Warbirds: The Planes of D-Day

As 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of D-Day, we reflect on the aircraft that made it happen.

Warbirds of D-Day Feature

Warbirds of D-Day Feature

Photo by Scott Slocum

The 70-year anniversary of the Allied invasion of mainland Europe at Normandy Beach in France that we celebrated this year is a special one, as it is a solemn recognition of the incalculable contribution of a legion of fighters, the survivors of whom are now at least in their late 80s, most well into their 90s. All too soon the memory of that epic invasion, the climactic battle of World War II, will be the stuff of history only and not memory. So it is fitting that we mark this event.

The invasion, widely referred to as D-Day, was in truth a series of complex operations over several days, almost none of which went off quite as planned. The goal was to storm the heavily defended beaches of Normandy and gain a foothold on the European continent. The landing was to be the first step in what would prove a grueling march to Berlin to oust the murderous Nazi regime that had terrorized Europe for nearly a decade.

It is an understatement to say that the Allied air forces played a key role in the invasion; without the contribution of Allied fighter planes, transports, bombers, reconnaissance planes and troop carriers, the operation simply could not have happened.

In all, an estimated 13,000 Allied aircraft participated in the D-Day operations. It remains the single largest aerial operation in history. As it was an unprecedented action, it was a learning process, and there were fundamental misunderstandings about how aircraft would operate and interact. The operation was so critical and so complex that commanders made clear early on that they were willing to accept great losses in order to establish a beachhead.

Low weather in England and on the coast of France resulted in great confusion as airplanes departed from fields around England. The ceilings also forced drop planes to fly at lower altitudes than planned. Far above an overcast layer, bombers struggled to find their targets. Airplanes crashed into each other and others went missing altogether.

The operation, which commenced in the dark early-morning hours of June 6, 1944, was the most complex in military history, and it was clearly a surprise to the defenders, in large part because German commanders thought the weather, which was not much different from the conditions that had already delayed the operation for several days prior to the 6th, was again too poor for the Allies to launch an attack. It was an invasion that the Germans knew was coming, even if they didn’t know exactly where or when it would come.

The air operation had several phases, all of which were critical to the ultimate success of the invasion. First was an aerial bombardment of the German emplacements on the beach, artillery and supply lines. This first phase used heavy bombers and attack planes, including British Lancasters, American B-17 Flying Fortresses and Hawker Typhoons, among others, to "soften up" the extensive enemy defenses. Allied commanders hoped the bombings would neutralize the enemy's defenses, but that proved not to be the case. German capabilities remained formidable.

On the dark early morning of the invasion, hundreds of American C-47s (the military version of the Douglas DC-3) took off en masse from bases across England, congregating in multiple V-formations, each plane carrying more than a dozen paratroopers, the airborne fighters who would jump from the transports into occupied France to cut off German defenders from behind.

The low weather in England and in France that early morning made the airborne operation impossible to pull off smoothly, and as many as two-thirds of the paratroopers landed far from their intended jump zones. This created a scene of mass chaos in France as Allied soldiers encountered German foes and began what was in essence a series of hundreds of guerrilla skirmishes as they fought town by town to regroup.

The Waco CG-4 Hadrian played a critical role in the war, landing thousands of allied soldier behind German ines with guns and equipment. Cheap to build and easy to fly (if not land), the CG-4 could carry a jeep or Howitzer into battle, along with the men to operate the machines. After D-Day, the gliders were simply abadnoned in the fields on which they had landed.| Another wave of support came many hours later in the form of thousands of soldiers arriving on scene in gliders, American-made Waco CG-4 Hadrians and the larger British-made Airspeed Horsa models. The gliders were forced to arrive in the pre-dawn hours, since the airborne troops, who would already be on the ground, could not afford to wait many hours before re-establishing the supply of equipment and troops they would need to fight German soldiers. The prospect of a night landing in a glider into occupied territory, into fields riddled with defensive features and rocky farm fence lines, terrified pilots and soldier occupants alike. After the battle some pilots reported not being able to see anything until their craft touched ground in a near-stall.

Despite the anti-glider poles and ditches the Germans had created in larger fields across the area and the numerous and closely spaced hedgerows of the countryside, the glider invasion was a success, though, again, many of them failed to find their intended landing zones. Many gliders crashed, some with fatal results, including rough landings that dislodged heavy equipment that killed the gliders’ occupants.

The Waco gliders could carry around 15 troops, including pilots, though many were used for transporting heavy equipment, including Howitzer cannons and Jeeps. The Horsa gliders were even larger, able to carry as many as 30 troops. The loss rate for the gliders is hard to calculate, in part because they were considered largely disposable — hundreds were simply left behind by advancing troops, and because a rough landing in which the glider was destroyed but the occupants survived uninjured was a successful landing.

On the day of the invasion, Allied forces arriving from across the English Channel in landing craft faced withering attacks from German guns. Those emplacements, in return, took heavy fire from the 5-inch guns on American destroyers in the channel and Allied attack planes, including Martin B-26s and de Havilland Mosquitos. The bombers flew in low, traveling through thick flack and heavy gunfire to take out the German beach defenses. The Martin B-26 Marauder, largely unheralded for its wartime contributions, was the star, inflicting vast amounts of damage to German positions in support of the troops arriving on the beach. The B-26s came in just off the deck because of the low overcast. The Marauders were so low, in fact, that many pilots thought they'd been hit by enemy fire when in fact what they felt was the percussion of their own bombs being dropped from so low an altitude that they shook the B-26s hard.

The anti-aircraft fire from the German defenders was so heavy that it was a wonder any airplanes made it beyond the beach. And in fact many planes were lost, including 42 C-47s, each with as many as 20 men aboard. But with more than 14,000 sorties flown by more than 12,000 aircraft, the success rate was extremely high, especially in the face of such an unprecedented aerial assault. The D-Day invasion remains and will likely remain forever the largest air battle in history, with more than three times the number of aircraft as the next largest battles.

The fact is that nearly all of the aircraft in the air that day belonged to the Allies. The Luftwaffe planes were widely scattered, and although the Germans launched hundreds of sorties on June 6, only a couple of airplanes arrived on scene, including one JU-88 twin bomber that strafed the beach at Normandy, drawing thousands of rounds of fire in response and crashing and exploding as a result. The Allies had achieved air supremacy in the west of France, with the Germans holding their remaining aircraft in reserve for the coming battles they knew would lead on toward Berlin.

Another phase of the attack, aerial bombardment by Allied heavy bombers, was largely a failure, due in part to the lack of sufficient precision in bombing, with the worst of it on D-Day and in ensuing battles causing large numbers of Allied casualties. In his seminal book on the invasion, aviation historian Stephen Ambrose claimed that B-17 pilots flying at 20,000 feet were so uncertain of the location of their targets and so afraid of hitting their comrades below that they erred on the conservative side and largely missed their intended targets on the beachhead, which doubtless saved Allied lives.

The fighters of D-Day were a different story. Because the Allies had achieved air supremacy, there were no Luftwaffe fighters to engage. This came as a great disappointment to the Allied fighter pilots, who for months ahead of the actual invasion had been anticipating a lively engagement with their German rivals. Instead, in addition to fire from German gun emplacements, the biggest threat Allied fighters faced was from friendly ground fire. Indeed, American and British ground forces shot down a number of their own airplanes, the exception being the P-38 Lightning, nicknamed the "Fork Tailed Devil" by German soldiers. Its distinctive twin-boom design made it easy for ground personnel to recognize and, therefore, refrain from firing at it.

Allied Supreme Cmdr. Dwight D. Eisenhower said the most important piece of equipment in the Allied arsenal was the C-47 Dakota, also known as the Skytrain. In the early morning hours of D-Day hundreds of the planes carried more than 13,000 paratroopers beyond the beach, dropping them into occupied France to begin cutting off the German defenses on the coast. Forty-two C-47s were lost, most to German anti-aircraft fire.

The flights of the C-47s were far from trouble-free. Because of the dark night, low clouds and heavy fire, many of the transports approached so low that many jumpers’ parachutes never had a chance to open fully. Other C-47s, in an attempt to avoid enemy fire, came in too high, making the ride down for jumpers a long one, as German soldiers on the ground shot at them while they descended, the tracers lighting up the sky and providing a chilling view for the paratroopers. According to one estimate, in all of the confusion over the location of the drop zones and the confusion of the jumpers, as many as 70 percent of parachute troops never connected with their squads and were left on their own to fight guerrilla skirmishes.

In the aftermath of the battle some critics harshly criticized the pilots of the C-47s, a view that is hard to accept given the nearly impossible conditions pilots faced, from dark of night to low clouds to heavy fire and heavy flak to their pure inexperience. The confusion on the ground, some military historians believe, actually worked against the Germans, who were unable to fight a conventional battle against the invaders, who seemed to appear out of nowhere.

The Douglas C-47 was invaluable during D-Day. More than 1,000 of them were used in the pre-dawn hours to drop thousands of parachutists into enemy territory.|

The frustration of fighter pilots was understandable. Veteran aviators who had fought plane-to-plane with the enemy in the skies over Europe were relegated to a support role. P-51s served as escorts to bombers although there were no enemy fighters to protect them from. Many pilots of Spitfires, proud heroes of the Battle of Britain, were asked to sit out the battle as naval artillery spotters were trained to fly the erstwhile fighters to provide targeting assistance to Allied ships in the channel. P-38s provided cover for ships and troop landings, though it was a tall order given the chaos on the ground, the well-hidden and reinforced German positions and the poor weather.

Pilots of Republic P-47s, the seemingly indestructible fighter-bombers that had of late been supplanted by the faster and longer-legged P-51s as escorts for B-17s into Germany, had the humble job of patrolling the coast south of the invasion zone, keeping a lookout for German fighters that never came. One of the most effective fighters of the battle was the Hawker Typhoon, which provided what we now refer to as "close air support" for Canadian and Australian invasion troops. Even before D-Day, Typhoons, carrying either rockets (an innovation in 1944) or bombs, did yeoman's work as low-altitude, high-speed attack platforms, taking out a couple of critical Nazi radar installations in the days leading up to June 6.

After D-Day many of the airplanes featured here returned to their otherwise normal roles, the P-51, for instance, providing support to ground forces advancing through France toward Germany or providing escort protection to B-17s, which went back to their designed role of high-altitude bomber. On the other hand, the Waco CG-4 gliders were left in the fields where they landed (and where they were picked over for their materials) as the Allied army marched east toward Berlin.

The star of D-Day, the C-47, soldiered on, helping move tens of thousands of Allied soldiers and hundreds of tons of their gear in the ever-expanding territory controlled by Allied forces all the way through V-E Day in the spring of 1945.

It is a sad irony that after the war many of the airplanes of D-Day, shining stars of a conflict for the ages, were rendered obsolete within a few short years. There were of course exceptions. The DC-3 remained a workhorse for the military for another decade after D-Day.

Most of the airplanes that paved the way for victory in Europe, however, were on their way out due to the rise of turbine power plants, which delivered far greater speeds, climb performance and, eventually, reliability. Even the top propeller-driven fighters in the European theater, the Mustang, P-38 and Spitfire among them, soon gave way to jets, though some of the classic fighters did assume lesser roles for a time as trainers, ground attack planes or reconnaissance platforms.

By then, the battle for Europe had been long won. New battles loomed in what would become the Cold War. New planes would emerge. While mostly gone from the inventories of the Allied forces they served so well, the planes of D-Day, from Mustang to Waco glider, would live on in the hearts of all who served and all who honor that service.

Here is a closer look at these notable planes of D-Day (click on the names to read more):

An unsung hero of the war, the Martin B-26 Marauder medium bomber earned a reputation as one of the toughest planes in the fleet. On D-Day the B-26 was used successfully more as an attack plane than a bomber, coming in low and aiming for the gun emplacements on the beach.

Crew: 7

Principal Role: Bomber

Max Weight: 37,000 pounds

Wingspan: 71 feet

Max Speed: 248 knots

Armament: Two .30-caliber and two .50-caliber machine guns plus 4,800 pounds of bombs

The Typhoon was one of the latest British fighters introduced in WWII, created to do battle with Germany’s fast and agile Focke-Wulf F-W190. On D-Day, the Typhoon was a jack of all trades, hitting German guns and providing close air support for ground troops all while watching out for C-47s.

Crew: 1

Principal Role: Ground Attack

Max Weight: 13,250 pounds

Wingspan: 42 feet

Max Speed: 359 knots

Armament: Four 20 mm Hispano cannons; by D-Day, some were even fitted with rockets

Usurped by the faster and longer-legged P-51 in its previous mission of escorting B-17s deep into Europe, the P-47 came into its own on D-Day, doing reconnaissance, air support, attack and escort duties. The famously tough “Jug” suffered lots of hits but not many losses.

Crew: 1

Principal Role: Fighter

Max Weight: 17,500 pounds

Wingspan: 41 feet

Max Speed: 376 knots

Armament: Six or eight

.50-caliber machine guns and either 10 rockets or 2,500 pounds of bombs

Waco CG-4 Hadrian

The CG-4 assault glider was almost without question the most important plane at D-Day that no one has heard of. With its ability to transport a lot of troops and get them reliably to their target, the big wooden glider allowed the Allies to put pressure on the enemy behind the lines at the battle’s outset.

Crew: 2

Personnel: 13

Principal Role: Personnel and Equipment Transport

Max Weight: 7,500 pounds

Wingspan: 84 feet

Max towed Speed: 87 knots

Armament: None

A superior fighter during the Battle of Britain four years earlier, the Spitfire was losing its luster by D-Day, with faster and more powerful Luftwaffe fighters emerging. On D-Day the Spitfire was used for spotting and sending coordinates to Destroyers who were pounding Nazi lines from the channel.

Crew: 1

Principal Role: Fighter, Escort, Air Support

Max Weight: 6,785 pounds

Wingspan: 37 feet

Max Speed: 325 knots

Armament: Two Hispano 20 mm cannons and four Browning .303 machine guns

Get online content like this delivered straight to your inbox by signing up for our free enewsletter.

We welcome your comments on flyingmag.com. In order to maintain a respectful environment, we ask that all comments be on-topic, respectful and spam-free. All comments made here are public and may be republished by Flying.