Photos, Articles, & Research on the European Theater in World War II
This is one of a series of G.I. Stories of the Ground, Air and Service Forces in the European Theater of Operations, issued by the Orientation Branch, Information and Education Division, ETOUSA... Brigadier General Richard E. Nugent, commanding the XXIX TAC, lent his cooperation, and basic material was supplied to the editors by his staff.
It is a coincidence that this dedication should be written on
THE STORY OF THE XXIX TACTICAL AIR COMMAND
The urgent call came from Julich where the infantry division was being held up. Specifically, the doughs were being stopped cold in front of the Julich Sports Palace, converted into a bristling fortress guarding the last bridge over the Roer. This was the key to the entire German defense in the area. And this fortress blocked the entire Operations Q program which called for infantrymen to cross the Roer and race onwards to the Rhine. For seven days, the 29th Division had tossed its weight at the Sports Palace, against a defense that refused to give way.
Col. Wetherell and Capt. Wilson G. Hall, Roseboro, N.C., a Thunderbolt pilot, hurried to the ground headquarters, deciding that the job could be done from the air. They spent the remainder of the afternoon eyeing the target from the footsloggers' vantage point.
Dec. 6 produced the acme of inclement weather. The TAC's weather detachment had predicted only four to 10 flyable days for the month. This definitely wasn't one of them. All groups were grounded. Flying was out of the question, but Capt. Hall refused to let the question drop completely and the morning was consumed by one long argument.
"The ground needs the air; they're crying for air. If tactical support works, it's got to work now—when it's needed, ceiling or no ceiling!" he said.
But the weather detachment refused to take responsibility for a mission with a ceiling of only 600 feet and visibility of less than a mile. With earth and clouds almost meeting, Col. Wetherell called from his advanced position.
"Are you coming?" he asked. "They're expecting you at 1400."
At 1340, 36 Thunderbolts took off—volunteers against the weather and a vital ground target. At exactly 1400, the three fighter-bomber squadrons scudded out of the mist over the target at tree-top level. They dropped
For the next few minutes, the Julich Sports Palace was the scene of war's savage fury. The athletic arena was turned into an incinerator within 10 minutes. Germans who didn't die were too dazed to handle their guns with accuracy.
Next day, the 29th Division walked in and occupied the objective. The last barrier west of the Roer had been liquidated. Julich, and the Rhine beyond could be reinstated on the schedule of Operations Q. Gen. Gerhardt's commendation stated: "...one of the most brilliant examples of air-ground cooperation it is possible to imagine."
XXIX TAC's air power did not win the battle for the Julich Sports Palace, but the Thunderbolt attacks did save both lives and time—had turned an inevitable success into a shorter and less horrible ordeal. Air-ground cooperation clicked Dec. 6, 1944.
The only civilian counterpart to close ground cooperation by tactical air power is a fire department. Neither smoke-eaters nor XXIX TAC knows from what direction the next three-alarm emergency will come.
"Boy, How We Love You Guys!"
But the 2nd Armored's flank was exposed and the Wehrmacht saw its opportunity. German panzers, supported by infantry, broke out of Neuss and threatened the east flank of the division at a point where a battalion had to put cooks and supply clerks into the line to fill the gaps. Lt. Col. Joseph G. Focht, Reading, Pa., Air-Ground Cooperation Officer, called XXIX TAC Operations.
If enemy armor cut through this thin opposition and linked up with the 130th Panzer Lehr Div. on the opposite flank, the Supreme Allied Commander would be among those cut off.
But Gen. Eisenhower never had occasion to learn of his predicament. Six
Germans actually surrendered to XXIX TAC at Hildesheim where 2nd Armored had been held up in its blitz run from the Rhine to the Elbe. On the second day of the siege, Thunderbolts and Mustangs from the 405th, 406th, 370th, 373rd and 366th Groups roared over the town like a swarm of angry buzzards.
The unexpected happened. A white flag was hoisted on the highest steeple in the city. A delegation was sent to the tankers with these terms: "The city of Hildesheim will surrender. Just take those planes away." XXIX TAC remained overhead during the transaction, circled while soldiers trudged into the town. Hildesheim had thrown in the towel—had given up at the mere thought of the dynamite packed by the tactical air arm supporting ground action.
The work of Col. James M. Smelley's 363rd Tactical Reconnaissance Group exemplified the meaning of air-ground teamwork. On Feb. 9, 1945, when the abnormal rise of the Roer River flooded large areas of the Western Front, Lt. William A. Grusy, Peoria, Ill., flew his
"I had to fly in valleys and gorges, clearing hills and trees by a mere 50 feet to reach the target," he said.
Artillery adjustment was another deadly specialty of the 363rd. When Yanks started rolling across the Roer, 1st Lt. Arthur Miller, Jr., Tulsa, Okla., radioed firing data to 240mm gun crews, more than 15 miles away, enabling them to make a shambles of a huge German warehouse at Erkelenz. Another large building in the town was smashed through Lt. Miller's artillery adjustment before the recce pilot turned for home, outmaneuvering an
Destruction of a 40-car ammunition and fuel train four miles west of Dusseldorf earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for 1st Lt. Paul I. Sparer, Winthrop, Mass., 363rd pilot. Lt. Sparer experienced difficulty in pointing out the target to Thunderbolt pilots and dropped to a dangerously low altitude where he was fired on from guns protecting the train. The Mustang pilot left the train blazing with fire from his guns.
In a neat on-the-spot artillery adjustment mission near Dinslaken, 1st Lt. David R. Measell, Pontiac, Mich., directed howitzer fire on eight heavy German guns zeroed in on a road along which an American tank column approached. In the nick of time, he contacted artillery on the west bank of the Rhine which "lobbed 50 shells right into the gun pits." The tanks rumbled along, unmolested.
On Feb. 22, Col. Smelley led a 13-plane Lightning flight through the heart of the flak-infested Ruhr Valley. Purpose: to provide Ninth Army strategists, plotting the encirclement of this area, with a panoramic picture of terrain problems. Result: within 15 minutes, less time than it takes to sit for a portrait, 1200 square miles of Germany's maze of factories, highways and railroads in the Ruhr, had been photographed. This flight was heralded by some as the most successful single photo recce mission in the history of the 9th Air Force.
Pilots participating in the mission were Capt. T.A. "Pop" Roberts, Big Spring, Tex.; Capt. William C. Clevenger, Hardtford City, Ind.; Capt. Robert A. Adams; Independence, Mo.; Lt. George M. Brooks, San Diego, Calif.; Lt. James A Broderick, Chicago; Lt. Abram C. Weaver, Des Moines, Ia.; Lt. Archie F. Brown, Webster Groves, Mo.; Lt. Emerson L. Baker, Brush, Colo.; Lt. William J. Evens, Cleveland; Lt. Leonard Gold, Bronx, N.Y.; Lt. Arthur C. Blair, South Gate, Calif.; and Lt. Richard L. Powers, Minneapolis.
Air-Ground Cooperation Pays Off
On Nov. 28, Thunderbolt pilots of Lt. Col. Leo C. Moon's 404th Group broke up a German panzer threat against a unit of Maj. Gen. E.N. Harmon's 2nd Armd. Div. In a letter of commendation, Gen. Harmon disclosed that enemy tank losses were double the claim XXIX TAC had made from air observation. Wrote the general:
The courage and flying ability displayed were in the highest traditions of the military service. The assistance rendered the ground forces constitutes a splendid example of cooperation between forces of the service.
After Ninth Army had reached the Roer on a general front a few days following the fighter-bombers' assault at Julich, Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson, basing his praise on numerous counter-attacks smashed by XXIX TAC planes, addressed the following commendation to Brig. Gen. Richard F. Nugent:
I wish to commend the officers and men of the XXIX TAC for excellent close support afforded the Ninth Army on Nov. 16, the initial day of the current offensive. The support afforded by your command, executed as it was under difficult conditions, contributed materially to the initial success of the ground troops. I desire also to make record of my appreciation of the splendid cooperation existent between ground and air troops which has been especially exemplified during the progress of the present campaign.
Dusty, dazed Germans also "desired to make record" of their ideas on close ground support as practiced Nov. 16 by XXIX TAC.
Said one Nazi non-com, soldier of nine years' experience and a member of the 330th Volksgrenadier Regt.: "I never saw anything like it. My men didn't even dare stick their heads out of their foxholes. They still were numbed 45 minutes later. It was lucky for us that your ground troops didn't make contact with us until the next day. I couldn't have done anything with my boys that day."
American doughs looked skyward with the grateful eyes of men who expect and receive blessings from heaven. A 175th Inf. Regt. platoon leader summarized: "We didn't have any trouble at all after they came over. No artillery, no mortars, no nothing. The Krauts are beat when we take them after an attack."
Said a sergeant: "We can just walk right in there after the
A corporal: "Lots of times we can't move an inch and then the
Other counter-attacks were being planned by the Wehrmacht and by the time they were broken up, German tankers must have wondered why their guns were made to shoot horizontally instead of vertically.
A commendation from Maj. Gen. Alvan C. Gillem to Col. Holt read:
The close cooperation given in this afternoon's attack by squadrons of your group to the armor of my Corps established a new high in air-ground cooperation. Your bombing was so accurate, the ground troops were able to close effectively with the Krauts.
Ground support is a continuous emergency operation. The unpredictableness of the next call, the necessary mobility and the ever readiness of an air arm alerted as trouble-shooters make any story of such operations a recitation of isolated events. Only ultimately can these lightning, synchronized blows be pieced together into patterns that can shape the outcome of a campaign.
P-47s flying 26 missions for the 30th Inf. Div. in its drive through the Siegfried Line Oct. 7, 1944, received a commendation from Maj. Gen. L.S. Hobbs, Division Commander:
All of the air missions have been very close to the front lines, some of them as near as 200 or 300 yards in front of our troops. The close cooperation and the superior way in which these missions were carried out contributed largely to the success of this division in driving through the Siegfried Line.
Fighter-bomber pilots developed a new bombing technique in breaking up an enemy armored counter-attack near Kirchberg, Nov. 26. In order to combat a low ceiling, the squadron flight leader dropped incendiary bombs to light the target. The trick subsequently was used in the squall-ridden XXIX TAC area.
In what probably will stand as the fastest response to a ground call for air assistance, three Thunderbolt fighters dropped their first bombs on target just three minutes after the call. Lt. Col. Horace B. Wetherell, XXIX TAC's air-ground officer with the XIX Corps, asked for immediate help against the "Citadel," German
On Jan. 30, 1945, four volunteer Thunderbolt pilots flew cover for a 5th Armd. Div. column in the XIX Corps area, making an unexpected appearance in a snow and sleet storm. The target, a road bridge at Dedenborn marked by smoke by ground artillery, was destroyed. Later in the day, the division praised the command for its rescue flight in "unflyable" weather.
A squadron of Thunderbolts threw their weight into a tank battle between Shermans and 16 German Tigers near Wald, Feb. 28. When the battle was over, the unexpected air scourge had knocked out six tanks, caused the others to flee.
Born and Baptized Under Fire
The XXIX was born and baptized under fire, packed its practice training into a hectic four-day capsule period in Northern France, and took its place in combat beside other TACs—a babe, and yet an expert, in arms.
In the first days of the Ninth Army's breakthrough in Brittany, it was doubted whether Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson's Army would be moved up to the Siegfried Line front. But progress surpassed expectations, and the Ninth went into the line between the First and Third Armies in the Luxembourg area. The appearance of Gen. Simpson's forces as a part of the steamroller pushing back the Germans toward the Fatherland necessitated the formation of a new air arm to provide air cover.
For commanding officer of the new XXIX TAC, 9th Air Force chose Brig. Gen. Richard E. Nugent, Garden City, L.I., former Deputy Commanding General for Operations, 9th Air Force, combat pilot and tank expert. Brig. Gen. Burton M. Hovey, Jr., San Antonio, Tex., commanding officer of the 303rd Fighter Wing, became Deputy Commander for Administration.
On Sept. 12, 1944, Gen. Nugent reported the formation of the Ninth's new air adjunct to Gen. Simpson. Activated at St. Quentin, France, Sept. 15, 1944, from a merger of the 303rd and 84th Fighter Wings, the new and untried command began its feverish preparations for commitment by Oct. 3. In two weeks the two wings would have to fly as one, be knit together by a still non-existent administration and over-all operations organization.
Col. Dyke F. Meyer, Kirkwood, Mo., who commanded the first fighter-bomber group to operate against the Krauts and later directed operations for IX TAC, arrived to whip the wings into shape. What followed was equivalent to last-minute cramming for exams. Administration sections had to be organized, personnel procured, fighter control squadrons formed, control centers set up, mobile equipment assembled and constructed.
Col. Meyer insisted on duplication of every item of equipment to endow the TAC with greater mobility and allow it to be split in two for advanced echelon movements. Four days were set aside for operations. Pilots were briefed for imaginary missions; weather detachment LL provided actual weather predictions; the air was filled with artificial target conferences and telephone calls from simulated air-ground cooperation officers. Enlisted men scooped up red map pins and stuck them into all the Shangri-La's in the ETO. The XXIX TAC was operational—on a blank cartridge diet.
Weather statistics showed that the last three months of the year in XXIX TAC's northern rain-favored area would yield only four to 10 flyable days per month. But by Dec. 1, two weeks after Gen. Simpson's winter offensive shoved off around the Aachen-Geilenkirchen line, XXIX TAC had launched an average of 200 sorties per day for a two-week total of 2676 aircraft. Thunderbolts kept rendezvous with ground units on all but three days.
By Jan. 1, the blight of Gen. Nugent's calculated campaign against the transportation system sustaining troops in front of Ninth Army had spread to include regular visits to 29 separate marshalling yards. Claims to the first of the year for the stripling TAC soared to 3400 railroad cars smashed, 221 locomotives disabled, 27 railroad bridges bombed out and 627 rails cut.
Solar plexus for the complex web of railroads uniting German troops in the Julich-Linnich area with their hinterland was Neuss, where rolling stock began clogging marshalling yards. Destruction of bridges east and west of the town by marauding fighter-pilots bottle-necked traffic into one of the neatest box car concentrations ever spotted from the air.
With Neuss isolated by previous attack,
On March 1, after the last tactical bombing attack against Neuss, War Correspondent John Folliard's dispatch to The Washington Post read:
Air power may not have knocked Germany out of the war, but it certainly has knocked a lot of war out of Germany. Thanks to dive bombing attacks of Gen. Nugent's Thunderbolts, the railroad yards of Neuss are a shambles and hundreds of freight cars are out of commission. The result was that it was impossible for Neuss to send out goods or bring in raw materials needed in the production of these goods. The last attack on Neuss was on March 1 when Thunderbolts of the XXIX TAC roared in to blast German positions in buildings and tanks parked in the town. Next morning troops of the 83rd Division came in shooting and the war was over for Neuss.
Pouring Ruin On the Ruhr
Striking at the spider web of rail lines as far east as Munster, Dusseldorf and Kassel, the TAC supported the doughs pouring across the river with 602 aircraft which bedeviled enemy transportation by destroying 1182 freight cars, crippling 64 locomotives and 175 transports.
Typical of the devastating blows from the skies were attacks executed by pilots of the 370th Fighter Group, commanded by Lt. Col. Morgan A. Griffin, San Antonio, Tex. During an armed reconnaissance over the Honnif area, Lightnings led by Maj. John L. Crouch, Winter Haven, Fla., and Capt. James H. Buckey, New Paris, Pa., destroyed or damaged 344 flat cars. They smashed 35 locomotives, blew up two bridges, cut rail lines in 26 places, ruined 14 passenger cars, three motor transports, factories and other buildings. Capt. Buckey, who led two of the missions, said: "Fires were burning everywhere, obscuring the area for miles around."
By Feb. 26, XXIX TAC's tally for the five biggest days in its history, delivered when they counted the most in the isolation of the German defensive area, totalled: 2469 fighter-bomber and recce sorties netting 2693 rail cars destroyed or damaged, railcuts in 377 places, 192 locomotives knocked out, 1064 buildings and six rail bridges blown up.
Congratulating Gen. Nugent for the "splendid results" obtained during the battle of the Roer, Lt. Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg, CG 9th Air Force, wrote:
The results obtained in your close cooperating with attacking ground units and the destructive blows dealt the enemy movements in the rear areas reflect great credit on the training, technique of operations and superior leadership throughout your command.
The XXIX TAC was assigned the tactical mission in this colossal task of isolation. To chronicle its contributions in cooperation with the 8th Air Force and the RAF would require several books the size of this volume. Names of new cities appeared on daily target briefings. Recklinhausen, Dortmund, Essen, Dorsten, Hamm, Soest, Paderborn had their collective faces lifted by pitiless plastering from the air. Rolling stock destruction ran into thousands of tons per week. Ruhr factories became islands of smokestacks producing stockpiles of material that never could be shipped anywhere.
By March 12, 1945, sorties against rolling stock in the Ruhr were flown from German soil itself. On that day, XXIX TAC became the first Tactical Air Command to fly a mission complete from briefing to interrogation from the "sacred soil" of the Fatherland, which Goering had guaranteed would never know the tread of American troops, much less the tread of U.S. airplane tires. Col. McGehee's 373rd Fighter Group operated from a German airfield, built in 1941 by Dutch slave labor, just one week after its capture by American armor.
As the zero hour for the American do-or-die assault on the Rhine approached on the afternoon of March 23, three pilots, returning from their last mission over the Ruhr before the Army attack, told of the physical and psychological paralysis that gripped Germany's pulverized production area.
First Lt. Edward B. Edwards, Lansdale, Pa.: "The most unusual feature of our mission was the failure of the Germans to oppose us with even token flak. Happy Valley has become a peaceful valley."
Capt. Tom L. de Graffenried, Memphis, Tenn.: "Germany has a permanent flame in the Ruhr. It's impossible to see the ground."
Maj. Chester L. Van Etten, Los Angeles: "We were over the Ruhr for two hours from north to south. All we saw in the way of targets was one motorcycle. The whole territory looks dead. Our strafing and bombing must have persuaded them to do all their traveling at night."
XXIX TAC: Victory Pacemaker
MARCH 23, 0200: Americans did some traveling of their own—crossing the Rhine in one minute flat.
The fact that on the day Ninth Army doughs who crossed the Rhine and established the Wesel-Orsoy bridgehead to the heart of Germany could ask, "Where is the Luftwaffe?" proved that Gen. Nugent had done a good job on the first premise of tactical air power: destruction of the enemy's planes in the sky and on the ground. The decimation of the Luftwaffe in the air and on the ground progressed simultaneously with the accomplishment of XXIX TAC's other two missions of close cooperation and isolation of the battlefield.
Absence of the Luftwaffe over the Wesel-Orsoy bridgehead meant more than freedom from aircraft for infantrymen pouring across the Rhine. It meant preservation of hastily-thrown ponton bridges, the life artery for the march beyond the Rhine. The Luftwaffe was buried in the wreckage of its own hangars, splattered and shredded over its own air bases after attacks by rampant Thunderbolts, or scattered over the face of Germany after coming face-to-face with fighter pilots in the air. In eight days preceding the U.S. Army's greatest amphibious action since
On March 20, one group alone, Col. McGehee's 373rd, destroyed or damaged 119 enemy aircraft on the ground without losing a single plane. At the end of the day's operations, the colonel said: "Our boys got tired of waiting for the Krauts to come up and fight so they went down and got the Boche on the ground."
In five lightning attacks against Luftwaffe bases at Gutersloh, Paderborn and Lippstadt the same day,
One attack against the airfield at Dusseldorf which knocked 21 planes out of the war was led by 1st Lt. Joseph W. Mahoney, Lawrence, Mass.—a mission that Lt. Mahoney wasn't required to fly. Having completed a tour of duty with 94 missions, he was scheduled for rotation to the States. The urge to hit the 95 mark spurred the lieutenant into action; he volunteered for the Dusseldorf flight.
Leading a squadron of P-47s from the 366th Fighter Group, his plane was hit by flak and caught fire. He nursed it back to home base but the landing gear was damaged and he was forced to bail out. Descending in front of the hangars just as his commanding officer, Col. Holt, was about to present the DFC to pilots in a formation on the field, the lieutenant disentangled his parachute and stood the formation to receive the Purple Heart that he had won on the mission. His wounds were not serious and Lt. Mahoney was able to return to the States.
Little imagination is needed to understand how a fighter-bomber rampage that can destroy more than 400 planes in eight days can help take the sting out of a whole air force in five months of steady attrition. What happened to the Luftwaffe late in March was catastrophic. But it was preceded by a long series of weekly fiascos and petty calamities inflicted by routine tactical air attacks dating from the activation of the TAC until the last German airfield in the Ninth Army area had been overrun by ground troops near the Elbe.
During the confused days of von Rundstedt's swan-song offensive, the Germans threw everything they had into the air. On Dec. 17, the TAC's first significant encounter with Nazi fighters coincided with the launching of the enemy's stern ground bid. In a gigantic air battle over the Bonn area, TAC fighter pilots shot down 23 aircraft and damaged two of the attacking force of more than 50 planes. Four TAC planes did not return. By Dec. 23, XXIX TAC was a name to be feared by retiring Luftwaffe pilots. Thunderbolts and Lightnings had destroyed 69 enemy planes in six flyable days since Dec. 17.
On one of the last days of XXIX TAC's operations, three Messerschmitts caught sight of three Thunderbolts, hit the deck and without lowering landing gear, bellied into the nearest German wheatfield.
Long before the unconditional surrender of Germany on May 8, 1945, XXIX TAC could reflect on a job well done, on the fulfillment of every one of its missions.
Actually blasting Germans from the skies, XXIX TAC achieved its primary goal when the Luftwaffe reached the end of the line. The speed with which Ninth Army advanced from the Roer to the Rhine was evidence of the success achieved in the TAC's second purpose, that of isolating the battlefield by cutting rails, blasting bridges, destroying transportation. The Julich Sports Palace serves as a monument to XXIX TAC's might in accomplishing its third endeavor, that of affording direct support to ground troops.
Printed by Desfosses-Neogravure, Paris.
Photos: U.S. Signal Corps.