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The war had come to be a hitter struggle around St. Lo in late July and the aviation engineers, like the rest of the army, had been held up in their plans for outward expansion. But that was soon to change.
One sunny, warm afternoon the light blue French sky was filled with sparks of silvery reflection from thousands of highflying bombers and a great throb of engines disturbed the air over Normandy. Even the busy engineers paused to watch the planes pass overhead. The thunder of bombing boomed through the air to the ears of many sweating engineers and it was obvious that St. Lo was being flattened.
The campaign did not move ahead when St. Lo fell --- it raced. The date was July 26th and our armies had broken out between St. Lo and Perrieres. Reconnaissance parties of the command went forward with the first advance, followed closely by heavy construction equipment of the battalions, sandwiched in among tank, artillery, and supply columns, and prepared to start construction on new fields as soon as sites could be found.
The units were on their way to the new construction sites, six of which were started between July 26 and August 1 in the Contentin peninsula. By August 3, the advance of the Third Army south of Avranches indicated the need for additional fields in that area. But plans for these were not followed through because of the fast breaking tactical situation and units were sent through the Avranches bottleneck and south east into the base of Brittany. Among the fields put into service in this sector was the captured airdrome with concrete runways, first of its kind, at Rennes.
With armored fingers reaching into Brittany and the 12th Army Group, paced by General Patton’s Third Army, speeding northward, the aviation engineers had to shift gears into high and spread out with the armies. Two brigades were established to permit decentralized control over operations in each army zone. Colonel Karl B. Schilling, of San Antonio, Texas, assumed command of the First Engineer Aviation Brigade which had operational control over the 922 and 924 Engineer Aviation Regiments. Heading the Second Engineer Aviation Brigade was Colonel R. E. Smyser, Jr., of Washington, D. C., and its major units included the 925 and 926 Engineer Aviation Regiments.
Now began a race with time and the armored columns. More than 600 sites were reconnoitered during the first two weeks in August, but the ground situation changed so rapidly that only two new fighter bomber fields and one air evacuation strip were actually built. During this phase of the fighting it was a constant question whether to build a field or whether, once built, it would be beyond the desired range of the front. At one time, fourteen fields were planned in the Laval-Domfront area. The construction battalions, having completed their fields in the beach area, were routed forward to this section, but on arrival there they were directed to continue to Le Mans and Alençon in whose vicinity a group of German fields had been captured in the Third Army’s northward march to the Argentan-Falaise gap. Eventually, several fields were constructed in the Le Mans-Alençon area, but by the time they could be completed, captured German fields around Paris had been rehabilitated.
It was a swift pace and it became the test of the mobility which the command had stressed in its planning and organization. Keeping up with the armies would have been a difficult job in itself since the aviation engineers had to move tons of heavy construction equipment at every move. But they not only kept up with the armies, they built good airfields as they went along in providing bases for the fighter-bombers that were busy knocking out the tanks, trucks, and guns of the German armies ahead.
The term “leap-frog base” was originated with the Breakthrough. It described the technique that was used to keep the tactical aircraft always within striking distance of the moving armies even though the fields became rear echelon in a few days. As fast as a good site was taken by infantry forces (and sometime, before) the engineers worked to complete an unsurfaced runway sufficiently long for takeoffs and landings. When this was done, the strips were used as advanced bases for fighter-bombers which took off farther behind the lines, flew their sorties, and then set down on the new strips for more fuel and ammunition. Each night the planes would return to their more distant bases.
Meantime, when the runways were cleared of air traffic, the engineers hustled to install more marshalling areas and enlarged the field to accommodate a group on a permanent basis. As the armies and engineers marched on, the fighter-bombers would move to the newer, improved fields, leaving their own bases to be taken over by the medium bombers, since engineers had meanwhile lengthened and strengthened runways and other facilities for them. Between the 25th of July and the 14th of September, the weather remained suitable for quick airfield construction with lighter surfacing materials enabling the engineers to maintain the aircraft in easy reach of the front lines.
During this same period, many fields formerly occupied by the Luftwaffe were captured, patched and rehabilitated by the engineers, and made use of by the Air Forces. Bases constructed on raw terrain were completed in an average of twelve days and fields taken from the enemy were sometimes made operational in 48 hours despite heavy damage by Allied bombing and further destruction by evacuating Germans.
The race-through-France phase of the campaign accelerated the demands upon ground and air reconnaissance teams. The air teams in their vulnerable Piper Cubs scoured hundreds of miles of virgin territory finding dozens of suitable sites on which many airstrips were constructed while the ground teams in their armored half-tracks worked so far forward investigating terrain for airfield possibilities that it sometimes proved embarrassing. One Recce mission was captured by a suspicious infantry patrol, and the lieutenant in charge of the recce group had to explain his presence in the forward area to the Corps Colonel. The patrol simply would not believe his story of an airfield that far forward.
In another case, the infantrymen thought the engineers had come up to relieve them. “Boy, are we glad to see you”, said one before he knew the real mission of the aviation engineers.
Another new phase of airfield operations was born during the breakthrough across France. The supply and evacuation airfields, known by the engineers as “S and E” strips. During the mile-consuming drives of tank forces, difficult supply problems arose. Gas, oil, ammunition, and food supplies had difficulty reaching the ground forces inasmuch as truck transportation was the main means of supply, and the railroads were not yet usable.
The famous “Red Ball” highway expressed supplies across France to the moving forces, but even it was at times unable to provide critical supplies as the needs arose in some areas. In some instances the shortage was gas, in others it was ammunition, and in one notable case it was food. The wounded soldiers in this speeding warfare also presented a problem. Field hospitals moved quickly, but the more completely equipped General Hospitals were far enough from the lines to necessitate long ambulance trips.
During the first three months of the invasion, for example, the Ninth Troop Carrier Command used the fields to land 30,000 tons of cargo including ammunition, food, and equipment in France. More than 40,000 wounded were evacuated by air.
By the time Paris was liberated, the French Capitol was nearly starved, for the retreating Germans had taken great supplies of foodstuffs with them. Prior to the departure, the war South of Paris prevented the transportation of food. Three important fields in the Paris area were restored within a week after the Allied liberation to permit quick occupancy by units of the Ninth Air Force and for landing of cargo planes with food for Paris.
The 818th Engineer Aviation Battalion received orders to move to Villacoublay while working a distance away. Its units traveled by night to reach the site and were given two days to repair the field. They found the runway pocketed with thirty-seven bomb craters and covered with debris. This was bordered with smashed hangars, shops and buildings, including many battered and burning planes. The runway was patched and cleared by sundown the next day.
A similar setting greeted the 825th engineers as they arrived at a field near Bretigny before the infantry had appeared in the area. The unit was beset by snipers who had remained after the Luftwaffe had left only five days before. French patriots rounded up other Nazis in the vicinity, and in three days the engineers had restored two runways to give Paris its third airport. The 843rd provided the fourth a few days later by putting the famous commercial airdrome at Le Bourget into service. The work at Le Bourget was completed after the reconnaissance operations there had cost the lives of two 922nd Regiment commanders, the most critical of the relatively few battle casualties suffered by the command in the entire campaign. Colonel A. P. Little, regimental commander, and his executive officer, Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert B. Hall, died of wounds received while leading a reconnaissance party under enemy fire.
After completing a field at Lessay near the base of the Cherbourg peninsula, the 830th Engineer Aviation Battalion (The Flying Eight-Ball Battalion) received orders to proceed immediately to Melun, some 30 miles south east of Paris. The orders were received in the morning, and by noon the following day elements of the battalion were at work on the new site more than 250 miles away. A day later, the entire unit was on the job.
Reconnaissance parties of the IX Engineer Command, meanwhile, were fanning out to the North and East, beyond St. Quentin, Rheims, and Chalons. In this sweep through Northern France more than 65 German fields fell into Allied hands. Not all these were reconstructed, but in addition to those around Paris, other captured fields were restored in the Laon-Amiens-Rheims area. Captured fields were used for Allied bases more and more as the advance moved eastward.
With the armies drive to the east, the lines of supply and communication were lengthened. This was felt when construction operations were held up because of long truck hauls or limited rail tonnage. Shortage of surfacing materials grew as the armies advanced toward the German border and for the first time the construction of new airfields was not immediately behind the Army lines.
Almost all construction materials had to be hauled from Great Britain, and the supply of about 700 tons a day to advancing aviation engineers is a story in itself. Truck convoys, jeeps, rehabilitated French freight trains and even airplanes were used to get the bulky equipment to the building sites when it was needed. The magnitude of the supply job is indicated by the quantity of material used in the first three months on the continent which added up to about 53,000 standard tons. This included 62,034 rolls of steel mesh track; 723,510 pierced steel planks; 42,561 rolls of hessian matting; 1,443 drums of asphalt cement; 4,634 drums of cutback asphalt; and hundreds of other incidental materials.
The communication problem was heightened by the fact that units were strung out huge distances and it was not uncommon for a unit to move over 200 miles between jobs. In 50 days, the command post of the Second Engineer Aviation Brigade moved seven times over a distance of 500 miles.
By mid-September when the limit of the eastward drive had been reached, the command had completed 50 fields, with 18 more under construction, ten of which were already operational. This was in addition to the maintenance work on these and the 57 fields which had been completed in the beachhead prior to July 25. All this had been accomplished while units were moving an average of 500 miles. While in France the units were assisted materially by French civilians who added energy and enthusiasm to the task, along with a bit of French humor. The French took delight in telling the engineers, smilingly, that “You built railroads and airfields here in 1918. Then your planes came and tore them up. Now you’re building them again”.