The period that stretched from 6 June 1944, the day of the Allied landings on the Normandy beachheads, to the end of August that year represented one of the biggest lost opportunities for the Luftwaffe in the Second World War. That time was marked by half-measures and organizational difficulties that resulted from the German High Command’s faulty assumption that it would take the Allies an entire week to put three divisions ashore in France.
In reality, the Allies put eight divisions in France in the space of 24 hours – three airborne divisions and five infantry divisions that arrived by sea – a stunning demonstration of rapid power projection.
The Luftwaffe had no reconnaissance assets in place to observe the invasion fleet and the total number of Luftwaffe sorties flown on 6 June 1944 was only about 100 missions, nearly all by fighters or fighter reconnaissance aircraft. Conversely, over three thousand Allied fighters and ground attack aircraft formed a dense protective umbrella over the Normandy beachheads and extended their operational areas deep into France as the beachheads were consolidated.
A German officer at Normandy joked that “If the aircraft is brown, it’s British. If it’s silver, it’s American. If it’s not there, it’s German.”
The Luftwaffe’s Structure
Any discussion of the Luftwaffe’s response to the Normandy landings must begin with a review of how the Luftwaffe was organized. Operationally, the Luftwaffe was subdivided into Luftflotte (air fleets) which were analogous to a numbered air force within the USAAF. Each Luftflotte was assigned a geographic region and was like a smaller autonomous air force with all aircraft types. Each one also had its own logistical, maintenance, and administrative functions.
By contrast, a numbered USAAF air force tended to be more specialist – for example, Eighth Air Force focused primarily on strategic bombing, with fighters assigned to bomber escort duties whereas the Ninth Air Force focused on tactical missions with medium bombers and fighters. At the start of the Second World War, there were four Luftflotten, each assigned a quarter of pre-war Nazi Germany. As the war progressed, three more Luftflotten were created. At the time of the Normandy landings, Luftflotten 3 was assigned to occupied France.
Each Luftflotte (air fleet) was then subdivided into a Fliegerkorps (air corps). Each Fliegerkorps in turn was subdivided into the largest tactical organization in the Luftwaffe, the Geschwader (wing). A geschwader was roughly like an Air Force wing of today, but in the Second World War, the USAAF used “groups” instead of wings which became more common in the postwar period. Each Luftwaffe geschwader was specialized and this was indicated with a prefix – “kampfgeschwaders” carried out bombing missions, maritime patrol, and even transport missions and were abbreviated “KG” with a number, like KG 100. “Jagdgeschwaders” were fighter units and abbreviated “JG” with a number like JG 51.
Each geschwader was then subdivided into Gruppen (groups). To use the modern USAF as an example, a Luftwaffe gruppen from the Second World War might fall somewhere in size and organization between a wing and a squadron. This was often a source of confusion in assessing Luftwaffe numbers as a USAAF group and a numbered RAF group were different combat organizations. Each gruppen had a Roman numeral assigned, so the first gruppen in Jagdgeschwader 51 was I./JG 51, for example.
Each gruppen was then divided into three staffel (flight squadron). Operationally, the Luftwaffe staffeln were like USAAF or RAF squadrons, but smaller. This caused a lot of overestimation of Luftwaffe resources on the part of the Allies as they assumed each staffel was the size of one of their own squadrons. By late 1944, the number of staffel in each gruppe was increased to four. Each staffel had an Arabic numeral assigned with a designation to the assigned gruppe. Staffel 2 with II./KG 100, for example, would be the second staffel with the second gruppe in Kampfgeschwader 100.
The Luftwaffe’s Response
Many of the Luftwaffe units of Luftflotte 3 were based east of Paris with no units forward deployed in Normandy on the day of the landings. For example, III./SG 4 (third gruppe of Schlachtgeschwader 4, a specialist ground attack unit), had 50 Focke-Wulf Fw 190s based near Saint-Quentin, 211 miles/340km east of the the easternmost Allied beachhead, Sword Beach. The gruppe got first reports of the invasion at 0300, but did not receive orders to deploy to forward bases in Normandy until 0935 on the day of the invasion, approximately three hours after the first wave of troops hit the Normandy beaches. What was laughable was that III./SG 4’s forward bases were in Laval and Tours in central France and no closer to the Normandy beachheads than their main base near Saint-Quentin east of Paris!
Standard operating procedure for Focke-Wulf Fw 190 units was to forward deploy with the crew chief/mechanic, who climbed inside the rear fuselage and rode along. When 8. Staffel and 9. Staffel of III./SG 4 left for their forward base at Tours, they flew well south of Paris and at low altitude to avoid the prowling P-51 Mustang and P-47 Thunderbolt fighter patrols that were making fighter sweeps deep into France. Despite this routing, they were still caught in the air and many pilots refused to bail out and leave their crew chiefs to certain death with no means of bailing out. Many Luftwaffe units that deployed to forward bases were caught en route by fighter sweeps as well. Those missions that did make it to the Normandy beaches came woefully short of accomplishing their missions having to run the gauntlet of Allied fighter patrols, anti-aircraft fire from ships offshore, and most tragically, frantic anti-aircraft fire from German defenses. As most defenders assumed the Luftwaffe were non-existent, anything that flew was fired upon, even the piecemeal Luftwaffe counterattack missions. Allied fighters and medium bombers went after the forward airfields as well.
On the evening of 6 June, several staffeln of the Kampfgeschwader bomber units attempted to use Henschel Hs 293 glide bombs against the invasion fleet, but radio jamming rendered the radio command guidance system of the glide bombs useless and most bombers were caught by Allied night fighter patrols. KG 100 for example, lost ten of thirteen Dornier Do 217s over the course of a few days following the initial Allied landings. The Kampfgeschwader units gave up on anti-shipping attacks and switched to trying to mine the coastal waters off Normandy – if they got through the Allied night fighter patrols, the number of mines sown were, at worst, an inconvenience to the massive Allied armada.
On 7 June, orders finally came from the high command to deploy fighters from Luftflotten in Germany to France to try to blunt the invasion. The order was delayed due to the high command’s belief that the Normandy landings were a diversion and the main invasion was to come at the Pas-de-Calais area. It was on the initiative of several local Luftwaffe commanders that any fighters were deployed in the first place. Plans had long been made in case of an Allied invasion of France that aircraft from Germany would transfer to Luftflotten 3 in France. But it was assumed that the Allied build-up would take at least a week to put three divisions ashore, so planning assumed a more leisurely movement of forces, not realizing that the Allies would put eight divisions ashore in 24 hours. Each unit was assigned a particular base in France that was pre-stocked, but many of them were destroyed by Allied medium bomber attacks in the days leading up to 6 June. Even worse, the movement of support personnel from Germany to France was by rail. Advance units moved immediately by Junkers Ju 52 transports, but most of the support teams took a week to reach bases in France that were already bombed out and were being revisited on a daily basis. One gruppe transferred from Germany found its base at Le Mans being bombed daily by RAF Lancasters and Halifaxes.
On 24 June, KG 101 tried to carry out a Mistel attack with its composite aircraft against the Allied fleet. Only ten Mistel attacks were carried out against the ships off the Normandy beaches, sinking none and causing only light damage to the frigate HMS Nith. Most of the Mistel teams and their escorts were savaged by Allied night fighter patrols. The other novel Luftwaffe aircraft, the Messerschmitt Me 262, wasn’t ready on 6 June; in fact, the first unit, KG 51, started training with the Me 262 on 20 June, two weeks after the Normandy landings. One month later, 3.Staffel from KG 51 deployed to a base outside Paris with nine Me 262s equipped to carry two 550 lb bombs – but the aircraft lacked bombsights of any sort and were forbidden from flying below 13,000 feet out of fear of the advanced fighter falling into Allied hands. Their contribution to the Luftwaffe response was zero.
More consequential than the general ineffectiveness of the Luftwaffe’s counterattacks was the near total lack of reconnaissance of the Normandy area. While the Allies spent much of June 1944 conducting multiple daily reconnaissance missions deep into France to assess the disposition of German forces, German field commanders in France were operating in the dark. For many units, there was no warning of approaching Allied forces until shots were fired. What reconnaissance missions were flown were piecemeal, and only provided a fragmentary picture of the full scope of the Allied invasion effort. The lack of a comprehensive picture continued well into July and hastened the liberation of France.
When General George S. Patton’s Third Army broke out of the western part Normandy at the end of July, he moved rapidly down the west coast of the Cherbourg peninsula. Yet the German high command was completely unaware that the U.S. general they feared most was commencing a wide right hook around the back of the German forces in Normandy. Patton’s breakout was so rapid that in 72 hours he moved seven divisions down a single road with a bridge at either end. Imagine a long, slow-moving convoy of vehicles making its way down a single road – it would have been the juiciest possible target for the Luftwaffe’s ground attack fighters and might have prevented the annihilation of German forces in the Falaise Pocket weeks later.
But once the Germans learned of Patton’s breakout and launched a counterattack, Luftwaffe fighter bombers were savaged trying to get through the defensive umbrella protecting the US Third Army. In desperation, III./KG 100 sent Dornier Do 217s armed with Henschel Hs 293 glide bombs against the bridges on four nights in the first week of August. Only a single hit was scored and it caused minor damage to the bridge.
By this point the battle was lost.
Fuel shortages were also crippling the Luftwaffe response at Normandy severely. The first anti-shipping units of Luftflotte 3 equipped with Heinkel He 177s and Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condors were withdrawn to Germany in the first week of July to conserve fuel. What was left of the twin engine medium bomber force was pulled back to Germany over the course of July and the first two weeks of August. On 11 August, all units in Luftflotte 3 were ordered to restrict flying to conserve dwindling fuel stocks. Only fighters attacking heavy bombers were allowed to fly, which was pointless since by 15 August there were only 75 fighters available to Luftflotte 3. Luftwaffe fighter units assigned to defense of the Reich missions against the heavy bombers were rotated to France to provide air cover to retreating German forces. This further eroded the German fighter defenses over Germany and many of those units on return to Germany were at less than half strength on account of combat losses to Allied fighter sweeps. Many pilots were inexperienced and those that were combat hardened lacked ground attack experience, their only combat being against heavy bombers. While the Luftwaffe had no shortage of aircraft or munitions, they were running short of both pilots and fuel.
The most feared air force of the Second World War failed spectacularly in the weeks following Operation Overlord for three reasons: First, the German operational planning never grasped that the Allies could project so much force into France in such a short period of time. Second, Allied control of the skies over France was nearly uncontested. The Allies didn’t just have air superiority, they had air dominance of the battlefield, assuring Allied ground forces maintained the initiative all along the front. And third, the Reich’s mounting fuel shortages were the final nail in the coffin.