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An 8th Air Force Bomber Pilot’s Role in the Normandy Invasion

An 8th Air Force Bomber Pilot’s Role in the Normandy Invasion

By Colonel Gene Pfeffer, USAF (Ret)

This is the story of an American Army Air Forces pilot flying from England named Elwood Starkey and his role in Operation Overlord, the invasion of France in June, 1944.  Starkey flew 36 B-24 combat missions over Europe while assigned to the 67th Bomb Squadron, 44th Bomb Group, 2nd Air Division, 8th Air Force as an aircraft commander.  His missions from Shipdham in Norfolk, England covered the period 15 May, 1944 to 3 August 1944 – the prelude, execution, and follow-up to the invasion.    

Starkey was born in Sherman, TX on 15 January 1915 making him older than most USAAF pilots of WWII.   During his early years the family had it tough.  After graduating high school, Starkey attended several colleges and universities and ultimately graduated from East Texas State in 1940 at the age of 25.  With the war in Europe heating up, the U.S. instituted the draft.  Rather than wait to be drafted, Starkey enlisted in the Navy as an Aviation Cadet. Starkey had some difficulties with celestial navigation and was subsequently discharged from the Navy on 2 Dec 1941, five days before the Pearl Harbor attack.  He got a civil service job at the Naval Air Station working on aircraft engines.  But Starkey had been bitten by the flying bug; he found the civil service work boring.  So, in December, 1942 he enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Forces determined to become a pilot.  Starkey attended primary flight training in Independence, KS and advanced flight training in Frederick, OK.  He received his pilot’s wings and commission as a 2nd Lieutenant at Frederick.   

Starkey then attended bomber training at Liberal, KS where he transitioned into the large four engine aircraft known as the B-24 Liberator.  Starkey joined what was to be his crew in Pueblo, CO.  From there they were transferred to Westover Field, MA for combat crew training including formation flying, gunnery, and night flying.  Starkey and crew took possession of a new B-24 to ferry across the Atlantic at Mitchell Field, NY.  From there the crew began their journey via Goose Bay, Labrador, Iceland, and Ireland.  They finally reached England in April, 1944 where they joined the 67th Squadron, 44th Bomb Group.

Elwood Starkey’s B-24 Crew

In the weeks surrounding the Allied invasion of Normandy the Allied air forces played several important roles.   The Air Plan focused on three objectives. First, the Allied bomber and fighter force would attempt to destroy the western elements of the German Air Force before and on D-Day. Second, before the invasion, the Allied air forces would attack bridges and rail lines to prevent the German armored forces from rushing toward the landing beaches.  Third, during and after the invasion the air forces would support the advance of ground troops pushing into France.  Elwood Starkey flew B-24 missions in all three phases of the Plan. 

In the days before D-Day, Starkey participated in several missions to strike rail marshalling yards in Belgium and France. On the 3rd and 4th of Jun, Starkey flew B-24 bombing missions against transportation targets in Normandy.  On the day of the invasion itself, 6 June 1944, Allied bombers were used to hit German fortifications near the beaches and to keep roads and bridges behind the beaches unusable. In the first mission of the day at dawn 659 B-17 Flying Fortresses and 418 B-24 Liberator bombers of the Eight Air Force were launched to hit the beach areas.  One B-24 was lost, one was damaged beyond repair, and one was damaged.  Twelve airmen lost their lives.  In a second early mission 84 B-17s and 259 B-24s were

Consolidated B-24H Liberators flying over part of the Allied invasion fleet gathered off the Normandy coast

dispatched to strike transportation choke points behind the beaches.  Extensive cloudiness prevented attackers from seeing the targets; the mission was cancelled.  In the third US bombing mission of the day, 58 B-24s bombed the transportation center at Caen, just inland from the British Sword beach on the east end of Allied landing beaches.  In the final mission of the day 325 B-17s and 125 B-24s hit additional transportation sites.  One B-24 was lost, one B-24 was damaged beyond repair, five B-17s were damaged, and 10 airmen were killed.  In all, 1,729 bomber sorties dropped 3,596 tons of bombs.  According to his notes, Elwood Starkey flew six hours of combat in his B-24 on D-Day in these missions.   In a letter to his wife written on the evening of D-Day, Starkey said “Well today was D-Day … and it was quite a day.  Excitement or rather tension around here was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Your darling husband didn’t miss out on it either…In fact, I was over France, the very invasion coast a few minutes before the first landings were made.  It was a thrilling moment, believe me.  I could see quite a bit of the operations…”  Starkey has bombed German positions at Saint Laurent Sur Mer, immediately inland from Omaha Beach.

Two other important applications of strategic bombing in tactical support of ground troops soon followed.  The Allies had intended for British and Canadian ground forces to capture the town of Caen on D-Day itself.  It proved too tough a task.  The delay allowed the Germans to reinforce their positions around Caen with strong armored forces.  Several attempts were made by the British and Canadians to break through, but without success.  At the same time, US forces on the western end of the Allied lodgment were having difficulty breaking through German defenses. Allied commanders devised a plan that would provide a one-two punch that was designed to break the stalemate.  The first punch, to be struck by the British and Canadian on the east at Caen, was to hold the German armored forces in front of Caen, and, if possible, achieve a breakthrough of the German lines.  It was called Operation Goodwood.  The second punch was to be provided by US forces on the west to make a breakthrough in the German front at St. Lo and swing north to encircle the German forces from behind. This was called Operation Cobra.  It was the more important of the two linked operations. 

Plans called for Allied bombers to destroy German front line ground forces for both of the operations. This was to be a new and untried tactical use of large strategic bomber formations.  British Bomber Command dropped 3,000 tons of bombs directly on German positions around Caen on the night of 17 July 1944. At dawn on 18 July Bomber Command and US Eighth Air Force bombers again hit targets around Caen.  The 8th Air Force sent 644 B-24s.  Elwood Starkey’s 67th Bomb Squadron sent 13 aircraft and Starkey piloted one of them.  His crew hit Troarn outside Caen. The 67th’s B-24s experienced heavy German anti-aircraft fire, but their bombing was good to excellent.  During the mission one B-24 was lost to German fire, two were damaged beyond repair, and 182 of the 644 were damaged.  Fortunately, Starkey’s crew made it back without incident.  In the ensuing ground assault, Allied troops encountered particularly stiff resistance.  After some initial gains, the British and Canadian advance ground to a halt.  Goodwood did not achieve a breakthrough.  But the operation did achieve the objective of holding the German armor on the east directly facing British and Canadian forces.  This set the stage for Operation Cobra. 

An Allied bomber, most likely a British Hadley-Paige Halifax, over Caen

The Eighth’s next ground support mission proved both its most effective in terms of supporting the ground forces and its most controversial.  The plan for Operation Cobra was to achieve a breakthrough of the American forces at the town of St. Lo on the western flank of the Allied beachhead.  The US ground commander, General Bradley, meant to pierce the enemy lines and rapidly push through to the north to encircle German forces.  Bradley wanted a heavy aerial bombardment to immediately precede Cobra. He wanted to use a great mass of air power to virtually wipe out German forces opposing part of the U.S. line and then punch a hole through. Bradley wanted the air bombardment to fall into a rectangular area approximately four miles long and one and one half miles deep—approximately four and one-half times the size of New York City’s Central Park.  He wanted the air bombardment conducted rapidly; if it stretched out over several hours, it would lose its massive shock effect. Bradley also wanted the bomber force to fly parallel to the front (along the German lines) rather than perpendicular.  Bradley was told by Air Force commanders that it was impossible to have more than a thousand bombers fly the parallel path Bradley wanted in the time he allowed for the mission.  In addition, he was told that his troop would be too close to the target area to have the necessary margin of safety for such a complex mission.

The mission commenced on 24 July 1944 in spite of marginal weather.  1,586 B-17s and B-24s left their bases in England. The skies stayed heavily overcast and the mission was aborted just short of the target area.  It was rescheduled for 25 July.  However, some bombers never received the recall order; 317 bombers dropped their loads.  Some of bombers dropped short, directly onto their own U.S. Army troops, killing 25 men and wounding 131 more.  The 67th Bomb Squadron put up 14 B-24s for the mission including Elwood Starkey’s B-24.  All were recalled before reaching the target area.  In spite of the recall, one B-17 was lost and 70 were damaged.  Two B-24s were lost and 74 were damaged.  Two airmen were killed, 12 wounded, and 21 were missing in action. 

 On the morning of 25 July, the Eighth Air Force again began its bomb drop at St. Lo.  The force dispatched 1,581 B-17s and B-24s.  Most of the heavies (1,503 of them) released their bombs over the target area. During the mission One B-17 and four B-24s were lost, two B-24s were damaged beyond repair, and 41 B-17s and 132 B-24s were damaged.  Nine airmen were wounded and 46 were missing in action.  Fourteen 67th Bomb Squadron B-24s participated in the mission; their bombing results were excellent.  Anti-aircraft fire was reported to be heavy.  The 67th had one B-24 damaged.  Elwood Starkey flew his B-24 on this three and a half hour mission and returned safely.

St. Lo after the 8th Air Force Bombing mission

Their 3,300 tons of explosives crashed into the German defenders. The attack killed 1,000 Germans outright, destroyed command posts, and knocked out all but a dozen armored vehicles.  Lt Gen Fritz Bayerlein, the German commander, described the scene in a postwar interrogation. “It was hell. . . . The planes kept coming overhead like a conveyor belt, and the bomb carpets came down. . . . My frontlines looked like a landscape on the moon, and at least seventy percent of my personnel were out of action—dead, wounded, crazed or numb.” The combined bomber and infantry-armor attack succeeded.  On 26 July US troops burst through the German lines.

Both US air and ground commanders knew of the risks of the bombing operation and decided to accept them.  Unfortunately, short bombings killed another 111 Americans and wounded 490 more.  In fact, many bombardiers, well aware of the first day’s tragedy, took great pains not to bomb short on the second day. Only 2 to 4 percent of the bombers dropped short. In spite of these unfortunate accidents, the operation was a great success.  After the mission, General Bradley, in a moment of extraordinary frankness, said if GIs died they were “nothing more than tools to be used in the accomplishment of the mission”.   War has neither the time nor heart to concern itself with the individual and the dignity of man.” So is the reality of war.  Also after the battle he said “This operation could not have been the success it has been without such close cooperation of the Air…” 

Elwood Starkey separated from the USAAF in October, 1945 and returned to civilian life with a career in business.  For the missions described here and others Starkey earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the European campaign Medal with three battle stars during his combat tour.

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