For its first one hundred missions, the 392nd bombed targets to reduce the Third Reich’s ability to wage war: factories, railroads, oil refineries, dockyards, bridges, V-1 and V-2 rocket sites, and airfields. In mid-1944, though, the emphasis turned to targets in direct support of American ground forces.
Weeks after D-Day, General Omar Bradley’s army was bogged down in the marshes and dense hedgerows of northern France. In his autobiography, A General’s Life, he writes of his “new plan for a breakout ... [focusing] on a very narrow front in the St. Lo area.... A key feature of the offensive would be a massive, paralyzing air attack on the Germans in the narrow front.” Called Operation Cobra, it was scheduled for 19 July.
As bad weather pushed the start date back, Bradley finetuned Cobra. “Its key feature, the saturation bombing of the German concentrations opposite us, was risky... [It] called for pinpoint saturation bombing of a rectangle three and a half miles wide and one and a half miles deep, south of the St. Lo-Periers road to which [troops of the US Army’s VII Corps] would advance prior to the jump-off. There was no room for error; a mistake on the part of the aviators could bring a rain of bombs on our own troops.
“To minimize the chances for error, I proposed a plan whereby our aircraft would approach the rectangle on a course parallel to the east-west St. Lo-Periers road and, of course, south of it. So directed, our planes would not fly over our own troops. Thus, if the aviators dropped bombs long or short of the target area (as they were wont to do), the misdirected bombs would fall on the German side of the... road, not ours.”
On 19 July, Army and Air Force representatives met to discuss the air support Bradley required. According to 8AF’s Report of Operations, 24 and 25 July, 1944 (dated 26 Mar 1945), the Allied Expeditionary Air Force was tasked to “dispatch such forces as would be necessary to saturate this area with instantaneously fused bombs ... within a minimum of time to attain the maximum concentration of firepower immediately before the assault by the ground forces.”
To achieve this decisive bombardment, 8AF heavy bombers, 9AF medium bombers, and fighter-bombers from the Second Tactical Air Force would be used, all bombing under visual conditions only.
Per the Report, “The corollary requirements were discussed at length. Ground force representatives proposed to withdraw the troops no more than 800 yards from the north boundary of the heavy bomber target area. A counterproposal for an interval of 3000 yards was made by this Command with the reminder that even this distance would not eliminate the possibility of gross bombing errors. The final decision provided for a 1500-yard withdrawal.”
Bradley stressed how important it was for the bombers to fly parallel to the road. But, he writes, “The airmen raised objections. A parallel approach, they held, would maximize our aircraft’s exposure to enemy flak and present the narrowest rather than the widest target, as well as air congestion over the target. I countered that flying parallel to the road would enable our planes to attack out of the rising sun in the morning or the setting sun in the evening, partly blinding the German flak gunners and minimizing flak risk to our planes. In any case, I said unequivocably [sic] and frankly, I would not agree to bombing on a course perpendicular to the St. Lo-Periers road that would bring the planes over our own troops on the bombing approach.”
As described in the Report, 8AF thought its position was clear. “Ground force representatives favored an approach parallel to the St. Lo-Periers Road to nullify possible range errors [bomb impacts either before or past the target] but it was pointed out that deflection errors [bomb impacts to the left or right of the target] which could readily result in bombfalls within friendly lines would be highly probable on such an approach as the large force of bombers attempted to concentrate their attack on the one-mile front within the allotted period. Air force officers were firm in their belief that an approach from the north, perpendicular to the road and five-mile front of the target, had definite advantages. Approached in this manner, the St. Lo-Periers Road would afford an outstanding landmark on which to base accurate range sightings and deflection errors would be of no consequence. Furthermore, the bombers would be subjected to a minimum of interference from enemy ground defenses before bomb releases, reducing the hazard of bombs dropping from battle-damaged aircraft.”
It was agreed that American artillery would be used to counter German flak. Although it was imperative that the target be properly marked, US artillery would not lay down colored smoke as “it was questionable whether such markers would be visible from bombing altitude” and there was even a risk “they might impair visibilities.” Other decisions made: 1) Ground and air forces would be ready by 21 July though ground forces would delay their attack up to four days if “weather requirements for the air forces” dictated. 2) Exact day and time for the attack would be determined by the air forces. 3) Half the available fighterbombers would start the attack, followed 15 minutes later by the heavy bombers. Thirty minutes after the heavies finished bombing, the medium bombers would commence; about 15 minutes after their bomb drop, the remaining fighterbombers would attack. 4) Ground forces would begin their assault when the heavy bombers finished.
Heavy rain delayed Operation Cobra for several days. Although the 24 July forecast was for 3/10 low cloud with very poor visibility, 8AF decided the tactical bombing could begin at 10am. Each of its three heavy bomb divisions was tasked to provide 500 a/c. Their objective was “the entire target area” but each unit in the formation was “given Aiming Points or sections to insure complete coverage.”
2BD was to bomb first from 15,000 feet, followed five minutes later by 3BD at 15,000 feet, with 1BD finishing up from 16,000 feet. Bomb loads were 100 pound General Purpose/High Explosive (GP/HE) and 120 or 260 pound Fragmentation bombs.
Because of the anticipated cloud cover, 8AF asked that the target be marked with colored smoke. First US Army would therefore lay down red smoke markers “on the northern boundary of the target area at two-minute intervals from zero minus five minutes to zero plus 50 minutes at one-mile intervals. Bombardiers were cautioned that short bombfalls would endanger friendly troops.”
A total of 1,586 heavy bombers were dispatched. The 564 2BD ships met 10/10 cloud cover over the target and none attacked the primary. Some planes bombed a railroad intersection about 25 miles southwest of the assault area, two aircraft bombed targets of opportunity south of the primary area, and one B-24 released its bombs on allied Airstrip No. 5. (The Report says, “This accident was apparently caused by the bombardier striking the toggle switch in a reflex movement when a package of chaff dropped by another aircraft struck the nose turret.”) The other planes brought back their bombs.
There were fewer clouds when 482 a/c from 3BD went over the target, but visibility was still “exceedingly poor.” Only 35 ships attacked the primary target, even after three bombing runs to ensure it was positively identified. Their release times were thus later than those of the third force. Most 3BD planes returned without bombing.
Cloud conditions had improved by the time 1BD’s 540 bombers reached the target area and 317 dropped over 2,800 bombs. Most fell beyond the target area. Unfortunately, 12 planes dropped 473 High Explosive bombs “within friendly lines approximately 2200 yards to the north of the northern boundary of the target.”
In all, only 352 bombers actually attacked the primary target, with “a relatively small number...within the immediate confines of the target.” While the last formation was still over the target, it was decided that the breakout by ground forces would have to be postponed until the next day.
In A War Remembered, 579th navigator Manny Abrams writes, “On July 24th a ‘maximum effort’ (translation: as many airworthy B-24s as possible) was scheduled to drop a great tonnage of bombs into that fairly confined area of German resistance. I remember that we did reach the peninsula but we were recalled due to solid undercast. Although we frequently bombed through such a cloud cover, the possibility of any bombing error in close proximity to the Allied line prohibited such a gamble. American GIs were just too close to the target area. The risk was greater than the reward. All planes returned to bases without accomplishing the mission. It would have to wait until another day.”
This was the first mission for 576th pilot Wildrick Hart and crew. Wil writes in The War Years, “Because of the need for accuracy, the lead ship was assigned 12,000 feet [bombing altitude] instead of the usual 20,000-22,000 feet. The [German] flak gunners got a break because it’s a whale of a lot easier to hit an airplane at 2 miles up than it is at 4 miles up. However, we also got a break on this one. The 392nd was the first Group over the target and the flak guns didn’t really get warmed up until the arrival of the Groups behind us.
“We carried a full load of 120-pound frag clusters. Takeoff and climb through the clouds to the assembly point was just like it went in the Link Trainer—strictly routine. When we arrived at the target, it was still covered 10/10 with clouds, so all 48 ships returned to base without releasing any bombs. This was the first time that I had landed a heavily loaded B-24, but everything went OK. At debriefing we were warned not to discuss the mission since, obviously, it would have to be repeated. There was some concern about whether or not we would be credited with a mission since we did not drop any bombs but it turned out that the rule was—if you get shot at, it’s a mission.” It was indeed a total effort for the 392nd which dispatched 48 planes, more than any other Group in the 2BD.
“Owing to a mixup in the orders, the bad weather and human error,” he wrote, “many bombs fell behind our own lines, killing 25 and wounding 131. One reason for the error was that the planes flew a course perpendicular to our lines rather than parallel to it as I had been assured they would. I have seldom been so angry. It was duplicity—a shocking breach of good faith... I launched an immediate investigation to find out why the airmen had bombed on a perpendicular course rather than a parallel one as promised. To my astonishment, the Air Force brass simply lied, claiming they had never agreed to bomb parallel to the road. Not only that, they put me over an impossible barrel. They would not mount a second attack except perpendicularly to the road. Fearing the Germans were onto us, I had no choice but to accept what the airmen offered and we reset the jump-off for the following day, July 25.”
That evening, 8AF asked its three bomb divisions “whether the experience on this mission dictated a change in the direction of the bombing axis.” Per the Report, there was “complete agreement” that the perpendicular approach to the Road was “the best direction of attack from the standpoint of safety to ground troops.”
In his article, The Ethics of Operation Cobra and the Normandy Breakout, Army LtCol James Jay Carafano points out, “A parallel attack was no ‘magic bullet’ for solving the challenge of bombing in close proximity to ground troops. In fact, with the battlefield totally obscured by smoke, dust and fire there was no guarantee that a parallel approach would have been any more successful in preventing short bombings. In addition, even on a parallel course there was a risk of hitting American troops. If the bombers overshot or undershot the target area, bombs might have landed on U.S. forces holding positions either northeast or northwest of the target area. All the previous Allied experience in airground coordination suggested that a parallel approach was not a sufficient precaution to preclude a serious threat from short bombings.”
Carafano writes that air commanders concluded “without clearly relaying their final decision to General Bradley” that the perpendicular course “would minimize the time aircraft would be over enemy lines, exposed to antiaircraft fire. More important, the target box was narrower on the parallel axis. On a parallel approach fewer planes could fit over the target area. It was simple geometry. It would take much longer to complete the bombing on a parallel course. A parallel bombing run would be more like a shifting steady rain, rather than the single powerful strike General Bradley needed. To maximize shock affect and deliver the most bombs in the shortest time, the bombers needed to attack perpendicular to the target.”
Carafano says, “Either someone lied or, if both sides are to be believed, each left the July 19 meeting believing exactly opposite thing[s]. Indeed, misperception on both parts may be the answer. The bulk of the evidence suggests that the confluence of mismatched personalities, the convoluted relationship between air and ground commanders and the lack of a sound doctrine created a situation in which, at the end of the day, commanders simply failed to understand what each other were doing.”
8AF sent a teletype at 11:30pm on 24 July to all units who would fly the next day. It emphasized, “Bombardiers will use all available check points to locate targets and insure accuracy of bombers. Some casualties were reported today due to shortages caused by mechanical malfunctions and poor visibility. Formation commanders will endeavor to keep formations closed up and keep bombardier posted as to positions in order to ensure as much as possible that no bombs are dropped short.”
The weather was supposed to be good enough to bomb between 10 and 11am. Mission planners were at first concerned about expected five knot surface winds which might push smoke and dust from bomb bursts north, over the road landmark. The Report concluded, though, “that such a wind would have no significant effect.” For the most part, all facets of the operation were the same as the previous day. However, it was decided that 2BD would send out a weather reconnaissance a/c to report conditions at the target. The air commander would radio 8AF at least two hours before the earliest time-over-target (10am) to recommend whether the mission should proceed, be delayed or be cancelled.
As planes from 2BD (the lead section) were assembling, the weather aircraft radioed that the target was clear for bombing but a middle cloud layer from 14,000 feet up was predicted. Bombers were therefore directed to descend as low as 10,000 feet, if necessary, for bombing. Since the briefed attack altitude was 15-16,000 feet, bombardiers had to recalculate bombsight data while airborne.
The middle cloud layer forced 2BD Libs to bomb between 11,200 and 13,000 feet. Most (539 a/c) dropped at the primary target area, about 733 tons in all. Unfortunately, “there were a number of instances of short bombing. In two cases, units dropped 2800-3000 yards short of the target, well within the lines of friendly troops who had withdrawn 1500 yards... In addition to these gross errors, there were 11 tactical units whose bomb pattern fell in the ‘clear’ area between the north boundary of the target and the line behind which friendly troops were withdrawn.”
While the short bombings were due to bombardier error, the other mistakes were caused by “restricted visibilities due to smoke and haze, the constant lowering of altitude due to middle cloud encountered... and an apparent confusion of red smoke signals with shell bursts and muzzle flashes.” The second formation (367 B-17s and 108 B-24s from 3BD) generally dropped their bombs between 11,350 and 14,000 feet. Some bombs also fell within friendly lines. The Report notes, “These errors were attributed to failure to make positive identification of Aiming Points in the restricted visibilities caused by haze and smoke of previous bursts, the rapid loss of altitude to avoid cloud which caused unit formations to lengthen considerably, and maneuvering to avoid prop wash of preceding units.”
As 1BD ships neared the target, it was difficult to positively identify the aiming points; five units elected not to bomb. However, 481 B-17s did, generally from 11,000 to 13,700 feet. Although a few bombs hit slightly north of the northern boundary, about half of their bombs fell to the south of the target area. Congestion in the air and “identification difficulties” were the cause.
“In summary,” 8AF stated, “1495 bombers attacked the primary target, dropping 2059.7 tons [HE] and 1346.1 tons Fragmentation. The bombing pattern achieved in this operation was on the whole well concentrated and a high degree of saturation was attained within the target area.” Four B-24s and one B-17 were lost, all due to flak. Two bombers had to be salvaged after take-off or landing accidents and 62 other bombers were battle damaged, 59 by flak.
2BD sent up 554 aircraft specifically targeted at La Chapellesen Jugar [La Chapelle-en-Jugar], Montrieul [likely Montreuil-sur-Lozon), and Hebecrevon. These objectives were less than four miles apart.
At least one Group in each Wing was loaded with Fragmentation bombs; the others carried General Purpose/High Explosive bombs.
Per 2BD’s Tactical Report of Mission, “Three assigned areas were visually attacked with good results by fortyfive Squadrons. Two Squadrons bombed short, one due to faulty operation of the bombsight and the other due to a mistaken belief that the target had been positively identified... Moderate and accurate predictor control fire was encountered by all Groups approximately one minute after bombs were released. No AA fire was encountered during the bombing runs... Fighter support was good throughout the mission.”
At the main briefing, crews were told their target was German troop concentrations west of St. Lo only 1,500 yards south of US troops. A top altitude of 15,000 feet was ordered with bombs set to impact 200 feet apart. Crews were admonished, “Don’t bomb short” as bombs released too soon would fall on US soldiers. The 14th CW would lead the 2BD with the 44th at the head of the Wing, the 492nd echeloned left and the 392nd echeloned left and low of the 492nd.
The 392nd again launched 48 planes, exceeded in the 2BD only by the 453rd BG with 51 and the 446th with 49. All 392nd ships were airborne between 0621 and 0701 hours. This time, Manny recalls, “The day was sparkling sunshine, not a cloud in the sky.” For his crew, the mission was “a true ‘milk run’—no flak and no enemy fighters; not much danger.” He remembers, “The target was a few square miles of Norman hedgerow country. The boundary was marked by white sheets laid out in a line. South—the target, north, the Allies.”
In From Plowboy to Flyboy, 576th pilot Don Scharf writes, “Even though this was our fifth mission, I don’t think any of us knew what was going on. The danger of all of this hadn’t begun to sink in yet. The fragmentation bombs we were carrying were particularly nasty things, like huge hand grenades. My most vivid memory of this mission was when, just after the bombs had left the planes, I saw some of them bump together and explode in a vicious flash of flame. Not one bit healthy!”
Wil says, “This time the weather was good and everything went off as planned. Over the target I glanced at the altimeter and found us at 10,000 feet because of our low, low left position in the formation. Flak was more intense than yesterday. Apparently some mobile flak guns had moved in overnight. We dropped our 120-pound frags in what was reported to be an excellent pattern.”
579th gunner Marvin Graham’s plane was likely hit by those extra flak guns. Usually the ball turret gunner for pilot 1/Lt Gordon Hammond, he had missed a few missions while recovering from an appendectomy. Most of his crew had already completed their combat tours and gone home. On 25 July, Marvin was flying his last mission, with Gann’s crew.
“We went in a low-enough altitude that the Germans could shoot rifles, small arms, and machine guns at us,” Marvin says. “We were shot at like we were on a target range.” At some point, radio operator T/Sgt John T. Carroll was wounded. As waist gunner, Marvin was supposed to toss out handfuls of chaff to mislead German flak radar. Faced with this fierce enemy opposition, he expedited the process by picking up the entire box of chaff and throwing it out the window. Judging by the previous day’s incident, he was not the only waist gunner to use this technique!
“We were only moments over the German lines but in that short time the Germans shot the whole damn airplane full of holes,” Marvin recalls. 1/Lt William A. Stroble, 578th, got a signal from Gann that his controls and hydraulics were shot out and the C-5 (autopilot) was “going bad.” 576th pilot 1/Lt Harold F. Johnston reported that Gann had called him on VHF at 1032 hours saying he might have to ditch and had already contacted air sea rescue in case he couldn’t make it back to England.
Marvin thought of bailing out over the English Channel. However, when he started putting on his chute, the other men assured him that Gann would get them back home. Their confidence was well-founded. Gann nursed the crippled plane over the Channel and made an uneventful landing (one of the smoothest Marvin had ever had) at Tangmere, Sussex. A British military ambulance greeted them on the airstrip with a couple shots of scotch. The 392nd dispatched a plane to pick them up. Aboard was radio operator T/Sgt William Sullivan, the only man in Marvin’s original crew still at Wendling. He “started counting the holes,” Marvin says, “but gave up at 300.”
392nd crews thought their bombing results were good. 576th pilot 1/Lt Robert C. Martin Jr. said his bombs “hit a dump of some kind” and there was a “big explosion” in the target area. 2/Lt Evan L. Williams, also 576, said a few of his bombs “landed among some artillery guns” and the bombing pattern “looked excellent.”
Something unusual was reported by 577th pilot 2/Lt John C. Daley. “Single B-17s were in target area with no markings or identification tacking on to various formations. Stayed with formation for a few minutes and then left formation.” Proof that Gann’s crew wasn’t the only one to have a rough time, 1/Lt Hubert L. McMillan, 579th, commented, “Navigator wants more flak suits.”
In its Telephone Flash Report, the 392nd said it dropped 762 fragmentation bombs (260 pounds each) and 960 120-pound frag clusters on target. Nine a/c had minor battle damage and one [Gann’s] would likely have to be salvaged. The 14CW’s Bombing Analysis report said the 392nd’s 1st squadron “laid down a good pattern 700 yards from center of their assigned area,” the 2nd “laid down a good pattern 1500 yards north east of center of their area,” and “the 4th squadron laid down a good pattern 1500 yards east of center of area and exactly on the edge of the area.”
The 3rd squadron (high right) hit the wrong area but was still within the target zone. (The 392nd later noted that it was “impossible to pick up target until too late to make run in [A, the assigned] area. Lead bombardier oriented himself over eastern part of area B and over C and bombed these areas with [strike photos] showing excellent results.”)
A few days later, the 14th CW and 392nd BG received a teletype stating, “Check of strike photos show that low left squadron of 392nd Bomb Group bombs are 500 meters short of bomb line. Interrogation of lead bombardier of that section reveals that constant lowering of altitude because of middle cloud and haze conditions and smoke of previous Group’s bombing left lead bombardier with approximately 50 seconds bomb run.” Thankfully, these bombs should have been well within the “safe zone” between the target and US troops.
In its INTOPS SUMMARY No. 86, 8AF reported, “The major weight of the attack fell within the target area. Assigned area well covered except for SW corner. A number of patterns noted ‘over’ the target area to the south. Patterns from approximately eight groups fell ‘short’ north of the target area.”
After finishing his combat tour, Wil was stationed at a Troop Carrier base. There, he spoke with an officer in the First Army who was in the front lines during the bomb drop on July 25. He told Wil that it was a sight to see. The area was simply saturated with exploding bombs and the ground heaved and boiled as in an earthquake. Even so, there was still plenty of German resistance when US soldiers moved forward.
Bradley writes that on 25 July, “The planes came on schedule: 1,500 heavy bombers, 380 medium bombers and 550 fighter-bombers. In total, these 2,430 aircraft, flying perpendicular to the target, dropped some 4,000 tons of bombs and napalm... To our horror, reports of ‘shorts’ immediately flooded into my [Command Post].... the final toll was shocking and ghastly: 111 dead, 490 wounded. Among the dead was [Lt. Gen.] Lesley McNair, who had been observing in the front lines...”
McNair was the highest ranking American officer killed in the European Theater of Operations.
Nonetheless, VII Corps rallied and charged ahead. Initial German opposition was “heavy” but proved to be “the valiant and instinctive reaction of a few tough Germans.” In fact, Bradley says, “The bombing had done far more damage [to the Germans] than we could possibly imagine. Official Army historian Martin Blumenson wrote: ‘Bombs buried men and equipment, overturned tanks, cut telephone wires, broke radio antennas, sent messengers fleeing for foxholes or the nearest crater. Communications with forward echelons were completely disrupted. The bombardment transformed the main line of resistance ... into a frightening landscape of the moon... No less than a thousand men must have perished in the Cobra bombardment. About one-third of the total number of combat effectives ... were probably killed or wounded, the survivors dazed. Perhaps only a dozen tanks or tank destroyers remained in operation. Three battalion command posts of Panzer Lehr were demolished. The attached parachute regiment virtually vanished. Only local and feeble resistance was possible against attacking American infantrymen.’ ”
Bradley concludes, “Slowly it came to me that Cobra had not failed. It had succeeded; we had broken through.” It was “a total and smashing breakin, breakthrough and breakout, a major turning point in the war. Seven agonizing weeks had passed since D-day. All that time, the terrain, the weather and the tenacious German troops had kept us bottled up in the Cotentin Peninsula. But now at last we were moving out at breathtaking speed. One phase of the war on the Continent had ended, another had begun.”
Although it is easy to blame US deaths solely on the direction of the air attack (as General Bradley did), there are other factors as well.
General Bradley did not want to cede hard-won ground to the enemy nor give them time to regroup as his troops charged over land they had previously held. Therefore, he proposed a “safety zone” of just 800 yards. The air force—which surely knew more about aerial bombardment than he did—countered with 3,000 yards, noting that “even this distance would not eliminate the possibility of gross bombing errors.”
In 1996, 578th pilot Col Bob Vickers thoroughly reviewed a Bomb Fall Plot charted by 8AF to show the impact sites of each Group’s bombs. His analysis reveals that of the 15 worst instances of short bombings, only three (by two B-17 and one B-24 group—not the 392nd BG) were 1,500 yards or more from the target area. Had the separation distance originally proposed by 8AF been adopted, US casualties would have been lower.
Carafano notes that Army “commanders hadn’t ensured that the ground troops were adequately prepared. Even though troops were supposed to withdraw 1,200 [sic] yards from the no bomb line, some units were positioned as close as 800 yards or less. Others pulled back shortly before the air strike, but were not told to dig-in.” Even after the casualties on 24 July, “Neither the First U.S. Army nor the VII Corps ordered additional precautions on July 25 or warned units that heavy bombers were flying a perpendicular route and that there was an increased likelihood of short bombings. In fact, the VII Corps issued a message on July 25 at 1:55am reassuring commanders that there would be no bombings north of the road.”
Carafano also points out, “The smoke markings actually worsened the situation. When the corps artillery fired red smoke to mark the no bomb line, the smoke clouds drifted north obscuring the line. After the first bombs hit the targets, dust from the explosions mixed with the smoke, further exacerbating the problem.... In fact, all the marking and coordination techniques ... were inadequate...”
On 24 and 25 July 1944, 1,990 8AF bombers dropped over 4,340 tons of bombs on targets very close to American troops. Regrettably, 136 soldiers were killed and about 620 wounded, yet tens of thousands of US soldiers massed for the breakout were unhurt. The aerial bombardment directly contributed to the breakout at St. Lo. The Army Air Corps had done its job and done it well, under very difficult conditions.
Editor’s note: LtCol Carafano’s article is available at http://isme.tamu.edu/JSCOPE00/Carafano00.html.