I’ve written about D-day before here and here, but I’ve recently found research about the planning and the pre-landing war at 25,000 feet. One of the issues that the strategists had to deal with was the mighty Luftwaffe. Almost a year before the landing in Normandy, Operation Overlord or D-Day would have been much different if air cover had been used against the Allied landing force. They had to find a way to get rid of German air superiority before the landing or it would be unsuccessful.
In the month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Army’s Eight Air Force was established in Savannah, Georgia. Less than a year later, it is tasked with defeating the most powerful air force in the world, the German Luftwaffe. By the end of the War in Europe, there were thousands of B-17’s and fighters produced. Unfortunately, the early fighters couldn’t match the bomber range so they flew without cover both to and from the target until the fighters could find and protect what was left of the Bomber squadron. It was thought that with 17 machine guns protecting each plane, they would be self defending against the Messerschmitt’s. Unfortunately, it was a turkey shoot for the Germans. Almost 75% of the airmen would fail to complete the 25 missions which would complete their duty in the European theater. (Authors note: I have the greatest respect for the contribution and sacrifice of the other countries who participated. Their efforts can be found by other authors and should be read and celebrated for what they did).
Much of this was proved on Big Week which ended on February 25, 1944 when more than 2,000 American airmen failed to return from their mission. The U.S. fighters were not able to engage the German fighters deep over Europe until the advent of the P-51 Mustang which was faster, better armed and had the range to protect the B-17’s the entire mission. It was discovered that the Mustangs could win the battle against the German fighters, but they had to beat the deadline of D-Day to stop the Luftwaffe.
It has been written in documentaries that with the knowledge that the German’s would come after the B-17’s (the Germans used radar) and that the P-51’s would win, they used the bombers as bait to knock out the enemy’s air power. This was a certain death sentence for the crews of the bomber squadrons, but knowing that the landing at Normandy and the entire Operation Overlord would fail unless this was accomplished sealed the fate for the Eighth. Nevermore was this apparent when the Eight was ordered to bomb Berlin on March 6, 1944. This was the center of German government and the most heavily fortified city against air attack with an estimated 70% of the Luftwaffe fighters and 750 anti-aircraft weapons were placed. Although ten’s of thousands of pounds of bombs were dropped, 69 bombers were lost. The goal of reducing the Luftwaffe was accomplished as more than 179 German Fighters were destroyed. The difference was that American planes and pilots could be replaced, the Germans couldn’t produce any more and these were their best pilots.
Two more raids were then ordered on Berlin, some say to draw out the fighters so they could be eliminated. It was the beginning of the end of the Luftwaffe. This strategy ensured the goal of Allied air superiority over Normandy, but at a very high cost.
By the end of the war, the 8th Air Force would suffer 26000 combat deaths. This was more than the Marines suffered in all of World War II.
We honor the soldiers who gave their all, many with the ultimate sacrifice to secure freedom in Europe and likely for the world. We know from history the amphibious landing and the issues and outcome. It all came at great cost and reminds us that freedom is never free. It always comes at some cost. For the year prior to the landing at Normandy, there was a great cost at 25,000 feet.