D-Day codename “Operation Overlord”

In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, long before the sun began to rise, the thunderous drone of more than a thousand Allied aircraft taking to the skies awakened residents near the several aerodromes in England.

The aircraft represented the first phase of “Operation Overlord,” the Allied invasion of occupied France. Bombers, fighters and transports carrying thousands of paratroopers and glider troops to drop behind the venerable German Atlantic “sea wall,” were the tip of the spear for the D-Day landings. As the planes flew, more than 160,000 soldiers of the main invasion force were already embarking on 2,500 ships across the rough seas of the English channel, bound for the beaches of Normandy later that morning.

The members of the 355th Fighter Group, comprised of the 354th, 357th and 358th Fighter Squadrons, first received word of the invasion plans on the evening of June 5, 1944. At 11 p.m. that night, Col. James “Wild Bill” Cummings, the 355th FG commander, briefed his excited aviators on the invasion plans and their role in “Operation Overlord.”

After the brief, the pilots busied themselves catching what little sleep they could, memorizing flight paths, possible targets and the Rules of Engagement. They also familiarized themselves with the cockpits and controls of their brand new P-51 Mustangs, freshly painted with the now iconic white stripes indicative of the D-Day invasion aircraft, which had just arrived a few months earlier. The P-51 was replacing the tough and battle proven P-47 Thunderbolts that many of the aviators had been flying since 1943.

At approximately 3 a.m., on June 6, 1944, the first fighters of the 355th FG departed from Steeple Morden, England, and began their flight to France.

Much like the paratroopers and paragliders, who were dropping behind enemy lines at the same early morning hours, the 355th FG was tasked with disrupting the enemy as much as they could. They bombed bridges, roads and railways, strafed German convoys heading for Normandy, and hit German aerodromes and aircraft on the ground. The goal was to attack any “targets of opportunity” in order to keep the Germans disorganized and impede them from reinforcing their positions in Normandy, or mount counter attacks on the Allied invasion force.

For some in the 355th FG, June 6, 1944, would be their first combat flight. This included future Ace Maj. Bert Marshall of the 354th FS, who was flying his first combat mission despite having logged more flight hours in a fighter aircraft than any other pilot in the 355th FG. Other future Aces from the 355th FG flying that day included Lt. Col. Clairborne Kinnard Jr. of the 354th FS, Lt. Col. Raymond Myers of the 358th FS and Maj. Bill “Bud” Fortier of the 354th FS, all of whom would go on to shoot down a combined 19 enemy aircraft between them before the end of the war.

From the early morning hours until approximately 8:30 p.m., all three squadrons that comprised the 355th FG flew mission after mission over Normandy and the French interior, including the areas around Paris. The Germans, despite the initial surprise, quickly mounted stiff resistance to the Allied aircraft.

Through the German anti-aircraft defenses and aerial response, the 355th FG managed to wreak havoc on the enemy, destroying multiple locomotives, supply depots, aircraft on the ground, decimating troop convoys, bombing enemy tanks and eliminating key bridges. They also took a heavy toll on the German aircraft that were fielded against them in the sky, ultimately downing 15 that day. This would account for more than half of the total 26 enemy planes shot down by the entirety of the Eighth Air Force on D-Day.

By the end of their operations on June 6, 1944, the 355th FG suffered two losses. One was 1st Lt. George Phillips of the 357th FS, who was killed when his parachute failed to deploy as he bailed out of his crippled P-51. The second loss was 1st Lt. Walter Douglas, also from the 357th FS, who bailed out of his aircraft over Calais, France, after it was hit by flak and was subsequently taken prisoner.

The Allied landings on Normandy would be truly among one of the greatest and audacious large-scale operations conducted by the Allies in Europe during World War II. It marked the beginning of turning the tide of war against the Axis grip on Western Europe. Due to the efforts of the 355th FG, as well as other units of the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces, the German Luftwaffe was never able to mount any real air presence over Normandy, which could have severely jeopardized the Allied landing efforts.

The Allies “owned the skies” and for the rest of June, as Fortier stated in his memoir, “Our mission was to clobber anything that moved by road, rail, river or air.” This effort, along with having the advantage of air superiority, allowed the Allies to eventually break out of the Normandy beachhead and begin an all-out dash across France, ultimately liberating Paris. Although a tough war still laid ahead, June 6, 1944, began the legacy of the 355th FG as the “Steeple Morden Strafers,” a nickname that they carried with pride.

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