In 1944, U.S. Bombers Blasted German Troops — And Accidentally Killed Scores of Americans
B-17s were powerful … and imprecise
by SEBASTIEN ROBLIN
Allied troops spent six bloody weeks stuck in dense hedgerows of Normandy after the D-Day landings, fighting the German Wehrmacht one cow pasture at a time. U.S. Army general Omar Bradley cooked up a plan to break through the German defenses by calling upon the heavy four-engine bombers of the 8th Air Force.
What followed was one of the worst friendly-fire incidents in history of the U.S. Army — and one of its greatest military victories.
The D-Day landings on June 6, 1944 in Normandy are famous for being one of the costliest military operations in American history. What’s less appreciated is that the following two months of combat in the farmlands of Normandy were just as nightmarish.
The problem was the terrain. Farmers in Normandy divided up their pastures with tall hedgerows called bocage that were impassible to most vehicles. Even though the Allies possessed tremendous numerical superiority and greater mobility due to their vast motor pool, the hedgerows forced them to fight in one short range ambush after another through predictable corridors — a tremendously advantageous situation for the defending German army.
Deadly MG.42 machinegun nests and portable Panzerfaust anti-tank weapons defended each field, backed up by pre-registered mortar and artillery bombardments.
Allied tanks attempting to advance up the narrow country lanes had to contend with well-concealed anti-tanks guns and German armor, including Tiger and Panther tanks with frontal armor nearly impenetrable to most Allied tank guns.
U.S. troops sustained some of the heaviest casualties in the war in Normandy, advancing just a few hundred meters a day. Some U.S. divisions took greater than 100-percent casualties — but they avoided bleeding out through a steady flow of inexperienced replacements.
The Americans nonetheless managed to slowly creep forward over the course of six weeks at tremendous cost — 39,000 killed or wounded by the end of June alone.
The Allies’ greatest advantage was air superiority — swarms of American fighter-bombers roamed over Normandy, largely unopposed by German fighters, devastating German units attempting to move in daylight. American troops also called on them to take out enemy strongpoints and tanks — but often battles in the bocage were fought at such short ranges that it was unsafe to call in air support.
In an effort to break through the bocage, the British forces on the eastern flank of the Allied beachhead under the leadership of Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery on July 18 launched a massive tank assault toward the city of Caen called Operation Goodwood.
Preceded by carpet bombing that leveled much of the city — killing around 3,000 civilians and largely missing German front-line units — the British tanks surged forward without infantry support and ran straight into anti-tank guns and panzers rushed in as reinforcements, including massive King Tiger tanks.
Accompanied by too little infantry to ferret out the ambushes, the British lost no fewer than 300 tanks in three days and Goodwood ground to a halt. Supporting attacks by Canadian troops met a similar fate.
Supreme Allied commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower was furious with Montgomery, who maintained in his defense that the real goal of Goodwood had been to draw away the German panzer divisions in reserve, allowing the Americans to launch the real breakout.
While it remains debatable that this was what Goodwood has been intended to accomplish, it was undeniably a consequence — six panzer divisions had been deployed to the British sector, while only two faced the American sector to the west.
American general Omar Bradley had identified the main German defensive line as running along the east-to-west road connecting the cities of St. Lo and Perrier. He wanted to blast a hole in it through the through which his tank divisions could drive into the open country south of Normandy.
The secret weapons for the attack, called Operation Cobra, were the massive four-engine strategic bombers of the 8th Air Force.
The famous B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator were designed to carpet-bomb factories and cities, not take out troops on the front line. A Flying Fortress could drop up to 17,000 pounds of bombs, sending massive explosions rippling over large swaths of the ground.
Bradley designated a zone five kilometers long by two kilometer deep to the west of the city of St. Lo that he wanted the 8th Air Force to blast into oblivion.
However, his troops needed to advance next to the German defensive line so that they could immediately exploit the shock of the bombardment. On July 18, American infantry drove the 2nd Fallschirmjäger Corps out of St. Lo at a cost of 5,000 casualties. The American lines to the west were now directly facing the infantry and tanks of the Panzer Lehr Division.
Panzer Lehr had been reduced to just 2,200 soldiers and 47 operational Panzer IV and Panther tanks, roughly a quarter of its theoretical strength. A poorly-trained 500-man parachute regiment and a small reserve battlegroup of 450 men accompanied it.
However, Bradley’s plan had a significant problem. Weapons as imprecise as a B-17 were as likely to hit friendly troops as they were the enemy. Bradley reassured the 8th Air Force that he would pull back his troops 800 meters just before the bombardment. The Army Air Force generals insisted the minimum safe distance was 3,000 meters. After some haggling, they settled on a gap of 1,200 meters.
Bradley also stipulated that the bombers approach parallel to the front-line troops, so if any of them released their bombs too early, they wouldn’t land on the American lines.
The VIIth Corps, comprising six divisions, would lead the attack under Gen. Joseph Collins. On the left and right flank were the 9th and 30th Infantry Divisions respectively. Both divisions had seen heavy combat and sustained over 100-percent losses in the preceding weeks, and were reduced to a hard core of exhausted veterans surrounded by hordes of rookies. The fresher 4th Infantry Division would attack down the center.
Waiting in reserve were the 1st Motorized Infantry Division and the powerful 2nd and 3rd Armored Divisions. These were the only two heavy armored divisions in the U.S. Army, each with more than 300 Sherman and Stuart tanks in six battalions, instead of the usual compliment of around 200.
The Americans had a new trick to deal with the Normandy hedgerows. When a fellow soldier suggested the tanks needed giant hedge clippers to traverse the bocage, Sgt. Curtis Culin went ahead and made some out of scrap metal from D-Day beach obstacles.
“Rhino tanks” fitted with the metal prongs could plow through the hedgerows without exposing their thin belly armor. Up to 60 percent of the VII Corp’s tanks were equipped with the device before the attack.
Nonetheless, Bradley didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of operation Goodwood. Tanks were vulnerable in the close Normandy terrain to ambushes. He intended to have infantry lead the initial assault with only limited tank support. Once the German defenses were breached, the armored divisions could plunge through the gap.
But timing was key — if he waited too long to unleash the armor, the Germans would have enough time to form a new defensive line.
Waiting in the wings was Gen. George Patton’s 3rd Army. Normandy’s cramped front line and limited road network had prevented the 3rd Army from being deployed into battle. If Bradley’s attack succeeded, then it would finally have enough space to go roaring through the German rear lines.
After several delays because of bad weather, on July 25, clear skies were recorded and the bombers of the 8th Air Force leaped into action. However, as the bomber formations approached Normandy, grey clouds reappeared.
The attack was called off — but not before over 100 aircraft dropped their bombs. Sixteen B-17s dropped their bomber two kilometers north of their target, hitting the 30th Infantry Division. Twenty-five American soldiers were killed and over 130 wounded. Enraged troops of the 120th Infantry Regiment even opened fire on the American planes.
Bradley was furious — the aircraft had approached perpendicular, not parallel, to the American lines. The commander of the 9th Air Force, Gen. Elwood Quesada, whose fighter bombers had approached parallel, sent a reproachful message to the 8th, as well.
The Army Air Force generals argued that approaching parallel would not prevent collateral damage and would expose the lumbering bombers to flak for a prolonged period. Besides, it would take days to draft a new plan of attack.
Worse, the U.S. troops then had to attack to recapture all the ground they had ceded when pulling back for the bombardment. This was accomplished at the cost of 174 killed or wounded by German troops who had infiltrated the abandoned positions. The Panzer Lehr Division lost 350 men and 10 tanks in the day’s action, but its commander, Gen. Fritz Bayerlein, assumed it had successfully resisted the main assault.
The Germans were bewildered and elated when American infantry withdrew from their positions again early the next morning. “It seems as if they’ve chickened out!” observed a divisional operations officer.
Clear weather on July 26 allowed the 8th Air Force to go in for real. The attack began with dive bombing, strafing and rocket attacks by 550 fighter bombers. Then the entire strength of the 8th Air Force, over 1,800 bombers, flew in.
Pulitzer-winning journalist Ernie Pyle described the scene. “A new sound gradually droned into our ears — a gigantic faraway surge of doom-like sound. It was the heavies. They came on in flights of 12, three flights to a group and in groups stretched out across the sky. Their march across the sky was slow and studied. I’ve never known anything that had about it the aura of such a ghastly restlessness.”
The heavies carpeted the front line with more than 12 million pounds of bombs, turning the land into a cratered moonscape.
German 88-millimeter flak guns fired back at the bombers, shooting down five — but the guns were spotted by low-flying L-4 observation plans, which directed artillery batteries to silence them. More than 50,000 shells were fired by no fewer than 1,000 artillery pieces in 47 artillery battalions to support the bombardment.
To cap it off, another wave of 350 P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bombers and 396 B-26 Marauder medium bombers pounded the German lines, many of them unloading canisters of napalm.
Once again, the bombers flew perpendicular to the allied lines. Many used the smoke from earlier bombing as a guide for where to drop their bombs, but unfortunately the wind began blowing the smoke toward the north. This time, 77 dropped too soon.
A 4th Infantry Division battalion commander described the feeling of dread. “The dive bombers came in beautifully, dropped their bombs right in front us just where they belonged. Then the first group of heavies dropped theirs. The next wave came in closer, the next one closer, still closer. Then they came right on top of us. The shock was awful.”
Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair, one of the chief brains behind the Army’s training program and doctrine, had advanced to a foxhole at the tip of the attack in order to boost morale.
“The ground belched, shook and spewed dirt to the sky,” Bradley wrote in his autobiography A General’s Life. “Scores of our troops were hit, their bodies flung from slit trenches. Doughboys were dazed and frightened … A bomb landed squarely on McNair in a slit trench and threw his body 60 feet and mangled it beyond recognition except for the three stars on his collar.
The short bombing killed 111 American soldiers and wounded 490, the majority in the 30th Division. The entire headquarters staff of a battalion in its 47th regiment was wiped out save for the commander.
Eisenhower was so furious that he declared he would never employ strategic bombers on tactical targets again. But the German troops suffered even worse from the bombing.
“The long duration of the raid, without any chance of fighting back, created depression, a feeling of powerlessness and weakness and inferiority,” Gen. Fritz Bayerlein recounted:
Some of the soldiers went crazy; others remained prostrate on the ground, incapable of doing anything. I found myself personally at the heart of the bombardment on the 24th and 25th July, and I was enormously affected. I, who always found myself in the most exposed places in war, it was my worst experience ever.
The well-dug-in infantry were crushed in their foxholes by the bombs, killed and buried by the explosions …
The bombardment zone was transformed into a field of craters in which not a single human remained alive. Tanks and cannons were destroyed or over turned without any hope of being recovered because all of the roads were blocked. Once the bombardment had begun, all telephone lines were cut. Because most of the command posts were caught in the bombardment, there was not any radio communication, either.
Upon receiving orders from Kluge to hold the line, Bayerlein famously responded, “Out in front, everyone is holding out. Everyone. My grenadiers and my engineers and my tank crews — they’re all holding their ground. Not a single man is leaving his post They’re lying silent in their foxholes because they are dead.”
It is estimated 1,000 Germans were killed by the bombardment. The rookie German parachute regiment simply evaporated, its survivors fleeing or surrendering. The Panzer Lehr Division had only a dozen operational tanks left.
The infantry go in
The American infantrymen were badly shaken by the friendly bombing but were swiftly thrust out into the attack — and soon had the impression the German were unaffected by the bombardment. Machine-gun fire stitched across their advance, and surviving German tanks and artillery were soon raining shells upon them.
The 9th Infantry Division on the west flank made little progress as it attacked through wetlands towards the village of Marigny. The 30th Infantry Division on the east flank founds it advance blocked by three deadly Panther tanks. An American tank attack left three Shermans in flames for little gain — it wasn’t until midnight that the 30th secured its minimum objective for the day, the nearby village of Hébécrevon.
The 4th Division in the center made the most progress. One of its battalions stalled facing two Panzer IV tanks supported by infantry. G.I.s eventually knocked out the tanks with bazookas, and a late-arriving company of 18 Sherman tanks blasted out the infantry. The 4th made it to the ruins of Saint Chapelle-le-Juger that evening.
In the first day of Cobra, the VII Corps had only advanced 2,000 meters. The Germans were still fighting back as hard as ever. Collins wasn’t sure if he needed to give the infantry more time to clear out the German defenses, or if he should send his armor divisions out to attempt a breakthrough.
If deployed too early, the tanks might get bogged down in ambushes and cause traffic jams on the limited road network, bringing an end to the Americans hope of a break out.
Collins had noted that the German defenders were no longer coordinated in a single defensive line. He decided to unleash the armor. By the morning of July 27, tanks from the 2nd and 3rd Armored Division were rolling down to the front line.
The armor breaks through
Collins had gambled well. Only a thin crust of German defenders fighting from isolated strongpoints remained. They had no reserves behind them. Supporting attacks by American and Canadian troops to the west and east respectively had pinned down other German units in Normandy.
While Combat Command B of the 3rd Armored Division wasn’t able to secure Marigny to the west, to the east the 2nd Armored roared ahead at full speed. At Saint Gilles it encountered four German Panzer IVs and a Sturmgeschutz assault gun, but a combination of Sherman tanks and tactical air strikes dealt with the enemy armor.
By the end of the day, the 2nd had advanced 12 kilometers at cost of just three tanks. There were no enemy units left in front of it.
Field Marshall Günther von Kluge, commander of German forces in Western Europe, realized the gravity of the situation — he ordered troops along west of the breakthrough to retreat 30 kilometers to avoid being pinched off against the French coast. But the order came too late.
By July 28, the 2nd Armored Division managed to encircle the retreating Germans around Coutance, cutting off the remaining German units on the Cotentin peninsula. American tanks rolled by Bayerlein’s headquarters. “My division no longer effectively exists,” Bayerlein reported to his superiors.
The commander of the German 7th Army had to dodge fire from American Greyhound armored cars. Christian Tychsen, the chief of the 2nd S.S. Panzer Division Das Reich who had ordered the reprisal execution of 99 innocent French civilians in Tulle a month earlier, was killed when his Schwimmwagen attempted to run a road block of the 2nd Armored Division.
That night, the encircled German troops — including dozens of tanks — attempted to slip through the American lines. Some evaded the net — others fought frantic battles against American blocking forces.
In one incident, a German tank column caused an American infantry company to route. As the German tanks pursued, they bumped into the bivouac of M7 Priest self-propelled howitzers of the 78th Armored Field Artillery. Generally used to fire indirectly at distant targets, the 78th lowered it guns for direct fire and knocked out seven Panzer IVs, causing the remainder to retreat.
On the other hand, Hans Schabschneider, a sergeant in a German munitions unit, managed not only to lead his group safely, but captured 120 American soldiers and 12 trucks while doing so.
Overall, over 7,500 German troops were captured or killed in the Roncey pocket, and over 250 vehicles and 100 tanks were found destroyed or abandoned. On July 31, American units driving south seized Avranches, giving the Allies free range of France’s western coastline, including Brittany.
On Aug. 1, Patton’s Third Army roared through the breakthrough and turned east, seeking to encircle the German troops engaged with British and Canadian Forces. Soon the entire German front line came unglued as divisions retreated in a desperate effort to avoid being caught in the Falaise Pocket.
Patton’s Army continued its historic advance, liberating more than half of France, including the city of Paris on Aug. 25. After troubled campaigns in North Africa and Italy, the U.S. Army’s moment of glory had finally come.
Bradley’s attack succeeded because of its application of combined arms warfare using the strengths of infantry, armor, artillery and air power. While the aerial bombardment played an important role in opening the breach, the friendly casualties were a result of disregarding the inability of the strategic bombers of the time to act as precision weapons.
Allied bombing in Normandy in June and July is also estimated to have killed 50,000 French civilians and destroyed roughly 75 percent of the buildings in its major cities. Americans, Germans and the French all paid aid a terrible cost in the campaign that finally broke the Nazi occupation of Northern France.