They dropped over 23,000 paratroopers, pulled gliders with heavy artillery, and watched above the ground forces as they stormed the beaches of Normandy, France, but on June 6, 1944, the Allied aircraft fired their guns very sparingly as the D-Day attacks began.
Their work had come in the months and years beforehand.
“Air power was used most significantly, well before D-day occurred,” said Phil Heacock. “By June of ’44, we really had command of the air.”
Heacock is the lead docent at the National Museum of World War II Aviation, the home of the wars’ history in the skies. It is one of 13 museums sanctioned by the U.S. Congress.
In the museum’s many hangers live the aircraft that led the Allied forces to victory over Nazi Germany and forced the surrender of the Japanese. All of them fly, including the P-47, the only one among its cousins to fly over D-day.
“When we achieved air superiority, we knew we had to go in on the ground and annihilate the German forces in order to preserve freedom,” said Heacock.
Heacock said the P-47’s mission that day was to watch over the ground forces in the case Nazi planes came to attack. Then it would utilize its incredible diving ability to attack the enemy.
Combined with tricking the Nazis about where the Allies would land in continental Europe, the air superiority of the Allied air fleets helped in the success of D-Day. The Nazi leader of the air forces, called the Luftwaffe, pulled his planes inland, away from the beaches of Normandy.
“[He] had felt like he was suffering such losses, he pulled back his fighter forces back in the continent, and they were no longer near the coast,” said Heacock.
The range of Allied aircraft drastically increased over the course of the war. Auto factories in the USA manufactured planes for the war effort, vastly outdoing any other nation in the number of aircraft put into flight.
Fighter aircraft at the beginning of the war could fly around 175 miles outside of Britain, reaching just inside the coast of France. Later, aircraft could travel 600 miles, reaching as far as Berlin and Prague.
The improvements in the aircraft range, however, weren’t just due to performance increases.
“When General Doolittle took over the 8th Air Force in January of ’44, he took the wraps off of the fighters and said ‘You go after the German Luftwaffe wherever you find them,” Heacock said.
The tactical change allowed fighters to push the Nazi forces back from France and the opportunity to destroy military assets like oil refineries, factories, and ammunition plants.
“As a matter of fact, they would have attacked Normandy earlier and maybe as early as ’43 if we had achieved air superiority. but we had not,” Heacock said. “But, by November of ’43, we were able to achieve a kill ratio of 3:1. In other words, we were killing three of their airplanes for every one of ours that were lost.”
The National Museum of World War II Aviation is located at 755 Aviation Way in Colorado Springs.