Key to success: Allied airpower at Normandy

  • Published
  • By Air University History Office

On June 6, 1944, nearly 160,000 Allied soldiers from 16 nations stormed ashore onto Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword beaches along a 50-mile stretch of France’s heavily fortified Normandy Peninsula. For months, the Allies had planned this major joint, combined operation, codenamed Overlord, the greatest amphibious operation in history.

The commander, Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, and other senior Allied leaders knew that the key to the success of this major undertaking, especially during the critical first few days after the landings, was the establishment and maintenance of air superiority over the beachheads.

On D-Day and for the following weeks, the massive Allied air forces in Britain, some 11,000 Allied aircraft, provided air cover and close air support for the assault troops on the beaches and interdiction of German reinforcements attempting to reach them. For the next several months the Allied superiority in aircraft and experienced pilots allowed Allied ground forces to secure the beachheads, break through German lines in late July in Operation Cobra and spread out across France, forcing the German army to retreat toward Germany.

After New Year’s Day, 1944, Eisenhower’s staff began the detailed planning for the invasion of Nazi-occupied France, sometime in late May or early June. The first phase for achieving success on D-Day was the development and implementation of the Transportation Plan to isolate Normandy from the rest of France. Between mid-April and June 6, Allied airpower systematically bombed rail lines, railroad marshalling yards, bridges, key road junctions and German airfields in western France and lower Belgium.

By June, the Allied air campaign had effectively isolated the Normandy Peninsula such that the German army could not move troop reinforcements, weapons, munitions and other war materiel to Normandy during daylight hours, forcing them to develop long, convoluted movement routes at night.

After considerable analysis of the prevailing weather patterns, Eisenhower gave the order for the invasion forces to sail from their debarkation ports along the southeastern English coast the evening of June 5 so that they would arrive off the Normandy coast just after dawn, June 6. Starting around midnight, more than 2,000 American, British and Canadian bombers began bombing targets along the coast and further inland. However, these bombing attacks were largely ineffectual.

Just past midnight, nearly a thousand C-47 transports, flying from southern England to the Cotentin Peninsula, flew 24,000 British, American, Canadian and Free French paratroopers or towed gliders across the English Channel. By daylight, the paratroopers and glider-borne forces had secured both flanks of the invasion front along the Normandy coast as well as opened up roadways to the interior. Despite missed airdrops, the airborne and glider borne forces, reinforced by an additional 4,000 glider troops on June 6, successively achieved their objectives in anticipation of the successful landings. Eisenhower later called the C-47 one of the four most vital weapons used in winning the war.

The actual landings along the Normandy coast began at 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944. By the end of the day, the landings had involved over 160,000 assault troops from 16 nations, 195,700 allied naval and merchant navy personnel and nearly 7,000 vessels of all sizes from eight Allied navies. That day, over 14,000 Allied aircraft flew over 20,000 sorties over the beachheads and surrounding areas. This overwhelming Allied airpower and the earlier air attacks on German airfields in France limited the German air force (Luftwaffe) in France to only 60 aircraft in commission out of 160, which flew a mere 200 sorties on D-Day itself.

By nightfall, June 6, the Allies had lost more than 4,000 killed and at least 10,000 wounded, and the Germans suffered about 1,000 killed. The Allied air forces shot down 24 German aircraft and lost only four to air combat and another 67 to other causes. The assault forces did not achieve any of their original objectives, and it would not be until June 12 when they connected the five separate beachheads.

However, the Allied casualties would likely have been much higher had it not been for the massive use of Allied airpower before and on D-Day. Furthermore, during the following days, Allied airpower kept the German army from moving significant mobile reserve forces to the tenuous beachheads during daylight hours.

Despite the tenacious German defense of their strong points, the combined efforts of the growing assault forces and Allied airpower systematically defeated the Germans along the beaches within the week and led to the breakout from the Normandy beachhead in Operations Cobra in late July 1944. Shortly after D-Day, Eisenhower, touring the Normandy beaches with his son 2nd Lt. John Eisenhower, highlighted the contributions of Allied airpower to the success of the landings, saying, “If I didn’t have air supremacy, I wouldn’t be here.”