Allied aircraft used during Overlord

Many works have been written about the Allied Air Forces and Overlord; thus little shall be said of it in this website. It is however, important that a short description be made; by way of introduction.

With Overlord being the ‘supreme operation’ planned for 1944, all the resources of the RAF based in the United Kingdom were placed at the disposal of Eisenhower; along with two forward Tactical Air Forces being established.  These were the British Second Tactical Air Force (2TAF), and the American Ninth Air Force. The combined Tactical Air Force of U.S./British elements was known as the Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF), being commanded by Air Chief Marshall Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory.

An expanded AEAF Bombing Committee was established to study targets, and make recommendations as to how, and by whom they should be attacked, thus centralising the work; with schedules of Air Targets being issued on 23 May 1944. These targets were adjusted day by day, as necessary.  Mallory had stated that it was essential that ‘the direction of all tactical air operations should be centralised,’ so, both the Ninth Air Force, 2TAF and other Allied Air Forces employed in the tactical area were operated as one tactical air force. As a result of this, 2TAF aircraft were not restricted to operations in the eastern assault area, but were employed wherever they were required. This was particularly fortunate for the Americans, who possessed no ground attack aircraft as well suited to the role of tank-busting as the British Hawker Typhoon; this aircraft being called upon to stem the German advance around Mortain during Operation Lüttich, 7-13 August; a day later referred to as, ‘The Day of the Typhoon’. Here, during a decisive engagement,  rocket-carrying Typhoons halted the German attempt to reach the Atlantic, and so delay the Allied advance towards the Seine.

Throughout Overlord, the best aircraft types for each role were represented in significant numbers, from the strategic ‘heavy’ bombers such as the B.17s / B.24s and Lancasters; and medium bombers such as Bostons, Marauders and Mitchells. RAF Stirlings and Halifaxes performed as troop transports and glider tugs, along with C.47 Dakotas. Twin-engined Beaufighters operated with Coastal Command, whilst the versatile Mosquito performed long-range reconnaissance, fighter-bomber and night-fighter roles. The RAF used Mustang IIIs for long range reconnaissance, whilst American Mustangs were used as ‘top-cover’ fighters; along with P.47 Thunderbolts and P.38s; both also operating in ground attack and armed reconnaissance roles. The RAF utilised Spitfires of various marks for its ‘low cover’ fighter role; the fighters establishing an air-umbrella over the Channel and beachhead.  However, due to the cloud, on D-Day, both the high and low cover fighters had to operate at the same altitude; the sky being congested with aircraft.

To the author, the Hawker Typhoon 1B defines air support during Overlord; just as the Bell UH-1 ‘Huey’ helicopter defined the Vietnam War.

Initially designed as an interceptor, the Typhoon was disappointing other than at low level. The ‘Tiffie’ as it became called, was a big, fast and potent fighter; being armed with four 20mm cannon, and either bombs, or eight sixty-pound rocket projectiles (RPs). The aircraft could withstand large amounts of battle damage and still return home. Based at forward strips in Normandy from mid-June, Typhoons did however have one fatal flaw. Initially they were not fitted with air filters, and the Normandy dust played havoc with their complex Napier Sabre engines; as we shall saw in Chapter Three.

A typical Typhoon RP attack would consist of the squadron taking off from a forward air strip and climbing towards the sea, before heading south again and crossing the frontline at speed.  If it was a ground-support sortie, ground forces would mark the target with smoke, typically red.  The Typhoons would attack, in line from around 4,000ft, diving onto the target at an angle of up to sixty degrees, before firing and pulling up at around 1,000ft, whilst turning away from the anti-aircraft fire. Secondary attacks were made using their cannon.  However; often during Overlord, bad weather precluded this modus operandi, as described by the diarist of 174 Squadron. ‘Squadron dived below 10/10 cloud base at 1000ft crossing beach at Pointe et Raz. Weather thick cumulous cloud at 4,000ft.’

However, the lower altitude made the Typhoons more vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire; but it was often the case that poor weather prevented targets being attacked by medium bombers, so Typhoon fighter-bombers would be called in to fly under the low cloud.  As Leigh-Mallory confessed to his diary on 30 June 1944, ‘The weather is bad for bombers, but alright for fighter-bombers. I am going to send them out to plaster anything they can see; 197 Squadron attacked a bridge at Amaye Sur Orne that day, its diarist commenting that, ‘Due to bad weather the results were not observed.’

Typhoons operated a ‘cab-rank’ system, providing instant close support; with squadrons loitering overhead and awaiting a call from a forward Visual Control Post (VCP). Once received, an aircraft would break away, attack the target and return to base to rearm and refuel. As 174 Squadron’s diarist wrote on 8 June 1944, ‘At 14:00 VCP programme was laid on attacking tanks near Auney sur Odon.’

Overall, the combined Allied air forces available for Overlord numbered 11,590 aircraft. Combined, they flew 14,674 sorties, losing 113 aircraft; mainly due to flak. As Terraine wrote, ‘on D-Day  the Allied armies would have faced disaster but for the Air Forces. This being despite the poor weather, Leigh-Mallory writing, ‘The weather is still lousy. It depresses me.’

A.Pitman, MA Military History