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Supporting The Ground From The Air In WWII

Friday, May 8th is recognized as VE Day, which stands for Victory in Europe. 70 years ago, in the spring of 1945, American armies were streaming across Europe – the war was nearly over.  Part of the Americans' success came because they had learned how to support the troops and tanks on the ground with support with from the air.

Military flying began in 1914, in the early days of WWI as a way to see over the horizon and figure out what the enemy was up to.  Soon military flying became a sophisticated tactical and strategic weapon in itself.

In 1939, the German Army used airpower to support their land invasions all over Europe.  The planes bombed territory in front of the advancing troops.

After the invasion on D-Day, America's 9th Air Force was assigned to give air support for the troops on the ground.  Paratroopers jumped from cargo planes flown by the 9th, and engineers from the 9th carved airstrips out of the French countryside with armored bulldozers.  They had runways up and running, in some cases, just 48 hours after the Nazis fled.

But American forces realized they needed to refine the German method of bombing the territory ahead.  They wanted the planes and troops on the ground to be able to communicate, but they didn't yet have a system for making that happen.

The radios in the tanks and the radios in the airplanes were different, like AM and FM, and couldn't talk with each other.

General “Pete” Quesada, far right with General Ralph Royce.
Credit Dan Patterson Archival Collection
General “Pete” Quesada, far right with General Ralph Royce.

The ground troops were under the command of General Omar Bradley.  The 9th Air Force commander was General Pete Quesada.  The two were great friends.  Their command tents in the field were right next to each other, so late one night, they worked out a solution to the problem with the radios.

Here's what they did:

They put fighter pilots in tanks, where they weren't used to being, and they gave each pilot two radios.  They could use one to talk to tanks and troops and the other for pilots in planes overhead.

General Quesada had put fighter bombers in the air over each tank column and refreshed them every 30 minutes from dawn to dusk.

A Thunderbolt warms up for takeoff.
Credit Dan Patterson
A Thunderbolt warms up for takeoff.

So the pilots in the tanks with the radios could direct the fighter planes, and the guys in the planes could see the tanks on the ground because there had been bright yellow panels painted on them that could only be seen from the air.  That way, the pilots in the planes could tell the tanks what was up ahead.  The Thunderbolts were also armed with 50 caliber guns, rockets and bombs.

The solution that was worked out late one night in June 1944 worked.  The armies advanced quickly across Europe and many lives were saved.

Now 70 years after VE Day, the early methods of directing air to ground support have been refined again and again.  Radios have been complimented with lasers but still work best when there is someone on the ground to identify the target and direct the mission.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com

Aviation programming on WYSO is supported in part by the National Aviation Heritage Alliance and The Air Force Museum Foundation.

Dan Patterson is an aviation historian and photographer. You can see more of his photos at his website, www.flyinghistory.com
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