So – wrapping up our TDY this week and hopping the (ugh) red-eye back to Occupied Territory for to make it back for a libs this weekend before back to the grind Monday. While we’ve been concentrating on Midway this past week, there is this other event over in the ETO that took place in June as well – and, surprise, Naval Aviation played an important, albeit unheralded role therein. And a tip of the ol’ fedora to my partner in crime in this part of the world, Kyle W. (former naval aviator and -shudder- helo pilot) for the suggestion for this week’s topic.

Think aviation and D-day and these images usually float to the surface:

a-20

but did you know naval aviation was very much in evidence as well?

6 Jun 44–Allied Invasion of Normandy–Seventeen naval aviators taken from aviation units on battleships and cruisers were assigned to bombardment duty as part of VCS-7. They operated with units of the British Fleet Air Arm and Royal Air Force, flying gunfire spotting missions in RAF Spitfires over the Normandy beaches from D-day until the June 26. (Naval Aviation Chronology in World War II)

As regulars ’round these parts know, there’s more, much more to this story…

vcs-7_001

Just look below the fold…

HMS Emperor

Navy missions – US and Royal, consisted primarily of landing force duties (ferrying and de-barkation), shore bombardment and ASW. To be effective at the latter two required the incorporation of naval aviation. While US carrier forces were otherwise occupied in another theater during this timeframe, three RN carriers, the HMS Emperor with 20 x Hellcats Mk If4f_invasion_stripes (F6F-3) embarked, from No. 800 and No. 804 squadron, HMS Pursuer with 20 Wildcats Mk V (FM-1) from No. 881 and No. 896 squadron and HMS Tracker with 12 Avengers Mk I (TBF-1) Avengerfrom No. 846 sqn. and 7 to 9 Wildcats Mk V from a det. of No. 1832 Squadron (more on Tracker’s adventures here) were assigned to Operation NEPTUNE, the maritime portion of Operation OVERLORD. Their mission was ASW, primarily aimed at submarines operating from Nazi bases established on France’s coast along the Bay of Biscay. Additionally, FAA Avengers, operating from shore with Swordfishes and maritime patrol Liberators, flew ASW patrols on the approaches to the channel. The American naval aviation involvement, however, was primarily found with naval gunfire support spotting.

Naval Gunfire Spotting

vcs-7Typical spotting missions utilized two aircraft with the lead functioning as spotter. The wingman, or “weaver,” provided escort and protected the flight against enemy air attack. The clocking, or ship control, method was utilized on the majority of spotting sorties. Standard altitude for spotting missions was 6,000 feet, but poor weather forced the spotter to operate between 1,500 and 2,000 feet. Occasionally, missions were flown at even lower altitudes. Drop tanks were used to increase range. A typical spotting sortie lasted close to two hours. This provided 45 minutes on station and 1 hour in transit. Such operations though, required a permissive environment, with air superiority, if not supremacy, as the aircraft used tended to be slow and lightly armed.

At the time of the Normandy invasion, the spotter aircraft in use (catapulted from the host cruiser or battleship) was eitherSOC the Curtis SOC Seagull or Vought OS2U Kingfisher. While both aircraft had a laudatory record as spotters, it was felt that in the airspace over the beach come D-Day (and in other locales) that they were too slow and hence too vulnerable to any fighters that might leak through the formidible barrier afforded by Allied air forces, or susceptible to AAA. Specifically, they lacked the speed and manoeuvrability to escape attacks made by Focke-Wulf Fw 190s and Messerschmitt Bf 109s. In the Mediterranean, VCS-8 aviators were being trained in available fighter aircraft like the P-40 Warhawk and P-51 Mustang. Flying fighters, it was felt, ensured the spotters a significantly better chance of avoiding being jumped by enemy fighters. Because the demand in theater for Mustangs (USAAF and RAF) was so high, another available platform had to be found. The Spitfire Mk Vbs was already demonstrating capabilities as a fast tac recce fighter and there were a number of those and the navalized variant (Seafire) being concentrated in the south of England for the upcoming invasion. Besides, how cool would it be to fly a Spit over the beach on D-Day vice a stringbag SOC?

spitfire-vcs-7-cSo it was decided to pull the 17 VCS and VO pilots off the cruisers Quincy (CA 71), Tuscaloosa (CA 37) and Augusta (CA 31) and the battleships Nevada (BB 36), Arkansas (BB 33) and Texas (BB 35), and stand-up VCS-7 after they had been checked out in the Spits.The 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group, Ninth Air Force, under the command of Colonel George W. Peck, was assigned the task of checking out the VCS-7 aviators in Spitfires. Training was conducted at the 67th’s base in Middle Wallop, Hampshire. The training syllabus consisted of defensive fighter tactics, aerobatics, navigation, formation flying and spotting procedures.

CO, VCS-7On 8 May, LT Robert W. Calland, senior aviator aboard Nevada, assumed temporary command of the squadron until LCDR William Denton, Jr., senior aviator aboard Quincy, arrived on station 28 May. That same day, the squadron became fully operational and moved to Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) Lee-on-Solent. In all, ten squadrons were brought together at Lee-on-Solent to provide air spotting for the fire support ships of the Western and Eastern Naval Task Forces and was designated 34 RecceVCS-7 pilots are briefed before flying a gunfire spotting mission over the Normandy beachheads, June-July 1944. Those present are (from left to right): Wing Commander Robert J. Hardiman, RAF, Commanding Allied Spotter Pilots; Ensign Robert J. Adams, USNR; Major Noel East, British Army Intelligence; Lieutenant Harris Hammersmith, Jr., USNR; and Captain John Ruscoe, Royal Artillery, Gunnery Liaison Officer. [US Navy] Wing, the Air Spotting Pool of 2nd Tactical Air Force. Consisting of 26 and 63 Squadrons RAF, 885 Squadron RN, and VCS-7 USN and was commanded by a Commodore of the RN. The aircraft used were Spitfire Vbs and Seafire IIIs. Two of the RAF squadrons, Nos. 26 and 63, flew Spitfires. The Western Naval Task Force, Rear Admiral Alan G. Kirk commanding, would land the US. First Army on beaches Utah and Omaha. The Eastern Naval Task Force would land the British Second Army on beaches Gold, Juno and Sword. Spotting for the naval bombardment during the D-Day invasion was done by The other three, Nos. 2, 268 and 414, flew Mustang Mk. Is and Mk. lAs. The four FAA squadrons, Nos. 808, 897, 885 and 886, were assigned Seafire Mk. Ills.

On D-day, all aircraft were pooled. This meant that VCS-7 flew whatever type was available, either Seafire or Spitfire. Although Mustangs were present, they were not flown by any VCS-7 aviators-the reason being that they had not been checked out in the type and, as it turns out, the Mustangs were withdrawn for other duties, leaving a remnant of 95-some odd aircraft for spotting at RNAS Lee-on-Solent.

Although the Luftwaffe was rarely encountered during the course of the invasion, still six of the station’s aircraft were shot down by German fighters. Amongst those encountering Luftwaffe fighters were four VCS-7 pilots who, despite relatively little time in type, put the Spitfire through its defensive paces and successfully avoided being shot down. The other nemesis of spotters, flak, was also encountered and was both frequent, heavy and accurate – to the detriment of VCS-7 in that it accounted for the sole combat loss, LT Richard M. Barclay, senior aviator aboard Tuscaloosa. Lt. Barclay’s wingman, LTJG Charles S. Zinn, also from Tuscaloosa, managed to return home despite severe damage to his right wing and aileron.

During the course of the three days of the invasion, VCS-7 alone flew a total of 94 sorties and 191 between 6 Jun and 25 Jun. Once Cherbourg fell VCS-7 was disbanded and the Spitfires were returned to the British.

ENS Adams\' Spitfire in France

Postscript. A VCS-7 pilot, ENS Adams (also pictured here), was the first Naval Aviator to land in France when he landed his damaged Spitfire at an auxiliary landing field in France.

VCS-7 Spitfire

Sources

2 Comments

  1. I hadn’t heard this part of the D-Day story. Thanks for this. During the invasion of Southern France, the same problem was solved in a different way – that might make an interesting future edition of FF.

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