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Determination, air power crucial to D-Day victory

These words were part of President Harry Truman's address to a joint session of Congress April 16, 1945, shortly after President Franklin Roosevelt died. President Truman's address made clear that the United States would see World War II through to the end. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Olenda Peña-Perez)

These words were part of President Harry Truman's address to a joint session of Congress April 16, 1945, shortly after President Franklin Roosevelt died. President Truman's address made clear that the United States would see World War II through to the end. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Staff Sgt. Olenda Peña-Perez)

Each of the 4,000 stars on the fountain wall at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., represents 100 American servicemembers who died during the war.

Each of the 4,000 stars on the fountain wall at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., represents 100 American servicemembers who died during the war. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Don Branum)

Arches at the north and south ends of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., commemorate victory in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

Arches at the north and south ends of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., commemorate victory in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Olenda Peña-Perez)

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Many D-Day accounts focus on the lethal conditions servicemembers faced as they came ashore on the beaches of Normandy, and for good reason. Allied forces suffered heavy casualties at Omaha and Juno beaches, and by June 11, more than 53,000 had been killed. The role of air power in the success of D-Day, however, cannot be denied.

Air power prepared the battlefield by denying the German army use of railways and airfields. Without airfields, the Germans could not oppose Allied air forces; without railways, the Germans were unable to bring reinforcements into the Normandy area. The air campaign began weeks before the ground battle to liberate France and open a second front against the German army.

Frederick Shaw, a historian for the Air Force Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., wrote for Air Force News about the Army Air Forces’ role in the Normandy invasion.

“During the last three weeks before D-Day, Allied heavy bombers, medium bombers and fighters struck vacant airfields throughout France,” Mr. Shaw wrote. Allied bombers dropped 66,000 tons of bombs on Normandy in the three months preceding D-Day, creating what Air Force News called a “railway desert” around the German forces. Another 14,000 tons of ordnance dropped onto radar installations the night of June 5.

“The invasion of Normandy began before dawn June 6 when 900 aircraft and 100 gliders of the IX Troop Carrier Command dropped the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions behind enemy lines,” he continued. “More than 2,300 B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers loosed 2,944 tons of bombs on coastal batteries and other shore defenses.”

The effort was the greatest demonstration of air power for its time, with approximately 13,000 Allied aircraft directly involved in the invasion. Then-Tech. Sgt. David Masko interviewed retired Army Col. Vito Pedone, a C-47 Pathfinder pilot and friend of Gen. Curtis LeMay.

“As we neared the English Channel, I remember turning the plane’s lights off. We stayed dark until we hit the drop zones and were headed back over England,” he said.

Colonel Pedone described a “never-ending stream” of C-47s that carried more than 18,000 airborne troops across the Channel ... and a storm of flak and tracer rounds in the skies around them.

“Many of our transport pilots worked in the airlines before the war: up until D-Day, they’d never seen combat before,” he said.

“You have no time to think about the big picture—D-Day,” he added. “You think about the people in your plane and do your job. There’s no time to be scared. But if you are afraid, you might as well get right out of the airplane ... because you must take control of your senses.”

Air superiority was near-total: the Luftwaffe flew 319 sorties on D-Day; the Allies flew 12,015.

However, while air power was a substantial contributor to Allied victory on D-Day, it was not the key—nor was the close coordination and planning among Allied forces. While the invasion would not have succeeded without either ingredient, the key to winning D-Day—and to winning the war—was the determination of servicemembers on the beaches and in the skies above the Normandy beaches in June 1944.

(Information compiled from Air Force News Service and staff reports.)