The attainment of air superiority over the Normandy landing area and hinterland was an essential prerequisite for the Allied Invasion in June 1944.
Luftwaffe reaction to the landing at Salerno, Italy in September 1943, where ground attack machines, supported by bomber aircraft armed with the new remote controlled glider bombs, had caused serious problems. In a gradually intensifying battle of attrition, the Allied daylight aerial assault on the Continent culminated in the bombing of Germany on a massive scale.
However, Luftwaffe defensive success in the second half of 1943 was only negated by American long range, high performance fighter escorts, led by the P-51 Mustang, which enabled adequate air superiority over the German heartland six months before D-Day.
Hauptmann Georg Schröder, Gruppenkommandeur II/JG 2 recalled:
‘Already in April-May 1944 it became clear to us at the front, through the increase in enemy escort fighters, now also with much greater range, and thus also the expansion of the four-engined bomber attacks on the German motherland, that a definite change was approaching.’
By 6 June 1944 cumulative German fighter losses, especially of unit leaders at all levels, had made the Luftwaffe a spent force.
Luftwaffe fighter operations over Normandy concentrated on attacking the landing fleets and the beaches initially and then the congested beachheads, and they also flew many free chase missions.
The planned dispatch of German fighter reinforcements to Normandy duly took place after the landings, encompassing 17 Jagdgruppen in addition to 6 already there (c. 800 machines altogether).
The Allies fielded 3,467 heavy bombers, 1,645 medium-light bombers, and 5,409 fighters and fighter-bombers over Normandy, and on D-Day itself flew 14,674 operational sorties (losses = 113, mainly to flak) as against 319 Luftwaffe sorties.
During June 1944 Allied sorties were tenfold those of the Germans, who lost 931 aircraft in combat, above their known claims of 908 victories. Due to the vast Allied air superiority, largely the fruits of the Battle of Germany, losses were crippling; by the end of June available German fighters in France numbered only 425 machines.
Oberleutnant Fritz Engau, Staffelkapitän 2/JG 11, encapsulated the odds against the Jagdwaffe:
‘On the Invasion Front the superior numbers of the Allies were particularly large. The Mustangs circled over almost every cross-roads, junction and railway station, with some pairs low down, the others high above them as cover. Spitfires and other fighter types were also there in profusion.
We suffered appalling losses, already on the transfer flight (actually on landing from it) from Germany to France on 7 June 1944. The only significant success our Gruppe had in Normandy was actually on this transfer flight, when flying over France we still had reasonable numbers, and we encountered an approximately equal-sized force of Mustangs over the Forest of Rambouillet on 7 June.’
Oberleutnant Hans-R. Hartigs, 4/JG 26 flew over the Invasion area until being badly wounded:
‘The operations from 6 June 1944 in Operation Overlord, were particularly costly for us. Little more than 200-400 fighters were serviceable. We were hopelessly inferior to the English and Americans.
During this time I flew many low level attacks. We had two extra 2 cm cannons built into the outer wings and beneath the wings two 21 cm rockets that were very effective against tanks and flak positions.
In this campaign I also flew as Schwarm-, Staffel– and even Gruppenfűhrer, though never with more than four-sixteen machines, except for a couple of missions where we flew with entire Jagdverbänden in the area north-west of Paris with between ten and twelve Gruppen with 20-100 aircraft at a time.
I was shot down twice in this campaign over Northern France, and bailed out the second time in August 1944. On this latter occasion I was surprised by American fighters while landing at my own base, and before I bailed out I pulled my aircraft up steeply and then when I was out I collided with the trimming tabs on the tailfin.
I suffered a broken pelvis, broken jaw and broken ribs, and was in hospital until October.’
Relocated to the west
Leutnant Gerd Schindler, an experienced pilot who had flown with III/JG 52 in Russia, was one of those in IV/JG 27 who flew in to Rommilly on 7 June 1944. They flew their first operations the same day and immediately became embroiled in combat with Allied fighters – Typhoons, Thunderbolts and Mustangs.
The days were long, first take-offs at 05h00 already and last landings at 22h00. Schindler survived three days of this and having moved to Paris Guyancourt, on 10 June, only his fourth day in this theatre, he was shot down by a Thunderbolt, hit in the thigh and bailed out; he landed in an active resistance area but was rescued by a French farmer that brought him to a local doctor.
As an example of the losses of a single Staffel, 7/JG 51 transferred from the Russian Front and arrived in Normandy with 15 pilots; within the first month of operations eight were dead, including its newly-appointed leader, and one a POW.
Their previous Staffelkapitän, Hauptmann Karl-Heinz Weber, highly experienced victor in 136 combats in Russia, was appointed to lead III/JG 1. Arriving in the evening of 6 June, Weber led his new Gruppe on their first operation over Normandy next day and did not return.
‘There were no successes we could report’
Leutnant Hans Grűnberg, Staffelkapitän 5/JG 3:
‘In the first few days after arriving in Evreux each Staffel had to prepare one Schwarm for dropping bombs as Jabos. The targets were the Allied fleets, which gave such effective artillery protection for the landed troops, and the landing craft.
There were no successes we could report. It was almost impossible that we would be able to drop bombs in the landing zone. The enemy fighters controlled the airspace and the larger ships carried barrage balloons for extra protection.
Losses to the units of II/JG 3 were continuous. On our airfields we were constantly subjected to strafing and bombing.’
Allied air supremacy was total.
Patrick Eriksson is emeritus Professor of Geology, University of Pretoria, has co-authored/-edited three scientific books and over 230 papers, and is a veteran of the Namibian Bush War. Alarmstart South and Final Defeat is his most recent aviation history book, and will be published on 15 October by Amberley Publishing.