The Sky Above Us – Tour: D-Day in the Air
To celebrate the release of The Sky Above Us, I’m conducting a photo tour of locations from the novel that I saw on my research trip to England and Normandy.
Today—D-day in the Air
The Queen Mary (sister ship of the Queen Elizabeth)
In The Sky Above Us, US fighter pilot Lt. Adler Paxton flies a P-51 Mustang in treacherous dogfights with the German Luftwaffe as the Allies battle for air superiority in the days leading up to D-day. Then on D-day, he flies over the landing beaches in Normandy. Today I’m featuring photos from my research trip to England and Normandy that relate to the aerial aspect of D-day.
D-Day in the Air
D-day, Operation Overlord, is one of the most pivotal events of World War II and modern history. For four years, Hitler’s Nazi Germany had occupied most of Europe. During that time period, the Allies slowly regained strength and weaponry. On June 6, 1944, 156,000 British, Canadian, American, Free French, and other Allied troops invaded northern France in Normandy, supported by almost 200,000 Allied naval personnel, while 11,000 aircraft flew overhead.
Allied aerial operations on D-day were complicated, but largely successful, with notable exceptions. The transport planes dropped paratroopers. The bombers targeted German transportation, communications, and strongpoints. And the fighters covered the invasion area, strafed ground targets, and kept the Luftwaffe away from Allied troops.
The first planes aloft were transport aircraft and gliders carrying the paratroopers of the British 6th Airborne Division and the US 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Over 1400 US C-47s, C-53s, and gliders, and 364 RAF Dakotas, Albemarles, and gliders participated. The paratroopers secured crucial bridges and gun batteries and towns and generally confused the Germans before the landings. The landings in the British sector went extraordinarily well, but low clouds and heavy antiaircraft fire caused chaos in the American landings. Despite being scattered and mixed, the paratroopers showed incredible ingenuity and courage and fought where they landed.
On the night of June 5-6, 1136 heavy bombers of the British Royal Air Force hit ten Nazi gun batteries on the coast of France. Later analysis showed the reinforced concrete gun casemates were not destroyed; however, damage to supplies and rattling of the crews did impede German activity during the landings.
During the day, the bombers of RAF Coastal Command guarded the English Channel to prevent German submarines and surface craft from reaching the fleet.
At first light on D-day, the B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators of the US Eighth Air Force targeted German strongpoints behind the beaches as well as the beaches themselves. Due to low clouds, they had to use blind radar bombing. To avoid short bombing, in which they might have hit the landing craft speeding toward shore, they delayed bomb release. As a result, German defenses on the beaches, particularly at Omaha, were undamaged, and the GIs didn’t have the craters they’d been promised for hiding. However, the bombs falling farther inland probably hindered German reinforcement.
The medium bombers of the US Ninth Air Force did phenomenal work on Utah Beach. In an incredibly dangerous low-level run, 293 B-26 Marauders blasted the beach, damaging fortifications and leaving plenty of protective craters.
More medium and light bombers and fighter-bombers of the US Ninth Air Force and the RAF 2nd Tactical Air Force hit vital German road, rail, and bridge targets, making communication and reinforcement impossible.
Over 4000 fighters of the US Eighth and Ninth Air Forces, plus thousands of RAF fighters flew on that day. US P-38 Lightnings were chosen to cover the shipping lanes. Their unique twin-boomed silhouette was easily recognizable and less likely to be shot down by trigger-happy Allied sailors and soldiers. RAF Spitfires flew cover high above the landing beaches, and US P-47 Thunderbolts and P-51 Mustangs, both of which had longer range than the Spitfire, maintained a defensive perimeter in a broad semicircle around the invasion area. Later in the morning and throughout the day, US and RAF fighters strafed German road, rail, and bridge targets.
What didn’t happen on D-day is particularly notable. The German Air Force was essentially absent. This was due to months of the Allied pre-invasion campaign, which sought to destroy the Luftwaffe in the air, on the ground, and in the factory—and to bomb German airfields in the weeks prior to the landings. Indeed, the Luftwaffe only managed to fly 319 sorties in the entire Normandy region that day, with only a single strafing run over the landing beaches by two particularly brave Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. We can only imagine what might have happened if the Allies had not obtained air superiority.