May 21, 1944: Operation CHATTANOOGA CHOO-CHOO
The 56th Fighter Group was taking part in Operation CHATTANOOGA CHOO-CHOO 70 years ago this week. The Allied Air Forces operation began on May 21, 1944. It was part of the larger transportation plan to cut the lines of communication to the Normandy Coast. At the operation’s beginning, the invasion of Europe, D Day, was just a couple of weeks away.
The objective of the operation was to throw everything possible at the continental rail system. The particular focus was the rolling stock and especially the locomotives. Ninth Air Force previously had bombed rail centers but with mixed results.
Prior to April, an occasional fighter would strafe the rail system on his way home after completing a mission. However, the Allies did not want to cause civilian casualties by mass targeting the rolling stock.
Then, 9th AF began sending its fighters on search-and-destroy missions against the rail system. What changed was that planners figured as the invasion neared, the civilians would stop riding the trains. Therefore, they ordered the execution of Operation CHATTANOOGA CHOO-CHOO. The operation brought 8th AF and the 56th FG into the organized effort.
For their part the 56th FG flew almost daily missions as part of the operation. On May 22, the 56th FG claimed six locomotives destroyed and damaged seven others. Two days later, group pilots destroyed six locomotives, including an entire train, and damaged another eight engines. The following day they claimed 12 locomotives destroyed and another four May 30.
Another piece of the transportation plan during that same time was railroad bridges.
Until April, successful bombing of rail bridges was thought to be too hard. Based on stories of successful rail bridge bombings by the 15th AF in Italy, the Allies began to re-examine the tactic. Bombers and fighters began to target rail bridges in April and May. On May 22, Col. Hub Zemke, 56th FG commander, led 24 P-47s loaded with 46 500-pound general purpose bombs against the rail bridge at Hasselt, Holland. The group dropped their bombs from various dive angles and altitudes. While their efforts failed to destroy that bridge that day, others had success. The group targeted more bridges in the succeeding weeks.
Overall, the results of Operation CHATTANOOGA CHOO-CHOO were massive. After it began, French rail men deserted their posts. One tactic really scared them. The Airmen dropped fuel tanks onto the stalled trains. They then shot at the tanks until the train caught fire. The result was the Germans had to send German rail men on the most dangerous runs. Also, the operation helped the fighters hone their air-to-ground skills. They would need those skills once the Allied ground troops landed in early June.