Sunday 8 September 2019

Typhoons in the Battle of Mortain, August 1944

On 7 August 1944, the Germans launched Operation Luttich, their only major counter-offensive of the Normandy campaign. The aim was to capture the town of Mortain and advance to the coast at Avranches to halt the American breakout to the west. This blog reproduces the Air Historical Branch narrative on the RAF's role in the Battle of Mortain, and provides some further observations on the subsequent investigations of 21st Army Group's Operations Research Section.

Operations on 7 August

After all these delays, General Eberbach’s force was at last assembled on the evening of 6 August. The attack was planned to be launched under cover of darkness and it was hoped that sufficient progress would be made before the Allied Air Forces could begin their harrying tactics. About 300 fighters of the Luftwaffe had been gathered together from far and near to provide cover for the ground forces. Von Kluge himself came to the battle area to watch the start of this attack in which German supremacy in Normandy was at stake. The Panzers moved westwards on a front of three divisions, the 2nd Panzer Division being in the centre, the 116th to the north and the 2nd SS Panzer Division to the south.

The American force holding the rugged and wooded ground in the neighbourhood of Mortain consisted of the 9th Infantry Division at St Pois (east of Sourdeval) and the 30th Infantry Division which had just moved into the area between Juvigny and St Barthelmy. The Panzers were first encountered by a reconnaissance patrol from the latter division at about 0100 hours on 7 August and were seen to be moving along a lane from Grand Dove to Le Mesnil Adelee. The American troops were soon overwhelmed by this superior force and, although they fought back hard with their anti-tank weapons, some units were cut off. The advance by the 116th Panzer Division in the north did not, however, make much progress during the early hours of the morning despite the surprise it had achieved.

The low-lying mist and haze to which the Air Forces had grown accustomed during the first few days began to clear over Normandy at about 1100 hours but it was not until over an hour later that extensive air operations could begin. Mustangs of the IXth Air Force took off at 1100 hours to make a reconnaissance of the battle area in general but they appear to have discovered nothing of interest. Indeed, the Germans assisted both by the weather and the wooded nature of the countryside in addition to their thorough training in the art of camouflage succeeded in concealing their preparations for the thrust on Avranches. The area immediately north of Mortain, being in the American sector, was of course the responsibility of the IXth Air Force.

But the day before (6 August), Mustangs of 2nd Tactical Air Force had reconnoitred the road from Vire to Tinchebray without observing any unusual activity. One interesting comment recorded by the squadron undertaking the mission was that the neighbourhood between Tinchbray and Flers was obscured by a dense smoke screen. No extraordinary activity was seen by American pilots.

As the morning wore on, it became all too clear that the enemy was making a desperate attempt to reach the sea and cut off the Avranches corridor. The heavy tanks continued to lumber through the mist and the Americans attempted to halt them with their Bazookas and anti-tank guns but without much avail. By mid-day, the 2nd SS Panzer Division had captured Mortain and the 2nd Panzer Division had taken the villages of St Barthelmy, Cherence and Le Mesnil Adelee. A situation had arisen where there was not time to bar the way with strong Allied forces which could ensure that the enemy armour would not break through. Nor was there sufficient time to lay on an attack by the powerful forces of heavy bombers at the disposal of the Supreme Commander even if there had been targets or well defined enemy positions or concentrations for which their employment was suitable.

At Allied Air Headquarters in Normandy, consultations took place when the news from Mortain came through. The Commanding General of the IXth Tactical Air Forces and Air Marshal Commanding 2nd Tactical Air Force agreed that the latter’s rocket-carrying aircraft should deal exclusively with the armoured columns while the IXth Air Force was to put up a fighter screen to ward off enemy aircraft, and their fighter-bombers were to attack transport moving to and from the battle zone. It must have been some time before 1000 hours that the IXth Air Force informed the Headquarters of 2nd Tactical Air Force of the grave situation at Mortain. At all events, General Nugent of IXth Tactical Air Command was told by an officer of Air Staff 2nd Tactical Air Force that the total resources of No 83 Group were to be dispatched to the threatened area between Mortain and Sourdeval. Shortly after this, the Senior Air Staff Officer of 2nd Tactical Air Force, Air Vice-Marshal Green, spoke to Air Vice-Marshal Broadhurst over the telephone and instructed him to assist the Americans with all his resources. Plans were then co-ordinated directly between the Headquarters of No 83 Group and the IXth Tactical Air Command. The good communications that existed between the British and American air headquarters greatly facilitated the speedy transmission of orders.

The first British aircraft to participate in the battle at Mortain were from Nos 174 and 181 Squadrons. They took off from the advanced landing grounds at 1215 hours and 1225 hours respectively and went into action shortly before 1300 hours. They spotted some 50 to 60 tanks and 200 vehicles filling the hedge-lined road from St Barthelmy to Cherence via Belle Fontaine. The tanks were bunched together and it appeared that they had not foreseen that the mist would clear so rapidly. The Typhoons dived down on the front and rear of the column, bringing it to a halt, and at once caused great confusion. At about the same time, 24 Thunderbolts of the IXth Air Force discovered and bombed a concentration of motor transport near Sourdeval.

Another US fighter squadron equipped with rockets operating in the vicinity attacked vehicles near Mortain. There seems to have been some enemy air activity at this time, for the pilot of a Thunderbolt claimed that he had scored a ‘probable’ against an enemy fighter. According to the Intelligence Summaries issued by Headquarters, AEAF, there appears to have been no action taken by the IXth Air Force against the enemy offensive before midday, presumably because of the foggy weather.

The good visibility which had begun after midday continued. This was momentous because it afforded the Air Forces their first opportunity to make prolonged attacks against an armoured concentration. Another two squadrons of No 83 Group became airborne at 1300 hours and 1335 hours and attacked the great concentration of tanks and transport. But it was half an hour later that the ‘shuttle service’ of Typhoons began; flight after flight then sought out their targets, fired their rockets and returned to base to refuel and rearm. After the first attacks the enemy had managed to disperse a little and the fighter-bombers had to seek out and attack the enemy armour wherever it was to be found in the fluctuating battle. This was waged at speed; American and German units became interlocked and tanks advanced and retreated along the lanes, fields, hillsides, woodlands and as often as not in the practically dry bed of the River See. From 1400 hours to 2000 hours that evening, the British fighter-bombers took off from their landing grounds every twenty minutes.

Pilots used their cannon as well as rockets and great destruction was wrought amongst the ‘soft’ or unarmoured vehicles. Enemy tank crews and drivers were seen to abandon their charges and run to cover under the trees and hedgerows. The Typhoon pilots were greatly impressed with the moral effect of the rockets and so were the troops on the ground, whose vulnerable position was at once relieved.

By the afternoon, the situation had eased a little, and the Americans were able to re-establish part of their front between the Panzers and their objectives. The German right wing did not penetrate beyond the village of Le Mesnil Adelee, lying some 14 miles from Avranches by country roads, and this was the nearest the enemy stood to the Atlantic coast. Further south, the situation was still grave, and radio messages which reported that reconnaissance tanks belonging to the southern prong of the attack had reached St Hilaire, seven miles south west of Mortain on the Route National to Brittany, were intercepted by the Germans at Midday. Meanwhile, the 1st SS Panzer Division had joined in the battle at St Barthelmy, while further armoured forces were being organised in a LVIIIth Panzer (Reserve) Corps and concentrated in the hills and forests round Ger.

At this stage, the views of the enemy are of particular interest. Early in the afternoon the Seventh Army Headquarters had urgently requested General Bulowius to provide the XXXXVIIth Panzer Corps with the air support planned, as the latter was being subjected to heavy fighter bomber attacks. Bulowius replied that fighters of Jagdkorps II were over the battle at that very moment with instructions to hold off the Typhoons. Later that evening, the Luftwaffe admitted that they had been so hard pressed by Allied fighters on taking off from their bases that the German fighters were unable to reach the Mortain area. Thus the arrangement made between the British and American Tactical Air Forces whereby the British aircraft attacked the tanks and the US squadrons held back the enemy fighters proved highly successful.

The nearest point to the battle reached by the Luftwaffe appears to have been Couterne, well to the east of Mortain and over 40 fighters were intercepted by the IXth Air Force that evening. Credit is also due to the VIIIth Fighter Command, whose fighters were out in great strength during the day over German advanced airfields, around Chartres and east of the Seine.

Throughout the afternoon, the complaints of the Panzer Commanders were passed back to Army Headquarters. At 1520 hours, a message was recorded stating that the attack of the ‘Leib Standarte (1) had been brought to a complete halt as a result of fighter-bomber action in a position two kilometres east of Juvigny’. By this time, clouds of dust and smoke hung over the battlefield, which made it difficult for the pilots to identify their targets. It was then that a call was received from the Second Army sector at Vire, where another Panzer column had begun to attack. At once, the Typhoons were switched to the new area and some five tanks were claimed to have been brought to a standstill. But the enemy was still driving forward into the American front, and once the pressure against the British had been relieved, the fighter-bombers returned to harry the columns at Mortain.

It is important to remember that the pilots of No 83 Group were greatly handicapped during these operations. Not only were they unfamiliar with the country round Mortain, which was so rugged and thick with cover for vehicles, but the troops on the ground with whom they were operating were unacquainted with their technique of close support. Yet great appreciation of the RAF was shown by all ranks of the troops involved, and in spite of the fact that American and German units were often fighting at close quarters, there was only one case of a British pilot mistaking US troops for the enemy.

At 1940 hours, the Chief of Staff of the Seventh Army telephoned to the Chief of Staff of Supreme Command West that the armoured attack had been at a standstill since 1300 hours due to the ‘employment of fighter-bombers by the enemy and the absence of our own air support’. Five years later, General Speidel, who was Chief of Staff to Rommel and then Von Kluge, confessed in his book, ‘Invasion 1944’, that the ‘armoured operation was completely wrecked exclusively by the Allied Air Forces, supported by a highly trained ground wireless telephone organisation’. At 2035 hours that evening, General Funk (XXXXVIIth Panzer Corps) told General Hausser (Seventh Army), that the tank situation was very serious, and this was repeated by the latter to Von Kluge. The Field Marshal replied that if a considerable advance was not achieved during that night and the morning of the 8th, then the whole plan would fail. The Panzers were told that they must get through regardless of the cost, and arrangements were made to add the 10th SS and 12th SS Panzer Divisions to their strength.

By nightfall, No 83 Group had flown 294 Typhoon sorties against the Panzer divisions spread over a period of about eight hours.

The claims made by the pilots were as follows:-

                           Flamers              Smokers           Damaged

Tanks                      84                       35                      21

Motor Transport      54                       19                      39

Several Typhoons were damaged by flak, but fire from the ground was less concentrated than had been experienced when tanks were laagered, and only three Typhoons were lost. No losses were incurred from enemy aircraft. Thus ended perhaps the most decisive air operation in the north-west European campaign, and the Avranches corridor was preserved. The credit for stopping the armoured thrust should indeed be shared both by the Air and ground forces. But the fighter-bomber, owing to the fact that it could be switched at short notice to any critical sector of the front, had proved itself to be once again a battle-winning factor. Its flexibility, ease of control and the weight of firepower that it could bring to bear quickly on any threatened point, justified the confidence that Allied commanders reposed in it during the crisis.

It has always been accepted that the employment of Typhoons was timely and decisive on that day because the attacks by enemy armour were broken up and, though fighting on the ground was exceptionally bitter for the next four days, the large-scale attack by Panzer divisions was never renewed. But the claims by pilots to have destroyed and damaged such large numbers of tanks have frequently been called into question. On the whole, such evidence as has been obtained from the ground examination of vehicles after the territory had passed into Allied hands has not inclined to support large claims on behalf of rockets but destruction by cannon fire was very great.

The difficulties in accurately assessing the results of rocket projectile attacks has always been recognised by the RAF. In the first place, there were no combat films with strike photographs to show hits by rockets because the aircraft had to be pulled out of its dive as soon as the projectiles were discharged. Thus there has never been a convenient way of comparing the accuracy of rockets with that of cannon and guns. However, it had long been known that it was difficult to secure a large percentage of hits with rocket projectiles. On the other hand, one hit invariably disabled a tank. There remained the constant probability that claims admitted must have included cases where several pilots had attacked (and claimed) the same tank. And, finally, it must be added that, mainly because of difficulties of recognition from the air, any armoured vehicle was likely to be called a ‘tank’ by pilots.

On 9 August, a signal was received by AEAF and 2nd Tactical Air Force asking that information be sent to the Director of Air Tactics (Air Ministry) about the salient features of the operation, and Operational Research Branch reports were compiled as a result.

In brief, the Air Marshal commanding 2nd Tactical Air Force said that the only definite conclusion that could be drawn from that operation was that air action was capable, in certain conditions, of breaking up a determined land attack. On that occasion, the following circumstances existed:-

(a)   An ideal target was presented by tanks and MT head to tail in close country.

(b)   Air opposition was negligible.

(c)   Maximum air effort was used at a critical stage of the battle.

Such circumstances as these had rarely occurred together – at any rate, on the British front, but the clouds had lifted suddenly. The interrogation of prisoners had shown them extremely nervous of the rocket-projectile attack despite the fact that the chances of a direct hit were small. That might have been due to the knowledge that the chances of survival if hit were known to be slight. At all events, many tanks were abandoned when only superficially damaged, although the enemy recovery service was definitely efficient after the battle.


The official RAF account – frequently quoted, sometimes without attribution – remains probably the best description of the role of air power at Mortain on 7 August 1944. It laid particular emphasis on the effect of air power as reported by German commanders and US ground forces, but also acknowledged over-claiming by RAF and USAAF aircrew. At the same time, it pointed to the extreme difficulty of establishing the facts reliably and objectively.

The perspective of its final paragraphs was undoubtedly influenced by another report by the 21st Army Group ORS. It did not specifically mention the report in the text - only in a footnote. At the time, the convention was to avoid especially combative argument in official accounts.

The 21st Army Group ORS report has subsequently been cited by numerous authors. Their supposition, as with the report on Falaise, is that the ORS was a purely scientific body that did not participate in inter-service argument. In my blog on Falaise, I demonstrated that there is good reason to doubt the ORS’s objectivity. In the light of this conclusion, there seemed also to be a case for questioning their frequently quoted findings on Mortain.

The basic argument presented by the ORS was that RAF and USAAF airmen massively exaggerated the losses they inflicted on the Germans at Mortain. In total, they reported the destruction or damage of 480 German vehicles, including 252 armoured vehicles.

However, after the German withdrawal, the ORS found just 78 armoured vehicles and 128 other vehicles in the battle area, many of which had apparently been destroyed by ground weapons. In other cases, the cause of destruction was unclear, and some vehicles had simply been abandoned. It should be noted here that the 21st Army Group survey was conducted alongside a similar survey by 2 TAF investigators, which drew very similar conclusions from almost identical evidence viewed in the same locations.

However, while the 2 TAF report was somewhat tentative in tone, the author of the 21st Army Group report was adamant that there was no basis on which his findings could be challenged. He specifically ruled out any possibility that the ORS had missed vehicles or that damaged vehicles might have been salvaged. Investigators had even flown over battle area, and had observed no more vehicles than they had discovered on the ground.

The ORS report is compelling but perhaps not so far beyond question as its author suggested. The fact is that the discrepancy between the aircrew claims and the number of vehicles found by the ORS is too large to accept at face value.

Most probably, the reports from the airmen related to a significantly larger area. In this regard, it is notable that most of the map references produced by the ORS are concentrated in a small area north of Mortain, while substantial parts of the battle area appear to have been entirely free of German equipment. Given the scale of the forces deployed and the breadth of the German front, this seems extremely unlikely.

The possibility that air power was brought to bear over a considerably larger area than the ORS supposed is also raised by Leigh-Mallory’s diary references to Mortain. In an entry written after the battle but before the appearance of the ORS report, he recorded: ‘A certain number of the leading German tanks penetrated quite a long way, but their rear echelons were so heavily attacked from the air that they were bashed up and utterly unable to get forward.’ In short, as he understood the battle on 7 August, much of the Allied air effort focused on the German rear rather than the spearhead, which was the primary focus of the ORS study.

While it may seem surprising that the ORS might have missed at least some German equipment, it should be recalled that, only a few weeks later, they overlooked the presence of some 2,265 destroyed or abandoned vehicles in the Falaise pocket.

The area covered by the German offensive
The areas where destroyed or damaged vehicles were found by the ORS

There is a second obvious reason to reconsider the ORS’s findings, which lies in the chronology of events. Although it is sometimes thought that the RAF participated in the fighting at Mortain for the entirety of the battle – from 7 to 12 August – in fact their involvement was confined to the 7th. 2 TAF was subsequently employed in the British and Canadian sector in operations north and northwest of Falaise. USAAF support continued, but the operation largely turned into a ground battle in which air power played but a limited role. The opposing forces fought at close quarters and much of the battle area was subjected to heavy artillery bombardment.

The Germans finally withdrew on 12 August, the day the ORS arrived to begin their investigation. It is quite possible that many features of the battlefield would have changed significantly in the intervening period, particularly in the areas that witnessed the heaviest fighting. That the ORS overlooks this elementary point again raises questions about its methodology and objectivity. After one afternoon of air attack and four consecutive days of intense ground combat, it is hardly surprising that they should have found that many German vehicles had been hit by ground fire.

The records also demonstrate that very little time was available to document the ground situation after the battle before it was irrevocably altered. The 2 TAF investigators arrived in the Mortain area on the evening of the 12th and were taken to see Lieutenant Colonel Johnson of the 117th Infantry Regiment. They subsequently recorded:

Shelling at the time prevented our visit to the site of the stricken tanks on the road into St Barthelmy, but Lt Col Johnson advised me to come early in the morning, because the road engineers were already planning to clear the road. From 0730 to 1500 on the 13th Lt Adams and I carried out a survey of the 25 vehicles (15 tanks) on the road between T.568147 and T.579140 … The engineers cleared the road by the time our survey was finished.

As I’ve already said, the possibility of German salvage activity was ruled out by the 21st Army Group ORS. This was on the basis that vehicles hit by air weapons would not have been worth salvaging. Their report also claimed that salvage units were being pulled out of Normandy during the Mortain operation; no supporting evidence was provided. In fact, while their statement was possibly true by 12 August, it was probably untrue for early stages of offensive.

The 2 TAF ORS was later alerted to the presence of three salvage depots near Athis, which lies between Mortain and the Falaise gap. However, by the time they reached Athis, nearly all the German vehicles had been removed.

There is no intention to play down the role of US ground forces in this commentary. Confronted by the largest German counter-offensive of the Normandy campaign, the courage and tenacity of their defence was truly remarkable. It is right that Mortain is universally viewed as one of the most glorious chapters in the history of the US Army. It therefore seems appropriate to conclude with their observations on the battle.

All – commanding officers, officers and NCOs - agreed that their dangerous situation was saved by the opportune arrival of the Typhoons and their participation in the battle on August 7th.

The head of intelligence of the 30th Infantry Division wrote:

The enemy thrust began on the 7th and was expected to be reinforced on the 8th. The 30th Division had only just moved into the sector and was not well established. The divisional artillery was deployed, but not well registered. The attack on the 8th, which was expected to be heavier than that of the 7th, was not in fact so difficult to withstand. This could be ascribed to the disorganisation caused by air attack of the reinforcements on the 7th, and to the better establishment of the ground forces.

It should be noted that this reference to ‘air attack of the reinforcements’ accords very closely with Leigh-Mallory’s assertion that a significant volume of Allied air power was brought to bear well behind the German spearhead. Meanwhile, the 117th Infantry Regiment recorded:

The enemy armour attacked on the 7th, coming up through the mist. The 117th Infantry shot at them with Bazookas and 57 mm guns, and succeeded in stopping some of them. The armour had however penetrated the positions … The mist lifted at soon after 1230 hours and Thunderbolt aircraft and Typhoon aircraft came in immediately and attacked. The Typhoons attacked repeatedly for what seemed to him to be about 2 hours. This, added to the resistance of the ground forces, stopped the thrust.

Lieutenant Colonel Bond, of the 39th Infantry Regiment provided the following account to 2 TAF:

His anti-tank force was insufficient to deal with such a force of Panther tanks, and his A-T shells do not penetrate the armour plate, except in a fair lateral strike on the body of the tank. The attack did not develop in the strength anticipated; but he remained vulnerable and anxious until about 1300 when the Typhoons attacked the spear point.

Lt Col Bond said that he wished me to stress the direct value of the service rendered by the Typhoon aircraft that day; and, that although in general he considered that claims from the “Air Corps” on tanks were optimistic, he did not disbelieve a claim of the order of 100 for the total effort that day.

An experienced NCO from an American anti-tank troop offered his own explanation for the fact that the Germans had abandoned a number of undamaged tanks and other vehicles. ‘There is nothing but air attack that would make a crack Panzer crew do that.’

(1) 1st SS Panzer Division

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