Bound for Normandy

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jeremy Grunert
  • 48th Fighter Wing

“So ended the Battle of Normandy: an outstanding triumph of air power. It was air power that paved the way into Europe; air power covered the landings and made it impossible for the Germans to concentrate against them; air power maintained interdiction, and pressure on the enemy when the ‘master plan’ failed; air power completed the overwhelming victory.” – John Terraine, The Right of the Line: The Role of the RAF in WWII (p. 662)

On the morning of 6 June 1944, engines roared to life on airfields across southern and western England. At RAF Ibsley, in the county of Hampshire near the English coast, the propellers of the 48th Fighter Group’s P-47 Thunderbolts began to turn. One by one, the P-47s zoomed into the sky, bound for Normandy. Operation Overlord, the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe by the Western Allies, was underway.

The 48th and its fellow flying groups in Ninth Air Force’s Bomber and Tactical Air Commands were supporting one of the most complex military operations ever conducted: a cross-channel invasion of Europe involving over 150,000 troops, over 10,000 aircraft, and over 5,000 seaborne vessels on the Allied side. It was the beginning of what Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “Great Crusade” to free Europe, and the world at large, from the grip of Nazism. Over the course of the day, the fighters and bombers of the Ninth Air Force and the Royal Air Force flew over 14,000 sorties over France, bombing German gun batteries, flying cover for the landing craft and ground troops, and engaging the few Luftwaffe aircraft left in the region.

Meanwhile, the infantry poured from landing craft onto the beaches—Omaha, Utah, Juno, Gold, Sword—fighting furiously to establish the beachhead from which the Allies would reverse the Third Reich’s schemes of world domination.

As part of his order of the day encouraging the Allied forces participating in the D-Day invasion, General Eisenhower cited air power as one of the Allies’ key successes. “Our air offensive,” he wrote, “has seriously reduced [Nazi] strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground.” In the same vein as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quip that Hitler had “forgotten to put a roof” on Fortress Europe, Eisenhower’s words reflected both the dramatic accomplishments of the Allied air forces to date and the implication that air power would continue to be an essential tool in the battle against the “well trained, well equipped, and battle-hardened” Germans.

From its headquarters at RAF Ibsley, a very special Fighter Group would demonstrate the truth of Eisenhower’s words by serving as a small part of the air armada that would protect the naval vessels, landing craft, and troops liberating the Normandy beaches. Originally formed as the 48th Bombardment Group (Light) in late 1940, the 48th Fighter Group and its four operational squadrons, the 492nd,493rd, 494th, and 495th Fighter-Bombers Squadrons, constituted just one of the U.S. Army Air Corps’ over 200 combat groups.

Despite the 48th’s humble motto of “Vulneratus Non Victus”—“bloodied but unbowed” or “wounded yet unconquered”—and its role as one of many air force combat units, the Group’s exploits in Europe would be anything but modest. After supporting the Overlord invasion on D-Day, the 48th would move its HQ across the Channel, assisting the U.S. First Army in its successful breakthrough at Saint-Lô, France; supporting the unsuccessful Operation Market Garden airdrops in Holland; confronting staunch German defenses in support of the Allied advance on Julich, Germany; and aiding beleaguered American and British troops by counter-attacking German forces during the Battle of the Bulge. The 48th would receive a Distinguished Unit Citation, three Belgian citations, and the Belgian Fourragère for its critical support to the Allied war effort in the final year of the war.

Seventy-five years after it flew in support of the Normandy landings, the 48th Fighter Group has been through several redesignations and relocations. Inactivated at the end of WWII, the 48th was resurrected in 1952 and based at Chaumont Air Base, France. As the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing, and bearing its French-bestowed sobriquet of the “Statue of Liberty Wing,” it moved back to England from France in 1960, taking up its permanent home at RAF Lakenheath. In 1991, the 48th Tactical Fighter Wing became, simply, the 48th Fighter Wing—the premiere military organization that continues to operate here at RAF Lakenheath.

The 48th has come a long way since June 1944. Today, the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, and we, as current members of the Statue of Liberty Wing have an opportunity both to honor the bravery and sacrifice of the Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen who took part in Operation Overlord and to remember our own heritage.

The 48th was constituted for a purpose: to defend the cause of liberty and freedom against the forces of tyranny. When the 48th was first created, this purpose could only be realized with the accomplishment of three objectives. As General Eisenhower would describe in his 6 June 1944 order of the day, these objectives were the “the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.” It took three years of intensive training, and serving in the more mundane roles of Stateside training and coastal patrol, but, on the eve of D-Day, the 48th stood ready to fulfill its mission.

Eisenhower’s words were prophetic, and, as we saw above, the 48th never flinched from its task. After the brutal fighting of D-Day, the Allied beachhead was established. Allied forces broke out toward central France, liberated Paris, and pushed German forces steadily back. The “destruction of the German war machine” and the “elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe” were both accomplished less than a year after D-Day, in May 1945, when the Third Reich was crushed in the ruins of Berlin. For at least the Western Allies, security in a “free world” was largely established with the creation of the post-war international order (although the Cold War conflict between the Western and Eastern Blocs continued to threaten world peace for another 45 years). The culmination of D-Day, and all that the United States, the U.S. military in general, and the 48th Fighter Group in particular, had fought for since joining the war in 1941, was V-E Day, 8 May 1945—the end of the war in Europe.

V-E Day, however, was (to shamelessly steal from Winston Churchill) not the end of the 48th Fighter Group’s story, nor even the beginning of the end. The inactivation of the 48th after the Allied victory was merely the end of the beginning of that story. Threats to freedom and liberty did not end with the destruction of the Third Reich, as the reconstitution of the 48th in 1952, to serve as part of America’s bulwark against Soviet Communism, showed all too clearly. Ever since, the “Statue of Liberty Wing” has been a part of the European community, first in France, and then in the United Kingdom, protecting America’s allies and fighting for American values. The role of the 48th harkens back to another portion of Eisenhower’s D-Day message, perhaps his most stirring exhortation to the troops on that fateful day. “The eyes of the world,” Eisenhower wrote to the Allied troops, “are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”

General Eisenhower’s words carry as much consequence for all of us here at RAF Lakenheath today as they did when they were written in June 1944. We, the 48th Fighter Wing and our operational squadrons—the 492nd, 493rd, and 494th—were there on D-Day over the skies of Normandy. We were there in France, in Belgium, and in Germany over the course of the rest of the war. And we are here today, stronger than ever and still fighting for the freedoms and liberties we and our allies hold dear. As we reflect on the seventy-fifth anniversary of D-Day, it is up to us all to remember General Eisenhower’s words and ensure that they remain as true today as when they were used to spur hundreds of thousands of men on to unimaginable feats of bravery and self-sacrifice. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people fly with us. As we continue the 48th Fighter Wing story, we must never let them down.