I was corresponding with my brother about Trump’s lamentable European tour and dead-eyed D-Day speechifying, and Mark mentioned another sad aspect of the coverage – in all the talk of the bravery of the landing forces and the fierce resistance they met, hardly anybody mentioned that the success of the invasion had a great deal to do with the almost miraculous absence of the Luftwaffe anywhere near Normandy on June 6, 1944; and of course nobody mentioned Pete Quesada, because nobody ever does.
This is the sort of thing that browns me to no end. General Elwood “Pete” Quesada is a personal hero, and it’s a crime against history that he isn’t famous. This great man, so unsung today, had a huge part in pushing history in the right direction, while serving as the commander of all US fighter aircraft in the European Theatre, a role he assumed in 1944 when he was just 40 years old. His 9th tactical air force boasted over 1,500 fighters, and Quesada, more than anybody else, knew just what to do with them. Had he not, only God knows what might have happened on those five beaches in Normandy.
What Quesada did that made all the difference was champion, along with a few others, the upending of the established doctrine on the use of air power. The forces under his command were single seat, mostly single-engined fighters, known as “tactical” aircraft, in that their role was to win individual instances of air combat, but not achieve any broad “strategic” objectives – that is, they didn’t deliver the weapons designed to destroy the enemy’s ability to fight (though they would certainly defend against the planes that did). The “strategic” aircraft were bombers, typically big four-engined jobs, and in WW II the Allies invested enormous resources in a strategic bombing campaign designed to assault German cities and cripple German industry. By that yardstick, the campaign was, ultimately, a failure, killing hundreds of thousands (a half million, by some estimates), but doing too little to curtail astonishingly resilient German industrial output. It did stress and wear down Germany’s war machine in various ways, some of them quite severe, and the contribution of strategic bombing to victory remains a matter of debate, but bombing certainly didn’t win the war all on its own, as its proponents had claimed, with almost evangelical zeal, that it would.
Quesada was one of the airmen visionary enough to see that his “tactical” aircraft were actually the ones that could make the greatest contribution toward the strategic objective of defeating Germany. The advent of the 2,000 horse power engine meant that his fighters, particularly the monstrous P-47 Thunderbolt, could be big, rugged, fast, and capable of looking after themselves (and then some), while also hauling a significant bomb load – they were “fighter-bombers”. Applying lessons from his service in the North African and Italian theatres, Quesada was determined to use this new breed of tactical fighters for ground attack, reasoning that the best way to grind the German Army to a decimated halt was not to fly huge aircraft over Berlin and Hamburg in often vain and always costly attempts to destroy factories – that wasn’t working, and anyway, raw factory output wasn’t really the point. Pete’s great insight was to realize that no matter how many planes and tanks and artillery pieces the Germans could build, none of them would make any difference if the Germans couldn’t reliably move them or supply them, and simply lost them all once they arrived in theatre. His fighters would cut them off from their long, vulnerable lines of logistics, and attack them where they operated. Everywhere they operated.
In the run-up to D-Day, Quesada’s 9th had five priority target types: marshalling yards, coastal batteries, airfields, radar stations, and bridges. They hit such targets from the coast to as deep into France as the fighters could fly, as Quesada sent his charges on roving low-level missions to rip across the European countryside at 400 MPH, strafing and bombing everything on the official priority list, and just about anything else that might be of use to the Nazis, especially trains, trucks, barges, cars, horse-drawn wagons, damned near anything that moved. “Targets of opportunity” were prosecuted with pitiless enthusiasm. If you were a guy on a bicycle, you were liable to get blasted by eight .50 calibre machine guns. Sorry pal, you might have been a Kraut. If you were pushing a wheel barrow, tough luck – you might be helping the Germans move number 2 lug nuts or something. Here, have 600 rounds for your trouble. If you were a goddam cow, sorry, Bossy, but how do I know you’re not a Nazi cow? How do I know your milk doesn’t make cheese for the Waffen SS? Best to just fill you full of hot lead, you poor, mooing bastard. The effect was that the Germans could barely move their forces in daylight, couldn’t get them enough supplies, couldn’t do much of anything a lot of the time except keep their heads down. Tanks that never get ammo and gas delivered to them are useless. Un-fuelled planes shot up on their runways are useless. Troops that can’t be moved by truck or train are useless.
In one day’s set of missions, the pilots of the 9th destroyed so many trains that they dubbed it “Chattanooga Day”, after Glenn Miller’s Chattanooga Choo-Choo.
Quesada’s fighters thus had a destructive and utterly paralyzing effect on the enemy. His 9th Tactical Air Command, in accomplishing what the military calls “isolating the battlefield”, was doing by different means what the bombers of the 8th Air Force could not, and at the cost of far fewer lives on both sides. Nobody wanted to admit it, and in some quarters the dogma remained that strategic bombing was the way to go, but Pete and his fighter aircraft were the ones creating the conditions for victory. Yes, the four-engined bombers were in on it too, striking the same sorts of targets within the over-arching “Transportation Plan” campaign, but in so doing the strategic bombing mavens were merely adopting Pete’s philosophy and grudgingly diverting resources away from the cherished but ever-elusive goal of hitting cities and factories to the point of knocking Germany out of the war. The bomber commanders, Harris of the RAF and Spaatz of the USAAF, bitterly resisted the new strategy.
Yeah, well, Pete was right. They were woefully wrong, and from this remove it’s hard to understand how they ignored the overwhelming logic of Quesada’s strategy, especially since all objective evidence pointed to the ongoing failure of strategic bombing to achieve its grand design. Pete might well have put it to Spaatz and Harris: are we in this just to kill people, or do we want to win?
As D-Day drew near, Quesada was summoned to a high-level pre-invasion briefing at which everyone from Eisenhower and Churchill to the King of England himself demanded an answer to a simple, crucial question. An amphibious invasion would be cut to ribbons if the German Air Force, the “Luftwaffe”, could mount sufficient attacks. We needed total air superiority over the English Channel on D-Day. What did he intend to do to stop the Luftwaffe on June 6, 1944?
Pete answered, calmly: “There won’t be any Luftwaffe over the Channel that day”.
Churchill said something like “aghh – how can you be so sure, young man?” (in some retellings, Churchill says “well, you are very confident…at least that is a great asset”). It seemed an incredible, even boastful assertion from the young General.
It wasn’t. Pete’s plan, already well on the way to execution, was to degrade the enemy air forces to the point that by June 6 there would be, for the practical purposes of the invasion, no such thing as the Luftwaffe. “They just aren’t going to be able to be there on June 6”, he told them. “I’m sure of it”. What planes his pilots hadn’t shot to pieces on the ground would be stranded on the tarmac from lack of the fuel the Germans couldn’t transport any more. Woe to any that straggled aloft – Quesada’s fighters, in cooperation with the considerable assets of the RAF, would flood the airspace over the invasion fleet.
So it proved. On D-Day, the Luftwaffe was pretty much nowhere to be seen; I think only two German planes even managed to buzz over the beaches. The 9th flew almost 1,500 sorties, and provided virtually continuous coverage in the days that followed. Their additional efforts in direct support of ground forces, hitting German strong points and reinforcements, were far more effective than the initial strategic bombing campaign to neutralize German defences along the beaches, in which some 3,000 tons of bombs were dropped well off target to little or no effect. You couldn’t hit precision targets that way; hell, throw in some clouds and you couldn’t even see them. You had to get down in the weeds, and look the bastards right in the eyes.
The relentless campaign to interdict and destroy German forces continued with even greater ferocity following the landings. Rommel himself was shot off the road when his staff car was strafed about a month after the invasion. The predations of the fighter-bombers were so strenuous and unrelenting that there was a grave risk of tragic “friendly fire”mishaps arising from indiscriminate targeting, and it was Quesada’s idea to embed pilots with radios among the armoured forces, to call in air strikes. These forward air controllers, speaking the specialized argot that aircrew needed to make sense of the battlefield below, became crucial to a hugely successful system of “close air support” in which tactical aircraft became a sort of airborne artillery at the beck and call of the advancing tanks. Also integral to the new system was an advanced type of Microwave Early Warning radar, developed for air defence, but re-purposed in the absence of German aircraft. Over the combat zone, Quesada’s fighters were tracked by these mobile radar sets, which established a sort of battlefield air traffic control, another of Pete’s innovations. Thus directed on to the proper targets, the fighters were far less liable to bomb and strafe the wrong guys. In the result Quesada’s fighter-bombers, which otherwise might have been as terrifying to our own troops as to the Wehrmacht, came to be referred to by ground forces as the “angels on our shoulders”.
Of course Quesada didn’t win the war all on his own, any more than the success of the invasion begun on D-Day, given what was going on in the East, was the only reason Germany was defeated. He was by no means the only commander who rose magnificently to the occasion, either, but you’ve likely heard of Patton, Bradley, Montgomery, et al. You might even have heard of Zhukov. Pete remains virtually anonymous, and dammit, that ain’t right, not given all he did to save Western Civilization.
It just ain’t right.