D-Day plus 60: AF bombers set stage for D-Day
LONDON — The men of the 398th Bomb Group got up and went to work on the morning of June 6, 1944.
Their effort that day — bombing Juno Beach ahead of the invasion by Canadian troops — was nothing to write home about. The 195 missions they flew before and after D-Day included several that were more exciting and many that were more successful.
But none, perhaps, were more historic.
“You knew that it was a pivotal point in history,” said Keith Anderson, 80, who was co-pilot of the group’s lead B-17 that day. “I knew that I was participating in a turning point in world history.
“We could hardly wait to get back to base and turn on the radio to see how it was going.”
Anderson and other veterans of the 398th BG, plus several family members, gathered in England this week before heading south to Normandy, this time on a ferry.
They will return to England next week for ceremonies at the Cambridge American Cemetery in Madingley and to visit their old base, now mostly farmland, at Nuthampstead, southwest of Cambridge.
They are aware that the 60th anniversary of D-Day is a time to honor the dogfaces who struggled ashore to grab a toehold on the northern edge of Nazi-held Europe.
“We’re not coming to interfere with anything,” said Allen Ostrom, 80, who was a tail gunner in the war and is now an organizer of the reunion. “But it meant something to us.”
Both he and Anderson live in the Seattle area.
The visitors will leave behind in Normandy a plaque at Courseulles-sur-Mer commemorating their group’s efforts on that momentous day.
Ceremonies this weekend rightly will proclaim the heroism of the foot soldiers who waded ashore 60 years ago. What may not be mentioned, however, is the effectiveness of the air campaign in the months before the invasion helped lead to its success.
Jack Livesey, research and information officer at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, England, said the efforts of the U.S. Army Air Force and the Royal Air Force were focused for several months on northern France.
“From January 1944, they concentrated heavily on the invasion area,” he said.
However, so as not to tip their hand about the impending invasion’s location, they bombed other places as well, mostly near Calais, where the Germans expected the invasion to take place.
“For every bomb dropped in Normandy, they dropped two elsewhere,” Livesey said.
They targeted defensive works, rail junctions, roads and bridges, anything that would hinder the German defense of the invasion.
The air campaign had been so successful that the German Luftwaffe — air force — was practically a nonplayer on D-Day. Only two Fockwulfe fighters strafed the landing beaches, making a pass at the British forces on Sword Beach.
“Then they beat it the hell out of there,” said Livesey.
But the weather that troubled invasion planners for weeks encumbered the bombing effort as the ships sailed across the Channel. Livesey said the cloud cover was thick and hung only 2,000 feet above the coast, rendering bombardiers nearly blind.
“On Omaha [Beach], the bombing was not effective at all. They overshot the beach by several miles,” he said, adding the effectiveness was only marginally better — if at all — along the other beaches.
“It’s a rotten thing to say because they did try hard. But it was not effective,” he said.
But D-Day was not the end of the war, only a new front. The bombers were instrumental in assisting the breakout from Normandy over the next few weeks, bombing targets across the landscape as the Allies sought to enlarge their toehold.
And the war continued for the better part of a year, giving men of the 398th Bomb Group, even those who came after D-Day, a chance to have a role in the ultimate victory.
Bill Markham, 81, from Oregon, flew 23 missions before the war’s end. He deflects the accolades tossed at him and his peers for their efforts.
“I don’t look at myself as part of ‘The Greatest Generation,’” he said. “The people here in these graveyards are the great ones.”
Ostrom, too, waves off any talk of heroics. His aircraft’s crew of 10 survived 35 missions intact.
“I’m happy to say that not one of our guys was injured,” he said. “People got shot down on either side of us, but not us.”
Russ Davis, 80, from Washington state, survived, but not without difficulty. Flying a mission over Germany on Nov. 2, 1944, the B-17 he was piloting was damaged by flak and set upon by fighters, which knocked it from the sky, forcing the crew to bail out.
“I was shot at in the chute on my way down from the ground,” he said.
“There was a civilian [on the ground] who wanted to run a manure fork through me.
“I spent my 21st birthday in a prison camp.”
There will be time ahead, however, for such talk. This weekend is dedicated to the men who died and those who survived the beaches on Normandy 60 years ago.
Anderson said, “I wish we could have done more to help them.”