Independence Day 1944 was the 371st Fighter Group’s first 4th of July, and it was no holiday in Normandy, although the group would give and receive fireworks in support of ground forces attacking southward from the Cherbourg Peninsula.
The group was ensconced at Advanced Landing Ground (ALG) A-6, a.k.a. Beuzzeville, La Londe and/or Sainte-Mère-Église, the latter a name made famous on D-Day with the tough battle fought there by the US 82nd Airborne Division. Readers may remember the movie The Longest Day in which the parachute of American paratrooper John Steele (portrayed by actor Red Buttons) was caught on the steeple of the town church during the battle.
Ste. Mere Eglise, Normandy, in June 1944. At the top of the picture is what appears to be Advanced Landing Ground A-6 under construction (US Army picture via Wikipedia)
As A-6 was an ALG and still being built up, the ground echelon was yet to arrive from England and the group’s personnel subsisted on K and 10-in-1 rations.
Speaking of firsts — here’s the first mess hall in Normandy and naturally — the first chow hound. (Caption and image from The Story of the 371st Fighter Group in the ETO)
Weather the day before had precluded flight operations, but by mid-afternoon on the 4th of July, the group sent up its first mission of the day, with the 405th Fighter Squadron led by Maj. Philip E. Bacon with seven P-47s loaded with bombs and four more as top cover taking off at 1430 to perform armed reconnaissance along roads in Normandy.
Major, later Lt Col Philip E. Bacon of the 405th Fighter Squadron led the group’s first mission on the 4th of July, 1944 (The Story of the 371st Fighter Group in the ETO)
The bombers carried a total of 161 M-1A1 fragmentation bombs (a configuration of 2 x 2 x 6 for seven aircraft, per the group’s Operations Report, average load of 24 bombs each), small 20-lb bombs useful against light-skinned vehicles, light structures and troops in the open.
A cluster of six M1A1 20-lb fragmentation bombs (Aces High Bulletin Board)
For more on this ordnance, see reference at: https://bulletpicker.com/cluster_-100-lb-frag_-an-m1a2.html
They also carried 22,000 rounds of .50-caliber ammunition, though the aircraft performed no strafing in this mission. That works out to 2,000 rounds per aircraft and 250 rounds per gun for each of the eight .50-caliber machine guns on a P-47.
P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers of Discharge Squadron (the 405th Fighter Squadron) taxi along at A-6 airfield in Normandy in the Summer of 1944 (The Story of the 371st Fighter Group in the ETO)
The squadron reached the target area fifteen minutes later, but in the next hour of flying were in and out of 8/10 cumulous clouds from 1,500 feet up to 10,000 feet. Finding no targets, the aircraft flew over the Channel and jettisoned their bombs before returning to A-6, landing at 1600.
Lt. Col. William J. Daley, the group’s Deputy Commander from May to September, 1944, led the second show of the day in a group-level effort (all three fighter squadrons) which hadn’t been done in a while. For more on Lt Col Daley’s impressive but all too brief career, see an earlier posting at: https://371stfightergroup.wordpress.com/2014/03/25/371st-fighter-group-hall-of-honor-lt-col-william-j-daley-jr/
371st Fighter Group Deputy Commander Lt. Col. William J. Daley, a former RAF No. 121 (Eagle) Squadron member and former commander of the USAAF’s 335th Fighter Squadron, was well regarded in the group. Unfortunately he was killed after the Normandy Campaign in a landing accident in September 1944 when his aircraft was struck by another P-47. (The Story of the 371st Fighter Group in the ETO)
Thirty-two P-47s, all loaded with a pair of G.P. 500-lb bombs with M-103 nose and M-101A2 tail fuses, took off at 1828 to dive bomb various railroad crossings and road segments at multiple locations. Thirty of the 32 aircraft actually completed the mission.
The aircraft carried with them a total of 65,440 rounds of .50 caliber machine gun ammunition, though none was to be expended in the mission.
Weather was a problem though, 8/10 to 10/10 cumulous with significant vertical development in layers between 1,500 and 7,000 feet removed the possibility of dive bombing the targets though visibility was excellent beneath the cloud deck.
Two aircraft attacked the railroad crossing and maybe got two hits on it. Another railroad junction was attacked by three aircraft – five bombs released with two probable hits. Ten aircraft attacked a road segment and released 19 bombs at 1,000 feet in level flight and obtaining five hits, fair results. Ten Thunderbolts found a hole in the weather and dove from 5,000 feet at a 45-degree angle and released at 1,500 feet on a road segment obtaining 10 hits out of 20 bombs released, considered excellent results. Five other aircraft attacked three other targets, including a road, a railroad and bridge with unobserved results.
For more information about 500-lb general purpose bombs, see: https://bulletpicker.com/bomb_-500-lb-gp_-an-m64a1.html
Two of the planes dropped a single 500-lb bomb each into the Channel before returning to base, presumably hung ordnance as the Oprep reported two bomb release mechanisms, broken shackles, needing to be replaced. When machines work hard parts get worn. And though people aren’t machines, they get worn too when worked hard.
Working below the weather didn’t really pan out well, as the 406th Fighter Squadron history noted in attempting to cut a road leading out of Periers – low-angle “skip bombing” was a no-go at low altitude given the fuzing on the 500-lb bombs carried.
In their various attacks the aircraft encountered meager but accurate flak; passing in the vicinity of St. Lo and Vire the flak was moderate and accurate. Fortunately the Wehrmacht anti-aircraft gunners on the ground were unable to hit any of the group’s aircraft.
A German self-propelled quadruple 20mm anti-aircraft gun mount (2 cm Flakvierling 38) pictured in June, 1944 (War history online.com)
So that was the experience of the 371st Fighter Group on Independence Day, 1944. Holidays in the combat zone are surely remembered, but the press of operations allows little time to reflect on it. Perhaps the members of the group did think of the effort they were making to liberate Europe from fascism. But it took the group another ten months of combat to see that day in Europe, many more missions, sorties, bombs, bullets and blood. Because freedom isn’t free, back then and today.
The Story of the 371st Fighter Group in the E.T.O.
371FG Monthly History for July, 1944
371FG Oprep for 4 July 1944
405th and 406th Fighter Squadron Monthly Histories for July 1944
20-lb bomb image from: https://bbs.hitechcreations.com/smf/index.php?topic=359095.0
500-lb bomb image from: http://harringtonmuseum.org.uk/an-m64/
German flak image at: https://www.warhistoryonline.com/world-war-ii/watch-this-german-propaganda-newsreel-about-battle-for-normandy-warsaw-uprising.html