D-Day and air power

News Article / June 5, 2020

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On June 6, 1944, the Allies landed on the coast of Normandy as part of Operation Overlord, D-Day. The successful operation marked the turning point in the Second World War.

By Major (retired) William March

From the outset of planning for Operation "Overlord" (the codeword for the Invasion of Normandy), it was recognized that the Allied air forces would have a vital role.

Previous amphibious landings in the Mediterranean Theatre had underlined the fact that "when critical land operations are in progress, army cooperation is not simply a specialized activity of part of an air force. It is the function of the entire force, with all its available strength". The top allied planners took this to heart when putting together the mountain of details necessary for a successful landing in Occupied France.

The selected site for the invasion was Normandy, rather than the much closer beaches near Calais. The success of the operation depended heavily upon the Allies’ gaining total air supremacy, which meant that the Luftwaffe had to be driven from the skies—a fact that had been underlined by the experience gained during the attack on Dieppe on August 19, 1942, where an out-numbered Luftwaffe had viciously contested the French skies. Only then would the close air support of the ground forces, so necessary during the actual landing and buildup at the beachhead, be able to continue with acceptable losses.

Another important element that would be obtained with Allied air supremacy was the ability to disrupt German communications and transport at will. The "interdiction" of these functions would deny the enemy the ability to mount an effective defence.

The entire Allied air force was directed toward these objectives.

The contemplated air assault involved the men, women and aircraft of every Royal Air Force (RAF) command located in Great Britain, plus those belonging to the Eighth (Strategic) and Ninth (Tactical) United States Army Air Forces. This meant that 11,590 aircraft (6,080 American and 5,510 British and Allied) participated in the period of intensive pre-invasion attacks, which lasted from April 1 until June 5, 1944 (the day before the June 6 invasion). During this time the Allied air forces flew 195,200 sorties and dropped more than 195,000 tons of bombs.

The cost of this part of the operation was heavy: 1,953 aircraft were shot down with the loss of more than 12,000 aircrew either killed, missing, or captured (more casu­alties than would be suffered by the invasion force on D-Day).

On D-Day, the effects of the previous three months were clearly evident. The Allies flew 14,674 sorties and lost 127 aircraft, mainly to ground fire. The Luftwaffe could manage only 319 sorties during the same 24-hour period. The air supremacy that the Allies had won at so a high cost was retained for the remainder of the war.

And what part did Canadians play in this air war?

From the point of view of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), 39 of 42 active squadrons overseas at the time participated in D-Day: 15 served with Bomber Command, 18 with the Second Tactical Air Force, four with Coastal Command, and two in the Air Defence of Great Britain.

In human terms, this meant about 30,000 men and women serving in Canadian units, with another 24,000 to be found in British and other Allied formations.

About 1,000 Canadian aircraft were in the air on D-Day, of which seven were shot down, listed as missing, or crashed due to battle damage. Before the invasion, the Allied air forces had been informed that Operation Overlord would require a "maximum effort"—and that is exactly what the Canadians provided.


 

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