sighted and attacked. Even the development of the "schnorkel"​a or breathing pipe which permitted U‑boats to operate much more efficiently and for longer periods under water did not protect them from air patrols which covered every square mile of the Channel and its approaches every few minutes. Planes were able to spot the tips of the "schnorkels" and thereby attack the submarines. During the first few days of the invasion, U‑boats surfaced only at night hoping for relative security from aircraft sighting. This move was continued by Royal Air Force planes equipped with searchlights for night spotting which were later joined by half a Liberator squadron similarly equipped. Air patrols made surfacing dangerous for U‑boats at any hour of the day or night.

These combined patrols were so success­ful that on D‑Day and for a period of three weeks afterward not one Allied ship was sunk by enemy submarine action. Then a small ship was sunk by possible, though not definitely confirmed, U‑boat action. From that time until the close of the assault phase of the campaign, there were no further U‑boat attacks in this area. Fairwing 7 Liberators were credited with seventeen attacks on submarines during the first three weeks of the invasion, eight of which were made during a two‑day period when the U‑boats made an all‑out effort to get through our patrols. Many of these attacks were  p91 assessed as damaging or as probable "kills." Under the circumstances it is all the more remarkable that not one navy man or plane was lost during the operation, since on at least one occasion a wing plane engaged a surfaced submarine in a dramatic air‑sea fight. Although damaged by the U‑boat's antiaircraft guns, the Liberator's depth charges finally sent the enemy to the bottom.

Aerial spotting and observation for naval gunfire support was further developed in the Normandy campaign. The experience gained in the North Africa, Sicily, and Salerno landings was put to good use in that air spotting was done by shore-based, fast, single-seat fighter planes instead of regular ship-based float planes. Spotting for all Allied fire support ships of both Eastern and Western task forces was performed by four squadrons of Seafires from the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm, three squadrons of Mustangs and two squadrons of Spitfires of the Royal Air Force, and one squadron of Spitfires flown by seventeen United States Navy aviators from the six major United States naval units taking part in the operation — the battle­ships Texas, Arkansas, and Nevada, and the cruisers Augusta, Quincy, and Tuscaloosa. All these squadrons were gathered at the Royal Navy air station at Lee‑on‑Solent, Hampshire, and were familiarized with the aircraft, methods, communications, and spotting procedure to be used in the operation, thus insuring uniformity of knowledge on every phase of spotting technique. Such training further enabled all pilots to spot interchangeably for British, American, or French ships. The U. S. naval aviators formed Observation Fighter Squadron 7 and were trained in the Spitfires by the United States Army 67th Reconnaissance Group of the 9th Tactical Air Command. An air spot pool, varying at times between 95 and 160 planes, was created from all these squadrons at Lee‑on‑Solent from where they operated throughout the campaign. Before D‑Day, gun positions and other strong points from which the enemy might interfere with landing operations were listed by the Army and assigned as targets for air‑spotted ships' fire. But in the first few days of the invasion, only three targets at a time were assigned to each pilot because even with their standardized training, it was impossible to expect every pilot to be an expert in spotting and reconnaissance. With experience gained during the operation, these pilots increased their value by locating targets of opportunity and directing fire upon them. Prior to leaving Lee‑on‑Solent on spotting missions, pilots were briefed on prearranged targets or specific areas to be searched for targets. In other cases, they were instructed to fly directly to the target area and report by radio to assigned fire support  p92 ships for target briefing. The ships often directed spotting aircraft to scout specific areas for intelligence information. When a pilot located and reported a target, the ship determined the advisability of engaging the target with naval gunfire. If the target was considered important, the spotting plane remained in the area directing ships' fire upon it.

As originally planned, a much larger share of the spotting was to have been done by Shore Fire Control parties but because these lost personnel and equipment in the first few assault waves, the major spotting tasks fell to aircraft. Four hundred and fifty-three missions were flown for the ships under Admiral Kirk during the first twenty days of the operation of which more than 100 were flown on D‑Day. Of this total, 81 missions were flown by the 17 United States Navy pilots. Approximately 10 per cent of all spotting missions throughout the entire campaign were flown by these 17 pilots for both the Eastern and Western task forces.

Dependence on fighter planes for spotting was assured for some American naval units when their deck catapults were removed at Belfast before proceeding to the Channel thus preventing the use of their ship-based aircraft. However, faith in the fighter-spotter was not misplaced. Their success prompted several navy commanders to recommended continued development and more extensive training and use of this type of air spot. The only objection to their use was in their range limitations. Coupled with the normally restricted range of a small, fast fighter plane, the two‑way channel trip from the air spot pool to the target area and back, normally left a relatively short time during which each plane was available for spotting. Nevertheless, this problem was overcome by the establishment of an efficient shuttle service from Lee‑on‑Solent which kept spotting planes in the air whenever and wherever they were needed.

Most effective air spotting was done for the main 12‑ and 14‑inch batteries of the battle­ships during the first few days of the assault. The Texas relied completely upon air spot on D‑Day and was able to blast important enemy gun positions several miles inland even after its Shore Fire Control party was knocked out in landing. The Nevada's log carries a report on June 8 of its main battery fire directed against a concentration of enemy tanks and other vehicles by a spotting pilot who radioed the ship with pleased excitement, "You really splattered them!" Every tank and truck was either damaged or destroyed and not one was able to make a getaway. A few days later the Nevada completely destroyed a battery of eight large enemy guns hidden in a hedge and located by air spot.

 p93  The Normandy campaign proved conclusively the value of the fighter plane for naval gunfire spotting. Furthermore, the spotting systems learned by our navy pilots at Lee‑on‑Solent were so simple and flexible that ships' gunnery officers had very little difficulty in adapting their operations to them in a few days' time. Some commanders felt that the performance of this plane-ship, spotted-fire combination warranted its exclusive use over all other spotting methods in similar future operations. But development of the fast fighter for naval spotting and observation did not end here. The invasion of southern France a few weeks later brought even more improvements in the techniques of the navy air‑surface combination.

The final major Allied amphibious invasion of the European continent in which United States naval forces participated was made on the southern coast of France east of Toulon in the area between Cap Cavalaire and Rade D'Agay. It was a combined American, British, and French operation in which United States naval aircraft played a vital role. For the first time since the North African campaign American carriers were used, and air activity throughout the entire operation was spearheaded by carrier-based planes until the Army was able to move up its fighters from bases in Corsica to newly captured ones in the Rhone Valley. In original planning for the campaign, it was contemplated that carrier-based planes would be used primarily for spotting and observation. Actually they became a primary offensive striking force for the entire assault and consolidation phase of the invasion. In addition, regularly ship-based SOC's were used once again by some of the same gunfire support vessels which had participated in the Normandy campaign and whose deck catapults were reinstalled for this purpose at Oran, Algeria. Even navy blimps were used for spotting mines.

The assault area was divided into three sectors to each of which a naval attack force with its respective gunfire support group was attached. The aggregate complements of these support groups included 5 battle­ships, 3 heavy cruisers, 18 light cruisers, 3 destroyer leaders, and 28 destroyers from the Allied navies represented. Task Force 88, the aircraft carrier force, was under British command. This force was made up of 2 task groups, one of which, TG 88.1, was composed entirely of Royal Navy ships: 5 escort carriers, 2 antiaircraft cruisers and 7 destroyers. The second task group, TG 88.2, under the command of Rear Admiral C. T. Durgin, USN, included 2 American escort carriers, the Tulagi (flagship) and the Kasaan Bay, 2 British escort carriers, 2 British antiaircraft cruisers and 6 American destroyers. The 24 Hellcats (F6F‑5's)  p94 of Observation Fighting Squadron 1 operated from the Tulagi and the 24 Hellcats of Fighting Squadron 74 from the Kasaan Bay. Other United States Navy aircraft were shore-based for a time. A night fighter detachment of 7 Hellcats and a detachment of 5 Avengers operated from Solenzara, Corsica, to guard the carrier force against surprise attack. During the final phases of the operation, these planes were based on the two American escort carriers. In addition, Seafire squadrons flew from the British escort carriers.

Task Group 88.2 left Malta on 12 August 1944 as a part of Task Force 88 and arrived at its assigned station on the morning of 15 August (D‑Day) in time to launch its first scheduled mission at 0550. The low clouds and haze that hung over the entire assault area during the morning hampered all air operations. Poor visibility forced one pilot of Observation Fighter Squadron 1 so low to observe a target that he struck an LST's barrage balloon and landed in the water where he was picked up and returned to his carrier. Despite these difficulties, 10 missions were flown on D‑Day from the Tulagi and 10 from the British carriers in the task group to spot gunfire for the Nevada, Texas, and Philadelphia and the French ships Montcalm and Georges Leygues; and 7 fighter bomber missions were flown from the two American carriers against gun positions. Near misses from these attacks set fire to two ammunition dumps and rockets and bombs accounted for numerous railroad cuts.

Observation Fighter Squadron 1 was the first United States Navy air unit to be trained and used specifically for the multiple duties of spotting and observing ground targets for naval gunfire support and assisting ground forces by armed reconnaissance and fighter bomber attacks on the enemy. This squadron's regular navy training was supplemented by a period of army training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in artillery ground spotting. The versatility of navy fliers reached a high point of effectiveness in this campaign when they successfully undertook missions normally required of army fighter pilots in addition to those expected of naval airmen. While they flew strictly spotting or observation missions for the naval task forces, these aircraft were always under naval command, but flying support missions for the Army, they were controlled by the Commanding General, Tactical Air Command. The carrier force was committed to provide the air commander with seventy‑two aircraft for beach cover, fighter bomber, rocket projectile and armed reconnaissance missions during daylight hours. This dependence upon navy fighters was especially important in the initial phases  p95 of the assault because of the distance from the beachheads and the nearest army air bases. Prior to the establishment of airfields in southern France, Corsica was the nearest point from which land-based fights could operate, but the rugged terrain of that island limited the size and number of fields constructed and, therefore, the number of planes operating from there. Furthermore, the range of these planes was severely restricted by distances of from 100 to 330 nautical miles between Corsica and the target areas which left little flying time for effective attack operations. It was evident that navy planes based on carriers thirty miles offshore could make longer armed reconnaissance flights by skirting instead of flying through heavily defended flak areas, could make longer fighter bomber missions, and could remain over target areas for greater periods of time because their fuel was not consumed in long overwater round trips from distant bases. Also, the proximity of the carriers to the beachheads enabled more prompt execution of these missions since planes were always available to the air commander, within a few minutes' notice for missions much further inland than those possible for Hellcat-Seafire planes. At night the carriers retired sixty-five to seventy miles offshore, thereby reducing the possibility of surprise attack by moving out of ready range of enemy aircraft and providing ample area for evasive ship maneuvers should such an attack develop. Although the carrier task force was potentially strong, it was initially intended that its primary mission would be spotting naval gunfire, and its auxiliary mission, support of army ground forces. As the invasion progressed, enemy air opposition did not materialize in the strength anticipated, and it became increasingly apparent that for long-range inland strikes, carrier planes were logical substitutes for army fighters until airfields could be established on the French mainland.

All these considerations were foreseen before the landings actually began, but the success of the long-range planes in carrying the initial brunt of air support for the entire campaign was considerably greater than anticipated. It was further expected that after the first six days of the operation, enemy action and mechanical failures would wear down the aggregate offensive capabilities of the aircraft to a point where their further retention in the assault area would be unwarranted. The carriers were to have been withdrawn at this point and spotting planes put ashore to continue their operations from land bases. However, after moving out of the assault area on the night of D plus 6 for refueling, rearming, and resting of pilots, it was found that the carrier squadrons were in such excellent condition that the task group returned to the area  p96 on the morning of D plus 9 where the American carriers remained through D plus 14, their planes continuing effective offensive operations.

Throughout the campaign, the greatest problem facing all Allied aircraft was the intense and accurate flak put up by the enemy's antiaircraft defenses. This was particularly true of prepared coastal positions spotted by navy planes as well as of motor convoys which were prime targets for armed reconnaissance missions. The American carriers reported approximately sixty instances of flak damage to their returning planes exclusive of single hole or "nonvital" hits. A total of nine planes failed to return to their carriers, and it was assumed that flak accounted for most, if not all.

Hellcats were exceptionally versatile and served capably as combined spotters, fighters and fighter bombers, strafing with both rockets and .50 caliber machine guns on long-range tactical, armed or photo reconnaissance missions. They were frequently launched throughout this operation with bombs, belly tanks, rockets and machine‑gun ammunition. Thus loaded, they were particularly destructive against ground targets such as gun emplacements, batteries, motor transports, troop concentrations, railroad trains, trestles, roadhouses, sheds, bridges, and barges. Planes of the Tulagi and Kasaan Bay destroyed 825 trucks and other vehicles and damaged an additional 334. They destroyed or immobilized 48 locomotives and 353 railroad cars in addition to cutting railroads, highways, destroying fuel and ammunition dumps, and shooting down 9 enemy aircraft. Three enemy aircraft shot down on D plus 6 were German JU‑52 transport planes thought to be flying to Marseille to evacuate key enemy personnel in line with previous German practice in similar situations. On this same day, United States Navy planes flew 58 and Royal Navy planes 60 missions, reaching the peak of their destructive effectiveness. German columns retreating by highway and rail were bombed and strafed, and at the end of the day more than 225 motor vehicles were destroyed or seriously damaged.

This was but a part of the story of repeated successes of navy planes. From D‑Day until D plus 6, their attacks mounted in fury and effectiveness as their value for new types of missions became increasingly apparent. On D plus 1, most of their efforts were directed against rail targets and the commanding officer of Navy Fighter Squadron 74 successfully skip-bombed the mouth of a tunnel between Fuveau and Brignoles. The next day Hellcats destroyed, by bombs and rockets, a battery on Ile de Port Cros east of Toulon which was dominating the firing lanes for shore bombardment. The island surrendered a few hours  p97 later. On the same day the Hellcats were called out on a special mission to attack a large concentration of enemy motor transport evacuating the Brignoles-Tourves‑St. Maximin area. They destroyed at least eighty-five vehicles including troop and ammunition carriers and damaged many more. The Commanding General, XII Tactical Air Command, later stated that he had personally counted 202 vehicles destroyed in this area as a result of these and other attacks. Enemy air opposition did not appear until D plus 4 when the Hellcats shot down five planes in the air and destroyed one on the ground, but the next day heavy enemy flak shot down six of our pilots and damaged many planes.

At the conclusion of flight operations on D plus 6, Task Group 88.2 retired to Maddalena, Sardinia, as originally planned. It returned sixty hours later to relieve the British task group and continued operations in support of the invasion for six more days before retiring to Ajaccio, Corsica, on the first leg of its return to the United States.

While American Hellcats were used most effectively in long-range sweeps deep inland, British Seafires performed identical tasks with equal creditability but closer to the shore line because of their less extensive range. By its constant and power­ful striking ability, this Hellcat-Seafire team was instrumental in preventing the enemy from interfering with Allied consolidation of the beachheads, from making an orderly withdrawal from southern France, and from regrouping his forces farther north for a stand against the American Seventh and Allied Armies.

Enemy air opposition to this invasion was never expected on the scale encountered in previous European landings, especially since the Luftwaffe was occupied with more than it could handle in Normandy and on the Russian front. For this reason it was considered feasible to use battle­ship and cruiser-based aviation once again for spotting naval gunfire and to insure adequate observation by pilots more experienced in heavy naval gunnery than the newly trained Hellcat pilots. Only those ships carrying aviation gasoline aft were permitted to retain their spotting planes aboard. All others were ordered to land their planes since they would be unable to refuel them easily during the operation, and the presence of high octane fuel anywhere aboard these ships except as far aft as possible would introduce an additional and unnecessary hazard to ship's safety in the event of enemy artillery or air attack. While this condition required a certain amount of reshuffling of pilots and planes among the cruisers and battle­ships, their effectiveness in spotting was in no way impaired. The SOC's proved their value many times during this campaign. So long as they remained clear of heavy flak areas, they were  p98 unmolested and were able to perform many vital missions. Only one of these planes was lost during the entire operation when the pilot ventured too near the flak areas and was shot down by antiaircraft fire. Some ships reported that launching and recovery of these planes during the early stages of the operation interfered with fire support when the ships had to maneuver specifically to recover these planes but their over‑all utility far outweighed these temporary disadvantages.

Our control of the air during this invasion permitted the use of yet another branch of navy air power — lighter-than‑air. Two navy blimps of Blimp Squadron 14 reported to Cuers airport near Toulon from Port Lyautey, North Africa, to assist two French PBY squadrons in mine spotting and minesweeping operations. The first blimps arrived on 17 September 1944. These blimps followed the faster patrol planes along the entire coast line of southern France from the Spanish to the Italian borders examining more thoroughly and accurately areas reported mined by the planes. Their slow ground speed enabled them to spot individual mines to which surface minesweepers were directed. By coaching the minesweepers from the air with loudspeakers or radio, minesweeping operations along the entire French coast were greatly accelerated and many ships saved by timely warning from the blimps of the presence of mines. When our ships were finally able to anchor in Toulon Harbor, these blimps flew night patrols and provided valuable safeguards with their radar gear which warned against attacks by small enemy surface craft and submarines.

From Sicily to southern France amphibious landings in the European theater with attendant combined supporting operations utilized in increasing degree practically every element of United States naval aviation. While the exploits of no one military or naval unit can be singled out as most decisive to the success of such operations, the test of the value of each component group to the achievements of the whole lies in the skill and efficiency with which it carried out its assigned tasks. Throughout all these campaigns, our air navy made its conspicuous contribution to victory by performing with equal skill and efficiency missions far beyond the scope and importance of those originally expected of it.

Thayer's Note:

a At the time our book was published, new technology. The modern snorkel dates back only to 1936, the invention of Dutch naval officer and submariner Jan Jacob Wichers; the common English spelling of the word is credited to George Brookes of the British Sub‑Aqua Club, 1956.

The device itself, in its first simple incarnation as a breathing reed, was known at least as long ago as the 4c B.C. — Aristotle, in discussing the elephant's trunk, compares it to a diver's breathing tube (Parts of Animals, II.16) — and just maybe even as early as the 5c, since, in a naval warfare context, Herodotus mentions swimming underwater for a long distance: see my note to T. P. Magruder, The United States Navy, p102. The breathing reed was also known to the prehistoric Slavs, being recorded in the Strategikon of (ps‑)Maurice: see J. B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire, II.294 and note; and the modern editor of the text of Aristotle cited above points out in note 3 to Ch. 16, pp180‑181, that it seems to have been known to the indigenous people of Australia as well.

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