Imagine the sites and sounds of the D-Day invasion. The noise deafening, with the injured adding to the overall cacophony. The concussive thumps of heavy munitions, the fear of making it through the day, the noise of large calibre rounds passing close by, the wet, the cold soaked adrenaline, and the prayers. The machine guns blasting away incessantly, dealing death, needing to be taken out by heroic individuals and brave teams so that their mates had a chance to make it inland from the treacherous beaches and rough waters. Add to this din the too often forgotten roar of bomber and fighter planes, the strafing of machine gun fire and the dropping of bombs on German fortifications.
For even before the invasion began, the Allied powers had exploited their air supremacy, seeking to disable German radar systems and soften the defences along the French coast. Campaigns further inland sought to disrupt the communication and transportation systems the Germans would need to send reinforcements to repel the invasion.
Alongside other Allied airmen, it was the courageous young airmen of the RAF's Bomber Command who took on these dangerous excursions over 'Fortress Europe.' Night after night they bravely set off, knowing that their odds of not returning were high. On 1st July 1944, Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris wrote to the Chief of Air Staff saying, "There are 10,500 air crew in my operational squadrons. In three months we have lost over half that number."
The story of John Bell, second from right, and his Lancaster crew is at www.rafbf.org/dday. Photo courtesy of Fighting High Publishing.
It was in this period of staggering losses that the Allies launched Operation Overlord and took to the beaches of Normandy. The young airmen of both Bomber and Fighter Command were thrilled and eager to join in the fight.
"The Squadron is naturally on tenterhooks at the prospect of finally coming to grips with the Hun," wrote the diarist of No. 129 Squadron on 5 June 1944. "Bickering between pilots was prevalent but gave place to joyous celebrations when it was known that we were to carry out a show in the evening."
Preparations were in place on 5 June, when over 8,000 Bomber Command airmen prepared for one last pre-emptive strike. Lancasters, Halifaxes, and Mosquitos - a total of 1,012 aircraft - bombed the gun batteries defending the sea approaches to the Normandy beaches and dropped 4.7million kilos of bombs. Crews returning from this sortie reported "there were more ships than sea" as the amphibious landing proceeded.
The level of air support was immense. 14,674 Allied sorties were flown on D-Day, 5,656 of these were RAF sorties. An additional 1,065 sorties were flown by Bomber Command the following night, maintaining a relentless pace of activity.
Air gunner Flight Sergeant Jack Trend flew two sorties in his Lancaster on D-Day and recorded, "I received a BBC announcement on the aircraft wireless as the breaking news about the D-Day invasion was being transmitted all over the country. The bombing offensive that we'd taken part in, had been the start of the Allied landings in France. My heart began to beat somewhat faster...." Following the second sortie of the day, he wrote, "We landed at Mildenhall for a second time that day...and then thanked our lucky stars for having survived such a memorable day."
Just six days later, Jack's Lancaster crashed. Six airmen were killed; Jack was the only survivor.
As we remember the D-Day invasion, it is right to honour the brave soldiers, sailors, and 3,500 airmen who sailed the Channel and stormed the beaches. But we must also remember the many thousands of airmen who bravely faced horrendous odds and took to the skies in support of D-Day.
To tell their story, The Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, which maintains the Bomber Command Memorial in London, has compiled a series of blogs. I urge you to read their stories and reflect upon the sacrifice of all the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who fell in service to King and Country.